Saturday, 10 February 2018

Geekrant vs The Return of The Native

Greetings Geekranters!

I'm glad to see that you've made your way once more to my world renowned blog for yet more of my, possibly, slightly deranged, musings of this crazy yet mundane life that I find myself living in these United States. Welcome! I hope that you enjoy reading these words to the same degree that I enjoy writing them.

As I recounted previously in the pages of this journal, this Christmas just past, Mrs Geekrant and I returned to my hometown for the first time since I moved to this breathtaking land. Although I don't necessarily like to admit this kind of truth to myself, such a journey is always going to have a profound impact on the brave sojourner, the footsore traveller pausing on the roadway of his life to look backwards from whence he came.

It is a literary cliché that the “past is prologue”, a mantra that a fiction writer repeats to himself to remind himself that his characters have a history that must be contended with, a truism that the self help guru recites to his faithful followers desperate for some kind of healing. It is, I realise, both of these things and so much more but most of all, a fundamental truth that is often truly inescapable until we acknowledge its existence and its impact on our lives.

Returning home reminded me that all that I am and much that I will become still has its roots, and a fair amount of its branches too, in the smallish town in the North of England where I was born nearly thirty five years ago this year. I am a product of that place, even 4,000 miles distant from it, across one of the largest oceans on the planet, I feel its impact in nearly every moment of my life.

My mother is one of the most well read people I know, at least when it comes to fiction (I can't speak to her mastery of the arena of non fiction literature). She has read all of Dickens, certainly most, if not all, of Jane Austen's works and she complains about how evil she feels Heathcliff is in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. She also once had nearly every single book written by notable late 19th and early 20th century author and all around literary misery, Thomas Hardy.

So you might be wondering why I started this post talking about a journey my wife and I took home over Christmas and have digressed to talk about the books my dear mother has read in her lifetime. There is method in my madness, please, bear with me. You see, all the while I was flying home to the United Kingdom, in fact on our whole holiday/vacation, one phrase kept rising to the surface of my mind, a phrase and a book title... “The Return of the Native” by Thomas Hardy.

Now, it is a well trodden trope in the world of television and movies for a prodigal son to return to the place he came from to write some wrong or free the Western mining town from the iron fist of the mining company's hired goons, but one of the first places I heard this basic story of a man's voyage home was by watching a adaptation of Hardy's “ The Return of the Native”.

It would be a mistake to call this story, a comedy, it would equally be a mistake to call it even slightly uplifting. Hardy dealt in tragedy, most of his stories are about people trying to avoid the inescapable fingers of fate and basically getting nowhere and ruining their life in the process.

The “Native” of the book's title, Clym Yeobright is a successful diamond merchant who returns from Paris to his home on the blasted Egdon Heath, falls in love with a girl who wants nothing to do with the place, nearly blinds himself training to be a schoolmaster, takes up basic labouring out on the heath and ends up losing his wife (who drowns in a weir) and becomes a itinerant preacher wandering said heath. So, as I said, not a comedy, so why could I not escape this phrase?

Looking from the outside in, the explanation for my fixation is obvious to most and in hindsight, is to me as well. Coming home after living so far away, this was my own “Return of the Native”, like Pip in “Great Expectations”, it was my return to life that had once been so familiar but that time and distance had now fundamentally separated me from.

The heart of Hardy's book looks at different attitudes to a place that we have grown up. Some have always longed to leave, while others never had any inclination to do anything but stay in that town for the duration of their natural born days.

So the question becomes, how have I changed? How has this Midwestern land made me anew? We are always moving on but what part of my soul still finds itself drawn to the place it all began?

All this was running through my mind has we drove up from London, charting a course away from that bustling metropolis through the heart of “England's green and pleasant land” towards the northern part of England, in particular, a small area close to where the historical counties of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire meet.

Anyone familiar with my writings will notice that when I talk about my home country I use more than one name for the place I come from. I have talked about the United Kingdom, England, the North of England and Scunthorpe. I realise that this might seem confusing to the casual reader, but if I could beg your indulgence for a brief moment, my friends, I will endeavour to explain.

So, for my British readers, this is the reality of our nation, something we deal with every day growing up, but to my American audience, the U.K.s unique political, geographical and cultural situation is often a very unknown quantity. One that must be explained.

So, to begin with, off the north-western coast of the continent of Europe lies a collection of islands, called the “British Isles”, the ancient Greeks referred to them as “Albion”. The two largest of these islands are called Great Britain (the larger of the two islands) and Ireland (the smaller of the two islands).

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its full name is technically the Union of three separate kingdoms, the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of Ireland and also contains one principal principality, Wales. After many years of struggle, most of Ireland gained independence from the British Crown and so, in purely geographical terms the UK makes up the entirety of the island of Great Britain and the top six counties of the island of Ireland (known as Northern Ireland).

So when I talk about the UK, I'm actually talking about four separate countries in one: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Over centuries the English crown unified the two other kingdoms and subjugated the tribes of the Welsh, who ironically were the original “Britons”. I was born in England, which literally means “Land of the Angles”, named after the Germanic tribe, who with the Jutes and Saxons, chased the Britons out and into Wales.

Then finally, within England itself, a social, economic and slightly cultural difference can be see between the North and South of the country.

The South, and in particular the South East, the area around London, has always been the seat of government, a hub of activity and influence. A land of art and culture. The great river port city of London has stood, since Roman times, when it was known as Londinium, as one of the most influential cities in the world. The home to the mother of Parliaments, the beating heart of the financial world. There are banks in London older than the United States itself. It is proud of itself and its history and definitely had and, some would say, still has a haughty attitude in regards to the rest of the country, which it has always viewed as provincial and uncouth.

The North of England, on the other hand, has always stood as the tough, unyielding side of the country. This is a land of rebellions and social upheaval, of tough warriors and hard working industrial labourers and craftsman. This is where the Industrial Revolution had its birth. The place where Stephenson built the Rocket, textile mills appeared as if out of nowhere and the blast furnaces reached into the sky. It is, in fact, this revolution that led to the great opening up of the American interior through railroads and industrial development.

The people of the North are tough, hard working, pragmatic with a welcoming spirit and a low tolerance level for affected airs and graces. If you ever feel your ego is getting the better of you, come to the North, you won't leave with it destroyed, but you'll know your place in this world. They also think Southerners are wimps who drink fizzy beer and talk with silly accents.

As we drove onward, the signs appeared on the motorway simply for “The North” as if the people of London were saying, “turn back now, its your last chance, stay here where people are normal!”, we ignored them, heading directly in that direction towards the town of Scunthorpe.

Scunthorpe is my birthplace and my only real home for the first thirty two years of my life. It lies around ten miles south of the River Humber, a great river on the east coast of England that is really nothing more than a giant estuary feeding into the North Sea. It also lies only three miles east of the River Trent, one of the Humber's tributaries. Most of the town was built on top of a hill range than runs further in Lincolnshire and are the only hills for miles around. Beneath the town, the flood plain stretches away as far as the eye can see and until it was drained by Dutch experts, was boggy fen-land whose ways were unknown to all but the hardy people who lived there.

This is the land, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born into, in fact he and I were born only fifteen miles away from each other... two hundred and eighty years apart but, what can I say, I still feel a certain kinship.

As we drove into the area, I felt instantly a sense of belonging, the land might not be as flat as the land in Illinois say and it is all of a lesser scale than America, but it was as if the land itself spoke to me, through the farmland, the villages that have stood there for nearly a thousand years, it called my name. As I looked on the drainage ditches and the long brownish coloured Trent, snaking its way through the flat land I knew that I was nearly home.

Then, upon the crest of the hills, I saw it, the town of my birth, Scunthorpe. I'd been down this road more times that I can count, seen the town far off in the distance at the end of so many journeys home, but it never meant as much as it did on that day. Scunthorpe, my hometown.

Scunthorpe isn't an old town, while there are parts of it that have been extant since medieval times and its name is actually Viking in origin, most of its existence is modern in nature and can be traced to the discovery of Iron Ore in the area and its manufacture into steel. There are many steel cities in the world but this is the “Steeltown”.

A microsm of the Industrial Revolution, it grew out of nowhere. In 1850, five villages stood where the town now stands, of which Scunthorpe was only one, within the space of thirty years, steel and iron manufacture built a town and it didn't stop growing for years afterwards. Now over 70,000 people call the Steeltown home.

In the early 1980s, when I was born, the steel industry had definitely started to slow down but not long before that time thirty thousand people had worked on the works. This is a town built by the Industrial Revolution and the needs of the modern world. This is the town this native returns to.

No matter whether me admit to ourselves, we are caught up in the DNA of the places we came from, no matter how much we may love or hate our hometown, it still made us the people we are today. We all try to craft out another home for ourselves, a niche out of the wilderness of life, somewhere to hide away from the world. Like our ancestors we seek to create a new life for ourselves.

Still, our past lives, good or bad, echo through the corridors of our heart and lead us where they may. Our lives are a story and every story has a beginning, my story begins in an industrial town in the North of England called Scunthorpe and I can never quite leave it behind. I will always love it and in some ways it will always be home.

Join me next time...

Goodbye Geekranters

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Geekrant vs the Grey Christmas.

Greetings Geekranters!

Welcome to another edition of my ever popular blog. Over the last few editions, it feels like I am getting into a rhythm with my writing and I hope that you are enjoying the more regular appearance of my literary offerings. You, dear readers, drive me on to continue telling my tales and I hope that they are never found to be lacking in interest or excitement.

As you may remember from my last post, Christmas Eve found Mrs Geekrant and I flying across the Atlantic, a day later than planned. It goes without saying that we would much rather have been already in the house of my parents, but sometimes the fickleness of fate and the mechanical requirements of the jumbo jet, do not listen to the desires of ordinary folks such as you or I.

So that was where we found ourselves after all of our adventures in the Windy City. On a plane, in the last possible seats we could get, a plane headed not to Manchester, as we had originally aimed for, but a plane inbound to Heathrow, London's busy hub of international exchange.

Mrs Geekrant worried about how my father would deal with our rearranged flight, as he would now have to pick us up, as he had offered to do not from an airport two hours distance across the Pennines from my hometown, but from the nation's capital. A much busier and longer journey. One that would require my father to venture from the safe haven of the North of England into the urbanised, and in many Northerners opinion, overrated, mass of the south east of England.

Now to many Americans, a journey that takes only an hour longer in driving time, would seem to be a feat knowing no great hardship. My wife's worry would seemingly unfounded and just the natural desire of a daughter in law not to put her father in law out. My American readers should, however, take note that as the United Kingdom is a much smaller nation than the United States and is in many places much more built up and urbanised, with much narrower roads and more frequent traffic jams, the journeys people undertake are often of a much shorter length.

It is one of the ways, in fact, that I see that my thinking has been affected by time here in the United States. I now see a journey of three or four hours as no great feat, whereas when I was growing up in the land of my birth it would be seen as a serious journey, requiring preparation and planning.

Luckily my father has always seemed to quite enjoy driving and as Heathrow isn't really in London proper, he saw it as merely a longer drive, not something to fret over. Still, it would have been easier if it had been the shorter journey to Manchester and also, as it happens, a prettier one.

It was raining when we landed, flying into a grey and chill London morning, all mists and drizzle. This, of course, is not unusual for the United Kingdom at this time of year. However somehow it seems antithetical to all the cultural images of Christmas that have been cultivated in our lives. Even in the UK, out of all the Christmas cards that I have seen, I have yet to see one where the picture is of a grey windswept landscape, yet many times that is what the United Kingdom experiences.

My father was waiting for us, and he was a welcome sight after all the drama and anxiety that had gone before. He stood there, looking just the same as he always had, only perhaps a little older. A tangible sign that we had completed the first and longest step of our journey and would soon be in the house of my parents and the quiet streets of my hometown.

Sometimes, even in the middle of all my writing upon the subject, I forget just how different one country feels from the other. I wager that if I moved away to France or Germany or some exotic clime in the far east indies and then returned home, I would expect a difference, if for no other reason than the fact that the language would be different. Also the speech, the faiths and the food. The United Kingdom and the United States are strange in a different way, in that, at first glance, they seem so similar. Sometimes, looking from a distance, one might be fooled into thinking they are the same culturally speaking.

If one thought that, then one would be wrong. Returning home, I felt, unbidden, the same sensation as when I first visited the United States. A sense of disorientation almost, as if all the parts of the place you live were picked up and moved 4,000 miles away from where it started and put back down in the incorrect order. So much of this feeling is, of course, subconscious in nature. A sign that looks the same as one on a street at home but not quite, a road marking that doesn't fit somehow. Landscape flashing past the window is so familiar and yet somehow so strange. How unusual a sensation it is to feel like a foreigner in your own land.

We started out from Heathrow, with Mrs Geekrant and I feeling the first echoes of jet-lag, and headed due north towards my home town, Scunthorpe and the promise of a freshly made bed. Unsurprisingly, although the rain had let up slightly, the grey skies still remained as we drove down the surprisingly empty motorways of the country that will always hold a significant part of my heart.

Still, despite my love of this land, the grey outlook of a British winter has never totally agreed with me. In American culture, Bing Crosby longed for a White Christmas, Elvis had a Blue Christmas “without youuuuuuu!” And you could argue that the Grinch really made Christmas, Green, in the end. The one thing that no American has ever sung about is a “Grey Christmas”. In the end, no American has any experience that can really compare to the completely un-festive feeling, weather-wise, of a British Christmas.

As I look back over my upbringing, I must admit that I can't really complain about any aspect of our family Christmases or any part of our basic existence in the North of England. My parents might not have been the richest people in town and they did have four children to feed and clothe, but I never felt like we missed out on anything and we always had plenty for Christmas and as for Christmas dinner...! (My mother is much more skilled in that area than she would ever admit and the food is always wonderful!)We did pretty well, all things considered.

Having said all that, as I alluded to earlier, there is one thing that always disappointed me about Christmases in the UK. That would be the weather, in particular the heavens, the miserable greyness of the climate, the dull monotony of the skies. Anyone can see the affect this has on the British psyche if they look at the difference in contempory Christmas songs in the two countries.

So when Americans choose to write songs about Christmas weather, its all about snow, the festive feeling of snuggling down with a loved one in front of a log fire, the atmosphere of a cold that brings a subtle beauty with it. Nat King Cole sings about “folks dressed up like Eskimos”, Mariah Carey cavorts around in a Santa inspired snow suit and even the Californian dwelling Beach Boys bring a hint of snow and ice to the Golden State in “Little Saint Nick”.

On the other hand it doesn't really snow anymore in Britain in the winter, unless you're on some high peak in Scotland and you've run out of Kendal Mint Cake and Mountain Rescue's out looking for you because the similarities between the Cairngorms and the Himalayas are easy to see to any British person and your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker... (sorry, that last part was Star Wars not something that might happen in the Wilds of Scotland.) I digress, of course, but the simple fact is we have no snow at Christmas, which given the British preoccupation with complaining about the weather seeps into our Christmas tunes.

So Greg Lake sings about a “veil of tears for the virgin birth”, Slade only ask if you're hoping the “snow will start to fall” and when realising it won't, move straight on to the question of Santa's sobriety on Christmas Eve, Band Aid rubs our faces in it by saying that “there won't be snow in Africa this Christmaaaaasssss!!!”. They're right, of course, but when I was a child I just wanted to know why there was no snow in Scunthorpppppeeeee!

American Christmas songs and Christmas culture in general, tell tales of a perfect yuletide moment, as if all the bad things in the world pass away in the midst of a Hallmark moment. Its not even a particularly Christian moment, as this is so much a celebration of a commercialised, secular moment, where all hatred is put away and everyone dreams of skating on the Ice Rink outside Rockefeller Centre. Peace and Goodwill to all men embodied in a festive sweater and an Andy Williams Christmas Special.

British Christmas culture is based at least in some ways upon the simple realisation that nobody has written a festive ditty called “Let it Rain” yet, (at least not outside of an evangelical Church revival service) and the truth that we're pretty certain they'll never be a song called “dirty, grey and miserable, wonderland”. We're realists after all.

Okay, so I maybe exaggerating the cultural differences somewhat. In some ways, however, I understand that this is what coming home means, it means a return to a place that you once knew so well. So well that you knew all of its ways on a subconscious level and then realising that the cultural responses are no longer automatic to you. The place you were born feels foreign and alien, not that the country you have moved to feels any better, any less alien, but is somewhat disconcerting when you feel these feelings about the place you're from.

It could be argued that there is something naturally optimistic and idealistic in the American psyche, life here is referred to as the American dream, after all. This is the land that a whole continent emigrated to and explored to find a new meaning to what it meant to live. It is generations of expectation in geographical form. It is, therefore, a place equally utopia and dystopia, dream and nightmare (for some) depending on the person, whatever else it may be though it is always hopeful.

On the flipside, the British are no less hope filled, however its certainly true that the native Brit is a realist rather than an idealist. Its not that we, as a race, are wary of dreams but we tend to use practicality to guide us rather than whimsy. Simply stated, There's no point writing about snow if rain's falling outside, no matter how much you love “Elf'. Deal with what's in front of you first and remember that idealism doesn't always put food on the table.

As we drove up the M1 and towards the steeltown of my youth, I came to an epiphany, a moment of realisation, that I fit neither nation totally anymore. I am as much a realist as these grey skies taught me to be and I have felt a cold wind rolling off the North Sea and I know that in life, to borrow a phrase from George R.R. Martin, “Winter is Coming”.

I have also though, looked upon azure blue skies at the places where the prairies begin and seen them go on forever and I am affected by the dreams that lie beyond those horizons.

I am, in my heart, somehow, a citizen of both nations, I am affected by both traditions, my cultural mindset straddling the ancient Atlantic. I am now at home as much in the Mid-West of the USA as the North of England and each land tugs at my heart. I am a student of Mark Twain and Dickens both now, in equal measure. Still though, after all that is acknowledged, British Christmas music is definitely more fun...

Till next time
Goodbye Geekranters!

Monday, 29 January 2018

Geekrant vs the Sci-Fi Hotel.

Greetings Geekranters!

Welcome once more, to this record of my crazy life on these transatlantic shores. I'm continually blessed that so many of you choose to join me in my quest to understand the differences, this new life has bought me. So I knew I must continue my writings in record time, for I feel it would be unfair to leave you caught in narrative limbo waiting for the resolution of my own epic tale of airport bound purgatory.

As you may remember from last time, December 23rd 2017 found us, Mrs Geekrant and I, caught by the mercurial fickleness of mechanical difficulties, in the halls of O'Hare International Airport, Chicago, Illinois. We had just found out that our flight had been canceled and would not now leave until 7 o'clock the next morning, Christmas Eve.

Right then, my homeland somehow seemed more distant than it ever had until that moment. Still, I have always thought that, one must make the best of the circumstances that we are handed in the meandering walk that is life. If I didn't think that, I'm not sure I would have ever made it to the U.S., let alone have made it back home again. One thing that does help in circumstances like these, is the lengths that airlines will go to to make arrangements for hotels and meals. Also finding shuttles traveling to aforementioned hotels and meals.

So it turns out that there was an upside to our tale of aeronautical woe, we were blessed with a stay in a four star hotel, the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, for free. Now, it has to be said, no hotel stay can really ever totally compare to sleeping in the house you grew up in. Neither can it assuage completely the anxiety that a canceled flight can bring to the travel-worn voyager. It really can't but it can come very, very, close.

In all these months since I moved here, I have realised that one thing my northern English upbringing and Mrs Geekrant's Minnesotan childhood have in common is we were both were taught to assess a life situation relatively pragmatically and learn what a lost cause looks like. So while other airline passengers herded around the gate, trying desperately to get seats on another airline leaving that night, we took our meal vouchers and left in search of the shuttle. In our wake, it was as if the anxiety and annoyance in people reached such a crescendo that it was if the atmosphere around the gate seemed to be filled with chaos, hanging like a cloud.

So, as a result of the silent riot building back at the gate, when we reached the shuttle it was fairly empty. We made the five minute journey to the hotel, through still, quiet streets that seemed to have decided that even the busy traffic of the Windy City could take a break for the Christmas season. Looking out into those silence drenched roadways, I tried to lessen the anxiety that threatened to overwhelm me with the powerlessness of the situation that we found ourselves in, conjuring out of the quiet concrete and tarmac, some kind of urban peace, as we reached our place of refuge for the night.

It may have occurred to you, dear readers, from the stories that I told in my last post, that growing up, I had little experience of hotels. Raising four children in a small town in the north of England, my parents never really had the money to afford a stay in hotel. My mother would spend forever, it seemed, planning our summer holiday, trying to decide the right place to stay. Making the most of what little money they did have. Country cottages and static caravans on holiday camps were generally our forte. Holidays abroad were definitely well beyond our reach for much of my childhood.

Not that I ever minded, I have seen most of the different areas of the United Kingdom and all the beauty it has to offer. I have seen Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral, walked through medieval market streets, trod in the footprints of the saints on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. I have felt the wind chasing in off the Atlantic, breaking on the cliffs of Cornwall and sat on a heather strewn hillside in Scotland. I have heard the stories of a thousand years of history and the beauty that is unique to Britain. Considering where I would end up living, it seems somehow ironic that I didn't leave British shores for the first time, until a few months after my sixteenth birthday.

So it has to be said that staying at a fancy hotel like the Hyatt Regency, was never really something I ever expected to be doing in my life. It was a lovely hotel, but also somehow, a creepy one.

The shuttle dropped us off outside the doors of the hotel at around 8'oclock that evening. The night air was frigid and ripe with the promise of snow. In the reflected light of the streetlamps, the hotel stood still and silent, like some modern day fortress, a safe haven in the icy depths of the night.

In the moment that we walked into the hotel's lobby, I realised that there was a reason the airline was able to find us hotel rooms for the night. It turns out that a hotel for businessmen, five minutes from the airport, on the eve of Christmas Eve, is deader than a consumer electronics store in an Amish village. It also happens to feel like a set from some paranoid sci-fi film from the mid-1970s.

The lobby was huge, with a central area that had four elevators with glowing lights underneath them, only a few hotel staff could be seen behind the desk. Strange looking sculptures hung from ceilings or protruded from the ground like other-worldly plants. Brutalistic concrete clad the walls, accentuated by wooden paneling and mezzanine floor after mezzanine floor rose to the ceiling, each level planted with seemingly fake greenery (although my wife assured me it was real).

It may have been my upbringing, the friday nights spent with my father watching old sci-fi films or action blockbusters in the early hours of the morning, but in that moment, I felt like had stepped into Logan's Run, or was about to see just where Soylent Green was made. This perhaps was where the alien invasion was to begin, where all the conspiracy theories had started. It should also be noted that similar to Michael York in Logan's Run, my life-clock felt a little low, the stress and anxiety of the delay had taken their toll. So maybe I could be forgiven for an overactive imagination... oh who am I trying to fool, I don't need an excuse to see science fiction in... pretty much anything.

Somehow though, all of the delay, the canceled flight, the distance, made me think all the more of home, the home I grew up in. It seems that stepping out into this world and leaving all that we have known brings us into a new appreciation of where we came from. Our memories become transformed in the alchemy of experience and time and become something more than when we made them.

Memory, I'm learning, only becomes of benefit to us when we step out and try to tell a story that lies beyond what we have known. The day we are willing to let memory inform us, guide us and no longer trap us. Every day, it seems this life and the one I knew get further away physically and temporally from each other and yet come ever closer in the peculiar corridors of the inner workings of our hearts.

All that to say, in that moment, I remembered watching 70s sci fi films with my father and my mother complaining about the implausibility of plot and heading to bed while we watched on into the night. It brought me home, in that moment of weakness and powerlessness, and made me realise how no trouble truly lasts forever and home is still waiting for me. Both here, on Earth, in the U.K and the U.S. and one day, in the home we never leave, beyond this life.

I couldn't sleep that night, we had had a nice meal downstairs in the hotel bar/restaurant, all dim mood lighting with neon bar signs, but I still couldn't sleep. Maybe it was too many movie moments running through my mind or simply the knowledge that I mentioned in my last blog, that breakdowns, accidents and mishaps always happen in the early stages of a journey or on the way home. Whatever the reason, I awoke suddenly at 3'oclock in the morning, which was, in hindsight, a very good thing. My phone blinked with a message from my mother, Our flight had been canceled ... again.

It has to be said that at this point I had had enough and Mrs Geekrant also had. This was definitely a good thing. My wife is one of the most patient people on this Earth and comes with the birthright of being “Minnesota nice”, which means she can express exasperation with someone and still make them feel like they've had a wonderful day. Maybe it comes from her job as a coffee shop manager, who knows. However when she saw the message and found out that a rescheduled flight wouldn't leave Chicago until Christmas Day, she decided that enough was enough.

Logan might have ran in the movie but we ran that night, or early morning, as it now was. In our tiredness and stress it all happened in a blur. We were down in the lobby in a flash, headed out onto the shuttle by three thirty in the morning, into the airport lickety split, where my wife charmed a British Airways flight, leaving that evening, out of the airline representative. We headed back to the hotel, slept some more and made our way back to the airport for our new flight.

It may seem that I am rushing to the end of this part of the story but by this time, everything was passing in a waking dream and I have little desire to recount the same things in reverse. We had nothing left, and although the new flight we were on flew into Heathrow not our usual airport in Manchester, all we cared about right then was the fact that we were well on the way to my homeland. They were some of the last seats on the flight and we lost the upgrade we had purchased on the previous flight, we were cramped, suffering from sleep deprivation, full on worn out but we had bested this stage of the journey and we were flying into the rising sun and a new day.

Until next time, which will hopefully find me talking finally about my actual visit home.

Goodbye Geekranters!  

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Geek Rant vs the Mid-West Delay.

Greetings Geekranters!

My pen rides again or rather it writes, as I promised it would! After all, how could I leave you without more of my observations of the life I have come to live? In, all honesty, I think I write for myself as much for anyone else. This place and the differences it has from the place whence I came, leads me ever onward in a quest for understanding. If I get to share it you, my dear readers, all the better. My thanks to you, for tagging along for the ride.

So, welcome to the continuation of my latest series, the mad-cap, laden with mis-hap, far from drab, story of my return to the land of my birth. It is literally, the land of my birth, by the way. From the back bedroom windows of my parent's house I can see, up on the hill, the hospital I was born in, barely a mile away. That's very close to be to your birthplace wouldn't you say?

The description and discussion of the environs in which I grew up must wait a while, however. First, there is the matter of leaving the United States and crossing that greatest of all great lakes, the Atlantic Ocean. Often, it seems to me, the start of a journey, takes as much effort and time as any other part of it, whether that's crossing the seven seas in an aeroplane or my parents, 20 years ago, jamming their four children, into the family car for the summer holiday.

One thing I learned from my parents and those holidays long ago, if something's going to go wrong, its going to go wrong then. For instance, I am reminded of the time we'd already driven over an hour away from home and my brother realised belatedly that he'd neglected to put on his shoes. There he was in the back seat with nothing but socks on his feet. He had to wear his old worn out, spare set of shoes for the rest of the holiday, a serious purgatory for a young teenager. I sometimes wonder if his extensive Adidas Samba collection stems from this past hurt.

Things can go even more wrong the more inanimate objects and other things outside our control are involved, especially companies and machines. For instance, when you arrive at the airport three hours early, get through security quicker than you ever have, have a romantic “beginning of vacation/holiday” meal, get to the gate early and then... get delayed. And then your flight gets cancelled. Yes, my childhood observances were correct, if things are going to go wrong, they'll do it from the start. However one thing kept me going during the tense moments of the story I shall relate. In the midst of all the chaos... I least I was wearing shoes... my brother taught me that.

A visit to an airport in the United States is an interesting event, not least because every airport is different. Also because Americans very often have a different attitude to air travel, than say, the reserved, queue etiquette observing, British have. A British traveler, in my experience, will get to the airport hours early. They will queue in an orderly fashion for security and check in, wait patiently at the gate as if every chance to queue is our birthright, an hereditary chance to remember Dunkirk. Americans, on the other hand, seem to arrive ten minutes before boarding and expect to be able to complete all that they need to in said ten minutes while all the while wolfing down a Big Mac.

Now, it may seem that I am doing Americans a disservice, going for the cheap laugh, utilising widely drawn stereotypes of different nationalities. I'm not, in fact, when I'm checking my passport is where I left it for the fifteenth time, I wish I had more of a laid back attitude to flying. The truth is, the Americans' commuter-like approach to air travel can be attributed to the way that many smaller flights, internal to the US, are just like catching a bus or a train. Arriving early is not always required.

This is reflected in the design and feel of airports within different cities within the U.S. For many British and international travelers, we only tend to see larger transit hubs on our journeys in the States, huge exchanges of planes and human cargo, labyrinthine mazes with multiple terminals and futuristic feeling monorails zipping us from one terminal to the other. We very rarely see the smaller airports of this massive land.

Dane County Regional Airport, Madison's airport which stands only 5 minutes drive from where I now write, has a very different vibe to O'Hare or any other large airport. Its small, has one terminal and last time I went through it, security took me 5 minutes, literally. Its pretty quiet and is easy to get to and leave from, unless you're my mother who somehow managed to set off the metal detector last time she was in there. Still, to anyone but the matriarch of my family, it does have the chilled out feel of a provincial bus station.

O'Hare definitely doesn't feel like a provincial bus station and its no Thomas the Tank Engine railway branch line either. We were very happy, on our visit, to have got through the Dante inspired seven circles of security required for transatlantic travel in these post 9-11 days, in reasonable speed. We'd left Madison at around one o-clock that afternoon, driving out of Wisconsin and through Illinois' flat landscape under icy blue winter skies that seemed to go on forever, we'd left our car with a friend, got our bags checked in double quick time and, as I said, got through security just as quickly. We had a lovely meal in an Italian restaurant and then made our way to the gate.

The gate is really where it all went pear-shaped, as the British say. Sitting opposite the gate alongside a young family, parents and a couple of children, the boarding time displayed on the gate was six thirty, then it was seven thirty, then it was ten thirty. The family started to look worried, we were worried, their toddler started to tire and we realised that we better call my parents and then tell we were going to be delayed for a couple of hours.

Then the announcement came over the public address system, “This flight will not be leaving today.”

It is hard to describe the feeling that goes through your mind in that moment, for most people, it can be difficult to know you'll be delayed. I've now know that when the journey that is being delayed is your first trip home in two years, things can easily become overwhelming. Suddenly, a simple mechanical difficulty on an aeroplane becomes something liable to cause a metaphysical crisis in the exile looking towards the shores of his homeland.

In the two years that I have been away from home, I realise that distance, both makes the heart grow fonder of the things we have left behind and, by necessity, makes us adept at hiding that fondness and the fact we have missed all those things so much. It is, I feel, something central to the survival of the immigrant who leaves not because he dislikes the land he started out in but as found something greater in the land he is going to. We protect our hearts from the pain that the differences bring sometimes, so we might embrace with a whole heart, all of the things this new land has to bring.

To hold such fondness and look with such anticipation at the day of your return and a delay looms in front of you, then it feels like all the separation once again is built anew in your heart.

It would be wrong to suggest that I dislike my life here, or this country, for I do not and have learned to love it as nearly as much as my own. Still, in that moment, I was truly filled with an exhausted feeling of despair which showed my unspoken homesickness. I also wondered what we were going to do. The airline people had said the same flight would take off at six the next morning, but that would be Christmas Eve and we had wanted to be in the UK by then.

They gave us meal vouchers and sent us to hotels that they had secured bookings in for us. So deflated and wondering about what the other passengers, especially the young family were going to do, we set off through the airport's plethora of corridors, seeking the exit and a warm bed for the night. We didn't trust the airline's promise of a flight and it was a good thing that we didn't as I will tell in my next post. In that moment, however, we were just glad to be going to a hotel.

It made me think about my parents, packing up the car for two weeks in whatever country cottage or holiday camp they could find. Four children and all our supplies, for want of a better word, piled into a car that suddenly felt a lot smaller than it had merely a day before. Then we would set off out onto the road, like the covered wagons of the pioneers of the great American wildernesses. Still it was never easy, and things always went wrong on the way. I once decided to develop car sickness, in the middle of Bristol, on the hottest day imaginable, inside a car that had no air-con, being driven by a father who wouldn't open a window because it would “throw off the balance of the car” Did I mention there was a traffic jam?

All of this happened on the way to our holidays, so I'm thankful every time I travel, for the things my family taught me. Thankful for the knowledge that the best travel plans of mice and men fly out of the window the moment you start travelling. I'm also thankful that I know that when being sick out of a car window make sure to lean all the way out, otherwise you'll get it all down you and your mother will throw out your favourite Captain Scarlet t-shirt and you'll never see it again.

Finally I'm thankful that I know that there are some things you can never forget to travel with... passport, money, change of clothes, shoes on your feet. Its true! I pretty much survive international travel because one morning Andy forgot to put his shoes on. Every journey to see Mrs Geekrant and back again, has been coloured by one morning, twenty years ago, halfway down the M1.

My family taught me all that... and in the next few blogs I'll talk about seeing them once again and how good that was, oh and how Mrs Geekrant thought she was going to drive us into a waterfall.

Until next time...

Goodbye Geekranters.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Geekrant vs the Windy City

 Greetings, Geekranters!

I hope I find you hale and hearty and ready to devour my latest literary effort, but before I do, a quick note. This blog is the first in a beginning of a few blog posts about flying back to the UK for the first time since I moved here. When I started writing it, I realised that it couldn't possibly start off as a travelogue just listing where I'd been. Every great journey has a starting point, crossroads, twists and turns and a finish. So after a while the whole thing got kind of philosophical in nature. I hope you don't mind and will read on, dear reader, if at times my writing seems a little slipshod and formless.

So, as you know, these humble offerings of mine have always been an attempt for me to make sense of my existence, here in this “new world”. So much of that has been an attempt to understand my life here as opposed to where I came from, American culture versus British culture, one way of looking at life in comparison to another. All of this has been comparing the reality that I once knew with the reality that I know now.

At some point, I had to return home, if for no other reason than to collect some more material (okay, so I wanted to go home for a long time, to see my family but that doesn't have the feeling of a snappy one liner now does it?).

Its strange, how every journey is about traveling full circle. One could argue that all life is cyclical, in some ways we always return to the beginning. So often we go back to where we started. The past is prologue, as they say, and our future can be seen in the dreams of starlit childhood nights.

Now, it is true that many of us are scared of our pasts, or broken by life's assaults on our self worth,(let's face it if Hollywood superstars need therapy how are the rest of us supposed to get out of here unscathed.) it all to often seems that half the human population is running from all that once defined them. All the running from our pain, while still being relentlessly drawn home, to where it all began.

Now, while I really don't include myself in this group of people, due to always loving where I came from and loving where I live now. That being said, it is important to note that going home for the first time after a long time away is a monumental experience for any person. As someone whose very existence here seems to require spending so much time trying to understand, work out, and write about living in two worlds, it is even more monumental. In some ways, I have two homes now, on opposite edges of what can sometimes seem to be an ever widening sea. I dwell now with a foot in both worlds.

So going home, crossing that great ocean for the first time in over two years, is like leaving home, to go home, for me. The return journey I found out, feels like the same.
Now it has to be said that whatever philosophical mindset it places me in, the simple fact of most journeys like this is they tend to travel full circle, departing and arriving back in one place, an airport, port or border crossing. In my case, in most of my airbourne journeys, that means Chicago.

Throughout all the years of the transatlantic relationship of Mrs Geekrant and I, our crossroads and our home port has always been Chicago. From tearful good byes to laughter filled greetings, we have become immensely familiar with Chicago and the largest of its airports, O'Hare International Airport.

All this lengthy, and probably far too wordy, preamble to say, any blog of any trip I make home, by necessity, starts in Chicago and will finish in Chicago. So I hope that you will indulge a wannabe writer and read on.

It is interesting, to me at least, that Chicago has been such a crossroads in the life of my wife and I, for it has been a crossroads in this part of the world for much of modern history.

So some history, to explain myself. The northern Mid Western states are defined by the Great Lakes. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois all border at least one of these massive bodies of water and for the Voyageurs, the French trappers and fur traders who first explored the area, they were the gateway to the discovery of this new land of wonder.

Equally important to the Voyageurs and modern Mid-Westerners is the mighty Mississippi, the muse of Twain. A great highway running through the heart of the area. To these early traders and explorers, traveling the Mississippi opened territory after territory to them. “Strange new Worlds, New Life and New Civilisations” to borrow a phrase from Roddenberry. Who knows whether it occurred to them but they were walking some of the first steps of modern America as we know it today.

So the Great Lakes were important to the first settlers and traders and so was the Mississippi and even now they are an important part of the regional and national economy. On their own, however, their impact would be forever limited, if it hadn't been for Chicago and Chicago wouldn't have the impact it had if it had been located anywhere else.

Chicago was built close to a portage (a path or cut-through connecting two bodies of water so that boats may be carried between) that in effect allowed for easy transition between the Great Lakes (and by extension the Atlantic Ocean and East Coast of the United States) and the Mississippi. The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 turned this portage into a viable transport link for much larger vessels and enabled the rapid growth of the Mid-West during the Industrial Revolution.
Now while I've been to O'Hare on several different occasions, I've only actually been to Chicago as a city upon one other occasion. As you may remember from past editions of my ever popular publication, my friend Neil visited Mrs Geekrant and I, here, in Madison in the late spring of 2016.

Now while I have declaimed at length about that subject, I have, as yet, failed to mention our trip to Chicago. As I recall, it was because I was unsure what to say on the matter. I mean, what does one say about a place that so much has been written about, so many films have been made. Honestly, what can I say that 15 seasons of ER couldn't?

At some point, the writer, if that is indeed what I am, has to deal with the subjects that he feels inadequate to describe. So I have to at least try, and it seems fitting to do it in the midst of talking about a journey home, considering that was when I visited Chicago, for my first time, it was to send Neil home.

The Mid-West's climate can sometimes feel a little overwhelming to someone who grew up with the changeable yet relatively calm weather of the United Kingdom. As I noted in one of my previous posts, winters here can be brutal, blizzards are not uncommon and sub-zero temperatures are often the norm. Summers are often the other extreme, beautiful, full of sunlight, but also damp with humidity and full of the potential for wild thunderstorms and tornadoes.
So when we reached the airport, this time, ready for our flight, it was in cold conditions worthy of a Siberian freeze. Back in 2016, we drove into Chicago in early June, the sky, full of bright sunlight, which reflected off the azure blue waters of Lake Michigan and proved a fine backdrop for Neil's last day in the United States.

To visit Chicago, to gaze upon its lakeside forest of steel and glass buildings reaching towards the heavens, is in so many ways, to step into the city that most shows America's growth in the late 19th and 20th centuries, this is the birthplace of the skyscraper, the location of the 1893 World's Fair, Ferris Bueller's playground and the smoky bar infested city where the blues went electric.

It is also strangely beautiful. Chicago had a “great fire” in 1871, which burned down many of the previous wooden framed buildings. So in many ways, it is true to say that to look upon Chicago, the famous, touristy, lake shore area, at least, is to look upon the dreams of the American past. To see where all the great longings and desires of the first great pioneers led to. Many people, both within the U.S. and from outside, find themselves drawn to New York, with its glamour, glitz and its never sleeping reputation but I still feel drawn more to Chicago.

We didn't have that much time to spend there on that day and we certainly weren't up for sight seeing when we went there this time around, but we tried to see as much as we could. As much as we could turned out to be Navy Pier... and not a whole lot else. Maybe that's why I still feel drawn to Chicago, I feel short changed, like I didn't see the full enchilada or polish hot dog as we're talking about Chicago.

Somehow, however, although it might have been the only thing we saw that day, Navy Pier still spoke to us of the city and the area that had birthed. The more time that I live so far from my homeland, the more I begin to realise how much places can absorb the histories and characters of the people who dwell there. Navy Pier did just that.

It headed out into Lake Michigan for nearly a full kilometre, jutting forward into that inland sea, like the prow of some majestic ship, but also just as much like some wooden jetty on the Mississippi where Mark Twain piloted steamboats and wrote of Huckleberry Finn. It whispered of the Mid-West and sang of the past and the future.

Its strange, for someone born of a relatively small island, who as a child never lived more than 30 miles from the sea, to stand on something so familiar to me and yet so alien. To look out at what looks like a sea and yet know that it doesn't feel quite like one. To stand on the boardwalk of a pier and instead of seeing sand nearby, see a plethora of skyscrapers heading away from me, like blue, remembered hills, disappearing into the haze of a summer's day.

We wandered along that walkway, for hours, with its amusements and boat tours, like early 20th immigrants seeing Coney Island for the first time. We stood and looked out into something so elemental, created by God in the beginnings of time, the physical reality of the place and then looked back at the city, something so human, the reality of mankind trying to create a world for itself where there was once just lakes and marshes and the faintest beginnings of the prairies.

As I said before, I was not sure how to write about any of this. I'm not sure how to write about going home. So much of living in another land is easily explainable, in terms of physical matters, the differences in cuisine or how much American news anchors drive me up the wall and back down again with their fake smiles, things that can be turned into a quick witted rant or informative text.

So much of living here though is different in the heart, in the soul. It is nearly impossible to quantify, to put down on paper. It is a thousand moments, feeling welcomed and alien at the same time. I am an adopted Mid-Westerner, but a very British one all the same. So I choose to begin this blog series, about going, by talking about crossroads and how Chicago always has been a crossroads for me in this life. Partially because it seems somehow to dig deep into my heart and my feelings travelling home... but also because our flight got cancelled and we got stuck in Chicago for an extra day and I need to say something good about the place before I start ranting. I hope you don't mind.

Until next time,
Goodbye Geekranters.  

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Geekrant vs the Wilderness of a Winter Wonderland.

Greeting Geekranters!
Welcome to the latest edition of my perennially popular blog, “Geekrant!”. You know you've been wallowing in misery since I last wrote, bereft, caught up in sheer desperation..., okay, so I might be exaggerating a little but I truly hope that the return of my humble offerings of the literary sort on the subject of my cross cultural adventures are welcome to one and all.

Winter has reached us here, the first frigid icicles of its frozen fingers creeping across the landscape and although we have not yet seen the first full blizzard of the new season... it will come. Rolling across the prairies and the vast open spaces of the plains states, it will come.

The northern states of the American Mid-West, you see, aren't exactly known for the mildness of their winters. It is not by accident that Lambeau Field, the home stadium of Wisconsin's beloved Green Bay Packers, is known as the “Frozen Tundra” and multiple cities, throughout the area, such as St. Paul, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa, have skyways. These enclosed walkways, bridging streets between buildings, were built simply so that people didn't have to venture into the frigid atmosphere just to go about their daily business. So it's a fact that you have to be ready to make the most of the weather if you're going to live here for any length of time.

For most of my life, I lived in an area of the UK where it very rarely snowed to any great degree and when it did it would be melted and gone before a couple of days had passed. When it did snow, children would rush as one great horde to every hill in town, desperate to be the first to go sledging (that's sledding to my American readers) which was necessary because if you were late, you'd be sledging through mud, the oh so thin snow having been sledged and melted away. It seems to me that there is something so magical about snow to a child. As a young boy I would look with wonder at the stories on the television news of snowstorms blanketing the United States and puzzle what it would be like to see so much snow in one moment, to not have to go to school because it was snowed in and to know what it was to see a lake completely frozen over in the winter cold.

Well, living in Wisconsin and having family now in Minnesota, means that I'm often in the middle of those news stories that I used to see back home. There is generally a lot of snow, ice and generally sub-zero temperatures (both centigrade and fahrenheit, by the way) and although sometimes it can look and feel like a scene out of “The Day after Tomorrow”, the truth is its really not that bad. Primarily because the Midwesterners know how to deal with it.

Now it is somewhat of a cliché that the British adult is generally not known for their sensible reasoned response to the news of impending snowfall. So while the children of the UK rush to enjoy the fleeting flakes falling from a suddenly overcast sky, a single one of those flakes touching down upon the tarmac of a British motorway such as the M25 is more than enough to cause traffic jams, tailbacks and a general inability of any part of the country's adult infrastructure to deal with even the smallest amount of arctic weather. The trains fail to run, people spend hours on the roads, my mother worries that she'll slip on the ice, that kind of thing. Indeed it is like the world has slipped into a new Ice Age.

Now it is possible, that over the last paragraph that my penchant for dramatic license has been in evidence, but the simple truth is as British people, we are just not used to the sort of the weather that makes the countryside look like the set of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (the classic BBC version obviously) and leaves us snowed into our houses.

In Wisconsin and the surrounding states, however, it is as if they stand guard all year waiting for the first hint of Winter, like an army on patrol. Not that they dislike the season, they just want to make sure they have fair warning to get the snowmobiles ready for action. Around here they say that there are but two seasons in the world, Winter and road construction. They're not even slightly joking.

They know its going to come and are well prepared for it. Four wheelers (quad bikes) are put away in exchange for snowmobiles, hunters bring out their snowshoes and fishermen start hoping that the ice will soon be thick enough to carry the weight of their ice fishing shacks. At times it feels like Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs of pioneer life in the Mid-west and the harsh winters those hardy homesteaders faced, are only a fleeting moment in the past.

Even the mighty Mississippi freezes over in places, truly, I have sat on a frozen night outside a motel on the banks of that great river and heard in that frostbitten silence the sound of the ice moving like waves across the surface of that great waterway and crashing into its banks. Suddenly I felt very small, knowing that the weather here is truly something to respect and honour and prepare for and that a millennium ago some Native American probably sat on the same banks and heard the same unearthly noise and in that solitary moment felt much the same as I.

Cars have to be winterised here, of course, antifreeze being a must have and windscreen/shield washer fluid has to be changed for a type that will not freeze in the Siberian temperatures. Here in Madison, cars parked out on the street have to alternate the side of the street they park on, so as to give a clear passage for the snow ploughs in the morning's early hours (it is, in fact, a city ordinance to do this, ignore it and you get a parking ticket). Gritters are out every night and you're not going to make it through a interstate journey without your car being covered in a thin layer of rock salt.

And in the midst of it all, it is beautiful. Back home it can seem that during the winter it rains non stop, day after day, or the sky just sets in a grey visage staring back at me. So it has to be said that while the nation of my birth has its beautiful moments and places, after over 30 years of living there, a winter of snow filled days makes a nice change. And I even find I enjoy shoveling snow.

There is something untamed about the weather here, like this land secretly is still the frontier and it wants to remind the people who live here of this fact. They call Wisconsinites, “Badgers”, not because that small ground dwelling nocturnal mammal is particularly seen around this parts, but because many of the early settlers, who were lead miners, dug homes into their mines to escape Wisconsin's harsh winters. Just like Badgers.

And that is the way everyone here responds to Winter. They find a way to work around it. At some point this winter, Mrs Geekrant's aunt and uncle, will no doubt venture out from their cabin on the lake, cut a hole in the ice and go fishing. The vista will be entirely different to when we visited them in summer and it will be bitterly cold, but the desire to make the most of what this land has to offer is still there.

The land here is itself enticing, reflecting all the beauty of its Creator and the wildness of the divine and unknown. There are a hundred stories to be heard, a thousand lives to be lived and a million moments to gasp in wonder, even in the depths of the coldest winter night. And it works for me, because even after all these years, I am still that young boy fascinated by a place where it snows so much that the world is transformed in a night and where its so cold that the snow stays around for weeks on end. And hopefully at some point this year I will finally ride a snowmobile. And find something yet again new in a Midwestern sunrise.

Goodbye, Geekranters!