Tools and Rituals

I realize I don’t clearly remember the first time I met Stewart. Maybe because from the first time I felt like I’d known him for ages. I think we were introduced by a mutual friend and colleague, and I think we met in the commissary, in the London office building he worked in and I was visiting. Then again, we might have met over a pint at a local.

Unusually, I’m pretty sure we didn’t meet for coffee. Stewart, as he said once, didn’t care at all about coffee – he’d happily drink the worst instant – but he had “tools and rituals” for making tea.

His turn of phrase kept coming to mind as I sat in the chapel participating a different kind of ritual – the kind that involves an officiant describing Stewart’s life in the past tense. His wife widow and three sons in the front row, his father next to them, silent and still, a shallow occasional nod in agreement with some spoken sentiment.

It had been clear from the processional that this wouldn’t be an “ordinary” funeral. The music was straight from Stewart’s playlist – Foo Fighters, My Chemical Romance, and bands that, frankly, I’m not cool enough to recognize – which was him to a T. And the funeral announcement had made his preferred dress code clear:

Stewart hated a shirt and tie and only wore them if he was made to so please, if a dinosaur t-shirt makes you smile, jeans and a hoodie is your thing or running gear is your happy place, please do.

There would be no singing “because Stewart would always mutter it was like school assembly, and it’ll be short because he’d much rather everyone had a drink and a giggle.” And there would be an after party.

His passing wasn’t sudden – not that that made it any better. He’d been unwell for years, the initial diagnosis imminently terminal. Once his hair regrew after initial rounds of chemo there were stretches when, unless you knew, you’d have been hard pressed to guess he was ill. (We learned at his memorial that his oncologists were cross with him for taking long runs during treatment, but apparently the doctors had never thought to tell him not to, as “you weren’t supposed to be up to it.”)

Once the pandemic allowed, a small group of us got to occasionally experience what had been his (utterly ridiculous) daily commute going to him to visit. We’d sit at his local and talk over beer, and when he wasn’t up for that anymore we’d sit in his living room and talk. And when he struggled to talk, we’d still sit and talk.

As his condition worsened he and his family ultimately decided that the treatment had more downside than up, and that enough was enough.

From then on it was impossible to even pretend that there was an outcome other than this.

Sitting in a chapel.

Equal parts devastated and angry at the loss of a friend, dead too soon from a disease we must understand and eliminate.

And being utterly, utterly in awe of his partner, who’d navigated his long illness with incredible strength and grace. And struggling to comprehend the impact on his sons, who would navigate the rest of their lives without their father.

Rest in peace, my friend. You are missed.

How is a Wardrobe Like a Software Project?

With apologies to Lewis Carrol.

Our made-to-measure wardrobe project got rolling last week. The materials were delivered on Monday, in terrible weather, by two guys who did an admirable job moving a bunch of big heavy stuff into the two target rooms.

On Tuesday – a day before he was expected – the installer (“fitter”) arrived to start what Sharps insisted (over my questioning and skepticism) would be a three day job. Aside from him arriving 20 minutes before I was supposed to be in a meeting, I didn’t mind him starting early. The sooner you start, as they say, the sooner you can fall behind.

I showed him the rooms and materials and it didn’t take long before I heard the words you never want to hear during any sort of construction project. “So… we have a problem.”

Before we get to that, let’s back up for a moment… We started this project months ago, meeting wardrobe design firms the weekend we got keys to the house. We iterated on the most promising proposal several times, and placed the order once we had drawings we were happy with. There was a 2-ish month lead time (pretty much across the board), so every day we didn’t act was a “day for day slip.”

Once we had signed off on the design, the firm had a surveyor come out and double check everything. He had the designers drawings, and spent a couple hours in the space, measuring everything, checking the drawings, and doing… whatever it is a surveyor does.

He made a couple tweaks – clearing them with us – and placed the materials order.

So when the fitter arrived, he was the third person to have been in the space and seen the plans. But as the one who actually does the work, Riccardo noticed things the designer and surveyor hadn’t.

He saw, for example, that some of the cuts required in the loft were impossible. Not just hard, or tricky, but impossible. The plan called for him to scribe (trace and follow the contours of an existing shape) two adjoining edges of a board. But you can’t, he explained, because no matter which edge you start with, when you scribe and cut the other edge, the first edge won’t sit where it needs to.

Those impossible cuts were in the corner where the build needed to start, so he needed a solution. He spent the day talking to the firm, and by the evening had a proposal that the firm was reviewing. He left after setting up to start the easier room, and we planned to go over the proposed revision the next morning.

He arrived, and Dawnise and I spent several hours with him reviewing his suggestion – which essentially involved completely boxing in the wardrobes and shelves that had been designed to use the existing wall and ceiling as their back and top. That would involve anchoring several additional heavy panels – not accounted for in the initial design – to the wall and ceiling. I was … skeptical.

The wardrobes in the loft were to sit against the wall separating the space from its en-suite shower room. And that wall is thin – thinner than a standard timber and plasterboard wall. And it has water pipes (for the shower) and it has a Venetian (polished) plaster finish on the shower side. The fitter wasn’t sure, and neither was I, that he could safely anchor the much heavier proposed installation to that wall.

So we asked the builder.

Turns out the builder who did this house picked up another job on the street – someone saw this renovation and liked it so much they said “do that for me.” So Tony and his team are working literally across the street most days. I asked if he could pop over and consult for a moment.

Tony listed to the fitters proposal and questions and basically said “this wall isn’t load bearing – you might manage it, supporting some of the weight on the ceiling, but if that pipe moves and there’s any plaster damage, you’ll need to re-plaster the whole wall. I wouldn’t do it.” Oh, and a quick measure showed that the shower tap was smack dab in the middle of where the build would need to be anchored to the wall.

Ruh-Roh.

So I called the firm and said those dreaded words … “we have a problem.” The fitter had also briefed them, and we agreed that he should get started on the other room – that aside from a couple tricky cuts seemed fairly straight forward – while we sorted out the situation.

I had a conversation with a regional installation manager, who was on the road and couldn’t get to London for a couple days, via WhatsApp. I showed her the space, reiterated Riccardo’s description of the issues, and my builder’s concerns. She arranged for a colleague, who was in the area, to pop in to have a look in person. Jim, who’d been with the firm “a fair while” looked, and listened, and ultimately said “The surveyor should have caught this. I’m going to recommend we not continue.”

By this time that seemed like the only sensible option from our perspective, too.

I told him that even if the firm guaranteed in writing that they would take responsibility for any damage to the space and adjoining spaces, I’d be foolish to proceed against the advice of the team that literally built the house. If anything went wrong, even if they worked to fix it, we could be living in a building site for months.

He wrote up his findings and the report was being reviewed and discussed internally on Friday. On Monday morning (tomorrow, as of this writing) I expect a call telling me when they’ll come and collect the load of materials currently occupying a good chunk of the loft. Fortunately nothing has yet been done that can’t be undone, and that’s down to the fitter thinking the project through before he started making holes in things

At several points this adventure has echoed the sorts of planning-to-execution failures all too common in software. And the root cause feels the same, too. The design, and the estimation, were done by someone who “used to actually do the work,” but when the actual hands-on practitioner got involved they spotted a new set of “obvious to them” issues with the plans and estimates.

In construction, and in software, when you find yourself problem solving and designing “in the room” it’s a clear sign that something’s gone wrong, and that the project risk has increased, probably significantly. (For a very readable and highly recommended deeper examination of what goes wrong on projects and how to improve your chances of success, see How Big Things Get Done, by Flyvbjerg.)

The main bedroom, I’m happy to say, has been making good progress. Riccardo expects to complete the job Monday – three days after starting it. (So that the one room will have taken him all three days that the firm had estimated for both rooms. And I can say, having been following his progress, that this isn’t because he’s been slow, it’s because their estimate was … overly optimistic – another failure commonly encountered in software. Also like in software, it would have been easy to demand that the builder stick to the original estimate, not taking into account what had been learned since that estimate was made.)

Fingers crossed that on Monday we’re hanging our “everyday” clothes in the finished wardrobes and are able to stop rotating through the small collection of things we held aside at the start of the move.

We had chosen to do built-ins to maximize storage in the irregular spaces, but in the loft we’ll have to figure out a freestanding option. We won’t get as much storage as we would have with the built-ins, but “needs must,” as they’re fond of saying ’round here.

That Was Never Five Months Just Now!

I just looked back and realized that I hadn’t posted anything since Dawnise broke her wrist in February.

Sheesh.

Kamran, the cat we adopted the same day Dawnise had her “uncontrolled descent,” has integrated and generally made himself at home. He and Ivan have largely reached détente – the last few mornings I’ve come downstairs to find them both sleeping at the top of the cat tree. He really likes sitting in laps – and doesn’t really care if you’re ready for him or not.

Mixed in with the home-find and home-buying shenanigans, Dawnise accompanied me on a work trip back to Seattle in June. Her first trip stateside since January 2022. We got to spend time with my brother, sister and brother-in-law and our nieces, and my parents. My parents had relocated from Florida to the Pacific North West in March, and we got to drive up to see their new place – about an hour north of Seattle. Dawnise and my mom spent a day driving all over WA visiting quilt and sewing stores. It was the most time in a car since our trip to New Zealand (which I refuse to believe was nearly a year ago).

Around work and family visits Dawnise and I reconnected with friends over brunches, dinners and pub trivia (there’s something deeply ironic about traveling thousands of miles from London to participate in a “British style pub quiz”) and got a proper donut. Okay, maybe more than a donut. Maybe a couple donuts. I regret nothing.

Eurovision was “nearly in our back yard” in May, but we hadn’t tried for tickets. and had our traditional viewing with friends at the flat. Thanks to some “totally coincidental, really” train strikes, a bunch of people who had gotten tickets also ended up watching on TV, which I’m sure they were thrilled about.

Also in May the UK participated in one of its utterly archaic institutions and crowned a new King. I was in Seattle for work – Dawnise watched much of the days pomp and circumstance with some friends.

I’m sure there’s other interesting stuff in there, but from the haze of the move it seems like the time just flew past. Somewhere in there I made several work trips back to Seattle, and have another coming in a few weeks.

I just really like Virgin Atlantic’s food, what can I say.

In any event, I’ll endeavour to post on a more regular cadence.

Global Claims Magic

For the second time in recent memory Dawnise and I found ourselves reflecting on the length of Purple Rain’s outro while surrounded by the sturm und drang of moving.

We hadn’t planned to move, but life – as the saying goes – is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

What happened? The short(ish) version of the long story goes something like this:

Two and a half years ago, in the depth of the pandemic, the flat that we’d lived in since arriving in the UK sprung a leak. Not the sort of small leak that’s easily and quickly fixed, mind you. The sort of leak that involves “water cascading down the inside of doors and dripping out of light fixtures” and requires major roofing works that can’t get underway for months.

We conducted a frantic search for a flat and were lucky enough to find one in the same neighborhood that had just been put up for rent. The owners of the flat had moved abroad and had been looking to sell it, but the market hadn’t cooperated so they ended up falling back to putting it up for rent. It ticked all our boxes, we made an offer to rent it, they accepted, and we hired movers as quickly as we could get keys.

By the time our two year lease was ending last October we had developed a pretty good relationship with the owners, and we mutually agreed to renew the lease for another two years.

So why, you might ask, did we move?

Fair question.

A number of times over our tenancy the owners asked us to let the flat be shown to a potentially interested buyer. We’d cooperate, ’cause that’s just how we are, and for a while there’d be a looming cloud of uncertainty and instability that drove us a bit nuts.

The owners asked again near the beginning of the year, kicking off renewed uncertainty, and Dawnise and I decided enough was enough.

We discussed our options and found only three: we could move into something owned by a commercial landlord, who’d be less likely to sell out from under us. We could try to buy the place we were in, or we could try to buy something else. Renting from someone else didn’t feel like a solution, just kicking the can down the road, so we decided to focus on the other two.

We had seen the sales listing for the flat while we were flat hunting, so had some idea about what the owners were after – at least a couple years ago, so I started watching the “central-ish” London real estate market. In March we started doing occasional “real-life” viewings. Everyone had told us that a real-estate transaction here would take on average 6 months, so it didn’t feel like we were starting all that early if we wanted to align with October.

When we’d found two candidate properties we had a candid conversation with our landlords. I shared why we’d started looking – that the recurring churn of a potential sale was the primary motivator – shared the listings for the couple of the properties we were considering, and basically said “we don’t particularly want to move – we like the flat, you want to sell it, here’s our best offer.”

They went away and thought about it, and came back with a minimum that was higher than our maximum. No zone of possible agreement.

So, not really expecting much to come of it, we made an offer on our first choice. We’d been told there were several other offers on the table, and we went in at the asking price. Like I said, we didn’t think anything would come of it.

We didn’t fully appreciate how much leverage we had being “chain free.”

Chains? Like Marley’s Chains? No. Well… maybe.

In American English we’d say that Dawnise and I had no contingencies. We weren’t trying to sell a property to finance this purchase – and that made our offer more compelling than the others on the table. So a bit to our surprise the sellers verbally accepted.

(I should note that the purchase process in the UK is markedly different from in the US, and I could spill a bunch of ink here – but for the moment imagine it’s the same, it doesn’t really matter that much. If you’re curious, drop me a note, I’ll write a separate post if there’s sufficient interest.)

Suddenly we were buying a house – and because the house was owned by a developer who’d renovated it (more later) they wanted the transaction to “complete” (close) quickly. We’d been candid from the outset that we were looking toward August or September, they wanted as soon as technically possible, and we came to a mutual agreement.

Fortunately, our landlords were very reasonable when we asked to exit our lease early. They’re taking this opportunity to do some small renovations before they take next steps.

In mid-May we collected keys.

The house was built somewhere around the 1850’s and was a pretty classic example of a Victorian “terraced house” but remodeled and renovated. The ground floor has a small WC, living room, dining room and modern kitchen. The first floor has two bedrooms and a “family bathroom,” and the loft has been converted into a bedroom with office nook and ensuite shower room. The renovation mixes classic features – like sash windows, plaster cornices and the retained chimney breasts – and modern features, especially in the kitchen and converted loft.

What it doesn’t have – and is often missing “over here” – are built in wardrobes. So once we had keys we got quotes for made-to-measure wardrobes in the main and loft bedrooms. Between fitting in around the fireplace stack in the main bedroom and the a-frame ceiling in the loft, we couldn’t find a good free-standing answer.

It’s reasonably energy efficient for a building of its age. The original single-pane sash windows aren’t helping much, but it turns out (says our surveyor) in a building of this age you can’t assume there are lintels over the windows – so replacing them without the wall falling down could be tricky (and not cheap).

It’s a couple miles north and slightly west of the flat we were in – the title of this post are its what three words coordinates. We’re along the same tube line, very close to the tube station and bus links, and have equal or improved access to central London compared to the flat.

At any rate, we moved in last week and spent the weekend attacking boxes. Dawnise continued to make progress when I went back to work (in the loft/office) on Monday, and I wrapped up at the flat and surrendered the keys on Tuesday. We’re working through a short list of snags with the developer, who’s so far been good to deal with.

The wardrobes are scheduled be fitted the last week of July – until then our clothes are in the moving boxes. Not optimal, but livable.

If you’re reading this from “this side of the pond” there will be a housewarming in the hopefully near future.

Stay tuned.

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

A friend and former colleague is fond of saying “everything’s fine, nothing is broken.” Everyone’s fine, but Dawnise’s wrist is definitely broken – we’ve got pictures to prove it.

…Rewind to Tuesday…

We’d picked up Kamran early that morning, and brought him home into quarantine for a couple hours before we put him back in the carrier for his initial check at our vet, a short walk from the flat.

We were a bit over half way there when Dawnise tripped, going “ass over tea kettle” as the saying goes, twisting her ankle and landing mostly on her left wrist. She got up feeling a bit nauseous and convinced me to carry on and keep our vet appointment while she caught her breath at the bus stop we were just a few feet away from.

She texted me a few minutes later that she was going to head home to ice her wrist. By the time I got home with the cat she’d applied ice, and took some ibuprofen.

I suggested we seek medical attention, she demurred and insisted it was probably just a sprain and would be fine in a couple days. But, she said, if it didn’t get better, she’d reconsider.

By Thursday it was clearly not improved. She called our GP, but after listening to their hold message do its best to tell us to go away and use the internet, we pivoted to their electronic consult system instead. We described the symptoms, the event, the treatment steps taken, the time lapsed, and the current status. The doctor called Dawnise back that afternoon and referred her to UCLH radiology for an X-ray.

Dawnise left this morning in time to arrive at the radiology department when they opened at 9am. By 10 they had taken the x-ray, read it, confirmed a fracture, and walked her up to the emergency department (ED). I went to join her after our grocery delivery arrived at 10am. Neither of us were sure what to expect, and we settled in for a potentially long wait.

They called her back in about another hour. The doctor showed us the x-ray and talked us through it. She had a radial fracture and a small bone chip in her left wrist, and the joint was slightly compressed from the impact. They’d need to put it in a cast, and before they cast it they needed to “manipulate it” (fancy way to say “pull on her hand”) to improve bone position.

It was going to hurt, no two ways around it. They’d give her a codine tablet ahead of time, a local anesthetic injection (a hematoma block) and some “air and gas” (nitrous) while they worked.

We went back to the waiting room for a few minutes while they got set up.

True to the Doctor’s word, the shot clearly hurt. And despite the local injection and the laughing gas, the manipulation was clearly not Dawnise’s favorite thing ever. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than a couple minutes, but it felt longer, and I was just the observer – staying out of the way while they worked.

They finished setting the cast, got her setup with a sling, and sent us back to the waiting room for a few minutes until they could take another set of x-rays to see the new bone position.

After the new set of x-rays we went back to the waiting room one more time until the doc could review them.

When he called us back in he showed us the new pictures (they basically looked the same to me, if I’m honest) and said the positioning looked good.

He explained that the hospital would send the before and after x-rays to the fractures team for a consultant to review. Early next week we’d hear back with one of three outcomes. If the set looked good to the fractures consultant she’d stay in the temporary cast for two weeks and then be re-cast for another month. If they were concerned about what they saw, they might call her in for an in-person consult. If they were really concerned about what they saw, they’d call her in to discuss a surgical fix. The ED doc said he thought surgery was unlikely, but not impossible.

A short stop at the hospital pharmacy to collect some pain medication, and a detour to get bagels from our favorite bagel bakery, and we were home around 2pm.

Everyone she dealt with was great – competent and pleasant – including the GP who called her back in response to the initial consult request. The ED was busy, but not slammed, and no single step today seemed particularly lengthy or inefficient.

Dawnise is doing ok – definitely uncomfortable and when the hospital drugs wear off we expect it to get a bit worse before it starts to get better, but it will get better.

Hopefully neither of us get whacked with her cast while we sleep.

Fingers crossed.

Here We Go Again

The Universe has presented us with a cat, and we’re in the rough and sometimes infuriating first few days of integrating a new cat into the house.

Since losing Oscar in late October we’ve occasionally talked about if and when we might look into adopting another cat. We had a “near miss” a couple months ago. We were in contact with someone with a rescue they needed to place. Someone else had responded first, and we thought the important thing was that the cat find a home, not that the home be with us, so we were happy to let the right thing happen.

Since then I’d researched a few London animal shelters, and in the process learned that adopting a cat in the UK is different than our experiences in the US. There’s a strong cultural bias that cats are hunters and need access to the outdoors. We live in a flat several stories above street level, so “access to the outdoors” is problematic – even ignoring our concern about the mix of cats, foxes, and cars in the middle of London.

There are some shelters that focus on placing “indoor” cats. Many of those shelters only consider cats that are elderly, immnuocompromised, or physically incapable of living the “free range life.” On top of that, COVID put a damper on “come to the shelter and meet some cats,” resulting in most shelters asking you to apply, and them match making you with a candidate cat or two.

Ultimately, we weren’t really thrilled with the prospect, so we hadn’t taken any steps or submitted any applications, though we were slowly convincing ourselves that was the path forward.

Then the other day Dawnise saw a post on nextdoor from a local neighbor who was looking to re-home their cat. They were moving countries and couldn’t bring him with. Dawnise reached out and arranged a meet-and-greet.

On the day of the meeting I was stuck in a work crisis, so Dawnise had to go without me. She met the cat (and the humans). He (the cat) was a street rescue from a charity in Abu Dhabi. He’s about three years old, has a gentle friendly disposition, and he and Dawnise got along pretty much immediately. She arranged for us both come back the next day, so I could meet him too. Our meeting went equally well, and his humans decided that out of the people who’d expressed interest they preferred he go with us.

So we had agreement in principle to adopt a cat, and a plan to pick him up once we could schedule a vet check up for him.

And we needed to figure out a name. When he was adopted from the charity that rescued him he was named Lucky. We tend to choose human names, and neither of us loved the name Lucky.

I had joked for a long time that if we got a dog we should name it Loki – after all, what could possibly go wrong naming a dog after a god of mischief? Since Loki was acoustically similar, our first thought was to try that. But neither of us loved that name either.

The morning before we were scheduled to pick him up we were still thinking about names. We had the thought to see if we could draw on his origin and his current name. So I started looking for names that meant approximately “lucky” in Arabic…

And we found Kamran.

The internet told us it meant “blessed” in Arabic and “fortunate” in Farsi. I’m always skeptical of using words I don’t understand – and was concerned that we were essentially giving him a tattoo of random characters that someone told you means something. So we asked a friend, who relayed the ask to friends who were native speakers, and they confirmed that Kamran was a name, not commonly used in general speech, and didn’t mean anything terrible. That seemed good enough.

So Tuesday morning, bright and early, we picked up Kamran and brought him home. Dawnise and I went into quarantine with him for a few hours before taking him to the vet for a once over. He got a clean bill of health, caught up on his immunizations, and when we got home we started gently introducing him to Ivan.

So now were in the phase where two cats try to decide if they want to attack each other, play together, or ignore each other. There’s some occasional growling, occasional hissing, and hopefully over the next few days there’s less of each.

A Letter to Both Sides

I paid little attention to government or politics while living in Luxembourg. This was partially because all the official business was conducted en français and translation was très difficile, and partially because we only planned to be there for a couple years.

“Not my circus, not my monkeys” seemed like a good strategy.

Even before moving to the UK, I had spent enough time here – and had enough friends here – that I was at least superficially aware of UK politics and government.

I followed the Brexit debate and vote from afar, and witnessed some of the sclerotic convulsions up close and personally, from “this side of the pond.”

When I decided that I didn’t understand Brexit and the underlying arguments, politics and dynamics as well as I wanted to, I asked local friends for perspective and read a bunch. Papers and periodicals on both sides of center. Books about Brexit and the EU, and some about political dysfunction and polarization.

Most of this had the effect of “making me smarter, but not happier.”

They say misery loves company, so I figured I’d share.

You’re welcome.

Even leaving Brexit aside, it’s been … challenging… to reconcile recent events with the historical perspective of Britain as a stable well governed country with responsible adults in the halls of power.

The government’s response to the pandemic, and the indefensible actions of government ministers. Boris’ casual relationship with truth and determination to stay in power. The short but economically disastrous tenure of his successor. The government’s response to the cost of living crisis and the dramatic inflation and skyrocketing energy prices driving it. The wave of strikes and industrial actions affecting transportation. The seeming acceleration toward collapse of the national health care system.

The party that has been in power for over a decade seems to be treating these problems as though they were of someone else’s creation. That they’re as surprised as anyone to find these systems and institutions creaking after years of their policies and management, and that they’re just trying to do their best.

“I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” –Capt. Renault

It’s been just as hard understand what role the opposition party has to play in this drama, and if they’re playing it effectively, or showing up at all.

When we arrived in the UK, the left-leaning Labor party was embroiled in multiple crises and suffered a disastrous electoral loss. Its hard-left leaning leader had helped the party alienate and lose many historically reliable supporters, and he was personally accused of permitting, if not supporting, antisemitism amongst party leadership. It’s tempting to say it was surprising how difficult it was to remove him from the reigns, but the dynamic of a toxic personality holding on to power is frustratingly familiar.

He did ultimately resign, and his successor, a former barrister, is significantly more centrist. He’s been praised for effective oration and lambasted for being “boring and bland.” It’s not clear how much more excitement the country has an appetite for, but in a landscape of perpetual and persistent crisis, someone who just promises “not to break things” struggles to be heard over the noise.

In theory, the role of the opposition party, and the so-called “shadow cabinet,” is to scrutinize policies and actions of the government, and offer alternatives.

When I’ve asked local friends why we don’t hear more suggestions from Labor, canny responders point out that the opposition party never has strong incentives to volunteer their “best ideas.” The risk is that those ideas are adopted or co-opted by the sitting government. True, good things might happen. And true, the opposition might get some credit, but voters have notoriously short memories, and credit today doesn’t win the next election.

Since we’re talking about elections, general elections in the UK don’t happen on a fixed schedule. The date of the next general election has not yet been set, as of this writing. The next election is no later than five years and some days after the first meeting of the just elected Parliament.

Since the previous general election was December 2019 (that’s the one that Labor lost in a dramatic fashion when a bunch of historically reliable supporters voted against them) the next election is no later than December 2024.

But before you get to confident, did I mention that the general election prior to 2019 was June 2017?

Wait. What? I hear you ask. June 2017 to December 2019? That isn’t ever five years just then.

Yes, ahem. Well, you see… the sitting government can call an election earlier. Basically any time it likes.

So that’s interesting. Why would they call an early election? You might ask. Isn’t that just risking being voted out?

Maybe.

If you’ve ever played a push your luck game you might think of it sorta like that. If you call an early election (push your luck) you might lose. If you lose, you hand your opponent control. But… If you call an early election and you win you’ve ensured control for another five years. So if you’ve just done something amazing, and you think people are happy with you and will vote for you if you asked right now, you might call an early election and ask them, right now.

Credit today wins elections tomorrow.

Of course only the sitting government can call an early election. No amount of dissatisfaction by the opposing party, or the populous, can force one.

So no matter how dissatisfied the population might be with the sitting government right now, they aren’t guaranteed a chance to express that dissatisfaction (at the polls, at least) until December 2024. And voters, as mentioned above, have short memories.

What’s got the pitchforks and torches out at the moment may well have faded into the mists of memory come polling day.

US political commentators and analysts are fond of starting statements with “if the election were held today…” In the UK that is approximately a possibility.

But if the rest of that sentence isn’t “the incumbent would win in a landslide” it’s a pretty unlikely one.

In light of government behavior over the past couple years, and current satisfaction levels, I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict six more weeks eighteen more months of winter…

The Imagi-nation…

A few months ago I supported the Blade Runner Role Playing Game from Free League Publishing on Kickstarter. And in a fit of “it seemed like a good idea at the time” I added a bunch of their previously published games to my pledge when the project funded.

We didn’t bring (m)any books with us when we moved; some of Dawnise’s crafting books and a few of our frequently used cook books. The only dedicated bookshelf we have in the flat is in Dawnise’s craft room. So the books in the rather large box that arrived while we were away in Belgium don’t currently have a better place to be than “in the box, on the floor.”

So, I’ll need to sort that out…

Over the past few days I’ve sat on the sofa and paged through copies of Vaesen, the Aliens and Blade Runner RPGs, and the latest incarnation of Twilight:2000, which to be honest seems a little too “on the nose” at the moment.

I started playing pen-and-paper RPGs as a tween. Gaming was inspired by reading – which I did a lot of – and the desire to tell more and different stories in the worlds I’d visited. My choice of RPGs both came out of, and influenced, what I was reading. Sometimes it even got a bit “meta.”

After reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings I went on to read a bunch of what was, in retrospect, mostly terribly derivative fantasy and science fiction. I started gaming with boxed-set games from TSR – the early 80’s D&D red, blue, and green boxes, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret/SI – before “graduating” to AD&D.

The ROBOTECH TV series introduced me to a bunch of games published by Palladium Books. Works like Neuromancer, Hardwired, and When Gravity Fails brought me to the Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0 RPG and Shadowrun. A friend and his brothers introduced me to games like GURPS, and tabletop simulations like Car Wars, the original Twilight:2000, and Star Fleet Battles.

Despite the negative and often hysterical press of the time, my parents were generally supportive of the hobby – even when it occasionally meant hanging out with some kids who I, as an adult, would not encourage me to hang out with. (I’ve got a strong suspicion that it was one of those not-completely-savory teens who helped themselves to the contents of our house one year through my bedroom window, but that’s a story for a different time.)

It was the combination of RPGs and computers that led to meeting a group of like minded irregulars, many of whom I still count as friends decades later. It turned out that the BBS that I had stumbled on in the listings at the back of that free computer magazine was initially born out of wanting to turn some surplus computing hardware into a way to help a gaming group keep the story moving between game sessions. Not everyone who subsequently found The Dragon and chose to stay played RPGs, but many did; and gaming, literature, history, renaissance fair, and and arguing about all of the above and more were the threads that wove the group together.

At any given time folks in that group were involved in a least a few games. Some games and groups were into the simulation angle, using systems like Rolemaster or GURPS – built around rich detailed rules and tables. Others leaned more toward collaborative story telling, using systems like Fudge, that seemed to aim for “the simplest mechanics possible, and no simpler” to support telling a story. A few folks even tried their hand at game design, building new or augmenting rule systems that almost but didn’t quite scratch their particular itch. There were often house rules, and some incredibly rich campaign settings, a priceless side effect if you’re lucky enough to be gaming with a (then unpublished) author.

Sitting on the sofa, hard-cover game book balanced on my lap, it was impossible not to think back on times spent story telling with those friends. If it was via carefully written messages exchanged via the BBS, or interactions around someone’s dining table into the small hours of the morning – those people and those times became, for me, a probably wholly unfair touchstone for what “online community” could and should mean.

In the intervening years I got rid of some of my books – especially “old” AD&D books that were “made obsolete” by newer editions of the game. When I realized my mistake I managed to reacquire some of them from used book stores or on eBay. These days I could probably get most of them as PDFs from DriveThroughRPG. As much as I like e-books for portability and search, game books are at least as much about the physical talisman as about the contents. Having a PDF that’s always with me is great, but it was holding books in my hands that triggered the flood of memories.

I haven’t actually played or run a game in longer than I’d care to calculate. That group scattered in the normal two ways; gradually and suddenly. People got married, some had kids, and Dawnise and I moved from Southern California to Washington State – so opportunities to convene became rare indeed. There were some attempts at play-by-email, and occasional talk of using Neverwinter Nights to run an online game, but it was a long time before virtual tabletop platforms like Roll20 and FoundryVTT would make distance playing more practical.

Despite that dearth of recent playtime, RPGs are very much a part of my “residual self image.” They’re part of who I am, and how I became this person, and that’s not going to change – even if the books just continue to stare at me me from a shelf.

Four Years in the Making

We finally made it to Belgium.

In the end it only took four tries. We first planned a trip to visit Ghent and Bruges for Christmas markets in 2019. We booked Eurostar tickets, and an AirB&B, and had to unravel it all when the longest French rail strike in 30 years undid our best laid plans. In 2020 COVID in the UK put the kibosh on our re-made travel plans, and in 2021 we made the call to cancel last minute when COVID surged in Belgium and markets started being curtailed and canceled.

So when we picked dates, rearranged the train tickets, and booked accommodation in Ghent, we weren’t particularly confident that the trip would actually happen.

By pure luck our dates dodged the rail strikes in the UK, and the threatened strike by Eurostar security staff, and on the morning of our departure we met our friends and traveling companions at St. Pancras station. Mere minutes before the train was scheduled to board came the announcement – the high speed tracks in Belgium were closed due to two broken down trains, and our train was delayed. ETD unknown.

The other shoe had finally dropped.

We found some seats in the departures hall and settled in. Scheduled departures to other destinations departed. And we waited.

A couple hours later it was announced that the tracks were clear and our train was ready for boarding. A small cheer went up in the departure hall, and we joined our fellow passengers on the platform and found our seats on board.

The trip to Brussels and connection to Ghent were uneventful and, a few hours later than planned, we arrived at our lodgings, met our host, dropped our bags and headed out into the town, and the markets.

Dawnise hadn’t been exactly thrilled at the idea of taking a train under the English Channel, but it all turned out ok. Even with the delay the door-to-door trip was no longer than a flight would have been and significantly more comfortable. I’m optimistic that we’ll do it again.

We spent a rather cold (-6C) day in Bruges, the next day in Brussels, and our last warmer but rainy day in Ghent. We wandered the towns and visited the Christmas markets. We stood in a stupidly long queue for frites in Brussels (worth it), had Mexican food in Ghent that easily ranked among our top five Mexican food finds in Europe, and stumbled on an (intentionally) hilarious castle audio tour that kept us chuckling and mostly kept us out of the rain for a couple hours.

And it was the first trip in a fair while that I took my “real” camera – so I have a bunch of pictures to sift through, a couple of which I’ve added to my mostly dormant flickr photostream.

Ghent and Bruges are just as beautiful as people say – and are both places I’d happily go back to explore when the weather is a bit less hostile, even if it means less gluhwein.

Oh Yes It Is

Last night Dawnise and I saw Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire theater. It was the first panto we’d been to since we went with visiting friends and their daughter in 2019, in the before-times.

Panto strikes me as a particularly English Christmas tradition, and not one I remember being exposed to before we moved here. I find it a bit hard to describe without regurgitating chunks of the Wikipedia article, but here goes…

Panto is family theater – children come in fancy dress, and sometimes their parents do, too. Extended families come en mass, occupying entire rows.

But panto isn’t “theater for kids” – the audience has a diversity I rarely see at other live performances – everyone from babes-in-arms to pensioners.

It’s intentionally camp without being denigrating. It features gender bending performances and pokes at stereotypes and current events, all against the backdrop of a morality play. It does it all in fun, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is seriously subversive.

The players sing and dance, and the audience sings – and sometimes dances – along. Characters call on the audience, the audience shouts in response. The valiant heroes are cheered, and the dastardly villains are booed. Sweets are flung into the crowd eliciting shrieks from kids who scramble to scoop them up.

In a city known for world class theater and dramatic performance, it would be easy to dismiss panto as frivolous. As something “less than.”

Oh no it isn’t!

<ahem>

Two of the hottest panto tickets this season are a production of Jack and the Beanstalk with Dawn French, and a production of Mother Goose with Sir Ian McKellen (playing the eponymous waterfowl).

The production values we saw last night were in no way “less than.” The set pieces and costumes were eye-catching, and the vocals, choreography and performances were en pointe.

The stories are simple, without being simplistic. The jokes are hilarious to children and funny to adults, usually for very different reasons.

We laughed, we shouted at the stage, we cheered and we booed. And as the show resumed from intermission, looking at the festive chaos around me, I realized that panto has found its way into my adopted holiday traditions, right along side Christmas markets, mince pies, and feuerzangenbowle.

Happy Holiday season, friends.