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’ causal 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.

Every Time You Go Away

I’ve started this a half dozen times, each attempt abandoned after a few clumsy sentences. It’s not the first time we’ve lost a cat, but it turns out that’s not the sort of thing you ever “get good at.” Or that you want to.

My family never had cats or dogs as a kid. And my one interaction with a cat when I was young revealed that I was allergic, so I never figured on having one in my life.

Then I met Dawnise, who’d had cats (and dogs) her whole life. When we moved out, the cats came with us. It was never really a question. I found ways to manage my allergies – as long as I kept them off my pillow and away from my face I was basically okay.

And really, it was much more than okay.

We’ve had a handful of cats in the decades since, each one finding us when they needed us, and when we needed them. Each one weaving its way into the fabric of our lives.

We make the same deal with each of them: we will do our absolute best to care for them, and do right by them.

And eventually, inevitably, they leave us.

And it hurts, more than we think we can bare.

Every. Time.

In the end we did our best for Oscar, and when it was clearly the best we could do, we helped him leave.

We know it was the right choice – the only choice.

And that doesn’t make it hurt even a tiny bit less.

You Got Lucky

For the first time since the middle of August I didn’t wake up this morning thinking about the UK Home Office.

Well, not immediately, anyway.

Then I went to double check that it hadn’t all been a dream.

The last six weeks felt crazy stressful, but this morning – with just a tiny bit of distance – that stress felt overblown.

Don’t get me wrong, the stress was definitely real. I definitely felt it. And Dawnise would definitely tell you it definitely affected my mood.

But I wasn’t actually in any real jeopardy. I had a visa. It allowed me to be in the country, to work, to and travel. And that visa had plenty of time left before it expired. So no real risk.

On top of that, I had two lawyers who were confident that I was “in the right,” and our member of parliament’s office was advocating for me, too.

Worst case – if the only way to resolve the situation was to submit a new application – it would cost me some time and some money.

I suspect most people who’ve ever gone through any immigration process probably remember how stressful it can be. Governments and bureaucracies seem opaque and capricious. Each application is a just one of many a caseworker will handle in a week. To the case worker the decision on an application is just another decision.

To the person, or family, behind that application, their entire future can hinge on the outcome.

When things go wrong, having access to resources, and specifically to sound legal advice, can make a massive difference.

I had a bunch of advantages and I got lucky. Dawnise and I agreed we wanted to pay that luck forward – and decided to donate what we were expecting to spend on a second application to organizations that provide immigration-related legal aid. I asked around, and some friends pointed me at JCWI in the UK and Unlocal in the US.

I hope it helps someone who needs it.

Into the Great Wide Open

“It’s like Plato once said…It doesn’t matter how the fuck you get there, as long as you get there” —Conrad Brean

Three things have happened in the couple days since I wrote the previous ILR post.

Yesterday, the Home Office sent a response to the Pre-Action Protocol to the “bad cop lawyer,” dismissing it and saying that the process would be resolved through the administrative review request, which – the letter noted – was only 4 weeks into its six month expected duration. The review, it said, would be decided “in due course.”

I didn’t find that particularly encouraging.

Once I got done wishing ill on all forms of intransigent bureaucracy, I forwarded the response on to the “good cop lawyer.” We agreed that the likely outcome was that I’d need to reapply on return from my business travel next week.

This morning, I sent a follow up email to our MP, explaining the response I’d received and asking her (office) if she could reengage and offer additional assistance. I explained the upcoming business travel and provided the evidence her staff requested.

And went back to waiting.

While sitting at my desk writing a document, my phone buzzed. Twice.

It was a message from the “good cop lawyer” saying “Hi Dan. I am pleased to advise that a decision has now been taken on your Administrative Review…”

…I hesitated a moment at the line break…

“…and ILR has been granted.”

I went back and read it again.

And it didn’t change.

I opened the letter from the home office…

Dear Mr Berger

Your application for administrative review has succeeded.

You have been granted indefinite leave to remain. I enclose your approval letter.

“Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”

Continue to Part 4

Don’t Do Me Like That

I had a catch up with the “bad cop lawyer” this morning. When you submit a Pre-Action Protocol letter the Home Office says they “endeavour to respond to your letter within 14 days.” He’s had no response to the pre-action protocol letter we submitted 18 days ago. His advice, which I’m sure was only slightly influenced by his going on holiday next week, was to wait a bit longer.

I might have mentioned how much I love waiting.

To be honest, I’m mostly just taking the piss about the going on holiday thing – the reality is that we’ve got no leverage, so there aren’t many great alternatives to consider.

As this drags out, part of me is finding it increasingly difficult to not view UKVI’s silence as a not-so-subtle request for a bribe.

If I resubmitted my application, and paid them for expedited service again, they’d answer me “tomorrow” – so the extended silence seems to say “grease our palms and we’ll answer quickly. Or … don’t.”

So my next step will likely to be email our MP. Again.

Our MP? Again?

Yeah.

A few weeks after the Home Office refused the application, while looking to book a tour of the Houses of Parliament, Dawnise suggested that maybe I should contact our MP.

“What the hell,” I figured. Little point in holding back – I might as well hit it with everything I‘ve got.

So I sent our MP an email explaining the situation and asking for help.

To my surprise I got a response from her office saying they would talk to the Home Office on my behalf, and requesting some information about the application and the review request. I provided what they requested, and they said they would bring up my case during a scheduled call with the Home Office on Friday the 9th of September.

Then Thursday took an unexpected, but not entirely shocking, turn, and I assumed all forward momentum would be lost.

I got a (surprising) follow up from our MP’s office on the 14th saying “Our liaison at the Home Office has updated us to let us know that you have submitted an administrative review and your solicitor has submitted a Pre-Action Protocol, and that there should be an update on your case soon.”

It was the first (and so far only) confirmation I’ve had that any of the actions we’ve taken have been noticed. “Soon” was encouraging, but frustratingly vague. And the British version of “soon” and the American version of “soon” aren’t necessarily the same “soon.”

The message closed saying “Do keep in touch, and let us know if you would like us to chase this up again.”

I’m not sure they really meant that I should keep in touch, but given that we’re coming up on two weeks since that message, I’m willing to take them at their word.

Continue to Part 3

Stillness, Silence, Pipes & Drums

We paused this morning to watch as, after 70 years of service to her country, Queen Elizabeth II was memorialized and will, later today, be laid to rest. I was struck by the silence and the stillness of the honor guard, standing statuesque around the gun carriage as her coffin was transferred from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey.

The stillness disturbed only by the honor guard moving the coffin to the carriage, and the silence broken sound of pipes and drums.

I was reminded by the stillness of the last time we saw Her Majesty in a church. Still. Silent. Marking and mourning the death of her husband and companion. Alone.

Today, Westminster Abbey was full of mourners – family, subjects, and – I hope – some friends.

The service ended to the call of trumpets. And stillness. And silence.

And the sound of pipes.

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

Hamlet 1:2

Rest in peace.