On the patio, Hemington, England, 9am, 22 May
There’s a young lamb in the neighbor’s yard, bleating and prancing about, welcoming the day. Her name is Charlotte, a tribute to the recent addition to the royal lineage, courtesy of Prince William and Duchess Catherine. Apparently this is a very British thing to do, naming things after the First Family, even if the process involves the christening of farm animals. Regardless of how her moniker may have come about, Charlotte is very happy, darting hither and yon, her fancy collar winking in the sunlight, letting loose with those joyful bleats in anticipation of what the day may bring.
I feel a bit like Charlotte at the moment.
Granted, I’m not doing much bleating and prancing, as my participation in such activities could quickly lead to restraining orders and probable physical therapy. I’m behaving in a more sedate manner, sipping a fine English tea and waiting for the gentle caffeine to awaken the parts of me that slumber harder than others. (The body is no longer a unified contingent at my age. Instead, it’s a loose confederation of bones and organs that only grumpily get along when it is absolutely required. Gone are the days of youth, when you could leap out of bed and conquer the entire world before noon.) Now I awake in stages, with naps in between to reconsider the benefits of arising.
But Charlotte and I do share one thing, the excitement over what the day is going to bring. Charlotte, naturally, has simpler expectations. Perhaps there will be any interesting change in the type of kibble in her food bowl, or maybe she will run across something fascinating in the deeper grass near the apple tree. If she’s feeling a bit more philosophical, Charlotte can gaze over the wooden fence at the cows lolling around on the nearby hill, reflecting on what they might have done with their lives that resulted in them having a much bigger playground than she has.
As far as my own reflections, I’ve been doing quite a bit of that lately. This entire journey that Terry and I are currently on, two weeks of running about in a mad frenzy of doing as much as possible, is a celebration of sorts, a recognition of several achievements happening to coincide in a relatively short time period. Our home base during all this cross-country gallivanting is the Aten-Shearwood Manor (named such by me, and not the result of any pretentions on the part of the owners) wherein reside the lovely couple, Raz and Rosanna. The four of us, collectively, are all turning 50 in roughly the space of a year.
I was the first to stumble across the mid-century mark, a development that took place this past January, despite my best efforts to prevent such from happening, uttering Wiccan-style incantations in midnight cemeteries and urging my elected representatives to pass legislation that will allow me to remain in my Forties forever and ever, amen. (These desperate measures failed, of course, because I’ve never looked good in hats, especially pointed ones, and Texas congressmen are hell bent on never doing anything that actually benefits the constituents in the lower tax brackets.)
Raz is the next one scheduled to cross the 50-yard line, followed by Rosanna, with Terry bringing up the rear, because he has made some sort of pact with the devil that he will always be the youngest person in the room, whenever possible. This quadruple cracking of The Big 50 is cause enough to embark on a multi-nation tromp, wherein we are spending astonishing amounts of money just to over-sample locally-produced ales whilst sitting in darkened pubs, with exuberant conversations occurring in several languages simultaneously. But we have additional logs to throw on the celebration fire.
Terry and I will have been together for 15 years this coming Tuesday. (This is both mind-boggling and satisfying; I would not be where I am in my life right now without him.) Raz and Rosanna have been married for five years this very day. The four of us first realized this Great Convergence was impending whilst standing on the patio of a bar in the Oaklawn section of Dallas last year, whilst watching some drag queens flamboyantly navigate Cedar Springs Road in what may have been a gay-pride parade but was most likely just another Tuesday evening. And thusly the idea was born, that Terry and I would join Raz and Rosanna at their home in England and then travel about, a lark that we un-creatively dubbed “The 50/50/50/50/15/5 World Tour”.
Terry later realized that this coming May would also mark the 30-year notch of his best-friendship with Raz, a meeting of like souls that blossomed in 1985 Odessa, TX, with Yaz playing in the background and parachute pants billowing in the sandy, gritty winds of scorched-earth nowhere. When Terry brought this additional figure to the table, I initially wanted to point out to him that one shouldn’t try to change the name of the tour after the brochures had been printed. But I relented in my well-established anal-obsessiveness, and our adventure is now known as “The 50/50/50/50/30/15/5 World Tour”, an appellation that is annoyingly cumbersome and has no actual meaning to anyone except the five of us.
Ah, yes, the five of us. The population of our entourage is about to increase by one. As I type and Charlotte bleats and Rosanna is in the kitchen, laboring over the creation of homemade pasta and meatballs, Raz and Terry have been dispatched to Heathrow Airport a few hours south of here. They have the responsibility of retrieving my best friend, Tiffany, star of stage and screen (at least in my own reality-stretched world of writing). Chances are that Tiffany will be a bit snappish at first, after having endured a bitter flight path that included a 6-hour layover and a 9-hour final leg. Hopefully the drive back will soften her, marinating as she will in the stunningly-beautiful greenery of the pastoral English fields and the promise of an eventual adult beverage.
A news flash of sorts, as I just received this text from Terry: “The package has arrived. We are proceeding back to the country.” And so it continues, this milestone day amid days of milestones. Tiffany will soon be a part of the mayhem as we acknowledge the various things we have managed to accomplish in our lives, despite our sometimes questionable efforts and decisions, including yet another reason for this day to be worthy of a meandering blog post:
After nearly thirty years, this is my last day of employment with Verizon.
Interestingly enough, my eyes got a bit wet as I watched those words appear on my laptop just now. The mistiness is not because of sadness over my departure from the company (although I will greatly miss some of my co-workers, even though they may not realize it; I’ve never been the best at sharing my emotions). But rather, this brimming emotion is coming from a solidifying realization: I am free.
Free, finally, after years of yearning, to write full time. All the time, every day, whenever I want (even if I don’t do so in complete, grammatically-correct sentences). It’s overwhelming, this feeling.
As is the concept of retirement. I’ve already joined AARP, mainly to make them stop sending me a reminder brochure every two weeks concerning my age-defined level of decay. (I don’t want to be responsible for the death of so many trees just so you can print pictures of happy people using walkers to get to bingo at the VFW.) And recently, as we’ve flown to and from Belfast and Amsterdam and what have you, I’ve being scribbling “Retired” in the occupation box of all those Declaration Forms you have to fill out when you cross borders. The word stares up at me, foreign and strange. Retired. I’m not used to it yet, especially since the final click of the closing door didn’t happen until today.
But I’m getting there, the acceptance. Just this past week, I had a rather nice experience in Belfast. (It thrills me to write a sentence like that, by the way.) We had finished up our visit to the Titanic Museum earlier in the day, and we were in a bit of a somber mood. (Just as we would be after touring the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam a few days later. There have definitely been some emotional arcs on this journey, as there should be.) We needed something more light-hearted, so we headed for The Crown, a pub in downtown Belfast that has been there forever and has quite the reputation.
Once inside the walls of this famed establishment, we were presented with a tableau that I don’t remember having encountered before in a bar. (To be fair, since we’re talking about bars and therefore alcohol, it’s entirely possible that I had been in similarly-arranged situations and my lack of recall is the price you pay for guzzling octane cocktails.) In any case, there was your standard bar counter on the left side, with patrons milling about in the middle section, clamoring to get the attention of the bartenders before they absolutely died of alcohol deprivation.
On the right-hand side, there were these clever wooden booths, with actual doors which controlled access. The booths had ornately-carved walls, but no actual roofs, so, technically, taller patrons (Terry and I) could peer over the wall-tops and review the inner goings on (which mostly consisted of startled people glaring at us until we went away). In essence, though, the booths were relatively private, creating a row of little atmospheres. I was fascinated, even more so when I learned, later that evening from a well-lubricated lass that, back in the day, wealthier patrons would use the booths for sexual conquest. From within, they could push a button, which rang a bell or some such, and in a minute or two a prostitute would appear bearing a pint of ale and presumably no panties.
Naturally, everyone in the crowd around us was lusting mightily to gain access to one of the booths, both for the privacy and the opportunity to push that special button to see what happened these days when you did so. (For the record, a bell still rings, but absolutely nothing transpires after that. Unless you keep pushing the button, and then the doorman will track you down and firmly push you out the front door.) So our chances of getting beyond the proverbial velvet rope were on the negligible side. But at least we could drink, to ease our anguish and pain.
Before we finished our first pint, one of the doors flew open, and a group of men rushed out to parts unknown. (They didn’t share details, we didn’t ask.) Our four heads peeked in the opening, seeking to confirm availability, only to discover three young women perched in one corner. (The booths were surprisingly large inside, or at least this one was, comfortably seating 8 or 10 people.) We started to back out, apologizing, but they quickly shooed us in. “Join us!”
We hesitated. Typically, in my past life, I would never have agreed to such a freefall. Even Terry, who has the gift of being able to talk to anyone, anywhere, gave pause. Two seconds later, a “what the hell” sensation gripped us and we piled through the little door, slamming it shut in the faces of other hungry patrons trolling about, poised to leap into action should the timid Americans fail to seize the moment.
This proved to be a mighty fine decision on our part.
Our impromptu hosts were quite accommodating. Turns out they had been in our shoes just a bit ago, hovering about and waiting for privy chamber access, when this same door had been thrust open by the now-departed quartet of men, beckoning them inward. The girls were now paying it forward, torch-bearers of camaraderie. At some future time, as is the case with most of our travels, I will delve deeper into what transpired during the next few hours, for the experience was a fascinating mix of awkwardness and cultural variances and revelations and brief, tentative bonding. It’s a story that could stretch across multiple chapters in one of my typically rambling travel tales, possibly become a standalone novella. But we don’t have time for that right now.
Suffice it to say that the women were from Australia, late twenties, good friends for years, navigating the world via intriguing jobs in far-flung places and reacting to whatever circumstances cropped up wherever they were at the time. They hadn’t been following the same path for some time, each of them currently residing in different countries, but they made sure to cross paths as often as possible, even if it was one night in a Belfast bar where hookers once strutted about as ribald Avon ladies come a calling.
For me, the highlight of the night came down to a single bit of the conversation. One of the girls, whose name escapes me at the moment (I vaguely recall that one of them went by “Sam” but this was not her), focused in on me because proper etiquette requires that you engage everyone at one moment or another, whether or not the target wishes to be a focus. She chose to re-discuss my impending retirement, a topic that had surfaced earlier in the evening when we were struggling to come up with interesting introductory comments. And in the midst of this uncomfortable one-on-one (I don’t do well with polite patter, I’m much better with written rather than spoken words), Unnamed Girl simply said this: “You can do anything now. Anything.”
And although I had been quietly envisioning this moment of release for years, it seriously did not hit me until that moment. Anything. I was at the precipice of anything, and there were so many ways to go from here. Act III. Infinity and beyond.
But that was days ago, and I’ve been processing since then, changing subtly, letting the immenseness become something familiar, and now the elusive, shimmering day is here. Raz and Terry have returned from Heathrow, with Tiffany spilling out of the car with them, and we are making preparations to walk to the local pub, a very English excursion. Who knows what might happen next, and that, whether or not I’m ready for it, is now my new navigation, my North Star.
Signing of now. It’s time to get started on my anythings…