You know how you create a picture of yourself over the years, a kind of tableau of your past, in your own mind if in no-one else’s? I do that a lot, as you will know if you ever read these overly long year-end missives!
My self-portrait had a mid-point, 1980, or more precisely December 8, 1980. I was half way through law school and Ronald Reagan had already been elected President when John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. The stuffing was knocked out of me and millions of others. My youth ended on that terrible day, at 28, and adulthood began. A life comprised of two halves.
This year, I realized that a third half has begun. No dramatic event announced it, and I’m not sure when exactly it started, but I am now beyond adult. The nest has emptied, for better or worse, I have almost retired (it’s hard to say no to old friends!), and I have found Lisa, an incredibly kind companion, so bright and sexy, to share these golden years.
In adult mode, I still feel bad at times for not accomplishing as much in my profession as I could have – being a solid journeyman should feel like enough, but doesn’t. And I must acknowledge profound marital failures and estranged stepchildren.
But Peter Jackson’s epic documentary on the Beatles, Get Back, helped me realize that life should not be buried in its inevitable disappointments and dull aches. I had shared the global view of the breakup of the band in 1969-70 as being different from the fun and frolics of their early years, the fun and frolics which had helped make my childhood end in a wonderful place. Instead, they were miserable, fed up and cranky together.
But it wasn’t like that at all in the documentary. Sure, there were the frustrations that we knew about already, but they created and collaborated beautifully in front of intrusive cameras, lived a hippy dream even as the seeds of its disappearance were sown, and fooled around and laughed way more than they bitched and whined.
Was it their third half as a band? I don’t know. But life in the present has been exciting and labile, almost adolescent again, my habitual regrets and worries have dissolved into more frequent luck than I deserve, and retirement, expected to be dull and lifeless, has proved entirely different.
Lisa and I began the year puttering around at home, fitting bike rides (and occasional runs for Lisa) in between serious lockdown restrictions and breaks in the clouds of the Breton Atlantic weather. Lisa, who had lived in California all her life before moving here, found some battery operated heating socks which helped her in the cold!
Our bike rides were our only regular pandemic rule breaking. The law only allowed us to exercise off the property for one hour at a time, and then to go no further than one kilometer from home. Can’t do a real bike ride under those conditions! We allowed ourselves two or three hours, and went up to about 12 kilometers away from home, almost all on country lanes or canal towpaths.
The difficult part was that we had to state the time and date of our departure on the affidavit which the French government required us to complete each time we left home. The pandemic is heaven for bureaucrats! Not one of our hundreds of these affidavits was ever checked.
There was also the upside: local tourist spots were open without their customary crowds. St Malo and Mont St Michel looked and felt completely different, more peaceful and less commercial, with all their restaurants closed except for take-out, and only a few tourists taking in the sights. And most of them were French, with a few Dutch and German thrown in; it was disconcerting hearing so few people speaking English.
In January, the nationwide curfew was extended to 6 pm to 6 am, which killed off any remaining nightlife and complemented the massive store closures announced the same month.
Only stores selling food and other necessities, carefully prescribed, were allowed to stay open, which had the perverse effect of closing almost all mom and pop stores and bolstering the massive supermarket chains.
When the moms and pops went justifiably apeshit, the government could have allowed them to sell directly themselves. Instead, they obliged the supermarkets to close their non-food aisles and shelves, where of course they advertised the availability of the same products for collection outside the supermarket! The moms and pops slumped in their chairs, heads in their hands.
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Shannon, Lisa’s older daughter ( a little younger than Nick) who lives with her husband Greg and two daughters, Rosamund (three) and Mabel (five), near New Haven, Connecticut, called her in February. She had been working part-time as an environmental lawyer for a while since her second maternity leave, and now wanted to return to full-time work, remote of course, on March 1. Greg too works remotely, for Google, but the two girls weren’t starting pre-school until April 1.
Lisa immediately volunteered to help with the young family’s transition to two parents working full time and two little girls at pre-school. The opportunity to spend a month looking after these two adorable and dynamic (Mabel, the five year-old, in particular is always on!) little girls may also have been a motivating factor!
She duly flew to JFK, and I followed her there a few weeks later. She found that Connecticut was ahead of the curve in vaccinations, and had already had her first Covid shot when I arrived. And she had somehow arranged for me to get my first shot the day after. Yay Lisa!!
Lisa worked wonders with the little girls, spending eight hours a weekday entertaining them and playing with them (only Rosamund, the three-year old, napped), and then often preparing dinner for the parents. I had a fair bit of work, and bought a bike at Target so that I could go on bike rides through the woods where they live and into New Haven.
The pandemic had its effects, of course, notably that our planned visits to New York City and Boston on the weekends no longer seemed like a good idea, with museums and other tourist attractions closed.
Yale was all but closed down too, and I couldn’t visit the law school as planned. An Assistant Dean explained that neither faculty spouses were allowed in nor faculty members who lived in New York State or Massachusetts. He felt that these moves, on top of curtailing live classes, were helping keep the infection rate below that of U. Conn. Likely true, but what kind of education was that?!
From Connecticut, we flew to California, for a few weeks of family visits and sightseeing. Only one of my sons lived in California this year, Alex, and we had a lovely dinner with him and Haley in Santa Barbara, where he was holding down his first real job in tech and finance and she was completing her Master’s in Special Education. Both of them are definitely on track!
On to a couple of nights in Curry Village in Yosemite National Park, one of the treasures of the West. Curry Village is the home of the tent cabins in the park, and a good example of our luck this year was finding an open reservation for a heated tent cabin two days before we arrived! We hiked to the top of Nevada Falls on a gorgeous spring day.
Lisa watched two of her son Liam’s track meets at Santa Cruz High School. She used to coach track at Holy Cross when he was there, and they have a special bond around running. At the last of those meets, she spoke with him for about five minutes and they shared a big hug. What you can call a high spot of her trip! She glowed for days after.
That was only the second time that she had spoken with Liam since her libertarian ex had kicked her out of her home in April 2019, with a little help from well-meaning but easily manipulated participants in the psycholo-legal divorce process. Between them, those participants had kept her distant from her son for long enough to enable her ex to separate him from Lisa and her entire warm Irish-American family. Very sad, for both Liam and Lisa.
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Back in France, our D-day celebrations started a little early, when we met an American couple, Marianne and Carver McGriff, who were having dinner at the next table on a restaurant terrace in St Germain des Prés. There were still almost no American accents in Paris, which was why we said hello, and it turned out that they had needed help from their US Senator in order to make this trip.
They needed that help because the pandemic was restricting French entry for most Americans, and yet Carver’s first visit to France had been to land on the Normandy beaches when he was 19! The French invite him back regularly to honor him in D-Day celebrations. They got that right! He was captured after the invasion and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. Carver McGriff, now a Minister, is one tough cookie, and we were delighted to be in the audience for one of the events where he spoke.
On June 6, we visited the new (it was formally opened that day) British D-Day memorial at Gold Beach with Linda and Stewart Paterson, friends from Brittany. The Memorial “records the names of all those under British command who lost their lives in Normandy between 6 June and 31 August 1944.”
Linda’s mother’s boyfriend in 1944 was one of those who landed on the Normandy beaches and died shortly thereafter. After a while perusing the thousands of names engraved on the pillars of the Memorial, the Patersons found his name inscribed on one of them.
Rifleman E. L. C. Wallace was 22 years old when he died. Linda was able to tell her ailing 95 year-old mother in Glasgow that his name was there, engraved on a beautiful memorial overlooking one of the landing beaches, and that she had found it.
Nick’s 35th birthday came around in July, and I drove down to Nantes to visit him and Charlotte, to be greeted by the news that they are expecting a baby, in February! How thrilling is that! I was a little concerned because my generation didn’t say anything to anyone until after the third month, but finally here was a grandchild on the way! It has been a long wait!
The pandemic has been hard on small business owners, like Nick, even though his and his team’s skills remained in demand for much of the time. He and Charlotte have just bought their first home together, on the outskirts of Nantes, also in Brittany, and have been busy moving in, and preparing the house and themselves for the new addition. They have both mothers living relatively nearby, in and around Paris, and will thus have good on-the-job training. I will offer advice, if so requested! Go for it, you two!
Didn’t see much of Charlie this year either, mostly because of pandemic restrictions on our ability to visit England. He was here when I left for California in August, to transition the cats to a life with less human presence, but not for long while I was here.
He’s still working on at least two full-length feature scripts, one started in 2020, one started this year, and other ideas less elaborated for now. Plus he had to take a job in a pub (earlier in the year) and for a TV production company (toward the end) to cover living costs. And somewhere during the course of the year, Gabriella made her appearance, and they now share a room in a busy house by Canary Wharf in London!
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At the end of June, Lisa had returned to California to take a temporary job and handle her long-lasting divorce issues: when your ex is trying to steal your children and everything else that the marriage produced, as her ex is, divorces take longer and cost a lot more! I followed her over about six weeks later, and we ended up spending most of the rest of the year in the US.
She worked full-time for a while, living in her parents’ home, the same home where she had attended high school, sorting out a small business’s books, saving money for the divorce (the most expensive professional involved is the cryptocurrency expert, not the tax lawyer!) and generally being responsible and adult.
And then we let it rip!
We threw a first anniversary party, which doubled as a birthday party for Lisa, at Light Rail Studios in San Francisco, just about the most perfect festive space that you can imagine, which fortuitously is owned and operated by Lisa’s cousins Elton and China.
We were taking a bit of a risk, because of the pandemic, but wanted to celebrate with more than the ten people who were allowed to attend our wonderful wedding the year before. We were careful in our invitations, not wanting to ask people who were clearly more comfortable staying home, And the delta variant was in full swing as the date approached, which did cause a few late cancellations or no-shows.
But plenty of friends and family showed up, from as far away as Boston (yay Jim Blakey!), New Haven (yay Shannon Laun!), Vancouver BC (yay David Sandles!), Phoenix (yay George and Bonnie Paul!), and San Diego (yay Alex Stock and Haley Hamman!), and we all had a great time, mixing and mingling.
We much appreciated the goodwill of all who attended, especially because the media were full of the delta variant, which must have made the party appear risky. And special plaudits to those who flew in, each facing several more potentially risky environments. You all made us feel great!
One of the advantages of holding a party in a recording studio is that management has an in to the music scene, and Elton managed to cobble together a live band, who had never played all together before, but who were very tight. One of our guests, Josie, actually knew one of the musicians in another context, always a good feeling for the hosts! And her wife, Kitti, offered us Beatles memorabilia, which were of course very much appreciated. “All you need is love,” said the badge!
There were chairs and tables outside for those who preferred to avoid the interior, and the high ceilings and large spaces inside comforted those who were worried about the virus. Of course, the suitably full bar also helped people with any anxieties!
Party over, our travels began again, first on an Amtrak train, the Coast Starlight, north to Seattle, to visit Fergus and Samantha on Whidbey Island for a few days. Fergus almost set fire to the woods around his home, with a little bonfire that flared up unexpectedly, and Samantha fed us an excellent dinner in her home overlooking Puget Sound, before we flew back to California and picked up the Yaris.
We drove South; Disneyland beckoned! Dylan, my great-nephew (age 12), has a thing for Disney, and his hard-working parents (Courtney is a judge, and Antony a real estate partner in a law firm) are way too busy and a little too far away for him to visit the park often. So we took him! What joy, seeing the Magic Kingdom through an eager and happy child’s eyes again!
Dylan led us from Splash Mountain, his favorite ride, with its wonderful soundtrack of songs – “zip a dee do dah, zip a dee day” – through the inimitable Star Tours, Space Mountain (does that roller coaster ever bounce you around, and in the dark too!) and Pirates of the Caribbean (incorporating newly PC pirates, frankly a bit silly) to the amazing new “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” area of the park.
Galaxy’s Edge itself is a masterclass in a kind of primitive décor and high-tech fantasy. Dylan had explored the area through YouTube videos, and knew exactly where things were and exactly what he wanted from the gift shop there. I can’t remember what it did or what it’s called, but he loved it!
Then Lisa and I followed our own paths for a while, so that she could go back to Northern California on the off-chance that she could see Liam for his 18th birthday. That didn’t happen: Liam took advantage of his coming of age to quit his local public high school and move to an “alternative” school, which created its own set of issues that she needed time to address.
Meanwhile, I continued traveling in my favorite way, on a train, in this case to Flagstaff, Arizona.
My trainspotter’s instincts were honed while attending Haslucks Green County Primary school, in Shirley just southwest of Birmingham, between the ages of eight and eleven. I would take the local train into Birmingham Snow Hill, formerly the city’s Great Western Railway station, on summer Saturdays, when frequent special trains were taking holidaymakers from the industrial north of England to resorts on the South Coast. And bringing them back a week or two later! I’d spend the entire day on the platforms at Snow Hill, grabbing a bite to eat in a station cafe, and taking note of the engine numbers of the steam trains that hauled those holidaymakers.
Sitting in my office In Brittany, I had discovered VirtualRail Fan on YouTube, and had explored cameras pointing at railway lines in England (where Crewe and Dawlish were my faves), Canada (Revelstoke BC on the Canadian Pacific) and all over the US.
The engine numbers are no longer the object of the exercise – perhaps they never were in the US – but those trainspotter instincts led me again and again to the Virtual RailFan cameras at the Flagstaff train station, the cameras which seemed to have the most trains passing by. I would leave that YouTube window open with the sound on while reading the news or writing, and as soon as I heard the level crossing bells start clanging, I’d switch to that window and watch the massive and frequent Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains roll by, mile after mile of containers to and from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles trying to fix the supply chain to the heartland.
It was time to visit the Flagstaff station in person, and I rode the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to spend a couple of very pleasant nights there. The station is on old US Route 66, literally, as was my hotel: the mother road, as they call it, making its way from Chicago to California.
I did a little exploring around the quaint old town center, populated with hippies, but the trains were the thing. I staked out the station and, just like online, those mile-long trains kept coming, with various configurations of locomotive power aggregating 20-25,000 horsepower per train. And when trucks fitted with train wheels rolled through on the tracks to check their geometry, I was thrilled!
Trains are my own personal Disneyland.
Back to the Bay Area, taking the Southwest Chief and, after that terminated in Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight again, this time including the stunning stretch along the Pacific coast around Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
But not for long! Lisa announced that a friend had a spare bedroom in the condo that she and her husband were renting for five nights on the Kona coast. Would we be interested?
You’d better believe it! I had never visited Hawaii! We booked the flights and car rental, and off we went. The best part of this inflationary era of the pandemic is how cheap flights have been almost throughout; long-distance travel made easy.
What an extraordinary place! This was not the Hawaii of surfers, skyscrapers and broad white beaches. The Kona coast is on the dry side of the Big Island, called Hawaii, the youngest island of the group, home to three well-known volcanoes, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The sand tends to be dark, as it is made up principally of lava, and the landscape is lava interspersed with patches of bush and grass. The other side of the island, around Hilo, is very wet and tropical in its landscape and plants. Just two hours away!
It’s a hippy kind of place. We scrambled over lava rocks to get into the ocean, and relaxed in the condo’s hot tub. We hiked to waterfalls and ponds in the jungle, and watched an active volcano smoking from the edge of its crater. We must go again, maybe next time to Waikiki.
A few more days with Lisa’s parents, and then back to Connecticut to visit Shannon, Greg and the girls for Veterans Day. Both parents were off work for a day or two, giving us a long weekend together. Between rain showers, Lisa built a fort with the girls in nearby woods.
Thanksgiving was spent with more of Lisa’s hospitable cousins, Julie and Greg, in Rocklin, between Sacramento and Auburn, California. A lovely meal, friendly people, and non-stop (American) football on the tele! For my birthday, we made another visit to Santa Cruz, one of several this year, for dinner with a few soccer parents. None of us have that particular role any longer, but it was a good one!
We enjoyed regular evenings out in San Francisco (the Balboa Cafe in the Marina district was our favorite), on Santana Row in San Jose (where Straits was always fun), and in Marin, where one of our more fun evenings was spent with Rory Little, an over-achieving law school friend. Lisa and I were fully vaccinated, and did not want to hide away, out of fear or for any other reason. We’re out there kinds of people, if you haven’t figured that out yet!
But the high spot of our Bay Area excursions was in the daytime, with John and Toni Fore. I had worked with John twice during my career, first in New York City for a few years in the 80s, and then at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati in Palo Alto, the leading high tech law firm, during the internet bubble years (1998 -2000; the firm nurtured Google at its start, and David Drummond, Google’s first General counsel, was a former WSGR partner). John too has retired, and is able devote more time to his hobbies, ham radio and sailing.
He and Toni invited us for a cruise on the Bay in a 45 foot yacht moored at the St Francis Yacht Club that they have a 1/7th interest in. “Well, yes, I think that we might be able to fit that in our busy schedule!” And we had a fantastic time, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and back, under the Oakland Bay Bridge around Treasure Island, and back. They brought along one of their co-owners, another lawyer, this one spending a lot of his time working for the Democratic Party, and together they seemed effortlessly competent at making that baby go! Back in the dock, Lisa opined that she had never had such a good time without sex, drugs or rock’n’roll!
That was our seenager year: lots of fun and travel, sandwiched between miserable bouts of divorce and alienated children. The travel took precedence, overcoming the inevitable sadness. As a Facebook meme said recently:
“love is the feast of life, and travel the dessert!”