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Bucket List Birthday!

It’s half time, and the people in the seats around us had all ran off for a hot dog and a beer. It was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, below freezing, and 75,000 of us sat out in the bitter cold for two hours on average to watch this game on a Tuesday night. The same thing was happening all over Europe as the EUFA Champions League 2010-11 season progressed.

The background to this photo is the “Theater of Dreams,” named by Sir Bobby Charlton, who has spent enough time there during his fortunate life to know what it’s about. Well okay, in mere physical terms, it’s a football ground nestled between a canal and a railroad line on the outskirts of Manchester. In name, it’s Old Trafford, in age, it celebrated its centenary in 2010, and in function, it’s the home ground of Manchester United Football Club.

That’s where the dreaming starts. This occasion was a EUFA Champions League game between Manchester United and Valencia of Spain. I’ve been wanting to go and see them play at Old Trafford for quite a while now. Never did go as a boy living in England. Living in California doesn’t facilitate matters, but neither does it make it impossible in the modern world.

Wayne Rooney taking a free kick, with Dimitar Berbatov (9) close to being offside. The latter had scored five goals in one game the previous week, and celebrated during this game by spending half the game off-side. Rooney hit the bar with a shot at one point, and the entire North stand next to David and me chanted “Rooney,” the way that Springsteen fans chant “Bruce” in a concert. You can’t hear that when you watch the games on TV.

This year, I checked during the summer whether there would be a game on my birthday. There was going to be a EUFA Champions League game on either the Tuesday or Wednesday, and it would either be a home game at Old Trafford or an away game somewhere else. I put the plans on hold, and left it to fate.

In October, fate decreed that the game would be on the Tuesday, my birthday, at Old Trafford. I had the airline ticket within three days. David Milsom, 44 years a friend, took on the task of arranging the tickets at Old Trafford, including a dinner with the game. He made it so easy.

And it all went so smoothly. David booked us into an old Victorian hotel walking distance from the Stadium, and drove us both up there, arriving in time for drinks at the pub before we walked across to the ground.

The English have long known that global warming would inevitably pass England by, however real the phenomenon is in the rest of the world. The worst snow in years fell all over the UK this November and December, and here is some of it viewed from the Trans-Pennine train going from Manchester to Newcastle.

I found a shirt in ManU’s colors from the 1960s and ’70s with a picture of George Best on the front and his number 7 on the back. Snapped that up! It sported one of George’s best-known quotes: “I spent my money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered!” He was one of the first rock star football players, and the sublime member of the team’s holy trinity of that era, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best. They’ve cut out the word “holy” nowadays when referring to that threesome, for obvious reasons, but that’s how I remember them.

The game was total entertainment. The TV gives you what feels like a grandstand view, but that’s an illusion. You do have a great view on TV, but only of one or two players at any one time. Football is the quintessential team game, and in a good game 12 to 15 players are moving at any one time. In the stadium, you see all this movement, or if not all because things happen very fast, a whole lot more than you see on TV.

After Manchester, I did a little genealogical research in Newcastle, one of the cities where mum’s family originated. This sulking snowman was outside of the City Registry Office, where I located the birth certificate of Walter Duggan, one of my maternal grandmother’s brothers, born in 1895. Very satisfying.

Plus there’s the sound of 75,000 pairs of lungs, over 70,000 of them supporting the home team, sounds that the TV engineers put all their energy into suppressing so that the commentators can be heard. And they sing together, those lungs, and chant together and howl together. Everyone in the stadium felt a part of something bigger.

Viewed from the stands, this game was oddly messy at times, as messy as some of the games my sons play in, and simply beautiful at others. These players typically earn a fortune for good reason. Ryan Giggs came on for the last few minutes, proving yet again that old guys rule. He has been playing for Manchester United since 1990, a total of 850 games for the team, more than any other player ever. He turned 37 a week before this match. His hamstring has been weighing on him this season, but Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s coach, still plays him, which he would never do for old time’s sake. That’s not in Sir Alex’s vocabulary, “for old time’s sake!”

From Newcastle down to Leeds. Adrian and Carol and moose bathing in the lights at the Frankfurter Weinachtsmarkt in Leeds. This Christmas extravaganza, called the Leeds Christkindelmarkt locally, brought German products and foods to industrial England, not forgetting German drinks. We spent an hour or two there.

A bucket list birthday. A couple of people asked if at 58 I wasn’t a bit young for that (thanks a bunch!!), and that’s a fair comment. What made this birthday a little foreboding was that dad died only seven weeks after his 58th birthday. I’ve lived more cautiously than he did: for example, I gave up smoking almost 13 years ago, and dad never could quit. I enjoy regular exercise: he enjoyed a good, heavy meal.  But still, same genes, same possible health problems.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been letting myself go and do the things that always get put off until next year, and am almost grateful that the juxtaposition of my age and dad’s give me some sort of justification. In the ultimate scheme of things, letting yourself live a little extra before you can’t do so any more makes nothing but sense.

Not a great photo, but it’s surprising that I was able to point the camera at all after three mulled wines! Carol wanted to take a turn on the market’s carousel, and Adrian’s health did not permit him to accompany her. So I volunteered. You can get a feel for the market lights in the photo. Going round and round in the chill night air under all those lights, it felt like Christmas had arrived early. What a feeling!

Adrian Wynne was the friend at school whom my parents wished had attended school somewhere else. He arrived at Sir William Borlase’s School, Marlow, in the Sixth Form when I was 15, and was the friend who turned me on to Led Zeppelin, playing “Whole Lotta Love” and the rest of Led Zeppelin II very loudly on his stereo at home. I used to ask him to turn it down at first, until I got it. Every teenager needs a friend like Adrian.

I met him on the concourse of Leeds station at 5 on the Wednesday evening, and we immediately went into a pub for a drink. He filled me in on his health (not good). We moved on to meet Carol, his lovely wife, an Irish woman from Liverpool with a great Irish sense of humour, in a nearby pub filled with old dark wood and warm liquor. We toasted John Lennon, another Liverpudlian with Irish ancestry on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. It was freezing out, literally, and so I was a little surprised when they suggested an open-air market as the next stop.

Jumping ahead a little, I met Tom at St Pancras International station in London, where he arrived on a Eurostar train from Paris through the Channel Tunnel, on Friday afternoon. We were going to visit the friends of his where he was staying that weekend (his dad’s B&B in Marlow apparently lacked appeal!), but first he wanted to ride on a double decker London Transport bus. So we jumped on one toward Knightsbridge, and sat at the front of the top deck. Here are department store Christmas lights on Oxford Street.

The Leeds Christkindelmarkt turned out to be a gem of a place on a frosty winter’s evening, in particular because of the mulled wine, which was flavored (in my case with cherry, raspberry and something else which I forgot fairly quickly, in that order). Adrian said that the mulled wine also included schnapps. By the end of the mulled wine the evening no longer felt so cold, and Carol and I even took a ride on the market’s carousel!

The next morning, I was in pretty bad shape sitting on the couch in Adrian and Carol’s living room, after my morning bath. Adrian looked down on me benevolently, nodding his head: “you,” he announced, “are clearly out of practice!” This is true, Adr. I never have been able to keep up with you!

Here’s Tom where the bus dropped us off, outside Harrods, London’s premier department store. We had a fabulous time browsing, although our purchases were limited to two discounted boxes of Christmas cards. I had been looking for Christmas crackers, but the cheapest on display were $125 the dozen. When I asked the cashier if he had any others stashed away, he pointed at boxes lined up behind him, for $1,800 the dozen!

Thursday was a train marathon, which I needed because there was ton of work to do that whole week. I was delighted, of course. Working alone requires weeks like that, to cover the other weeks that are not like that. With email access at every Starbucks and on some trains, I kept on top of it, almost. The trains definitely helped. I had a Britrail pass, and so additional miles added no cost, and could plug in and work on all the trains.

First stop was Exeter in Devon, quite a jaunt from Leeds, where I had a coffee in St David’s station buffet with Ian Summers, a good friend from Solihull School starting in 1964. Ian is a physics professor at Exeter University, and filled me in on the disgraceful state of finance of higher education in modern England. The new government has pulled the plug, leaving the universities to call on their students to pay for themselves. In short, it sounds a lot like California!

I asked Ian if, looking back on his life, he would have done anything differently. As he is the person I have known for a long time who has kept closest to the passions (an overused word nowadays: in his case, it is accurate) of his childhood, I expected a simple “no” in response. Ian loved music, maths and physics when we were at school together, and has spent his career pursuing all three, with sound one of the central foci of his research and a continuing hobby of building obscure musical instruments.

Ian Summers, already teaching physics at Exeter University, at home with one of his home-made musical instruments in 1978. Yes, that is a used milk carton!

But I didn’t get a simple “no,” suggesting that Ian himself has been considering this issue recently, as I have. What he actually had to say was quite a lot, along the lines of: “even if I had made different choices, I’m not sure that the final outcome would have been any different. I am who I am, when all is said and done, and nothing that I decided differently along the way would have materially changed the final outcome.”

This is the continuation of a dialog that we have shared over the years. Need I say that his point of view here horrifies me! But rather than responding now, let me do what Ian did as our coffee drew to a close, refer you to the film “Sliding Doors,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah. The film is a wonderful illustration of parallel lives separated by something as banal as whether she actually caught that tube train, or was stopped by its sliding doors.

Tom wanted to see the Gaugin Exhibition at the Tate Modern on the South bank, and so off we went. It was fabulous. Philosophy meets art, “aware that ‘we are not everything’;  . . .  even the philosopher does not inhabit the whole of his language like a secret and perfectly fluent god.”

From Exeter on to other trains along the Great Western main line to Reading, Maidenhead and then Marlow, where I was booked into a warm and comfortable B&B 100 yards from the station. More work done on the way. One regrettable impact of the work was that I was obliged to put off visiting Aunt Angela on Friday morning to get more done before meeting up with Tom in London.

After touring Harrods and the West End with him, I took him and his friends out for a good dinner in Ladbroke Grove, and then avoided overstaying my welcome by rushing off to catch the last train from Paddington back to Marlow.

A billboard on Holborn tube station, reminding us that many want to vacation in the opposite direction!

On Saturday, after more work in Marlow, Tom and I went to the Tate Modern, the relatively new art museum built in a disused power station on the South bank of the Thames just upstream from the rebuilt Globe Theater. We regaled in the Gauguin exhibit in progress, and then strolled off across the Thames and past St Paul’s Cathedral on our way to Tom’s friends’ house, where we were invited to dinner. If I could invite them, then they were going to invite me. Great deal, guys, and thanks a bunch!

Not a week after leaving, and having completed as much or more work as in the average week, I flew back to San Francisco refreshed and invigorated. There’s nothing like a little traveling to give you a new lease on life!