If You Build It, He Will Come

I have been to the Promised Land. It existed briefly yesterday evening in downtown Boston. My boyfriend and I joined the throngs of families, friends, couples, and fans who ventured to baseball’s most hallowed temple, Fenway Park, for the annual “Futures at Fenway” event. We spent the afternoon watching the Lowell Spinners taking on the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, surrounded by young children witnessing their first baseball game, tasting their first Fenway Frank, stepping on their first peanut shell, limbering up in their first Seventh Inning stretch, and singing their first Sweet Caroline.

As the sun began to fade and play came to an end, children hurried to meet the Minor league players handing them a glove, a bat, a ball, or a program to sign, hopeful that one day they could reminisce about meeting a future Major League superstar. For many sleepy children with cotton-candy smeared faces this was the end of the night. However, for me, the real magic began with the sinking sun and the balmy summer breeze.

As the crowds thinned out we moved to seats just behind home plate, right in front of the big screen. Half an hour after the game finished, the screen lit up, and chatter stopped. People clapped as the familiar Universal Studios logo illuminated the big screen, heralding the beginning of the 25th anniversary screening of Field of Dreams. And so we watched Field of Dreams in the field of dreams.

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The movie has been a firm favorite of mine since visiting the Louisville Slugger Factory three years ago. But sitting in the MLB’s oldest stadium, a hot dog and fries in hand elevated the film to greater importance. Suddenly it all seemed true, and the words became prophetic:-

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good.“

In the wake of 2013’s Boston Marathon bomb, it was the Red Sox who came to represent the hopes and dreams of the city, bringing Bostonians together in celebration of their World Series victory. In the face of terror it was, as W.P. Kinsella’s book suggested, baseball that formed the constant.

In a world in which Facebook friends so often pass for real relationships, emails and texts for face-to-face communication, and in a city that has experienced terrorism in its heartland, Field of Dreams took me to Iowa, to a timeless baseball diamond. In Fenway Park a group of small boys, perhaps 8 years old, ran in front of us clutching their prized ball autographed by Lowell Spinners players. Illuminated by the light of a billboard, Old Glory swayed in the breeze, and in the distance the Citco sign bathed Kenmore Square in its red and blue rays.

The audience cheered as Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, drove through Brookline searching out Terrance Mann, and roared when his wife asked “Is Fenway the one with the big green wall on the left field.” And in the darkness, underneath that big green wall my boyfriend and I, both now fatherless, cried as Ray Kinsella got to throw a pitch to his father once again and introduce him to the granddaughter he never met. Like Costner’s, my father’s eyes were piercingly blue. As the credits rolled and I struggled to contain my mascara in a tear soaked tissue, my boyfriend voiced what we were both thinking, “what I wouldn’t give for 5 minutes more.”

In Fenway Park, July 13th 2014,for a few short hours the American Dream came to Boston. It may just be Boston, but it sure felt like heaven.

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Date Night at the Drive-In

Like many girls growing up in England, my first exposure to American culture was Grease. In the leafy playground of my all-girls’ prep school in Surrey, we played Grease everyday the year I was nine. There were of course a distinct lack of T-Birds, but that didn’t stop the girls pretending to grease their hair back with imaginary combs. We had Grease parties, we wanted pink satin jackets and prided Levi’s jeans, we sung into hairbrushes and milk bottles, and tried to shake our school dresses like Cha-Cha DiGregorio’s while reenacting the school dance scene. My mum patiently plaited my hair into tiny braids the night before any Grease party to get the perfect crimp the next day, and she gave me her black satin leggings of yesteryear, which were the envy of Sandy-Wannabies throughout Surrey.

DriveInGreaseIt thus does not really surprise me that I became a cultural historian specializing in the 1950s; it was just the ultimate progression from my childhood games. Once I realized that Drives-Ins were actually real and not part of a Grease fantasy world, I have been desperate to go to one. Luckily for me a quick Google of ‘Drive-In’ revealed that there was a 1957 Drive-In on Cape Cod, one of my favorite places in Massachusetts, if not the world. Best of all a double feature of A Hard Day’s Night, followed by Jaws was coming up soon.

DSCN0598We decided to make a day of it before heading to the Drive-In in the evening. It was our first trip of the year to the Cape, and this meant fried seafood was required. Chatham Fish Pier is one of my favorite places on the Cape. You can stand on the deck and watch the fishermen bring in the day’s haul, surrounded by seals diving and dancing in pursuit of the fishermen’s offcuts. I could watch seals for hours as they lazily turn circles in the water. They have learned that fish scraps will sometimes drift out of the overflow pipe from the boat and so wait with their mouths pressed to the spout in anticipation of a fish cocktail. They are totally un-phased by the human presence, and indeed seem to relish the opportunity to try out a new a backflip or somersault in front of an audience.

From their small shop location the Chatham Fish Pier Market DSCN0570serves up some of the best fried seafood on the Cape. Their fries are incredible, and the juicy shrimp are the size of large scallops. There is nothing quite like the first bite of perfectly crispy battered seafood to mark the beginning of Summer in New England.  

We got to the Drive-In at Wellfleet early, in fact we were the first ones there. Being total Drive-In novices we took the opportunity to drive from space to space to determine which would offer the best view of the screen. After trying a few we found the perfect spot, parked up and wandered over to the Mini Golf for a pre-movie game. I was not actually very good at Mini Golf, and my ability to hit the ball behind me provided much mirth. However, we had a good laugh and it felt like a suitable Americana date night activity. As the dusk settled in we wandered back to the car, stopping first at the snack shack to get burgers, fries, and popcorn. The theatre had filled up by the time we got to the car, and we watched the experienced Drive-In goers remove chairs, coolers, pillows and blankets and set up camp. The most impressive were the pick-up drivers who reversed into the space, filling the truck body with pillows and blankets for a family seating area. One family even had an air mattress to fit in the back of the truck to create a make-shift bed.  DSCN2528The Drive-In still has the original speakers at each space. However, digital sound now comes courtesy of your car radio rather than the aging speakers. With a large box of popcorn in the cupholder, a burger in hand, and feet on the dashboard we tuned our radio into the required station and waited. Soon the Star Spangled Banner played through our speakers while the American flag waved on the big screen, followed by the original 1950s movie graphics welcoming people to the Drive-In. I could not believe this was real, a total gem of Americana.

A Hard Day’s Night was the first in our double feature. I had never seen the film before, and we both really enjoyed it. We really had no idea what to expect and found the film much funnier than we had imagined. The plot is delightfully confusing, and the scenes jump around rather quickly, with a healthy sprinkling of British humor. Paul, John, Ringo, and George look so impossibly young, but the music still sounds amazing. In fact it sounded all the better for sitting in the car at a Drive-In.

The intermission offered an unexpected treat in my Grease inspired adventure. In Grease when Danny finds himself stranded at the Drive-In (branded a fool), the graphic on the screen behind him shows a cartoon hotdog and bun. In our Drive-In the same adverts for food appeared on the screen throughout the intermission. This was as close to Rydell High as I could possibly get!

Fotor090194310Our second feature, Jaws, is one of my favorite movies. I have seen it many times and it still terrifies me. Watching it on Cape Cod, an area with frequent shark sightings, made the movie even more exciting. At one point, my boyfriend grabbed my leg while the infamous “Dun Dun… Dun Dun” music heralded the presence of a shark. I nearly made a hole in the car roof I jumped so high. Along the lines of cars, cheers and “Wahoos” rang out as the beast was captured. The locals here know only too well the importance of keeping the beaches open. With Amity safe for another season our evening came to a close. Families packed up their fold-out chairs and pick-up truck beds, empty boxes of popcorn were placed in the bin, and on the big screen the hotdog and its bun danced. In a trail of headlights, we left the 1950s and returned to 2014. The Drive-In is a ticket to another world, and I can’t wait to go back there again.

Brake for Moose

New Hampshire is prime moose country. I lived in the state for two years and saw countless Moose Crossing signs, plenty of index“brake for Moose, it could save your life” warnings, indeed you can even get a car license plate with a moose on it. But the nearest I came to an actual moose was a lifesize wooden statue I drove passed once.

Last summer my boyfriend tried to rectify this sad state of affairs by taking me on a moose watching tour in Mount Washington, NH. We did indeed see a moose, and stayed in the Moose Brook motor inn, and examined a wide variety of moose paraphernalia in the gift shops. In total I believe we saw 4 moose. At first sighting I had to put my hand in my mouth to stop myself from screaming I was so excited. The second sighting I practically broke my boyfriend’s hand I was gripping it so hard when everyone else on the tour could see the moose but I could not.

It was a fantastic adventure. However, it was really a bit hillbilly. As moose can best be seen in the evening and the early morning the tour ran in the evening. Billed as a 3-hour tour we were a little surprised to find ourselves still on it 5 hours later, surrounded by increasingly hungry, angry, and sleepy children who had been promised a McDonald’s after the tour. Of course, being evening, the light faded pretty fast so moose were not visible to the naked eye. Our tour bus had accommodated for this handicap by affixing extra bright headlights and side lights to the vehicle. In England, health and safety would have had a fit. The doctored moose-mobile also featured large torches attached to the side of bus, which you could move around like searchlights to look for moose in the undergrowth. And so we, and about 15 other people, found ourselves in the wilds of NH and Maine, on a DIY moose bus with moveable strobe lighting. The bus windows, our tour guide boasted, were the cleanest in the business, giving us maximum visibility. As we parked up in Maine somewhere near Canada, faces pressed up against the pristine glass, watching the search light probe across the forest, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the “Sound of Music” where the Nazis searched the abbey for the Von Trapps.

While the searchlights did afford a greater field of vision, there was one serious design flaw with the moose-mobile. Of course the lights illuminated any wandering moose, but it also drove them straight back in the dense forest as soon as the beams shone on them! However, for entertainment value alone I would recommend this trip without question. Our tour guide wore a moose shaped hat for the entire tour, and gamely leaned out the window to adjust her prized spotlights while driving at the same time. And she had 5 hours of solid moose conversation, including far too many details about what they taste like. I believe you would call her a moose spotter, and it dominated her life completely. She socialized with moose spotters, exchanged notes and tips with local moosers, got extra powerful spotlights for Christmas gifts, and vacationed in moose watching spots. A fascinating character in my amble through American life.

With this trip I was able to cross seeing moose off my bucket list, however, now I was hooked. During her 5 hour preamble our moose spotter told us that the best place to go was Moosehead Lake in Maine. Fast forward one year and I found myself at said lake with my boyfriend who organized a serious moose watch for my birthday present. My present had included my choice of accommodation, and I chose camping as we had just bought a new tent. I like camping, but I do have certain limits on the level of rural I am willing to engage with. My rules are as follows- flushing toilet block (preferably one fully enclosed to keep out mosquitoes), hot showers, and an electrical socket somewhere on the camp so we can blow up the airbed. If possible I am also in favor of a fire pit. My boyfriend diligently found a suitable campsite for us and so we set off for Maine.

The drive from Boston to Moosehead took about 4 hours. As we turned off the highway we began to make fun of the quaint little towns, with a couple of stores and odd shops. We questioned how far away it was to the nearest Target, and laughed at how quickly we could drive through the town. Oh the folly of youth! If only we had known these towns were virtual metropolises compared to where we were headed.

We arrived at the campsite, chose our spot and began to pitch the tent. It was then that I began to hear the piercing, high pitched, barely audible sound of a mosquito. Now, I have become fairly intrepid in my latter years, however, this does not extend to mosquitoes. I carry the scars of a visit to Chincoteague Island, VA three years ago when my mum and I unexpectedly walked through Mosquito Death Valley while searching for wild ponies. I believe I have mosquito PTSD. As I watched the mosquitoes float around me like deathly angels, I began to panic. I flailed my arms around, thrashing at any insect within arms reach, and watched the welts appear on my legs as the buggers got me. My gallant boyfriend said I could wait in the car while he put the tent up, I feigned protest while gratefully dashing for the car. In retrospect, we should have practiced putting up the tent before we arrived. Struggling single-handedly with an 8-man tent you have never put up, on a hot day without eating was not really a good idea. However, somehow he did it.

When completed, we had to set off straight away for our moose tour. Google maps told us it was 30 minutes away, when we turned it on, our GPS thought 50. We needed to join the tour in 40 minutes. And so stressed, hot, and hungry we set off on a race against time. We did well for the first 10 minutes or so, and managed to make up some time. Then suddenly before our very eyes, our nice tarmacked road became a stone track. It’s ok we silently told ourselves, we will just have to slow down slightly, it can’t be a long road. It was. It was the longest stone road I have ever seen. The term road here is highly misleading, it was not a road but an ATV track complete with hills and craters. I thought we would die. Seriously thought we would die. Considered how long it would take people to find our bodies on this unused ATV trail in dense forest with no cell reception. I no longer cared about making the moose tour, I just wanted to live. Stones flew up as we attempted to navigate our Honda Civic up and down hills and craters. Scraping, piercing, denting noises I have never heard a car make before filled the air. In between the noise of the stones hailing on the car, and the chassis scraping on the rough trail, my boyfriend assured me he would pay for any damage. I silently prayed to live.

DSCN2463Aaron was worried too, visibly shaken in fact, and he is not one to panic. Finally after about half an hour of hell we came to a junction. Aaron’s voice wavered as he asked what to do- ignore the GPS and head for the tarmac road we both agreed. Amazingly, and I don’t know how, we made it to our moose guide, and even more amazingly our car sustained no damage. I really expected it to be sliced in half when we got out, but no. By this point it was 6pm and we last ate at 9am, so we wolfed down some sandwiches before joining our tour. Unlike our first moose encounter there were only 4 of us, and we went on canoes not a moose-mobile. As I mentioned I do not take chances with mosquitoes, and thus for moose watching I wore shoes, socks with my trousers tucked into them, with a t-shirt tucked into the trousers, a hoodie over the top, gloves, a baseball hat, sunglasses, and then tied my hood up so that only sunglasses and nose were visible. I also wore approximately one can of Deet bug spray- within two feet of a naked flame I would have gone up in smoke. My bf is much braver where mosquitoes are concerned, and thus rejected my offer of bug spray. Big mistake.

We arrived at the designated lake and were told to get in a canoe. I have never canoed before, or kayaked, or sailed, or done anything boat related except for a pedalo. I expected instruction but none came. I was, unsurprisingly, rubbish at canoeing. We lagged behind the other group, our guide beckoned for me to change direction as I looked on hopelessly, and Aaron begged me for more power as I broke into a sweat battling with the paddle, but unable to remove any of my copious layers for fear of bugs. I am sure there is an easy way but I never found the secret. My arms felt like they might break off. However, this cost was minute compared to the pay off when a moose descended into the water and swam right in front of us. It was an experience like no other, watching a creature that looked so foreign and prehistoric swim in the same water as I sat in. I had to fight not to make a noise. Moose have terrible eye sight with only peripheral vision, but incredible hearing and can hear noise a couple of miles away.
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The moose swam around serenely in the lake, seemingly undeterred by our presence. It dipped and dived, holding its breath under water for several minutes before rising for air. The moose are attracted to lakes for their salt and protein rich plants, and also for respite from their enemy the winter tick. The tick is rapidly decimating New England’s moose population, covering their bodies and living off their blood during the winter, leaving the moose anemic. In the water, ticks have learned to surround themselves with an airbubble so they don’t die. But in the water the moose can at least get some respite from the constant itching. We saw three moose that day, including the Bull Moose swimming in front of us. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life, worth every mosquito bite and harried car ride. It was otherworldly, and it felt like a religious experience watching the mighty moose baptize itself in the pristine waters of a tranquil lake.DSCN2367

After a couple of hours we headed back to land.  Without the bug spray Aaron had been decimated by black flies, his ears and neck were covered in bites and swelled up badly. We decided we should find a place to eat as a matter of urgency, given that we would get back to the camp too late for a fire. Sticking to tarmacked roads we searched for a place to eat. There was nothing, literally nothing. Not even McDonald’s has a branch in Mooselake. There was a Subway but it shut at 5. There was a garage we went to for gas, but after a fellow gas patron started making gun like motions with his hands at us we hotfooted it out of the station without looking for garage food. The GPS took us to various non-existent locations; former restaurants, empty fields, and people’s houses. We eventually found one place and ventured in, but after every single person turned his or her head to stare at us, we back tracked feeling very uncomfortable indeed. And so we found ourselves in the tent eating dry cereal and stale bagels.DSCN2409We had to get up at 5am the next day to go on a morning moose watch. I barely slept a wink, having been so cold I could not stop shivering the whole night. So we were not exactly happy campers when we set off. However, our wonderful guide soon warmed our spirits with her infectious enthusiasm. This time we were the only two on the tour so we got to see moose on foot following their tracks in the mud, and in a canoe. And perhaps best of all I didn’t have to paddle! I got to sit in the middle and moose watch and take photos to my hearts content. On our second tour we saw two moose walking down the road, and then an older female and a yearling in the lake. Again it was breathtaking, almost impossible to describe, but a privileged experience. Looking at a moose, it is hard to believe they exist in our world of computers, cars, and industry. They are not of our world or time. They are beautiful in their awkwardness, and humble and frail in spite of their massive size.DSCN2418
DSCN2453As our tour came to a close and we drove back to the tour center the heavens opened. Given that we planned to spent the day by the campsite pool this was problematic. However, as it was between the hours of 10 and 4 there were some places open in the small hamlet we were in. We had breakfast, and wandered around several stores with heavy wood cabin style furniture, and antler themed accessories. However, even walking slowly we saw the whole town in minutes. Most stores were empty and we felt guilty going in with no intention of buying, the shop workers looked so hopeful. One store had a sign in the window saying closed but if you wanted to visit phone the number below. Another had a broken side window and a message on the door saying the shop wouldn’t be open until the window was fixed. And so by about 11am we found ourselves back at the campsite, soaked to the skin. We raided the camp’s game room and returned to our tent with ‘Disney Trivia.’ We spent most the day playing said trivia game, until we were mildly hysterical.

As the rain began to ease off we took the opportunity to wander out in search of food, and found one bar open. Inside everyone stared at us, but we were becoming accustomed to this. We ate and noted how the lines between employee and patron were significantly blurred as people helped themselves to food and drinks. Returning to our campsite we build a big fire and sat talking, eating s’mores, and playing Disney Trivia until it was time for bed.

The next morning we packed up and returned to Boston. Along the way we tried to calculate how far away Moosehead lake was from any Target or grocery store. We pondered whether these people could get mail, and whether Amazon prime existed in Maine. We wondered how long it took before someone realized you were dead, and questioned whether you even bothered to phone an ambulance, or instead accepted that even a small injury would kill you as the hospital was several hours away. We drove past a sign outside a church that read “Congratulations Class of 2006.” With no municipal hub we questioned how trash collection worked. And we marveled at how many self storage centers there were in the area. As most people owned acres of land, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would need to store anything. We concluded that the plethora of storage and our question about garbage must be connected- perhaps they store the garbage.

Returning to Boston, it did not seem possible that this other world could exist so close to ours. But, as always, that is the beauty and miracle of my American journey. It includes not only Boston but also moose, moose spotters, mail-less communities, and graduation announcements eight years out of date.

Pashminagate, or how I got $79 of craft supplies for free.

I love suburbia. I love how much bigger our apartment is than a city apartment. I love watching young families, I love that the park opposite has a baseball diamond, I love going for walks in the woods, driving to the grocery store and strip malls, I love having the city within easy access without the associated noise and rubbish. I unashamedly love suburbia. This is the tale of the most suburban thing I have ever done.

If I were to compile a list of my top 10 things about America, I think Michaels craft store would make the cut. I first went to Michaels in October 2012, on the day I got my new car. We went to Michaels and bought a Disney Princess coloring book and Martha Stewart glitter glue, and then we went to IHop for lunch. That’s the American Dream right there.

For English readers, Michaels is like Hobby Craft but much cheaper, and much more variety. Plus, and frankly this will be hard for Brits to believe, there are always coupons. Every week there is a coupon on their website for either 40%, or 50% off one regular priced item, or 25% off your entire purchase. I recently discovered they will also take coupons from rival craft stores too. I regularly commandeer the services of my boyfriend so that we can double coupon, and have even sent him there on his own and directed him around the store on the phone. He was not the only male doing this at the time, another boyfriend was doing a similar service. And as the link below demonstrates, male Michaels widows are not uncommon. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/11/funny-michaels-sign_n_5484893.html

Michaels and I are like old friends now. We’ve been through all seasons and all after-season sales together. I’ve spent many an hour in the store, getting frustrated at just how many things there are I want to buy, and lamented that it is simply not fair that so many pretty papers exist. So when my local store started to rearrange the entire store layout I was not pleased. In fact I was so annoyed that I looked online to find out what was going on, and whether anyone else shared my frustrations. No one else on the internet seemed as perturbed as me. However, I did find out that the rearrangement was part of a massive store rebrand, and the store would be officially reopening that weekend. The online flyer promised crazy reductions for one hour at opening, with gift cards and prizes being given away.

And so I found myself at a ribbon cutting ceremony for my local craft store. As I pulled up to the parking lot, I could see a balloon arch around the store door, a podium, and some customers milling around outside. I wandered over and joined in with the other suburbanites making small talk with Michaels bigwigs shipped in from head office. We stood in the wind and listened intently as a Michaels employee declared the store open, the mic booming erratically as he talked. And then they started handing out $10 gift cards to the first 100 people going to the store. It felt like birthday and Christmas all in one. I raced to the scrapbook section to pick up the $19.99 paper pads reduced to $5 for one hour, I picked up a Project Life kit 70% off, a photo storage box for $1.20 instead of $7. Oh happy day!

It was while perusing the embellishment aisle that the idea first came to me. It was a sunny day, but being early May in Boston it could still be cold. Therefore when I left the house I had thrown a pink pashmina into my bag. When standing in the wind at the ribbon cutting ceremony I had wrapped myself up in the shawl, and thus my entirely blue outfit underneath was not visible. It dawned on me that if I removed said pashmina I would look like a new customer, and would theoretically be able to get another free gift card. And thus a plan formulated, I would check out of the store (paying with my gift card of course), go to the car and put my purchases away. Go to the dollar store next door, untie my hair from its bun, remove my pashmina and return to Michaels a new patron.

It worked. I think it helped that I bought a broom in the dollar store and thus the Michaels store workers were so distracted with my struggles to hold the broom that they never noticed I had already been in the store already, and handed over a gift card with a smile and friendly greeting. And so I purchased yet more seriously reduced scrapbook paper, and got $79 worth of merchandise for free! I felt a little guilty, I probably should have felt more guilty. But truth be told I was so pleased with myself that the guilt didn’t really kick in.

I went home and called my boyfriend, having pre-warned him by text that I would shortly be phoning him with couponing news and he must be impressed. He played his part very well, but to be honest I don’t think he has ever really recovered from laughing at the fact that I went to a ribbon cutting ceremony like it was a normal thing to do. He tells me I should automatically get citizenship now for being more American than most Americans. I punctuated the rest of my day with frequent trips to my craft corner to look at my new, free, pretty paper. I love suburbia.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…

The opening line from my favourite American book seems like an appropriate title for my first blog post here. In 2008 when I first moved to New Hampshire,  my Mum gave me a vintage copy of Gone With the Wind in which she wrote: “To Tessa, On the eve of her American adventure With love from Mummy.” 2008 was, of course, six years ago, so why start writing now?

I guess this project began three years ago really when my Mum and I blogged about our two month roadtrip across America. This made me realize that an American adventure could make a good read. Also the blog gave me great personal benefit as I love to look back on our thoughts and writings, so even if I am the only one to read this blog it is worth it.  Although I have been here for several years, 2014 marks a few important landmarks. Firstly, I became a US tax resident in March. While this might not seem to mean much, it does mean considerably less paper work, and being entitled to refund benefits which makes me feel much more established and less alien. Then In May I completed my PhD comprehensive exams, and so months of stress, reading and revising have now ended, and I’m entering the home stretch of my degree. As I begin to work on my dissertation I thought a blog might be a good way to get some of my ideas down and share my thoughts with a wider audience.

Then there is today-7/7/14-the day my Dad would have been 65. It is so hard to picture the 49 year old I last saw 16 years ago in retirement age, but I suspect that he would be spending a lot of time in the US with my Mum living their own American Dreams. He loved this country, its music, and its spaces, so starting today seems like the right thing to do. He can’t have a retirement, but I can have a life here and share it with others.