Jersey

A couple of weeks ago – and right at the end of the incredibly-busy development cycle that preceded Three Rings‘ Milestone: Krypton – Ruth, JTA and I joined Ruth’s mother on a long-weekend trip to the island of Jersey. I’d been to the Channel Islands only once before (and that was spent primarily either in the dark and the rain, or else in the basement meeting room of a hotel: I was there on business!), so I was quite pleased to get the chance to visit more “properly”.

The Bay of St. Helier, looking out towards Elizabeth Castle.
The Bay of St. Helier, looking out towards Elizabeth Castle.

Of particular interest was the history of the island during the Second World War. Hitler had been particularly pleased to have captured British territory (after the islands, which were deemed undefensible by the British, had been demilitarised), and felt that the Channel Islands were of critical military significance. As a result, he commanded that a massive 10% of the steel and concrete of the Atlantic Wall project should be poured into the Islands: Jersey was, as a result, probably more heavily-fortified than the beaches of Normandy. In the end, this impregnable island fortress was left until last – Berlin fell before Jersey and Guernsey were liberated – and this was a factor in the great suffering of the islanders during the occupation. We visited the “war tunnels“, a massive underground complex built by the German defenders, and it was one of the most spectacular wartime museums I’ve ever experienced.

The main entrance to the Jersey War Tunnels: a tunnel cut directly into the mountainside, painted as a hospital entrance.
The comparatively-small main entrance to the Jersey War Tunnels doesn’t even begin to do justice to the warren of criss-crossing corridors, rooms, and bunkers that span the underside of the hill.

The tunnels are, of course, an exhibit in themselves – and that’s what I expected to see. But in actual fact, the care and attention that has gone into constructing the museum within is breathtaking. Starting with a history of the islands (in a tunnel filled with the music and postcards of the 1930s), you can just about hear the sounds of war, echoing distantly from the next chamber. There, you walk through a timeline of the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, and see how – even with the enemy just barely over the horizon – Jersey still marketed itself as a holiday destination for Britons: a place to escape from wartime fears. Then comes the evacuation – the entire population given barely a day to decide whether they’re staying (and doubtless being occupied by Germany) or leaving (and never knowing when or if they’ll return to their homes). And then, the story of the occupation: framed in a wonderfully “human” context, through exhibits that engage with the visitor through storytelling and hypothetical questions: what would you do, under German occupation?

JTA and Ruth play adventure golf
As a result of politically-correct amendments in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s become unacceptable to use the word “crazy” to describe minature golf courses with obstacles.

Certain to ensure that the whole trip didn’t turn into an educational experience, we played a fabulous round of adventure golf under the glorious sunshine of the Channel Islands. I did ever so well, up until the moment where I lost my ball and, swiftly afterwards, my ability to play the game in any meaningful capacity whatsoever. Eventually, Ruth and I tied, with JTA just a little behind… but we were all quite-embarrassingly well over par.

Ruth lining up an adventure golf shot
The landscaping was actually really impressive. The fake cave had successfully fooled a family of ducks into taking up residence: we found a nest full of confused-looking ducklings when I explored around a corner, looking for a lost ball.

Jersey is apparently moderately famous for its zoo. Ruth’s mother had apparently been looking forward to visiting it for years, and – despite it only being of a modest size – had opted to spend an entire day there, and considered taking another half-day, too. Once the rest of us caught up with her there, we certainly had to agree that it was a pretty impressive zoo.

A pair of komodo dragons in an enclosure at Jersey Zoo
A young pair of komodo dragons use their forked tongues to smell a sack of meat that has been hung in the centre of their enclosure.

I was particularly pleased to visit their pair of very active young komodo dragons, their bat cave, their tortoises, and their remarkable aye-ayes – Jersey hosts one of very few successful captive aye-aye exhibits anywhere in the world (and let’s face it, aye-ayes are a fascinating enough species to begin with).

Ruth under a dome in a meerkat enclosure.
The crawl-through tunnel and dome within the meerkat enclosure seemed like a good idea, but once inside it became apparent that it was basically a tiny, airless greehouse… and no closer to the animals than we were from the outside.

Ruth, her mother and I also got out for a little geocaching, an activity that I’d somewhat neglected since last summer. It turns out that there’s quite an active community on the island, and there were loads of local caches. We hit Not much room? first, which turns out to be among the best cache containers I’ve ever seen (spoilers below; skip the remaining photos if you’re ever likely to go ‘caching on Jersey), and certainly a worthy find for my 100th!

Not much room? - there's a geocache hidden in this picture.
We were certain that we were within 5 metres or so of the cache, and were – in accordance with the title – looking for something small, or concealed in a crack. But this cache was smarter than that. Can you see it in this photo?

Later, we set out for View over St Aubins (which I’m sure must have been at a great viewpoint, once, until the trees grew taller and cut off the view), and a quite-enjoyable puzzle cache called Dear Fred… all in all, a great excuse to stretch our legs and to see a little more of the island than we might otherwise have.

A mushroom-shaped geocache
Here it is! Did you find it? Amazingly, Ruth’s mother was the first of us to spot it, despite this being her very first geocaching expedition. Yes, that really is a wooden mushroom with a micro cache hidden within it.

I’m pretty sure I spent most of the holiday, though, catching up on sleep (interspersed with tiny bits of Three Rings work as we came to the tail end of the testing period – the WiFi at our B&B was, by-now-unsurprisingly, faster than that which we get at home). Or drinking. Or one, then the other. After a hard run of Three Rings development, coupled with “day job” work and the ongoing challenge of buying a house, I was pleased to be chilling out and relaxing, for a change.

Jersey Quaker Meeting House.
We also got the chance to visit Jersey Quaker Meeting House: a light, modern building near the middle of St. Helier, sandwiched discretely between the grand hotels and tall townhouses of the island’s capital.

Most-importantly, I reflected as we passed back through airport security on our way back to the mainland, nobody felt the need to kill anybody else the entire trip. Ruth’s mother and I, for example, haven’t always seen eye to eye (something about me ‘stealing’ Ruth from a life of monogamy, or otherwise being a bad influence, might have been an early issue), and it’s not unknown for relations to be strained between her and her daughter or her and her son-in-law, either. But even as we bickered our way through the departures lounge at Jersey Airport, at least I knew that we’d all survived.

Liz gets her bags searched at airport security.
Amazingly, I didn’t hold us all up by getting stopped and searched at airport security, which is usually my speciality when I travel. However, Liz did so on my behalf, by failing to remove everything metal before she went through the metal detector.

All things considered, then: a successful trip. Fun times were had, lots of exciting history was learned, tortoises were prodded, and nobody killed anybody else, however much they might have been tempted.

Hello 2013: Goodbye 2012

This post has been censored at the request of Sundeep. See: all censored posts, all posts censored by request of Sundeep.

This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.

2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.

RT @misterjta Dear 2012, Fuck off. Sincerely, JTA.
My retweet of JTA’s sentiments, shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, pretty much covers my feeling of the year, too.

It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.

My sister Becky with Puddles, on a train.
My sister Becky with Puddles, both younger and more-foolish than they eventually became. I don’t know why Puddles is wearing a t-shirt.

The sudden and unexpected death of my dad while training for his Arctic trek, was clearly the event which had the most-significant impact on me. I’ve written about the experience at length, both here on my blog and elsewhere (for example, I made a self-post to Reddit on the day after the accident, urging readers to “call somebody you love today”).

My dad, climbing Aladdin's Mirror in the Cairngorms.
My dad, climbing Aladdin’s Mirror in the Cairngorms.

In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).

Sandals (with socks), shorts, checked shirt.
My dad’s clothes for his funeral. My sisters and I decided that he ought to be dressed as he would be for a one of his summer hikes, right down to the combination of sandals and socks (the funeral director needed reassurance that yes, he really did routinely wear both at the same time).

Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.

Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S****** suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.

VARLEY Margret Of Doddington Lodge, Hopton Wafers, formerly of Newcastle-on-Clun, on April 28, 2012. Funeral Service, at Telford Crematorium, on Tuesday, May 22, at 2pm. Inquiries to LINDA DAWSON Funeral Director Corvedale Road Craven Arms Telephone 01588 673250. Originally printed on May 17, 2012.
The notice of Ruth’s grandmother’s death, as it appeared in the online version of her local newspaper.

Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.

As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.

My sister Sarah and I at the christening of a bus named after my dad. Click the picture for the full story.
My sister Sarah and I at the christening of a bus named after my dad. Click the picture for the full story.

When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.

A hillside. A sunset. A fast, hard cycle ride. A beer and a Mars bar, just like old times. Wish you were here. Still miss you, Dad.
On the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I cycled up a hill to watch the sunset with a bottle of Guinness and a Mars bar. And sent this Tweet.

You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.

A delicious-looking BLT.
It’s been a while, old friend. A while since I used this delicious-looking photograph in my blog, I mean! This is the sixth time… can you find them all?

Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).

The "F" is for "Fuck me you're going to put a scalpel WHERE?"
The “F” is for “Fuck me you’re going to put a scalpel WHERE?”

I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…

Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).

Ruth's pregnancy test, showing "pregnant".
One of the many pregnancy tests Ruth took, “just to be sure” (in case the last few were false positives). Photo from Ruth’s blog.

As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.

A kitten.
In Ruth’s blog post, she’s used kittens to make a sad story a little softer, and so I have too.

But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.

Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.

I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.

Ruth and her father at High Green.
A few days before the miscarriage became apparent, Ruth and her dad survey the back garden of the house he’s rebuilding.

And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.

Here’s to 2013.

Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.

Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.

Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.

Puppy Eating Time

My boss, Simon, and his family have recently gotten a new puppy, called Ruby.

Ruby, my boss's new puppy. Aww.

Apparently the little girl’s full of energy and bounce and is taking up a lot of time while she gets settled in to her new home. While talking on an instant messenger with my boss earlier this week, he was telling me about how he’d had to get up in the middle of the night and take her for a run around the garden, because the little tyke was still full of beans and not sleepy. And that’s why I made one of those fabulous moments in instant messaging: when you type something that can be read multiple ways:

Dan: Puppy eating time?

Obviously, I had meant:

Dan: [Is the] puppy eating [i.e. consuming a lot of your] time? [Poor you, you're not getting much sleep.]

Just three words. So simple. But a split second later the other, inevitable way of reading it became clear:

Dan: [Is it] puppy-eating time? [I want to eat your puppy!]

A puppy sandwich: probably the best way to eat a puppy - dressed with a little mustard and lettuce and presented in a bap. Or a french stick, if it's a dachshund.

Shit. That’s not what I meant! I tried to correct myself:

Dan: I don't want to kill your puppy!

Then I realised: what if my boss didn’t read it the wrong way at all? What if he already understood that I was asking about how much time and energy the new family member was taking up… if that’s the case, then I’d just made myself look like a psychopath who’s contemplating killing his family pets. I backpedalled:

Dan: That came out all wrong. I mean: of course I don't want to kill your puppy - I just didn't want you to think that I did, in case you thought that for some reason.

That didn’t help. This was just going from bad to worse. Then, salvation came:

Simon has reconnected.
Simon: Sorry, had to reboot - did you get my message about our new puppy?

Uncommon Occurances

I didn’t sleep well; I woke up several times throughout the night. On the upside, I have a strong recollection of three distinct yet inter-related dreams:

Dream I: Alex and the Accident

I came into work as normal and spoke to Alex, my co-worker. He’d been in some sort of car accident in which he’d hit and killed a man in an electric scooter. There was a lot of ambiguity about whose fault it was – the man had apparently accelerated his scooter right out into traffic… but Alex had been driving too fast at the time.

Significance:

  • My mum’s partner’s son, I recently learned, was in a car crash a week ago.
  • At work yesterday my boss was telling me about expensive repairs to his car.
  • I re-watched the shocking new don’t text and drive video yesterday.

Dream II – In The Red

I was a Western spy during the Cold War, attempting to infiltrate a Soviet University. With some difficulty, I was able to become enrolled at the University, but soon came under suspicion from the administrative management (all Party members, of course) after my luggage was found to contain a British newspaper. The newspaper contained details of Alex’s car crash, from Dream I, and this was later re-printed in the local newspapers, but with a suitably communist spin.

Later, after my cover was blown, I made plans to flee the country and return to the West.

Significance:

  • Second dream references the first dream.
  • The University campus was familiar; it was a little reminiscent of the University Of Worcester campus where I was at BiCon almost three weeks ago.

Dream III – Going To Work

I woke up, got dressed, and went to work. I discussed with co-workers Alex and Gareth a dream I’d had the previous night, in which Alex had crashed his car (as per Dream I) and about a film I’d seen the previous evening, about the infiltration of a Soviet University by a Western agent (as per Dream II). I explained that apparently the film was supposed to be about drugs, but maybe I’d failed to understand it because I didn’t see how it was supposed to be about drugs at all.

A client of ours paid a deposit on a reasonably-large job we’d quoted for, and I begun laying the foundations of the work as described in our technical specification.

Significance:

  • Third dream references the first two dreams, but as different media: one as a dream, the other as a film!
  • I’m expecting to get started on a new contract within the next couple of weeks, similar to the one referenced by the dream.

It was quite disappointing to be woken by my alarm and to discover that I still had to get up and go to work. While I’m usually quite aware that I’m dreaming when I’m dreaming, I somehow got suckered in by Dream III and had really got into the groove of going to work and getting on with my day, probably because I’d so readily assumed that Dream I was the dream and therefore that the same mundane things happening again must have been real life.

I was prompted to wonder, momentarily, if I might still be dreaming, when an unusual thing happened on the way to work. Just after I passed the site of the old post office sorting yard, about a third of the way to the office, I came across a woman crouched in a doorway, reaching out to a blue tit which was sat quite still in the middle of the pavement. Still half-asleep, I only barely noticed them in time to not walk right through them.

The bird must be injured, I thought, to not be flying away, as the woman managed to reach around it and pick it up. I stopped and waited to see if I could be of any use. Seconds later, the little creature wriggled free and flew off to perch on top of a nearby fence: it was perfectly fine!

The woman seemed as perplexed at this as I was: perhaps we both just found the world’s stupidest blue tit. I double-checked the clock on my phone (this is a reasonably-good “am I dreaming?” check for me, personally, as is re-reading text and using light switches) – but no, this was real. Just weird.

Edit: changed “Callbacks:” to “Significance:”. This is the format in which I’ll be blogging about the dreams I share with you now, I’ve decided.

Fry’s Dog

Remember Jurassic Bark, Futurama series four, episode seven? It’s the one in which Fry’s dog, Seymour, left in the present-day when Fry gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the far future, sits outside the pizza parlour where Fry had worked, waiting for him to return. Turns out it’s based on a true (sad) story, of a dog called Hachiko. Read about Haciko’s life here.

Thought I’d share for all the rest of you Futurama-junkies out there.