Three weddings and a tweeting cockwomble*

Published: December 11th 2018
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*For a definition you will have to read to the end....

Here in America 2017 merely confirmed our worst fears and I simply couldn't find the motivation to reflect. This year has not seen a miraculous turn-around, but at least - selfishly - shortly we will no longer have to witness the debacle first hand.

It has been and is bad. We've experienced family rows and friends turning on friends. We've seen the nepotistic orange troll deliver on his reverse Robin Hood promises, take babies from their parents (and then lose them), gush about his really great (really great, really very good - he does have all the words) relationships with foes (who merely see him as an easy mark), denigrate loyal institutions, and, most recently, support the totally unsuitable. And yes, actually we do have a number of self-confessed Trump-supporting friends, there are almost certainly others who have not 'fessed-up, and we have, without doubt, during our lengthy immersions in rural Pennsylvania, formed good transient friendships with dozens of other similarly delusional souls. There is, however, absolutely no way that the opposing camps can decorously discuss their allegiances: the Democrats believe the Republicans have lost their moral compass, the Republicans in turn feel the Democrats are blinded by prejudice (against their liar-in-chief) and are misguided bullies (abetted by a biased Press). PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service) recently interviewed voters from both sides of the abyss prior to the then upcoming mid-term elections. One GOP supporter stated that he was most satisfied with developments since 2016, his only concern being the potential for civil war...

You guessed it, we went fishing.

One such three day get-away was notable not only for the piscine abundance, but also for our neighbouring campers. I have considered at length whether relating this particular tale is in poor taste, sensationalist, or merely trite; but, on balance, I do feel that it does say something about how society (and not just American society) deals with these matters. In my opinion our current approaches do not best serve the individuals concerned, nor the communities involved or the public at large, indeed they merit serious re-analysis.

On arrival at the lake most pitches were empty, although the one directly next to us was anything but, it resembling a refugee camp. Peculiarly, a not so discrete distance away, there was also a Ranger sat in his semi-concealed vehicle, seemingly keeping an eye on developments. Foolishly it was not long before a good-sized carp was creating a racket as I slowly fought it shore-wards; and our neighbours came to investigate. There was a powerfully built young man; a similarly aged woman with a waif-like child in tow; and an older, toothless woman of indiscernible age. We were soon familiar with their back story. They were homeless. The man was, he felt compelled to tell us, a convicted rapist and had just been released from prison. The sex had been totally consensual but she was, just, a minor; he wasn't, just. The little lad was his, although this was the first time they'd ever spent together; the younger woman was his girlfriend; and the older woman his ex-crack-addicted mother. The grandmother was working a dawn shift distributing newspapers to outlets. He had personally found no one who would consider employing him, someone on the sex offenders' register. And yes, the Ranger in the bushes was there because of him: he must always declare his status before exposing himself to the public; and there is, seemingly, always some body monitoring his interactions.

Whether we totally believed their narrative or not, it was certainly delivered with both candour and passion. Regardless, they latched onto us for the next two days; the surrounding camp sites filled but they hardly left our sides. When they did leave us in peace the child would invariably wander back to us where he trailed me incessantly - even following me, up to his neck, into the water. Hell, at one point they disappeared - without notification - for several hours leaving the child in our care (yes, without doubt they do need support with their parenting skills). Indeed it may have been at this point that two other men appeared, jumped into the neighbours' two cars and drove off in them. It later materialized that the cars were on HP, behind on their payments and uninsured: they'd been reclaimed. Now the homeless were also car-less and, more to the point, stranded..... with us.

The next morning the (now jobless) grandmother asked if Ali might run her (I don't drive - here) to a shop to buy cigarettes? Of course she would. Ali got into the car, the grandmother didn't, but the son did, and before I could think of an excuse to join them they'd departed. Cue an extremely unpleasant, rather nauseous fifteen minutes waiting for them to return. But safely return they did; and, in all honesty, they were, as evidenced by us, simply a tragic family caught up in grim circumstance who were so grateful for our limited support and advice.

Eventually, and admirably, the park staff rallied - actually they had little choice as new punters were due and next door's lot needed clearing before their arrival - and a huge trailer was deployed, piled high with all their worldly possessions and off they were whisked to another temporary campsite. We actually felt quite sick as to their directionless plight. Nevertheless, finally - I wasn't encouraging/subbing them to break the law (strictly no drinking in National Parks) - we were able to unwind and partake in a much needed beer. Literally minutes later and a golf cart-like buggy had drawn up and a park employee was approaching us cradling the first, of several, bundles of wood. "Thank you so much for being there for that family, you made our lives so much easier. Please accept this wood as a token of the Park's gratitude". Following our bemused thanks and "Errrr, we're British, what were we going to do, be rude? We're just grateful for your intervention; we thought we might have to adopt them" we got on with the fishing, and drinking.

Post-dinner and dark, we were chilling around a roaring fire-pit when a Ranger materialised at my shoulder. I stood up and chatted only for him to announce that he could smell alcohol (no doubt off my breath). Fortunately Ali was in the process of brewing a pot of coffee. But really, what was he going to do? Charge and evict their supposed good Samaritans for doing what every other camper - often not so discretely - does? Anyway, on seeing the evidence of boiling kettle and loaded caffettiera he grudgingly dropped the matter and wandered off to be overly officious elsewhere.

The next morning the fish demonstrated their solidarity and literally threw themselves upon my hooks. Every ten minutes another screech of an alarm heralded my rush into the water and subsequent retrieval of a weighty fish. By 10am a small crowd had assembled; really, there was a viewing gallery. The only thing missing was applause with each capture - something I would have appreciated more than the ensuing, time consuming, rounds of random people posing for photographs with a large fish. One man - married to a Malay lady - was very keen for me to keep a smaller specimen, should I catch one, that he'd return to his extremely appreciative wife and would be on the menu that night... I did, he did, she did and they sent us photos of her scrumptious-looking culinary abilities as proof.

Sadly, although we had given them contact details, we have no idea how the homeless family's situation was resolved.

Meanwhile, back in State College, we were busy making other new friends. Of these one in particular stands out as he is a rather good egg: Ken is retired and spends several periods a year volunteering at various deserving projects around the world; he personally funds and collects further financial donations from friends to provide dozens of uniforms (necessary for attendance) for underprivileged school children in Pokhara, Nepal; whilst 2018 also saw him plough and plant an acre of his land with corn that was subsequently donated to local food banks. Other notable new chums included Liverpool FC-supporting Eric and Mary-Jo who wowed us with several excellent boozy breakfasts (they've even been known to import black puddings to make us heathen Englanders feel at home) as we and other football fans (well, soccer-tolerating Americans) rose early (given the time difference) for big Premiership games. Not least among these was the - at that point - undefeated Manchester City (Ali's team) against Liverpool themselves. True to form Ali's personal support resulted in a humiliating defeat for her boys and our hosts were most keen that she'd return for the re-match.

Yet another new friend came up trumps by introducing us to The Jade Garden, a Chinese restaurant. The food is fine, nothing outstanding, merely fine; but what (who) is outstanding is the young trilby-sporting mixologist, Skarik, who runs the bar. We are not, often, spirit drinkers, but this man is truly gifted: Arsenic and New Lace is not one of his own inspirations (originating from Raine's Law Room, NYC) but the combination of Hendrick's gin, violette and dry vermouth in an absinthe-rinsed glass, accompanied by a thimble of port is pure heaven; although Ali's go-to is an Afternoon in Madagascar that combines vanilla vodka, fresh lime, mint water, cinnamon, cardamon and a splash of soda. Actually, we have sent the details of the latter recipe (that, to our minds, shouts Indian) to an old friend, Balakrishnan; he being an old friend (part of the Bangalore crowd Chai, chillum, chapatti) who is now somewhat of a mixologist/proprietorial god at The Old Fashioned Bar, back in Bangalore, India. If you happen to be in Bangalore do not miss out on his genius; we can't wait to get back.

So, apart from my initial tirade directed at (almost) half the populace of this faltering country (yeah, OK, let's not mention Brexit) we seem to have far too much lovey-dovey shite going on here... Surely I have some vitriol to impart, and indeed I do. Whilst I have moaned about Pennsylvania before "Crappy Valley" (hmmm, and also given it grudging praise), I don't believe I have ever mentioned the - perfectly timed for this blog - abrupt transition between humid (Summer/Autumn) to dry (late Autumn/Winter) that sees the onset of universal.... urgghhh, and how I hate to say it, post-nasal-drip. Yeah, that is a thing, a thing that pretty much everyone endures: for a month or more thick snot continually rolls down the back of your throat necessitating incessant swallowing, clearing your throat and/or coughing. It is grim. Although even grimmer - to my mind - is one particular solution: the Netti-pot. Apparently this apparatus is something that you deliberately employ to introduce fluids, their nature is unclear to me, down your nasal passages. I am equally unclear quite what you are then meant to do with these alien fluids, but I was pretty sure that waterboarding was no longer de rigeur, even down Cuba-way. And then there is the sad evolving state of downtown State College itself: a notable number - particularly notable as they were already about as abundant as Spix's macaw or the Wyoming toad - of adult-friendly establishments have closed (The Rathskellar bar; Spatz restaurant; Zola's restaurant) and even an apparently very popular (with students at least) Austrian restaurant, Herwigs. In previous years such establishments were typically replaced by another much needed Dunkin' Donuts, Papa John's pizzeria or Sheetz; but the current cull is to clear large swathes of land on which to build swanky upmarket blocks of student flats. The once cutesy Americana low-rise main street is now loomed over by concrete monstrosities: peevishly shoddy town planning.

Ahhh, did I say civilized discussions were impossible between left and right here? Only this morning PBS threw up a curve-ball: here at Penn State University the two student presidents (notably both female) of the Democratic and Republican societies are, apparently, best friends. Maybe there is hope after all.

The last two years haven't been entirely spent camped out around lakes and rivers with rod in hand. Ali continues to run (a notable first-in-age-group at 2017's Thanksgiving Turkey Trot; she baulked at this year's as -12C does not lycra shorts entice) and swim and indeed has been teaching special needs children how to do just that. She has also been home to the UK for the weddings of our two oldest nephews (work commitments restricting me to only the first). I did however make a sartorial effort for Mike and Zoe's wedding donning, inexplicably, a kilt for the occasion - not sure how that stands with cultural appropriation, but I am a bit partial to an airy plaid. Regardless, both were spectacular and very touching events. At the second, Matt and Laura's, there were a dozen bridesmaids and a similar number of groomsmen, each out-numbering the total number of guests at our wedding 25 years ago (I have a strong suspicion that we might have celebrated our Silver anniversary by... going fishing). There have also been some very enjoyable and appreciated visits: the Broadheads (yeah, they had to endure some fishing); Di (our delicious, well... palatable, some might say, Scottish lush); and, really rather proudly for us, the newly titled Professor Gaze (whom we both adore.... almost as much as we do his Claire); whilst from the Caribbean we had the pleasure of hosting the Freemans (they escaped fishing, it being Christmas and the lakes being frozen). And, among those visits, a special mention has to go to our man, Louie: the sharpest, coolest, knowingist, (slightly cheating at Top Trumps), teen we know. Yep, and to Lo, who totally rocks in
simply everything she does. We love you both.

But, it does have to be said, fishing has remained the key to the retention of some degree of sanity, if not sobriety. Simon and I have continued our Carp Letter from America (CLfA) blogs for the magazine Carpology, although my personal contributions have been embarrassingly modest. And we have made contact with a number of carp-heads, both American and ex-pat, that are noticeably increasing year-on-year here. Indeed, our American pal John (once merely our landlady's son, now immortalized in print as "the Neighbour") is almost hooked; whilst we haven't over-looked the opportunity for introducing nippers (borrowed) to the sport either. Hmmmm, sounds like the cue for a fishing story, well.... excerpts c/o CLfA....

"On our way back to The Other Lake for a three night session at the beginning of August Andy voiced a particular concern. It wasn’t about the number or size of fish we might or might not catch, not about the possibility of rain - we’ve had one of the wettest summers on record so far - not indeed about boat incursions, game warden investigations, the chance of catching giardia, or lyme’s, powassan or west nile fever or bubonic plague. No, his worry, it turned out, concerned bears. Which was something of a surprise to Simon. We have done many overnight sessions on the lakes in this area and a number of these have been outwith designated camp sites - camping “in the wild” as it were. But this was the first time Andy had mentioned the possibility of bears. Now, for us British types, born and bred on our island, the fear of large carnivores has long since become a thing of the past. The last wolf was killed in the 17th century in Scotland and the last bear so long ago that it was assumed to be around 1000AD. We have to scare ourselves with silly superstitious stories about ghosts and ghouls or virgin births and a young earnest man who died but didn’t really, to experience even a slight prickly feeling. But here in the US we can still conjure up that little frisson of fear: there really is something in these woods that might eat us. Not often, the number of bear attacks in the eastern United States is way lower than say, death by refrigerator. But still, bears are here, they are large, have sharp, pointy teeth and do, though their diet is mainly vegetable, eat meat. Andy’s worry then was real (if vanishingly small) so it does raise the question, to misquote Peter and the Wolf; “if a bear should come out of the forest, then what would we do?

Simon’s response is clear - jump in the lake. Andy’s was different and, and this is what Simon found surprising, carefully planned and thought through beforehand. Opening the boot (ahem, trunk) he delved in a bag and came up with a bottle of BBQ charcoal lighter fuel. His cunning plan was to find a long stick, wrap the end with some torn strips of cloth and then soak it in lighter fuel. Should a bear come along he would simply ignite the thing and immediately have a burning brand with which to fend off the intruder - just like all those ancestors protecting their cave. In addition, he was going to light a fire (as it turned out, so close to his hammock it was a surprise he didn’t self-immolate), would only bring bait down from the car in small amounts so there wasn’t too much sitting round adding aromas to the woodland and finally, his pièce de rèsistance, had a plan to pee in discrete patches so as to form an invisible, but presumably smelly barrier (though it wasn’t entirely clear to Simon whether this was a repellent or an attractant) no self respecting bear would cross. Such considerations play on the mind after a while and throughout this session Andy was to regularly loom up out of the night, wild-eyed and disheveled through lack of sleep and an inordinate amount of beer, griping in his fist a purposefully sharpened stick and looking for all the world like a modern day caveman, though a hirsute-challenged caveman, dressed in a North Face fleece and much holed waders...."

"A week or so after our long stint at The Other Lake the Neighbour (you remember him, considerably large chap, former carp virgin), now residing in a more civilized environ, announced an imminent visit. This was likely to be his final carp "teach-in" before the Andy's exodus from these divided States. Where would they go fish? Andy proposed the, as yet untested, new stretch on the Big River. It would require a bit of canoeing and an uncertain sleeping plan but should provide pointers for Simon and Andy as to whether it was worth pursuing further. No, the Neighbour responded firmly, none of that roughing it shit, he rather fancied the comfortable bivvying at the same site Andy and Simon had just spent three nights on the Other Lake. Andy mentioned the bears, the Neighbour scoffed. Being of a similar mass to Andy's ursine nemeses they were of no concern to him. Andy nipped out to significantly strengthen his stock of Dutch courage and hoped his trusty pointy stick would still be in residence upon his arrival. Contrary to the previous two visits this time the action, shared alternately on four rods, was quick in coming. Seven runs in the first five hours yielded a number of teens and in mid-afternoon a low twenty for Andy. And then as dusk gathered and with expectations high the swims died. Midnight saw the first cat and the arrival of a shoal of carp, a shoal of uniformly small carp that produced a most unsatisfactory series of six fish all well below double figures, Andy was too disgusted to weigh them. As if to prove his indifference to the not so distant crunching of undergrowth the Neighbour slept soundly through most of the diminutive distractions.

Some considerable time after first light the smell of brewing coffee and a gentle prod from Andy's pointy companion initiated movement within the Neighbour's great black cocoon of a hammock. Andy passed on responsibility for the rods and attempted some shut-eye himself. Just as he was drifting off to the land of nod his reverie was shattered by an almighty buzzing and the sight of a monstrous primordial insect hovering before him. Stumbling from the confines of his hammock and scrabbling for his killing stick Andy observed a chuckling Neighbour sat cross-legged on the ground playing with a box on his lap. Ahhh, a drone; maybe they'd be some interesting action shots in the offing?

Having scared the bejesus out of Andy and satiated his aeronautical itch the Neighbour collapsed back into his silken hammock where upon there was a shrill ripping closely followed by a heavy thump. The Neighbour would be spending his second night on terra ferma. Throughout the morning and afternoon moderately sized fish did make an appearance and each initial bleat from an alarm was accompanied by a rapid scramble to get airborne as Andy trilled in his best Vera Lynn: "they'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.” Yet nothing big did materialize. With the arrival of dark a fire was surreptitiously lit, the beers flowed and a rather relaxed evening ensued. At 3am the shared slurred opinion was that a run might prove problematic. Cue a steady beep, not the characteristic panicked screech of a spirited nipper but a far more deliberate and ominous note. Less than stable Andy tightened into it as the Neighbour, keen to retain his dry apparel, looked-on. Sure enough there were no rapid changes of direction just a ponderous weighty progress as the fish (or submarine, or merman, or manatee - it wasn’t clear yet) headed out into the bay. Paranoid after recent hook failings and not knowing of any snags in the vicinity Andy repeatedly let it take line until, eventually, after much careful pressure the head torches picked out a long pale streak below the surface. "Fuck that's huge" announced the Neighbour as he waded into the water, his precious dry shorts now forgotten. Alas it was not huge. It was long, indeed very long, but equally it was very lean. At 23lb 5oz it was not an extraordinary capture but, according to the Neighbour, rarely had he seen Andy happier to land a fish; and, hell, surely it called for another beer."

OK, enough of the bloody fish. That said there'll be no more mention of carp for the foreseeable; the tackle has been divvied-out and I am now a rod-less man. During our upcoming travels maybe Ali will release the purse strings for a shot at some Caribbean tarpon or sailfish, although that would shatter our $50/day budget and necessitate several beer-less days (a tough call).

I may not be brave when it comes to large furry beasts that inhabit woods but this year did see us perform a daring feat, for us British at least. Our friend here, Jason, has his own dental practice and we bit the bullet and switched from our current condescending awfuldontist to him. If you are not a Brit who grew up in 1970s Britain and duly has teeth to be truly ashamed of then this might seem a mere trifle. But to us, intimately exposing your oral orifice to a friend is a thing of nightmares: Ali stated "I'd rather have him as my gynaecologist". That said, having braved the switch, what a revelation: he is amazing. State Collegians get yourselves to: Jason Stetson, DMD, at The Woods Family and Cosmetic Dentistry. His dental assistant also totally rocks a skin-tight latex police outfit, although, sadly, she rarely wears it to work.

I was just about to say that there is every chance of snow here in the coming weeks and then we got dumped upon. Clearing snow is not something we'll miss. But now the countdown to departure and the reintroduction of sunshine is very real. The second week in December will see us fly to Mexico City. We had planned on volunteering at a hostel or eco-project for a month or so, but our approaches to various potential hosts have gone unanswered; seemingly we're too old and knackered to be of much use. Oh well, I'm sure we'll find something else to occupy our time.

A last few loved-ups because there are (even here) many that are truly merited: We will so miss Simon and Justine and the girls because we've spent so much time in their great company, have crashed so many excellent meals, and because he's simply the best goddam fishing partner anyone could wish for; Jason, Matt and Diana for numerous events and meals; of course our American family of Marlene, Jeff and Jessica; the ever present and wonderfully reliable Derek (my long term pool adversary - who actually had the audacity to beat me at our last outing), Mairi and the Jackster; Viks (cycling's goddess); and our adopted son, John, for the countless boozy game nights, fishing trips and best bear hugs (now that he gives them). These last two years have also seen some very tough times for certain friends, old and new. Our love and thoughts (not prayers - I believe they're specific to mass shootings) are, and will continue to be, with Victoria (our Muslim babe; fuck you Terry), Elsie and Rich.

Work wise I have once again had the pleasure and privilege of being a part of the ReadGroup: headed by the most laid-back, brilliant and amiable of Profs, Andrew; and now reinvigorated with an inspired new recruit, Matt. Whilst I was also lucky enough to collaborate with the Szpara group, beautifully (in all ways) led by Moriah, and work alongside her wonderful PhD student, Utsav.

And then, with just days left before we headed off, wouldn't you know it.... another wedding: Ken married Diana (the latex wearing dental nurse - who says karma doesn't exist). Of course we had to attend in travelling clothes (anything decent having already been sent back home to Blighty). It was a lovely day and at least this time they didn't force me ("don't be pussy Andy") to make semi-naked "snow angels" where "Bogie poops"....

And so that's it, the end of our sentence in America; surely life couldn't be so cruel as to demand another return? We will definitely not miss State College, but we will certainly miss many of its inhabitants and the wilderness that surrounds it.

Mexico here we come....

A last caveat: Urban dictionary defines "cockwomble" as "a completely useless person that spouts constant bullshit". Kinda apt, huh?

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12th December 2018

The end of a chapter
Interesting read from a part of world I know very little about... and I know even less about fishing :) I felt so sad for that family (but only after Ali returned safely from that car ride with the rapey dude!) :( Looking forward to reading about your Mexican adventures!

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