It has been some considerable time since I added an update to this blog. Back in September 2009 in fact, then still still a couple of months away from ending my Florida adventure. Maybe with a hint of appropriate consistency I am once again sat at the table in the Jacksonville Beach apartment, this time just for a brief two weeks holiday, the very place where the last blog entry took shape.

A great deal has occurred since that last blog post. The arrival of my parents in Florida in July provided a lot of potential material to post, photos to edit, and yet limited the available time to carry out such tasks. I fell behind with the entries and apart from a couple of retrospective postings, lost the drive needed to catch up and continue a regular offering. Furthermore a restructure at work turned my attention to submitting a job application, preparing for a video conference interview via Skype, and the days in the local Beaches Library were dedicated to retaining my own job rather than the observations of Florida life. Once the interview was complete Tina and I then spent ten days in Italy, attending her brother’s wedding in Siena. Those ten days provided more items to write about but little free time, the most notable event was proposing to Tina in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Rome on 23rd October. She accepted by the way!

Leaving Tina and Florida in mid November and returning to the cold, bleak Leeds streets, and a workplace where staff morale was the lowest I have ever encountered, was as hard as it was painful. I had obtained a position in the restructure, a promotion in fact, but no joy could be taken from it when colleagues and friends were unsuccessful and in danger of losing their jobs. Most shocking was the tragic news that during the six months I was away two colleagues took their own lives. The mood at work was sombre at best, sometimes mutinous, motivation absent, and the feeling towards management close to outright fury. This atmosphere, the cold weather, and the returning to an empty house every night left my mood very dark, and the last thing on my mind was writing a blog.

But there are positives. Tina and I have, with her ex-husband’s co-operation and support (in fact he suggested it), decided to live in the UK. Tina came over for Christmas which was a happy time, and we looked for wedding venues, settling on Temple Newsam House in Leeds. We now are embroiled with the frustrating and complex task of sorting out the application for settlement in the UK for Tina and two of her boys, so they can be over in time for a September wedding. Having been used to having Tina, her boys, and the cats around for six months, not to mention being in a location where mid November still allowed cycling after dark in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, it was remarkably hard to go back to Britain to the solitary life. Furthermore the need to save money has necessitated a frugal life of simple pastimes, staying home reading, watching TV, or browsing the internet. I have so far failed to see a Stoke City match at the Britannia this season, my football fix obtained from a few trips to the now defunct Farsley Celtic FC.

One distraction I have embraced enthusiastically is a greater involvement with the Green Party as the General and local Council Elections loom. I helped during the unsuccessful campaign in the Leeds ward of Hyde Park & Woodhouse byelection in February, and have been leafleting around the Farnley & Wortley ward with the aim of getting Cllr Andy Parnham re-elected and helping Cllr David Blackburn’s Parliamentary campaign for the Leeds West Constituency. Leafleting has a rather soothing and stress-busting effect. When striding up an unknown driveway, one’s concentration is locked on folding the leaflet correctly, the potential awkward letterbox that makes insertion a chore, and the possibility of some slavering beast waiting on the other side to remove any straying fingers. All worries of the day at work, or the months ahead are gone, the mind is cleared and focused on the simple task of getting the paper through the slot without incident, and the exercise is also good for body and soul. While this blog as suffered, I have been busy updating the Farnley & Wortley Green Party website and have also assisted with the Headingley Green Party’s new site too. I have also agreed to be David Blackburn’s election agent during the General Election campaign.

While this latest holiday in Jacksonville Beach affords me the time to restart blogging, I must give credit to another source of inspiration. A contractor called David has been working in our office since my return to Leeds. Stoke born and bred, a similar age to myself, and a great fan of Stoke City during my favourite era – the Lou Macari Years in the early 1990s – so no wonder we have stuck up a rapport and shared plenty of laughs. David discovered my blog by accident, and has apparently been working his way through past entries. It was his compliments about the stories and enjoyment of them that gave me the impetus to write something new. Sometimes the thought of “what’s the point” flits across one’s mind, but if other people do appreciate the efforts made, it is flattering and galvanises the resolve to continue. I find writing fulfilling, people seem to enjoy reading my observations, and if I can provoke thought and positive action from just one person then the whole exercise is worthwhile. So thanks David, and we must keep in touch when you move to your next contract.

In the meantime I think I should make the most of the sunshine and head outside. Who knows what things are going on out there that are just asking to be written about!

Three of a kindToday is election day here at the beaches, and indeed throughout the Florida Senate District 8 area. The special election was caused by the death of Republican Senator Jim King in July from pancreatic cancer. So staunchly Republican is District 8, that the Democrats haven’t bothered to field a candidate. As a result four Republicans have been battling it out for the privilege of representing this area in the State Senate in Florida’s capital Tallahassee.

As a graduate with a degree in Politics and Sociology, this sort of stuff usually interests and entertains me. But even more so round here. It has bordered on a comedy. A neighbour, who is a registered Republican, has been shoving a plethora of election mail shots under our door. This is part of our ongoing game of winding each other up in jest. In return he gets left-wing postcards stuck to his door but that’s a different story. Receiving these pieces of mail has given me an insight into the contest, as too has watching the television adverts between plays in American Football games. There’s not many positive messages, not many ideas about how to improve matters, just a volley of abuse, charges and counter charges. Marvellous.

The original favourite is John Thrasher, a former member of the Florida legislature, who is endorsed by former Governor Jeb Bush (brother of George W Bush), the National Rifle Association, and the Right to Life PAC. So three good reasons not to vote for him then. Thrasher, 65, claims to have three fundamental principles: government reform, government efficiency, and government scale, believing government ought not to grow faster than the ability of its citizens to pay for it. Sounds like that nasty ogre of “Big Government” rearing its head eh John? Meanwhile his opponents have accused Thrasher of spending millions of taxpayers’ money, including to redecorate his office and the state house chamber—even using a state plane to fly to Texas to shop for desks! The source of these claims are a group called Stop Tax Waste, Inc. Lovely.

A Federal judge’s recent ruling dismissing Florida electioneering laws has allowed special-interest groups like Stop Tax Waste, Inc to freely spend in this race without disclosing who they represent or who contributed to their cause. Another, Conservative Citizens for Justice, is running an advert called, “Enough,” that compares John Thrasher to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who lied when he traveled to Argentina to meet his mistress, and ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate. But it isn’t just Thrasher who has faced this negative campaigning.

Thrasher’s principal opponent is 40 year old “New Conservative” Dan Quiggle. In 1989 Quiggle worked for President Ronald Reagan in his post Presidential office and now claims he intends to stay true to Reagan’s conservative principles of personal freedom, economic opportunity and undying optimism that America’s best days are ahead. Behind this would be lowering taxes, and being a proven job creator having started three businesses. Don’t call us Dan, we’ll call you. Quiggle has been accused by his opponents of being an opportunist hurting conservative causes for personal gain, using First Coast Tea Party video footage and logo without permission, and using donations from “liberal personal injury lawyers” to attack rival Thrasher. A group called Truth Matters, a Tallahassee-based organisation, also accused him of hiding behind trial lawyers. A conservative mingling with dastardly liberal lawyers for electoral gain? Surely not. Imagine that. In reply, Quiggle has accused Thrasher of spying on his family and filming his home, the footage appearing on You Tube. Cripes.

Apparently Thrasher and Quiggle are neck and neck in the polls. Gawd help us. But there are two more candidates. Most amusing electoral leaflet goes to 71 year old Stan Jordan. Jordan owns a 40 year old pickup truck which was pictured on a leaflet about saying no to the Obama “cash for clunkers” scheme, and demonstrating that “Stan’s your man” knows the value of thrift. If it wasn’t such a gas guzzler I’d salute his green credentials! A former US Army Colonel, Jordan claims he represents tax cutting, rooting out wasteful spending, creating jobs (as a owner of three beach diners) and traditional Christian family values. Jordan also believes education is important, something that has been rarely discussed on the campaign, probably as it might involve spending some money if my experiences at a recent school parents’ night are anything to go by.

Finally former Jacksonville City Councilman Art Graham suggests himself as something of a compromise candidate – neither a lackey of the state Capitol nor a political novice. “Vote Smart, Vote Art” is the 45 year old’s slogan, confusingly using the colours of the British Liberal Democrats on his banners. There’s an irony – someone ought to tell him. Graham’s experience includes being on Jacksonville Beaches City Council from 1998-2002 and, from 2003, two terms on the Jacksonville City Council. A president of an environmental consulting business, Graham portrays himself as a self-made man from a military family who paid for college with scholarships and work. As well as championing low taxes, small government and economic growth, he sees the need to re-examine the way public schools are run and stresses improvement to transportation and other infrastructure at the Port of Jacksonville as more international carriers look to bring goods through Northeast Florida. Graham also supports the introduction of a commuter rail system, and was the man behind the Beaches Trolley system which provides cheap transport around the beaches area during weekends. But just when I was warming to him slightly, an updated website message blows him out of the water. Pro life, a supporter of off shore drilling for oil, NRA card carrying member, and doesn’t not support “Obama Care”. No thank you Art, I’ll pass.

Republican candidate postersWhile Jordan and Graham have escaped the negative campaigning, one mysterious leaflet slipped under our door had racial undertones. It neither supported nor attacked any of the candidates, but showed photos of President Barack Obama, Black Panther radicals from the 1960s, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the liberal activist groups ACORN and encouraging people to vote. It was distributed by the Conservative Voters’ Coalition. “Armed thugs may try to scare you away from the voting booth. Do not let intimidation and threats of violence against you keep you from exercising your constitutional right to vote.”, it advised. Bizarre.

The cost of the campaign is enormous. According to state records the four candidates had already raised nearly $774,000 by 28th August, with more than $400,000 of that heading to Thrasher. It is estimated the special election will cost between $550,000 and $600,000, although some of that cost will be reimbursed by the state, while voter turn out is expected to be no more than 12%. This is the price of democracy. It’s obviously only an academic exercise as I’d be unable to vote at all given I’m neither a US citizen nor a registered Republican. But faced with this bunch I really despair. There’s much posturing but little substance, little in the way of policy initiatives. All favour lowering taxes in a state where there is no income tax. In a separate election for the City Council District 13, the favourite, a Republican called John Meserve stands accused of accepting $105,000 he’d “forgotten about” for acting as an “unpaid agent” for a development company looking to build in Mayport, the area he represented. No wonder that mistrust of politicians and government is so great here. If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny. It’s kept me smirking and fuming in equal measure. Whatever the result the public won’t be the winner that’s for sure.

When I started this blog I was determined not to litter it with the mundane aspects of life like going down to the supermarket, or hoovering the house. I wanted to post items that might be interesting to the reader, provoke debate, or deliver amusement. Any regular visitor to this blog (if there are any left!) will have noted that I’ve not posted anything for a good while. This is partly because recent life has been taken up with the day to day stuff that isn’t interesting copy, and when I’ve had subjects I wanted to write about, it’s been an effort to find the time. The reason for the sustained activity and lack of time is what leads me to be sitting in an appartment in Jacksonville Beach Florida writing this now – what I nicknamed “Operation Jax”.

Don’t worry, it’s not some covert operation to threaten world peace, but a determined and organised plan to spend six months living with Tina in Jacksonville to see how our relationship progressed. It has seen much saving of the pennies, obtaining a career break at work, a mortgage payment holiday, visiting the US Embassy in London, and selling the car. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice it to say I had about a eight or nine page project plan by the time I’d finished. There’s so much to think about, more than you initially imagine. The US Visitors’ visa is a particuarly complex process, and while I’d expected potential issues at work, my line manager shocked and delighted me by agreeing to my career break within seconds of the request leaving my mouth, something I’d feared might be far harder to obtain. Maybe that says something about how much they’d actually miss me! Most people at work seemed more concerned about whether I was throwing a leaving party or bringing in goodbye cakes! ;-) No it’s actually quite humbling how many people seem genuinely pleased for me that this has come off, and the best wishes I’ve received from so many people is rather touching. It’s taken longer than I’d hoped but I think it will be worth the wait and the modest sacrifice.

So after one final night at my parents’ house, on the morning of Tuesday 19th May we set off to Manchester Airport for my flight to a new chapter. My churning stomach wasn’t helped five minutes into the journey by a surprise tailback on the A500 caused by an accident. A quick diversion round the northern towns of the Potteries, and the scenic route along the A50 through Cheshire saved the day and had me at the airport with bags of time. An emotional farewell later I was at my gate when the ex-footballer and manager Graeme Souness appeared on some stairs, wandered straight past me, urging his companion to hurry up or they’d miss the plane. There’s something about plane travel and me seeing celebrities, I can add Souness to Angus Deayton, Lisa Stansfield, and Paulo Wanchope as people either seen in departures, or actually on the plane. The rest of the journey to Atlanta was fairly uneventful, I couldn’t sleep so watched two excellent movies of differing genres, the moving “The Reader”, and the simmering “Gran Torino”. Clint Eastwood back in top form.

The real drama started in Atlanta. The Customs & Border Protection Service have a laidback attitude to processing the queues of new arrivals, our side of the hall had three officers, while the other side appeared to have three times as many, despite supervisors patrolling the floors. The result was a long wait to see whether I was going to be granted my six months permit. It turned out to be a longer wait than I initially thought. Eventually arriving at the usually routine passport and fingerprint check, I was informed that my “processing” (sounds painful!) would be completed in another office, my documents were placed in a large yellow trimmed transparent folder, and I wandered disconsolately with them to the double doors I’d been directed to. In this back office I waited around an hour to be seen with a wide range of visa / residency seekers of all nationalities. The whole plan came down to what was decided in the next few moments. A bit like a football team’s season resting on a penalty shootout. After what seemed an age my time came, and a friendly officer questioned me for some while, and eventually was satisfied that my story was truthful and didn’t even wish to see my supporting evidence, the presence of them piled on the table was enough! With a smile, a warning to behave myself, and a “good luck” the officer granted me the six months visa and let me out back into the main hall to collect my bags. The plan had taken into account this possibility, I’d factored in a four hours layover between flights, so I still had two hours to make my connection – easy! A huge falafel and hummus wrap later I was boarding the plane to Jacksonville.

Apart from the fact the weather was awful and the landing was a tad fraught, that journey passed easily with the anticipation of seeing Tina. I ran the last few yards along the arrivals route so we came together like the scene from a romantic movie – I think black and white film and a steam filled railway station would have been most appropriate! ;-) So I’m here, and I’m here for a while. I hope to make regular posts if I have things of interest to report. As I complete this the rain has seemed to have stopped for the first time since I arrived. It’s been heavy showers all the way so far. A quick sprint from the Regency Mall to the bus stop yesterday resulted in a right soaking I can tell you. I am getting used to my new surroundings, and the fact that I’m not off back after two weeks this time, there’s drawers for my clothes and I’m no longer living out of a suitcase. Hadley and Molly in a rare moment of peace Hadley Cat is also adjusting to me being here, she doesn’t like disruption to her routine, while Molly Cat is quite the opposite, delighted to have another outlet for her particularly cute brand of attention seeking. Tina is now at work, and the cats are having a moment’s peace after a session of grappling and hissing. I think the sun is trying to burn through the haze, and it’s now time to leave this, shower and get out of the house for a while. More to follow soon.

PS A huge thanks to family and friends who have helped this all to come together whether it be looking after the house, my scooter or whatever. You know who you are and I’m grateful beyond words. Thank you.

It’s a few minutes into 2009 and I sit on my sofa back from a New Year’s Eve party I attended almost out of a sense of compliance because to be honest I don’t particularly enjoy New Year celebrations. However 2008 was such a remarkable year personally that I feel it deserves some moments of reflection. It was a year of many highs, a few lows, but it was never dull, and provided some very special memories.

The year 2008 actually started in a sad way. After spending a wonderful couple of weeks around Christmas with Tina over from the USA, 1st January 2008 was the day I had to take her back to Manchester Airport for her flight home. We didn’t know when we would next see each other, although it was likely to be late March or April when my Annual Leave entitlement was replenished. December had marked the flourishing of our relationship to something stronger than just “friends with benefits”. On the way back from the airport I tried to cheer myself up with a trip on the East Lancashire Railway, but the drizzly day, and the feeling of missing someone special beside me prevented a real upturn in spirits. The house seemed empty, I felt like a part of me was missing, and the year was off to a bad start.

Yet there were plenty of highs too. I lost almost a stone in weight, getting myself fitter and leaner for when I next saw Tina, and making myself feel more positive about my appearance. I started being mentored by our Head of Department in February and the first session alone went a long way to raising my confidence and increasing my positivity. In early March I obtained a worldwide recognised qualification in software testing, and later that month the wait was finally over – I was heading to Florida to see Tina. Those 17 days opened my eyes and I went from showing general disdain for all things American to contemplating a whole new lifestyle for myself over there. Tina and I did some touring around, some highlights being the Ocala National Forest area with Juniper Springs, the JFK Space Center, and walking in the Apalachicola National Forest.

I enjoyed myself so much that I returned home and immediately booked to go back in June. In the meantime I went to Coniston in the Lake District and was taught how to drive a 7.5 inch gauge steam locomotive for the first time, something I’d continue to do regularly for the rest of the year. Furthermore I had a fantastic trip to Brussels in April, meeting fellow Stoke City message board users who have since become friends, and with them experienced the quite surreal moment of being introduced former Stoke manager Johan Boskamp. A week later I was in Scotland walking in the Cairngorm mountains when news trickled through that Stoke City had won promotion to the top flight of English football for the first time in 23 years.

May was finished off by a trip down to the South West walking in Exmoor and Dartmoor with my friend Jen, and taking in two preserved steam railways during the Bank Holiday period, while the final Saturday of the month presented a beautiful day in the Lake District walking up 4 peaks around Buttermere. Then came another trip to Florida in early June. Another Stoke message board name became a face as Tina and I met Calvin and his wife Margaret for the first time, and another friendship began, while again there were road trips to see parts of Florida neither of us had seen before. I also met a new addition to the family – Hadley the kitten – and Tina’s youngest son. The trip was enough to make me decide I wanted to spend much longer in Florida, so plans were made to rent out my house, ask for a sabbatical at work, and spend several months with Tina to see how the relationship developed.

This is where the year took a bit of a nose dive. A new boiler and double-glazed windows were needed to get the house up to scratch to rent it out, and I hoped this work might be done by August and October was suggested as a best case scenario for my arrival in Florida. However delays with projects at work, the complexities of arranging finance and the availability of the contractors meant that the house improvements were finally completed at the end of October! I still had decorating and minor DIY work to finish too. I was not in Tina’s good books. The excitement of meeting Johan Boskamp again when he brought his team FCV Dender to a friendly game at Leeds Utd, plus Stoke City starting their first ever season in the Premiership punctuated the downturn. But when it became obvious that Tony Pulis was going to deliver his usual brand of negative football, it took the shine of things. The obstacles in the way of an extended stay in America seemed to becoming more difficult to overcome, leading to a growing malaise and a growing waistline as I put back on the weight I had previously lost. Still I did turn some of my energy to positive things like discovering my political activism again, joining the Green Party and attending an anti-war demonstration in Manchester. Overall the tail end of the year was bleak, and I was angry with myself for not achieving what I had set out to do. Self doubt had returned.

Yet the year ended on a positive note. Tina secretly arranged a wonderful gift for my birthday in November – a ticket to see Leonard Cohen live at the M.E.N Arena – and I also decided to spend Christmas in Florida, luckily managing to obtain a cheap fare. How can anyone complain about a year that saw three trips to Florida?! The final visit in many ways was the best of the three. There may have been no road trips but there was plenty of quality time with Tina and two of her boys, seeing Calvin and Margaret again, and spending time with Tina’s family. It reinvigorated my desire to spend some serious time over there, and strengthened my belief in our relationship at a point where I was beginning to wonder if it could actually work.

The year 2008 has been memorable. I have been exceptionally lucky to experience what I have. Only a perfectionist like me would pick fault with it. Despite the achievements and experiences I still feel a certain disappointment about not being able to see though all my plans and not completing what I intended. This coming year has a lot to live up to, but if I do manage to achieve those dreams then 2009 will be equally memorable. Now it’s time to strap myself in and enjoy the ride however choppy.

Tonight I finally completed the piece on the last couple of days of my Florida visit including the walk along the Suwannee River. (“Drenched down the Suwannee”). It joins the retrospective postings about Days 3 and 4 of the Road Trip around Florida. They can also be found below. (Entitled “St Petersburg and a taste of Cuba” and “Is it a real one?”).

All the photos are up in the gallery now. Enjoy. Start of Road Trip photos

Finally tonight I’m getting this site moving towards how I want it to look. I have to offer thanks to Scott at work who has been kind and patient enough to give me tips and shared his expertise. I’ve also started to make sense of the CSS style sheets that help make up the format of these pages. I’m slowly learning how to read the code and making changes. I’ve got the sidebar headers green and bold, but can’t work out how to sort the text colour below them yet! The blue must go! It looks like the Conservative Party logo colours! I had intended on an early night, but my determination not to leave this dangling for another night, and get some major changes done before bedtime, now sees me entering the early hours of the next morning again! The washing up remains in the sink, the work shirt remains unironed. That can all wait for later this morning when I’ve had my 7 hours zzzzzzzz!

But now I can put Tina out of her misery and reveal my “secret project” she’s been dying to know about haha! Does that fulfill my side of the bargain? ;-) It’s only just gone 7pm over in Florida so she should see it before her bedtime! Orlando Cat is curled up on her plastic bag again and I’ll be off to bed shortly.

This has been a relaxed yet productive weekend. Much of it has been spent catching up on the chores neglected during the previous whirlwind weeks of gallivanting around the world. My house is now tidy again, my hedge is trim, the car is clean and the large mountain of clothes are put away. While I sat in the sun today with Orlando the cat uncharacteristically curled up nearby, I finally produced an updated CV on the laptop. I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks as it’s all part of a cunning plan, but I’ve lacked the time and inclination to do it thanks to more entertaining diversions. This was the first weekend at home for ages and I think justifies my staying in and doing nothing special. After all recent past weekends have seen me:

* walking in Scotland and discovering my football club was now Premier League!
* drinking, watching football, and meeting a former Dutch Stoke City manager in Brussels
* having a stay in Coniston in the Lake District
* in Florida for 17 days with the beloved
* having my parents to visit and making trips to York and Richmond

This weekend is a calm before the storm. I’m away again in Coniston next weekend, spending the Bank Holiday weekend staying in Exeter with my friend Jen walking somewhere in Devon, then after that I’m away across the Pond enjoying the company of “mar lady” as they say in Stoke. Hopefully this blog will help chronicle the adventures and save me the trouble of writing it up in the old fashioned way, something I attempted in Florida previously but ground to a sorry halt after starting gamely.

Thankfully I also got my hair chopped off this weekend, the mini-heatwave we’ve been enjoying recently has had me sweating bricks and the removal of the thick mop has helped considerably. I look respectable again and hopefully will not incur suspicious glances from the US Immigration Control when I return in June. I’ve spend a fair amount of the weekend faffing around with this website and blog settings, struggling to install the Gallery2 program which has seen me up into the early hours cursing and scratching my head. Simple installation my arse. It’s riddled with errors and meaningless messages. It better be worth it when I finally get the swine working. I found a nice simple gallery program that works beautifully but will not allow the functionality I need if I’m to advertise my wares as is the plan. Well one of the plans, but not the cunning plan. More of that another time.

Finally this weekend saw the arrival in the post of “It cracks like breaking skin”, a collection of short stories set in Stoke-on-Trent written and sent to me by fellow Stoke City fan and member of the Brussels Nine, Stephen Foster. Another book to add to the growing backlog of reading but a welcome addition, I’d been after it for some time. Nice then to get a signed copy. Worthy of online thanks and a link to Stephen’s blog