Friday, September 4, 2015

Autumn on the Doorstep

It has been cold the last few mornings, with temperatures hovering right around 50┬║ F. Make way for autumn! The garden is still blooming -- the purple loosestrife, the scabious, the verbena, some yellow daisyish things -- but many other flowers are past their prime. I cut down the last of the red-hot pokers last night, its formerly brilliant orange head a shriveled mass of brown.

The blackberries have reached that stage where they're looking sloppy and seedy, and any remaining fruit will probably never adequately ripen. I ate a few while walking Olga over the weekend, but they weren't as good as they were a few weeks ago.

One flower we do have at the moment is this rose. It's from a plant that, when we moved here, was cut all the way to the ground. The woody root began to sprout, and we encouraged it to grow. This is the result! We've never seen it flower before. (It had a bud last year but, because it's so low to the ground, Olga knocked it off before it could open.) We have another rose that, similarly, has been cut down entirely but each year sends up a tiny shoot. Maybe we'll get a flower out of it sometime, too.

On Monday I worked on transcribing my old journals. You may remember I'm trying to sift through all that writing, salvage the readable parts and edit out the embarrassing, lovelorn moaning and dramatics to which 20-year-olds are prone. I'd ideally like to make them into another blog, even just a private one for the purpose of storing that writing, and then destroy the paper journals. What struck me as I worked was how profoundly unhappy I was in my early 20s. I don't remember those years that way at all -- I remember them as a lot of fun -- but my writing indicates a high level of professional and personal frustration. Of course, the journal probably reflects those feelings to a disproportionately high degree, since it was my outlet, my steam valve. I'm keeping enough to show I felt that way, because I don't want to whitewash the past -- but I'm eliminating the repetitive and over-dramatic rumination.

There's a lot of fun stuff in the journals too -- my trip to San Francisco in 1991, my preparations to join the Peace Corps.

Still, I wouldn't be 22 again if you paid me. No way! Unless I could retain my 49-year-old brain in my 22-year-old body -- now that wouldn't be so bad.

On a somewhat related note, I read an interesting article in the Times about how, on a national level, we're in a "purging" phase of history. We're reframing our past to include more diverse viewpoints, reconsidering the legacies of people like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. We're thinking about the appropriate place for Confederate symbols. I'm against purging history entirely -- we're not the Soviet Union, after all -- but it makes sense that we would rethink and re-evaluate as society evolves. That's part of being a living culture.

(Top photo: A van Olga and I pass daily on our morning walks. It never seems to move. Maybe it's just not soccer season right now?)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Remembering Nessie

Dave and I watched a documentary the other day about the Loch Ness Monster.

For a short time I thought I'd been swept back to the 1970s, the era of "In Search Of..." and "Chariots of the Gods." Wasn't Nessie debunked years ago, after all? I remember someone coming clean with the revelation that the most famous Nessie photo was faked. I thought we'd all given up on any possibility that she still swims in the Loch's murky depths.

As it turns out, that was basically the gist of the documentary. It explained away the many reported sightings over the years, using a variety of scientific devices and experiments. Aside from the famous faked photo, others had been mysteriously altered or depict natural phenomena such as waves. The most interesting explanation, I thought, involved seals -- apparently Loch Ness is open to the ocean and as a result, it's not unheard of for seals to enter its waters. The descriptions many witnesses offered sound like seals -- elephant-gray creatures with a hump emerging from the depths.

I used to love shows like "In Search Of..." in which Leonard Nimoy narrated explorations of all sorts of mysterious phenomena, from the disappearance of Amelia Earhart to the geoglyphs of the Nazca Plain. (And by the way, the old shows are available on a dedicated YouTube channel.) But even back then, I remember doubting that the Loch Ness Monster really existed. It was just a fun story, sort of like a ghost story -- something to tingle your spine and make you wonder what else humanity didn't know.

As it turns out, that's the most likely explanation for the durability of the Nessie myth. People like the drama, and part of us wants it to be true. Psychologically, we leave ourselves open to the possibility, and therefore seize on any shred of evidence to bolster the case.

No doubt it's also generated a lot of tourism for central Scotland.

That purple critter above is my own personal Nessie, which I've had since I was a small boy. In 1973 or so, my brother and I went to the Maryland home of one of my mom's college friends, and played with some small plastic dinosaurs belonging (I believe) to her sons. (I'm not sure where the sons were, but I don't think they were there at the time.) Mom's friend gave us a few of them, and I've held on to this plesiosaurus ever since. My brother and I named it, rather unimaginatively, "Plesie."

Plesie now lives on my windowsill. If I ever get to the real Loch Ness, maybe I'll take Plesie with me and fake my own photograph! (It won't be easy, since Plesie is only about two inches long.)

By the way, on Google Street View, you can take a virtual boat tour of Loch Ness. No monsters were visible that I could see.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I'm in a Museum!

Last night Dave and I went to the opening of an art exhibit at the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park -- and there, on the wall, as we'd been told to expect, was me!

The monthlong exhibit is titled "The Craft of Drawing and Painting" and features artists who have worked and trained at the Lavender Hill Studios, an atelier in London. They include Martin, the art teacher at work who painted the recent portraits of me.

It was such a surreal experience to be looking at portraits of myself in a museum setting. (Both the small and the large portraits were on display, across the room from each other.) I felt sort of disconnected from them, like they weren't really me, but some other guy who just happened to look like me.

But several people in the room approached to ask if I was the model, confirming my sense that Martin captured my likeness really well. (One guy said I looked much happier and "less haunted" in person!)

You can see a blurry Dave at far left in the photo above, and Martin in the purple shirt, fourth from left in the rear.

It was a very cool experience.

Dave and I schlepped out to Holland Park on the tube and had dinner at the Mitre, near where we used to live in Notting Hill. I enjoyed the food but the menu descriptions seem a bit over the top -- albenga artichokes and grelot onions, a "cannon" of lamb (whatever that is). Apparently serving plain ol' onions and artichokes is insufficiently intriguing to diners.

We talked about how it seems so long ago that we lived in that neighborhood, even though it's really been just over a year. We reminisced about walking poor, decrepit Ernie and Ruby through the Notting Hill streets. (That was farther back in time.) We agreed we're much happier in our present circumstances!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


The world's most slow-witted squirrels have finally figured out how to get into the squirrel feeder.

Not only did they figure it out, they emptied the feeder almost immediately. It's amazing how much a couple of squirrels can eat. (We've seen at least two, but there could be more -- it's hard to tell squirrels apart.)

Dave refilled it, and as I write this, it's empty again.

Olga, meanwhile, sits on the couch watching this parade of feeding rodents, shaking with frustration that she can't go out and chase them. Every once in a while we open the door and she races over to the fence, but of course the squirrels are way ahead of her.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Balloons and a Celebrity Diver

Did I mention that we're having a three-day weekend here in England? This is the August bank holiday weekend, sort of the equivalent to Labor Day in America, without the political and social connotations. This is also the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, and Dave and I are once again glad we no longer live in that neighborhood.

I took a walk yesterday -- our one non-rainy day of the entire weekend -- around the City of London. I really wanted to get out and take some photos. I had an Americano at this quirky coffee shop at Broadgate Circle, near Liverpool Street. What do you suppose those chairs mean?

I also ran into Tom Daley. Or at least a cardboard cutout of him, standing in someone's office window.

I got some good photos overall, walking in and around Moorgate and then west to Covent Garden via The Strand. I explored the Temple -- a cloistered area of mainly legal offices and gardens, formerly the domain of the Knights Templar. I'd never been there before but I didn't find much to photograph. The buildings have some charm but on the Sunday morning of a bank holiday weekend, as you can imagine, it was all dead empty.

Covent Garden was a bit more lively. The ceiling of the central market area is filled with balloons, an art installation by Charles P├ętillon called Heart Beat. Apparently the balloons are lit and the light pulses, although I must admit I didn't notice the pulsing. I was too busy trying to navigate the crowds enough to get some decent pictures.

I walked from there to the Leicester Square tube station and caught the train home.

I had planned to walk Olga in the afternoon but I was happy to find that Dave had already taken her to Fortune Green, so the pressure was off. Instead we relaxed at home and watched the Jude Law movie "Side Effects," which we'd already seen in the theater a couple of years ago. I roughly remembered what happened but not so much that I couldn't watch it again with some suspense.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kilburn Grange Park

I took Olga to a new park yesterday, Kilburn Grange, which is south and west of us. We never walk in that direction but it's not far away, and I don't know why I don't go there more -- especially when, like yesterday, I just can't face the long schlep to Hampstead Heath.

Olga was perfectly happy with the outing, even though Kilburn Grange is much smaller and more manicured than the wilderness of the Heath. We found a neatly laid out rose garden...

...and Olga could lie in the nearby grass and watch squirrels in the trees.

There was even a bit of graffiti to give the park an urban flavor! (That's busy Kilburn High Road right behind those buildings, definitely an urban venue.) We'll probably go here more often now that I've reminded myself it exists.

The afternoon was lightly rainy, as predicted. I got a lot of housework done, finished the book I was reading and even took a nap, which is unheard of for me. It felt great!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Americans vs. Europeans, and Nightclubbing Too

Scenes of vulpine misbehavior in the garden this morning: an overturned bird bath, an overturned potted fern, suspicious smelly spots among the flowers. Olga got up before Dave or me -- which never happens -- and basically pulled me out of bed. She must have heard the critters. I didn't see them until after I'd let her out and she streaked to the back corner of the garden. I went with her to see what was so interesting, and there was a fox atop the garden wall a few houses down, staring back at me. So I brought Olga back inside. I'm not sure the fox will dare come back across our property now that it's seen both me and the dog out and about.

I read an interesting column in The New York Times yesterday by Roger Cohen in which he discusses the differences between American and European social structure. Americans, writes Cohen -- citing a Pew research study and a new book, "The United States of Excess," by Roger Paarlberg -- value individualism and chafe against any perceived restrictions on their freedoms, including taxes, regulations and incentives to conserve resources. Europeans, meanwhile, have a more collective approach, seeing government as beneficial and resource management as a social obligation.

That difference helps explain a lot -- the out-of-control gun culture in America that results in thousands of deaths a year (in more and more spectacular fashion!), the obesity epidemic, the lack of well-used public spaces, the crumbling roads, bridges and schools. I once lived in a part of Florida populated mainly by retirees, some of whom chafed at the idea that they should have to pay taxes to fund local schools. They didn't have children in those schools -- their own kids were grown and gone. Why, they asked, should they have to pay for them? (Can you imagine asking such a question?)

This American go-your-own-way psyche is mystifying to many British and Europeans. Obviously not all Americans feel this way. I'm American, and I don't get it. But there is a strain of ornery individualism there that I am convinced comes straight from the Pilgrims, perpetuated by life on a sparsely populated frontier.

Cohen and Paarlberg aren't the first people to point out these differences, but it was interesting to read them so succinctly described.

On another subject entirely, I read an article in The Week about the demise of nightclubs in England. Apparently there are 1,733 commercial nightclubs today, compared to 3,144 in 2005. The reason? Today's young people don't want to endure the miseries of standing in line to dance in overcrowded, overloud spaces and pay for overpriced, weak drinks when they could hang out and meet each other online, listening to their own carefully selected music. The Guardian points out that other factors -- such as an increase in the popularity of live music and larger dance-music festivals -- has changed clubbing culture.

I have mixed feelings about this. I always had a ball when I went nightclubbing as a young person, although admittedly it sounds like hell to me now. I hope today's young people aren't ceding too much of their lives to computers and virtual connections. On the other hand, connections made in bars and nightclubs are seldom long-term, valuable ones -- so maybe this evolution is a step forward after all.

(Photo: Second-hand furniture in Kilburn, in June.)