Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Debt Collector


As it turns out, Olga didn't eat the dying pigeon in our garden. In case you were wondering. I think I know what happened to it, though -- for the last several mornings and evenings we've seen a young fox make a quick, silent circle through our yard. My guess is he found that tasty morsel hunkered down beneath the shrubbery.

I finished "A Life Discarded" by Alexander Masters, the book I was reading about the diaries found in the trash bin. The author does resolve the ethical issues involved in writing about someone else's personal diaries. I can't tell you how without giving away the ending -- the book unfolds as a series of revelations that lead to a surprising conclusion. I really enjoyed it. In fact I was right at the end yesterday when I kept getting interrupted at work (yes, I was reading at work, but as a library assistant I'm allowed!) and it was sweet torture to have to put the book down and deal with whatever student needed a computer charger at that moment.

I'm on my annual campaign to get library materials back before the end of the school year, which is zooming toward us pretty quickly. I have one girl who's had two books out -- "The Beautiful and Damned" by F. Scott Fitzgerald and "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" by Raymond Carver -- since before Christmas. They were due Jan. 6. She's been getting automated overdue notices by e-mail for about four months now, in addition to personal e-mails from me. I went to her classroom to talk to her twice. I wrote her parents. It's always the same old story: "Oh, I forgot, I'm so sorry, I'll bring them tomorrow." At this point I don't know what more I can do. Bill her family, I suppose.

And remember the girl with the wayward biology textbook? Well, she checked out a geography textbook last fall and lost it. So I'm trying to collect money for that as well. Again: Spoke to student, wrote to parents. Nothing yet. Stay tuned!

(Photo: St. John's Wood, last week.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Take a Seat


When we moved into our current flat, we found a bench tucked away in a back corner of our garden. As you can see, it's not the greatest.

Dave and I have been using it, but I've always been aware that it might at any moment collapse under me. It wobbles slightly from side to side, and those two fallen slats aren't attached to anything. They were regularly knocked loose by squirrels.

But now...


...ta-da! We ordered a new bench from Amazon!

It arrived yesterday, and putting it together was kind of an ordeal. The directions said it "should be assembled by no less than two people," which I suppose is a fancy way of saying not to do it alone -- but also seems to suggest that assembly by, oh, eight people would be perfectly acceptable. (As we all know, that would simply lead to a massive argument.)

I enlisted help from poor infirm Dave, thinking he would only have to hold a few pieces while I screwed them together. Things got a bit more complicated than that, but rather than go into detail, let me just say that we survived and we now have a fabulous, stable place to sit outside and enjoy things like...


...our lilies of the valley, which are in bloom. Did you know the French call May Day "La FĂȘte du Muguet," or "Lily of the Valley Day"? Apparently it's tradition on that day to give bouquets of lily of the valley to friends and relatives. (Never mind that it's poisonous.)

We're having amazing, sunny spring weather, and the garden is going gangbusters! This is a great time of year.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ten Years Ago!


Do you ever think, while reading my blog: "Good grief, this guy has nothing to say."

I wouldn't blame you. I sometimes feel that way myself. And here's what's remarkable -- as of today, I have been saying nothing online for TEN YEARS!

Yes, exactly a decade ago -- as I recall, while I was sitting at my desk at The New York Times -- I launched Shadows & Light.

Let's take a trip down memory lane: That's me, at left, when and where it all began, with my view over the theaters and rooftop water tanks near Times Square. (I used to love that shirt. I bought it at Macy's. It eventually faded and went to Goodwill, but I still miss it. And look at my prehistoric computer! Good Lord.)

I began blogging almost on a whim. I'd been curious about it for a while, having kept a journal for years and years -- I was already in the habit of writing about my life. And then I bought a simple point & shoot digital camera, my first, and began taking pictures on the streets of New York. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to put these images online?"

I wasn't on Flickr at the time, and a friend had recently launched his own blog on Blogspot, so I chose that as my platform and took the plunge. I named the blog Shadows & Light partly as a tribute to Joni Mitchell, one of my favorite singers -- ironically, her "Shadows and Light" album is one of the few I don't have -- and partly because, well, that's what it was going to be: Pictures of shadows. Pretty basic!

And it was pretty basic, especially at the beginning. Basic to a fault, in fact. I was actively practicing Zen at the time, and I was very focused on simplicity. I really wanted most of my posts to be just a picture and a few lines of text. I remember my friend Kevin suggesting I write more, and I resisted the idea. (I was also nervous about putting information about myself online.)

I wasn't sure what to expect. I suppose, like many bloggers, I thought I might eventually have hordes of people following my posts. Hundreds! Thousands! Tens of thousands!

I quickly learned that most people are way too busy and absorbed in their own lives -- and rightfully so -- to pay any attention to mine. I wrestled with disappointment, but also realized I was giving my readers very little. So gradually I opened up more -- there's freedom in obscurity -- and found some reliable readers and a community of fellow bloggers.

Now I think of us like a little creative-writing club. You read what I write, I read what you write. We exchange feedback. I eventually abandoned any attempt to become a widely read blogger -- after all, I'd been writing for years in paper journals with no audience at all. Why did I need one now?

These days, I get something like 500 page views a day. Not that many, especially since some of them are mine! But I'm fine with that. I could be Tweeting and boosting my blog on Facebook -- the vast majority of my Facebook friends have no idea this blog exists -- but I appreciate being a bit under the radar.

According to my Google stats, they like me in Russia. I'm not sure why that is, but I have a sinking suspicion that it isn't good. And they like me in France, strangely, but the English appear largely indifferent. ("Another bloody Yank!")

My most popular posts? This one, a short, grumpy post about those silly family stickers that people put on the back windows of their cars, tops the list. In fact, a lot of people find my blog by searching "family stickers" on Google. Which is bizarre.

Then there's this one, in which I recounted being ripped off by a taxi driver in Istanbul, and this one, in which I told about a visit to an exhibit of Australian art at the Royal Academy. (I have no idea why that rates so highly.)

For a long time, my most popular post was tangentially about the actress Tina Louise. After it went up, I made a short-lived vow to mention Tina Louise in every post, because she brought me so much traffic.

As you can see, my page views have grown steadily -- from nothing to next-to-nothing.

But I must add a caveat to this overlong blogaversary celebration, by admitting that although I've hit the ten-year mark, with 3,035 overall posts, 17,337 comments (merci!) and nearly half a million all-time page views, I haven't really been writing a full ten years. That's because I took two substantial breaks: for just over two months between November 2008 and February 2009, and for seven months between October 2010 and May 2011. During that latter break I was writing and reporting full time and I just didn't have it in me to sit typing off the clock.

Now, I can't imagine not blogging. It has become such an important part of my day -- when something happens to me I often think, "This will be great for the blog!" And the community I've developed and the friends I've made have changed my life. I've been to a blogger May Day party, complete with a maypole. I've visited other bloggers on their own turf, experiencing a blissful kind of blog-meld. Other bloggers have visited me. I met up with a blog pal in Paris!

So thank you, bloggers and readers, for this awesome experience. I promise I will never write another post this long.

(Photo: Revisiting one of my favorite photos from my New York days, originally posted ten years ago tomorrow.)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reading Someone Else's Diary


Dave made another expedition outside the house yesterday, this time to see his high school students perform in their year-end concert. Another music teacher conducted, but Dave at least got to watch the kids present the pieces they've been working on for weeks and months. He enjoyed it (and the concert was great) but once again, he was surprised at how tired he gets, and how quickly.

Last night we were eating dinner when someone rang our doorbell. It's almost always a salesman when someone rings at that hour, particularly on a Sunday, so when I went to the door and saw an unknown face through the window, I simply turned around and went back to the living room. It was only after I sat down that I thought it could be a delivery or something and I'd better double-check. Turns out it was a repairman from Thames Water, here to fix a wastewater problem at the side of the house. "Sorry!" I told the guy. "I thought you were a salesman!" He didn't seem too put off, but I guess I really should at least open the door and ask next time.

I'm reading a fascinating book -- especially for anyone who keeps (or has kept) a diary or journal. Called "A Life Discarded," it's non-fiction about some people in Cambridge who find more than 140 diaries, many of them decades old, in a rubbish bin. The book's author mines the contents of these diaries in an attempt to write a biography of the unidentified author -- he knows neither their name nor, for a while, their gender. It makes me think of that old diary I own that I bought at an estate sale in Massachusetts years ago -- and also of my own paper journals. It reconfirms my desire to finish transcribing and editing them so my raw venting doesn't fall into someone else's hands and, God forbid, become a book. I don't want to be remembered for things I wrote down when I was in a snit.

Which brings up an interesting question about the ethics of writing a book based on a stranger's private diaries. The author, Alexander Masters, hasn't really broached that subject yet, except to occasionally quote the diarist writing that he/she doesn't want the diaries to be lost and occasionally referring to future readers. I suppose everyone who keeps a diary thinks, on some level, about the possibility that it will be read -- it could be their ultimate horror or their ultimate motivation.

(Photo: St. John's Wood, May 16.)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

La Mort du Pigeon


I'm posting early today because Olga woke me up at 4:30 a.m., very insistent that she go outside. So I let her out, and she promptly started eating grass, which means she has an upset stomach -- probably from eating sticks. Now she's sitting next to me on the couch looking none the worse for wear. Ah, the life of a dog owner.

Our bedraggled, picked-on, possibly dying pigeon made a reappearance a few days ago. As you may recall, it had been hanging out on our garden bench a while back, but then it flew away when Olga lunged at it, teeth bared. (At least it had the strength to do that.) I'm not sure where it went, but we didn't see it again until Friday, when we discovered it hunkered down in a dark spot beneath our shrubbery.

It looked even worse than before, with raw skin and ragged feathers. I'm not sure what was going on, but it occurred to me that we don't often see the end of a pigeon's life (except for those unlucky enough to be squashed in the road). Maybe this is what old pigeons become -- ostracized, raggedy looking and hunkered down in a dark place, waiting for the end.

Anyway, I felt bad for it, but I had to let nature take its course. The next morning it was still there, but unmoving, and I couldn't see its head to see if it was still alive. A few hours later, it was gone altogether, with just a few feathers left in its wake. Whether something carried it away or it flew, I don't know.

I have a feeling we probably won't see it again.

(And I am just now putting two and two together: Does Olga have an upset stomach because she ate the pigeon?!)

I spent yesterday morning at French class, learning about making comparisons -- this apartment is more expensive than that apartment, etc. Then I came home and repotted some plants -- Dave's hospital anthurium and some colorful kalanchoes I bought at Tesco for next to nothing.

Last night, I accompanied Dave's students to the opera. Only four of them showed up, even though seven more spent £20 apiece to attend! A friend from work tagged along too, to use Dave's ticket, so I had some adult company. The production was beautiful -- I'd never seen Madame Butterfly before, at least not that I could remember. (Spoiler: Not a happy ending.)

(Photo: Shoreditch, in mid-April.)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Not Seeing David Sedaris


Last November, an acquaintance at school told me about an upcoming appearance by the writer David Sedaris at Cadogan Hall in London. She was going, along with some other teachers, and she suggested I get tickets too.

I've always wanted to see Sedaris live. When I lived in New York I was once supposed to see him at Carnegie Hall with a friend, and something happened -- I can't remember what now -- and I didn't go. So rather than miss out again, I went online and bought two seats for his London appearance. I even bought coupons for glasses of champagne at intermission.

The tickets arrived in the mail, and I stupidly tucked them between two books on our bookshelf. And of course, I forgot about them completely.

Sedaris came and went, on Feb. 27, and neither Dave nor I ever realized we'd missed the event. Our friends at school didn't mention it to us. I only discovered it yesterday when I pulled a book off our bookshelf and found the now-completely-useless tickets.

So that's £98 down the tubes.

I sent one of our school friends an e-mail telling her of our mistake. "How funny!" she wrote. "You must have filed that away in a deep vault in your mind." (She's being charitable. It wasn't filed in my mind at all.)

"It was fun!" she continued. "Hopefully next time he comes around you can get tickets and actually go!"

Have you ever done anything like this? I swear I think I'm getting Alzheimer's.

(Photo: The remains of a tile surface at a building site not far from our house.)

Friday, May 20, 2016

I (Heart) Teeth


A reader points out that in yesterday's photo, there appears to be a man with a broom sweeping the sidewalk. "Does that really happen over there?" she asks. Believe it or not, yes. The councils -- local governments -- employ armies of contracted street-sweepers to walk around with shovels, brooms and little carts and pick up trash. Not just litter, but also fallen leaves and dog poo. They don't pick up larger items, like discarded furniture, or piles of illegally dumped trash bags, and those sometimes tend to hang around a while. They also don't get to things that aren't on the sidewalk itself -- like all the litter along the trash path.

I'm not sure it's the most practical system of urban cleanup, seeing as how there's still plenty of rubbish lying around. Those guys just can't sweep up everything. (They also seem to spend a fair amount of time standing on corners and tapping away on their mobile phones.)

On the other hand, think what the streets might look like without them! Especially since we have a dearth of public trash bins, the photo above notwithstanding.

Speaking of today's photo, by the way: What you may not be able to see are all the toothbrushes hanging in the window of that dentist's office, in front of the "I (heart) Teeth" poster. A colorful touch!

I (heart) teeth too. Especially mine.

Dave came to school yesterday morning for the first time since his surgery. We took a taxi together and he sat in on just one class -- high school band -- so he could hear how they're doing. The students all applauded him when he walked in the room. It was great to see. Their year-end concert is this Sunday and we plan to attend.

It looks like I may also wind up going to the opera with some of his students on Saturday night. Dave booked a performance of "Madame Butterfly" for his AP music students, with tickets for the two of us as well. Now he can't go, so someone needs to collect the tickets and distribute them to the kids at the theater. That person will probably be me, and as long as I'm there I may as well use my seat!

(Photo: Finchley Road, earlier this week.)