Saturday, January 31, 2015

Purge Complete, and 'Chavs'

Wow, this has been a long week. (I know, I said the same thing last week. It's the January slog, I'm telling you.)

I finished the library patron purge yesterday. In the end I removed about 1,300 people from our computer system -- one by one. I probably deleted about a third of our parents because they were no longer here. (Or had never arrived in the first place.) Only two or three of the accounts had any books actively checked out, and many had never been used at all. The ancient checkouts that were never returned, about three books from 2010 or so, I simply marked lost. It's not even worth trying to go after them at this point.

Next week I'm going to embark on a similar cleanup for the downstairs library that serves the elementary school. That will be a little trickier since I don't know the patrons, and I think there are likely to be more lost books involved.

I'm reading an interesting book myself, called "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class," by Owen Jones. Jones is a Guardian columnist and the theme of the book is the social sickness perpetuated largely by Thatcherism -- the idea that there is no society, that we're all in it for ourselves -- and while the rich are getting richer (often stunningly richer) working people are increasingly barely scraping by. It's the same growing social chasm we see in the United States, the same capitalist extremism.

("Chav," by the way, is a British term of denigration for lower- or working-class people, often stereotypically involving loud, aggressive behavior, track suits, lots of bling, lots of babies born to teenage mothers, that sort of thing.)

So Britain is not immune to some of the elements of American society that I find so frustrating -- the relentless focus on profit at the expense of, well, everyone. The failed idea that wealth trickles down. What we don't have here is the Christian fundamentalism that is so prevalent in parts of the states. I very rarely hear politicians here invoking God. Britain seems much healthier in that respect.

Anyway, what will come of this growing gap between the haves and the have-nots is anyone's guess. I wouldn't be surprised if we have a full-scale revolution one of these days. We have mini-revolutions already -- various forms of urban rioting -- that are basically about economic disenfranchisement. Should make for an interesting future!

(Photo: Bethnal Green, a couple of weeks ago.)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Monkey Puzzle

My blog pal Linda Sue recently posted a photo of a Monkey Puzzle tree, which made me think of this photo, which I took a few weeks ago for Bleeding London. So we have Monkey Puzzle trees in London, and apparently they grow in Washington state, and I know they grow in Florida. They're amazingly adaptable, aren't they? And also sharp as heck.

We'd heard we might get snow last night, but from the looks of things outside, none ever materialized. I was sitting in the library yesterday afternoon when I began hearing what sounded like sand or gravel being thrown at the skylight. A ripple of excitement ran through the room, and some kids said, "It's snowing!" A few ran outside to see. I don't think it was really snow, though -- more like sleet or frozen rain. Snow doesn't make that kind of noise!

I brought our amaryllis plants inside last night. They've been sitting in the cold, dark garden shed for the past six weeks or so -- since before we went to Michigan. In fact I felt very guilty when I picked up the pot because lots of little sowbugs and a slug were underneath, keeping relatively warm, I suppose, and I hated to deprive them of their winter resort! Hopefully they'll scurry away to another shelter. I watered the amaryllis and set them next to the glass doors in the living room. We'll see if they sprout and flower again this year.

More purging of the library rolls yesterday. I'm up to the letter M, so I've still got a long way to go!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Purge, and Why I Am Terrible

The great purge of departed library patrons continues. One of my coworkers came up with a much more expeditious way to work through the list, and using that method I took dozens and dozens of people out of our computer system yesterday. Students who have moved, parents of kids who graduated years ago, departed staff members -- you name it. Some of them were families who applied to our school but never showed up. Why they have library accounts I'm not sure. We need to make some adjustments in the way people are added.

I'm going to continue that project today and probably tomorrow. I'm still enjoying it -- the intense focus and concentration -- to the point that I feel mildly annoyed when I'm interrupted by someone who wants to check out a book! (I hide it. I think.)

I found out yesterday that a guy who used to bully and torment me when we were both in middle school, and in the Boy Scouts, died a few years ago. I don't have any details. I wouldn't say I felt happiness, but I did feel a twinge of...justice, maybe. Even that may make me a terrible person. I can't help it -- that's what I felt. I hope he matured and became kinder and more reasonable in the intervening years.

(Photo: Tigger, dressed for winter and waiting outside on a council estate in Harlesden.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lemon Tree

So the great blizzard went bust, at least for New Yorkers. That's a good thing, though I understand why they're frustrated that the city shut down for nothing. It seems pretty remarkable that the weather people were that wrong about the direction of the storm, though they are somewhat vindicated by its severity in New England.

Meanwhile, here in London, I spent all day yesterday combing through the library computer system and removing patrons who are no longer at school. This might sound tedious, but actually I found it a lot of fun. It appeals to my sense of organization and tidiness.

The library gets lists of departing students at the end of each school year, and we remove them from the system. But we found that often the students' parents remain, and often our lists are not entirely complete. I bet I took 50 people out of the system yesterday -- people who left between 2010 and 2013 -- and I'm only up to the letter C! It's a painstaking process, but it's worthwhile and it keeps me busy.

As I was leaving work, I got a text from Dave: "I bought you a present!" I was a little worried what this present could be, but it turned out he stopped at a plant store on the way home and bought a lemon tree! So now we have a little bit of Florida here in London. It was sold as an ornamental lemon, but apparently that may be more for tax reasons than practical ones. The lemons look plenty edible to me. We'll see.

(There are four ripe yellow lemons on this tree, which is only about a foot and a half high!)

The store manager told Dave we could plant the tree outside as long as we protect it from snow. But I'm inclined to put it in a tub so we can bring it inside in the winter. We have many consecutive nights of freezing temperatures each year, and I can't believe a lemon could survive that.

(Photo: A dealer in LED signage near Wembley.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

No Snow Here

I'm reading about the huge blizzard bearing down on the northeastern United States. Boy, do I remember those! And while I don't envy the snow, exactly, I do miss the excitement of a snow day. We almost never have snow days here. It doesn't take much snow to throw London into a tizzy, but we never get much snow, either. (I'm not sure we had any last winter -- and we definitely haven't had any this winter.)

Not to rub it in for my northeastern readers, but when I was cleaning the bird feeders on Sunday I was thinking about how spring-like the day felt. The bulbs are coming up, the sun was out, the bird bath was no longer frozen solid.

You watch -- we'll get slammed now.

It's hard to believe January is almost over! In my experience, the school year is very much a downhill coast from here. We have a couple of long breaks and several "bank holidays" and then, boom, it's June!

On the Bleeding London front, I finally bought a large London A-Z, the road atlas upon which the entire project is based. I had a small one but it didn't include outlying areas, and this one is much more comprehensive. Using it and Google Street View, I've determined that there are 22 more locations in NW10 that need a photo. Most of them are tiny slivers of streets about ten feet long, many with no street sign, so I couldn't have expected to see them otherwise. That's my project next weekend!

(Photo: Juliet's wig shop, in Harlesden.)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Butterflies in Winter

When it's too cold for butterflies, it's nice to have some street art to remind us what summer is like! These are outside an art gallery and tattoo shop called "Monsters of Art" on Mill Lane, not far from our flat. I've been meaning to get a shot of them for a while. Olga and I pass them all the time on our walks.

She likes them too!

Yesterday was a day to stay around the house. I cleaned in the morning, and tried to empty the bird feeders of last year's remaining seed. One of them I got open and cleaned out -- it wasn't too congested anyway -- but the other one is old and rusted shut and it's so full of sprouting, rooting, rotting bird seed that I'm going to just throw the whole thing away and get a new one.

I took the dog up to the cemetery in the afternoon for a run. After my walking marathon on Saturday I just couldn't face trying to take her all the way over to the Heath.

I also organized my Bleeding London spreadsheets, and found that there are actually several more tiny, tiny streets in NW10 that I have missed. I'll pick them up on my last pass through the area, probably next weekend.

Dave and I watched "Auntie Mame," one of our perennial favorite movies, last night. We're so gay. Good grief.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Very Nearly Finished

I walked pretty much all day yesterday through the NW10 postcode, photographing 77 streets I'd missed in earlier passes. I'm still not quite finished, because I was separated from five remaining streets by a railroad yard and I just didn't have the energy to figure out how to get around it. I'll have to go back for those. And I haven't yet entered everything onto my spreadsheets, so it's possible I've missed one or two more. But I consider myself basically done.

That is a huge freaking postcode.

I stopped for lunch at a sad little sandwich shop near the Willesden Junction station. It didn't look sad from the outside, but when I went in, I found just four wrapped sandwiches in a glass display case, and some random pastries, and a coffee machine, and a fridge of chilled drinks. Oh, and a bored-looking attendant who charged me twice for my tuna melt. (It was an honest mistake. I didn't pay twice.) There were a few other customers, so I figured the place wouldn't kill me, and it didn't.

The weather was perfect, thank goodness. Not too cold, with a clear sunny sky and hence lots of interesting shadows. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- shooting pictures is so much easier and more interesting on a sunny day.

I got home last night to find that Dave had taken Olga to Hampstead Heath, bathed her, and gone shopping for groceries. Now that is a good husband! He made chicken pot pies last night and we watched a movie called "Filth," with James McAvoy. Let me just say, the title does not lie. It was a mad scramble of sex and violence -- kind of Pulp Fiction-ish, but not as good. McAvoy was interesting, but I'm still confused about the ending. The impenetrable Scottish accents didn't help.

(Photo: A carpet shop in Harlesden, yesterday.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Freaky Friday

Yesterday was such a peculiar day. I took the early shift in the library so I was at work by 7:30 a.m., and then I had the field trip to the British Museum with 9th graders, followed by an interview with the student newspaper, followed in turn by a student meeting in the afternoon. Lots of non-routine activity!

The field trip went well, thank goodness. I wasn't quite as obsessed about keeping everyone together as I was with the fifth graders, since these kids could at least get home on their own if need be. We visited the Africa galleries, as the kids were learning about pre-colonial Africa and the ancient kingdom of Benin. (Did you ever study this in school? I'm pretty sure I didn't. at least not to any great depth. Thank goodness for more multicultural, diverse education.

(In fact, when I was in high school, I had a really woeful experience with world Social Studies. My class was taught by a coach, who was both a really nice guy beloved by students and a terrible teacher. I specifically remember him standing at the front of the room and lecturing about the discovery by "Cornipius" that the earth revolved around the sun. Fortunately I already knew who Copernicus was.)

Anyway, back to the present: I'm not sure why the student newspaper wanted to interview me -- something about staff members and how we view the school community? But most of the questions seemed to be about me and my background. I guess we'll see when the article comes out!

Dave and I were both at work about 12 hours (poor Olga, though she has her dog-walker!) and by the time we got home we were bushed and ordered pizza. The chicken wine, I am happy to report, was a good accompaniment.

(Photo: The steps at the Wembley Park tube stop.)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cracovia and Chicken Wine

Friday, at last! My God, this has been a long week.

When I found this wall (above) during my walk near Neasden last weekend, I had no idea what it meant. I thought it was someone's joke about the neighborhood -- an allusion to crack cocaine, maybe? But it turns out that Cracovia is the oldest existing Polish football club. So just the work of a sports fan, not a social commenter.

Here's the wine we bought yesterday for dinner tonight. I thought Ms. Moon would appreciate it! The name translates to "The Old Farmhouse," which sounds like it should be earthy, charming and cheap. It was definitely the latter -- we'll see about the former.

I'm sure you all heard about the ridiculous assertions from Fox News in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre that parts of Europe, including the entire city of Birmingham, are essentially off-limits to non-Muslims. I was impressed that Fox was shamed into apologizing for this absurd untruth, but when I began looking around on the Internet for the source of that information, I was alarmed at how many right-wingers perpetuate similar notions. Let me state on the record: I went to Birmingham not long agoMe, a non-Muslim, and a gay one at that! Not only was I not subjected to Sharia law, I wasn't even noticed.

The Fox alarmists and their ilk seize on the actions of a few fringe outliers to be representative of the entire Muslim community. Yes, there are sometimes culture clashes. If Dave and I walked through predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in Walthamstow or Whitechapel holding hands, we probably would be challenged. But we'd also be challenged in a lot of white, middle-class neighborhoods in the United States. (Again, for the record, I've walked through a lot of Muslim neighborhoods in London and I've never had a problem.)

By the way, that beautiful library that we toured in Birmingham (see the link) has been suffering at the hands of municipal budget cutters. I read recently that it was drastically reducing its hours and cutting more than half its staff. Sad. (I am now even more confident that I'm doing the right thing by not investing in a library science degree, something I had considered. I'm not sure there would ultimately be a return on that investment.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mundane January Stuff

There comes a point at which January feels like a slog. The days run together, mostly time spent indoors because it's so dismally rainy and cold, work time sliding into leisure time into sleep and back into work time. That's kind of how I feel now. I struggle to come up with anything to write about because most everything is routine.

I have been asked to chaperone a field trip tomorrow -- another trip to the British Museum, this time for 9th graders. I'm much less nervous about them than I was about the 5th graders. And we're going to a different exhibit so there will be something new to see.

I'm also going to lead a photography expedition for 8th graders in April. That should be fun! I'll give them a talk about street photography, and then we'll head out to East London for a day of walking around. More about that as the time approaches, but I'm looking forward to it.

Meanwhile I'm employing my photography skills in another way by taking portraits of some of the teachers as they read books. We're going to use them to produce posters encouraging kids to read -- the brainchild of one of my library coworkers. It's a cool idea, and I think some of the pictures have turned out well, even though I am really not a portrait photographer. It's good to try new things, right?

Dave and I Skyped with my mom on Tuesday night, which was good -- though we started talking at 8 p.m. and soon Dave and Olga were both sound asleep. I suppose 8 p.m. is a little late to begin a Skype conversation when we get up as early as we do! We talked about Mom's plans for downsizing, which I'll be helping her with when I visit next month.

Finally, I did buy some nibblies at the school bake sale for animals. By the time I got there almost everything was gone -- I got the last mini cupcake and one of three remaining oatmeal bars. (No one ever wants the oatmeal bars.) So, yes, I contributed. Far be it from me to let a panda go hungry. Or something.

(Photo: West Hampstead, Jan. 16. I think "Lately" is a bar.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I had a weird British TV experience on Sunday. Dave and I were flipping through channels and came across one of those real estate shows that follows a family searching for the right house. This particular show was about Brits seeking property in a sunny vacation destination. And where were they looking?

Davenport, Florida.

I couldn't believe it! When I was a young newspaper reporter, in the late '80s, Davenport was one of the towns I covered. Back then, it was a sleepy little burg straddling the road between Kissimmee and Haines City, with a neat grid of streets named after trees and rivers, under moss-draped oaks. The town was surrounded by acres and acres of citrus groves, pastures and woodlands.

I liked its quaintness. The area had some intriguingly peculiar place names: Mystery House Road, Pink Apartment Road. Nearby Haines City had Lake Confusion. I seem to remember a Lake Surprise and a Lake Disappointment, or I might be making that up.

But then the big Christmas freeze of 1989 came -- the last of three major freezes that decade -- and all the groves were decimated. They slowly fell to development. I sat in City Commission meetings where plans were discussed for a huge development of hundreds of homes, sprawling from Davenport's northwest corner. The commissioners seemed to genuinely struggle with the idea that such a behemoth was coming. I still remember one of the older ladies exclaiming, "Why, we wouldn't be Davenport anymore!" (Or something to that effect.)

Now, the area known as Davenport basically includes all that land extending up to Interstate 4, including hundreds and hundreds of new homes in several golf and vacation communities. Hence, Brits looking for houses to buy. (Those new developments aren't actually within the city limits, which seem essentially unchanged, from what I can tell on Google Maps.)

The properties we saw on the show were typically characterless suburban houses, with pools and lanais, decorated in neutral tones, on empty streets populated to varying degrees by out-of-town visitors. Not like the old mossy streets of the real, inhabited Davenport. It seemed so weird to me, watching a TV show (in London!) about this tiny town where I used to work.

The world really has gotten smaller!

(Photo: My evening bus commute, which of course has nothing to do with Davenport.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bees and Dragonflies

Last spring, street artists Louis Masai and Jim Vision launched a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers faced by Britain's bee population -- such as dwindling habitat. They painted several murals in East London pointing out that bees are essential to our own food chain.

I only recently became aware of these murals through Sarah's blog, so I traveled out to Bethnal Green on Sunday morning to check two of them out myself. They're still going strong, more than six months later.

There are (or were) apparently a couple more murals in Shoreditch and Hackney. Photos of those can bee seen here. I didn't try to see them all, so I can't say for sure which ones are still around.

On a possibly related note is Masai's nearby mural of an orange spotted emerald, a type of dragonfly now extinct in the UK. (Fortunately they still exist elsewhere in Europe, though apparently their existence is precarious there too.)

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Mechanics of Kong Play

It was back to the cemetery for me and Olga yesterday. We had a long, exciting walk full of squirrel-chasing and running. No one yelled at us this time, and we encountered numerous other dogs.

Here's what usually happens when we go to the cemetery: Olga carries her Kong toy in her mouth, and chases squirrels. When she gets really into it, she drops the Kong, only to race back and pick it up when the chase is complete. When she gets really, really into it, she drops the Kong and forgets where she dropped it. Then we launch a search-and-rescue operation. All I have to say is, "Go get your Kong!" and she begins a frantic, tail-wagging, nose-to-the-ground investigation. She usually has a vague idea where it is, which is amazing to me. We just have to spend a few minutes finding it.

If I get to it first, I grab it and hurl it as far as possible, and she goes after it like a rocket.

While she runs, I read inscriptions and admire decorations, from tasteful flowers to plastic toys and garden gnomes. Yesterday I saw the grave of someone -- a civil judge in Lucknow, India -- who was born in Calcutta in 1815 and died in London in 1888. Can you imagine what that person's life must have been like?

Yesterday morning I took the tube out to Bethnal Green, in East London, to get some photos of some street art out that way. It was quite a journey, with several tube lines shut down for repairs and lots of train-changing. I suppose I should be happy things are being fixed.

(Photo: A gravestone in the cemetery, yesterday.)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wembley Stadium and a Martini

I was back out in NW10 yesterday for Bleeding London, and I took care of a good chunk of unfinished streets. I think I might be able to finish NW10 in one more day.

It was a peculiar outing. At various times I found myself on a street lined with the mobile homes of people who apparently collect scrap metal for a living; near a railroad yard where I thought sure I'd be arrested; and in a bleak gray housing project. The arc of Wembley Stadium hung in the background of many of my pictures like a big white rainbow.

Despite a brief burst of damp snow, it felt good to get out. Meanwhile, Dave stayed home with the dog, which made him happy.

Last night I made use of our new martini glasses. You may remember we found these among Dave's possessions in his parents' basement, and mailed them back to London. (OK, they're not new, but they're new to me!) The picture isn't great, but you can get some idea of what they look like. The ball on the bottom is a sort of purplish blue. (Or blue-ish purple?)

I swear I've never before made a martini at home, though Dave says we did it once when we lived in New Jersey. It was a nice way to celebrate Saturday night!

I'm hoping to get out again today on a quick photo errand, as well as walk Olga in Hampstead Heath or at the cemetery. We were originally expected to get some snow today, but it looks like it's going to be intermittent rain instead.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bathing Beauty

Check out this playful (or eerie, depending on your state of mind) tableau in the front garden of one of our neighbors.

From some angles, this bathing beauty is given a modicum of modesty by a big shrub growing in front of her bathtub. I'm not sure what's growing in her bathtub. She's most visible at this time of year, when the foliage is more sparse.

Upon closer inspection -- yikes! She's been decapitated!

(I believe the hot water bottle is a special winter addition.)

Unfortunately, I couldn't get a clearer shot of her mossy shoes!

In general, I question the use of household plumbing for plants. But this is better than toilets.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Buying Socks

Remember how our upstairs neighbors moved out several months ago? Well, some new residents have moved in -- a man and at least one child, maybe two. I'm not sure the child(ren) live(s) there full-time. What I have noticed, however, is that we get more interesting noises in our flat -- furniture moving around and banging into things, heavy footfalls up and down the stairs, slamming doors. The last two nights, Dave and I were watching TV when suddenly a sound like a helicopter filled the room. I went to the front window to see if some large piece of machinery was rumbling down the street. Then we realized it's the neighbor's washing machine, on spin cycle!

Ah, well. Such are the joys of urban living in close quarters.

Yesterday I went down to Oxford Street on my lunch hour to pick up some socks and undershirts. I also wanted to just browse the clothes a bit and maybe get a scarf for Dave. I went to Debenham's, which was an ocean of colorless plaid. The only socks I could find were either for boots or were far too dressy. So I went down the street to John Lewis, where I found what I needed but wound up spending more than £100 on eight undershirts and four pairs of socks, which seems a little crazy.

I never did get a scarf for Dave, and I didn't see any other clothes that tempted me.

Clothes shopping does get harder as you get older, doesn't it? I feel like what's in the stores really isn't for me. It's for 25-year-olds who apparently want to recreate the grunge years of Nirvana (the band, not the state of enlightenment). This is why Dave orders everything online. I can kind of appreciate that.

I am an old man.

(Photos: Top, night in St. John's Wood. Bottom, a cute poster at school for an upcoming bake sale.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Battlefield, a Bulfinch, and a Mid-Life Crisis

We got walloped with quite a bit of wind and rain last night. It sounds like things have calmed down out there now, but the temperatures are supposed to drop below freezing later this week. I suppose I'll have to bring in that sprawling trailing geranium on our patio. We had it inside for a while (it's visible in the background of this photo) but it began to turn yellow and didn't seem happy, so I put it back out -- but it will definitely not survive a freeze.

We'll all be happy when summer gets here. Last night Dave and I were watching a gardening show, which of course depicted summer gardens in all their lushness with bees and flowers and thick plantings, and it made me long for a change of seasons. Our yard looks like the Battle of the Somme right now -- bleak and muddy and leafless. I'm eager to see what all our new plants do when they grow in again.

I read an interesting article in The Atlantic this week about so-called "mid-life crisis." (I don't think I've had a mid-life crisis -- at least, not yet -- but I suppose there's still time!) According to the article, researchers have found that happiness in life follows a U-shaped curve. People are relatively happy in their younger years -- looking forward to the future, setting out their goals, building their adult lives -- and they're happy in their older years, after some of those unattainable goals have been set aside and they've found joy in littler things. But in the middle, many people experience a slump. Their lives seem to be going well but they thought there would be more.

This resonated with me because I'm right in the heart of that slumpy age. As I said, I don't think I've felt a "crisis" -- in fact my life is still unfolding in surprising ways, which I enjoy day to day. But I don't have any illusions of greatness. I'm not going to change the world. (I never really expected to, so that helps -- I had no false goals!)

Anyway, it's an interesting article.

Dave and I watched the "Downton Abbey" Christmas episode a few nights ago. Does anyone else think that show has jumped the shark? I've often heard it criticized as a simple soap opera in fancy dress, but I really felt it in this particular episode. It's become "Days of Our Lives." I expected Macdonald Carey to come on and intone those famous opening lines.

(Photo: An artist named ATM painted murals of British birds around town. This one, of a bulfinch, is in North London.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cheers for Charlie Hebdo

I am so impressed with the editors of Charlie Hebdo for coming up with their latest cover. I love their commitment to free speech and their insistence on reason. Bravo! I don't see anything insulting about it, and in fact it illustrates the point that most of the muslim world -- even the prophet! -- would disagree with the violent attacks in Paris. It's a message of solidarity and unity.

People who are offended completely miss the point. I don't get the controversy.

I really wonder about our species sometimes. The world seems to be slip-sliding into a religious abyss, at a time when -- if anything -- we ought to be rising above the feudal thinking perpetuated by fundamentalist religion. Here's another example -- the doctored photo in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper that removes female world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from the Paris march of unity. So ridiculous!

And needless to say, we see craziness from fundamentalist Christians almost every day, at least in U.S. news.

On the milder domestic front, I cleaned up the front driveway yesterday. A disconcerting amount of leaves and trash had accumulated in the parking space below our flat -- a parking space that isn't even ours -- so I got out there with a bag, raked everything into a pile and bagged it up. Then I got to thinking about the leaves, which are good for mulch and no doubt contained lots of critters, so I took the bag into the back yard, dumped it out by the fence and threw away just the trash. We can probably use the leaf mould when we garden in the spring, and the critters can continue to enjoy it for now.

I am temporarily restraining Dave from grocery shopping. After our dinner party, we have enough leftovers in the house to feed Sherman's troops. I've also temporarily cut out my nightly dish of ice cream in order to eat the ocean of candy that we were given for Christmas. A couple of chocolates after dinner is about all the dessert I need. I don't mean to complain -- we are, after all, very lucky -- but holy cow, we have a lot of food lying around!

(Photo: A couple of pairs of shoes on a wall on our street. It seems to be a thing in London to set out your children's too-small shoes for others to take. I see them all the time in my walks around town.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


About the most exciting thing I did yesterday was buy shoelaces. I know that doesn't sound like much, but the shoelaces in my shoes were unraveling and they've been driving me crazy for a while. I located a shoe repair shop near school and walked over at lunch, and now that's done. Taking care of even a minor little problem like that makes such a difference.

My next mission is to go buy some socks. My socks literally have holes in them. When I was going through security at the airport on the way back from Michigan I became aware how terrible they looked. So I've been throwing them out as I wear them (the holey ones, anyway) and I need some replacements.

Don't I lead an exciting life?

Last night, Dave and I watched an old episode of "The Streets of San Francisco" featuring Celeste Holm. It made me remember the time she sat in front of me at a theater in New York. I didn't realize (or had forgotten) that she died a couple of years ago. One of my few random brushes with celebrity!

(Photo: Haringey, North London, on Sunday.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Back in the Old 'Hood

After my dinner party crankiness on Saturday, it was good to be able to get away and do some photography yesterday morning. I didn't get moving until fairly late and Dave and I had somewhere to be in the afternoon, so I didn't have a whole lot of time. Instead of doing more Bleeding London, which usually entails hours of walking and hundreds of pictures, I decided to keep it simple.

There were a couple of murals I wanted to see in North London, so I took a combination of tube and overground train and spent an hour or so alone with the camera and my iPod. It was good decompression time, and I took only a handful of pictures.

In the afternoon we went to see Chris and Linda, who live across the hall from our previous apartment in Notting Hill. It was strange to be back on the old turf. It seemed like we'd just left. Everything looks the same -- the nandina are still living, untended, on our former balcony. Chris and Linda tell us that real estate agents bring people around to the old flat every so often, but there's never been a buyer -- or even a renter. As I've said before, I don't know why the owners don't lower the price. The place is too expensive!

Anyway, we had a good time hanging out with the neighbors -- and it was wonderful having someone else do the cooking and cleanup. The dinner party gods paid us back.

(Photo: A mural by Boe & Irony on Black Boy Road, North London.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Dinner Party at which I Was the Crab

In yesterday's post, when I listed our weekend social obligations, I neglected to clarify that we weren't just going to dinner last night -- we were hosting a dinner for six. That's why there was so much work to be done around the house. I admit I was a bit pissy yesterday morning because I was vacuuming and dusting and cleaning floors and bathrooms while Dave was sitting on the couch watching cooking videos to get inspired. The division of labor didn't seem very fair.

But while I forced myself to take Olga out for her walk on Hampstead Heath, he went grocery shopping and bought everything, and hauled it all back home. (I'm not even going to ask how much it cost.) And, of course, he cooked everything, all four courses. I spent what seemed like a couple of hours on the dishes -- four dishwasher-loads of them.

The food was good, the conversation was fun. I think I just wasn't really in the mood to host a dinner party. Dave agreed it was a little intense given that we just returned from the states last weekend.

One good thing -- having people over motivated me to take care of all the little household issues that have gone untended. The dog-tracked floors, the paperwork piling up on the hall table. I finally, finally, moved the couch away from the wall and cleaned away the mold with bleachy water. I've been intending to do it for a while, but I'd let it linger in the hopes that any contractors hired to do remediation would be able to see it. Silly me -- what contractors? Now the wall looks clean and white, at least temporarily.

I'm going to try to be less cranky today. That is my vow.

On the bright side, I'm reading a very good book -- "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green and David Levithan. It's refreshing to read a young people's book that includes major gay characters, and that treats being gay with the casual matter-of-fact approach that many teenagers today seem to give it. It's perhaps a little too casual in its treatment of the process of coming out, and the struggle with self-identity that I'm sure gay teenagers still face. But overall it's very good and entertaining.

(Photo: A colorful door in Dollis Hill, Dec. 20.)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not Much of a Post

Dave and I have a busy social weekend -- drinks last night with some coworkers, a dinner tonight with some of the same coworkers, and then dinner tomorrow night with our old neighbors in Notting Hill. I was going to go out and do some photos today but I may just stay home. There's a lot of work to be done around the house and the weather's gray and windy anyway.

Other than that, I got nuthin'.

(Photo: Willesden Green, London)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Crate and Portrait Updates

Our box mailed from Michigan arrived the other day. It's sort of surreal to mail yourself something -- to package it up and feed it to the great postal beast, and have it returned to you thousands of miles away, unscathed. Anyway, our milk crate and martini glasses are here now, safe and sound.

Have I mentioned that I spoke to eight 8th-grade English classes this week about interviewing techniques? They're doing a project in which they interview staff members or fellow students about their hobbies (or, as their teacher put it to me, their "passions"). So I was asked to talk a bit about conducting a good interview, drawing upon my newspaper experience. It went well but it was also nerve-wracking and I'm glad it's over. It's hard to do the same presentation again and again, and ironically, I always considered myself a much better writer than interviewer.

My colleague at work has more or less finished my portrait! He said he still has a bit of finishing work to do on it, and it turns out he's painting two, the second one much larger and a more full-body pose. I've seen that one in development and I can already tell I'm going to like it more, though I think this one turned out very well. Something about including a person's hands in the picture gives it a great deal more depth, I think. (The same is true of photographs.)

It's flattering but also a little strange to be on the receiving end of his artistic interest. Whenever I talk to him now I feel a little awkward, strangely. And I'm concerned that I haven't shown adequate enthusiasm and/or appreciation for his work -- I've told him it looks great, but should I offer to buy a painting, for example? He's said he'll give us a print when he's done, so I suppose purchase is not expected. It's just weird to think a couple of portraits of me will be floating around out there somewhere, probably for years to come!

(Top photo: Shadows on an apartment building in Harlesden, northwest London, Dec. 13.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Issues Both Serious and Not

Remember our long-standing request for minor apartment maintenance? Dave and I asked our management company about six months ago to make some repairs, including fixing our broken stove light and vent hood and putting a latch on the garden gate. Our request lingered and lingered for ages, apparently lost in a sea of bureaucracy and red tape.

Dave was fit to be tied at how long it was taking, and a few days ago we even suggested going out to get our own handyman and deducting the cost from the rent. Fortunately we didn't have to go that route. Yesterday, we came home from work to find everything fixed. Hallelujah! Dave can now see what he's cooking.

On my way to work Tuesday morning I spotted this little card (left) lying on the sidewalk. Somehow I recognized it right away as a Player's cigarette card. Cigarettes used to come with little collectible cards inside the packs -- just like bubble gum used to come with trading cards in the U.S. (And may still, for all I know.) This card shows a Scottish rugby player named I.S. Smith.

I picked it up, took it to work and cleaned it up as much as possible. When I did some research I discovered it's part of a set of sports caricatures by the artist "Mac" that were issued as cigarette cards in 1927! Here's one for sale on an auction site. What it was doing lying on a sidewalk in modern London, I have no idea.

It's a bit the worse for wear, which isn't surprising since it was sopping wet (a rainy morning) and had no doubt been stepped on and scrubbed around on the pavement before I picked it up.

And finally, on a serious note, how about the shooting in France? Scary and appalling. It really hit home for me, as a longtime newspaper reporter and editor.

There's a fundamental clash, it seems to me, between Islam and western culture on issues of expression. Islam teaches a reverence for higher authority that grows out of the idea of submission -- the literal meaning of Islam, submission to the will of God. Western culture, meanwhile, values individualism and vigorous, open debate in which no subject is too sacrosanct to question.

When I lived in a Muslim country 20 years ago -- Morocco, a relatively liberal society for that part of the world -- I found people generally much more bound by social expectations and cultural norms than I was as an American. I'm no expert, but I suspect that's why Democracy rarely seems to work well in Islamic societies, where the power of the individual is played down and social and gender roles are often clearly defined and rarely questioned. Free and challenging individual expression -- such as that featured in satirical cartoons -- is not understood, generally speaking, the same way it is in the West. Maybe that's stating the obvious.

This shooting -- this brutality -- is not only personally tragic for the people and families involved, but also for Muslims in general. It will no doubt lead to greater anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and all over the globe. Those gunmen, like all terrorists, did Islam no favors.

(And by the way, where did they get their machine guns? Doesn't this also call into question, like all mass shootings, the availability and ubiquity of firearms?)

(Top photo: An interesting mural in Harlesden, northwest London.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Continuing to Blog in Obscurity

I've been thinking more lately about the nature of blogging. (Don't worry -- I'm not giving it up. I know you were panicked at that possibility! Ha!)

Specifically, I've been thinking about what makes blogging work, and my own blog, and somewhat disconnectedly, whether I want to put more of my old writing online.

My blog has a small audience. Although I'm always happy to hear and see evidence that people read it, and I've made some connections through blogging with people I consider true friends, I would be lying if I said I did it purely for readership. I mean, if that were the case, I'd be the most depressed person on earth. Forty page views a day? Sad!

It's more about organizing my thoughts, processing my experiences of the world, communicating with friends, and recording things I'd otherwise forget.

In fact, I kind of like the cozy atmosphere. I almost never tout my posts on Facebook and I don't Tweet or do anything else to get them "out there." I've thought about it, but every time I think of all 500 of my Facebook friends reading my blog, I blanch a little. I don't mind if they find it, but I kind of don't want them all here at once. This is a small party. The room is not that big.

I read an article the other day, on a site which sadly I can no longer find, about the nature of a successful blog. The writer of this post said that successful blogs (measured in quantities of readers) are rarely personal journals. They tend, instead, to be about specific topics. So that might be part of why my readership is what it is.

Also, I read in the most recent New Yorker that the "ideal" Internet post takes seven minutes to read. And in a separate article the same magazine, I read that "effective" Internet posts (at least according to this guy) are those that become viral. "The way we view the world, the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it's quality," he said. "If someone wants to toil in obscurity, if that makes them happy, that's fine. Not everybody has to change the world."

I guess I'm cool with my own little corner of the Internet. I am definitely not changing the world.

I've also been wondering whether I should try to post my earlier journals online -- going back and blogging all the writing I began back in the late 1980s (judiciously edited, of course). The advantage is that I'd have a searchable index of my journals, and also safe storage of all those years of writing. (And yeah, a few people could read them, if they so desire.) The disadvantage -- well, I'm not sure there really is one, except that it would take a lot of probably fairly tedious work.

I know this isn't exactly a cohesive post. (Did it take longer than seven minutes to read? Someone let me know!) But it just goes to show what's been rolling around in my head vis-a-vis this little platform of mine.

(Photo: Walking a dog near Kensal Rise, Dec. 6.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


When Dave and I cleaned out the possessions he had stored in his parents' basement, we came across an album of photos taken during a school trip to Europe in 1998. They were mostly shots of the same tourist stuff we all photograph -- castles, city squares -- and many were of performances or groups of students. Ultimately he decided he didn't want them, so we threw them out.

(I kept the negatives -- just in case.)

Among the photos, though, I found these two, of an unusual art display featuring black and white garden gnomes. The negatives were labeled Munich (among a few other cities), so I had a vague idea that was the locale. But we had no idea who was responsible for the gnomes, or why.

I did some research and found a record showing that artist Ottmar Hörl put together the display, which was titled "Welcome." It featured 4,000 gnomes with outstretched hands, and its installation was timed to coincide with the opening of the Munich Opera Festival in June 1998.

"The gnomes' handshake humorously reflects the pose of the bronze statue of Max I Josef, Bavaria's first king, which stands on the square in front of the opera," the article said.

Hörl also mentions the display on his own web site, in a document where he discusses a more recent controversial installation of Hitler-themed gnomes.

It's cool to be able to show these photos off via the Internet. I didn't find many pictures of the display online, though I'm sure there are some out there. Now we can add Dave's to the public record!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Wintry Heath, with Parrots

Back to a chilly, misty Hampstead Heath yesterday. Olga didn't mind the wintry conditions at all. She had a terrific time. We were out for about three hours and she ran and ran.

I bumped into a coworker, Lindsey, who was out with her husband and her own dog. We went to Hampstead Heath with them a couple of years ago, before Dave and I moved within walking distance. For some reason now we never go together, though I do run into them from time to time. I like her and I should try to be friendlier. I've gotten so lazy about cultivating new friendships.

Olga and I also came across one of the countless flocks of feral parrots (or parakeets?) that chatter away in the London woods. They didn't seem to mind the wintry conditions either.

Dave, meanwhile, stayed home and saw a fox sniffing around in our back yard! He took a few blurry photos and a video -- it got very close to the house before jumping to the top of the back wall and slinking away to a neighboring property. Olga would have gone nuts seeing that!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Olga Retrieval

I'm sitting in the dark living room now, watching the sky lighten to gray through the fog blanketing the yard. And Olga is snoozing beside me. Yes, we are a complete family once again.

We went to pick her up yesterday morning, and as usual the transit system wasn't cooperating -- a tube closure left us stranded at Bond Street and we had to take a bus from there to Notting Hill. I wasn't winning popularity points with Dave because I was trying to run the entire errand without using a cab, in order to save the money. But on the bus I threw in the towel and we agreed to take a cab home with the dog.

By the time we reached the passive-agressive dog boarder's place, it was 9:20 a.m., about twenty minutes past the time we'd said we would pick Olga up. "Oh!" said the woman who runs the kennel. "I was just about to send her out on a walk because you're so late."

Have I mentioned how intensely I dislike this woman? When we dropped off Olga she made us buy a dog collar because she said she needed somewhere to put the kennel ID tag, and they couldn't (or wouldn't) tag Olga's harness. Every time we go to that kennel she criticizes us and makes us buy something extra. When we lived in Notting Hill and first contracted with her to walk Olga, our vet warned us that she was "certifiable." I've never forgotten that.

But the important thing is, she and her employees do seem to treat the dogs well. Olga greeted us joyously and ate and drank like a horse when we got home. Then she slept the sleep of the dead all night, as did I.

We stayed home all day yesterday, getting organized. I finished the Jonathan Tropper book, changed the sheets, ate lightly and walked the dog. Back to routine!

(Top photo: A parking lot in Willesden Green, Dec. 13.)

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Home to a Chilly House

We made it home safe and sound, as I suppose you can tell from the fact that I'm writing this. Our flights, from Detroit to Chicago and then on to London, were uneventful, aside from the fact that we had to pay an additional $160 for a very overweight bag. (Considering all that we had in it -- all Dave's clothes and his vast array of gigantic shampoo and conditioner bottles, several framed pictures, a game of Trivial Pursuit, eight tuba mouthpieces and a set of silverware, among other stuff! -- I'm not surprised.)

We basically flew all day, from 6:50 a.m. Detroit time to 10:30 p.m. London time, and had better food than on our flight out -- our main meal was breakfast, and it's hard to screw up breakfast. When we landed we sailed through immigration, picked up our bags without any drama, and were walking toward the Heathrow Express when Dave said, "Wow, this trip has gone really smoothly!" No sooner were the words past his lips than we realized the Heathrow Express was shut down, leading to a mild argument about whether to hire a taxi from Heathrow (expensive) or take the tube (slow). The tube won.

When we walked into our flat it was bone-cold, but otherwise unmolested. I watered the plants and unpacked, and we warmed up the couch with a bit of TV-watching. It will seem much more like home after we pick up Olga at 9 a.m. this morning!

I quit a book yesterday, which I almost never do. But I just couldn't hack my way through Iain Sinclair's "American Smoke," in which he followed in the footsteps of the Beat writers. I ordered it for the library because the reviews were good, but Sinclair's writing is fragmented and indirect, and I found myself reading entire pages with only the vaguest idea what was going on. (Appropriate for the Beats, admittedly.) I got about 60 pages in before I decided I just didn't need to do that to myself. I moved on to Jonathan Tropper's "This Is How I Leave You," which I love.

Maybe that should be my new year's resolution -- to quit more books.

Speaking of the new year, I did pretty well blog-wise last year. I posted almost but not quite every day because of our two-week trip to the Seychelles, where I briefly abstained from the Internet. I'll do my best to post daily in 2015. It helps me remember and process the world, you know? Blogging every morning was the one bit of routine I could preserve through our trip to Michigan, for example, and that touchstone really helped keep me sane.

(Photo: O'Hare Airport in Chicago, yesterday morning.)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Farewell, Detroit!

We are off this morning on an early flight, back to London and Olga. We've had a good visit but I'm ready to get back to walking to work, eating our own food (maybe containing some actual dietary fiber!) and romping on Hampstead Heath with the dog. We get to London late tonight and we have all weekend to adjust before we go back to work on Monday.

I don't think I ever quite overcame jet lag here in the U.S. I was awake almost every night between 3 and 5 a.m. So maybe getting back to a regular schedule in England, in our own bed, will be easier.

Coming to you next from home sweet home!

(Photo: This huge basketball stands beside I-75 on the way into Detroit. I drove up yesterday especially to get some photos of it!)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Well, here we are, in 2015. It's kind of scary, isn't it? I remember being amazed when we hit the year 2000, and now we're fifteen years past that. Fifteen years! Holy cow.

As one of my blog pals remarked yesterday, it's interesting how much more quickly time seems to pass for adults than for children. Remember how slowly the years dragged by when you were a kid? I remember being so happy when 1975 rolled around, because we could finally say goodbye to the interminable year of 1974. (Then again, that particular year was interminable for many people, I think.)

We had a very low-key New Year's Eve. I alarmed everyone by going for a walk yesterday afternoon -- I was only gone about an hour and 20 minutes, but apparently Dave's parents thought I had died. I walked up to Kroger, the local grocery store, to buy some of those infernal Keurig coffee capsules. (You know how I feel about those.) It was just a silly errand that gave me an excuse to take a long walk, but when I got back, Dave said his mom and dad were worried because it was 19º F out. I had a coat on, didn't I?

Admittedly, this isn't really a walking area. There are few sidewalks and no pedestrian crossings. But I just had to get out of the contained suburban development where they live. I suppose it's nice that they care enough to be concerned. I did apologize.

Last night we went to dinner at a local restaurant, Savannah's, where I had a martini, and that was all the chemical excitement I needed to see in the New Year. We came home and watched part of "The Expendables," which will give you some indication of how relaxed that martini made me. Normally I wouldn't be caught dead watching a Sylvester Stallone movie. (Except maybe "Rocky," and even that's iffy.) I never really grasped the plot and wound up going to bed before 10 p.m. Dave went to bed even earlier. We're such wild guys.

(Photos: A couple of local watering holes.)