Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fog, a Crown Roast and a Courthouse

We are almost done here in Florida. Getting close.

Yesterday Dave and I were up early and headed back to Bradenton. First we picked up my friend Sue, our party co-host, who needed a lift to her weekend place on Anna Maria Island. It was the least we could do, given all her help the day before! We stopped for my essential morning coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts drive-through, and drove down without any trouble despite fog that blanketed the Sunshine Skyway and made a kitesurfer in the bay seem like an apparition of a prehistoric bird.

After dropping Sue off, Dave and I met his family at the Cortez Cafe for breakfast. Then it was a day of cooking and chatting at their house. I didn't get outside once because it was too bloody hot. It really is like summer around here. It's ridiculous, although apparently a cold snap is due in a few days.

I talked with Dave's sister Chris, who lives in South Dakota and who I'd never met before this week. Meanwhile Dave and his sister Dawn made a pork crown roast, the kind that stands in a circle with little paper booties on all the bone-ends. Our booties were the colors of SweeTarts.

We left his parents with a boatload of leftover wine from the party, as well as some food. We hit the road last night and came back to Tampa, and now we're at Le Meridien, a hotel in the old downtown federal courthouse. I wrote about it briefly when I visited back in February, but I've never had a chance to stay here before now. It's really different. A bit institutional with its marble hallways and high ceilings, but that's the whole point -- I love the fact that so much of the old building was preserved.

This morning I have got to get out for some exercise. My head is spinning from all the socializing, so I could use some alone time, too.

Happy New Year, everybody! I'll report back tomorrow, in 2016!

(Photo: A pelican in Bradenton.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Wedding Party

Let me just say right off the bat -- I have no pictures of the wedding party. Sorry about that. Lots of people were snapping away with their iPhones, so we'll have a good photographic record via Facebook, but I didn't want to run around with a camera. It was enough of a whirl just trying to talk to everyone!

But the bottom line is, it went well. Thank goodness! It was a casual backyard gathering on a shady deck at the home of John and Sue, two of my oldest friends. We may not have had 40 people but we had close to that, and everyone got along. Despite my old axiom that "It''s not a party in Florida until there's a fistfight in the front yard," things never went that awry!

I met some of Dave's relatives for the first time, including at least one who reads my blog -- hi, Aunt Diann! -- and I caught up with lots of old friends who I haven't seen in years and years. It was seriously kind of a blur. I came away feeling like I didn't give everyone adequate time, but John and Sue assured me that every married couple feels that way about their wedding party.

Dave's parents brought a beautiful Florida-themed cake, three layers decorated with white icing in aquatic shapes and garnished with sugar seashells. We put Linda Sue's grooms beside the cake on the serving table, and everyone seemed to get a kick out of them.

The food worked out well and believe it or not we had plenty of excess beer and wine, so today I have to call the liquor supplier. I hope we can return it, but if not we can redistribute it among our families.

After the party Dave and I decamped to the high-rise Hotel Floridan, an old Tampa landmark built in 1926 and recently renovated. This was the view from our room on the 19th floor. Not too shabby, huh?

Today we're headed back down to Bradenton for yet another family Christmas celebration -- because Dave's sisters weren't with us when we visited his parents a few days ago -- and then back to Tampa this evening. More car time!

(Top photo: Near Dave's parents' place in Bradenton.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Dam and a Diner

Dave and I are back in Tampa today, getting ready for the big wedding party. I'm both anticipating and dreading it. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, but after all this thought and planning I'll also be hugely relieved when it's over!

Yesterday we drove up from Bradenton and had a chance to explore North Tampa. This was my old stomping ground back in my college days, and the bleak-looking (but very Ed Ruscha-ish) strip mall above was the location of the Scotty's hardware store where I was a cashier. It's a shell of its former self, and apparently some kind of office furniture outlet.

When I worked at Scotty's, I used to take my lunch to nearby Rowlett Park, and sit on a bench by the Hillsborough River listening to Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" on my walk-man. In my memory there was a dam on the river, but I couldn't really remember what it looked like -- so we stopped in to check it out. Yep, it's still there.

From there we went to meet two old friends (and faithful blog readers!) Kevin and Liz, as well as Kevin's spouse Brent, for brunch. We gathered at this great old diner, the Three Coins, where they basically dared me to take pictures. I couldn't resist, even though the placement of those gigantic concrete poles is a bit in-your-face.

I had a broccoli omelette, grits and toast -- which in a diner always tastes better than it does at home, and I don't know why. (Excessive butter?) We had a great time catching up. They'll be at the party today, too.

On the way home Dave and I passed the old Liz Salon, which has apparently changed hands and become something new (but equally, perhaps even more, photogenic).

And we passed the old Tampa Greyhound Track, where they no longer race dogs (thank goodness) but apparently still take bets on various racing events. I love the weathered old signage.

We got to my dad's and made an afternoon excursion to the Citrus Park mall -- with my stepbrother, his wife and their son -- to exchange some Christmas gifts. Then last night my brother showed up with his family and we all went to dinner (with associated other relatives, some of whom I have not seen in years) for a total of 16 people around the table. Chaos!

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Distant Spoonbill

I love this part of Florida, near Bradenton and Sarasota. The greenery gets more tropical, the sun seems brighter, the water shines all around. It's easy to feel the slightly kitschy, old-Florida tourist vibe -- and I mean that in a good way. I lived in south Sarasota and Venice for six years in the '90s, and visited often all my life, so I know the area and it holds many good memories for me.

Yesterday Dave and his parents went to see "Star Wars." I bowed out, having already seen it last week, but Dave is such an enthusiastic sci-fi fan that he was ready to go again. I spent the afternoon relaxing at his parent's place. I almost finished the book I've been reading in fits and starts, and I walked along the seawall by the bay taking photos.

I never got a picture of a mullet -- they weren't jumping yesterday, maybe because the wind was up and the water seemed choppier. (I haven't the faintest idea why mullet do or do not jump.) I did, however, find some picturesque pelicans. I'm pretty sure I also saw a roseate spoonbill in flight -- a big pink bird, which in these parts generally means spoonbill -- but it was fairly far away and I didn't have the camera ready.

One of Dave's sisters flew in last night from Michigan, and we drove up to Tampa to pick her up. We came back to Bradenton and went to dinner at a local seafood restaurant, where I continued the slightly kitschy Florida theme by ordering coconut shrimp. Even though they're fried and somewhat sugary -- especially when accompanied by apricot-and-horseradish dipping sauce -- I firmly believe that you just cannot go wrong with coconut shrimp.

This morning Dave and I are driving back up to Tampa to meet some friends, spend more time with my dad and get ready for our party tomorrow. It's a good thing I don't mind being in a car!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Back from Jax

Well, that was a quick Jacksonville jaunt. Dave and I are back in the Tampa area now, having driven down yesterday.

And a tedious drive it was! Normally we take the older highways, like U.S. 301, to get up to Jacksonville, because from where my mom used to live they were the most direct route. But since we were coming back down to Bradenton, I decided to do it all via Interstate. I knew it would be less interesting but I hoped it would be faster.

As it turned out -- no. Five hours later we rolled into Bradenton, having endured several mysterious stop-and-start traffic jams between Disney World and Tampa. I was reminded that in Nigeria, traffic jams are called "go-slows," and that's exactly what these were. We all just went slow for a while, for no obvious reason, as if held back by a giant magnet or Star Trek tractor beam.

We thought maybe the kiddies were flocking to Disney for the Christmas holidays, but the Disney exits themselves didn't seem all that busy. So who knows what was going on.

We did see one accident, involving an overturned horse trailer, on I-95 just south of Jacksonville. Fortunately the horses were standing and grazing by the side of the road, their reins held by a woman, next to the battered trailer. Everyone acted as if it were the most normal thing in the world to graze horses on the shoulder of I-95. I don't know how the horses took the wreck so well. I told Dave, "Thank god they're OK, because if I'd seen injured horses, I don't think I'd ever get over it."

Anyway, now we're with Dave's parents in Bradenton. They live on the water in Cortez, an old fishing village, and I spent about an hour yesterday sitting by the bay trying to get a picture of a jumping mullet. They were coming out of the water all around me, but of course when one jumps, there's not enough time to aim and shoot before it's back in the water again. So I tried simply aiming my camera at a patch of water and waiting. So far that hasn't worked, though I had some close calls. I may resume that challenge today. (It's like fishing with a camera!)

(Photos: An abandoned motel near Hawthorne, Fla., on U.S. 301, from our drive up to Jacksonville.)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Mom's New Digs

Yesterday, after the craziness of gift-opening and before our feast of pork wellington, we went to check out my mom's new apartment at a retirement center near my brother's house. That's mom above, walking around the older part of the development.

(Her apartment is in a newer area where the architecture isn't quite so mod.)

There's tons of wildlife. This huge katydid perched on the molding over my mom's front door. We marveled that it knew to pick the doorway of the one old lady in the whole complex who wouldn't immediately kill it with a broom.

There are big, mossy turtles bobbing in the pond, which connects to a creek and eventually to the mighty St. John's River.

And of course we saw plenty of squirrels. Reportedly there are also alligators, which may deter my mom from ever using her kayak. She may wind up selling it on Craigslist.

We said passing hellos to other residents, some of whom were dressed in Christmas finery, but I didn't get to meet any of Mom's immediate neighbors. She's still getting to know them all herself, since she's only been there a couple of weeks.

Anyway, it's a nice place and my mom has a very comfortable, spacious apartment. I know it's a relief for her to never have to worry again about roof maintenance or a septic tank or flood and sinkhole insurance, or any of the other complications that go with owning a home in Florida. Liberation!

(By the way, I am deliberately not visiting our old house during this trip. Now that it's been sold, I figure we need to let it go.)

Gift-wise, Dave and I got a bag of excellent caramel candies and a Starbucks gift card, which will come in handy, and the girls have been having a great time twirling around in their new dresses and playing with their various gizmos. A successful holiday all around!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Dave and I set out from my dad's house near Tampa yesterday and drove north to Jacksonville. It was a mostly silent trip -- Dave was plugged into his computer working on some music for school, and I scouted out possible photo opportunities. I did nab a couple of interesting shots, which you may see here over the next week or two.

We're now at my brother's, where we'll no doubt spend this morning watching my nieces rampage through the approximately 100 presents under the tree. My mom is here too, newly moved to this city, and somewhere between the gifts and the food we'll go over to see her new place.

I hope everyone has a great Christmas! I'm thinking of all of you -- and our Olga, too, curled up in her kennel in England.

(Photo: Downtown Tampa, earlier this week.)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Monsieur Bibendum Wins the Game

Dave and I finally went to see "Star Wars" yesterday. He's been itching to see it since it opened, and since we had to abandon our plans to go last week due to his cold. (Which is pretty much gone except for residual cough, thanks for asking.) We liked it a lot. It's a very skillful retelling of essentially the same story as the first movie, but set several decades farther into the future.

It was great to see Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in their old roles, though it does drive home the fact that the original was filmed almost 40 years ago. Youthful insouciance and swagger is now tinged with vulnerability. Just as I teared up when I saw Leonard Nimoy reprise his role in the newest "Star Trek" franchise, I teared up seeing those three again. We were all so young. (Well, I was 10 -- really young!)

Before the movie we went to lunch at Village Inn with my dad and stepmother, and found this perplexing message on the sidewalk:


Village Inn is an old standby from childhood. As Dad joked yesterday, it was the site of many dramatic family conversations. (It's where I came out to him back in 1985, for one thing. Never did I envision going there 30 years later with my male spouse!) It was free pie day, and even though I didn't want any pie, the parents insisted I get my free piece so they could take it home and eat it later.

After lunch and the movie Dave and I made a brief circuit of University Square Mall, where I spent much of my youth and bought all my clothes. It's had its ups and downs in the intervening decades but it's on the verge of a major makeover. Yesterday I got a belt (because I forgot mine in London) and a few new pairs of shorts, because it's so freaking WARM here and I brought mostly long pants.

Finally, last night, Dave and I accompanied my stepsister and her husband to a trivia game at a neighborhood bar. They go every week, and Jennifer has been trying to draft me for her team each time I visit. So I finally tagged along, and indeed we won handily. I couldn't believe it when the 45-point Brain Challenge (or something like that) question was, "Bibendum is the real name of which corporate mascot?"

Bibendum, you may remember, is the name of a restaurant in London -- in a historic old tire company building with huge stained glass windows of the Michelin Man. Hence, we knew the answer. When I jotted it down and handed it in to the quizmaster, she said, "How the hell did you know that so quickly?"

What can I say? I've been around.

(Top photo: A barbecue trailer in North Tampa. Smoked mullet, anyone?)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Day of No Great Consequence

So, yesterday was pretty boring. Dave slept in for a couple of hours, recuperating from our flight. We spent the morning with my Dad and stepmother, and in the evening we went to dinner at a local Spanish restaurant.

And in between -- oh yeah -- we GOT MARRIED.

Finally, after all our preparations and bureaucratic complications, we were able to push our 5 1/2-year-old civil union over the finish line and turn it into a marriage. And you know what? Surprisingly, it does feel different. Our commitments to each other haven't changed a bit, but just calling it marriage makes it feel firmer and more solid. The social construct of marriage has a much longer shelf-life than civil union, after all, and thus all of us have a clearer picture of what it should entail.

For us, it entailed going to a Mediterranean restaurant afterwards and having lunch and sangria. This is our official wedding photo. Who needs a fancy photographer?

The process was fairly effortless. We drove into downtown Tampa and went to the courthouse, where we filled out a license application and waited only briefly before being called to a clerk. He asked for our identification, entered all our information into a computer (our foreign addresses didn't faze him one bit) and performed a brief ceremony. We didn't do rings or anything -- just sat at his desk, said "I do" and kissed.

We're not big on formality.

The only hiccup came while the clerk was working on the computer. While making chit-chat, he asked us about living in London and brought up terrorism in Europe. "Did you know," he said, "that there are whole neighborhoods in Paris where the police won't even go?"

Dave immediately shot back, "That's not true."

And I thought, oh lord, we're going to have a political disagreement -- which we could not afford because we needed something from this guy. So beneath the counter, I put my hand on Dave's knee and said something bland like, "Well, there's certainly some tension. But we love Paris." And I steered the conversation in a different direction, and all were spared.

Dave is right, of course. That story about police no-go zones in Paris is a right-wing misunderstanding at best and fiction at worst. But we didn't need to go there on our wedding day!

Anyway, marriage is significant, but for us it is truly a formality -- a necessary step to allow the newly changed laws to catch up with our existing relationship. We'll still count July 21 as our anniversary, and we are not changing our names. Maybe someday we'll get rings, but there are so many other ways I'd rather spend that money -- I suspect it won't be soon!

(Top photo: A taco restaurant in Tampa. A new take on the food truck!)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Dark Yard

It's 5:25 a.m. here in Florida, ridiculously early, but of course my body thinks it's 10:25 a.m. -- ridiculously late. So I've been up for a while, having coffee and taking photos in the dark side yard of my dad's guest house. I've probably been annoying all the neighbors by repeatedly setting off the motion sensor lights, but don't they create a cool effect on that big ol' camphor tree?

I was only out there about ten minutes and I was gnawed by mosquitoes. It's DECEMBER. The mosquitoes are supposed to be dead by now. They did not get the memo.

Our flight was OK, but really, really long. We were on that plane for 10 hours and 20 minutes, about an hour longer than usual. Strong headwinds, said the pilot.

Also, for some reason, British Airways decided that Dave and I didn't need to sit together -- despite the fact that we booked our tickets together. I think this is because they offer a scheme by which you can choose your seats ahead of time, but it costs extra. They basically punished us for not spending that money.

I did, however, get a gin and tonic, and I sat between some guys who weren't terrible traveling companions. The worst I can say is that one of them listened to his iPod for most of the trip and continually played air drums and jiggled his leg to the beat -- which jiggled our whole row of seats. I looked over at one point and he was listening to a song by The Vibrators, and while I don't know their music, I was feeling their rhythm. (That is not a dirty joke, I swear.)

I read "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros, a charming and vivid little book of vignettes about growing up in a poor urban neighborhood. My favorite line: "He has two little black dogs that go everywhere with him. They don't walk like ordinary dogs, but leap and somersault like an apostrophe and comma."

I also watched "Bridge of Spies" with Tom Hanks, which was OK, and started the book "Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?" by Stephen Dobyns, about a network of gangsters and con artists in New England. I bought it for the library based on a positive review. (And the brilliant cover, which -- for plot points too complex to relate here -- features a beagle puffing on a cigarette.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

About to Take Flight

Once again, I felt better yesterday -- well enough to take Olga back to the cemetery. I had to keep her on the leash much of the time because I saw about a half-dozen people there decorating graves, I suppose for the holidays. I'm sure she didn't understand why she couldn't chase squirrels, but she didn't seem to greatly mind. She could chase them with her eyes.

Dave still had a cough and a slight fever in the afternoon but he said he feels better too. So I think we're in good enough shape to board that plane today.

(Either way, we've gotta do it.)

And supposedly, a sick person is only really contagious when their symptoms begin. Right? Or is that an old wives' tale?

My packing is done. Olga's new harness is at the ready. Now we're just waiting for the dog boarder to show up this morning, and we're off!

Oh, and I've finally uploaded all my Lisbon photos. There are probably far more than you would want to see, but if you'd like, you can check them out here.

(Photo: A neighborhood Christmas tree, on Saturday.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Cemetery, and a New iPhone

Well, I don't know what's going on health-wise. I felt better yesterday -- still tired but not as tired -- so I took Olga to Fortune Green and to the cemetery. It felt great to get out of the house and get some fresh air. I know Olga appreciated it.

She also appreciated the brief burst of sunshine we experienced, and she appreciated the grass. As usual, plenty of it wound up in her digestive tract.

At Fortune Green, we saw a Christmas tree recycling enclosure with a sad little tree already abandoned inside it. (Well, Olga didn't think it was sad. By the look on her face, she found it hilarious.) If we weren't traveling I'd grab that tree, bring it home and decorate it, a la Charlie Brown.

In the afternoon, Dave and I went on a mission to get him a new phone. A work colleague spilled mulled wine on his old one, much to Dave's delight -- he'd already been angling for a replacement. (In fact I'm not at all sure Dave didn't douse it with wine himself.) We traipsed down Finchley Road to the Vodafone store, where we met with a very chatty salesman who presented us with a surfeit of options -- various data and calling plans combined with various phones, all with different up-front and monthly charges. He did a great job explaining everything, but good grief! In addition to phone plans, he told us all about telecom regulations and corporate telecom network purchases, as well as -- surprisingly -- cage fighting.

About an hour later we emerged with a new iPhone 6S and a fancy data plan, as well as an insurance policy should the phone be lost, damaged or stolen (a policy I'm taking with grain of salt given Ms. Moon's recent iPhone travails).

I thought about replacing my ancient iPhone, too -- the iPhone 3G Dave bought me in 2009 -- but the truth is, it's fine for talking and texting, and that's all I ever do. So I'm holding out for now.

We also thought about going into town for a new computer, but neither of us felt up to that task. I still think I can squeak a few more months out of this one. I'm all about pushing my electronics to their utmost limits!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Post from Indoors

This is about all of the world that I saw yesterday -- the view from our front window. I barely left home except to run briefly to the cleaners in the morning.

I am definitely not well, exactly, because I'm really tired and kind of nauseated. But I don't have any of the coughing or other respiratory issues that Dave has had, and I'm hoping that rest will clear this up quickly. I haven't taken my temperature, but if I have a fever it isn't much -- and Dave's was much lower yesterday.

Unfortunately Olga is home today with no dog walker, so I'm going to have to take her out for some kind of walk. It may not be the long walk to which she has become accustomed!

Meanwhile, we've been preparing for our trip as much as possible. I have Olga's new harness at the ready, to appease the demands of the cranky dog boarder (who picks her up Monday morning right before we leave). I've gathered all the paperwork we'll need -- and then some -- for our wedding license.

Not much else to report!

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Dinosaur of a Virus

On my walk to work I pass this office where a huge, golden dinosaur skull hangs in the window. It has sparkly teeth. I don't know what it means, but I kind of dig it.

Maybe it's a metaphor for our lives right now, because things have gone awry around here. Dave, who has been dragging a bit this week, felt seriously ill yesterday morning. He got himself to work in order to conduct his final band performance and then came home and got into bed. I was unable to reach him by phone all day because he was sound asleep. When I came home in the evening, I woke him up and we took his temperature -- nearly 103º F!

Now, he'd been lying under blankets for hours, so I'm guessing that was a bit exaggerated. But still.

We had plans to attend an IMAX screening of "Star Wars" with others from school -- in fact we'd bought tickets in advance for £20 each. But obviously Dave didn't feel like going (that's when I knew he was really sick, because he's been looking forward to this movie for months) and I couldn't very well traipse off to see it without him. So we had to let those tickets slide.

And now, of course, I'm wondering what to expect regarding our trip to Florida. We leave on Monday. I don't have time to get sick and get better.

Hopefully Dave will have time to recover and if I get this bug, hopefully it will be less severe with me, and over by the time I fly overseas. Some of Dave's coworkers have had it, and it seems to differ substantially with each person. Dave's entire department is run-down, having just come off an insane two-week period of almost nightly concerts and performances, and in fact Dave was sick at this same time last year.

But seriously. I cannot believe this timing. We can't bring all our family members a mysterious European flu for Christmas! Fortunately when we first get to Florida we'll be staying in my dad's guest house, which is a separate structure unto itself and I suppose if we were sick we could hide out there until we're better, without fear of infecting anyone else.


I stole that little sunrise/sunset symbol from a Web site I visited yesterday, just to show you how dark it is in London right now. Even after the sun manages to crawl above the horizon, it's almost never very bright. Which is another metaphor.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Plant Purge

We've performed a houseplant cull.

Our Brugmansia, which you may remember bloomed just a few months ago, has a very persistent case of red spider mites. We've sprayed it thoroughly a couple of times with an organic bug spray, to no avail. It's dropped almost all its leaves and recently passed the mites to the dahlia that Olga nearly destroyed a few weeks ago -- so now that plant is not only ragged from the dog, but its leaves are shriveling.

Dave, the gardening maven, was never all that impressed with the Brugmansia blooms, and the dahlia was a free gift from a nursery when we bought some other stuff.

Meanwhile, our frost-nipped hibiscus also has some pests and has dropped most of its leaves. And finally, we have another potted plant that we think is another Brugmansia -- I found it in the trash at a house down the street -- but it's never really grown or done much and it doesn't look great either.

So we put them all outside. We're going to let winter take its course. Time to start fresh.

That leaves us with just the avocado tree, the venus flytrap and an anthurium at the back door. I'm really hoping those mites don't somehow make their way to the avocado. I'll resort to the nuclear option (pesticide) if that happens.

We haven't done anything in the garden for weeks now. We probably ought to get out there and clean up some of the "winterkill" (to use a word I learned when I was on the board of my co-op back in New York City). But we want to let things go a bit, to give the critters winter cover and allow the plants to disintegrate and re-nourish the soil. Besides, we haven't had a hard freeze yet, so some of them are still doing their thing.

(Photo: Grass plumes in St. John's Wood, on our one sunny day last week.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


I read a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday about mega-rich homeowners in Bel Air, California, using shell companies to hide their ownership of property. In some cases these shell companies become so multi-layered and complex that local government can't enforce building codes and matters of public safety.

That's what's happened in the case of a house that neighbors call the "Starship Enterprise," a vast, curved glass structure that landed on the hills and looms over the surrounding houses -- which of course are hardly modest structures in their own right. The house's construction has flouted local building and planning laws but inspectors seem powerless to stop it, because they can't figure out who owns it.

This isn't a phenomenon unique to Bel Air. Wealthy property buyers all over the USA use similar techniques to conceal their identity. Similar things occur here in England, where The New Yorker not long ago reported on residents' frustrations at being unable to determine who owns a huge mansion in Highgate, North London, where a massive renovation project was planned.

Side story: When I visited Los Angeles as a kid in 1983, with my family, I was very insistent that we do a tour of the movie stars' homes. So one day we piled into the car and went to Sunset Boulevard, or maybe Hollywood Boulevard, and arranged with a tour operator to drive us through Beverly Hills and Bel Air in a van or small bus. (There were eight of us.) I took a million blurry snapshots of houses belonging to Lucille Ball and others of her generation -- most of whom were still alive at the time -- and the remarkable thing was that their houses, although large, were just houses. They weren't giga-mansions that looked like spaceships. Of course, Lucille Ball was probably poverty-stricken compared to modern Russian oligarchs.

Are the super-rich more insular now? Do they have less regard for the people who live around them? When is a big house big enough? If they're just looking for a place to park their money, they have no community interest at all -- they're not going to live there.

Most importantly, isn't there a legitimate public interest in being able to identify the owner of a piece of property? Legislative changes are clearly in order.

(Completely unrelated photo: St. John's Wood, in October.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Skype Drama

I Skyped with my mom in Florida last night for the first time since her recent major life changes -- selling our family home and moving to an apartment in a senior community in Jacksonville. The house sale closed last month, but she was incommunicado for a while because she had to get settled into the new place and have her Internet connected. We'd traded a few e-mails, but while she's quite conversational, my mom is almost comically taciturn in writing -- prone to answering questions with one, two or three-word responses. So it was good to actually talk to her, even though I'll be seeing her in just ten days.

However, we had a terrible Skype connection -- the worst I've ever experienced. I think it was a combination of my creaky computer, our weak broadband signal and iffy Internet on her end. We got bumped offline so often I thought we'd have to give up, and then I remembered that Dave uses his iPad to Skype. So I grabbed that and we managed to talk for about an hour more, though we had to reconnect once and we didn't use the video option. Which is fine, because I was in my bathrobe.

I guess the Universe was sending me yet another sign that it's time to get a new computer.

Yesterday a guy came into school to give a TED talk in the library. I got to hear bits and pieces -- something about "pushing the edge of innovation" and being "in the idea space." I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but in all honesty I was also trying to check out books and computer chargers and keep the kids in the next room quiet. I wasn't focused enough to be in the idea space. Everyone acted very impressed at the end, but being my journalistically skeptical self, I wondered whether the Emperor had any clothes.

Continuing my recent photobook fetish, I bought a copy of Robert Frank's "The Americans," originally published in the mid-'50s. During several cross-country road trips, Frank took a, well, frank look at America and published a book that questioned the glossy advertisements and Pepsodent smiles so common in popular culture at that time. It's a surprisingly diverse book, with blacks and Orthodox Jews and others who may not have seen themselves much in the media during the white-bread fifties. And it has an introductory essay by Jack Kerouac, which I haven't had a chance to read yet. Now I really must stop buying photobooks. At least for the time being.

(Photo: Leaves on Hampstead Heath, on Sunday.)

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Wet, Misty Day

I took Olga for a walk to Hampstead Heath yesterday morning. It was a very wet day and I wasn't sure she'd even want to go, as persnickety as she can sometimes be about rain. But it wasn't really raining, just misting -- and as long as Olga doesn't feel drops coming down on her body she seems OK with getting wet.

The gray weather was actually kind of beautiful and there weren't many people out. The only sounds were dripping leaves and occasional fluttering magpies and crows. Oh, and squirrels, of course.

Olga had some opportunities to chase her Kong on the sodden playing fields...

...where she got a bit muddy.

Needless to say, a bath was required when she got home. She carried a flower bed's worth of soil into the bathtub with her.

Afterwards I zipped off to school to see the high school music department's holiday concert. It's always interesting to see and hear first-hand the pieces that Dave has been talking about all semester -- including, this time, a medley of marches from "Star Wars." Appropriate, right? The students did a great job, as usual!

Sunday, December 13, 2015


I spent all day yesterday at school, judging a robotics competition. Talk about something I never imagined myself doing! A co-worker ran the event and about a week ago pleaded for volunteers to be judges. To get him out of a jam, I agreed to help out.

I was a bit concerned because I'm not really a technology-minded person. Talk about machines and gears and circuits makes my eyes roll back in my head. But as it turned out I was assigned to judge projects, which have more to do with identifying a problem (in this case, about ecology) and devising potential solutions. We looked for thoroughness of research, diversity of sources, that kind of thing. Not SO different from my background as a journalist and librarian!

The hardest thing was scoring everyone, and last night, I was beset by second thoughts about whether we'd been too hard on our teams. I kept envisioning all the kids and their various projects and thinking, "Geez, maybe I should have given so-and-so more credit!" But it wouldn't have changed the lineup at the end of the day, because we were just one of four judging categories and any variation would have been just a point or two within our category alone.

If that makes sense.

Anyway, it was all fun and kind of stressful and the responsibility nagged at me afterwards. I hate being responsible for someone else's happiness and/or disappointment. Particularly a child's!

But on the positive side, I got to present an award, which required me to flex my muscles as a public speaker -- podium, microphone and all -- and proved a moment of great excitement for one team. Again, not something I expected to be doing! Life is full of surprises!

Last night, Dave and I watched the movie "Michael Clayton," with George Clooney, and we got all the way through it and during the final scene, when George confronts Tilda Swinton in the hotel lobby, I realized I'd seen it before. I'm not sure why it took me that long to tumble, but it did. I have a vague feeling I rented it from Netflix not long after the Oscars in 2008. Still, we liked it.

(Photo: The entrance to a mews in Knightsbridge, on Wednesday evening.)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Diane Arbus

I just finished Patricia Bosworth's fascinating biography about the life of photographer Diane Arbus, who is famous for wandering New York in the 1950s and '60s, taking photos of peculiar characters. Her images are often said to capture and accentuate the grotesque aspects of humanity, though she resisted the idea that she only photographed "freaks" and did not want to be known as the "freak photographer."

Toward the end of her life in the early '70s, by suicide, she began to believe she was losing her ability to "capture a person's soul" with her camera. She felt like her newest work didn't reveal anything about her subjects.

But she had a lot of demons of her own, going back to her girlhood as the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan department store family. She was prone to depression, as was her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, and she often seemed fixated on physicality and sexuality, and would flirt with and manipulate her subjects to get them to give her what she wanted. As the rather overblown back-cover copy on my mid-'80s edition said, "HER CAMERA WAS THE WINDOW TO A TORTURED SOUL."

I came away thinking I might not have liked her very much. Which makes sense, in a way, because her pictures are not my favorite, either. Portraiture has never really been my thing, and the idea that you can reveal a person's inner character through a portrait seems like folly to me. You can say something about them, yes, and you can try to capture the moment their "mask slips," as Arbus put it, but what they reveal may be no more than a passing mood or reaction. I'm not sure it's an inner constant. Why is it significant to annoy your subject enough to get a photo of them pursing their lips or grimacing? Part of why she became so frustrated with her own work, I think, is that she expected more from it than it could give.

She also shot in a style that doesn't appeal to me much -- occasionally dark, grainy images with slightly tilted horizons and cluttered margins. She's not as slapdash and immediate as Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, but like them, she seemed to rebel a bit against the neatly composed image. I, on the other hand, am very into neatness -- and where she was interested in exposing grotesquery, I'm more interested in accentuating the beauty of the routine. So we have different objectives, I guess.

(Photo: Our neighbor's driveway, on Wednesday.)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Feather and Staffy

A few minutes ago, as I was making my coffee in the dark morning kitchen, I heard a lot of mad scrambling and growling at the back door -- Olga trying to get out. I suspect our friend the fox is in the yard. Fortunately this time there was no houseplant carnage.

I usually try to keep Olga inside until dawn, so she won't disturb our nocturnal wanderers, but it's getting harder to do at this time of year, when it's dark so much of the day. (It gets light about 7 a.m. and dark promptly at 4 p.m.)

She was thrilled last night because I gave her a bone from the last of Sunday's lamb. She ate the entire thing. It always amazes me how thoroughly a dog can consume a bone.

This is not Olga, but another staffy I found sitting outside a grocery store as I walked home last night. I wish I'd had my good camera, but I had to make do with my ancient iPhone. I was amazed how placidly this dog was waiting for its owner. Olga would be playing in traffic, and following any friendly passerby home! (Especially if they had food.)

Today is Holiday Jumper day at work -- and you know what that means. Time to break out the tacky Christmas sweater from last year! ("Jumper" is the British word for sweater.) We also get to wear jeans. It's the little things!

(Top photo: A feather caught in a tree on Hampstead Heath.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015


I don't often go to Harrods, London's most famous luxury department store, but yesterday my friend Pam was in town on business so we agreed to meet for dinner in the food halls. She wanted to pick up some things for her family for Christmas.

(I say I don't often go, but I have gone at least three times in the past -- once with Pam before, once with Dave's parents and once to buy running shoes, of all things. I couldn't find my size anywhere else!)

I know Pam from the Peace Corps and it's always great to see her. We went to the seafood counter for dinner, where we had insanely expensive but delicious fare. I ordered the "Cornish mussel pot," even though I'm usually a bit wary of mussels -- I correctly assumed that if there was ever a place to be ensured of fresh mussels, Harrods is it. Pam got sea bass, and we talked and caught up on the news of our families.

Then Pam got her shopping done. She had a specific list of requested items from her husband, such as a particular brand of oat biscuits (but he'd mistyped "oak biscuits," so we didn't know what the heck we were looking for). With the help of the sales staff we got everything figured out, and I picked up a few goodies for my own family.

Dave and I aren't planning to do much gift-giving this year, since we're spending so much on flying home and throwing our party -- but you gotta have something, right?

In other holiday news, we put up our Christmas tree at work. I strung the lights on Tuesday afternoon, and yesterday morning a gaggle of middle-schoolers did the rest. (Which meant that afterwards, the ground around the tree was strewn with pine needles, tinsel and shrapnel from a broken ornament, so I had to request a vacuum cleaner.) We did not reprise the dog penis chain -- this year we went with more conventional decor.

(Top photo: A busker outside Harrods, playing an electric violin. He was really good, and just as I took some pictures a police car passed with its blue lights flashing, giving everything a surreal glow. Middle photo: A tiny portion of a colorful window display.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Lost Property Office

Every Saturday morning, on my way to French class, I pass the Lost Property Office for Transport For London (TFL), the agency that operates all the tube trains and buses. There's an interesting assortment of objects in the window, bearing lost property tags from years gone by.

There's an ancient iron, supposedly left behind on Bus 23 in 1934, as well as an old Arriflex film canister from 1965 and an Austrian Eumig C16 camera from 1936.

There are stacks of records -- singles of Petula Clark singing "Downtown" and Anita Harris singing "Trains, Boats and Planes," supposedly lost in 1966, and albums including "Abbey Road" from 1969. (I say "supposedly" or "ostensibly" for the dates because I'm not 100 percent sure these items were really lost that long ago. There's an ABBA album in that stack of records, for example, that didn't come out until 1977. But maybe I'm nitpicking.)

Time Out London did an entertaining article about the Lost Property Office back in 2007, revealing that it contains trays of pink false teeth, racks of umbrellas, and items including wheelchairs, pushchairs (strollers), crutches, prosthetic limbs and mannequin parts, and even breast implants. Apparently most items stick around for only 30 days or so, after which time they're donated to charity.

Presumably, then, these are some of the oddities that they decided to keep.

They're quite possessive about them, too. There's a sign in the window saying that none of the items are for sale. But why not, if it would help pay expenses for TFL? Seems to me they need an eBay account!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Leonards Mystery Solved

Remember a couple of weeks ago when Olga and I walked past the old camera store in Hampstead and found workers dismantling the shopfront? All we could see was a bit of old sign underneath saying "Leonards." No one seemed to know what Leonards was.

Well, now we know! Olga and I found the shop in this condition on Sunday. I was afraid they'd have the old sign removed or covered up by the time I saw the place again. I'm glad I didn't miss it in its entirety.

And look at those beautiful old windows that have also been revealed, below the sign itself!

I'm sorry to see the camera shop go, but I must say, I think the storefront is going to look better.

In other news, I'm having a torrid little fascination with photobooks lately. I bought James and Karla Murray's second book of New York shopfronts, as well as a retrospective book of Joel Meyerowitz's work and a Phaidon book called "Photo Trouvée," made up entirely of found photos from flea markets, junk shops and rummage sale bins. Maybe this is to compensate for the fact that it's hard to take my own photos at this time of year because it's so freaking dark.

The father of one of my oldest friends died at home the other day, rather unexpectedly. I was so sorry to hear it -- in fact he'd been planning to attend our wedding party on the 29th and I was looking forward to seeing him. I'm a little surprised at how sad I am about it, considering I rarely saw or communicated with him.

Perhaps you saw that Holly Woodlawn, one of the transgender actresses who orbited Andy Warhol back in the days of the Factory, also died a few days ago. Dave had a student concert last night and I was alone in the evening, and I tried to watch "Trash" in Holly's honor -- but it wasn't available to stream from iTunes or Netflix. Bummer.