Saturday, September 23, 2017

My Missing Expenses

Remember how Dave and I both got our Indefinite Leave to Remain this year? The process in which we had to pass the "Life in the UK" test and jump through some other bureaucratic hoops in order to stay in the country?

Well, that process created some incidental expenses (study guides, test registration, passport photos) which our employer agreed to reimburse. So a few weeks ago I filled out an expense report, attached my receipts and turned it all in to the finance office.

Several days later I got a pay stub saying my expenses (about £95) had been paid by bank transfer. But the money didn't show up in my account. Well, I figured, I'd wait until my paycheck came -- maybe it would be included in that. But it wasn't.

So yesterday I went to the finance office and learned that the payment should have shown up immediately. In checking the account number, the finance guy realized he sent the payment to a different account. I assumed it must have been our old Barclay's account, which we closed in July 2016. This filled me with dread because it meant I had to call Barclay's again, and dealing with them is always incredibly painful. I thought perhaps the account wasn't closed properly and now had my money sitting there.

So I called Barclay's last night, and it was painful -- but not as bad as it's been in the past -- and the old account is in fact closed and has no money in it.

So, the bottom line is, where did my £95 go?!

Of course this all came to light on a Friday, so now I've got to wait until Monday to pursue the mystery further.

Stay tuned as, in the coming week, we try to unravel the tangled threads of modern British banking...

(Photo: A discarded plastic castle / toy kitchen unit (?) outside a house in Hampstead. Every time I see things like this in the trash, I'm filled with despair. All that plastic headed to a landfill, where it will linger for a million years -- and for what?)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Saving Doris

How's my cold, you ask? Well, I'm not sure. I feel like I'm past the phase of "active illness," but I am still congested as all get-out and coughing like crazy. So I don't know what's going on. Either I'm just clearing out my body after defeating the bug, or I'm courting a secondary infection.

I had planned to walk another segment of the London LOOP this weekend, but I'm not sure I'll be up for that. I won't rule it out yet, though. Let's see how today goes.

I think my Doris shorts are on their last legs. A big hole opened up in the soft, 23-year-old cloth the other day, and it wasn't along a seam. It was right over my thigh, showing a clear deterioration of the cotton. This is not a surprise, as old as they are and as much as I wear them, but I'm not sure I'm ready to give them up yet. Last night I sat down and sewed up the hole as best I could. My repair looks terrible -- like a four-legged brittle star crawling up my leg -- but it may prevent the fabric from tearing any more. Maybe I can get one more year out of them.

(Photo: A racing car and bicyclist at an auto yard near Erith, South London.)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

North Korea

I've been thinking about North Korea.

Of course I've been thinking about it for weeks now, off and on, though some of that "thinking" has actually been simply living in denial and pretending the whole situation isn't happening.

That's pretty much been the world's approach to dealing with North Korea, hasn't it? Close it off, pretend it's not there. Dismiss it as a tiny, isolated rogue state run by an authoritarian desperado.

In my defense, the North Korea problem is so big, it's hard to see what I, as an individual, could do. Worrying about it all day doesn't serve much purpose.

But I'm beginning to think that the best way to approach North Korea, on an intergovernmental level, is to do exactly the opposite of what the United States and much of the Western world has been doing for decades now. And definitely the opposite of what Trump is doing. Threatening Kim Jong Un is only going to bring on more aggression -- and unfortunately Trump seems incapable of responding to aggression with anything but aggression of his own. They're like two seventh-grade boys in a playground dispute, lacking the maturity to put a stop to it before they come to blows.

I think the United States should open diplomatic relations with North Korea. Kim Jong Un is basically a child throwing a tantrum. He wants to be seen, to be recognized, to be respected. Hostility is the only vehicle he understands to attain that goal.

America's continuing efforts to isolate him, to pretend he's not there, to tighten the sanctions that make his people suffer, are counterproductive. That attitude just makes him angrier.

So I say, let's give in. Let's talk to the guy. At this point, what have we got to lose? Not talking to him seems to carry a much higher potential cost. The United States needs to better understand North Korea, and North Korea needs to understand Americans as well. (My thinking on this point was influenced by, among other things, this excellent recent article in The New Yorker, which highlights our decades-long lack of communication as central to our current problems.)

This is assuming North Korea would respond to a diplomatic overture from us. I think they would. I think it's exactly what they want.

Trump's threat to obliterate the nation is, to put it mildly, not helpful. America should open diplomatic dialogue ASAP and, over time, involve North Korea in international discussions aimed at peaceful coexistence. I'm not sure it's an entirely attainable goal -- Kim Jong Un wants to unify the Korean peninsula under his regime -- but it's better than the status quo.

I don't see how talking to them hurts the USA in any way, except that it could be said North Korea bullied us into it. And frankly, I don't care about that. We must admit that they are now a force to be reckoned with.

Is Kim Jong Un a tyrant? Has he abused the human rights of his own people? Yes, but America has diplomatic relations with plenty of other tyrants. That in itself is insufficient reason not to talk to North Korea.

Diplomacy is the only way to head off the lunacy and posturing that will only edge us closer to planetary annihilation. Unfortunately, Trump has shown little interest in diplomacy in general. So I'm not optimistic about where that leaves us.

(Photo: Shadows in our living room.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Boston Baked Beans

Last spring, sometime toward the end of the school year, a mysterious bag of beans wound up in the library lost and found. Contained in this nifty canvas pouch, the beans were clearly marketed at tourists visiting Massachusetts.

"Take home the taste of Olde Boston," read the bag. On the opposite side, above a simple recipe, it continued: "This recipe for truly authentic Boston baked beans will remind you of the wonderful time you enjoyed in Olde Boston. For a great meal just follow these easy directions."

How these beans crossed the Atlantic ocean only to wind up abandoned in the school library, I'm not sure. But when all the students departed for the summer and it became clear no one was going to claim them, I took them home.

A few weeks ago, while uncharacteristically trying to clean off the kitchen counter, Dave decided to make them. But when he looked at the recipe, he realized that it called for molasses, and that is not an easy thing to acquire in England. At least, not that we could find. He ordered some from Amazon, and we waited a few more days for that to arrive.

Finally, last weekend, Dave was ready to begin cooking.

This is what was inside the canvas pouch -- a garden-variety grocery store bag of navy beans. Never mind that these cost something like $1, while enclosing them in canvas elevates the price to $8. Everybody knows tourists buy silly things at exorbitant prices.

Dave cooked up the beans, which took an astonishing six hours. (Not including soaking time!) As I told him, even if we didn't pay for the beans themselves, they were hardly free -- between the cost of the molasses and salt pork, and the power required to run the oven for that much time!

Still, they were yummy. I was most impressed. I haven't been to "Olde Boston" in about 10 years, but I guess this counts as a virtual trip. All courtesy of some careless student!

(By the way, although "Olde Boston" in this case refers to Boston, Mass., there is a Boston in Lincolnshire, England; the American city was named for it. I guess we could call it "Reallye Olde Boston." And I ate my Boston Baked Beans in the English style -- on toast!)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

More iPhone Curiosities

Since I was trapped indoors yesterday, mostly reading, I don't have much to blog about! So here are some more recent photos from the ol' iPhone.

First, the shadows are lengthening on my morning walks with Olga!

This strange, 2001-like monolith appeared on Finchley Road. I have no idea what it could be. I thought it was some kind of parking meter, but I don't think there's parking along this stretch of road, so that seems unlikely. Stay tuned!

A rather sad collection of free stuff on a bench outside the West Hampstead library...

I love that someone wrote graffiti outside the train station as "The Fare Evader." Not particularly skillful graffiti, though.

This medallion is on the exterior wall of a local auto supply store, but I have no idea what it refers to. I've tried Googling and come up with nothing. I'm not sure how long this shop has sold auto supplies -- it may have been something else in an earlier life. Any ideas? (*See addendum below)

I do know what this stands for -- the Zoological Society of London. Also known (at least by me) as the Sloth Car! When I was taking the photo a woman walked up and unlocked the doors. "I bet this car gets a lot of attention," I told her, and she agreed!

Finally, Dave bought a loaf of Warburton's bread recently that was the tiniest bread loaf I've ever seen. The slices were scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand. (I have biggish hands, but not gigantic.) I used it to make tiny sandwiches, which is pretty much all you can do with tiny bread.

*Addendum: The intrepid Jenny O solved this mystery! The LCS wreath is the mark of the London Cooperative Society, an organization that linked independent grocers, department stores and other retailers across the city between 1920 and 1981. Thanks, Jenny!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Crashing Through the Shrubbery

I took Olga to Hampstead Heath yesterday. Even though I've had this cold, I was feeling OK and I thought the walk would do us good.

We saw some asters in bloom (top). They're a late-summer flower and they're still abundant. I've been seeing fewer bees and butterflies -- another sign of the season changing -- although yesterday I saw a pair of red admirals on our butterfly bush.

Anyway, Olga was feeling super-energetic. I know I always talk about her running and running on the Heath, but in order to show you what this is actually like, I created the following video. Be warned that it's very quiet at the beginning -- all you can hear is the click of her dog tags as she's running in the underbrush -- and then I call out to her twice. (I just don't want that part to startle you!)

She's such a goofball.

Unfortunately, I don't think that walk actually did me any favors. I feel pretty terrible this morning and I called in sick. Maybe if I stay in bed all day (while someone else walks Olga!) I'll get over the hump with this cold.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pointing the Way

Well, my cold has settled into my nose. Mild, but super-annoying. I took the dog for a couple of walks yesterday but otherwise stayed on the couch reading and watching movies. We watched the cinematic equivalent of comfort food -- old favorites "The Shawshank Redemption" for Dave and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for me. Dave made me promise not to shout all the audience responses during "Rocky," but I did it in my head.

Anyway, I want to show you some of our local street signs, featuring fingers conveniently pointing the way to a nearby destination -- a larger street, maybe, or a public building.

Aren't these great? I tried to do some research to get some history about them, but I wasn't very successful -- so I don't know how old they are or if they are still maintained when, for example, a tile is broken or goes missing. I would guess they date back 100 years or so, which seems to be the age of much of the housing stock in this area.

I also can't remember whether I've seen them in other parts of London, or whether they're just a Hampstead (and West Hampstead) thing. There used to be a Borough of Hampstead, before it was consolidated into Camden in the mid-'60s, and maybe the fingers were a consistent feature of street signs in the old borough. That's all speculation; I just don't remember seeing them elsewhere in town.

Sadly, some of them have seen some damage.

To make things even more interesting, the design of the hands can vary from sign to sign. Some tiles feature a bigger hand with a more open palm. I don't have any pictures of those, but there's one here.

Anyway, just one of the curiosities of my London neighborhood!

Saturday, September 16, 2017


This is our kitchen windowsill at the moment. Do you like Dave's method of storing apples? Kind of sculptural, right?

Yesterday was a bizarre day. First there was the dud bomb on the tube train, which fortunately didn't do more damage. It rattled everyone, and a witness was quoted in the newspaper despairing that "nowhere is safe." But I think rather than feeling like we're all in danger, we should consider that everywhere is mostly safe. Yes, there is a modicum of risk, but walking down the street or riding on the tube, the odds are still overwhelmingly in our favor. I don't want terrorists to get more mileage out of this kind of activity than they deserve. (And yes, Dave and I rode the tube home.)

Then, to add to the bizarreness, we learned that a chilled giant iguana was found earlier this week languishing by the side of a highway in Scotland. Fortunately, he was rescued.

Dave and I had planned to go to the annual school trustees' reception last night, which was being held at Christie's auction house in Westminster. But I'd been developing a sore throat all afternoon, and Dave didn't really want to go, either, and the dog was so happy to see us when we got home -- so we just decided to stay put. I'm glad I did because my throat got much worse. I think it's just a cold, but I'm sucking on Strepsils like there's no tomorrow.

I learned a new expression this week. A couple of ninth-graders who came to my desk for one reason or another got excited about something -- I can't remember what -- and one said, "That's so clutch!"

"Clutch?" I asked him. And yes, it turns out, this is a thing that people say now. People his age, anyway. According to the slang dictionary, one of its definitions is "conveniently awesome."

As the kids left the library, I heard them laughing about my ignorance of the teenage vernacular.

"Generation gap," one of them said.

And since this is already such a strange mishmash of a blog post, let me throw in this photo, which I took from Google Street View. I happened to be checking out the street scenes in a little town on the Colombia-Peru-Brazil border called Leticia -- this was after reading a news story about native tribes in that area being endangered by gold mining. Street View happened to take me past this shop window, which I found pretty funny -- the gaudy flower arrangement, the assertively positioned mannequin. (If you'd also like to visit Leticia virtually, the shop is here. There's a second mannequin, also well worth a glance.)

What can I say? I'm easily amused.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Making Up Stories

Did you ever try to write fiction?

I've done a little fiction writing, but it was almost all decades ago, when I was a college student. I think I took a course in creative writing, because I have a couple of short stories from 1986 saved in a yellowing file folder that were obviously graded by a professor. But I have no memory of the class, or who the professor was. Sad!

When I was in eighth grade, I wrote a short story about a talking dog. The teacher liked it. I still have it. I will spare you any details because I can't quite bring myself to read it.

In high school, I entered a writing competition with two poems and a short story. As I recall, the story was an overwrought melodrama about a couple fighting in a hotel room in Istanbul. There was a lot of alcohol and screaming and breaking glass. What's funny about this is a) I had never been to Istanbul; b) I had never been in a serious relationship; and c) no one in my family drank much, so I had no experience with messy drunkenness.

So much for the age-old advice to "write what you know." I was just making stuff up. Still, I won the prize. I'm not sure anyone else entered.

Apparently I didn't save that story, because it's not in my yellowed folder. In college, though, I wrote a similar one with the lackluster title "A Night At Their House." It involves, unsurprisingly, a couple going to dinner at another couple's house. The men are business associates trying to work a deal, the women simply hangers-on. (So much for feminism.) The female host is a messy drunk who fails to provide any dinner at all and slings insults with abandon.

An excerpt:

     They walked up the long sidewalk to the front door and were just about to knock when, with a terrific cry of "Darling!" the door was flung open and a dark-haired middle-aged woman threw herself into Joe's arms, sloshing chablis from the glass she carried.
     "Well, hello, Linda," said Joe, looking embarrassedly at his wife.
     "Oh my God, did I spill something on you?" said Linda, pulling herself up on somewhat wobbly feet. Without waiting for an answer, she said adoringly, "Marilyn! How wonderful to see you again," and kissed her on the cheek. Marilyn smiled with great difficulty.
     "Linda, how are you?"
     "Well, I'm just fine!" She looked at Marilyn's clothes with red, disapproving eyes. "That is, until I saw your dress." And with that, she flounced into the darkened house.

It reads like an obvious rip-off of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But the teacher gave it a B-plus. "I appreciate the scope and energy, and flashes of style and wit, and fairly good ear and good social eye," he wrote. "But, there are blurry spots in the chaos, and Linda steals the show. Intentional? Also, the epiphany is unconvincing."

I also wrote one about a foreign correspondent in Africa who escapes a bloody political coup. Amid fires and looting he sees someone decapitated with a pane of glass (is that even possible?) and finally scrambles aboard an outbound airplane with only his typewriter. Again, an obvious rip-off -- this time, of "The Year of Living Dangerously."

There's also another B-plus paper, a character sketch of Mabel, a bar owner who pulls a gun on a pair of rowdy customers: "This is my bar, and that's my drink, and you two'll be leavin' right now."

It's all fairly terrible and derivative.

I made a meager stab at writing some fiction after I got laid off from the New York Times Company in 2009. But I threw it all out. I discovered I am just not creative enough to make up a truly original story out of whole cloth and keep it going to a satisfactory resolution. I'm better at telling stories about things that really happened. That way, my material is provided for me -- and as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

(Photo: Street art from Rainham, East London.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017


A couple of days ago, I mentioned playing my iTunes on the "shuffle" setting, and several of my commenters said they prefer to play songs alphabetically because they get a less repetitive assortment of music that way. I tried it, and by golly, it is much better. I've always disliked the tendency of "shuffle" to go back to the same songs or albums over and over. So thanks for that tip!

I retrieved our bird feeder lid. It's not worth explaining how, except to say that it involved a long pole and a hole in our fence. I didn't even need to disturb the neighbor again, though I suppose I should go introduce myself to her more fully and at least get her name!

And finally, we got a response from the book store about the book switcheroo. They insist, after investigating, that it really was an honest mistake and not some kind of homophobic message. They're sending us the correct book for free, as well as some vouchers toward future purchases. Frankly, I don't believe them. My co-workers seem more inclined to do so, but I think in the same way that people of color often recognize subtle forms of racism that I don't see, I am especially sensitized to homophobia. At any rate, there's not much more we can do, and if it was intentional on the part of a renegade holy-rolling employee, it will happen again. They can't say we didn't warn them.

(Photo: Moss growing in a sidewalk coal hole lid, West Hampstead.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Garden Mystery, and The Godfather

Still no resolution on the strange book switcheroo that I mentioned yesterday. My supervisor talked to the manager of the store, who said they'd recently expanded into international online sales and had to hire a lot more people, and that these new people have been making mistakes. My supervisor pointed out that this seemed unlikely to be a random mistake and urged him to investigate further. He said he would, and would let us know the outcome. Stay tuned.

I'd still love to flame them on social media, but my supervisor doesn't want to drag the school into a public conflict, which -- as much as it pains me to say -- I completely understand.

Dave and I have had to turn the heat on the last few mornings. Otherwise the house is painfully chilly when we first get up. It's 55º out now, and I'm hearing lots of wind roaring through the treetops.

Did I mention that the top of our patio-fence bird feeder went missing? I went to refill the feeder with peanuts yesterday morning and the lid was nowhere to be found. Spirited away by some spiteful, frustrated squirrel, no doubt. I spotted it last night in the neighbor's garden beneath one of her rose bushes. Now I just need to retrieve it, which probably means knocking on the neighbor's door. Fortunately, this isn't Mrs. Kravitz -- it's the neighbor on the other side, who we barely ever speak to. I don't even know her name. I should consider this a bonding opportunity!

Prompted by "The Sopranos," Dave and I recently decided to watch the "Godfather" movies. I had never seen "The Godfather, Part II," which everyone says is the best one, and although I never really liked "The Godfather," I remember being tired and falling asleep when I tried to watch it many years ago. (It was allegedly my father's favorite movie.) Maybe, I thought, if I gave them a second chance, I would finally see what all the fuss is about.

So we rented them both, and watched them -- not on the same day. I still don't love them, although I agree that Part II is the most compelling. I am just not a mafia-movie person, and they are too darn long. I think we're going to skip Part III, since everyone agrees that it's terrible.

(Photo: A bench along the River Darent, Southeast London, on Sunday.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Panic Mode

It seems that everyone I know has escaped serious damage from Irma. So that's one hurdle leapt, although many, many people are obviously still coping with her after-effects.

I had a completely crazy day yesterday -- so crazy that I had trouble sleeping last night.

First, I was indirectly insulted by a British book dealer. We ordered a book for the library called "This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids," addressing questions that parents may have if their child comes out. A teacher had asked for books on this subject, and this seemed like a good one.

When the order arrived, though, the package contained a Christian book advocating virginity and celibacy. What?!

The packing slip was correct -- so I don't think someone accidentally sent the wrong book. Anyone could tell the information didn't match. I think someone was deliberately trying to save my soul. And my soul does not need saving, thank you very much.

I wrote a pointed e-mail to the bookseller, and received only a bland "we're sorry you received the wrong book" message. They asked for the ISBN numbers, which I provided (they aren't similar). So we'll see where this goes. My friends all think I should make this go viral, but I want to give the shop a chance to respond more fully.

Then, to add more drama to the day, Dave called me just as I was preparing to close the library to say the dog-walker contacted him with dire news. Apparently, during their rainy afternoon walk on Hampstead Heath, a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree (!). Two of the dogs panicked and got out of their harnesses, one of them being Olga. At the time of his call, she was still missing.

Needless to say, that sent me into panic mode. I pictured her running loose in London, trying to cross busy roads and navigate her way home. As many times as we've walked to the Heath she might be able to do it, but it would be a perilous journey. She is completely heedless of cars.

Fortunately, as Dave was talking to me, he got another call -- this time from a man who'd picked up both Olga and the other dog, and took them to a vet where their microchips were read. That's how he got Dave's phone number. The man offered to bring Olga home, and in about half an hour he showed up, with Olga none the worse for wear. He declined our offers of money and wine as a reward.

I'd always doubted whether that microchip would work. At least now I know it does!

I hadn't planned to drink wine last night, but you can bet I did.

Oh, and speaking of self-medication, our neighborhood pot plant has vanished. It was still in the ground on Sunday morning, but yesterday morning it was gone. Someone must have clued in and harvested it. It wasn't me, I swear.

(Photo: Crayford, on Sunday.)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Erith to Bexley

Let me say right off the bat that I feel insensitive blogging about anything other than Irma, given that my family and friends are being walloped. The storm is happening now, but it seems like it's not as bad as first feared. So consider today's post a reprieve from hurricane news.

I walked another segment of the London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP) yesterday. I started in Erith, on the opposite bank of the Thames from where I walked a few weeks ago, and wound past the pub above and through the marshes along the rivers Darent and Cray to Bexley.

The bit along the Thames was surprisingly industrial. There were a few lost shopping carts...

...and some large scrap yards and recycling and waste centers alongside the path. But all I had to do was turn around, so that I was facing the Thames, to see...

...seals! Yes, those really are seals. Two of them. I would have missed them except another man on the path, seeing my camera -- and probably wondering why I was photographing the scrap yard -- pointed them out to me. Thank goodness!

Here's a super-enlargement of the above photo, so you can see his (or her?) flippers and whiskers. Apparently seals are not uncommon along the lower Thames, where they arrive from the North Sea.

The River Darent was largely an open, muddy expanse. But the River Cray, once I'd moved away from the Thames, became much more overgrown with vegetation and reeds. It flowed through a combination of residential and industrial areas. (Do you see that big sunflower in the picture above? Very impressive!)

In Crayford, I came across these metal cows, frolicking in a pasture at Shenstone Park. The cows commemorate a herd that lived here beginning in the 1840s. Their manure was used to help fix dyes used in silk printing -- an industry that apparently put Crayford on the map.

And farther along the path, I passed two ornate cast-iron lamp posts. They're the last surviving remnants of an old theater, and date from the 1880s. They now stand guard over an automotive garage.

From there, I walked through woods and fields to get to Bexley. Along the way I had a little diversion: I looked to the side of the path at one point and saw a small briefcase, or a big purse, about ten feet up a hill toward the edge of a very busy road. I could tell immediately that it was probably stolen and discarded there. I debated what to do, and decided to climb up to get it.

I was right. It contained car keys, passports and other documents. The papers were a bit moldy, so it had probably been there a while, but the passports were in a plastic baggie and seemed fine. I touched it as little as possible and didn't look at the contents beyond pulling the bag open for a quick glance. I decided to take it to Bexley and turn it in to the police.

Well, you'd think finding a police station in Bexley would be easy, but here's a fun fact: If you put "Bexley Police Station" into the maps app on an iPhone -- even while standing in Bexley, London -- it directs you to the police in Bexley, Ohio! Not helpful!

I asked a couple on the street if Bexley had a police station, and alas, they said no -- they directed me instead to Bexleyheath, a 15-minute bus ride away. So I went there and turned in the bag -- the police seemed appreciative, though one officer was put off when a spider climbed out of it. Then I took another bus back to Bexley and had a cafe lunch before catching the train for home.

I can tell these LOOP walks are going to provide no end of adventure!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Watching the Weather

Olga and I took a long walk to Hampstead Heath Extension yesterday, where we saw this shirtless older guy practicing Tai Chi. I watched him for a while and he seemed so focused.

I felt a bit jealous. Even though I'm obviously not in any personal danger, I'm rattled by Irma and the storm predictions. I know so many people who live in her direct path, now that she's swung westward and is predicted to pass over or near Tampa, my hometown. My Facebook friends are talking about evacuating and securing their homes. My stepmother and stepsister plan to stay put in their houses, at least at this point.

You'd think the science of meteorology would be better able to predict the path of a hurricane. But here we are, in 2017, with weather apparatus that can tell us in advance not only that it will rain but at what time, and the largest storm systems on the planet are still a mystery. They can be nudged fairly easily in this direction or that. I just hope Irma weakens as she moves north over land and/or cooler water.

Meanwhile, at our hurricane-free house, it's finch-a-palooza! The finch feeder was swarmed yesterday by lots of goldfinches -- young ones, I think. They must be migrating, or preparing to migrate. I've never seen this many at once.

Olga was feeling extra spirited on her walk. She ran and ran, after squirrels real and imagined.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Storm Drama

We had some excitement yesterday regarding Hurricane Irma and my family in Jacksonville, Florida. My brother sent me an e-mail saying he couldn't reach my mom, and he and his wife and kids were about to evacuate to South Carolina. So I got on the horn to Mom and her retirement center to find out what the heck was going on.

We eventually got it all sorted out -- Mom had evacuation plans of her own, through her retirement community. My brother and I just wanted to be sure she wasn't staying put, because she lives in a flood zone near a major waterway (albeit on the second floor).

Now, as it's turned out, the storm seems projected to move farther west, over Tampa. My brother wound up not evacuating after all. I'm still not sure whether Mom went as planned. It's hard to stay on top of these things from London, where the skies are calm and the birds are on their feeders in the back garden, oblivious to meteorological drama.

Did you see that Graydon Carter is stepping down after 25 years as editor of Vanity Fair? When I first caught a glimpse of the story yesterday I only saw his name in a headline, and thought he'd died. That would be a hideous injustice, for the man who first dubbed Donald Trump a "short-fingered vulgarian" to die during Trump's presidency! I'm glad to see he's still with us. (Carter, that is, not Trump.)

During the '90s I was an eager consumer of Vanity Fair. I loved Nan Darien, the fictional columnist and social x-ray who commented wryly on the activities of the upper crust. VF's investigative articles were riveting, and the magazine taught me a lot about pop culture. But I began losing interest as I aged and failed to recognize progressively newer, younger stars in its pages. I realized I could never keep track of the next Bright Young Thing, and the dozens of Bright Young Things coming off the assembly line behind. I kind of gave up!

(Photo: A couple of guys fishing in the Thames in Purfleet. I like how they rigged a Peppa Pig bedsheet to give them some shade!)

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Bird Seed Aisle

I went to get some bird seed at Homebase a couple of nights ago. That store has a rodent problem! Every large bag of seed has been either split or gnawed open, and the shelves are thick with loose grains. When I rounded the corner, a furry critter shot under the shelving unit. I understand the store can't put out poison -- it being bird seed and all -- but why isn't someone vacuuming up all that loose seed and patching those leaky bags? I didn't see any evidence that the problem was being addressed.

Homebase is a strange place -- huge and cavernous, but on any given weekday evening there only seem to be about four employees.

Anyway, I was going to buy a 12.5-kilo bag but I quickly realized I wouldn't be able to carry it home (especially with that hole in the side). So I went for one of the smaller bags, even though it was almost the same price. At least it was sealed.

Abercrombie the Finch has been on our finch feeder every morning this week. Apparently goldfinches often migrate to southern Europe for the winter. I wonder if he's fueling up?

Last night Dave had to work, so I spent the evening alone. I finished the Sedaris diaries and had the last of the tomato soup. I made a cheese sandwich but I couldn't be bothered to grill it. Let me just say, they're much better grilled.

As I sat on the couch with my glass of wine, the dog snoozing beside me, I remembered a time in 1988 or so, right after my college roommate moved out of our shared apartment at a complex called Square Plaza in Tampa. It was the first time I'd had an apartment all to myself, and I was thrilled. I remember pouring myself a glass of white wine, putting Joni Mitchell's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" on the stereo, and relaxing in my very own living room, feeling like a real adult.

That memory made me realize I hadn't listened to an album all the way through in a long, long time. My iTunes are constantly on shuffle nowadays. So for nostalgia's sake, I turned off the shuffle function and played "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" straight through, white wine in hand. It was nice.

Now it's raining outside, a soft whispery patter falling in the gray light. Olga's not going to want to go on her walk.

Irma is still full of uncertainty, though most of the projections show it hitting peninsular Florida in one way or another. Do you know that in the 30 years I lived on Florida's west coast, I never went through a hurricane? We had a few close calls, but none that hit us directly, and during the one that affected Tampa the most -- Elena in 1985 -- I was on vacation in Daytona Beach, on the other side of the state. (I was also gone for Andrew in 1992; I had already moved to Morocco.) Just dumb luck, I guess, because since then there have been any number of storms pounding away at my old home turf. Looks like Irma may be another.

(Photo: A Unique shop in Upminster.)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Stripey House

I've been meaning to photograph this house for the last few years. It's on a tiny side street and it's not the kind of place you'd happen to wander past -- you really need to try to go there. So I never made it until last weekend, and unfortunately, I missed seeing the house in its heyday.

It's covered in plywood now, and not very photogenic, but before the plywood went up its owner -- who has the fantastic name Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring -- painted it with bright white and red candy stripes. That was in March 2015, and it led to a very public legal skirmish with her neighbors. They accused her of painting the house out of spite, because they fought her plans to demolish the structure and build a new home.

Lisle-Mainwaring denied that was her motive, and recently won a court battle, allowing her to keep the stripes. Unfortunately they've since been obscured by the plywood, which appears to have gone up in anticipation of some greater renovation.

The stripes are only visible at the top of the exterior wall, where they match beautifully with the next-door neighbor's trailing geraniums. Personally, I thought it was a pretty cool paint job.

I'm watching Hurricane Irma with dread. My mom and brother live very close to its projected path, up the Atlantic coast of Florida. Mom says she will evacuate if necessary, but for now they can only watch and wait. The storm is still far enough away that a wobble in any direction could make a big difference.

For a while it looked like Irma might follow the path of Donna, which went right up the center of the state in 1960 and is a legendary storm in peninsular Florida. My great grandmother, who lived in the small Central Florida town of Avon Park, said afterwards, "I wouldn't name a dog Donna."

Meanwhile, things are pretty calm here. Dave came to my desk a couple of nights ago, as he was leaving work, to ask what he should buy for dinner. Ever thrifty, I pointed out that we still had leftover cheese slices in the fridge from the Sally lunch a few weeks ago. "Let's have cheese sandwiches," I said. "Or Welsh rarebit! We could use up the soy sauce!"

He mocked that suggestion, and it was only after he left that I remembered Welsh rarebit uses Worcestershire sauce, not soy sauce. Oh well. I knew it was something brown.

And then I got home and, lo and behold, he made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup! Thriftiness wins! (And by the way, that meal is hard to beat -- which is good, because we have more leftover cheese and now leftover soup as well!)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Another iPhone Photo Parade

Today, some more photos from the ol' iPhone, collected over the last week or two.

First, some identically dressed women waiting on a bench at the Westminster tube station. I really wish I'd taken this picture with my big camera, but the trains were coming and I didn't have enough time to get it out.

Then, once on the train, I sat across from this woman. Gotta love those shoes -- very Frederick's of Hollywood.

This unusual Moorish house is in St. John's Wood. I often pass it when I'm walking home from work. Online I found an old sales listing that calls it "Alhambra Cottage," dates it to 1846 and prices it at £3.5 million. Definitely unique and impressive!

Some perilously saggy shelves of glassware in the window of a local florist...

Olga and I passed this beautiful Dalmatian on Hampstead Heath. I tried to get a picture of the two of them together, but Olga ran right past and I couldn't get this dog to look up from its muddy cocktail.

I found this button (badge) on the sidewalk (pavement) on Finchley Road. If I found its correct source, it's the name of a club in Brighton, which, according to its Facebook page, is "DIY punk night, Feminist-advocating/Queer-identifying punk entertainment." I love London!

This guy stood in front of me in line at the Pink Floyd exhibit on Sunday. A far cry from smoking pot and grooving on "Dark Side of the Moon" in a college dorm room!

What on Earth happened to these poor shoes???

An ad from the Tube. It's pretty hard to make mining look glamorous, when all it brings to mind is going down a dark, dirty hole in the ground. But I suppose people in mine management might be able to stand around on their balcony overlooking a futuristic cityscape. I'd still rather be a librarian.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cozy Hottie

I happened to walk past this electrical wholesaler's shop in Kensington on Sunday morning. As I glanced in the window, I saw this:

I thought, "Why is there a stuffed cow in the shop window at an electrical wholesaler?"

Upon doing further research I've realized that a) it's a giraffe, not a cow, and b) it's called a "Cozy Hottie." It includes a scented wheat-grain pouch in its belly that can be removed, microwaved and reinserted, making the giraffe warm and cuddly. I still don't really understand why it's in the window of an electrical wholesaler -- but why not?

On a completely different note, I've been thinking lately of a time in my distant past when I completely embarrassed myself. I don't know why this memory has come to me recently. It involves a class I took in college called "expository writing," where we would discuss and debate ideas before writing papers about them.

I sat in class with a girl named Penny, who wore thrift store skirts and had a thick, blond braid that she used to wrap around the top of her head. She looked like a Norwegian hippie milkmaid. Another kid in the class was an evangelical Christian who used to advance a lot of über-conservative social ideas about the evils of gays and abortion.

Penny and I both took umbrage with this kid.

One day, during a heated debate about something or other -- I don't quite remember the context -- the Christian kid was talking about taking moral direction from God. He argued that secular humanists didn't have any moral foundation.

"Of course they do!" I argued.

The teacher, Dr. C, asked where that foundation came from.

"The God of humanism!" I said.

The entire class just stopped. The Christian kid, looking down at his desk, shook his head and smiled tightly. Dr. C looked at me blankly and said, "There is no God of humanism."

And that's how I learned what "secular humanist" meant, because before that moment I clearly had absolutely no idea.

I felt stupid and Penny quietly said some consoling words, and the class moved on. But it annoyed me that I tripped up, because I was right about my greater point -- that humanists can be moral beings.

Too bad I didn't have a warm, scented giraffe to make me feel better!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Pink Floyd, and Abercrombie

I went to the Pink Floyd exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum yesterday morning. Those of you who are Floyd fans will recognize the two heads above from the cover of the 1994 album "The Division Bell." I had a friend in the Peace Corps who had a t-shirt with those heads on it. Little did I know I'd be seeing them in a museum someday!

The exhibit was fascinating, especially the first few galleries covering the band's early years. I don't know any Pink Floyd before "Dark Side of the Moon," and there were several earlier albums. I loved the psychedelic light show projected on the ceiling of one gallery and all the groovy '60s promotional posters and graphics.

I also liked learning about the creation of Pink Floyd's album covers. It's fair to say I know the album covers even better than I know the music, iconic and omnipresent as they were in the '70s and '80s. Hearing how they shot the cover photo for "Wish You Were Here," for example, or how hard it was for designer Storm Thorgerson to put more than 100 beds on a California beach for "A Momentary Lapse of Reason," or how the band managed to float an inflatable pig above Battersea Power Station for "Animals." (It broke loose and drifted to a farmer's field in Kent.)

Of course it wasn't the first time I'd seen or heard about that pig, but it struck me as incredible that they actually floated it. Nowadays that album cover would be created in Photoshop. But as Thorgerson pointed out, there's value in actually doing a thing -- the doing, the reality, is part of the art. Otherwise it's just an idea.

Meanwhile, back home, Dave was watching a goldfinch on our finch feeder. We first saw him on Saturday, though I'd caught a glimpse of one -- possibly the same one -- about a week earlier. Dave named him Abercrombie the Finch, which I consider a stroke of genius. I'm just glad that feeder is getting some traffic. Goldfinches in our garden have been few and far between.

Later in the afternoon, Olga was gazing at me longingly, so I took her to Fortune Green and the cemetery. There were several women gathered at a bench in the back of the cemetery, and their yappy dogs raced toward us yapping, so Olga and I beat a hasty retreat and headed home. It's a good thing, too, because the wind blew up and it began spitting rain. Later, while lying on the couch, I heard an ice cream truck pass on the blustery high street playing "O Sole Mio," as if heralding the end of summer.