Saturday, December 31, 2011


First of all, thanks to all my readers who offered support yesterday. My god, what a day. I don't have a lot of experience with mourning, mercifully, and let me tell you, yesterday was brutal.

I'll spare you the details, except to say that everything went smoothly and as planned.

I cried on and off all day, but the real enormity of what had occurred didn't hit me until last night as I sat talking with Dave before dinner. I realized that not only am I mourning the dogs, but also my own sense of purpose. For nearly this entire year, much of my time has been taken up with planning for the dogs' move, shuttling them to veterinary appointments in the states, preparing to have them shipped to England, anticipating their arrival and finally, once they were here, caring for them. The dogs have been my job.

Dave certainly helped, but he had his teaching and other work-related obligations to distract him. Even he would agree I took the lead on dog care and planning.

Now, obviously, all of that is over. I'm thankful for the cleaner house (I spent most of yesterday afternoon cleaning -- vacuuming, washing the floors, doing laundry) but I'm left with a sense of emptiness and uncertainty. What do I do now?

I have never lived without an animal. Now here I am, animalless. (Or is it animal-less?)

Oddly, I've found some comfort in the Bill Bryson book I'm currently reading. He talks about life on Earth, how it arose and its incredible diversity. Did you know that something like 99 percent of all the species that ever existed are already extinct? Life just keeps growing and evolving all around us -- we die, the substances of our bodies become other things or organisms, and we're reborn again. In the vastness of time, our individual lives are so short. Ernie and Ruby have moved on in the cycle, but I feel like they are still all around me, part of the fecundity of the world.

(Photo: Moss on a telephone exchange box in Maida Vale, yesterday afternoon. England is a very mossy place, and I'm often impressed with how diligently it grows in the most unlikely locations.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Day of Decision

Ruby had a rough night two nights ago -- panting, coughing and gagging for breath. I've already mentioned the various worsening maladies afflicting both her and Ernie.

I have been very hesitant to take the final step toward ending their lives. Making that decision seems unnatural to me. But I guess that's the point -- sometimes you don't want to wait for nature to take its painful course.

So Dave and I have decided to take the dogs to the vet today and have both of them put down. Dave feels very strongly that we should intervene before their lives get any more uncomfortable. After Ruby's rough night, my hesitance has eroded, and I think I do see signs of pain in both of them. I know our vet also agrees, having spoken to us candidly about euthanasia already.

Obviously I'm torn up about this. I love these dogs like crazy. And poor Dave has had them much longer than I have -- he got Ruby ten years ago and Ernie a year later, when both were already adults. (We can only guess how old they are.)

It may seem strange or wasteful to take the trouble to prepare the dogs for overseas travel and move them all the way to England only to have them euthanized less than three months later. I've questioned that decision too. But I remind myself that we gained significant additional time with them -- and also allowed them to live three more months in the U.S. than they would have had if we'd put them down when we left New Jersey. (Also, when we began this process at the end of March, we didn't even know Ernie was sick.)

It is impossible to know when it's exactly the right time. They still wag their tails, and Ruby eats like a truck driver. On the other hand, they have all the problems I've already mentioned. And admittedly, I am deeply tired of the pills, the salves, the blood, the urine, the constant walking, the dementia, the continuous stream of laundry, and my inability to leave the house for much more than a few hours. Our quality of life is just as important as theirs.

It's funny that I've often wondered which dog would go first, and it now appears they'll go simultaneously. In a way that's better -- they won't miss each other. But it's certainly harder on us.

We've given them good lives. Now, it appears, it is time to give them a good death.

(Photo: Ghost of a dog? A doorway off Portobello Road.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011


"Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms -- up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested -- probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.)

"So we are all reincarnations -- though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere -- as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms themselves, however, go on practically for ever."

-- From "A Short History of Nearly Everything," by Bill Bryson

(Photo: A tree reflected in the Grand Union Canal, on Boxing Day.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

London Eye

Dave and I have realized that we have very different styles of relaxing. Dave likes nothing more than to recline in his chair with a string of episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." I can hang out like that for a day or two, but after a while I need to get outside and explore. Even when I'm inside I tend to be bustling around on various projects.

(Years ago when my brother visited me in New York he got exasperated with my constant need to be on the move. "Why do you always have to be doing something?" he said.)

During Christmas and Boxing Day, Dave and I pretty much stayed home -- everything was closed anyway. But yesterday I prevailed upon Dave to go to the London Eye, the massive Ferris Wheel on the Thames that towers over the city. At 443 feet high, it's not your typical Ferris Wheel -- passengers ride in windowed, air-conditioned glass pods that each hold about two dozen people, who can walk around freely during the ride.

We've been meaning to go to the Eye for a while, but it's always jammed with hordes of people. I discovered that for about £30 each -- or £11 more than a standard ticket -- we could get passes that allowed us to jump most of the line, which was well worthwhile. One fare buys a single revolution on the wheel, which takes about half an hour.

Above is the stunning view of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey from the top of the Eye. You can see the Battersea Power Station in the background. We could also see Wembley Stadium, far to the north, the skyscrapers of central London to the east and the suburbs sprawling away to the south.

We topped off the afternoon with a pint at a nearby pub, and then for dinner went to a restaurant in our neighborhood, Bumpkin, that specializes in seasonal British food. We each had a flight of three British wines to drink -- who knew Britain made wine? And continuing my adventures in wild game, I had venison!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


This week between Christmas and New Year's always feels so strange. We're in limbo -- not quite celebrating a holiday, but not yet ready to return to the routines of our lives. The Christmas tree looks a bit dry and forlorn, but it's not yet time to throw it out. The Christmas pudding is still in the fridge, but each night it tastes a bit more leaden.

Our dogs and their erratic behavior are causing us to have more serious, strained conversations. Last night Ruby had another accident in the house, and the growth on her hip has opened into a gaping maw. I can't even see to the bottom. When I walk her, people on the street audibly gasp -- it looks like we put a bullet in her side. She's already on antibiotics and doesn't seem to be in much pain, but it's hard to tell. Ernie, meanwhile, has been eating less and less, and sleeping more and more. Our vet's office is closed until Jan. 3, so unless we get desperate enough to load the dogs into a taxi and go to the 24-hour vet hospital in Belgravia, we're on our own for the time being.

On a brighter note, we found "Love Story" on TV yesterday, a sappy movie that I never fail to appreciate. This time, in one of the shots of New York City, I realized we were looking up Second Avenue from my old neighborhood. I paused the TV and took a photo (above). That's the corner of 31st Street in the foreground, more recently the location of the Verizon store where I bought my first cell phone. Kips Bay Towers and the St. Vartan Cathedral are visible on the right. My gym was located between them, but it was built much later, after this street scene from 1970! (For more cinema history from my old neighborhood, see this post.)

(Photo: Yesterday at dusk, along the Grand Union Canal.)

Monday, December 26, 2011


So here it is, the day after -- or Boxing Day, as it's called in England. I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. And I didn't even do that much!

Dave gets all the credit for making our Christmas special. He made an excellent fish dish for Christmas Eve and yesterday roasted two pheasants, with assorted British side dishes like bread sauce and braised cabbage. We even had a Christmas pudding, which in England is an inverted dome of dark, treacly moist cake doused with some kind of booze and set aflame. We didn't make our own -- apparently you've got to make it weeks in advance for it to cure properly -- but we found a satisfactory store-bought pudding at Marks & Spencer.

Dave loves days when we can crack open the wine in the early afternoon and nibble all through the day, culminating in a big dinner. I mostly love them, but I always wind up with an undercurrent of anxiety about eating so much and its effects on my heart and blood vessels. It's the killjoy health writer in me.

I spent the afternoon in a haze of champagne, Skyping with the family and watching "The Ice Storm," one of my favorite movies -- even though it's ultimately sad and not very Christmasy. I did help with the cooking, but I admit I was grudging about it. The kitchen is not a place I enjoy, unless I'm cleaning up.

Dave got me three books -- a book about an unsolved murder with racial overtones in Notting Hill in the '50s, actor Stephen Fry's autobiography and Margaret Thatcher's massive book about her years in power. That Thatcher book will take me ages to read but I bet it's interesting. I disagree with her politics but I think she was an admirable leader. Oh, and Dave got me a pillow covered with images of colorful British postage stamps that I'd admired in a shop. We need some color in our very beige living room, so that's a welcome addition.

Ernie and Ruby enjoyed their holiday, too. They're always a hit on Skype with the families and they got some special treats. They're sound asleep and snoring now, as is Dave. Recovery has commenced!

(Photo: A doorstep in Marylebone, last week.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Portrait

I really wanted us to take a Christmas portrait with the dogs, so I set the old self-timer. Here's the result! I'm blocking the tree, but oh well.

Last night, Dave and I watched the episode of the Graham Norton Show that we attended live earlier this week. We're visible only at the very beginning, when Graham opens the show in the audience -- we're in the row behind him, and then the camera sweeps past. And that's the last you see of us! Remember, it's on at 10 p.m. tonight in the U.S. on BBC America!

Merry Christmas from our house to yours!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Greenwich After Dark

Dave and I went to Greenwich yesterday afternoon to meet one of his coworkers, Anna, for tea. She took us to a homey little tea shop where we had a spread that included salmon-and-cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream and slices of cake. Then, to work off the sugar, we took a walk through Greenwich Park to the same overlook I visited with Sally and Liz a few weeks ago. (Being a former New Yorker raised on stories of crime and "wilding" in Central Park, I doubted the wisdom of trooping through a big park after dark -- but we didn't have any trouble and in fact didn't even see any other people until we got to the overlook.)

It gets dark very early here now. We were out walking shortly after 5 p.m., and as you can see, the sun had already set.

As you may remember, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich is the location of the Prime Meridian, or the beginning point for measuring longitudes around the globe. At night, the observatory sends out a green laser beam that cuts across the sky, marking the meridian. It's hard to photograph a laser, but you can see it, faintly, in the photo above, slanting diagonally in front of the tops of distant skyscrapers in Canary Wharf, across the Thames.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

St. John

Have you ever had a salad made of duck hearts?

I can now say yes, I have.

Last night, I took Dave to St. John for Christmas. St. John is a restaurant near Smithfield, London's historic meat market, where the chefs specialize in "nose-to-tail" cooking -- in other words, using every edible part of an animal. Dave has been excited about St. John since before we moved here -- he was talking about going even when we still lived in New Jersey. Being a former vegetarian, I was a little more hesitant, but I decided it was time to check the place out.

I promised myself that I would not behave like a ninny. If we were going to go to St. John, I was going to participate fully in the experience. I wasn't going to turn up my nose at organ meats. I wasn't going to ask for the vegetarian goat cheese entree. I was going to eat meat, and I was going to experiment.

The dinner went very well. In fact, it's probably the best restaurant meal we've had so far in London.

Dave got a bone marrow and parsley salad appetizer, followed by calf's liver and onions. I had the aforementioned duck heart salad, which came with beetroot and pickled walnuts, followed by braised hare with swede (which we Americans call rutabaga). As a side dish I got "sprout tops," which are large leaves from the top of a brussels sprout plant. My vegetarian roots will show when I say that my favorite part of the meal was the sprout tops. But the duck hearts were good too -- they taste a bit like a cross between duck meat and liver. I found the hare less distinctive -- somewhat nondescript dark game meat -- but also good and definitely well cooked. Dave enjoyed his food too. For dessert we shared "spotted dick," a soaked sponge cake with currants and cream.

It was kind of appalling, I admit, to look at those five duck hearts and think about the five ducks wherein they used to beat -- that I was responsible, at least partly, for the deaths of five birds. But then I thought, this style of cooking actually reduces waste and sees that more of each animal is consumed, and surely the rest of the ducks were being used elsewhere. In my mind, that didn't seem too antithetical to Buddhism -- especially since, as my teacher once explained to me, many Buddhists worldwide are not vegetarian at all. Maybe I was rationalizing, but it worked for me.

(Photo: Pigeons taking shelter from the wind on Portobello Road.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Graham Norton

Dave and I sat in the audience at a taping of The Graham Norton Show last night! He's our favorite talk show host, and you may remember we tried to get in to see his show once before, but we were too far back in line. This time we were guaranteed a spot, and it turned out to be a great experience.

This despite the fact that I had no connection to any of his guests -- Matt Smith, from Dr. Who (which I've never really watched); Gillian Anderson, from the X Files (which I never watched); a comedian named Russell Kane (who I'd never heard of but who turned out to be a stitch); and a couple of other people from British television. The week before, his guests were Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law! (The show we'd planned to attend earlier featured Cliff Richard, which also meant nothing to me, though, so no loss there.)

He did a hilarious bit where he brought a piece of mistletoe out into the crowd, and held it over the heads of people he thought were couples. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes not. (One guy's response: "That's me mum!") I wanted to volunteer Dave and myself -- particularly because Graham chose a couple right behind us, so he was in our vicinity -- but Dave was mortified and urged me to keep quiet. So you won't see us kissing on Graham Norton.

There were also some fairly ribald topics of conversation and a funny bit about an errant housefly buzzing around the stage. We'll see how much of that gets on the air.

I think we'll be easily visible on the broadcast, as we were right in the center and relatively close to the stage. It's the Christmas episode, which will air here on Friday night. It will air in the U.S. at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve on BBC America. (I'm sure none of you have anything more important to do then, right?)

(Photo: Apropos of nothing, cute wintry stuffed animals outside a shop in Marylebone, yesterday.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I finally got out to do some Christmas shopping yesterday, so our tree no longer looks completely bare and destitute. I bought a few items for Dave, and a box arrived from my father and stepmother in Florida, so we added their presents to the mix. (We already opened our gifts from Dave's parents, and my Mom sent a welcome gift of a more financially liquid nature.)

Last night, Dave took me to see "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" on the West End. I've been hesitant to see the stage show, because the movie is one of my favorites -- and whenever you love something, seeing it adapted into something else always seems unsatisfying. In this case, the adaptation was fun, with lots of incredible costumes and glitter -- but it definitely felt more superficial than the movie. A tale of two drag queens and a transsexual making a road trip across the Australian outback in a rattletrap bus, the movie has a lot of heart. Audiences care about the characters, their backgrounds, their trials, relationships and individual personalities. The show reduces them to caricatures, all so relentlessly flamboyant that they don't seem very real. Maybe that makes them more palatable and less challenging to mainstream audiences. Is it possible that despite all the sequins, the stage "Priscilla" is actually less gay than the movie?

Just as we sat down for the show, I saw the news on Facebook that my former employer of 20-plus years is selling the division of the company where I worked. I find this news profoundly depressing. It's even more depressing than being laid off myself. It seems to signal an end to everything I knew in journalism -- the management values under which I worked and prospered (for a while) at the newspapers that I still, on some level, love. I feel for my friends who are about to undergo this change.

(Photo: Christmas decorations on Carnaby Street, Soho.)

Monday, December 19, 2011


Here's this morning's sunrise, seen from our balcony. Enjoy your day!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Remember how I said we weren't getting a Christmas tree?

Well, never mind.

I wasn't entirely happy with my earlier attempts at decorating for the holidays. Somehow a spray of piney boughs on our windowsill just looked a little pathetic.

Yesterday as I was walking through the Portobello Road market, on my way to drop off our cleaning and pick up a few things from Tesco, I passed the usual Christmas tree vendors. I decided I would just ask how much a small tree costs.

It turned out to be only £25, which I thought was pretty reasonable. (Considering it's Portobello Road, I'm sure there are cheaper trees to be had elsewhere, but as I said that didn't seem so bad.) So I bought one, brought it home, stripped my earlier decoration of its lights, ornaments and ribbons and added them to the tree. Voila!

Now we just need to go buy some presents! Apparently Dave and I are both procrastinating in that department this year. We've bought a few things, but they're "experiential" gifts so they don't come in a box -- leaving us with a rather bare-looking tree.

As you can see, the dogs are oblivious. I think even Wabi and Sabi are paying more attention to the tree than Ernie and Ruby are!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Snowman

Have you ever heard of "The Snowman"?

It's a children's book that was turned into a 26-minute animated film for the BBC back in the early 1980s. It's hugely popular in England -- something of a Christmas tradition, in fact -- but I don't ever remember hearing about it in the United States. I discovered it just this week in a very roundabout way.

My first glimpse of it came a few weeks ago in this commercial for Argos, where a family of cute blue aliens wonders why people stress so much about Christmas shopping. At the very end of the commercial, the aliens are watching TV and singing along with a song from a show.

I had no idea what they were watching or singing. But then, on Thursday, a friend sent me a link to a terrific song called "Walking in the Air," sung by David Schelzel, longtime lead singer for one of my favorite groups, The Ocean Blue. I recognized it as the same song from that commercial with the aliens. Now that I had a title, I did some research and discovered that the song -- in an earlier version sung by a boy chorister from St. Paul's Cathedral -- comes from "The Snowman."

It's interesting that "The Snowman" is such a phenomenon here -- famous enough that Argos can put it in a commercial and expect viewers to know exactly what it is -- while it's unknown to American viewers like me. I suspect it didn't become a staple on American TV -- if it was ever shown at all -- because it's entirely dialogue-free and has a somewhat sad ending. (Can't you just picture some cigar-chomping American network executive saying, "We can't show that! There's no words!")

Fortunately, you can watch "The Snowman" in its entirety on YouTube. To hear Schelzel's version of "Walking in the Air," click here.

(Photo: Stray Christmas sticker on the sidewalk, Notting Hill.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Graffiti

I went for a walk yesterday afternoon and found a crop of new graffiti at Trellick Tower, including this Christmas-themed piece. Santa, toasted on some kind of pills, asks for the "Jack and Gills." (Jack Daniels and Gilbey's, I'm guessing?) Tipsy Rudolph responds that he's "just done the lot."

Ah, nothing like a little substance abuse for the holidays.

This is the same area where I found the Halloween graffiti several weeks ago. (It was still there, too.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


A couple of weeks ago I noticed a ladybug -- or "ladybird," as they say here in England -- on the windowsill in our bedroom. I tried to catch it to put it outside, but it stubbornly refused to climb onto a piece of cardboard so I could lift it to the window. I didn't want to try to pick it up for fear I'd crush it. I left it, thinking it would probably starve from lack of water and aphids.

It caught my eye once or twice since then, and I was surprised to find it still alive. How long can this crazy bug live inside, I wondered?

I did some research online, and it turns out it's not at all unusual to find ladybugs indoors, particularly in the fall. Apparently they seek out a place to hibernate, and houses sometimes substitute for the caves and crevices they'd use in the wild.

I debated what to do with it. Should I just leave it alone and let it winter in our bedroom? Should I put it outside? It seemed to be a bit dusty, despite my fairly rigorous housekeeping, which suggested to me that it needed a better environment.

I read on this website that ladybugs that manage to come inside may deplete their natural stores in the dry environment of a house and die before spring. "They are quite tough and can be swept up or vacuumed with a small hand-held vac, and carried outdoors, where the cold keeps their metabolism slow until spring," an expert recommended.

My ladybug, or ladybird -- whichever you prefer -- turned out to be an Asian "harlequin" variety, originally imported to Europe to combat pests but now considered a threat to local British ladybird species. (It figures I would have an evil ladybug.) That suggested a third option -- killing it outright.

Somehow, though, killing a ladybug just seems unacceptable, even an unwelcome interloping ladybug. (It doesn't know it's interloping, after all.) So in the end, I decided to follow the expert's advice. I coaxed the bug onto a piece of cardboard -- successfully this time -- and put it on the windowsill outside. I checked a few moments later and it had disappeared into the chilly afternoon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More iPhotos

I don't have much to report today, so here are a few more photos taken with my iPhone and filtered through Instagram. Enjoy!

These wreaths of artificial poppies were laid at a war memorial in Kensington.

And here is a photo of Ernie's paws, spun into a vortex of bad canine pedicure using Tiny Planet Photos:

Kind of creepy, isn't it?! We're always joking about Ernie's long toes. He has the longest toes of any dog in the world, I'd wager.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's Official

Dave got word that his job will be made permanent. That means we can stay put here in the UK! When he accepted the job last spring it was technically a one-year interim position, and the school had plans to fill it permanently this fall. (I think they were giving themselves an "out" in case Dave turned out to be an incompetent nut.) Fortunately, they like him. So we're staying.

This means I have to sell Florence, who is parked at my father's house in Florida for the time being. My brother has offered to sell her for me, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, which is fair. I'm sorry to see her go, because she's a cute little car, but c'est la vie!

It's funny how things work out. Had I any idea that we would be moving overseas, I never would have bought a brand new car when I got my last reporting job in August 2010. I'll probably wind up losing as much money on the car as I brought home in a couple of months on that job!

Totally unrelated side notes:

-- I finished Anthony Trollope's "Doctor Thorne." Yay! It was a good book, and it picked up steam toward the end, but as a 500-plus page Victorian novel, it was also a challenge. Whew! Now I'm reading Joanna Lumley's recent autobiography, which was an "Absolutely Fabulous" birthday present from Dave. It's intelligently written, and Lumley is no fool, but with lots of photos it's still about as far from Trollope as possible.

-- Went running yesterday in Kensington Gardens. It was chilly but very sunny and a good running day. This morning it's raining and I can hear the wind gusting outside. December is very temperamental!

-- I found this amusing Web site which lists the prime-time television schedules for each year in the 1970s (among lots of other things). Browsing the TV listings was fun, and it's interesting how much I remember. But it also posed some questions. For example, I remember watching "The Waltons," but in 1979 it was apparently on opposite "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," which my brother liked and I'm sure we watched as well. How did we watch both shows? (It amazes me that we had only three national networks, plus, in our case, a smattering of local independent channels. I kind of miss those days. Television now is so complicated!)

(Photo: Jet trails over Notting Hill, Dec. 5)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thames Beach

During my walk home from Battersea on Saturday, I passed a ramp leading down to the Thames. A little pebbly beach lay at the base of the ramp, strewn with all sorts of riparian detritus.

So many stray shoes had washed up that someone wove them into a sort of sculpture along the seawall.

I couldn't help but think some little kid shed tears over the loss of this cute toy.

In fact, there were a lot of toys on the shore -- mostly balls. Soccer balls, basketballs and volleyballs were all represented. There are at least six in the photo above; I counted a dozen altogether. And that doesn't include the tennis balls and ping-pong balls.

Most of the debris was wood and plastic -- bottles, foam, packaging and other trash. I shudder to think how much plastic is in the Thames, and how much of it gets all the way to the sea.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I've been trying to figure out what to do with the huge kennels that housed Ernie and Ruby during their flight to England. For the last few months they've been in the guest room. They're so big they basically rendered the bed unusable.

I tried to sell them on Craigslist and had no luck. Dave suggested we just throw them out, but I hated the idea of wasting them -- made of metal and heavy plastic, they cost about $300 each.

So yesterday Dave and I loaded them into a taxi van and I took them to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where I thought perhaps they could be used to house or transport a shelter dog. (The taxi driver, seeing that I had a pair of kennels, began talking about his own dogs, and talked nonstop all the way to Battersea. I could have died.)

I unloaded the kennels with a feeling of immense relief, glad that they would be used, and the shelter folks seemed happy to get them. It cost £35 to transport them to the shelter, but I figured that was a worthwhile donation.

Then I walked home through Battersea, across the Battersea Bridge and into Kensington and Chelsea. We had sunny, clear weather, though it was chilly. I got some photography out of my system!

Saturday, December 10, 2011


The United Kingdom uses a bewildering array of coins.

Americans commonly use just four coins -- quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies. There have been other denominations, like the Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony dollar coins -- but they've never quite caught on.

People in the U.K. commonly use eight coins, in £2, £1, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p and 1p denominations.

That creates a heck of a lot of diverse change in your pocket.

To make matters more confusing, the 50p and 10p coins -- to my untrained eye, at least -- are very similar. I always have to look twice to make sure I'm spending the right amount.

More recent versions of the smaller denominations each depict part of a shield, which can't be seen in its entirety unless all the different coins are put together. (I don't have recent examples of all the coins, so I can't show you the overall effect, but you can see it in this proof set from the Royal Mint.) Here's the back of the 20p coin, showing part of the shield.

The £2 coin wins the beauty competition, I think. Not only is it two-toned, it has concentric circles of artistic, interesting patterns on the reverse. I liked the £2 coin so much when I first came to England, in 2000, that I took one home as a souvenir. (I brought it back and spent it on a subsequent trip!)

Does all this sound complicated? Well, before "decimalisation" in 1971, there were even more coins to deal with, including shillings, florins and half-crowns -- and there were 240 pence in a pound. Apparently it was all very confusing to tourists -- and calculating a simple transaction must have been a nightmare!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Right Time

We're taking Ruby off her medicines.

They don't seem to be doing much good, and they're making us all miserable -- including, I suspect, Ruby. She's been on diuretics and heart medicines for almost two months. The diuretics mean she must be walked every hour or two, and she drinks constantly. She's become increasingly prone to having accidents, which upsets her as well as us. I don't think she understands why she has to go outside so often.

More to the point, her belly is once again filling with fluid, despite the drugs. So we stopped the diuretics a few days ago. We'll continue the heart medicines as long as they last, and when they run out, we'll stop those too.

Basically, we're giving up.

Are we doing the right thing? Well, I've read enough online from owners of other dogs on similar medicines to know that our dog, for whatever reason, simply isn't responding. Other owners say their dogs improved markedly. Ruby hasn't.

She's also lately resumed having strange, agitated "sundowning" spells in the evenings. They don't happen every day, but when they do, she pants, wanders around the house, drinks and licks herself compulsively, and shakes as if she's cold or scared. She seems confused and uncomfortable. It's doubtful this is related to the drugs, because she had a similar episode soon after arriving in England, before starting medication.

Ernie, meanwhile, is beyond the reach of any medicine, as I've mentioned. We're just biding time with him.

The vet has already talked to us about putting them both down. Yesterday I e-mailed her and said we'll probably do so after the holidays. I'd like to see them through Christmas, at least, so Dave can spend time with them while he's off work.

On the other hand, they both still eat -- in fact, Ruby eats ravenously -- and they both seem eager to take their daily walks. It's so hard to know when to take that final step. I don't want to wait too long and cause them discomfort, but I certainly don't want to move too quickly.

I try to approach every day with a critical eye, assessing their condition. But it's easy to start seeing everything through a lens of illness -- actions that might otherwise go unnoticed, like sleeping all morning, now might suggest a problem. Are they sick or just old and lazy?

If the "sundowning" becomes more frequent or severe, we'll put Ruby to sleep promptly. If anyone stops eating or seems to lose enthusiasm for life, we'll do the same. Until then, the holding pattern continues-- now with no pharmaceuticals.

(Photo: Battersea, on Saturday.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I mentioned earlier that we decided not to get a Christmas tree, and my intent was to decorate the fireplace instead. Well, this was the result.

I bought two pine boughs for £8 (a crazy amount for what is essentially yard waste) and added a string of lights, a silver ribbon and some little ornaments shaped like woodland animals that we brought from New Jersey. It turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. Ernie enjoyed it, as you can see.

Unfortunately, it was also a little too large for the space. The top of the fireplace is only about 2-3 inches wide. I braced the boughs in place with duct tape (which seems so American somehow) but as Dave and I watched TV that evening, the whole construction slowly began sagging toward the hearth. I was afraid it would fall into the fireplace entirely and we'd have a conflagration. So I took it down.

It's now decorating our windowsill, which is much wider and probably a better, safer place for it anyway.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Three Times

"There is an old saying, 'Reflect three times before speaking.' This means that prior to saying or doing something, you should reflect on it three times....after reflecting three times, if it is considered to be good each time, you should say or do it. When wise people in China say to reflect on things three times, they mean many times. Pondering before speaking, considering before acting; if it is good each time you think about the matter, you should speak or do it." -- Dogen

(Photo: Residential buildings in Battersea, on Saturday.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tiny Planets

Another iPhone photo app I learned about on Saturday, in addition to Instagram, is called Tiny Planet Photos. It basically spins the elements of a photo either inward or outward to create seriously wild, phantasmagoric images.

There are two modes, Tiny Planet or Tiny Tube. Tiny Planet pulls objects in the photo toward the center, turning the image into a sort of ball. Tiny Tube projects them outward around a core of space.

Above, for example, is a photo of our dogs asleep on the couch, in Tiny Tube mode. Wild! It reminds me of one of those Renaissance paintings, depicting saints in flowing blue robes. (Not that either of those dogs is a saint.) Maybe it's a canine El Greco, with those contorted, elongated figures.

Here's the same image in Tiny Planet mode, which makes the dogs look rather embryonic in a groovy paisley womb. Remember the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey," when the old man becomes a fetus again? (Or whatever actually happens in that scene -- I'm not sure anyone's ever figured it out.)

And here's the original image, just so you can see what we started with. Pretty fun, huh?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Short Items

-- Dave and I debated getting a Christmas tree, and we've pretty much decided against it. We have this discussion every year. Trees sound like a great idea until it's time to go out and buy one, and then they seem expensive and cumbersome and messy. So I think I'm going to go buy a garland and some lights and decorate our fireplace instead. We'll have a bit of holiday cheer but hopefully not a zillion pine needles all over the floor.

-- Anthony Trollope is proving to be a bit of a challenge. I don't dislike the book I'm reading, "Doctor Thorne," but I've been distracted by other reading and events in my life. Consequently I'm only on page 180 and it's a fairly dense 500-page book. It's apparent this may take a while!

(Photo: Outside the Battersea Power Station, on Saturday.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Battersea Power Station

The other day Dave came home from work all excited. "Have I got an event for you!" he told me.

Turns out one of his colleagues, an art teacher, is a member of a group that uses Instagram, an iPhone application, for photography. Instagram allows users to take photos and add cool filtering effects before posting them immediately to the web, where they can be viewed by followers on other mobile devices.

The group had a "meetup" scheduled for Saturday where, it was rumored, they'd get to go inside the Battersea Power Station, a vacant brick Art Deco colossus on the south bank of the Thames. The station, built in the 1930s, is a famous part of the London skyline, having appeared in the movie "Help!" with the Beatles and on the cover of Pink Floyd's album "Animals." It's been praised for its architectural proportions and minimalism by the likes of John Pawson, and is a listed historic building. Despite the accolades, though, the station -- idled in the early 1980s -- has been the subject of various redevelopment schemes that have, so far, all collapsed, and it's considered endangered.

I touched base with the art teacher and she said I'd be welcome to attend the meetup -- even with my big, bulky, non-Instagram camera! So yesterday I zipped down to the appointed meetup spot, an art gallery in Battersea that, not just coincidentally, had a show of iPhone photography.

Only five of us showed up for the walk, and as it turned out none of us had any special access or arrangement that allowed us to get inside the station. (In fact, we couldn't even really get close to it!) But it was a fun day nonetheless, as I got to learn about Instagram and other iPhone photography applications. I've been playing with Instagram a bit and, while it seems to run counter to my journalistic preference for realism in photography, I do think it's fun. I'm sure I'll continue experimenting.

For me, as you can see, the day became all about different ways of seeing a single building. It was a bit of a challenge! And the Instagram folks were terrific company. (All the photos above were taken with my regular camera.)

And yes, I did use Instagram to take some shots, like this one. Pretty cool, though as a newbie my Instagram photos are quite simplistic. There are lots of apps out there to tweak them even further -- I've only scratched the surface!