Friday, August 31, 2012

Liberals and Conservatives: The Bottom Line

It seems like we're all a little poisoned by politics at the moment. I suppose that's inevitable in an election year, and even though I'm in England, I see it on Facebook and in the blogosphere every day. I'm glad I'm not in the states, being subjected to a constant barrage of political advertisements.

Yesterday I got to thinking about the differences between liberals and conservatives. I once read somewhere that the difference lies in how people view government -- that liberals have an essential faith in government, while conservatives are skeptical. That may be true, but the difference goes much deeper, doesn't it? It's more a matter of how you see yourself and humanity.

Conservatives, I think, see the world as a threatening, us-against-them sort of place -- people all competing for finite resources, with inevitable losers and winners. Economically, they're individualists. They provide for themselves and their own, but see little responsibility for anyone beyond their family or perhaps a slightly wider circle, like a faith community. They might choose to support others, through church missions or charity, but they don't want to be compelled. It's not that they're heartless -- they really believe that a competitive environment is better for people, at least those willing to work. They greatly respect tradition.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the world and its occupants as intertwined and inseparable. They believe that government support for the poor or infirm provides social benefits to everyone, and view people in a more trusting, cooperative sense. (That's also why liberals are by and large less likely to carry a gun -- they lack the competitive, protective urge of conservatives.) To them, the cost of maintaining society through taxes, public spending, welfare programs, public education and the like is an essential obligation. They're more willing to acknowledge that not everyone can compete fairly in a purely market-driven world. They're less traditional and more open to social change.

I dunno -- I doubt any of that is particularly ground-breaking. I suppose it's even cliched. But it's interesting to try to boil our differences down to an elementary level. Can we ever learn to work together, especially in these polarized times? I'm not sure. Those world views -- even forgiving my potentially inaccurate descriptions, and recognizing that many people fall somewhere between the two extremes -- are pretty different.

I'm a liberal, but I'm really trying to be non-judgmental, here. I'm trying to understand.

In other news: Did any of you watch the opening ceremonies for the Paralympics on Wednesday night? The Queen attended and it was touching to see disabled athletes from all over the world -- Angola, Bahrain, Cameroon, Iran, you name it -- walking or wheeling their way into the Olympic stadium. I mean, can you imagine what it must be like to be in a wheelchair and living in a developing nation in Africa -- where there are few if any ramps, and where streets are badly paved, if they're paved at all? From what I hear, ticket sales have been brisk for the Paralympics. Everyone's working to make sure they're not just an afterthought, you know?

(Photo: A lone, lost glove in a stairwell off Moscow Road, Notting Hill.)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Neil Armstrong

With all the running around I've been doing lately, I haven't had a chance to weigh in on the death of Neil Armstrong.

I don't really remember his famous walk on the moon. But of course I heard about him throughout my childhood, an idol to many and neck-in-neck with John Glenn as the preeminent hero of the space program. And here's what's cool: I once met him!

In October 1985, I was a sophomore at the University of South Florida in Tampa and had just joined the college newspaper, the Oracle. My editor decided to send me to Tallahassee, which involved an actual flight on an actual airplane and a stay in an actual hotel --  and thus was my first true business trip. I was to cover a public forum of the National Commission on Space.

Armstrong was a panelist at the event, which allowed members of the public to make suggestions about America's future in space. Launching a space station and building mining colonies on the moon were among the topics discussed:

Armstrong said that there are mining possibilities on the moon. "There is plenty of silicon, for people interested in solar cells, and we found large quantities of ilmenite in the Sea of Tranquility," he said. "It won't be practical to mine for the purposes of using the materials on Earth. They would be used, say, to build structures on the moon or in a lunar orbit." Aluminum, iron and magnesium are also present on the moon's surface, he added.

My article goes on to say:

The Commission would not discuss items of a military nature, particularly Reagan's "Star Wars" plan. Armstrong, however, said with a grin, "I sure hope we don't start having gunfights in space. But I find no difficulty with having a shield -- 'Star Wars' seems very challenging to me."

Those are the only direct quotes I attributed to Armstrong, who I remember only as a tall guy with graying hair. (He would have been about 55 -- just ten years older than I am now!) After the event, he was nice enough to give me his autograph, which I kept for years and years but eventually lost or discarded. The only other vague memory I have of Tallahassee is sitting alone in a bland hotel restaurant, which pretty much sums up the nature of business trips.

Unfortunately, back in Tampa, my editor wasn't too pleased with my article. He wasn't unhappy with my reporting or writing, but I think he expected the event itself to yield more substantial news.

"I thought it was going to be something else," he said cryptically.

Oh well. I still got on the front page.

And for the record, though I've always supported space exploration, I'm glad we didn't build "Star Wars" and that we haven't started mining the moon.

(Photo: A woman picking grape leaves on Portobello Road, last week.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Carnival Cleanup

I had to run out early yesterday morning to buy milk, because our milk annoyingly went sour over the two-day period we were gone -- even though it was not yet past its expiration date. Argh! Why does that happen?

Anyway, the errand gave me a chance to walk through the neighborhood as it cleaned up after the Notting Hill Carnival. Above is one of our favorite local pubs, Portobello Gold, with two guys dismantling what looks like an outdoor bar erected for the festival.

Many of the antique shops on Portobello Road were still boarded up tight. All in all, though, I think fewer stores put up plywood this year -- maybe because we didn't have the ugly memory of recent rioting, as we did last year.

The streets had been mostly swept -- and some were being power-washed. But there were still lots of stray cans and bottles lying around. Red Stripe predominated, not surprising for a Caribbean-themed carnival.

The Spice Shop apparently turned temporarily into a Rum Shack. (Surely that's not a pint of pure rum for £5?)

This normally swanky restaurant about a block from us also saw opportunity in the crowds, putting up an outdoor bar and dispensing rum punch and other drinks. (And charging £2 for toilet access, according to the sign.)

The remains of some enterprising individual's fast food stand on Ladbroke Grove. So much entrepreneurism at the Notting Hill Carnival!

Time to get out the ladders and take down the plywood! (And thank goodness for dark shadows...because in that last shot, the moon was out, if you know what I mean.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A River of Heather

Dave decided yesterday morning that he really needed to do some work to prepare for the first week of school. So Dick, Georgia and I left him behind when we took their dog Bonnie out for a morning walk. We drove to Thetford Forest, where we came across this amazing streak of purple heather. Bonnie flushed two small grouse from the dry grass and tried to chase them, but she's a dachsund, so the grouse had a distinct advantage over her little legs. Still, she was proud of herself.

We stopped at a garden center on the way back so Dick could pick up his hedge trimmers, which he'd left for repair. I browsed among all the plants, the bulbs and pots, and giftware like candles and picture frames and coffee mugs. They even sold clothing at this particular garden center. The English take their gardening seriously! (And it's the perfect place for it -- hence Blake's "green and pleasant land.")

Dick & Georgia dropped me off in the village of South Lopham, adjacent to their own village, where I wanted to see yet another church. The South Lopham church, called St. Andrew's, is a couple hundred years older than the church in yesterday's post. One wall dates from the Saxon era, before William the Conqueror, and the tower is Norman, from around 1100. It boggles the mind. I just walked in and sat among the handcarved, medieval pew ends -- one even features an elephant, and you should see the peculiar way the artisan, who had clearly never really seen an elephant, rendered it.

I walked back to North Lopham and we went to the local pub, The King's Head, for lunch. They were having a sausage festival, so despite my vegetarian leanings, I indulged in pork & stilton, beef & horseradish and pork & mustard sausage. When in Rome, you know.

Dave and I caught our evening train, and I'm happy to say that we had no trouble getting to our flat last night. The carnival was in its last hours when we got home, and we endured pounding music and mobbed streets until about 8:30 p.m., but then everything promptly switched off and the crowds began to dissipate. The street sweepers came overnight, and this morning the streets look like nothing ever happened. I hear the shopkeepers tearing down their plywood barriers now. Within a few hours we'll be back to normal!

Monday, August 27, 2012

More from North Lopham Church

I mentioned yesterday that I got to walk around inside St. Nicholas Church in North Lopham. One of our hosts said it dates from the 14th century, and like many English churches it has graves in the floor and beautiful stained glass.

It's obviously still an active church community, with what looked like children's crafts displayed on a table and other signs of recent activity. Our hosts said a traveling vicar serves this church and several others in the region.

This is part of the exterior wall beneath the bell tower, with symbols that are explained here, on an interesting web page about the history of the church.

And this is just one of the dozens and dozens of gravestones in the churchyard.

Yesterday we went for a walk in a forest preserve, and napped, and read, and I took another walk through the village in the afternoon. Picked myself a few more apples and some tiny, tart wild blackberries from roadside bushes. I've just about licked the occasionally interesting but overlong book I'm reading, about life in England in the 1950s. And Dave cooked with our hosts, Dick and Georgia, last night -- coq au vin with a fish course, chilled soup and dessert. I like it here, but I'm glad I'm getting out today because I will weigh 400 pounds if I stay.

I shudder to think of the pandemonium going on at home. Things should be winding down by the time we get there this evening, but I'm not looking forward to wading through crowds with luggage in order to get back to our flat. Somehow we didn't really think about that.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Greetings from North Lopham

Well, we made it to Norfolk yesterday. An uneventful train trip of about an hour and a half brought us north of London to the town of Diss, where our hosts picked us up. This is the bed and breakfast where we're staying, known as Church Farm House. It's just as perfect and charming in real life as it looks in the picture. Dave and I are in a room on the top floor, beneath a thatched roof and a ceiling of dark wood beams, surrounded by antiques.

The village itself is known as North Lopham, about halfway between Diss and Thetford. Here's a map, to put it in context.

We went out for lunch at a pub in a nearby village -- although North Lopham has one of its own we intend to try today -- and after we came back to the house, I went for a walk.

I visited North Lopham's village Anglican church, right across the street. Happily it's left open during the day, so I got to see it inside and out. I walked among the headstones in the churchyard and picked an apple from one of the apple trees for a snack. (Hopefully they won't mind. There were a lot on the ground, so I'm guessing they often don't get picked at all.)

Then I walked through town, and was surprised to find a Methodist Church, too. You wouldn't think a village this size could support two churches!

There's also a tiny post office.

And there's a village school.

Right about this time the skies opened and I made it back to the house just in time to avoid being soaked by a thunderous afternoon shower that terrified our hosts' dog. Some things are the same all over the world!

We had a terrific dinner last night with our hosts -- who as I mentioned earlier were former teachers at the school where Dave and I work, and remain involved in musical education -- as well as two other visiting couples. I collapsed into bed and slept like a rock, the only sound from a burbling fountain in the yard outside our window. Quite a bit different from the traffic and the late-night shouting of pub drunks on Portobello Road!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Talking Politics, Without Talking Politics

So while I've been obsessing about my job, the world has been slowly spinning on its axis, churning out a chaotic frenzy of news.

Dave and I have taken to watching Rachel Maddow each night. We get her show online and patch it into our TV. Dave is fascinated by politics and he can watch it for hours -- one of his favorite things to do is pull up YouTube videos of right-wing politicians, especially the hyper-religious ones, making idiots of themselves. I have less taste for that kind of thing. It makes me tired and discouraged. I do like Rachel, though.

I sometimes think I should try harder to write about issues on my blog. But honestly, I'm not sure what I could say that hasn't already been said. Todd Akin's rape comments were bizarre and reprehensible. (England has also had male politicians weighing in with unenlightened viewpoints this week.) Mitt Romney is a soulless automaton with no convictions, and Paul Ryan is a small-government extremist -- that's what I believe, but you've heard it all before, haven't you?

Just know that I'm thinking about it all. I am paying attention.

Meanwhile, I'll tell you about the newest adventures of Pat, our balcony spider. (We've decided to call him/her Pat because we're uncertain of his/her gender, and Arachnopet is just too long a name.) If you've ever wondered whether a spider can catch a bee without being stung or killed, let me assure you that it can. Pat caught one yesterday. And when afternoon rain and wind came and tore down Pat's web, Pat picked up the bee and carried it to the underside of a leaf, clinging to it fiercely. That bee was clearly a prized possession. He/she is still holding onto it this morning.

I find Pat so much more interesting than Mitt Romney.

(Photo: Who do you suppose came up with this name for an apartment building -- and why?!)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tension and Triumphs

Wow, what a week. So many new people and work patterns! My head is spinning. Fortunately, today I get to stay home, and though I still have to do some work, I expect the spinning will cease.

Last night I had two interesting dreams involving being attacked. In one, I was with a bunch of other people in a convenience store when a woman walked in with a gun and robbed us all -- at which point, I woke up. In another, I was walking by myself along a forest path, carrying a heavy load of some kind across my shoulders, when I passed a man coming the other way. He turned to follow me, and I could see his shadow as he raised a club to strike me. I turned and confronted him, and woke up.

I can only assume that I'm having these dreams because of the new job. Which is silly, because nobody has made me feel vulnerable or threatened -- in fact, they've all been very nice and welcoming. It's just my own innate insecurity, I suppose.

(My violent dreams may also stem from the fact that Dave and I have been watching "Breaking Bad" at night on Netflix -- I think we're almost done with season two now. What a great show!)

I am looking forward to this weekend, when Dave and I decamp to Norfolk while the Notting Hill Carnival turns our neighborhood upside down!

On the good news front, a few more of my photos have appeared on local news blogs. Woo hoo! I'm less enthusiastic about this person, who picked up one of my photos and posted it without credit to Facebook, where it has been widely shared. I guess that's just the way things work in the Wild World of the Internet.

(Photos: Some of the colorful plywood barriers that have been erected in the neighborhood to keep people out of hedges and off private property during the carnival. These particular barriers were produced by an arts organization called Brownbaby along with children from Colville and St. Mary's, two local schools.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Long Walk with Storefronts

Yesterday's staff retreat was interesting. I got to meet lots of people -- always the real purpose of a retreat, I think -- and I even got to do some samba drumming. Which was surprisingly fun.

I slipped out after lunch, when the retreat was due to get into the real nitty-gritty of teaching. Obviously I'm not teaching so I didn't need to stick around for that. I decided to walk back toward home, and wandered 6 1/2 miles before my feet finally protested and I had to get on the tube.

I found lots of great storefronts along the way!

You gotta love a place called the Hard Work Cafe -- especially when there's an overworked-looking guy sitting outside.

The lamb and chicken on the Cricklewood Halal sign seem to be neon. I'd love to see them light up, but Cricklewood is quite a schlep from where we live, so the likelihood I'll get up there at night is probably pretty slim.

Bucovina is a region in Eastern Europe straddling Romania and Ukraine. I liked the hopeful little note on the sign: "If you like it, spread the word!"

This woman peeked outside just as I took the photo -- what timing! Like many salons catering to muslim women, this one shields the windows so passersby can't look in and see their uncovered hair.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Lindy Hop

After two long days of meetings and familiarizing myself with people and policies related to the new job, I feel a little like these two people suspended in midair -- like I've been kept hopping. And the craziness continues today! I'm off early this morning to a staff retreat!

Starting a new job is always tense, even when it's a job that ought to be perfectly manageable. I remember when I started my last new job -- I was petrified the first few days in the office, and that was a job in journalism, my chosen field! This new position is in education, which is a whole new world to me. Yikes.

So far, so good, though. I haven't disgraced myself or made any major missteps -- at least, I don't think so. I've had to speak to two large groups and negotiate one minor snafu, the latter causing me to spend 45 minutes drafting a single, two-line e-mail. I wanted to craft it in just the right way, striking just the right tone, without appearing critical or bitchy or demanding or overconfident. I so look forward to the day when I know enough about my position and the people I work with to let all this second-guessing slip away. (I have to remind myself that not knowing is often the best place to be, or so say the Zen masters.)

On second thought, I'm not experiencing anything like those two in mid-air. They're having fun.

The photo, of two dancers doing the Lindy Hop, is a famous shot by Gjon Mili from a 1943 issue of Life magazine. When I went walking on Portobello Road after work yesterday, I came across the stencil and recognized the silhouettes immediately. When your photo is so famous someone can turn it into a recognizable single-layer stencil, well, that's saying something!

I know this photo because it appears in a book I own called "The Best of Life," which I bought when I was in high school. I memorized every picture. I'm sure it helped me develop my own photographic eye -- not that mine is anywhere near as developed as the average Life photographer's. It definitely helped me see what a photo could do, preserving a fleeting moment, conveying joy or fury, documenting the culture. I own few things from that long ago, but I do still have that book!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

That Tchotchke in the Window

This is the shop window at Notting Hill Gate where our onion pot sat, lonely and unloved, for about a week before I came along and opened my wallet. The store looks cool, and they do have some cool mid-century stuff -- the kind of stuff I used to be able to find at Goodwill back in the 1980s. In truth, though, it's a bit overpriced, catering as it does to the Portobello Road tourist.

I check out the window every time I walk by, which makes Dave nervous. But I almost never buy. We have enough stuff to dust/pack/unpack/maintain.

Nearby are a retro men's clothing store, women's clothing store, book store and music store. I think all the shops are related, perhaps under common ownership. I once bought a groovy paisley shirt at the men's store, but I've never even been inside the book or music outlets -- I favor the Oxfam used book store on Portobello Road, which benefits charity, and who buys music in a store these days?

Incidentally, when the proprietors of this outlet say they buy, they're stretching the meaning of the word. When I went to the Alexandra Palace antique show back in March, I bought a German vase from the '70s, burnt orange with turquoise trim. I thought it would look cool and retro, but when I got it home it seemed appallingly ugly. So I took it to this store, and they offered just £3. I agreed, since I'd only paid £10, and I figured getting something back would be better than nothing. The vase appeared in the front window soon afterwards, priced at £15 -- and then promptly disappeared! Some people will buy anything.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Anniversaries and Preparations

Our summer has been so busy I didn't quite register that we'd passed the one-year anniversary of the London riots. Those were such crazy days, especially coming almost immediately after we moved into our flat in Notting Hill. Now that I've lived here for a year and have a better sense of the community, all that insanity seems more surreal than ever.

They caught the rioters who tore up our neighborhood, by the way. You can read about them and their escapades here.

This year, we didn't hear a whisper of violence. The anniversary passed quietly -- here and, as far as I know, everywhere else in London. Thank goodness.

Our next big local event is this weekend's Notting Hill Carnival -- said to be the biggest street party in Europe, attracting more than a million people. The Caribbean-themed event celebrates the immigrant communities that populated this part of London beginning in the 1950s.

You may remember that Dave and I stayed in town last year and watched the carnival, which literally takes place in the street beneath our bedroom windows. I enjoyed seeing it once -- the peacock-bright costumes, the thumping music, the hordes of people on the sidewalks. But this year, we've decided not to hang around. On Saturday we're going up to Norfolk, north of London, to stay a couple of nights in a bed-and-breakfast owned by some former music teachers Dave knows professionally.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is battening down the hatches, as is typical. Plywood walls and temporary fences have gone up around some of the apartment buildings -- including ours -- and later this week many of the stores will board up their windows. Security teams have been hired. Our neighbors, at least the ones who stick around, will lay in lots of groceries and hunker down!

(Photo: Hats for sale on Portobello Road, on Thursday.)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Arachnopet, Larger Now

Here is our arachnopet, the spider that lives on our balcony. It's older and larger now, about the size of a nickel including its legs. According to what I can tell from various web pages, it appears to be an Araneus diadematus, a common type of orb weaver known in England, rather unimaginatively, as a Garden Spider.

You may recall this spider first showed up a couple of months ago, when it was tiny. I've been watching it grow -- at least, I assume it's the same one. On days it appears it always has a web ready by morning, and it usually stays in the web until midday or until the web is destroyed by the wind (or me, inadvertently). Then the spider may disappear for a few days or a week. I suppose it takes a shady vacation in our boxwood shrubs.

Not as exciting as a fox, I know, but I enjoy my wildlife wherever and however I can.

It's been downright sultry here in London the last few days -- 85 degrees with 50 percent humidity. I took a photography walk through Kensington on Friday and it verged on unpleasant. But I really can't complain, the climate here is so gentle overall -- nothing like the extremes I felt living in New York or Florida.

My new job is cranking up. I went to an orientation meeting on Friday and picked up all my equipment and some paperwork, and yesterday I worked on familiarizing myself with the system. I'll be back at school this week for various introductory activities. And I'm already assigning substitute teachers! That's how you learn, I suppose -- just dive right in.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Real Urban Foxes!

Last night Dave and I were home, watching some TV after an exhausting day, when we heard the barking and squealing of our neighborhood foxes. They are incredibly noisy, especially when they fight. From the balcony, I could see two -- a big one and a smaller one -- running around on the lawn.

I couldn't take a decent photo from the sixth floor, though. So I went downstairs and crept around the edges of the grass.

By this time, the big fox had run off. But the smaller one was still there. He didn't seem to know how to react to me. He'd watch me for a few seconds, and then run to another part of the yard, and then watch me from there.

I think he's very young -- he seems to have a babyish face, and his tail hasn't filled out. (I'm saying "he" for the sake of convenience; for all I know "he" is a "she.")

These photos were the best I could do with the lens I have. Note to self: Buy zoom lens!

Even though they're noisy, and some people consider them pests, the foxes add such an element of excitement to living in London. When we first moved here, I was amazed to find them in our neighborhood, but I've read that they're plentiful all over the city. One was reportedly found sleeping on a filing cabinet in Parliament!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Radiant Baby, with Watermelon

I've already written about my pictorial interest in vacant stores. Here's another one for the gallery. I always meant to check this place out -- that Keith Haring "Radiant Baby" above the door intrigued me -- but I never quite made it. Apparently Dotty Dot sold toys and games, but now even the Web site is disconnected. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

About ten days ago I whimsically bought an entire watermelon on Portobello Road. I thought it would be a funny surprise for Dave and our friend Adam, who was just arriving that day for his visit. Well, you learn something new every day -- even about your spouse. Dave doesn't particularly like watermelon! And when Adam was here we tended to eat out anyway -- and then Dave and I went to Amsterdam, and then his parents returned for the second part of their visit, which entailed more eating out. His mom helped me work a bit on the watermelon, taking a slice here and there, but otherwise I was on my own.

Long story short: I finally finished that freaking watermelon yesterday at lunch.

Yes, I realize that is a first-world problem.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Favorite Morocco Photos

A couple of years ago I posted one of my favorite photos from Morocco, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1992-94. I've been meaning to scan more, and I finally got around to it the other day. Here are some of my favorites.

The guys above were sitting outside a woodworking shop on market day in the town of Ida Ougnidif, near Tafraout in southern Morocco. I still love the cabinet decorated with chickens. I should have bought it.

These boys sold bread on the main street in Ait Baha, where I lived. I was a daily customer! Morocco has some of the best fresh bread I've ever tasted.

A quiet whitewashed street in the northern town of Chefchaouen, in the Rif mountains. At the time the region was said to be a hotbed of marijuana and hash cultivation. I remember being annoyed there because I couldn't find a cup of coffee when I got up in the morning -- apparently no one gets an early start in Chefchaouen.

This kid lived in my village near Ait Baha -- as I recall, his name was Hassan. He came over one day and asked to harvest the weeds that sprouted in my courtyard during the rainy season, so he could feed them to his goats. I said, "Go for it!" During most of the year, that courtyard was dry as a bone and devoid of vegetation.

Fishing nets piled on the docks in Essaouira, my favorite Moroccan city. The Portuguese called it Mogador, and old Portuguese forts and ramparts are still part of the landscape. In summer, when much of Morocco is sweltering, Essaouira is cooled by a brisk wind off the Atlantic.

These kids lived in a village where we built a latrine at an elementary school. (That's the latrine behind them, to the right.) As I took this photo, one of the men in the village said snarkily that the scene, with the dirty and bedraggled kids, was "like Somalia." Kind of sobering to think they're all in their 20s now, maybe with kids of their own.

The market in Taroudant, a city in the south. This looks like a lot of Moroccan markets, known as souks -- I especially love that latticed roof.