Thursday, October 31, 2013

Four Things I've Recently Learned

I walked to work yesterday morning. It was clear and sunny, and I wanted to get some exercise and some photos. I found this guy sanding the metal fence outside a house being renovated in Maida Vale. I love that line of leaves at his feet.

I have learned four interesting things within the past few days:

-- For some reason, I always believed the author Daphne du Maurier ("Rebecca" and "The Birds") was a French man, possibly from the 1800s. Why I thought this I have no idea. Maybe I was getting du Maurier confused with Alexandre Dumas. Anyway, I am now involved in a lengthy project at work to clean up our electronic catalog, correcting typos and providing additional information about books where needed. In the course of this project, I discovered that Daphne du Maurier was actually a woman (as the name would suggest), was actually British, and wrote from the 1930s onward. I'm now wondering how many times in conversation I used a male pronoun to refer to her, thus broadcasting to everyone that I am an idiot.

-- From Eric Schlosser's new book "Command and Control," about the history of nuclear weapons, I learned that after the U.S. developed atomic bombs in the 1940s there was a strong movement to create a one-world government, among people who believed it was the only way to prevent the bombs' re-use and spread. Even some people in the military thought this was the best solution. A book of essays was published to that effect titled "One World or None," and more than half the Americans surveyed in a poll said they wanted the United Nations to become "a world government with power to control the armed forces of all nations, including the United States." The U.S. even considered sharing its atomic secrets with Russia in the 1940s -- when Russia did not yet have the bomb -- as a way to forestall an arms race. But more conservative voices prevailed, and we wound up with the Cold War. Fascinating!

-- I learned that if you have clocks that automatically reset themselves when there's a time change, as many clocks do nowadays, putting them in the window apparently helps them figure out the correct time. This is our faculty lounge at work, where clocks from throughout the building have come for their autumn reset. (We just went off Daylight Saving Time, or British Summer Time as it's called here, on Sunday.) As you can see, some of the clocks have figured it out, and some haven't.

-- I learned that some British kids do trick-or-treat, even though none have ever knocked on our door. Dave took Olga for a walk last night and was approached by two kids in face paint near the corner pub. He said other people were giving them money, but Dave told them, "Go home. You're a day early." Fortunately I don't think they know where we live.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

1983: My First Real Film

I've had some more old negatives scanned. What you're looking at here are three frames taken when I got my first "real" camera, a Canon AE-1. This was Christmas, 1983, and I took the photos at my grandmother's house outside Washington, D.C.

I'd already had a camera for years -- the dreaded Magimatic, which took square, invariably fuzzy, terrible pictures. But I'd also used my dad's (a Minolta, I think?), and I'd taken photography classes both at summer camp and in youth programs at the University of South Florida. So I knew what a real camera could do, and I'd longed for one.

The Canon was a present from my mom -- my dad may have chipped in for it too, though I honestly can't remember.

After unwrapping it (and the camera bag and film and other stuff that I got with it), I went out into my grandmother's yard and took photos of the dry, brown pods on her rose-of-sharon (top) and the ice crystals on the roof of her Oldsmobile (middle).

Then I came inside and photographed the glassware in her living room windows. (I always loved that red vase, and I had it for years after she died in 1989. After I moved to New York in 2000, I gave it to my brother, who still displays it -- as well as the blue glass in the photo above -- on a windowsill in his house.)

Anyway, aside from these three shots, I was always disappointed with this first roll of film. The rest of it, quite frankly, is crap -- underexposed pictures of dewdrops and blurry pictures of dead leaves. But I guess that's to be expected when you're learning a new camera, right?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Big Storm

As you've no doubt heard on the news, we had a crazy windstorm the night before last. It was forecast to be bad, but from inside our apartment it didn't seem so terrible -- gusty winds that buffeted the plants on the balcony, but that's about it. I didn't realize quite how crazy the storm was elsewhere until I went to work yesterday morning and found all the tube lines snarled, with delays and closures caused by debris on the tracks.

Apparently there were trees down and even a few fatalities, with winds up to nearly 100 mph in parts of southern England. Around our neighborhood, the wind merely tore leaves from the trees, and they've drifted into big piles on the sidewalk. Olga likes to traipse through them. The event is being called the St. Jude's Day storm, because -- who knew? -- Monday was the feast day for St. Jude.

Aside from that excitement, yesterday was slow torture, mainly because I was mildly hungover from my martini-wine pre-birthday combo. Seriously, I felt slow, foggy and tired all day. I was so happy to get a good night's sleep last night!

(Photos: Nothing to do with the storm, unless you consider that high winds are hell on hair.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pre-Birthday with a Potent Martini

You might call yesterday my "pre-birthday." Dave is going to be away this coming weekend, so he won't be able to celebrate my actual birthday on Saturday. Yesterday became the appointed day.

First we both took Olga for a morning walk, which was a refreshing change, because I could bring the camera and look for photos while he held the dog. (It's always hard to manage the camera and the dog.)  We walked over to Latimer Road to check out the new graffiti, and Olga even managed to find a few squirrels to charge -- or attempt to charge, since she was on her leash. Then I stopped at a cafe on Portobello Road for a coffee while Dave went to Tesco for groceries.

Strangely, I found a 1956 shilling lying on the sidewalk. Britain hasn't used shillings since the early 1970s, when the currency was "decimalised," or simplified from an old system in which apparently arbitrary numbers of many different coins made up larger units. (For example, back then there were 240 pence in a pound. Now there are 100, as you might expect.) So who knows why this coin was lying around. My guess is it was dropped by one of the antique vendors at the Portobello Road market.

Anyway, when we came home, Dave gave me my present, a Hornsea coffee service I'd admired in the window of a charity shop around the corner. I haven't photographed it yet, but it looks like this.

And finally, we went to dinner last night at Apsleys, a beautiful Italian restaurant in the Lanesborough Hotel in Mayfair. Unfortunately I made the unwise decision to have a single pre-dinner martini in the Library Bar, and for some reason that thing hammered me. We then had the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings, and overall I felt too impaired to really enjoy the food. Which was my own stupid fault. Oh well, live and learn, even at (almost) 47 -- though admittedly this is not a new lesson.

(Photo: A red door near the Latimer Road tube stop, taken yesterday on our walk.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

(Not Really) Rubbing Elbows With Royalty

Olga and I were back in Hyde Park yesterday, where the sky, at least part of the time, looked like this. The weather has been incredibly variable the last few weeks. In fact we're supposed to get rain and high winds tonight and tomorrow morning -- and yet right now the sun is shining like it's the first day of creation.

Olga had a great time in the park, as always. I probably don't even need to type that sentence, do I?

Sorry my blog posts have been a bit lacking in substance lately. During the work week there's just not much I can say -- anything interesting that happens usually involves personalities at school, and my mornings and evenings are routine. I suppose I could write about the news, but even that hasn't been too exciting lately. The government shutdown stripped my gears.

I did learn, from the vapid Hello magazine, that Prince Harry and his girlfriend recently came to a James Blunt concert at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill, around the same date that Dave and I went there for lunch in the cafe. So I'm just going to tell everyone that I was there with Prince Harry. What, is that a stretch?

I also saw that some guy from Tennessee got arrested at Kennedy Airport after trying to check four guns onto a flight, apparently violating New York City laws against bringing guns into the city. I'm guessing the gun people will be all over this. The situation sounds a bit peculiar -- apparently two of the guns were painted, one silver and one purple, with missing serial numbers, and one was loaded. But at least he was trying to check them and not carrying them on!

Last night, I went with our friends Sally and Mike to see the Ballet Rambert at Sadler's Wells in Islington. Contrary to the name, the performance was more contemporary dance than traditional ballet, with an odd mix of theater thrown in. The best of the three pieces was called "The Comedy of Change," inspired by Darwin's theories on evolution. The dancers emerged, reptile-like, from fabric pods and went on to engage each other, organize themselves and finally create (on stage) a tin-foil Buddha-like idol, which (spoiler alert!) they smashed at the end. That pretty much sums up the story of civilization, which the possible exception of nuclear weaponry.

(Photo: Hyde Park, yesterday. This is an HDR photo in art vivid mode to show the texture of the sky.)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Urban Autumn

I mentioned the other day that autumn colors in London aren't as vibrant as they are in parts of the U.S., but there are exceptions.

(By the way, it was only after I got home from my photo walk in Streatham, where I took these shots, that I realized the bit of paper in the photo above says, "Congratulations! Your Lotto ticket is a winner! You've won £25!" It also says "Player Receipt," so I'm hoping it's just a receipt and not the ticket itself. I'll be kicking myself if I left a winning Lotto ticket lying in a colorful gutter.)

If the dry, brittle horse chestnut and oak leaves aren't enough to give you an autumnal feeling, how about the rich, mellow golds and oranges of the take-away chicken box?

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Grocer

I don't have much to write today, so I'm giving you instead this photo of a grocer somewhat salaciously admiring an arriving customer. On this rainy morning, that's all the amusement (or creepiness, depending on how you look at it) that will be emanating from this quarter.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Overpopulation, and a Wayward Hyena

The other day I read an interesting article in The New Yorker about overpopulation. It discussed the wide range of expert theories, from the argument that we're having way too many children to the perplexing conclusion that we're having too few.

The planet's overall population boom has been driven by the invention of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and one expert asserts that the way to control population is to control or limit the use of these fertilizers. Now that's an interesting idea. Of course such a policy would require a very gradual system of implementation, so as not to create hunger.

On the other hand, some people say we need more children to support our aging populations and our social welfare systems. That, to me, seems ridiculously short-sighted. I don't see much evidence that the world will ever be in a position -- barring a huge calamity -- where there aren't enough workers. If the social welfare system is in danger of collapse, then the system is what needs reform. We don't need to pump out more people to prop it up.

Apparently some of the most fertile places in the world are also the poorest, as you might expect. In Niger, in the Sahel region of Africa, women have an average of seven children apiece. A Nigerién woman quoted in the article complained of the lack of milk in her village: "All we want is food so we can produce children."

The Japanese, on the other hand, are showing typical restraint, with 1.4 kids per adult woman. The population there has been dropping since 2006, last year by almost 300,000 people. In parts of rural Japan, wildlife is returning to depopulated areas -- bears, macaques, herons and eagles. How great does that sound?

Anyway, it's a fascinating article and a fascinating subject.

I've also been reading the short stories of H. H. Munro, who published back in the Edwardian era under the pen name Saki. I've seen books of Saki's stories lying around for years but I'd never read any until now -- and they are hilarious. The humor is very dark, with a camp streak -- lots of upper-crust Britishers sitting around making acidly witty remarks.

In one story, a pair of women are discussing a fox hunt at which they unexpectedly encounter an escaped hyena. The hyena, which they name Esmé, follows them and devours a "gipsy brat" before being hit by a passing car and killed. The motorist buries what he thinks is an overlarge dog before sending a brooch, by way of apology, to one of the women -- who then sells the brooch, having had no connection to the animal whatsoever.

Dark, but funny!

(Photos: Shopfronts in Brixton on Sunday morning; a student paper that I found in the library.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Chewing Gum Art

I discovered two more pieces of Ben Wilson's chewing gum art, this time near work. These two are portraits, and it looks like they've been there awhile.

It's funny -- I have walked past these pieces probably a hundred times since I started work at the school, and yet I never noticed them until Monday. Imagine all the things we miss in a given day, just because we're not paying attention!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Tiger

I walked past this guy when I was in Streatham on Sunday, and I was struck by his tiger shirt and the amazing red/orange color scheme he had going here. I didn't take a photo immediately, but after I'd passed him I thought, "I just can't let that one go." So I turned around and went back for a picture.

I'm always a little wary of photographing strangers. But I must admit, in this case, I thought, "What's he going to do? Run after me?" Which is terrible, I know. I'm a terrible person.

Then I took his picture, and he turned out to be a totally nice guy. I told him I liked his shirt but I'm not sure he understood me, because he told me he's deaf. I showed him this photo in my camera, though, and he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Brixton Windmill

I did get to take my photo walk yesterday after all. Almost immediately after I posted yesterday morning, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. I hopped on the tube and went down to Brixton, in south London, intending to walk to Streatham and possibly all the way to Croydon.

Soon after I left the Brixton tube station, walking south, I passed a sign with an arrow pointing the way to the historic Brixton Windmill. What?! Brixton has a windmill?

Well, yes, as it turns out. The Brixton Windmill was built in 1816, when the area -- now a bustling part of urban London -- was just open fields. The miller, John Ashby, dried and ground grain and had a bakery on the site. The windmill operated by wind power until the 1860s, when the surrounding urban development began to block the wind and Ashby moved his milling enterprise elsewhere.

In 1904, the Ashbys installed steam or gas power in the windmill and used it for another 30 years. Now it's a protected historic site, the last windmill in London, located in a tiny park with a playground nearby. I didn't go inside -- it's now closed for the winter -- but apparently it is sometimes possible to see the restored interior complete with millstone.

When I left the windmill I kept walking south along the Streatham High Road, and I got lots of photos which made me happy and which will undoubtedly appear on the blog soon. Instead of walking to Croydon I turned and walked through Norwood and back north again to Tulse Hill -- a total of 5.22 miles.

Then I took a bus and the tube back to Notting Hill, and no sooner was I walking up to the door of our apartment building than it started to rain again. The weather gods have certainly been on my side this weekend, suspending the rain just long enough for me to get outside for a few hours each day!

Dave and I spent the weekend catching up on some movies that I wanted to see because the stories are popular with many of our students -- "The Hunger Games," which was really good, and "I Am Number Four," which was OK. The middle-schoolers especially love checking out those books.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Stevie Smith at a Birthday Party

Olga and I took our longest walk yet through Hyde Park yesterday. We walked all the way around the Serpentine, the long pond in the middle of the park, and that was after Olga ran and ran and played with her Kong. She had a great time.

The park is looking more and more autumnal, with yellow horse chestnut trees and tussocks of dry grass. We don't get extremely colorful autumns here -- the red Virginia creeper is about the most colorful anything ever gets -- but there's definitely a change.

Olga has become worryingly obsessed with chasing squirrels -- she constantly scans the ground under the trees and when she sees one, she's off like a shot. I don't think there's much chance she'll ever catch one, but I chatted with a woman yesterday who said her dog had caught two, and it wasn't pretty. Indeed, a short time later, I saw her dog launch an attack after stealthily maneuvering itself between a squirrel and the nearest tree. That squirrel was almost toast. Tourists were gasping.

We stopped at the Serpentine Gallery to see the Cloud Pavilion by Sou Fujimoto, a temporary installation that serves as a cafe and a sort of interactive sculpture. It's made of interlocked white metal poles and transparent sheeting, and people can climb it. Olga, however, was more interested in looking for squirrels.

Also, the strangest thing happened. Last weekend, I saw a man drop some receipts and a £20 note on the sidewalk. I called out to him, picked up the papers and handed them back, thinking nothing of it. Dave joked that he should have given me a reward for returning his £20. (That's about $32).

Well, yesterday I found another £20 note, on the pavement surrounding the Serpentine, and this time no one was nearby. It is certainly not a common thing to find large bills lying on the ground in a populous place like London. Was the universe giving me my reward?

Last night -- well, this morning, actually -- I virtually attended the 50th birthday party of my friend Christopher in Los Angeles. Those of us who couldn't come in person attended via video chat, and we were asked to read something that reminded us of Christopher.

When I first met him 13 years ago, Christopher was living in the East Village in a magazine-cluttered apartment where he would periodically succumb to a literary mood and read aloud poetry by Elizabeth Bishop or Stevie Smith. So I checked out a book of Smith's poems from our school library and thought I'd find one to read.

The problem is, Smith writes lots of long, dour poems about God and death, with titles like "Thoughts About the Christian Doctrine of Eternal Hell," which doesn't exactly put one in a party mood. I did eventually find a few that were short and upbeat, and I read two of those.

For example, I read "The Hat," which seemed fitting for the birthday party of a friend who can now get gay-married in California:

I love my beautiful hat more than anything
And through my beautiful hat I see a wedding ring
The King will marry me and make me his own before all
And when I am married I shall wear my hat and walk on the palace wall.

Here's one I liked but did not read, called "Drugs Made Pauline Vague":

     Drugs made Pauline vague.
     She sat one day at the breakfast table
     Fingering in a baffled way
     The fronds of the maidenhair plant.

Was it the salt you were looking for dear?
Said Dulcie, exchanging a glance with the Brigadier.

     Chuff chuff Pauline what's the matter?
     Said the Brigadier to his wife
     Who did not even notice
     What a handsome couple they made.

See what I mean? Interesting, but not exactly party fare.

Anyway, I had to wake up at 2 a.m. to attend this party, so now lack of sleep is making me vague! I was going to take a photo walk today, but it's pouring rain so I'm not sure that will happen. I may have to stay inside and read more Stevie Smith.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Before and After

Here's the result of some of my first Photoshop experiments with removing distortion. The photo above is unedited, and as you can see, some of the lines -- the left side of the doorframe, for example, or the line where the building meets the sidewalk -- show a slight curve. That's the result of the lens.

Here's the corrected version, where the lines look straight, like they are (more or less) in real life. Some could use additional straightening -- like the mullions in the window -- but my skills haven't progressed that far! I also removed that obnoxious web address below the window. Unfortunately it looks a little blurry in this resolution on the blog -- but click it for a clearer image.

Contrary to what I said yesterday, I did check out a book from the library about Photoshop. Light weekend reading!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Photoshop Vampire

I stayed after school last night to play around with Photoshop, and I successfully adjusted one of my photos for lens distortion, as I discussed yesterday. I had no idea what I was doing, and Photoshop has about a million little buttons and drop-down menus, and I wasn't even sure whether I was really in Photoshop or Bridge, or even what the difference is. But I'm better at figuring things out for myself than in learning from books or instruction manuals, so I just played with it. I go to the manuals only when I get stuck.

Someday I need to figure out "layers." Photoshop separates photos into layers, and these layers can be manipulated in various ways. I think this is how people make major changes, like removing objects and that kind of thing. I'm not sure I'll be doing much of that, because it goes against my journalistic grain, but I'd like to know how.

Anyway, I'd hoped to have some before-and-after photos to show you this morning. But then, before I had a chance to upload my work to Flickr, the computer server shut down -- perhaps a planned maintenance of some kind. I'd saved it, so I'm not too concerned, and I ought to be able to get it back today.

The photo above was not Photoshopped at all. She really was wearing denim overalls in central London. And I say, why not?

I woke up this morning at about 2 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep. So I came out to the living room and read "Dracula" for an hour or so. Kind of vampirical behavior, to be prowling around at 2 a.m., right?

(Photo: Central London, Oct. 8.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Distortion in Photos and Governance

I had a very interesting conversation with the photography teacher at work yesterday about using Photoshop to correct lens distortion in digital photos. I'm not a Photoshop user, but it turns out that, as I suspected, distortion is very easily fixed -- almost with the click of a button. I have a few would-be favorite photos that will work wonders on. (The one above is more or less OK). I'd like to play around with it a bit on my lunch hour, but then again, that would cut into my "Dracula" reading time!

Not much else to report here. I walked home from work last night just to get some exercise -- we had a rare period of cool, clear skies. I didn't even bring the camera. The weather has been rainy overall so I've been leaving home without it.

I'm relieved the government shutdown is finally over. Even sensible conservatives recognize it as a harmful stunt by the Republican far-right fringe. Ross Douthat wrote in his New York Times blog that it was "an irresponsible, dysfunctional and deeply pointless act, carried out by a party that on the evidence of the last few weeks shouldn’t be trusted with the management of a banana stand, let alone the House of Representatives." Here in London people seemed awed by the inability of the U.S. government to function. One of our neighbors pointed out that, in theory at least, if Parliament got that gridlocked, the Queen could just send everybody home! See? There are advantages to a monarchy.

(Photo: Kennington Road, South London, Oct. 7.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I have to love a place called Launderama. In fact, "-ama" at the end of pretty much any word, to designate a store, guarantees that I will love it: Plumborama, Photorama, Foodorama. The possibilities are endless.

I've decided to read Bram Stoker's "Dracula" for Halloween. (It was an even toss-up between that and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein.") So far I'm about 65 pages in, and I'm impressed at how compelling it is. I thought it would be sort of dry and Victorian and tedious, but Stoker is a good writer. The early Dracula movies closely followed his descriptions of the fog, forests and craggy Carpathian mountains, not to mention Dracula's forlorn castle.

I've never been much for vampire stories -- especially those in the new, "sexy vampire" genre, which have more to do with titillating teenage girls than anything else -- but hey, this is a classic! I must admit I feel a little creepy reading it on the tube, though.

In other news: This is a shot of our TV screen, which is why it's so terrible. I took it during this week's episode of "Downton Abbey" because this street is Denbigh Road, which runs right outside our apartment complex. I walk up this street every day to get to the tube! On the show, it's meant to be the exterior of Michael Gregson's London flat. I immediately recognized that distinctive arched window when it appeared on the television.

Dave and I walked Olga there right after the show, and unfortunately the hedge in front of the window is in full leaf now, so I couldn't really get a photo from the same angle. That tree on the right has since been cut down and is now the stump chair.

I remember seeing film trucks at this location last winter but I never imagined they were filming Downton Abbey!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Too Nice

There's a review of a new production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" in the latest New Yorker, and it got me thinking about the craft of writing, and especially the brutal honesty required to really achieve something with writing.

Williams wrote the play partly with his mother in mind. An earlier story version fell sort of flat, writes Hilton Als, but by the time Williams wrote the play, "he had got enough technical distance from his mother to know how to craft a play that was partly fueled by her ungovernable talk -- talk that he used to help shape the poetic betrayal he had to write in order to become himself."

Don't you love that? Poetic betrayal.

Later, Als mentioned the character of Jim, the Gentleman Caller, who "can't break out of his niceness to achieve anything truly great."

Both of these lines resonate with me because they make me consider my own shortcomings as a writer. I haven't written fiction since college, but in anything I write, I'm always concerned with how it will be received. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or ruffle feathers or be unfair or reveal anything too private. This has always been true -- even when I was reporting for newspapers I tried hard to be fair and as kind as possible, without betraying my journalistic purpose, to sources and subjects of articles.

But to be a great writer -- to make people draw in their breath with the shock of recognition -- you have to be willing to say things that have consequences. You have to be willing to dig deep into raw personal experience, both yours and that of the people around you. Some of them might get upset. But what results, hopefully, is art, work that opens up readers and, as Als said of Williams, allows the writer to more fully become him- or herself.

I can't break out of my niceness to achieve anything truly great. That's my problem in a nutshell. Will I ever become myself?

Even in life, I'm just too damn nice. As a young person, I aspired to niceness -- I didn't understand why some people talked down about it, preferring the dangerous, the dark, the edgy. As I get older, though, I see how hollow nice can be, how unrevealing, how unremarkable. How nice.

Of course, becoming oneself has its costs, too. It mired Williams in a life of depression and substance abuse. Truth may be the stuff of art, but it's no picnic.

(Photo: Leadenhall Market in central London.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Rainy Day Insulators

This is what it looked like here in London yesterday -- gray and rainy. It was actually a wonderful day. I mostly stayed inside, finishing the book "Notting Hell" and then watching the movie "Barbarella," which I hadn't seen in its entirety for about 25 years. Groovy is the only word that comes to mind to describe it. Well, that and stupid. I loved it for its sheer camp value -- who wouldn't want a fur-lined space capsule? -- but Dave seemed less enthralled.

I took the dog out for a relatively brief walk. Even she wasn't thrilled to be outside.

I Skyped with my dad and stepmother in the afternoon, and then our neighbors Chris and Linda came over with some very ripe cheese and a bottle of bubbly. We liked the bubbly but we all agreed the cheese was too ripe. Olga ate a bit of it, but that and the fact that she didn't get much of a walk yesterday may have contributed to the little accident she had on the bathroom rug early this morning. Ah, pet ownership.

Those glass things on our bedroom windowsill are old telephone or power line insulators, as you may know. I've had the two on the right since I was a kid, when our next-door neighbor gave them to me. The one on the left I found when I was in my 20s near Gainesville, Fla., on a road trip with my friend Kevin. We each retrieved one from beneath an old, rotting telephone pole we spotted while driving on U.S. 301. (I once posted a photo of one of my former cats, Angeles, on a windowsill with these same three insulators. That photo was taken an astonishing 22 years ago, in 1991. It boggles the mind.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mail Thief

Yesterday, oh boy. What a day. So many errands and chores! Vacuum the house, take stuff to the charity shop, take books to the charity used-book shop, pick up the cleaning, buy groceries, do two loads of laundry, walk the dog. Oh, and then bathe the dog, when said dog manages to not just roll in goose poop but dive in, headfirst, greening her fur from chin to pelvis. (What an embarrassing walk home that was.)

Fortunately, I got a break in the early afternoon when most of the list was completed. I read for a while and took a nap, a newly clean Olga snuggled up next to me.

Then our English friends Sally, Mike, Liz and Andy came over for a quick trip to the Museum of Brands, which is a few blocks from our flat, and dinner. I've been to the museum before -- it's an amazing collection of vintage packaging, toys, games, clothing, marketing material and other stuff, all organized chronologically by decade. It was interesting to me, but I knew the others would love it, since they grew up in England and  would remember many of the products and packages from their childhoods. So we finally managed to coordinate a group visit.

Dave kept dinner simple -- a yummy lasagna from a Jamie Oliver recipe and salad, and apple crumble for dessert. Olga charmed everyone by being her usual, over-friendly self. A watch dog she is not.

Speaking of which, have I mentioned the crazy old man who lives in our building? He stopped by last night while our guests were here. He lives on the first floor with his wife, and has an increasingly severe case of dementia. He has developed an obsession with the mail slots in everyone's doors. Sometimes we'll be sitting in our quiet apartment and we'll hear the gentle squeak of the mail slot, and know the crazy man is playing around with it. He seems to want our mail, and in fact, sometimes he'll knock on the door and ask whether we've got any magazines. It's the strangest thing. I'm thinking we should save a few magazines to give him. (Fortunately, our actual mail usually falls to the floor after the postman puts it through the slot, so the crazy man can't reach it.)

I know it's uncharitable to call him a crazy man. He's ill, really. And you know, that may be me in 30 years, feeling around in my neighbor's mail slots for random, overpriced issues of The New Yorker and Harper's. I guess I should remember that, right?

(Top Photo: What is going on beneath the pavement of this street in central London? Is it any wonder that manholes sometimes explode, with such a profusion of wires, cables and ducts? Bottom Photo: A cat-shaped graffiti tag on Portobello Road. Graffiti tags are seldom cute, but this one might qualify.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Gilt of Cain

This modern sculpture by Michael Visocchi in central London was unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2008 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. It incorporates lines from a poem by Lemn Sissay, "Gilt of Cain," which interweaves Biblical references with terms from the financial industry.

The sculpture seems to exist to remind the financial community that its obligations go beyond the dollar and the pound.

Then again, this Master of the Universe was using the sculpture to tie his shoe, so who knows whether that message is really sinking in.

The scattered columns were inspired by stalks of sugar cane, with their positions meant to suggest a crowd gathering around a podium or pulpit to listen. You can read Lemn Sissay's entire poem here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Curse the Tube Gods

The transportation gods seem to be working against me. On Wednesday, I couldn't get to work via my normal tube route because the Jubilee Line was closed at Bond Street -- something about someone hearing "voices in the tunnel." (Presumably it was established that these voices were not coming from within that person's own head.) And then yesterday evening much of the western half of the Central Line was closed -- signal failure at Holborn, apparently -- which meant I had to elbow my way onto a jam-packed Circle Line train that ultimately took me to a stop not-so-close to my house. *Sigh*

Urban problems. Oh well.

Dave was caught up in it too -- he took a bus home, arriving a few minutes after me -- so we abandoned plans to cook last night and ordered pizza instead.

One fringe benefit of the tube confusion -- walking home from my not-so-close tube stop, I passed a demonstration by LGBT rights activists in front of a Gambian diplomatic building in Notting Hill. They were protesting comments by the Gambian president, who recently told the United Nations that homosexuality is a deadly global threat. The demonstrators chanted in favor of gay rights throughout Africa, which as we all know has a completely dismal record when it comes to LGBTs. All I can say is, bravo! I gave them a thumbs-up to show my support. (Excuse the lousy iPhone photo -- my old iPhone 3G is all I had on me at the time.)

Now I'm awake ridiculously early for no good reason and it's raining steadily outside. The sound is peaceful and comforting, but I'm not looking forward to walking the dog.

(Top photo: Kennington, South London, on Monday.)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nuclear Annihilation, and Cold Weather

I had all kinds of library excitement yesterday -- the student who initially tried to hand in the wrong computer charger finally showed up with the correct device, and another guy turned in three long-overdue books (including one that had already been marked as lost). I love it when stray property comes back to the fold! These are big events in my world. Don't laugh.

I also ordered for the library Eric Schlosser's newest book about humanity's frightening lack of control over our nuclear weapons. That should be an eye-opener. Did you know that for a few minutes in January 1995, Boris Yeltsin's finger was poised on the button because the Norwegians launched a weather rocket that looked suspicious on Russian radar? Apparently there have been many moments like this throughout our nuclear era. It's incredible that we're all still here.

I remember being very conscious of the risk of nuclear annihilation while growing up in the '70s. I cried about it at least once, and my mom told me we just had to live each day rather than worry about the future. Can you imagine? It really seemed that we were poised on a knife edge. Maybe now things are safer, or maybe we're just more oblivious. Do kids today worry much about the risk of nuclear weaponry? I suspect they're not hammered with the dangers and possibilities as we were in the eras of duck-and-cover (which was before my time) and the Cold War.

Oh well. Life goes on, at least for now!

At the moment I'm reading Rachel Johnson's book "Notting Hell," which takes place exactly in our neighborhood and basically mocks all the rich people who occupy the elegant houses surrounding our government-built apartment development. Rachel, you may remember, is the mayor's sister and the one whose ceiling collapsed as a result of the Notting Hill Carnival. Allegedly.

It was 47º F when I walked Olga this morning, and according to, it felt like 42º. We had a cold front sweep through last night, and the temperature plunged. The leaves are beginning to fall, rustling and rattling along the sidewalk, and Olga is curled up with her head in my lap, unhappy about the chill on her nose.

(Photos: Itsu is a chain of sushi restaurants. I shot this one on Tuesday in central London. Also, another banana sticker for the online collection.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Back to Work

Yesterday morning I took the tube east into the City of London, the land of the three-piece suit. I seldom walk around in the central city, where everything is glassy and banks and insurance predominate. I thought I'd see what photos I could find in that environment, and of course there were many to be had -- like this shot of Robert Indiana's sculpture "One Through Zero." (Well, part of it, anyway.)

Then I came back to Notting Hill and Dave and I went out for lunch. I wanted to find an outdoor cafe and take Olga, but he argued against it. I always feel guilty leaving her at home. But he wants to be able to go to lunch unburdened by the dog, which I can also understand, because she is kind of a pain in the neck at restaurants. So, ultimately, we left her here and I took her for a long walk later in the afternoon, which made up for it in my mind.

Now our two-day October break is over -- we're both back to work today.

Oh, and we bought our tickets for Istanbul over Thanksgiving. I'll be so excited to be in Turkey rather than eating turkey!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Post on Aquatic Themes

This may be the best name for a chip shop that I've ever seen. It must be a heck of a lot bigger inside than the front entrance would seem to indicate -- 60 seats and a salad bar in that tiny place?! Is there a dance floor?

Yesterday was terrific. I went for a long walk from Waterloo down through Lambeth to Stockwell and Brixton. Lots of great photos!

For example, you gotta love a playground where one of the slides is a huge yellow submarine. Can we all live there?

Last night, Dave and I went to see "Blue Jasmine," Woody Allen's newest film, featuring a terrific performance by Cate Blanchett. The supporting cast is also great, but she makes the movie. I would not be surprised if it earns her an Oscar.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Half-Marathon and a Wayward Butterfly

Sunday was beautiful, warm and sunny, and Olga and I didn't want to stay inside on such an incredible fall day. So in late morning we set out for Hyde Park, thinking we'd have our normal jaunt through the greenery.

What we didn't count on was the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. We got to the park only to find a steady stream of thousands of huffing and puffing runners, which we somehow had to cross to get beyond the park's outer edge. I found someone from a runner aid station and he directed me to a designated gap in the route, where I stood with a few other people and an attendant. When the attendant gave the word, we bolted across, and we were finally in Hyde Park.

Olga had her usual tremendous time chasing other dogs and her Kong toy. The runners made a wide loop around the grassy area where we were, so I sat and read my book as Olga ran free, and every once in a while I looked up to see if the crowds had thinned. We were there a few hours and there were still people running past when we stood to go home.

Yesterday morning I was vacuuming the bathroom when I found a small, bark-colored moth folded up in the shadows behind the door. I had the presence of mind to keep the vacuum cleaner nozzle away from it, and decided to leave it there -- I figured it would come out on its own when it got dark, and maybe I could shoo it outside.

A few hours later I went into the bathroom and found it on the windowsill. So I opened the window, and the critter quivered a bit and then spread its drab bark-colored wings to reveal glorious orange hemmed by blue spots. Turns out it wasn't a moth at all, but a small tortoiseshell butterfly. After it had awakened completely, it fluttered off into the sunny afternoon.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Nice Bitch

I took Olga down to the Grand Union Canal yesterday, and as we walked along I spotted this boat with its elaborate Japanese-themed paint job. When I stopped to take a photo, a man (not even remotely Japanese, incidentally) opened the door of the boat and stared at me.

I told him I liked his boat, and asked if it was OK for me to take a photo.

He shrugged. "Yeah. I just wondered what you was doin', innit."

He spied Olga lying on the grass chewing (of course) a stick. "Nice bitch," he said. I laughed and said she was a good dog, but she liked sticks. "Bitches usually do," he said, and closed the door.

The British are very casual about using the word bitch to describe a female dog. People on the street call Olga a bitch all the time. I know it's a perfectly acceptable word, but it  always shocks me a little, as an American. I just hear a dirty word, an insult, a word I would never say -- not even about a dog. Funny.

Beyond that exchange, it was an average walk. I forgot to bring Olga's Kong toy, so she did pick up sticks and plastic bottles and other paraphernalia to use as chew toys, but I did my best to keep any of it from entering her body, and we seemed to emerge from the outing unscathed.

I spent the afternoon relaxing on the couch, reading and listening to the faint strains of Dean Martin singing "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore," about twenty times. There's a guy at the Portobello Road market who sells music CDs, and he blares that song every Saturday, over and over, along with Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me" and a few others. If I never hear that Dean Martin song again as long as I live, it will be too soon. (And it's virtually guaranteed I'll continue hearing it every week for many weeks to come!)

If you're looking for an excellent novel, try J.K. Rowling's "The Casual Vacancy." I was so impressed with it -- a real page-turner, yet sophisticated and very adult. It's not Harry Potter!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Post For Philatelists

My inner philately nerd was thrilled a few days ago when I got an envelope in the mail from Linda Sue, containing collectible worldwide stamps.

Linda Sue was the recipient of the beads I found on the street a few weeks ago. Knowing that she is very artsy and was likely to put them to good use, I mailed them to her in Washington state. She returned the favor a hundredfold by sending me a nice mixture of loose stamps and a few full sets that she had kicking around.

When my brother and I collected stamps as kids, we got them in envelopes just like this one from an assortment of stamp companies. The arrangement worked like this: We'd buy a special bargain stamp we saw advertised in a magazine (maybe "Boys' Life"). When the company sent that stamp, it would also send others, with the understanding that we'd pay for the ones we wanted and return the rest. As you can see, they weren't very expensive. We were offered a special deal if we bought them all, but being parsimonious, we never did that. We'd then get more stamps "on approval" every month after that until we cancelled.

In addition to H. E. Harris, the granddaddy of stamp companies from which this envelope came, we bought stamps from the Jamestown and Falcon stamp companies, and probably others too.

I never dealt with the Valley Stamp Company. I guess that was just a western outfit.

Anyway, Linda Sue's mailing made me nostalgic for my childhood stamp collecting days. I spent hours and hours with my stamps. They taught me all about the world. I lament the apparent dwindling interest among young people for postal paraphernalia these days, but at the same time, the world is so much more accessible through the computer -- they can connect with distant people and places much more easily than I ever could.

(And for better or worse, they're probably getting a much more realistic, unvarnished look at the globe. Mine was rose-tinted by the carefully chosen artworks, buildings and national heroes that various governments selected for depiction on their postage stamps!)

I think I'm going to leave some of these stamps in their envelopes and simply tuck them into my album -- the envelopes are just as awesome as the stamps themselves. Thanks, Linda Sue!