Saturday, November 30, 2013

Underground, And Taken For a Ride

Yesterday, Dave and I went to see the vast underground water storage cistern that Constantine built beneath old Istanbul in the fourth century after Christ. He used columns recycled from Greek ruins, including the giant heads of two Medusa statues. These days it's an immense underground goldfish pond, and quite impressive.

We took our second bus tour, this time up and around the natural harbor called the Golden Horn. I saw a few things that I hope to go back and photograph today.

We had lunch at the wharf near the Galata Bridge, where you can buy fresh frish grilled on the spot and served on a roll for about $3. A cup of pickled cabbage and cucumbers in beet juice (we think?) is available as accompaniment. It was a bustling spot with lots and lots of Turks -- particularly groups of loud, chatty women in head scarves.

A few girls approached us with a video camera and lists of questions, in English -- things like, "When did you come to Turkey?" and "What was your favorite sight?" They wanted to record their interviews with us. We said sure, even though their English was somewhat impenetrable. We think it was for a class assignment. In any case the questions were harmless and they did not pick our pockets.

We walked back into town through the Grand Bazaar, where we bought nothing.

Finally, we toured the grand Blue Mosque in the afternoon. It's a vast, carpeted space covered with tile, purpose-built as a mosque in the 1600s. It may be the first time I've been inside a mosque, despite my years spent living in Morocco -- there, non-muslims are prohibited from entering. I also recorded part of the call to prayer, in case you'd like to hear it.

Last night, Dave and I went to a popular seafood restaurant and had our first definitively negative experience in Istanbul. We tried to walk to the restaurant, only to find that the Google map on its web site is completely wrong -- it shows the location of a different restaurant with a similar name. (Better get that fixed, guys!) We walked around a bit, knowing we were close, but finally hopped into a taxi in front of the Ayasofya -- completely forgetting the line in our guidebook that says, "under no circumstances should you hire a taxi off the street in front of the Ayasofya." Turns out those taxi drivers are master conmen, and we wound up paying about $43 to go roughly three blocks, through both an unnecessarily circuitous route and a quick-change scheme whereby the driver took my 50 TL note and insisted I'd given him a 5 TL note.

I was so angry at myself for getting into this situation, but what could we do? I just got out of the cab and drank enough wine at dinner to ease the pain.

Friday, November 29, 2013


There are cats everywhere in Istanbul. They're often underfoot in cafes, looking disinterested but actually waiting quite avidly for a handout. Last night when Dave and I went to dinner, we saw no fewer than six lurking outside the door of the restaurant. We even saw several in Hagia Sophia, where we went yesterday morning.

Hagia Sophia (I'm using the Greek-derived name; it's Ayasofya in Turkish) was once the largest church in Christendom, constructed hundreds of years before the huge European cathedrals we all know so well. Construction began in 537 A.D.; it was turned into a mosque in 1453 when the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottomans. Now it's a museum, with an interesting mix of Christian mosaics and immense Islamic medallions.

The marble floors in Hagia Sophia are amazing, worn smooth and sloped by the footsteps of nearly 1,500 years.

Then we got on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses for a drive around the city. We took the huge suspension bridge over the Bosphorus to the Asian side, came back and got off at Taksim Square, the site of violent demonstrations earlier this year. It's a big, windswept concrete space and not all that scenic.

To escape the cold, we ducked into a welcoming-looking but overpriced restaurant called Kitchenette. (I am convinced they scammed us on the lunch check, but that's a long story.) I was amused to see that the plastic mats at the bottom of the men's room urinals all said proudly, "Made in the USA." Who says America doesn't manufacture anything anymore?

By this time it was starting to rain, so we grabbed some Turkish coffees at a nearby cafe -- I drank mine and Dave's, because he didn't love it -- and got back on the tourist bus. It was headed for Asia again, so we went back again. Asia, twice in one day, and the second time at rush hour!

Finally, last night we had a terrific dinner at a restaurant called Giritli, the haunt of the aforementioned cats. It began with an array of 21 different appetizer plates, called mezze, featuring various spiced and herbed green vegetables, fish, beans, eggplant and other starters, followed by a fish course and a dessert. We loved it -- an excellent Thanksgiving dinner!

Early this morning, the moon rose outside our window -- a perfect Turkish crescent. I watched it while hearing the dawn call to prayer from the nearby mosques.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey Day in Turkey

We're here! We arrived last night about 10:30 p.m. Turkish time, and promptly encountered a minor bureaucratic snafu when we were told we couldn't use British pounds to pay for our visas. (You've got to pay cash, but apparently if you have an American passport you can only pay dollars or euros. The Brits can pay with pounds. Why this is true, I have no idea.) So we darted over to a nearby cash machine and got some euros, and cleared the rest of our official paperwork with no problems.

We grabbed a taksi outside the airport and hurtled along a rainy expressway to the old city, the location of our hotel. So far that's pretty much all I've seen. The photo above shows the view from the hotel's roof terrace, with Hagia Sophia on the right and the Blue Mosque on the left.

When you turn around on the terrace, this is the view: freighters on the Sea of Marmara lining up to go through the Bosphorus. That's Asia over there across the water. We're technically still in Europe on this shore, as I understand it.

The hotel itself is smallish and hosts a regular menagerie of critters in public areas, like tiny colorful finches in cages. These guys sit by a window with a view of the Blue Mosque, which I hope they appreciate.

The lobby features a square, marble fountain containing turtles. When I saw them last night, I said, "Those are red-eared sliders!" Dave said, "How do you know that?" And the answer is, I have no idea -- just some random bit of knowledge I picked up somewhere, maybe back when I was a kid with a pet turtle of my own. (He wasn't a red-eared slider, though. He was a cooter turtle of some kind.)

Off to breakfast and exploring! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Movember Results

Today is just a half-day at work, and there are no students. We're having a big meeting in the morning followed by departmental meetings for faculty, which means -- because I am not faculty -- I will be catching up on mundane tasks in the library. So all in all, a quiet day, which is a good thing.

Even better, I will finally be able to shave my freaking moustache! Woo hoo! We're taking our Movember group photo this morning, and immediately after that I'm taking a razor to my upper lip. I dislike my moustache less for aesthetic reasons than because I find it incredibly uncomfortable -- itchy, tickly, sensitive to every breath and every whisper of wind.

Also, I think it makes me look older.

Which means probably by the time you see this photo -- and you all asked for it, remember, so I am delivering even though I hate blogging pictures of myself -- the moustache will be history and I will be back to normal. Whew.

This afternoon Dave and I are taking off for Turkey. Olga will stay a few days at her kennel, which is already making me feel guilty. Blogging tomorrow from Istanbul, just in time for Turkey Day!

(Top photo: Neon sushi on a quiet alley in Mayfair.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Critters in St. James's Park

St. James's Park, which sprawls between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, is full of waterbirds. (I've blogged about some of them before.) Here's one of the common greylag geese. According to the park's web site, they are destructive to vegetation; as if to prove the point, this one was busy on Sunday pulling tufts of grass out of the lawn.

These pelicans hunkered down against the cold wind rippling the surface of the park's pond.

Lots of squirrels were out and about, including this guy, who was busy nosing around in a fresh flowerbed. Olga would have been beside herself.

The squirrels are notoriously aggressive, especially when someone has food in their hands!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Down Under (Kind Of)

I went out on the town yesterday, as I had hoped, after lingering at home all morning to finish laundry, charge my camera battery and accomplish other small tasks.

My goal was to go to the Australia exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts (above). It's the "most comprehensive survey of Australian art to have been shown outside Australia," according to the museum, and it was indeed huge -- more than 200 artworks, from Aboriginal bark painting to modern fabric sculpture and video. I most enjoyed the paintings from the colonial and early modernist periods, such as this one. (Click on the image itself to see it big.) As I stood looking at that painting, which is quite large, I overheard a man standing next to me tell his companion, "It looks like we could step right into it." Which is true. It's a portal to a distant time and a remote location.

I also spent a couple of hours walking through Mayfair and St. James's Park, within stone's throw of the royals (not that I really would throw a stone at the royals), and stocked up on some photos for the coming week. I had soup and a sandwich at Pret a Manger on Piccadilly, sitting in the window watching the crowds on their way to Piccadilly Circus. Later I had coffee from Costa in the courtyard of St. James's Church, where two girls who seemed to be whacked out on something were hiding next to the public sidewalk and barking out screams in order to alarm passing tourists. That was a bizarre show.

And because I need some new jeans -- my jeans having developed holes, which do not look sexy on a 47-year-old man -- I navigated the pedestrian hordes on Regent Street, where the halls have been duly decked with holly and all manner of decorations, in order to visit the Levi's store. There, I was shocked to find that a pair of 501's costs £70! (That's about $114.) I am not about to pay that for a pair of jeans. I left empty-handed.

Just another day in the city!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Attack Cats and Zombies

Here are Wabi, Sabi and Bobby, standing sentinel in our living room, with the shadow of our avocado plant projected onto the wall by the morning sun. Olga is terrified of those cats. She circles them suspiciously and God forbid any of us should ever bump them or make them move. She'll put her tail between her legs and leap onto the couch in full retreat.

It's funny, because she's not afraid of real cats at all. I guess these look just enough like animals that they make her wary, but she can't quite figure them out.

I took Olga for a long walk in the park yesterday, beneath a brilliant blue sky and deep yellow and gold trees that stand just at the brink of shedding the rest of their fall foliage. When we got home I was forced to eat peanut butter crackers for lunch, because we had no food, but then Dave came home (he had to work yesterday morning) bearing groceries, bless him. In the afternoon we watched "Return of the Jedi" and "In Bruges." The latter was really great -- dark but funny in a twisted way, and it made Bruges look beautiful. Now I'm thinking we need to go there some weekend.

I'm going to try to get out on the town a bit today.

See how eclectic we are at the library? This shelf cracks me up. I also laughed out loud on Friday when I found a book in the catalog called "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies : The Classic Regency Romance, Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem"!

I'm glad I can find humor in my job.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

No Prostitutes at This Address

On a narrow side street in Soho stands one of the stranger doors in London. It looks unremarkable enough at first, until you get a closer look at that tiny sign:

Why someone felt the need to put that sign on the door has long been a mystery to me. Was it once a brothel? Perhaps its neighbors are brothels?

I finally got around to looking up the answer. Turns out the door belonged to Sebastian Horsley, a British artist. Horsley lived in a two-room flat beyond the curious sign.

"If one were allowed to enter – a Byzantine process, often involving multiple rings of the bell and telephone calls – one encountered a cross between a Dickensian grotesque and a Byronic dandy, with just a touch of the ringmaster," wrote Alexander Larman in The Guardian in June 2010.

"Sebastian thrived on organised squalor and considered such niceties as kitchens and bathrooms to be optional luxuries. The focal point of his small but lavish drawing room was an extensive collection of human skulls. If you were female and halfway attractive, Sebastian would normally try to seduce you, less out of lechery than out of what he considered common courtesy. If you were male, similar treatment often awaited."

Horsley himself wrote a few years before he died in 2010 that he meant the sign as "a kind of Dadaist piece," though he claimed to have run a brothel for a while at that location.

"Since it went up all kinds of people have come to stare at it and take pictures of it. It is most galling. I have been upstaged by my own front door," he wrote.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Sigur Rós

I am moving slow this morning! I didn't get to bed until midnight, and though I managed to stay in bed until about 6 a.m. before having to walk the dog -- in other words, I did get some sleep -- I'm still lagging. Plus it's 40º F outside. My hibernating instincts are kicking in.

Sigur Rós was interesting last night -- definitely different from any concert I've ever seen before. My overall impression was that they're like a heavier version of the Cocteau Twins, with their ethereal sound and incomprehensible (to me) lyrics. (They sing in Icelandic.) The lead vocalist plays his guitar with a bow, which I don't think I've ever seen before, and at one point sang into the body of the guitar to produce a distant, echoey effect, which was amazing. They were accompanied by outstanding video and lighting effects that created a dreamy trance-like atmosphere.

This will give you some idea what they sound like.

Sally, her brother-in-law and I met before the show for some dinner at a "New York Italian" restaurant -- and then I drank Stella Artois, from Belgium -- so overall we had quite a multicultural evening!

Unfortunately, at school yesterday I had a run-in with a loud group of kids in the library, so at times during the concert I found myself a bit preoccupied with thoughts about that -- how I might have handled it differently, what I could have said better. I suppose I need to learn to let these things go.

(Photo: Soho, last weekend.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Early-Morning Dog Yawn

The dog got me up at 5 a.m. this morning, yawning her loud morning yawn. It's impossible to describe the sound of this yawn, which she makes at no other time of day. It's kind of like an extended yelp that says "take me outside!" So I got up and took her out, and now it's still not yet 6 a.m. and I'm sitting here bleary-eyed with my coffee, wondering what kind of day I'm going to have, having been awakened so early.

I don't get up much later than this anyway, so it shouldn't be a big deal. But I'm going to a concert tonight, something I almost never do, and if it's one of those shows where the start time is only the opening act for the opening act, with the main performers not taking the stage until 10 p.m., I am going to be dead to the world.

We'll see.

I'm seeing Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band, at Wembley. I've heard a lot about them but I don't know much of their music -- a friend suggested we go and I said sure, why not. Maybe I should have added, "If I can stay awake."

Last night I visited with my old friend Pam from the Peace Corps, who is passing through town. She and I grabbed a drink at her hotel in Mayfair, and caught up for an hour or so. We talked about how great it is to have friends who don't need day-to-day contact but still feel close and in touch -- you may not see each other for a couple of years, but when you do, it's like you were together yesterday. I love that.

The day before yesterday at school I was tidying up the library when I overheard four kids talking about the location of the Gambia River, and then about African literature. One of them disparaged the selection of some of the African books they're reading in class. Another said, "I respectfully disagree with you." And I thought, where am I working that this is how students talk?! I love it, but it's certainly different from the public school I attended, where virtually no one had heard of the Gambia and we weren't asked to read any African literature, and "respectfully disagreeing" was likely to get you taunted or beaten up.

Granted, this is private school and hardly typical, but I like to think that maybe civilization really is moving forward!

(Photo: Soho, last weekend.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Random Fun Things

These are Pearly Kings and Queens, members of a network of clubs that collect money for charity. I ran into them at Covent Garden, and in exchange for a couple of pounds they allowed me a photo. Aren't those great suits?

I spoke to the woman in the center, holding the bucket, and she told me their collected donations go toward several charities including nursing and animal welfare. I guess the Pearlies are a bit like Shriners or any of the other social and charitable clubs we have in the United States.

Here's a drawing I found on the floor in the library the other day. I think it's someone's fantasy house, or maybe a new recreation center for the school. It includes a bowling alley, a climbing area labeled "Mt. Everest," what appears to be a shark tank, several sports fields and a sauna containing a big round person. And beneath it all, the tube. Pretty awesome!

Not much going on around here so far this week -- just work and routines -- but I think things are about to get busier.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Even More Ancient History

I've mentioned before how I used to road-trip down to Highlands County, Florida, from my former home in Tampa. Here are a few shots, scanned from film negatives, from a trip I took there with my friend Suzanne in February 1986.

Above, shuffleboard players in Sebring. Do people still play shuffleboard? It was a big thing back then with the retired folks. The courts would be packed.

Every once in a while I come across a photo and think, "What was I looking at?!" This photo taken on the shore of Lake Reedy in Frostproof is a good example. Did I like the tree? The laundry? Did the camera misfire?

There's a circular park in the heart of downtown Sebring, with a big flagpole in the center. The kid climbing on that wall around the flagpole would be in his/her 30s by now. Time flies! Two years later, in this same location, I took a photo of the wall of the Circle Restaurant.

Finally, here's an old house that I always liked, located just north of Frostproof on a hill overlooking Lake Moody. I had fantasies of buying and renovating it! Fortunately, it's still standing -- at least according to Google Streetview -- and it looks much better now than it did back then.

Apropos of nothing and just to brighten your day, I will link to this Streetview photo of a poinciana tree located near that same house. I love a nice poinciana. Needless to say, we don't see those in London!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Here We Go Again

I went to Covent Garden yesterday morning and found all the Christmas decorations up, and the window of The Globe pub painted in a cheery "First Noel" theme. I'm sure it is the First Noel -- because it's still mid-November!

I know this is a common complaint, but Christmas seems more and more rushed every year. Decorations went up on Portobello Road a couple of weeks ago. I don't think I can reasonably be expected to think about Christmas until after Thanksgiving.

Then again, the English don't really do Thanksgiving, so I guess they don't have that same psychological barrier.

They apparently do have Rudolph, though. A very muscular, Martian Rudolph.

Dave and I went to the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street yesterday to buy a few little things for the flat. We got a new bathmat (as previously mentioned), a new mat for the balcony doorway and a new toilet brush. Well, you asked. (I'm assuming you asked.)

We had lunch in the cafe at the store -- a sandwich of tuna salad made with sweet corn for me. We thought it a rather odd combination but not bad. I like department store restaurants. I always regretted never going to the Suncoast Restaurant at Maas Brothers when I was growing up in Tampa -- the radio advertisements made it sound so stylish. Now Maas Brothers is long gone, as is the Suncoast Restaurant.

Anyway, I'm trying not to think about Christmas too much yet, decorations or no.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Celebratory Grass-Rolling

Olga loves grass. When we go to the park, one of her favorite activities is rolling over on her back and wiggling around in the long grass. If she can do it while holding her Kong toy in her mouth, all the better.

Is that not the proper spirit in which to celebrate a weekend?

She and I walked and walked and walked through Hyde Park yesterday, all the way to Hyde Park Corner, which is diagonally across the park from where we live. I don't know how far it was, but it took a couple of hours. If we'd just walked I'm sure we could have done it faster, but there was a lot of Kong-throwing and grass-wiggling -- not to mention squirrel-chasing -- too.

This is one of my favorite park views -- the memorial to John Hanning Speke, who "discovered" the source of the Nile River, and the distant echoing spire of the church on Kensington High Street.

I also did a ton of cleaning at home and ran some errands, and resolved to buy a bath mat -- which is admittedly not the same as actually buying it, but it's a first step.

Oh, and I forgot to tell you -- remember the woman whose overdue DVDs kept me up at night? Well, I got her to turn them in. I told her a teacher wanted one of them -- which wasn't exactly true, but I figured I could talk Dave into wanting it if challenged. Problem solved!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Only in England

Yesterday morning, while walking Olga, I found a British Airways boarding pass for a Lord lying on the street.

At first, I thought it was for a man named Lord. It actually said Lord So-and-so on it, and if someone can name a baby Messiah I don't see why they couldn't name one Lord. But I looked this guy up, and Lord is his title -- well, he's an Earl, but Lord is the appropriate term of address.

I found it amusing that he used his title on his airline reservation. Maybe he gets better treatment if British Airways knows who he is. He flew coach, New York to London, seat 29 K. Which I think is a window.

(Note to Lord So-and-so: Buy a shredder.)

Things are quiet around here this weekend, which Dave and I are very excited about. We have no obligations at all. I just want to read and clean the house and walk the dog and maybe take a photography walk today or tomorrow. Even better: No rain!

(Photo: Birmingham, last weekend.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Weeding, Echidnas and Gravity

If you're like me, you've probably thought of a library as a place where books find a home pretty much permanently. (I know my college library, back in the '80s, had tons of books that were a good 30 years old or more.) But ideally, that isn't the case at all. Librarians regularly weed their collections, removing outdated books or volumes that don't get checked out. Studies have shown that a well-weeded collection actually gets used more robustly than one that is permitted to simply accrete material over time.

We're involved in weeding at work. Yesterday one of the librarians pulled a bunch of metaphorically dusty books from the shelves and we all looked through them, deciding whether we should keep any of them. One slim volume was all about the Australian echidna -- a spiny anteating critter. The librarian was uncertain whether to dispose of this book, even though it had not been checked out since 1994, because it is our only book about the echidna.

So we got to looking through it, wondering whether we really even need a book specifically about a spiny anteater from the other side of the planet. We were laughing at some of the pictures. (Echidnas can be remarkably cute for something so spiny.)

It struck me that this is what's cool about working in a library. Where else could I get paid for reading about echidnas?

(We kept the book.)

Last night, Dave and I went with some people from work to see "Gravity," with Sandra Bullock. It was excellent. The special effects were amazing, and the time passed so quickly -- the movie is virtually all action, in the here-and-now, burdened with very little exposition or backstory. I was a bit reluctant to see it because being in outer space is my idea of a nightmare, but I'm glad I went. (We even saw it in 3-D, which I almost never pay extra to do, and that made a difference, I think.)

(Photos: An old Volkswagen Karmann Ghia parked on the street near our flat. My brother or father, both Volkswagen enthusiasts, could probably tell us what year it is.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dry Skin, Found Money and Avenue Q

My fingers have started doing this annual thing where the skin at the corners of the fingernails gets so dry that it cracks. It hurts. I have tried all manner of hand lotion and nothing seems to solve the problem entirely. It's like my winter curse. My dad has dry skin problems with his hands, too, so I come by it naturally, I suppose.

Remember the story of how I saw a guy drop £20, returned it to him, and then found another £20 a week later? Well, virtually the same thing happened again. I found a £5 note in the school library beneath a chair. I'd seen who was sitting in the chair, so I asked him later if he'd dropped £5. He said yes, and I gave it to him. (I know -- what else would he say?! -- but I'm familiar with this kid, and I don't think he was pulling my leg.)

The next day, I found another £5 note in the library -- this time with no one nearby. I swear, the universe just wants me to have money sometimes. If only it came in greater increments and with greater regularity.

Yesterday at school we had a shelter-in-place drill, in which the teachers lock all the doors and turn off the lights and everyone hides. It was a creepy experience.

Dave and I balanced it out by going to a preview performance of the high school musical, "Avenue Q," in the afternoon. "Avenue Q" in its Broadway form is a quite adult show, but this is a toned-down version appropriate for school audiences. (For example, remember the song "The Internet is for Porn"? Not in this version!) The kids did an excellent job and made me think of my own high-school drama experiences in "The Sound of Music" and "The Taming of the Shrew." It really puts things in perspective to remind myself that they are now where I was then -- what seems like a long, long, long time ago when I thought I knew so much but actually knew nothing, and life had barely begun.

(Photo: A bouquet of orchids I found lying atop a vent unit outside a local church yesterday morning, when it was about 39º F.)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Camera Lucida

Almost seven years ago, when my blog was relatively new, I wrote a post about Roland Barthes' concept of "punctum" as an essential element of an effective photograph. He introduced this idea in a book called "Camera Lucida," which is regarded as one of the quintessential books about photography.

At the time, I had not read "Camera Lucida" -- I'd only seen a friend's summary of Barthes' ideas. But ever since then I've been wanting to tackle the book and see what else Barthes has to say. I finally bought it on Amazon a couple of months ago and started it over the weekend.

Now, I am not really into philosophy. As I sometimes say, I am not a "big ideas" person. So perhaps it is not surprising that I found "Camera Lucida" a tough slog. Barthes, after all, was a philosopher, literary critic, theorist and "semiotician" (whatever that is). This was a guy who seriously lived in his head.

I am interested in how people perceive photographs -- in what they find good, effective and moving, versus well-composed but dead. I think that's a problem with many of my own pictures -- at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think I have an eye for composition, but often the result is not particularly deep or compelling. Many of my pictures are merely pretty. That's not a bad thing, but I would like to reach for more.

Anyway, I am (not really) sorry to say that I have set aside "Camera Lucida," after forcing myself to read sentences like:
First of all, I did not escape, or try to escape, from a paradox: on the one hand the desire to give a name to Photography's essence and then to sketch an eidetic science of the Photograph; and on the other the intractable feeling that Photography is essentially (a contradiction in terms) only contingency, singularity, risk: my photographs would always participate, as Lyotard says, in "something or other": is it not the very weakness of Photography, this difficulty in existing which we call banality?
I am just not smart enough for this book. It instills in me the same frustration that I often feel reading philosophy. I want to tell the writer/philosopher to STOP THINKING and go DO SOMETHING. I really believe there is an almost masturbatory self-absorption inherent in overthinking anything, photography included. Barthes, I fear, is overthinking.

His book is not really about the act of photography so much as the theory of photography. I'm not sure it's really even a useful book for photographers, though I do continue to find the idea of "punctum" interesting. (Barthes, by his own admission, was not even a casual photographer.) "Camera Lucida" is more about what photography represents to an individual and to society.

I got to page 32, and then I put the book down. I may have given up entirely; I am not yet sure. I've moved on to a Jay McInerney novel from the library.

(Photo: No particular "punctum," but an interesting building in Marylebone, last Friday morning.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My New Book!

I got the prototype for my new book yesterday, and I couldn't be happier! The book I put together last year required some tweaking, but this year's looks fabulous from the get-go, if I do say so myself. Maybe I was more careful in my layout and assembly. I showed it to Dave and some of our coworkers and everyone was enthusiastic.

You can preview it here if you'd like to take a look. Only the first 25 pages will show in the preview, but the book is 144 pages, and it's coffee-table sized -- larger than my previous books. I was a bit concerned about how well the larger format would work, but the photos look crisp and Blurb's print quality is great.

I plan to buy one for the library, but I haven't figured out yet how I'm going to distribute them for the holidays. I'm toying with the idea of giving my family members gift cards, so they can buy the book if they want to, or they could get something else. I feel a little guilty showering them with my own photography year after year.

Putting these annual books together is always an interesting exercise. It gives me a chance to survey everything I've done during the past year, and to gauge my own evolution (hopefully!) as a photographer. This latest book seems so different from the earliest two. In fact, I may take those first two off the market, because they look a bit amateurish to me now.

Onwards to another year as a shutterbug!

(Photo: At the Library of Birmingham. How great is it to have a library with a ping-pong table in the courtyard?)

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Library of Birmingham

My work trip to the brand-new Library of Birmingham yesterday wound up being a lot of fun. It's certainly an impressive place -- the largest regional library in Europe, with landscaped outdoor terraces, ten levels, escalators, a scenic elevator, private meeting and studying rooms, an art gallery and all sorts of other amenities. (They have a few books, too.)

The train trip up there took about two hours, and fortunately, the weather cooperated and we had a sunny day to wander.

I mostly liked experiencing the building and watching all the people, both in the library itself and on the big open plaza out front.

I did a quick scan of the books, and to be honest some shelves seemed a bit disheveled -- things were out of order and moved around. I think they've had lots of people passing through and maybe they just haven't had a chance to tidy up again.

We saw an interesting art project, the "Library of Secrets," a special wood cabinet containing old books and slips of paper. Patrons were invited to write secrets on the paper and tuck the slips into the pages of the books. We saw some rather surprising results! The one above is not a particularly thoughtful example.

My coworkers and I blogged about our trip here. Did I take anything away that we could use in school? I'm not sure. I think the overall notion of a library as a multipurpose community space -- with a ping-pong table as well as studying and reading areas, for example -- might help us broaden our own definition of what our library should be: More community center, an acceptable degree of liveliness, less expectations of whispering-quiet. (It's interesting that I never noticed noise in the Birmingham library, even though plenty of people were talking and moving around -- but then, the space is so vast and people were much more dispersed than they are in our little school library.)

I didn't have a chance to do much exploring beyond the library. I'd hoped to look around town a bit, but after we'd been there three hours or so, we were all ready to get back on the train and come home. Another time!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Slow News Day

Yesterday was a day for hibernation. It poured rain for much of the morning, so I stayed inside on the couch and finished "Command and Control," and then plowed through a New Yorker and part of a Harper's.

Olga got a bit restless and we went outside to play with the Kong toy in the rain. Normally Olga balks at going out in the rain, digging in with all four feet just outside the front door and turning tail if given the chance, but yesterday she was happy to run around in it. She must have had an extra-severe case of Cabin Fever. Dave took her out again later for more Kong and then I finally walked her last night, just as yet another fireworks show began a few blocks away. (Announcement: Guy Fawkes Night is officially OVER, people!) Fortunately she didn't seem the least bit fazed by the pops and bangs.

Today I'm off to Birmingham with some coworkers to see a municipal library that is apparently the talk of library-dom. I'm hoping to get a bit of time to walk around town and see other things too, but who knows.

(Photo: Kennington Road, on Oct. 7.)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Morning Walk to Work

I took a roundabout walk to work yesterday morning, taking the tube to Tottenham Court Road and then walking northwest with my camera through Fitzrovia and St. John's Wood. I really ought to do that kind of thing more often. I feel so much better when I've had some exercise and accomplished something mildly creative -- and after-work photo walks are no longer an option because the sun sets too early.

We had dinner last night at the home of one of Dave's students, who's considering a major in music education. His parents wanted to talk about college possibilities and that sort of thing. I was just along for the ride, me and my ridiculous Movember moustache, which I felt the need to explain. ("I don't always look like this!") I'm going to have to keep my head down socially all month.

Did I mention that I finished putting together this year's book of my favorite photographs? It's not in my online bookstore yet because I need to see the prototype and make sure it's what I want -- it should arrive sometime next week. (I'm having it shipped to school so I can avoid having to schlep all the way to Bermondsey to pick it up, which is what I had to do last year because the package-delivery people just could not figure out our home address.) I always enjoy putting this book together, and each year I think I see improvement. I'm also experimenting with a larger format, a coffee-table book size, so we'll see how that goes. Hopefully my relatives reading this aren't rolling their eyes and thinking, "Oh, god, not another one!"

(Photo: Still waking up, in Marylebone, yesterday morning.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Delinquent DVD Insomnia

I woke up in the middle of the night last night, thinking about how to get back two DVDs that a woman checked out of the library in March and has not yet returned.

Why was I thinking about this? Because I'm crazy. And because it offends my sense of order and decency that someone would check out items for a week and then keep them for eight months, shirking any obligation to bring them back or come in and pay for them, and meanwhile depriving everyone else of the ability to watch them.

I even called this woman a few weeks ago and reminded her to return the items, and she said, "Oh, yes, I know where one of them is, but I'm not sure about the other one." So I said, well, at least please return the one.

Still no DVD.

I suppose it's possible that a family or personal crisis has intervened, or some other barrier has arisen that prevents the return of our movies. So I am trying to be reasonable and patient and forgiving. But I'm not going to drop it, unless I get an order from above telling me to do so.

(Unlike many public libraries we do not charge late fees, so patrons have no financial incentive to turn something in on time. Maybe that's part of the problem, but fees are a pain to administer, and to me they seem a little punitive where students are concerned.)

I faced a similar conundrum with a couple of students who checked out books in February and hadn't returned or paid for them. I sent multiple e-mails, which never garnered a response. Finally, one of the students paid for her book a week or two ago. The other student has promised to come in and resolve the situation, but we shall see.

I guess in some ways this is a good job for me, because I am very meticulous about small things like this, and when I get fueled by righteous indignation, well, look out. It's probably not so great that I think about these small things in the middle of the night, but what can I say -- that's my personality.

(Photos: Bulls in the window of a Spanish grocery on Portobello Road; plungers for sale by a street vendor.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

More Florida Memories

More negative scanning! These photos are all from the early to mid-1980s. I love digging out old stuff like this, especially when I haven't seen it in years. I don't have prints of any of these.

Above is the view from my bedroom in the house where I grew up. My room faced the lake, which got misty in cold weather. I believe that shot was taken around sunrise, sometime in winter 1984.

Here, on the other hand, is a sunset with driftwood on Longboat Key. As I remember, the colors were somewhat watery-looking even in the original print; I think it was early evening and the sun hadn't descended enough for vivid oranges.

These horseshoe crabs were washed ashore at Picnic Island, in Tampa Bay, in 1987 or '88. This was an evening photo, too -- hence the golden light. Tampa Bay is full of horseshoe crabs. I remember walking along Bayshore Boulevard and looking over the sidewalk railing to watch them crawling along the grassy bay bottom.

This is a fence near Madison, Fla., and probably also an evening shot, judging from the colors. Fun perspective.

And finally, here's a fire hydrant, also in Madison. I believe these last two photos were from the same road trip that yielded this photo, and if so they're from November 1987.

I get such a kick out of looking back in time and seeing what caught my eye back then. It seems like a lifetime ago!