Friday, January 31, 2014

The Wayward Biology Textbook

We had a good day in the library yesterday!

In mid-December, a girl checked out a Biology textbook for same-day use. But she didn't bring it back that day, nor the next, nor the next. In the ensuing weeks, I e-mailed her multiple times and I talked to her in the cafeteria. Finally I e-mailed her parents, asking them to ensure that she either returned the book or paid £25. I got no response, no money and no textbook.

I'd been debating what to do next -- call the parents? But my coworker Lindsey suddenly decided yesterday that it was time to resolve the situation. We marched up to the girl's classroom, pulled her out of geometry, and asked her to call her driver so he could bring the book to school when he picked her up that afternoon. (Yes, she has a driver.)

We both thought chances were slim that this would work. But by golly, she brought the textbook back to the library that afternoon. And I am done giving that kid textbooks, at least for the rest of this school year.

We are continuing to purge the shelves of antiquated and unread books. I still find it a depressing process, but I was able to successfully argue for the preservation of a few volumes, such as Che Guevara's book about the Cuban revolution. I mean, for history's sake, we ought to keep Che, right?!

I also grabbed a couple of nice books about World War II to bring home for our neighbor Chris. (He's the one who winds up talking about the war no matter what the rest of us are discussing.) His mother worked on code-breaking during the war, and we were giving away a never-read book about the British effort to break German codes. He'll be over the moon about that, unless he already owns it.

(Photo: A bus stop in Shepherd's Bush.)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Science Oven

Dave and I ate a minimal-effort dinner last night. At Christmas, a friend gave me a jar of dehydrated bruschetta with mango -- it's dry and flaky, a bit like red-orange potpourri. Well, yesterday Dave got some nice bread and we reconstituted some of the bruschetta (warm water, five minutes, then a bit of olive oil). It tasted about like you would expect -- a bit like the pizza sauce from those old Kraft boxed pizza kits that they used to sell decades ago. (Do they still sell those?) The mango wasn't readily detectable. We also finished off the kale soup Dave made earlier this week, which was great.

Reheating the soup allowed us to use the Science Oven! There's a scene in "American Hustle" where one of the main characters gets a microwave oven as a gift. The movie is set in the '70s, so he has no idea what a microwave is or how it works, but he takes to calling it the Science Oven. Dave and I have adopted the terminology.

As you can see, not a whole lot is happening around here this week.

While the U.S. has been blanketed by freezing temperatures and snow, we're having mild, excessively wet weather. We're apparently in the middle of the wettest winter in years. At Christmas it rained and stormed so much that many people were flooded, and parts of England remain submerged even now -- and more rain is on the way this week. Olga comes home from her walks looking gray and smelling swampy.

(Photo: Yard toys in Shepherd's Bush.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Get Lucky, Or Maybe Unlucky

I have to partially recant my curmudgeonly complaints about the Grammy Awards. That Daft Punk song, "Get Lucky," stuck in my head even after I listened to it just once, while Dave and I were sampling the Grammy winners. Yesterday morning I listened again, and I put it on my iPod, and let me tell you, that song is addictive. The lyrics (if you can call them that) are simplistic and it's not particularly musically challenging. It's basically just crack.

Maybe I'm not so old after all.

I am old enough to be sorry that Pete Seeger died, although he lived to a ripe old age. I actually saw him once in Beacon, N.Y., while waiting on a train platform with some friends after one of our Buddhist retreats. He was standing or walking at a nearby outdoor market and we all got a little thrill out of seeing The Legend in person. "God Bless the Grass" remains one of my favorite albums, and I think of it every time I see grass growing through a crack in cement.

Last night was the first night since the solstice that I have left work while there was still light in the sky. It was only a tiny bit of light, granted, but from here it just gets brighter, thank goodness.

Finally, we are continuing to learn things about British culture. The other day a commercial came on TV in which a man did all sorts of things that would bring him bad luck -- breaking a mirror, walking beneath a ladder, etc. At one point he looked up and saw a magpie in a tree. Dave and I were mystified. Well, we did some research, and it turns out there is an old nursery rhyme about bad luck associated with seeing a single magpie. There's even a Renaissance painting that shows a single magpie present at the birth of Jesus, foretelling the sorrow to come.

Who knew?!

Maybe we never learned this nursery rhyme in the States because magpies aren't as common there. (Then again, that didn't stop us from singing "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree," did it?)

(Photo: Washing machine, anyone? Spotted last night on my way home from work.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Grammys and Chinese Reading

I went to Paddington Station last June to photograph this window from the inside, and I didn't like the results at all. In fact, I deleted the photos. But when I recently walked by after dark and saw it from the outside, colorfully lit, I knew that was the shot to take -- especially at rush hour!

I went back to the dentist yesterday morning for my routine checkup (as opposed to last week's cleaning). The dentist took a couple of x-rays -- one on each side of my mouth -- and had a look at my teeth, but I'd say it was a fairly cursory exam. I understand why people say the United States sets the gold standard for dental care, at least for those who can afford it. My dentists in Florida and New York used to take a battery of x-rays every year and attack the slightest suspect spot with gusto. (Too much gusto, in fact -- I've always suspected I endured a few more fillings than I really needed.) This dentist, in contrast, seemed a bit too casual. She told me my teeth are in such good shape I don't need to go back to her for another nine months, and that I probably don't need the full hygienist cleaning like I got last week. What dentist in the U.S. would say that?!

I might go ahead and wait another nine months to return, but I think I'll book a thorough cleaning when I do.

Did you pay any attention to the Grammy Awards? I read the New York Times account of the ceremonies, and who are all those musicians, anyway? Daft Punk? Macklemore? I am so out of it. I not only have never heard their music, I've never heard their names. Dave and I did a quick "Grammys tutorial" last night, listening to the winning musicians on iTunes, and let's just say I am definitely old. The only music I cared to hear again was the winning classical album "Winter Morning Walks" by Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw, which I bought and downloaded.

I've decided to read some Chinese-themed novels in preparation for our trip next month. I'm starting with "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck, but since she's a West Virginian who lived in China with her missionary family, I didn't want to leave it at that. I also wanted something by an author of Chinese descent -- so I'm going to read "Waiting" by Ha Jin. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Quiet Couch Day

Yesterday I walked the dog when I first got up, about 6 a.m., and then I didn't go outside the entire day until right before bed.

For one thing, it was rainy, as you can see above from our kitchen window. It felt much more natural to stay on the couch with Olga and read. I caught up on my New Yorkers (which is a feat, believe me) and even read some of the pieces I might normally have skipped, like the profile of Leonard Blavatnik and the long piece about Valley Fever.

In the afternoon, Dave and I rented "Scarface" and "Swingers," both of which I'd seen before but not in years -- and how I love "Scarface," holy cow! That's the Miami I remember, brutal and dangerous but damned entertaining. Dave took Olga out for a romp in the yard with her Kong, which required us to bathe her afterwards. He also roasted a pork shoulder for dinner, keeping it in the oven for six hours at a relatively low temperature. It came out tender and perfectly paired with parsnip puree and a spinach salad.

And that was our day. Pure domesticity.

I walked the dog again in the evening just as Dave prepared to Skype with his parents, partly to give him some privacy and partly because cabin fever was nipping at my brain. The rain had stopped, and Olga was so excited to be outside that she ran furious circles in the yard, kicking up clods of turf with a crazed look in her eye.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

On the Nature of Change

Nancy mentioned change in response to yesterday's post -- specifically, that change comes to all things, and while there is sadness when the world of one's youth changes, that change is also inevitable. That's certainly true. All of us feel sadness when the vacant lot next door is replaced by a house, or when our favorite high school hangout closes, or the local mall goes from being shiny and new to bedraggled and tawdry.

But I also suspect that Floridians feel environmental changes especially acutely, because the pace of change has been so accelerated in that state (and in other popular "destination states," like California, Arizona, Colorado or North Carolina). Those feelings are accompanied by a sense that what we're losing can never be regained. I'm not sure people in Ohio or Illinois or Michigan feel quite the same way, because I don't think they've faced the same development pressures, at least not in the modern era. (Maybe their sense of loss goes in the other direction -- that their developed communities are declining, a la Youngstown or Detroit.)

Anyway, if there's one thing I learned from my Buddhist practice, it's that change is constant and nothing is permanent. Which doesn't mean we don't feel it -- but clinging to the way things were does inevitably cause pain.

I guess I'm not saying anything that everyone doesn't already know. Right?

Dave and I went to see "American Hustle" yesterday. We found the plot a bit convoluted but I enjoyed the costumes, the music and the performances. I remember plenty of fashions from the '70s but nothing quite like what some of the women in this movie were wearing -- necklines plunging to the waist and that sort of thing. But then, I wasn't traveling in Long Island Mobster circles.

Olga and I walked in the park yesterday morning, as usual. Here she is in the leafy, beer-can-y interior of Queen Caroline's Temple. She is clearly impatient with my photography and ready to go chase her Kong.

(Top photo: Street scene on the way to work, Friday morning.)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mourning For 'The Yearling'

There's a poignant article in the January issue of Harper's called "The Lost Yearling: An American Classic Fades Away," by Lauren Groff. It considers the reasons why "The Yearling" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings -- a book that won the Pulitzer Prize and was the best-selling novel of 1938, a book that inspired a popular movie starring a youthful Gregory Peck -- is dwindling in popularity.

"The Yearling" and Rawlings herself are legendary in Florida, or at least they were when I was growing up there in the '70s. I can't remember how or where I first heard of her, but I feel like she's always been a presence in my literary life. I don't think I actually read "The Yearling" until I was an adult, and I went on to read Rawlings' other notable Florida books: "South Moon Under" and "Cross Creek." (I also tried to read "The Sojourner," which is set in upstate New York, but as Groff notes, some of Rawlings' books were terrible -- and that's one of them.)

Rawlings' home near Gainesville is a Florida State Park -- that's my ticket, up above, from when I visited in the mid-'90s and admission was $1. (It's now $3.) I keep it tucked into my weathered copy of "Cross Creek."

These days, though, "The Yearling" sells far fewer copies than popular classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "The Catcher in the Rye," and even many people in Florida have never read it. Groff attributes some of the local disinterest to Florida's peculiar status as a state where everyone is from somewhere else, and many Floridians feel little allegiance to its history and ecology. She also notes some failures in Rawlings' writing -- namely, her indifference to Florida's racial tensions -- that perhaps make her books less accessible and relevant today.

Nearly all novels diminish in popularity over time, and Pulitzer winners are not immune. I mean, who reads "Honey in the Horn" by Harold L. Davis (1935), or "Journey in the Dark" by Martin Flavin (1943)? As Pulitzer winners continue to pile up year after year, some will be shed from the national consciousness as a matter of necessity.

Still, Groff's argument that my home state in particular suffers from its position as an exploding (or perhaps collapsing, with all its recent sinkholes) land of theme parks and tourists is especially touching to me. She talks to her father-in-law about how climate change has altered the ecology since his own Florida boyhood:

"When he was a boy, the wildlife was far denser, he said. He collected snakes in his back yard; he saw raccoons and opossums every day. He sees such animals rarely now. In the summer, there would be daily microstorms that would blow through and cool the world off in a burst of rain. These, too, are gone."

It's been 13 years since I lived in Florida, so granted my recent experience is limited, but my parents and brother still live there and we often make similar remarks. When I was a boy I remember quail running through our backyard with great frequency. I haven't seen a quail near our family home in 25 years, at least. (On the other hand, we get many more sandhill cranes, and we did just see all those turkeys!)

The possibility that "The Yearling" and Rawlings' other, better works will vanish from our reading lives is depressing because they speak for the real Florida, the crackers and gators and snakes and yes, even the deer. If you're interested in Florida and can find a copy of the January Harper's, give Groff's article a read. (The online version is for subscribers only.)

(Middle photo: Some Old Florida barns near my dad's house in Lutz, north of Tampa.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Smog and Anxiety

Did you all see the recent article about China broadcasting sunrises on giant screens in public squares because the pollution is so bad in Beijing that people can no longer see the real thing?

Alarming! Also, not exactly true. The video sunrises, it turns out, are merely shown momentarily as part of a routine advertising campaign. We all know China has huge problems with air pollution, but it was interesting how fast even the mainstream media (whatever that is these days) picked up this story and ran with it. Bad media! Bad!

I'm not looking forward to the air quality when we go to China, but we'll be there such a short time that I'm not too worried. I guess we could get masks if need be. I'm more worried on behalf of all the Chinese people who have to live with it.

Now that I'm between books, I've been trying to catch up on my old New Yorkers and Harpers and other magazines. I just read Scott Stossel's piece in The Atlantic about living with anxiety -- it was fascinating. I can't imagine living with such a crippling degree of fear, and in Stossel's case it doesn't seem to stem from past personal trauma, as one might think. I am tempted to wonder, in my armchair-psychologist way, if it doesn't come from an impossible need for control over the uncontrollable aspects of life, or perhaps just from thinking about things too much. I suppose that's too easy, though. It seems his entire family has a long history of anxiety and hyper-cautiousness. (I thought my family was risk-averse, but we couldn't hold a candle to his.)

I occasionally find myself feeling a pervasive sense, not of fear, but of dread -- not really related to anything specific. It washes over me for a few minutes but never lasts beyond that. I attribute it to some faulty fight-or-flight trigger in my brain that gets accidentally tripped from time to time. Fortunately it's not a frequent occurrence, at least not yet.

Speaking of fight or flight, yesterday a group of about 30 high school kids in the library began swatting around a balloon. I let it go on briefly, but when they didn't stop and began yelling to boot, I ordered them to take it outside, and when it still didn't stop I had to wade in amongst them and confiscate the balloon. I promptly took it into the back room and popped it with a paper clip. My anxiety levels were certainly high at that point!

(Photos: Waiting dogs in Holland Park, probably feeling anxious.)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Adventures in British Dentistry, Part 4

When I originally scheduled yesterday's dental appointment, I called the dentist's office across the street and told them I wanted a cleaning. They signed me up and said it would cost £45.

That seemed a bit steep, and when I reported the price to my coworkers, they were surprised. One said she pays £18 for a cleaning that includes a dental checkup and x-rays. That's apparently the standard price under the National Health Service.

I wasn't sure why I was paying more -- I had a vague notion that perhaps I was paying privately because my dentist was already treating his full share of NHS patients -- but I went ahead with my appointment and it seemed to go fine. The hygienist used the little ultrasonic wand with water, as well as the dreaded metal pick and the polishing grit (though, in the European way, he only polished my front teeth with the grit). But I didn't get any x-rays, and I never saw a dentist. So as I paid at the end of my appointment, I asked how to get x-rays.

"Oh, you have to schedule a checkup," said the receptionist.

And how much does that cost?

"Eighteen pounds," he said.

With a checkup, it turns out, I not only get the x-rays and the dentist exam, but I also get...wait for it...a CLEANING!

So why, why, why did I pay £45 for a cleaning alone? To hear the receptionist tell it, the cleaning I got from the hygienist was more thorough than what I would get with the NHS checkup. But who knows.

At any rate, I go back Monday morning for my checkup. And now I know to book a "checkup," and not a "cleaning."

(Photo: Ealing Broadway, on Sunday.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Early Morning Start

Not much time to write this morning -- I need to be at work at 7:30 a.m., rather than my normal 9:15 start time. This is so I can leave at the end of the school day and make my way to the dentist, where I am scheduled for my first teeth cleaning in England! Woo hoo!

To say that I am excited about it would be...incorrect. But it needs to be done. Here's hoping I haven't developed a host of cavities since our departure from New Jersey in 2011. (I'm pretty diligent about tooth care, so that fact is on my side.)

I picked up our completed Chinese visas yesterday. Dave and I once again have passports in hand and we are ready to visit the People's Republic in just a few short weeks!

Oh, and the workday went much more smoothly than Monday.

(Photo: Ealing, on Sunday.)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Off Day

Do you ever have one of those days when everything annoys you? Even cute babies? Well, that was my day yesterday.

The students were all dressed in pajamas for some kind of Spirit Week activity. (Apparently they'll be in costume all week, or so I'm told.) And a library volunteer showed up to reshelve books, which was a blessing, allowing me to stay behind the desk.

But still, everything seemed a struggle. The kids were amped up, maybe by their silly outfits, and I had to keep asking them to pipe down, usually to no avail. I began to despair about my job being more police officer than reading consultant. I hate being a disciplinarian. It is not a natural role for me.

And then we had trouble getting online access to one of our educational journals, and while I was working on that, a teacher on maternity leave brought her baby into the library and all my coworkers dropped everything in order to oooh and aaaah over the baby, and I was thinking, "Can't you see we have work to do?!"

I know, I'm a grump. I can't help it.

I came home and had red wine and vented to Dave, and then we watched "Star Trek" and "House of Cards" and I felt better. Maybe today will be an improvement. I think it's mostly me who needs the attitude adjustment.

(Photo: Ealing Common on Sunday -- HDR photo.)

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Crisis, with Small White Dogs

Yesterday did not start smoothly.

Backstory: When I was in Florida a few weeks ago, my dad gave me a little black book in which he kept a handwritten account of a cross-country road trip he took with some high school pals in 1955. I read it in the airport and on the airplane, and was so happy to have this first-hand window onto my dad's life as a young man. He wrote about a fender-bender in Miami Beach that cost $55 to fix, his first experience with cherries jubilee at a restaurant in New Orleans, and a "real neat lookin" waitress in Oakley, Kansas.

On Saturday, while walking the dog, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't seen this journal for a while. Did I put it on the shelf, where I'd intended to? Well, yesterday morning I looked for it, and it wasn't there. I searched the house high and low in an increasing state of panic, looking in drawers and cabinets, finally concluding with a sense of dread that I must have left it on the airplane. I went to the British Airways website and filled out a lost property report, all the while moaning to Dave about what a terrible son I am, to lose something so precious.

Then I got up and looked at the bookshelf again, and there was the book -- it had simply fallen behind the others on the shelf.

I was so relieved. Holy cow.

They say all's well that ends well, and I guess that's true. We went out to breakfast to celebrate -- back to the Electric Diner -- and then I took a long photo walk all the way out to Ealing, in West London. I came back with about 45 pictures, so I'm well stocked for the week to come.

In the afternoon, Dave and I finished watching "Forbidden Planet," one of my favorite early sci-fi movies, which I'd rented to show him. I ended the day by finishing "The Goldfinch," which I can now return to the library and move on to the next person who has it reserved. I don't know when I've enjoyed a book so much. It was a true page-turner from beginning to end, with a morally ambiguous protagonist and the fate of a priceless cultural artifact hanging in the balance. Highly recommended!

(Photo: St. Mary's Burial Ground in Acton, west London.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Walking Our Rug

This is how Olga and I spent yesterday morning -- huddled on the couch as it rained softly outside. I read my book, and it was pretty much the perfect way to start a relaxing Saturday.

When the weather cleared later, we set out for our regular weekend walk in the park. I decided to leave the camera at home for a change, wanting to travel unencumbered. But just as we were leaving the apartment I impulsively grabbed our hallway runner -- a six-foot long beige rug that badly needed washing -- so I could drop it off at the laundromat on the way.

Unfortunately, as I discovered at the laundromat a quarter-mile later, I forgot to bring my wallet. The attendant would not accept the rug for washing unless I prepaid -- in fact, she wouldn't even let me leave it there, unwashed, just for the duration of my walk.

My choices at that point were to take the rug back home, call Dave, or just keep going. With an enthusiastic Olga dragging me park-ward, turning around didn't seem feasible, and I didn't want to tear Dave away from "Saturday Kitchen," one of his favorite cooking shows, just because I was an idiot.

So I swept out of the store declaring that I would take my business elsewhere. (I mean, really -- couldn't she just work with me on this?) And that's how I wound up walking through Hyde Park for the next hour with a six-foot-long hallway runner looped over my arm, which I'm sure looked peculiar.

So much for being unencumbered!

When we got home I stuffed it in our own washing machine. I'd thought it would be too large, but it came out clean as a whistle. Take that, laundromat woman.

In the evening I got a much-needed massage, and then we opened the bottle of champagne my boss gave me for Christmas in order to belatedly celebrate Olga's birthday. We got her a year ago on January 16! Hard to believe -- it seems like she's been hanging around forever. (In a good way.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dinner Out

Dave and I went to dinner on Thursday at the Electric Diner, a newly reopened restaurant next to our favorite movie theater, the Electric Cinema. (That's the theater where one can rent a bed and lie down to watch the movie -- which I haven't done and probably never will, because it still seems a bit bizarre to me.) We've been meaning to go to the restaurant for ages, but both it and the cinema were closed for many months after a restaurant fire in 2012, so that delayed us. Now they're both doing a booming business. On Thursday we had a stylishly severe-looking waitress with a black bob and very red lipstick, who delivered to me a first-rate beef rib sandwich and a crunchy vegetable salad. We were very happy and we intend to go back.

(I couldn't even eat the whole sandwich -- I ate the second half last night for dinner.)

It's very rainy and foggy this morning, and from what I hear that's pretty much what the weekend is going to look like. I hope I get the opportunity for some photos, but we'll see. If not, I have "The Goldfinch" to keep me company!

(Photo: Anybody want a slightly used chair? Notting Hill, last weekend.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hemingway and Ice Sculptures

Just for fun, I've been meaning to link to a couple of very short posts by other bloggers. First there's my brother's faux-Hemingway account of the South Carolina squirrel stabbing, which gave me a laugh. And then there are my blog pal Laurie's imaginative ice sculptures, which are certainly a creative way to make something beautiful out of a frigid South Dakota winter.

Otherwise, it's a sad day here at Shadows & Light, as I just learned that both the Professor from "Gilligan's Island" and Reuben the agent from "The Partridge Family" died yesterday. I spent countless hours with both of those shows as a kid, as did pretty much anyone growing up in the '70s, I'd wager. At least both actors lived long, full lives, and their shows live on in syndication. (Speaking of "Gilligan's Island," what is Tina Louise thinking lately? Why is she pretending to be 30 when she's actually more like 80?)

OK, enough of my TMZ snarkiness.

Thanks to those of you who contributed advice, suggestions and commiseration with Olga's food allergies. We have tried the cooked-chicken-and-rice route, and she does love it, but for now the packaged hypoallergenic food will work fine. Despite my whining (or "whinging," as the British would say), it's not that much more expensive than the regular food.

Today I am speaking to the first of four classes of first-graders about interviewing techniques. I have more speaking engagements with the other classes scheduled for next week. I need to go think up something to say!

(Photo: An abandoned couch, Hackney Wick. Dave said, "Who would look at a big, puffy mint green couch and think, 'It's perfect for our living room!'?")

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Allergic Dog

So the latest from the vet on Olga's periodic gastric distress is that it's not giardia after all. He thinks she has food allergies.

I am skeptical -- I mean, Olga was a street dog, for God's sake, a dog that ate anything and everything off the pavement before we got her. But I suppose it's possible that she was left with a sensitive gut as a result of her hardscrabble early years. In any case, we now have her on special hypoallergenic food and numerous medicines, all of which I suspect the vet sells at a healthy profit, and we'll see how she does. Time will tell if her gut calms down. If it really is giardia or some other infective agent that managed to elude the stool analysis, hypoallergenic food will make no difference.

I applied for our Chinese visas yesterday. I took all our paperwork and our passports to a disconcertingly dingy walk-up office near Oxford Circus, where three people were working in cramped quarters surrounded by towers of dusty, rubber-banded paperwork. (Not much of a filing system, to my eyes, but who am I to question?) I should be able to pick up the visas on Tuesday, assuming all goes smoothly. Hopefully I won't be hit by a bus between now and then, or otherwise in need of my passport and my UK residence permit.

(Photo: An apparently closed hotel in Mile End, on Sunday.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Taking Care of Business

Writing yesterday's entry got me motivated. I took care of a bunch of stuff, like finally getting Dave some Christmas presents. (Pasta bowls, a potato ricer -- by request -- and a cheese board with a special knife.) I also made us dinner reservations for tomorrow night. I tried to get us tickets to see "American Hustle" at the shmancy movie theater we both like, but they're sold out for the rest of this week, and then the movie changes on Friday. So we'll have to see it elsewhere. *sigh*

I'm making progress on the Chinese visas, too. We filled out our applications yesterday and I gathered all the supporting documents. Now I just have to take them in to the visa agency, hopefully at lunchtime today.

So, yes, China! I thought I'd mentioned this already, but evidently I didn't. Dave is going to Shanghai to conduct a middle school honor band, and I'm tagging along for the fun of it. He'll go a few days before me -- I arrive in Shanghai on Feb. 15, just in time for the concert, and then we both go to Beijing by bullet train for about five days of tourism. It will be a relatively short trip, considering the distance, but we only have a week off from work for February break. At least we'll hopefully get to see the Great Wall and learn a bit about the country. We are not taking any students -- the kids in the band all attend international schools in Asia.

I'm making progress in "The Goldfinch," which is excellent -- difficult to put down. In fact I'm going to go read it now!

(Top photo: There are six dogs underneath that cafe table, in Mile End, on Sunday. Bottom: More library detritus.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Tornado of Inefficiency

I just can't seem to get things done these days. Allow me to be boring and enumerate the handful of important tasks that I'm having trouble bringing to completion.

-- I still have to get Dave a Christmas present. It's ridiculous, I know. I am the lamest partner ever. I know what I want to get him, but can't seem to get to the shops. Since I'm either on my way to work or working from 8:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., it's easier said than done, at least during business hours.

-- The state of New York sent me a notice saying I owe more income tax for 2010. They contend that my H&R Block tax preparer made an error on my return, and that I need to send the state an additional $600. I've contacted the tax preparer and sent her the notice, and I'm waiting for her response. I'd really like to get it resolved. I'm tempted to pay it just to get it to go away.

-- Dave and I have to get visas for our trip to China next month. We need an assortment of completed paperwork as well as passport photos and some other stuff. I'm hoping I can get this all pulled together today, so I can drop it off tomorrow at the visa office in Marylebone. We walked down Portobello Road in the pouring rain last night to get our photos taken, and I look really annoyed in mine, which is probably more or less accurate.

-- Olga had another bout of her periodic gastric illness over the weekend. We suspect that she has giardia, a water-borne parasite that causes cyclical episodes of diarrhea, gas and other fun symptoms. Dave is taking her to the vet tomorrow.

-- Next week, I have to speak to four first-grade classes about interviewing. (You may remember that I did this last year, too.) Not a huge deal, but I have to think about what I'm going to say.

Meanwhile, there's all the business of day-to-day living -- the laundry, the cleaning, the working. And while I don't want to turn reading into a negative thing, I do feel some pressure to finish "The Goldfinch," which is a huge book, because several people are waiting in line behind me to read the library's copy. Gah!

(Photo: Mile End, on Sunday.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lost Weekend

Where did the weekend go? I had wonderful plans to lie around the house, read "The Goldfinch," have leisurely meals and relax. Instead, most of Saturday was consumed with preparing for and cleaning up after our dinner party, and yesterday vanished in a combination of sleeping late, going on a photo walk and going to a movie with a neighbor.

I can't complain about the photo walk -- after all, that was my time, to do with what I wished. I needed to get out and take some pictures, because I'd done very little post-Florida. I went to East London and walked near Hackney Wick, in areas I hadn't seen before, and got some good shots which you will no doubt see here in coming days.

Our movie yesterday evening was "The Butler," with Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. It was OK -- a bit predictable, I thought, and more interesting when it focused on the characters and their relationships rather than the larger social issues of the day. Excellent performances, though.

Afterwards we went to The Churchill, a local pub, where our World War II-obsessed neighbor Chris regaled us with stories of Pearl Harbor (it is a standing joke that we can never have a conversation with Chris that does not involve World War II). To hear Chris tell it, Britain was partly responsible for Pearl Harbor by leaking aircraft carrier technology to the Japanese years before. Or something like that. I wasn't really listening. We left after an extremely drunk woman tried to draw us into conversation with her companions at an adjacent table -- we stayed just long enough to learn they'd all gone to school together at St. Andrews, one is getting a doctorate in psychology and one works in petroleum trading in Africa (but, ironically, has not yet visited the countries where he trades). The drunk woman's occupation remained a mystery. Dave and I looked at each other and telepathically communicated the same message: "Let's go home!"

(Photo: "Hahn/Cock," a sculpture by German artist Katharina Fritsch, in Trafalgar Square, on Friday.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Green Woodpecker

Yesterday, while out with Olga, I discovered a completely new (to me) bird in Hyde Park. This is a green woodpecker, which apparently lives throughout southern Britain.

You'd think a green bird would stand out like a sore thumb in winter, when all the trees have lost their leaves. But with that mossy tree trunk as a backdrop, he blends in perfectly! Evolution is amazing.

I saw him and took some photos, and then a group of birdwatchers came over to check him out. And then Olga got too close, and that was that. He flew. I shrugged at the birdwatchers, as if to say, "I'm sorry but I cannot control the wild impulses of my dog."

We had a dinner party last night with some folks from the music department. Yesterday afternoon Dave and I went on an expedition to Whole Foods especially to get beef short ribs, and as it turned out, they didn't have any, so we provisioned ourselves with the rest of the supplies and replacement lamb shanks. (Yes, I still feel guilty eating anything lamb-related, but they were good.) Gordon brought over some special bottles of Cote du Rhone wine -- a 2001, 2005 and 2007 -- and they were excellent, but to be honest, the differences between the three seemed minimal to me. I'm sure I'm horrifying a wine connoisseur somewhere by saying that -- or I would be, if any wine connoisseurs were intrepid enough to stumble onto my blog.

I slept in this morning until 9 a.m., and now the sun is shining and the church bells are ringing. Dave and Olga are still in bed!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Whitehall, Then and Now

Two views of Whitehall in London -- one from my Dad, taken in 1957...

...and one taken by me yesterday morning. It's pretty amazing how similar they look, right down to the location of the trees. More street lighting, more street markings, wider sidewalks and cleaner buildings, but otherwise pretty much the same view!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Bail Bonds

Here's another Florida photo, taken on the highway near my mom's house. Needless to say, the county jail is not far away!

I don't have anything else for you today. Yesterday was pretty mundane and I haven't even taken any photos in London since my return. I suppose no news is good news, right?

As John Denver famously sang, "Some days are diamonds, some days are stones."

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Non-Event Involving A Car

We had a bit of excitement at school yesterday when this happened. Apparently someone spotted a suspicious car parked nearby -- I am not sure what made it suspicious -- and the authorities were summoned. Fortunately the hubbub turned out to be unwarranted. (If there was any sort of "controlled explosion," as the BBC story says, we saw no evidence of it. In fact the car was still parked there when I left work yesterday evening, with only a small broken window as testament to the police investigation.)

What it meant for us was simply an hour or so of standing outside at a safe distance. I guess you can never be too careful. Fortunately our winter temperatures are much milder than those in the states this week.

Coincidentally, bombs have been turning up in unexpected places recently, at least partly because of bad weather.

Other than that, yesterday was uneventful. I finally finished "The Charioteer" by Mary Renault, a remarkably subtle novel about gay men published back in the early 1950s. It only barely mentions homosexuality by name -- I believe "queer" appears a handful of times, in dialogue -- and much of the romantic action is alluded to, rather than specifically spelled out. Renault asks us to read between the lines in many scenes in order to understand what's going on. I suppose such circumspection was necessary back in those days. Anyway, I liked it a lot -- I became aware of it only after reading this fascinating article in The New Yorker several months ago. (The link leads to a synopsis, not the piece itself.)

Oh, and my dad's Europe photos have been making the rounds via Facebook. Everyone seems quite excited about them, which will make him happy!

(Photo: Wild broom growing in Norfolk at Christmas.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Europe, 1957

I mentioned that while I was in Florida, I scanned some of my dad's old photos from a trip he took to Europe in 1957. These pictures are amazing -- a real time capsule and photographically impressive to boot. My dad has a great eye!

He was 20 years old, and traveling with three friends. They drove cross-country in a Volkswagen from California -- where he grew up -- to New York, where they boarded an inexpensive freighter bound for Europe. They slept in hammocks somewhere in the bowels of the ship, and when they arrived in England, they began a journey that took them to Scotland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

They stayed in hostels or camped out -- once running afoul of the police in Germany when they tried to camp in the woods. (They were rescued by a friendly German woman who stuck up for them, and then fed them.) They drove a little rented Citroen and ate as cheaply as they could.

Dad has two trays of slides from the trip, but I only scanned about 30 photos -- mainly those featuring people, cars and fashions of the era, like this shot of a little girl feeding pigeons in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and the top photo of Vatican City.

It's hard to imagine now, but Dad was there only 12 years after the end of World War II. He said war damage was evident in some cities, with massive rebuilding and modernization projects replacing the rubble. The face of every adult in his pictures makes me wonder what that person saw, and lived through, in the years prior. Dad also photographed a new generation of Europeans too young to have seen the war, like this child in France coming home with the day's baguette.

He saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which doesn't look a whole lot different these days, except the palace itself is cleaner and the tourists don't dress as well. It's amazing to think he was there just five years after Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne!

If you're interested in checking out the rest of the scanned photos from this trip, you can see them here.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

After A Good Night's Sleep

Finally, I am back where I belong, sitting in the early morning darkness on our lumpy beige Ikea couch with Olga next to me. I have my favorite brand of Tesco coffee in my Starbucks Tampa mug, and I'm hearing the sounds of water in the bathroom as Dave showers. Home sweet home!

I worked through the day yesterday without too much trouble. I was surprisingly alert and awake, or so I thought, until I got home and unpacked and then suddenly couldn't keep my eyes open. Dave and I had planned to watch "Homeland" because I still haven't seen the last episode of the most recent season, but that just wasn't going to happen.

We had our own belated Christmas celebration, in which he gave me a portable hard drive to store all my photos. So now I don't have to keep burning CDs and stashing them in my huge, heavy CD storage book. How great is that?! I, on the other hand, have been so discombobulated that I haven't had a chance to get him anything yet, which is pretty pathetic considering it's January 7.

My grandmother's Roseville art pottery vases made it to England with no problem. Did I mention I was bringing those back from Tampa? You may remember them from my New York apartment, but they were among several items (like the coffee table) that I left behind in the states when we moved to London. So on this trip I wrapped them in newspaper and carried them gingerly in a tote bag and stashed them under the seat in front of me on the plane, and now here they are.

In an effort to relieve my mother of my few possessions remaining in her house, I also brought back my third-place trophy from the 1979 Pasco County Spelling Bee. It's ridiculous that I'm even saving this thing, with its peeling gilded winged victory figure and its yellowed plastic faux marble base. In Florida I put it in the trash can twice, and then pulled it out again.

Sometimes I think my entire life is spent ferrying objects from one place to another. I suppose that's what life is, in a kind of reductio ad absurdum way.

(Photo: The Westway, arcing over the towpath along the Grand Union Canal, with Trellick Tower in the distance, taken last month.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Home, Bleary-Eyed

I am back in London, but thought I'd leave you with one more Florida photo. I drove past this restaurant in Tampa three times before I was able to finally get a shot without hordes of cars out front. Apparently Martha's is a rockin' place!

My flight home went well -- it seemed relatively fast, consumed as it was by my current book, which I have neglected for the past week and a half, and two movies, "Enough Said" and "The Fifth Estate." The former was good, the latter only OK -- it's about WikiLeaks, and since all the action mainly involves typing, the director had to go to great lengths with fast edits and whatnot to try to lend it some excitement.

Now I'm sitting at my desk and I really need to get to work. More tomorrow!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Friendly Skies

Today my Florida sojourn comes to an end. I leave Tampa this evening, arrive in London tomorrow morning, and go straight to work. I should be a ray of sunshine there!

Yesterday I drove my dad's truck down to Anna Maria Island to see my friends John and Sue. Within moments I was sucked into the rhythm of beach life -- John made me the biggest mimosa I've ever seen, and we all walked to a nearby restaurant for French toast. Sue and I then took another quick walk along the city pier before I hopped in the truck and drove to see Dave's parents in nearby Bradenton.

There I ate again -- grouper sandwich this time, at a restaurant on the beach -- and picked up my coffee table, which I had stored at their house in Michigan when Dave and I moved to England a few years ago. They brought it down to their winter home so I could retrieve it. This coffee table is turning into a ridiculous curse. Why I didn't just ship it with the rest of our belongings I'll never know. I bought it for $5 at a Salvation Army when I was in college, and I refinished it, hence developing an emotional attachment that I am loath to break. I wanted to ship the tabletop -- basically a couple of pieces of wood -- back to England, but just guess how much The UPS Store told me yesterday that it would cost. Are you guessing?


I am not kidding.

So, needless to say, that won't be happening. I'm going to put it in my dad's garage and take care of it, somehow, on my next trip. I think I can ultimately just check it on the plane, but I need time to package it correctly and I don't have that time now.

Anyway, Dave's parents were doing great and I enjoyed spending a couple of hours with them. Then I hit the road and drove back to Tampa, where I had sushi with my stepsister and her new husband, with drinks at a local dive bar afterward -- a sort of rednecky, bikery "Cheers."

In between, during my driving around, I got to stop here and there to take some photos, which kept me sane. The quiet driving time, the alone time, was a pleasure.

(Photo: Just north of Bradenton, Fla., yesterday.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014


After a rainstorm a couple of days ago, I wandered back down to the old citrus grove near my dad's house. There were several bluebirds flitting about. Bluebirds always seem to be a cheery symbol, especially in old songs like "Over the Rainbow" and "Bluebird of Happiness." I'm not sure my state of mind here can be described as exactly happy, but still, it was nice to see them.

Yesterday I went with my stepmother and nephew to see "Saving Mr. Banks," about Walt Disney's efforts to acquire the rights to "Mary Poppins" from her creator, P.L. Travers. I really enjoyed it. I've read criticism of Tom Hanks for his portrayal of Disney, but I thought he did a pretty good job, and I enjoyed the photos and clips at the very end, where the real Travers is seen and heard conversing with the "Mary Poppins" movie writers. Overall I'd recommend it.

We went through more of Dad's belongings yesterday. He's a retired math professor, and he has a box of old notes and draft journal articles that he and my stepmother seem intent on recycling. I asked him whether it has any scholarly value -- should we give it to the university where he worked, for example? But he says no. The articles themselves have been published, so I suppose they're publicly available -- but still, I hate to just toss all that stuff, even though it's incomprehensible to me. I'm leaving it up to them.

Like his boxes of ancient greeting cards and paper route receipts, the math notes are interesting in that Dad chose to save them all these years. You learn a lot about a person's attachments, what they love, when you see what they pack up and store away.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Memory Lane

Dad and I spent yesterday looking through boxes of old photos and memorabilia that he's saved through the years. He kept what seems like every greeting card we ever gave him, along with his old Boy Scout uniforms and his baseball mitt. He has a heavy brass plaque from a sundial that once stood at Camp Emerson in Idyllwild, Ca., dedicated to the memory of his father, a local scoutmaster. The sundial was done in by vandals long ago, but someone sent him the plaque.

He also has several carousels of slides from a trip he took to Europe with three high school friends in the late 1950s -- they steamed across the ocean on a freighter, and wandered through England, France, Italy, Switzerland and beyond. We hauled out the slide projector and the viewing screen and went through some of the slides last night. It's so strange to see my father, who loathes travel and who can barely bring himself to cross the bay to St. Petersburg to visit the dermatologist, standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in super-cool black sunglasses and a beatnik beard.

He has a hilarious cigar box filled with paperwork of dubious value, like receipts from his childhood paper route, listing all his customers and how much they prepaid for their subscriptions.

I hope it's comforting for him to look through all this stuff. He says he wants me to know what's there. It's a bit unsettling for me given the circumstances, but not unpleasant, and it is great to hear the stories. I only hope I can remember them.

(Photo: A roadside cafe in Lutz, Fla.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Here's that crazy flock of wild turkeys I saw Tuesday near my mom's house. There were sixteen of them in all, so many that Mom and I wondered if we were getting excited about someone's domesticated birds. We went home and looked them up in the bird book just to be sure we weren't being complete idiots -- and surely domesticated birds wouldn't be wandering in a field on an unused section of cattle ranch.

I am back at my dad's house. I haven't mentioned his health much here, mainly to respect his privacy. Suffice to say it isn't good -- the dreaded c-word, in the lungs -- and though the crisis that brought me here turned out not to be a crisis, he has other continuing problems that still bear investigation and treatment. (This is not a new situation. He's a nearly 77-year-old lifelong smoker, and got his first diagnosis of illness almost seven years ago. Doctors have been removing or irradiating various pieces of him ever since.)

We're mostly just sitting around the house spending time together, surrounded by an ever-changing constellation of relatives. My step-grandmother came over for dinner last night, and my stepbrother and his wife leave today to drive back to Louisiana. After today I'll have a few days with Dad and my stepmother by myself. I think it's most rewarding for all of us when we're doing nothing special together -- just watching TV or chatting in the kitchen. Living our lives, you know?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Here we are, in 2014. Did you ever think it would be 2014? When we passed the millennium mark  in 2000 it seemed positively sci-fi, and now we're already 14 years past that. Scary!

After much thought, Mom decided that one of the things she wanted to do yesterday was visit Ikea. She'd never been, and kept hearing about it, and wanted to see what it all looked like. So we went to the palace of inexpensive Scandinavian furniture and prowled the aisle past all those goods with unpronounceable names, and then had lunch in the cafe -- Swedish meatballs with potatoes and lingonberry sauce. I must say they were terrific. When Ikea first opened here it was considered stylish for downtown workers to journey there for Swedish meatballs at lunch, or so I was told at the time by one of my downtown-working friends. I'm not sure that's still the case, but we felt bizarrely swish nonetheless.

Yesterday was full of interesting wildlife encounters. Mom and I saw fox squirrels on our neighbor's property, where the house is being torn down -- we wondered if they were traumatized by the demolition, but they seemed unaffected. (It's a large spread and the new homeowners are saving nearly all of the trees, so I think the squirrels should be fine.) Then I set out on an afternoon walk -- to work off the meatballs, which were sitting in my stomach like those piles of metal cannonballs at St. Augustine -- and I saw sixteen wild turkeys in a field! I have never seen so many turkeys in one place. I ran home for the camera and got some shots, which I promise to post tomorrow. We also saw a distant pair of bald eagles sitting in a pine snag, but they were too far away to get much of a photo.

We toasted the New Year yesterday evening, sitting on the dock with a bottle of Freixenet from Publix, laughing about neighbors past and present and, apropos of nothing, the South Carolina woman who stabbed her husband with a ceramic squirrel. (I suppose it's not really funny, especially for the husband. Or the squirrel. But you try not to laugh.)

I'm heading back to my dad's today.

(Photo: An osprey flying over the lake.)