Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fally-Down House, and More on Conflict

I haven't had a chance to shoot any new London photos this week, so here are two more shots from Florida -- the "fally-down house" in Lloyd, which is well and truly collapsing, and some old wallpaper that can still be found on its interior walls.

If you're interested in hearing more detail about the attack on our dog-walker, the local paper did a short article about it here. It sounds a little less serious than I initially thought -- less like a mugging than a conflict that arose partly because of a barking dog. Still, you just never know how people are going to react in any given situation, do you? I'd have called the cops, too.

(And who knew our dog walker used to walk Paul McCartney's dogs?!)

No doubt you've seen the news about the man they're calling "Jihadi John," who was recently publicly identified as a former West London schoolboy. Turns out he attended a government school not far from where I work, and he lived in a neighborhood where I have often walked.

Once again, I am mystified by the motivation some people have for joining overseas conflicts. (Although at least Jihadi John shares religious and ethnic roots with the people he has joined, unlike the guy I wrote about yesterday.) As I said in my comment on yesterday's post, I understand that they're seeking a life with more meaning -- but aren't there more constructive ways to alleviate daily tedium? When I was a bored 25-year-old I joined the Peace Corps. I don't mean to sound facile; I understand that's not a route appealing or available to everyone. But surely there are always options for enriching life in a positive way. I suppose no one was around to suggest them -- and perhaps people were around to suggest a more destructive path. It's all about direction, or lack thereof, isn't it?

Dave and I have a blissfully open weekend before us. I was originally going to meet a friend today, but she cancelled and I'm going to use the time instead to shoot some new photos (although it looks like it might rain). We might even go to a movie. I love the feeling of freedom, of promise, on the Saturday morning of a weekend with no plans!

Friday, February 27, 2015

On Adventurism and Fighting

We've been trying something new at work -- extended hours in the library during the week. This means a minor adjustment in my schedule, whereby I leave work at 5:45 p.m. instead of 5:15 p.m. (I go in half an hour later in the morning to compensate.) Not a huge deal, and we're only doing it through March 10, when the sports tournaments begin.

Yesterday and today, however, we have no students because of parent/teacher conferences -- the result being that I keep normal hours. The result of that being that I got home last night while it was still daylight, which hasn't happened in ages!

I've been working on a couple of minor projects in the library, but I must admit my days are not easily filled when there are no kids borrowing materials. I found myself reading The New Yorker yesterday. Did any of you see the article about the rootless, troubled guy from the United States who went to Syria to fight against the government? He wasn't Syrian or Arab or devoutly Muslim -- he converted but wasn't particularly observant -- and he seemed to have vague ideas about what he wanted to achieve. It seemed he mostly wanted a purpose, an adventure.

It's mind-boggling, this urge to set off across the planet to join a conflict that could potentially mean death. I just don't get it -- that soldiering instinct, that passion for the fight. Remember the opening scene of "Gone With the Wind," when Scarlett O'Hara is sitting on her front porch with the Tarleton twins and they're going on and on about how eager they are to fight and whoop the Yankees? Even as a kid, I thought they were crazy. At least in their case you could argue that they didn't know what hell they were getting into. But this guy who went to Syria -- he knew. We see today's conflicts all around the world in full color and practically in real time.

It's like the first of the two Japanese guys who were taken hostage and recently killed by Isis. He was described as an "adventurer." What?!

Of course, sometimes there's mental illness that contributes to these decisions. A desire to escape from substance abuse. Or maybe they were there for other purposes, not publicly disclosed. But still -- I don't get the allure, the glamor, of fighting, particularly when the fighter has no real idealogical commitment to the cause.

And on a somewhat related note, did you see the newest pieces by Banksy, in Gaza? I love the kitten playing with the tangled ball of rebar.

Olga doesn't understand fighting either. Apparently this week her dog-walker was jumped by a trio of guys in Hampstead Heath. He was walking several dogs at the time and wasn't carrying anything valuable, and the attackers punched him and tussled with him before running off. I don't know all the details -- Dave talked to the dog-walker, not me -- but the salient point is that the dogs, including Olga, did nothing.

It's always been my suspicion that when it came down to it, Olga wouldn't be much of a fighter.

(Photos: Top, shadows on the back porch of our family home in Florida. Middle, the hyacinth that I bought Dave for Valentine's Day, which has bloomed and saturated our flat with its sweet scent. Bottom, Olga in bed last night.)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Two Cups

I wrote last summer about a pottery bowl that I believe was made by an old friend of my parents, Rachel Roth. You may remember that I found the bowl in my mom's yard, beneath one of her potted plants, and I cleaned it up and brought it back to London. (It has since served as a centerpiece at some of our dinner gatherings.)

On my most recent trip, I claimed two more pieces of Roth pottery -- these two mugs. They've been in my mom's kitchen cabinet as long as I can remember, and I often used the larger one (on the left) when I visited her. I love their peppery neutral finish. I told mom I didn't want her to discard them in her quest to purge her belongings, and she told me to take them.

So I brought them back to London and now they're sitting on the dining room windowsill, next to the bowl. (And next to two other bowls that I made myself -- one filled with Moroccan beach glass and shells from Madagascar -- and a Dogon sculpture I brought back from Mali.)

Ah, stuff. We can't help but collect it, can we?

Oh, and I saved the batik too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Rest Cure

I feel like I am re-entering the land of the living. The night before last I just could not go to sleep until about midnight, and when I got up yesterday morning I felt stiff and slow-limbed, like I was wading through peanut butter. I was zombified all day. Last night, though, I went to sleep at 10 p.m. and slept solidly until almost 7 a.m., and wow, did that feel amazing!

Sleep is so strange. What goes on in our brains and bodies when we sleep, what rewiring and reworking -- and why do we feel so terrible without it?

Anyway, other than that, I don't have much for you this morning. I was going to say something about the Oscars, but I feel like the moment has passed, and anyway all I have to say is that I haven't seen about 75 percent of what was nominated. Dave and I are talking about going to see "Birdman," but these days there seems to be a vast gulf between talking and actually doing, so who knows when we'll get around to it. The others will have to wait until they come out on streaming video.

Our amaryllis plants are looking quite prosperous -- we've got lots of leaves and one obvious flower bud -- and the pigeons are once again chowing on our bird seed. I refilled the bird feeder on Monday morning and briefly left the bucket of seed on the ground while I went inside to get a cup. When I came back out, Olga was face-first in the bucket having a snack. Her poop looked very interesting yesterday!

(Photo: Golders Green, Feb. 8.) 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Flower and a Dog

We have two daffodil blooms in the back yard so far -- this one, by the back door, and one farther out in the grass near the roses. All the other daffodils are still just stalky green leaves. We've also had our single blooming crocus, which is now looking a little bedraggled, and one mysterious, unexpected snowdrop.

Why do all our flowers bloom in such...isolation?

Well, OK, it's still early in the season. I guess I have to be patient and wait for our poor bulbs to fully awaken.

And here's a gratuitous picture of Olga, hanging out on our lovely brown couch just before slinking off to bed last night. Olga is such a creature of routine. Around 9:30 p.m. she stands quietly at the back door, staring at it, until we notice and let her out. When she comes back in, she goes directly to our bedroom and gets in bed. Smart girl!

I'm getting back to routine as well. I've unpacked, and everything is in its proper place. It felt good to go to work yesterday and organize all the post-holiday book returns, and all the stacked-up magazines. It felt good to walk to work in the morning, in the brisk air and sunshine. It felt great to do all the laundry from the past week. Ah, normalcy!

Monday, February 23, 2015

This Old House

One of the most somber aspects of my recent trip to Tampa was the very real possibility that it was the last time I would stay in my childhood home.

In August 1966, just a few months before I was born, my parents moved into this house, which they'd had built in a newly platted subdivision around some lakes in Pasco County. They were practically the first people in the neighborhood, with just a handful of other houses surrounding them at the time. It was quite a drive from where they worked at the University of South Florida -- and it remained quite a drive, with steadily growing quantities of traffic clogging the country roads and highways -- for the next several decades. My mom was never entirely in love with its remoteness, though she grew to love the wildlife and birds, the lake and the mossy cypresses.

Over the years it became the focus of our family -- even after my father departed and built his own house about ten years later, I thought of it as the one constant in my world. No matter where I went or what I did, our house in Pasco County was always there, with the magnolia in the back yard and the holly out front.

My dad took the photo above in April 1968. That lamp in the front yard eventually fell down -- it rusted out at the base.

The house was the backdrop for countless family photos, like this one of me and my mom. I vaguely remember that banana tree in the front.

For much of my childhood, the landscaping looked like this -- junipers at the corners, a rubber tree, copper plant and mango outside the front door, a spiny yucca in front of the living room window. My mom hated that rubber tree, but I always liked it. It grew huge and gave the place an exotic air. Then it was done in by a series of freezes, along with the copper plant and the mango, and a live oak grew up in their place.

When I was in about the ninth grade, I got it into my head that we should sell the palm trees. My mom hated them, too, and I guess we'd heard that some nurserymen would pay for mature palms. I called around, but no one wanted them. They were the wrong variety and had no value. They eventually got zapped by freezes as well.

The trees got a lot bigger over the years, didn't they? And the road was paved some time in the mid-'70s.

My mom plans to put the place on the market later this spring. When it sells, she's moving to Jacksonville to be nearer my brother and his family. Who knows if that will happen before I return for another visit -- but it certainly could. It's also possible that whoever buys it will tear it down -- the lot, on a fairly large lake, is probably more valuable than the house itself, which despite some upgrades still feels very much like a product of the 1960s.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. In some ways it might be better, not having strange people living in the very rooms where we celebrated our birthdays and watched "Magnum PI" and stripped off bathing suits that were sopping wet from the lake.

No matter what, it will feel strange to lose this family focal point. And yet, I feel ready. When I left on Saturday morning it was hard to leave my mom, but not so hard to leave the house. I was sad thinking about it last night, while I was lying in bed -- but it seems time, for all of us.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Heavy Bag and Heavy Eyelids

Well, I survived my journey across the ocean, and now I'm back in London, on a train speeding from Gatwick airport to Victoria Station. My head is spinning, I am so tired. I was tired before I even got on that plane.

My last day in Florida consisted mainly of eating -- breakfast and lunch outings with my family, and only two hours apart! I think I was still recovering from my road trip the day before, because all day I was plagued with an urge to nap. The surfeit of food probably didn't help. But I resisted the urge because I wanted to be tired on the plane, in the vain hope I could sleep.

When the time came, I crammed everything into my suitcase: two mugs, a big vase, my matchbook collection (I cut the matches out of the books), some Naviera coffee with chicory, a couple of framed pictures, some CDs, my newly purchased bedsheets, books and, oh yeah, some clothes. I always wind up with the strangest assortment of stuff in my luggage. I keep thinking someday I'm going to be a normal person and just carry clothes, but that never seems to happen. (Then again, my perceptions of normality may be flawed!) Of course the bag proved to be slightly overweight, but the guy at the British Airlines ticket counter let me go without an extra charge.

Then, while sitting in the Tampa airport, I was approached by a fifth-grader from our school in London! She spotted me across the room -- turns out she was visiting Florida during our weeklong break as well. Holding up her Kindle, she asked for a book recommendation for the flight. Resisting the urge to say "Go away, kid, I'm on vacation," I smiled brightly and came up with something. (Actually I was really tickled that we crossed paths in Tampa, of all places.)

The flight was a little bumpy but otherwise uneventful. I dozed a bit but didn't really sleep. I read back issues of The New Yorker for as long as my eyes could focus, and then I moved on to "The Hundred Foot Journey," which was a cute enough movie I suppose. Helen Mirren is good as a stylishly fierce Frenchwoman.

I don't know what I'm going to do with myself today after I get home, except kiss Dave and pet Olga. I want to try to stay awake until tonight so I can get on schedule. We'll see!

(Photos: Used books in Chiefland, Florida, and a sticker by the street artist Mildred that decorated my old computer, which we recycled this week.)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Super Road Trip with Special Guest Star

When I planned this Florida trip, I gave myself an unusual gift -- a rental car. Normally I use my dad's rattly red pickup truck when I visit, and being in an aged family car made me feel wary of zooming off on a distant jaunt. But now he's given that truck to my brother, so I splurged and for the first time in years when visiting the Sunshine State, I feel completely free to go anywhere.

Yesterday I took a road trip extraordinaire, up to North Florida. Land of the pecan and the chinaberry. Practically Georgia!

I love a long, leisurely drive. It's my wandering tendency -- the same force that compels me to wander the streets of London with my camera. I got in the car about 7 a.m. and pointed the headlights north, and within no time I was traveling the frosty byroads of Florida's so-called Big Bend.

I found many weird and wonderful things. A gorilla standing guard outside a building in Crystal River, for example.

And a bald mermaid cavorting with a dolphin.

I took my time, stopping when I wanted, and still made terrific time. By 11:45 a.m. I was pulling up to my destination.

Which, I'll give you a hint, was not Wacissa.

When fellow blogger Ms Moon learned a few weeks ago that I would be visiting Florida, she invited me to stop by if I found myself near Lloyd. I'm sure she did this thinking that there was no way in hell I would be crazy enough to drive four-plus hours to that part of the state. Little did she know! I have a rental!

So, yes, I got to spend a few hours in the world of Bless Our Hearts, which was a truly magical experience. As I expected, it was initially a bit surreal, almost like stepping into a book I'd been reading. After years of keeping track of her blog, I knew the plot and the characters. It was exciting to see Maurice the cat slinking through a fence and to see Mick and Elvis, the beautiful roosters. Not to mention Nicey and Eggy Tina and all the rest of the chickens, though I never did quite figure out who was who.

That's Mick, the junior rooster, standing proud.

What I also suspected, and indeed what transpired, is that this surreal feeling was fleeting. Within no time -- literally minutes -- I felt completely grounded and comfortable with Mary and her world. She and I have lived in some of the same parts of the state and we have the same politics, and I knew we'd get along. Indeed, I felt like I'd known her for years.

She was a terrific host. We had a bowl of garbanzo bean soup and we walked around her little hamlet of Lloyd, and I even met her grandsons. She's already written here about all the people and places we visited -- the new general store, the fally-down house, the post office. Magic!

I am trying not to blog too much of her world, because, you know, that's her job. But I couldn't resist these photos. Let me just say her grandsons are just as terrific and imaginative as she always describes.

Finally, when 3 p.m. rolled around and the boys were settling down for hot chocolate, I had to hit the road. I had a long drive back and I wanted to take a different route. I hugged Mary, shook hands with the grandsons and climbed into the rental.

I headed slightly north, to Monticello, where I drove the roundabout around the picturesque county courthouse, and then I went to Madison -- where I found the Coke sign! Remember? I have a lot less hair now.

I could fill this post with more pictures, because I really did see all kinds of weird and wonderful as I drove south through Mayo and Trenton and Branford and Bell, but maybe I'll just direct you to Flickr instead, once I get everything uploaded. I pulled up at my mom's house around 8:15 p.m.

Why, oh why, do people drive interstate highways? They are so miserable. On this trip I never touched my tires to an expressway. I stopped when I wanted (and McDonald's coffee, by the way, really is freaking spectacular) and even with all my picture-taking I still got where I needed to go in really good time. I did not have to contend with roaring semi trucks, just cows and whispering pine forests. Blue highways are the way to go!

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Freeze That Maybe Wasn't

We kept hearing yesterday about the massive freeze sweeping down on us from the north, and last night my mom and I brought in our potted plants. But this morning the external thermometer shows that if it's freezing, it's only barely freezing. I think our outdoor plants may pull through.

We had a busy day yesterday! I hauled Mom's dusty old books, including the calculus books, to Goodwill. If the Goodwill folks don't want to stock them or find that they don't sell, they're welcome to throw them out. We also got rid of a big bag of baby clothes, an ancient boom box and most of my music CDs, which I'd saved just to back up my iTunes. (I did hold back some favorites. I couldn't bring myself to give Joni Mitchell's "Blue" to Goodwill.) Finally, we took our creaky old computers to the county recycling center (we had to pay $5 for each one!) and I'm changing all my passwords just to be safe. I haven't changed them in years so it's just as well.

I think I'm going to have to abandon my old matchbooks. Here's one of my favorites, which I picked up on a trip to Miami Beach in 1989. It was sort of retro even then! I remember that trip primarily for the shaving cream fight I had with two friends in our hotel room. What can I say? I was 22.

After the purge, Mom and I drove into Tampa and went to lunch at Ulele, which is the hot new local restaurant. We liked it a lot -- I had okra fries, collards with white beans, and a chicken-and-potatoes entree, followed by guava pie. We had a great view of the Hillsborough River, blue under a crystal sky. In theory, Ulele has a Native American theme, but we found that rather suspect, with the menu featuring items like...Ugandan vanilla?

The servers at Ulele were all wearing yellow ribbons, I believe because of this missing woman, who worked there. I hope that story ends happily.

Mom and I ran more errands in the afternoon and took a leisurely drive through Tampa to get home. We stopped by the USF campus -- where my parents worked and where my brother and I went to college -- and holy cow, it is unrecognizable. So much more densely built and populated than it was when I was there in the mid-'80s!

(Top photo: The most photogenic bail bonds agency I know! I photographed it a year ago in the daytime.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Out and About in Tampa

Yesterday was the kind of amazing Florida day that calls people to move down from the snowy North. A bit chilly, but with a sparkling blue sky and showers of sunshine. It was a great day to be out on the town!

I worked on the house with Mom in the morning. We cleaned out her bookshelves, which mainly contained dusty, petrified calculus textbooks (she and my father were both college-level math instructors). We boxed most of them up. I think Goodwill may not want a lot of esoteric textbooks, so I may call the university library and see if they're interested in looking at them.

We also prepared our old computers for recycling, deleting files and that sort of thing. I have no idea how to safely dispose of a computer, but if I take them to the county electronics recycling center I'm sure we'll be fine. I can't imagine someone there will go to all the trouble to comb through our ancient, slow machines, restore deleted files and, in mom's case, install a new video card, just to collect whatever meager outdated private information may still be on the hard drive.

I drove into Tampa to have lunch and spend the afternoon with my friend Sue. My mission was to buy some new bedsheets, because Dave and I can't get sheets for our American king-sized bed in London. Mission accomplished, thanks to Target! We also went to the Sunshine Thrift Store, my favorite thrift store on the planet, where I got a great shirt, blue with thin stripes and an underlying white floral pattern.

We made a nostalgic visit to the apartments where we lived just off Bayshore Boulevard almost 25 years ago. The old place looks pretty much the same! It's much more secure than it used to be -- the hall doors are locked tight, and in our time they were perpetually open, with wind off Tampa Bay whooshing through the building. Someone's done away with the little outdoor fish pond, and the Norfolk Island pine outside my window is much bigger. (Truthfully, I'm not sure it was there at all back in 1991.)

Then we drove over to Epicurean, a new food-centric Tampa hotel that Dave would love. I am going to have to make it a mission to bring him there sometime. We had a great view of the skyline from the roof.

Finally we went downtown and visited Le Meridien, a new hotel in the old former federal courthouse. I spent a lot of time in that courthouse as a young reporter, so it was great to see how well it's been renovated. They've preserved all the marble floors and walls, and even some of the courtroom furniture. We had a glass of wine at the bar and then drove back to Sue's neighborhood to join her husband John for dinner.

All in all, a great day!

(Top: A soul food restaurant in West Tampa. We didn't eat here, but I love that building!)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Things We've Found

It's amazing the things you find in a house that has been occupied by a single family for decades. Things seem to accumulate without anyone noticing, like coral on a reef or calcium buildup on a plumbing fixture. Before you know it, you're surrounded by stuff.

My mom has actually done an admirable job of purging things already. But we're finding some funny odds and ends lying around.

For example, why do we have this 45-year-old baby outfit, apparently never worn, with price tags still attached? I love how it's made of "100 percent virgin orlon acrylic." I'm not sure how acrylic can be virgin, but whatever. As Mom said, "It's probably hot as fire."

It's going to charity.

Of course we're finding lots of amazing things, too. Here, for example, is a photo of my great-great-great grandparents in front of their home in North Carolina. That's them in the middle -- the woman with the white apron and the man with the crutches. According to notes on the back of the picture by a family historian, the man, William Bullard, served in the Confederate Army from 1862 to 1865 as a lieutenant. This photo was taken around the turn of the century, and shortly after Bullard died in 1908, the house burned down. I guess those all-wood structures made of pine were probably tinderboxes.

Here's another fun one -- my grandmother's graduating class from Avon Park High School in Florida. Very Great Gatsby, isn't it? My grandmother is on the right in the headband.

Of course we're keeping the pictures, though we have a bazillion photos of me as a baby. Most of them all look the same -- me lying on a blanket, me sitting in a stroller. I guess when parents have a first child the impulse is just to keep snapping away. About 80 percent of those could be pitched. I like this one, though, of me in a car seat. Who can blame me for being tired, holding that head up all day?

When I was a kid I made this batik as an art project. I believe it was during a summer art camp for kids at the local university, though I can't really remember. The fate of the batik is undecided.

And then there's my matchbook collection. I'm mystified about what to do with these. I'd sort of like to keep them, because I made notes inside the cover of many books, recording who I was with and the date. For example, I went to the The Islander restaurant in Key West with my friends Kevin and Suzanne on Nov. 11, 1989. I don't remember a thing about it. (Do I need matchbooks from meals I don't even remember?)

But I'm pretty sure flying with matches is verboten these days, so I'd have to strip them out of the books, and I'm undecided about whether it's worth the effort. Maybe a picture should suffice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Chihuahuas and Sentimental Attachments

Finally, some peace and quiet! As I write I'm sitting up in bed at Dad's house with my first cup of coffee, one of my favorite moments in any day. My dad and stepmother are still asleep, as are the chihuahuas. I'm enjoying the pre-dawn silence, which comes with the sad assurance that as soon as the dogs wake up I will be subjected to this.

Pinky and Manny are a bit schizophrenic about me. They bark like mad when I move around, but if I sit down and I'm relatively quiet they seem to forget I'm there -- one or the other will even come and sit in my lap, quivering and worried. I'll pet them and falsely believe that I've made progress. Then I'll stand up, and the cacophony begins again, Manny rushing my ankles and nipping my pant legs.

My brother and his family have gone back to Jacksonville. He and I had a walk around the neighborhood yesterday morning, talking about Mom's transition to a smaller apartment and the impending sale of the family home. We're all ready to let go of the house, realizing that our lives are elsewhere now, but that doesn't mean it isn't a strange time. We also burned my brother's childhood model airplanes, which he didn't want to unceremoniously dump in a landfill. He felt they deserved a dignified disposal, like a worn-out flag. (Is it environmentally sound to burn a box of plastic airplanes held together with '70s model glue? Almost certainly not. In fact, scratch that "almost.")

Last night we all went out to dinner with my stepsister and her family, which made the second big family dinner of the week. I have that overfull, restaurant-indulged feeling. (Talk about first-world problems!) Today things should quiet down a bit. My mom is working part of every day this week, so I'll have some quiet time at her house to go through things and make plans. I've called and e-mailed a second piano dealer about the Steinway, so we'll see if that goes anywhere.

Meanwhile, Dave tells me there's big drama at our flat in London. Apparently, a water main broke in the street right outside our front door. There's a water-filled crater in the pavement, and somehow this affected the power supply to our apartment and the one upstairs. The utilities have plunked a diesel generator in the parking space out front, with cables snaking into the apartment through the mail slot. I'm sure Olga loves that.

(Photo: A tricolored heron on the dock at my mom's.)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Azalea Psychedelia

My 8-year-old niece Jane likes my photo editing software. She loves to sit down with my computer and do outrageous things to pictures. This is what happened when I let her loose on a couple of photos of pink azaleas in my mom's yard.

She doesn't go in for subtlety, but I kind of dig the effects!

I went with my brother and his family to my dad's yesterday for his birthday celebration. We went to dinner at a favorite Tampa restaurant and went back to our house for ice cream and cake. My dad said at one point, "I never thought I would be 78 years old."

I suppose no one really thinks that -- but especially someone who smoked heavily for 50 years.

Jane says this is a "rock star azalea"...

...and this one is supposed to be glowing in the moonlight.

Several months ago, my dad and stepmother adopted a couple of chihuahuas from one of their maids. Apparently she had to move because of a foreclosure and she couldn't take the dogs with her. So  Pinky and Manny have become part of the family. They're cute, but holy cow those dogs are high-strung. They quiver with perpetual tension, and they went ballistic yesterday when we all came over. Manny in particular is quite literally an ankle-biter -- he went after my pant legs with a ferociousness belying his size. No harm was done, but my ears are still ringing from all the barking.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

I've Arrived

Here I am in Florida! My trip was uneventful -- a good, smooth flight that did not involve too much meaningless conversation with people sitting around me, and a gin & tonic. Pretty much my ideal. I read a good chunk of "The Silkworm," the Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling mystery, and I watched two movies -- "Pride," about a gay and lesbian group supporting the Welsh miners during the strikes of the '80s, and "Nightcrawler," about a creepy guy who films crime in Los Angeles as a freelancer for TV news. I liked both of them, and there were some other promising movies I didn't even get to. Maybe on the way home.

I picked up my rental car at the airport, and despite relentless attempts by the agent to "upsell" me into a more luxurious vehicle, I drove away with a Ford Focus as planned. Getting behind the wheel feels completely natural, though I did drive almost all the way home without turning on my headlights. Oops. The road was so brightly lit I didn't even notice. Finally some guy in a passing vehicle honked his horn at me and said "Lights!"

My brother and his family are here from Jacksonville, so I have plunged immediately into family activity!

(Photo: The lake behind our house, this morning.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Neatening the Shelves

Yesterday was a faculty and staff planning day at school, so we had no students. I didn't have much to plan and I thought it would be a bit of a snooze, but as it turned out I was really busy! I decided to read some shelves and make sure everything was in place. I combed through the entire fiction section, which took the better part of the morning. In the process I found several potentially lost books, which made it feel worthwhile,

Of course, on the Monday of the week after next, when we're all back in school, the fifth graders will promptly mess it all up again. But that's how running a library works. It's a constant battle against an eroding tide of chaos.

On the way home from school I popped back into the florist -- yes, the same one that sold us that lemon of a lemon tree -- and I bought Dave some hyacinths and a tiny blooming cactus for Valentine's Day. I realize a spiny, threatening, non-tactile plant is kind of a strange Valentine's Day gift, but I really only bought the cactus because the store requires a £10 purchase to use a debit card. The hyacinths were mainly what I was after.

We are now on February break, and I am off to Florida in a few hours. Dave will be staying here with Olga, and I'll be visiting my parents. It's my dad's 78th birthday on Monday, so we have that to celebrate, and as I've mentioned before I'm helping my mom to downsize her house. Somewhere in the middle of that activity I'll see my brother and his family as well as a few friends. Should be fun, if a bit bittersweet as we prepare to sell our family home.

Coming to you next from the Sunshine State!

(Photos: A recycling yard in Willesden Junction.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

RIP Lemon Tree

Thanks for indulging me on the Henry Miller yesterday. I really liked that book. Cynical and grumbly, yes, but also beautifully descriptive and even celebratory in places. He had a real soft spot for the American South, especially New Orleans and the Southwest, which he seemed to think had genuine character -- unlike New York, about which he had nothing nice to say.

Remember the lemon tree Dave bought me at the end of January? Well, it has not come to a good end. I know -- already! Within days after Dave brought it home it began to lose its leaves. They dried, curled up and fell off. We removed the fruit, thinking it might be draining the plant, but that didn't cure its dropsy. It looked worse and worse in the ensuing days until finally, yesterday, the last of its leaves gave way and it was down to bare twigs.

Now, I've had a lot of plants in my time and I have never killed a plant that efficiently. I was sure it was faulty from the beginning -- and it wasn't cheap! -- so yesterday morning I took it back to the florist. I vowed to be calm but assertive, and carefully mentally prepared my argument. When I got there, though, the florist lifted the tree out of its decorative ceramic pot, and I heard a rush of water. "There's your problem," she said. "It's standing in water."

So that shot my argument all to hell. I couldn't really resist that kind of evidence. I had no idea there was an inner pot and an outer pot, or I would have drained it long ago -- and Dave, having been told to keep it moist for the sake of the fruit, had evidently been a little too enthusiastic. I weakly argued that I still thought it wasn't well from the beginning.

"Well, then you shouldn't have bought it," the woman said -- a bit snippily, I thought.

Again, no argument there. I left it in the shop and departed. But then I thought about the tree all day, wondering if perhaps it would survive if we drained it well and got it in the ground (or a big pot) outside in the spring. So I stopped back in to the florist in the evening, and lo and behold, the tree was still there, sitting sadly on a shelf in the back room. They hadn't thrown it out. I retrieved it and now it's sitting sadly on our windowsill. Its odds are not good, but we'll do what we can.

At school, I participated in the first-grade interviewing project again. I didn't give them a talk this time, like I did in past years, which frankly was just fine with me. But I did allow them to come to the library and interview me about my job, and in return I was allowed to choose a hand-colored smiley face from a bag. How could I resist this one, looking as it does like a sunburned alien? Best smiley face ever.

(Top photo: A van near Willesden Junction on Feb. 1.)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Three Passages by Henry Miller

On driving through the Florida panhandle on the way to Mobile:

I never thought I would pass through places like Panama City, Apalachicola, Port St. Joe, or that I would be within striking distance of Valparaiso and Bagdad, or that by crossing Millers Ferry I would be on the way to the Ponce de Leon Springs. In their dream of gold the Spaniards had preceded me. They must have moved like fevered bedbugs through the swamps and forests of Florida. And when they hit Bon Secours they must have been completely whacky -- to give it a French name, I mean. To cruise along the Gulf is intoxicating; all the water routes are exfoliative, if one can put it that way. The Gulf is a great drama of light and vapor. The clouds are pregnant and always in bloom, like oneiric cauliflowers; sometimes they burst like cysts in the sky, shedding a precipitate of mercurium chromide; sometimes they stride across the horizon with thin, wispy legs of smoke. In Pensacola I had a crazy room in a crazy hotel. I thought I was in Perpignan again. Towards dusk I looked out the window and saw the clouds battling; they collided with one another like crippled dirigibles, leaving streamers of tangled wreckage dangling in the sky. It seemed as though I were at a frontier, that two wholly different worlds were fighting for domination.

On American medicine:

The American physician always says immediately, "Better have an x-ray taken; better pull out all your back teeth; better get an artificial leg." He's got you all cut up and bleeding before he's even looked at your throat. If you've got a simple case of worms he finds that you've been suffering from hereditary constriction of the corneal phylactery since childhood. You get drunk and decide to keep the worms or whatever ails you.

While taking a break in a Barstow cafĂ© after driving across the California desert:

I felt like an overheated slug. My brain-pan was vaporized...I was racking my brains trying to remember whether I had started from Flagstaff, Needles or Winslow. Suddenly I recalled an excursion I had made that day -- or was it three days ago? -- to Meteor Crater. Where the devil was Meteor Crater? I felt slightly hallucinated. The bartender was icing a glass. Meanwhile the owner of the restaurant had taken a squirt gun and was killing flies on the screen door outside. It was Mother's Day. That told me it was Sunday. I had hoped to sit quietly in the shade in Barstow and wait for the sun to set. But you can't sit for hours in a restaurant unless you eat and drink. I grew fidgety. I decided to go to the telegraph office and send a ready made Mother's Day greeting from Barstow. It was sizzling outdoors. The street was just a fried banana flaming with rum and creosote. The houses were wilting, sagging to their knees, threatening to melt into glue or glucose. Only the gas stations seemed capable of surviving. They looked cool, efficient, inviting. They were impeccable and full of mockery. They had nothing to do with human life. There was no distress in them.

(All passages from "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare" by Henry Miller, published in 1945. Photos:  Moss and lichen in London, taken Jan. 24 and Feb. 8.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Signs of Spring

We are definitely seeing more indications that the season will soon turn. The snowdrops have been up for a couple of weeks -- I've been seeing them around town on my walks.

And in our own back garden, we were surprised to see this crocus beginning to bloom. There's only one so far, which is a little strange. I hope we didn't displace others with all our digging last summer. But they may yet appear. Time will tell.

On Saturday morning, Dave and I were amused by this pigeon, which repeatedly flew down to the lawn, grabbed a twig and carried it away somewhere over the house. I have no idea where it's building its nest -- it seemed to fly in a different direction every time, either because it's trying to deceive predators or its brain is very tiny. But it seemed to have a definite preference for our twigs. It came back at least a dozen times.

Our camellia's buds are still locked up tight, which is interesting, because I'm seeing other camellias in bloom around town. Maybe ours is a late-blooming variety, or maybe it's in a less protected location?

And finally, our amaryllis buds are sprouting, so it looks like they've all survived being transplanted for the move last summer, and then wintering in the garden shed. No indication yet whether we'll get flowers from all four of them.

It's too early to call winter over -- after all, we had snow just last week! -- but it's great to see some growth and life.