Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Birds in the Garden

We had a very active evening in the garden a few days ago. Several birds that I've never seen before stopped by for a visit.

We had at least three long-tailed tits swooping around. As you can see, they live up to their name!

This is a great spotted woodpecker. They're supposedly common in England and Wales, but the only ones I've seen have been in our garden, and they only stop by now and then. Quite different from the green woodpecker I used to see in Hyde Park!

I think this is a juvenile goldfinch. Its red face simply hasn't grown in yet.

The pigeons are obsessed with this seed-filled feeder, and they're constantly bumbling around it and knocking into each other like NFL players. We don't see as many smaller birds here as we used to, I think, because the pigeons scare them away.

Finally, here's the state of some of our ladybird larvae at the moment -- they've turned into pupae, particularly on our apple tree. Presumably at some point a mature beetle is going to emerge from this pupa. I'm not sure how long they have to "cook" in their little shells before they're ready to face the world. Insects are so bizarre, aren't they? On the other hand, it seems like a good way to manage adolescence.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Bloggers Visit Olga

Yesterday Dave and I had a visit from two other bloggers, Linda Sue from Walk the Dog and Sarah from Circles of Rain. Linda Sue is on one of her periodic visits to London from her home in Washington state, and she and Sarah (who lives in London) came up to West Hampstead -- primarily, I suspect, to meet Olga.

By the time they arrived in early afternoon, Olga was about to jump out of her skin. She was literally shaking in anticipation of a walk. So we had a quick cup of tea, then walked over to Hampstead Heath, where Olga went on immediate Squirrel Patrol.

We climbed up to Parliament Hill to take in the view...

...and then discovered an outdoor concert by a band called Whiskey Moon Face. We liked their music so Linda Sue ponied up for two CDs, one of which she gave me. (Thanks, Linda Sue!)

It was great to see people sitting out in a field of daisies enjoying a sunny afternoon.

Maybe because we made her wait until afternoon for her walk, Olga was especially mischievous. She stole both a soccer ball and a tennis ball from small children (I don't believe the balls were harmed, though the tennis ball was probably slathered with dog spit) and then she settled into this muddy ditch for a belly-roll.

We all went to an outdoor cafe in Hampstead for an afternoon coffee -- I did my best to keep the filthy Olga away from everyone's legs, with limited success -- and then Sarah and Linda Sue boarded the tube in Hampstead. Olga and I made our way home, with a quick stop at a local cemetery to work off some additional canine energy.

Needless to say, someone got an afternoon bath!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

London Pride

As promised, I went down to the Pride parade and festivities after French class yesterday. I got there just in time to see the beginning of the parade turn the corner at Oxford Circus onto Regent Street, and the crowds were dense. I couldn't get close enough to see much of the parade itself, but I had a great time wandering through the throngs of spectators and taking photos.

Everyone was in on the festivities...

...from the very young...

...to the not-so-young. This lady said to me, "I'm a revolution!" I agreed with her, but I should have said, "We are all a revolution."

And of course, there were dignified drag queens...

...and various other costumed individuals.

False eyelashes were definitely at a premium.

I wandered around for a couple of hours before coming home and collapsing. I did see a couple of U.S. flags waving, presumably a reference to the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage. It has been a week to celebrate!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sunshine and Rainbows and Kittens and Puppies

Holy cow. What a couple of days this has been! First a ruling that upholds Obama's national health plan, and now the nationwide legalization of gay marriage. Just when I'm thinking the world is going to hell, that everything is terrorism and refugees and war and economic inequality and greed, goodness is reaffirmed and progress is made.

Or, as someone memorably expressed it on Twitter:

I never, ever thought, as a kid growing up in the South, conflicted about being gay, that I would see this day. Wow.

And we have Republicans speaking out against the Confederate flag! Southern Republicans! What the hell is going on out there?! It's like the sunspots have all aligned and justice is being rained down upon us. Granted, there's still plenty of bad stuff happening, but let me just continue to set that aside for one more day and celebrate.

My Facebook feed is a continuous scrolling wallpaper of rainbows. It's blissfully free of retrograde people posting warnings about how we're all going to hell. I have the right friends, I guess.

Today is Pride day in London, so after my French class I'm going to take the camera down into town and see what I can see. I'm guessing there's going to be a lot of serious celebrating going on. Even though gay marriage is already legal in the UK, the American decision is seen as a huge step forward for the world as a whole.

Dave and I, meanwhile, are still talking about how this affects our own plans. Stay tuned!

(Photo: Kentish Town, June 16.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Here's To Being Home Again!

This teapot sat on the windowsill in the breakfast room at our guesthouse in York. I was looking at it yesterday morning and said to Dave, "It looks like someone from Dickens. Like maybe Mr. Pickwick." I turned it over, and lo and behold, it was marked on the bottom, "Mr. Pickwick proposes a toast" by Lingard pottery. I've never even read "The Pickwick Papers" but I guess I've seen enough representations of him in illustrations!

I sort of liked him, but Dave thought he was creepy.

We were out and about in York yesterday morning. We walked the dog down to a nice park on the riverbank, but because of her obsession with eating goose poop we had to get her away from there pronto. We walked over to Clifford's Tower, the last remaining part of York Castle, initially built by William the Conqueror. (This present structure dates from the 1200s.) We didn't go in; we just walked around the base of the mound.

And as I suspected, we were surrounded in York by reminders of the Wars of the Roses -- the symbolic white rose was everywhere. Even though I just went to Leicester a few months ago and read all about the battles at the Richard III Visitor's Centre, I had to read about them again in York to remind myself what happened. For some reason I just can't keep the details in my brain.

After walking through town, Dave and I found a cafe where we sat with Olga and watched the other tourists and interesting local characters.

We caught the 1 p.m. train back to London, which mercifully was an express and made no stops before King's Cross. Amazing! We were all so happy to get back home. I did laundry, Dave took care of the garden, and Olga slept on the couch all afternoon and evening, apparently exhausted by traveling and the change in routine. At heart, animals are creatures of habit and they are most comfortable with what they know. (People too, I suppose!)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Further Adventures in York

It says a lot about York that the top headline in the local newspaper is "Dog Rescued From Locked Car."

We were out and about almost all day yesterday. We first walked around town, visiting some streets we'd missed the day before. We came across an incredibly colorful group of Japanese (I think?) tourists. I actually ran after them with my camera to get a shot.

I really wish I'd been able to photograph them in the sun. They were so spectacularly dressed.

Then we went to York Minster, the gothic church...

...which towers over everything in the old part of the city.

It stands on the site of the Roman settlement that eventually became York, and in parts of the building you can see architectural remnants left by the Romans in the third century. It's mind-boggling. There's a gothic screen that depicts past kings of England and acres of stained glass, including the largest single stained glass window in the country. (Unfortunately it's under conservation at the moment, so we couldn't see it.)

There are also lots of interesting artifacts, including the Doomstone, a Norman carving from the 1100's depicting demons stoking the fires of hell under a cauldron of sinners.  Burn, baby, burn!

We walked the old city walls -- in shifts, so that one of us could stay with Olga on the ground -- before meeting up with an acquaintance of Dave's from Michigan who just happens to be in York at the same time we are. (Ah, the wonders -- and curses -- of Facebook.) We had lunch with him and his traveling companion and then made our way back to the room for a nap.

In the evening we walked the dog, went for a take-out dinner and spent a quiet night here, watching "American Beauty," which may seem like an odd thing to do in York but we were tired. Even Olga is tired. As Dave said, "She hasn't been getting her 40 naps per day."

This morning we're going out to see a few more sights and then we're back on the train at 1 p.m.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

York, as Opposed to New York

We have safely arrived in York, on a train that mercifully ran on time and gave us no difficulties. We fortunately sat with two dog-friendly women who told us all about their own dog (and their family, and their grandmother's recipe for Victoria sponge cake, among other things). So Olga's presence wasn't a problem. In fact, one of the women took her photo and sent it to friends via Snapchat.

We had plenty of time to explore yesterday afternoon. We went and found lunch at a pub, and then wandered the streets of the old part of the city, within its medieval walls. The walls are still standing in many areas and you can walk atop them, in fact -- but dogs aren't allowed, so we're going to have to work out the logistics of that.

There were some interesting characters out and about, like this eccentrically-garbed street musician.

Here are Olga and Dave reflected in a window of the pub where we ate lunch. Olga gets a little antsy in pubs and cafes. She can never really just lie down and relax. There's just too much going on, I guess.

When we got back to the guesthouse after our walk in town, I asked the owners to send me to the nearest park where Olga could run free. Strangely, that turned out to be a horse racing track, where people and dogs wandered all over a huge open field and even within the track itself. You can see the grandstand in the background of the photo above. Olga ran and ran after her kong and got a good workout.

Dave and I had dinner last night in yet another pub -- not the best food, but we got to sit by the River Ouse as the sun set and watch wandering pedestrians, including a man who fed a massive flock of Canada geese with numerous bags of old sliced bread. Eventually it got too chilly so we went inside. It's 51º F here this morning! You'd never know it's summer!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Off to York

Dave, Olga and I are off on a little adventure today. We're going up to York, where we'll spend two nights at a bed & breakfast and see some of the sights. I have no idea what to expect from York -- in fact I haven't read about it at all yet -- but I'm sure there will be more Wars of the Roses history involved!

I'm looking forward to a change of scenery and it's always fun to travel with Olga, although we have a less-than-optimal seating situation on this morning's train. Dave and I are sitting across from each other in window seats with a table between us. I tried to put us in side-by-side seats (which would be better for dog handling purposes) but the railroad web site wouldn't let us move, saying the train is "very full." So that should be fun.

I hope whoever sits next to me doesn't mind a couple of hours of dog breath in their ear.

Yesterday I stayed home pretty much all day. Dave had lunch with an old friend who's visiting London, and I took Olga on a walk to Fortune Green and the cemetery. Otherwise I stayed in and read "The Girl on the Train," which is quite a page-turner. I just couldn't get motivated to go anywhere else!

And then, last night, as I was washing clothes, the washing machine began to act up. It wouldn't pump out the water and wouldn't spin. These appliances are going to be the death of me. I got so exasperated, envisioning all sorts of dire ramifications with the landlord -- and why did this have to happen just as we're about to leave town, and how was I going to get the wet clothes out of the locked machine? Then we unplugged it, waited a bit and plugged it back in, and it ran the rest of the way through its cycle. So at least I could retrieve the clothes. I suppose we'll have to call the repairman again. (The dishwasher is still broken, too. I've been doing all our dishes by hand -- which, bizarrely, I kind of like.)

(Photo: Gravestone detail from the cemetery, yesterday.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Larvae Relocation Scheme

Yesterday Dave and I put in a couple hours of work on the garden. You may remember we had some ladybird (ladybug) larvae living on the borage at the back of the garden. Well, that borage was looking really terrible and needed to be cleared -- it had all gone to seed and the plants had collapsed -- but at the same time I didn't want to just mow it down and kill all the larvae.

So yesterday I combed over each plant, snipped away pieces where I found larvae and carried them farther into the borage thicket near the back wall. Then we mowed the plants that were closest to the lawn, which makes things look a whole lot better.

We also discovered tons of those little larvae on our apple tree. We're going to be swarming with ladybirds around here.

I worked on another negative-scanning project yesterday, too. Remember how I compiled that book of travel-related photography a couple of months ago? Well, I'm going to have more of my Morocco photos scanned and maybe do another book, focused just on my time in the Peace Corps. We'll see how the scans turn out. The idea is to boil all those photos down to just the essentials, and then I won't ever have to haul out my photo albums. (Ideally, I might even be able to get rid of most of them.)

Dave and I Skyped with my dad and stepmother. It turns out the "ridiculous" things they've been doing are mostly health-related and not ridiculous at all -- but it sounds like everyone's doing OK now, thankfully. Their chihuahuas were furiously barking during the entire call. I'd forgotten how annoying those dogs are.

Finally, Dave and I went to dinner last night at Duck & Waffle to celebrate his birthday (which is today). Duck & Waffle is a trendy place on the 40th floor of a high-rise near Shoreditch, where the specialty includes the namesake dish as well as a spicy ox cheek donut. I opted for fish and lentils, but I did try their "filthy martini," made with vodka, gin, Branston pickle and an oyster (!). When I ordered it, the waiter actually returned to the table to make sure we understood it contained an oyster -- like maybe they've had problems with customers who get the drink and say "What is THAT?!" It was interesting -- pleasant, but definitely not something you'd drink every day. The oyster didn't kill me, so I'm happy overall.

(Photo: Fitzrovia, on Thursday.)

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Yesterday morning, I awoke briefly in the predawn darkness. I was lying there, thinking about something or other, when Dave stirred, laughed softly in his sleep and said to me, "There's not enough Chapstick in the world for that." Then he patted my leg and rolled over.

I have no idea what that meant, but it didn't sound complimentary. It makes me wonder what else he says to me in the middle of the night that I never hear. Or what I say to him, for that matter.

So today is both the Summer Solstice and Father's Day. Appropriately I'll be Skyping with my dad later today. I haven't talked to him in months, though we've exchanged e-mails. When we were setting up this Skype appointment, he wrote, "You would not believe how busy we have been around here. We definitely would like to Skype so we can tell you all the ridiculous things we are doing."

That sounds ominous!

Otherwise, I've been catching up on things around the house, like re-ordering all my negatives after my archive-plundering book project earlier this year. I still have more negatives to get scanned. It never ends!

Finally, I can't say much about the events in Charleston, but I do think it's strange that the shooter -- full of all that misguided anger -- is so fascinated with Rhodesia. Apparently it's a phenomenon among American white supremacists to admire Rhodesia and Apartheid-era South Africa. Trés bizarre, as my French teacher would say.

(Photo: Near Oxford Circus, on Thursday.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Submarine Olga

For months now, Olga has been coming home from her outings with the dog-walkers wearing a sopping wet harness. I could never figure out how she was getting so wet. I told the dog walkers that when I take her to the Heath -- the same place she goes with them -- she never gets in the water.

Well, I've given away the punchline with that photo above, but let's just say that yesterday I saw Olga in full aquatic mode. There are some muddy ponds on Sandy Heath, and she walked right into them with no hesitation, drinking all the way. (God only knows what's living in that dog's intestines.)

To my distress, she also took her kong into the water, and it promptly sank. She tried to retrieve it...

...but all she got was a wet face and a dirty forehead.

So I had to take off my socks and shoes, wade into the water and find the kong myself.

I was able to dry off my feet and put my shoes back on -- but Olga had to just live with the dirt. She didn't seem to mind.

And ultimately, it all fell off! I took this shot (above) about half an hour after the pond incident. No visible dirt to speak of. I think staffies are sheathed in teflon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Being Critiqued

Yesterday was the RPS advisory session, where a couple of judges took a look at panels of photos from ten aspiring photographers who hope to earn a credential known as "licentiate." We weren't being judged; we were just hearing their opinions about the photos we'd chosen and whether we were ready to submit.

This is how the session looked from my seat near the back row. Yes, those are my pictures up there.

Each photographer was told to bring ten mounted prints and another couple of optional pictures, unmounted. The mounted prints were carefully placed on those narrow shelves, in the order we specified. The goal, as one of the judges said, is not only to have ten good pictures, but also an 11th "image" -- a cohesive panel in which the individual elements relate in some way to each other.

Mine were viewed in the afternoon almost at the end of the day. I was completely calm until they actually started to go up -- then I had a momentary panic attack. My heart was pounding. I was so surprised to have that adrenaline rush!

Overall, I fared pretty well. One of the judges began by making largely positive or neutral comments about each photo, and then both offered some criticism. For example, they suggested I remove this picture -- in which they felt the figure of the skateboarder got somewhat lost in the overall composition -- and replace it with this picture, which they thought relates well to this one. I agree -- they're absolutely right.

They also made some suggestions for minor tweaks to a couple of other images, which are easily achievable in Photoshop. (Once I learn how to use Photoshop -- ha!)

The suggestion with which I completely disagree involved this picture. One judge in particular felt there's too much black space, that the sliver of sky is unnecessary and that the image should be radically cropped, taking about half off the top and a slice off the left side, leaving just the man walking through the shaft of light. I think that would reduce it too far -- I would argue that the blue of the sky is an essential color component in the overall composition, and the immense arch of the bridge both conveys the hugeness of the structure and echoes the curving shaft of light. (I didn't argue the point there, because I wasn't sure it was really my place -- I was there to hear their suggestions.)

But anyway, that's a suggestion that I probably will not take. If my panel fails because of that one image, then so be it. At some point you have to remain true to your own eye, you know?

I believe the next formal judging doesn't happen until fall, so I now have some time to make those changes and get the panel in shape for submission. It was a very interesting day, being able to see everyone else's work, seeing what caught the judges' eyes -- and what didn't!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Larvae, and Other Miscellany

Here's another photo from my Kentish Town walk on Tuesday. I photographed this shop once before, three years ago when it was still open. It closed permanently in March after 84 years. The Guardian did an interesting article about it here. Apparently the shopfront is listed as a historical landmark, so how that will affect any new occupants of the space, I'm not sure. It's really a shame that no one talks about "gowns" anymore. Such a great word.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote.

Yesterday was pretty mellow around here. I worked around the house and garden in the morning and read in the afternoon. Dave had to go to school to inventory instruments, which he's been doing for the past few days, but now that job is winding down too. We still have new plants to get in the ground, so there's plenty of work here to keep him busy!

This was my main task -- to repot the avocado. We ordered this massive clay pot -- actually, two of them, because the first one broke in shipping -- and yesterday I hoisted the plant from its old pot into the new one. Then I had to dig it out and reposition it because I initially potted it at an angle, which looked terrible. Et voila! This pot is about as big as we're ever going to be able to offer, I think, and ought to get the tree to ceiling height. It's so heavy I can barely lift it.

Hard to believe that plant started out as a seed!

Here's our latest gardening conundrum. (I swear this isn't turning into a gardening blog. At least, not exclusively.) I was going to clear the masses of borage that have grown up at the back of our garden, because they're old and ragged-looking and collapsing under the weight of their own stems. But then I found these little critters crawling on the plants -- ladybug (or ladybird, if you prefer) larvae. So now I can't clear the borage. I've got to give these guys a chance to grow up!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Kentish Town

After cleaning like the proverbial white tornado yesterday morning, I took a photo walk through Kentish Town, south and east of Hampstead Heath. I don't get over that way too often, even though it's fairly close by. It was warm and sunny, and although I had to sort of force myself to go, once I got out and got moving I found some good stuff.

I walked past this Thai Restaurant and was immediately seduced by the wacky, Buddhist Acid Trip decor. I had green Thai curry for lunch!

Olga, meanwhile, got worn out with her dog walker in the morning, so when I got home she was crashed and stayed that way most of the afternoon. She and I both love this time of year, when it's finally warm enough to open the doors and windows.

Some of you asked for another garden shot, after my rhapsodizing in yesterday's post. Unfortunately I can't fit everything into one picture -- the plants next to the patio fence aren't visible here, for example -- but this will give you an idea of all that's going on!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Garden Abundance, and a Massage

We have an almost embarrassing abundance of flowers in the yard at the moment. The roses are going haywire, exploding like a big ol' Fourth-of-July fireworks display. The beach asters, like the one above, are glowing highlighter-pink. The blackberries are buzzing with bees. We have purple spikes of sage, purple Chinese foxglove, purple clematis, purple chives and scabious, pink persicaria, and orange geums. There are buds on the lilies, the thistles, the geraniums and the hydrangeas. It's crazy.

At times like this, I don't know how we ever survived in a high-rise apartment with no garden.

I spent yesterday dead-heading roses, running errands and reading, mostly. I took Olga to Hampstead Heath for a few hours and then got a massage in the afternoon -- the last of the five that Dave bought me for my birthday way back in November. I'm so glad to be done with them. I mean, I enjoyed them, but I was constantly afraid that something would happen -- the massage therapist would move away again, for example -- and we'd never get our money's worth. So at least that pressure is off!

Also, I'm having the balloon picture reprinted and I'm going to mount it correctly for the photo panel. It was just too crooked.

I didn't take photos of Olga yesterday at the Heath -- I left my camera at home. But here she is at the cemetery over the weekend. No sense of decorum!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Thoughts on Racial Identity

The story about Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader in Spokane, Wash., whose parents say she is white although she has apparently identified herself as black, is pretty darn interesting, isn't it?

My first reaction to the story was, "So what?" In an age when we allow people to express their gender regardless of their outward biology, is expressing race that much different? It seems to me that Dolezal -- who married and has a child with a black man, has black adopted siblings, went to a historically black university and has spent her life in the black community working with racial issues -- clearly identifies with that community, regardless of her childhood blue eyes and blond hair.

In fact, I'm a bit mystified by the hostile reactions some have exhibited toward her. To call what she's done "blackface" is stretching it. Blackface means playing black for laughs, for entertainment, in a way that is harmful or derisive. She apparently identifies as black (actually, multi-racial) and apparently lives it, which isn't the same thing.

Maybe the parallel with transgender individuals came to mind so quickly because, coincidentally, I just read Chaz Bono's book "Transition," which discusses his lifelong identification as male -- which he belatedly recognized -- despite being born female. If we accept the idea that gender identity is not strictly binary but falls along a spectrum, subject to many factors both physical and psychological, why shouldn't we make similar allowances for race? Especially at a time when humanity is more blended than ever before, and old racial definitions are less clear.

(Incidentally, I was interested to read that drawing a parallel with transgenderism was apparently the response of some political conservatives to the Dolezal story. God forbid that I am conservative! It doesn't seem like a particularly conservative argument to me, though.)

I do think Dolezal has some explaining to do about her motives. Did she merely lie to exploit the system and gain an advantage -- which given the levels of pervasive discrimination in our culture seems misguided -- or is this really how she sees herself? And on a deeper level, it raises questions about how society allows individuals to define themselves. President Obama is routinely identified as black, despite the fact that half his family tree is white. Is it really such an extreme step to allow a woman who may not have a single African-American genetic ancestor, but who grew up and lives immersed in black culture, identify that way? Given her experiences, I'd agree that she's blacker than I am.

Are all these definitions -- these social constructs, these lines -- really even necessary? Why do we have to check boxes on forms declaring our gender, our race? (And I say that as a lifelong supporter of affirmative action programs, recognizing that in the modern world such classifications are becoming less distinct. Where that ultimately leaves affirmative action I'm not sure. Perhaps that's where the conservatives are heading with their arguments.)

If there's a growing understanding among many of us that gender is fluid, then maybe, just maybe, race can be fluid too?

(Photo: A lion medallion on the Houses of Parliament, mid-May.)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mourning the Carlton Tavern

The other day I walked past the site of the former Carlton Tavern, the 1920s-era pub in Maida Vale that was wantonly demolished by some Israeli developers after their plans to build flats on the site were rejected. Just as the government was taking steps to preserve the pub, they brought in backhoes. There are no good words for people like that.

(And here's a question -- who actually owned and operated those backhoes? Why aren't those guys being prosecuted? Doesn't a property owner have to show evidence of government permission before demolition firms will begin knocking things down?)

As you can see from the graffiti, the locals support the government's subsequent order that the pub must be rebuilt brick by brick. I question whether it will ever happen. Supposedly the developers have an 18-month deadline and will be unable to sell the site unless it's reconstructed, but I read that an appeal was planned, so we'll see. I have yet to see any public comment from the developers at all.

Part of the charm of the tavern came from its exterior signage, portions of which still survive (sort of). But that's pretty much all that can now be seen beyond the plywood wall surrounding the site.

I think some of these damaged tiles should be removed and incorporated into any new building as a reminder of what's happened here.

Dave, our friend Gordon and I always talked about trying this pub, but we never got there before this ghastly event. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, as they say!