Friday, June 30, 2017

A Baseball on my Forehead

On Wednesday morning Dave and I were sitting in the living room -- me reading my Tennessee Williams biography, Dave watching something on his computer. I kept hearing a man shouting out in the street. I couldn't tell what he was saying, and then our doorbell rang. Dave answered it, and it was the shouter, asking in his heavy East London accent whether we had any knives we needed sharpened.

Good Lord, I thought. Does this still happen? Itinerant knife sharpeners wandering the streets of London? It seems so "Mary Poppins."

Dave told him that no, we had nothing that needed sharpening. Which is mostly true. I hadn't thought about it, honestly. I'm sure we will now find dozens of implements that could stand to have a sharper edge.

Dave and I have spent the last two days in and out of the Royal Free Hospital -- him for a follow-up appointment for his Crohn's, and me to have the rest of that spot on my forehead removed. Dave's medical news is looking up. He was given some medicine that he said has already made a tremendous difference in how he feels.

I suppose things are looking up for me too, but right now my forehead just hurts. At least the surgery is over. The biopsy a month ago seemed to remove the lesion entirely, but the doctors felt -- despite the fact that the subsequent diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma was apparently somewhat tentative and uncertain -- that more skin should be excised. (About a centimeter around, more or less.) I was awake for the entire procedure, but after local anesthetic I only felt a sort of pressure, a pushing and pulling, and I saw no sign of blood. I was then sent away with a baseball-sized bandage on my forehead and directions to take paracetamol for pain and to have my nine stitches out in a week.

I will have a scar, the doctor said. She said she made it a curved line, rather than a straight one, because curved lines "are more aesthetically pleasing." We'll see.

I'm not a vain person and I'm not too worried about it, but I hope it's not a super-obvious scar. The skin feels a bit tighter. As I told the doctor, I'm just going to think of it as a facelift. "Some people pay millions for this!" I said.

Dave and I joked that Olga might mistake my bandage for a ball and rip it off my head. Instead she doesn't seem to see it at all.

(Photo: A cafe on Edgware Road, on Tuesday.)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Lots of iPhotos

As usual, my iPhone has been collecting random photos over the past few weeks...

First, some dramatic light and shadow on a recent morning when I was walking the dog behind the housing estate near our flat.

This is from a tube advertisement for a life insurance and investments company. I'm guessing most Scottish Widows don't look like that, though.

This was a student art project photographed at school -- a straight-on representation of a blowfish. Awesome!

I love reading on our garden bench, beneath our Japanese maple, because I get such great shadows on the pages of my books!

Remember the volunteer hellebore that got cut down and paved over during our sidewalk repairs a few months back? Well, darned if it didn't come up again from the roots. You can't keep a good hellebore down!

These posters popped up along Finchley Road during the recent election. "Enough is enough," Theresa May famously said after the incidents of terrorism we experienced during the spring. The posters, obviously by a Labour supporter, turn her own words against her.

And speaking of leftist politics, the Grenfell Tower disaster has raised questions about class and the mistreatment (or disregard) for public housing tenants. These posters appeared in Bloomsbury, publicizing a political meeting about the incident.

Every time I go to our friend Sally's house I'm envious of her collection of beautiful old children's books.

Finally, Olga and I came across some huge hollyhocks along a public path near the cemetery on Sunday. We have a few in our garden but they aren't this big!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Courtauld Gallery

Yesterday, in my continuing quest to go places in London I've never visited, I went to the Courtauld Gallery. It's located in Somerset House, a large building dating to the 1700s that has been used for both governmental and arts purposes. It has a large central courtyard, once an extra-fancy parking lot but now adorned with "dancing fountains," and a terrace overlooking the River Thames.

I'd heard about the Courtauld for years, but I had no idea what to expect in terms of artworks.

It turns out that the gallery is best known for its stunning collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works, including Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere," above. There were paintings by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Sisley, Derain, Kandinsky and many others. I was definitely not disappointed!

Somerset House is also interesting architecturally!

After spending a couple of hours in the museum I took a long walk -- despite occasionally heavy rain -- north and west to Paddington, where I met my friend Pam for dinner. She's on one of her frequent visits to London for work. I love meeting up with her when she's in town -- I feel like it connects me to my previous life in the states. We ate at a cozy pub near Little Venice and then I made my way home, my sandals squishy from rainwater.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hoverfly on Hawkweed

I spent an inordinate amount of time yesterday watching and photographing this hoverfly as it prowled around on our hawkweed, licking up pollen. (Or nectar, or something.) It was actually pretty fascinating, and I wound up with 84 pictures! But only seven keepers.

Dave and I had our meeting with the HR office at school yesterday, and finished a lot of our paperwork for the Indefinite Leave to Remain. We also scheduled an appointment with the immigration authorities to make our application, right after I come back from Florida.

Otherwise, yesterday was a day of rest. I spent most of the afternoon on the couch, reading a biography of Tennessee Williams. (It made me remember seeing "Sweet Bird of Youth" at the Old Vic several years ago.) I like Williams' plays, although they seem to have a certain sameness -- the damaged female protagonist, the Southern eccentricity, a general atmosphere of booze and sweat and decay.

I read that Williams bought his house in Key West back in 1950 for $10,000. When he died in 1983, it was worth about $100,000. Well, I looked it up on Zillow, and that same house sold in 2012 for $1.15 million. I'm sure being previously owned by Tennessee Williams didn't hurt its value!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Zonk, Stop, Sole and Self

While I've been regaling you with tales of hold music and antique lawnmowers, Dave and I have been having a pretty quiet weekend. On Saturday I took Olga out for a long walk northward to the Clitterhouse Playing Fields, a large grassy tract where, as you could infer from the name, lots of kids play football. Fortunately Olga was tired enough by the time we got up there that she didn't go after anyone's ball. (I think she's growing out of that. She's more mellow these days.)

We also stopped to check out the graffiti at the Cricklewood Millennium Green (above), a small park with a big litter problem that's not depicted in this photo.

On Saturday night Dave and I went to dinner with our friend Chris, and the pub got so loud poor Dave could barely hear us. He just sat across the table and nodded now and then. I'm not sure he was absorbing any of the conversation, but I'm also not sure he minded all that much.

Yesterday I took Olga on a short-ish walk through the cemetery and Fortune Green. The butterfly garden at the cemetery -- a patch of wildflowers in a far corner -- is looking good and I think I need to go back there for some pictures. I saw a bright orange, jagged-winged comma butterfly in our own garden a few days ago, but it flew away before I had a chance to get the camera.

I also worked on our application form for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the U.K. The form is 88 pages!! Most of it seems like it doesn't really apply to us -- it has to do with people who own companies and are here for entrepreneurial reasons -- so I don't think we'll have to fill out all those blanks, fortunately. We're supposed to meet this morning with our HR director to make sure we're not missing anything major and our documentation is in order.

Our inquisitive neighbor, the one I have dubbed Mrs. Kravitz, had a couple of workmen in her back garden yesterday, hauling dozens of bags of gravel or something in and out. I'm dying to know what she's doing over there. (That turns the tables, doesn't it? I'm Mrs. Kravitz now!)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Bad Hold Music, Part 2

Remember the other day when I called our local council office and then wrote about how terrible their hold music was? The Miami Vice electronic thump, the needless stopping and starting?

Well, I felt I really needed to share the experience.

Now, tell me that isn't abysmal hold music. But then, it's hard to tell, because we never hear the entire song. As you may have noticed, sometimes it goes just a few beats before starting over, and sometimes it gets all the way into a hint of melody. And then, boom. Restart.

My friend Kevin, who read my earlier post, clued me in to a recent segment on the NPR radio show "This American Life" about a man who became obsessed with learning the identity of the hold music he heard when he called his local hospital. The clip is here, and it's very interesting. It's the first 20 minutes or so of the show.

Kevin suspected that my council hold music might be the same as the music described in the radio segment, which -- as the default hold music for Cisco phone systems -- is apparently very widespread. Alas, although it is similarly synthesizer-heavy, it doesn't sound the same. Like the music in the segment, though, it probably is the default hold music for whatever company provides the council's phones, and it sounds like it also could have been written by a teenager in a garage.

Is there such a thing as good hold music? Well, I kind of like this variety, which for some reason makes me think of driving to a friend's house in Southern California for a champagne brunch with avocados. Or this one, which employs synthesizers to catchy effect.

Is this more than you ever wanted to know about hold music? Probably.

(Photo: Pink geraniums at an apartment building in St. John's Wood.)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Panther

Good news! Dave and I both passed our "Life in the U.K." tests. The proctors didn't tell us how many questions we missed, or which ones -- it's permissible to miss a few -- but I know I got at least one wrong. It had to do with whether smoking in the wrong place is a criminal or civil offense. (Actual answer: Criminal!) If I'd thought about it a little more I would have realized that the police are involved, which would have been a clue.

Anyway, having that behind us is a relief. We went out to lunch for a little celebration, and we had passport photos taken for our application for UK residency. Now we have to finish gathering some additional paperwork, and then we can schedule a meeting with the immigration authorities. That will happen later this summer, hopefully.

Remember how I called our local council to get a tax statement mailed that would prove our residency? Well, they e-mailed it to me instead, which defeated the purpose entirely. (It has to come via snail mail to prove we live at the street address we claim, which I explained to them, but oh well.) I'm also still wrestling with our bank to collect official bank statements, which I need on paper and apparently am not permitted to print and submit myself. They need to come in the mail, too. Sigh.

So, bureaucracy aside, let's talk about the Panther.

This (above) is the Panther. It's an ancient manual lawn mower, the kind with a cylindrical rotary blade, propped against the shed in our back garden. It belongs to our landlord, I assume, and who knows how long it's been back there. We've never tried to move it, much less use it, so it's pretty much just garden decor.

It's kind of cool, and the other day I got to wondering how old it is. Turns out there's a whole page devoted to the Panther at a web site called The Old Lawnmower Club. (I am not making this up.) I concluded that our model was made in the 1950s or '60s, but that's kind of a guesstimate -- I don't know enough about mower technology to evaluate ours relative to the descriptions from the club.

(Side note: There is also a British Lawn Mower Museum in Merseyside. Who knew? Fortunately, that question was not on the "Life in the U.K." test.)

We also have a large, mysterious metal drum-like device lying near the lawn mower. Dave says it's an attachment meant to flatten the lawn and roll out any lumps and bumps. I have no alternate explanation, so I'm assuming he's correct! We haven't moved this object either. This and the Panther are simply giving our garden some antique charm.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Piano, and Hawkweed

Dave and I finally, finally got around to renting "La La Land" last night. I really enjoyed it -- a colorful, fun homage to old Hollywood, and yet without the traditionally sappy Hollywood ending. It was well-made and entertaining. It was not, however, a Best Picture, no matter what Faye Dunaway says. The Academy made the right call by giving that award to "Moonlight," a much more substantial film.

Anyway, "La La Land" reminded me that I had this photo of a discarded piano -- or part of a piano, anyway -- to use on the ol' blog. I found it while walking Olga the other day. I'm surprised someone hasn't harvested all that metal from the interior. Aren't those wires copper?

In the garden, the fox & cubs -- a.k.a. hawkweed -- is blooming once again. I always enjoy these flowers, and this year we have more of them than ever before. Woo hoo!

Today Dave and I are off to take our "Life in the U.K." tests. My head is full of information about the Beveridge Report and the Butler Act and Queen Boudicca of the Iceni and the Cavaliers and Roundheads. I studied all day yesterday and Dave ran practice tests with an app that he purchased. Fingers crossed!

It was much cooler yesterday -- a high of about 72ºF. Now that's more like it!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Walnut Husks and The Sneezer

The squirrels are going through their annual obsession with the walnut tree in our back garden. They scamper around in this tree all day, gnawing open the walnuts and dropping the green husks to the ground, and they would drive me crazy if I were one of those people who insist on a neat lawn. I do go out and pick up the larger pieces of shrapnel now and then, but for the most part, I ignore the situation.

Our heat wave continued yesterday. At 3 p.m. the temperature was 90º F. There were additional warnings about air pollution being carried up from France by southerly winds -- in which case it must have been la pollution, according to Google Translate. I didn't notice things being any more polluted than usual, and I even walked to Homebase in the morning along Finchley Road, which -- busy as it is -- has got to be an epicenter for air pollution in North London.

I went to buy compost, because we had lots of plants that needed repotting. While I was there I picked up these amazing petunias -- they're called "Night Sky." Aren't they great?

Let me tell you -- walking home with a box of petunias and a 50-liter bag of compost, along with a few other odds and ends, was definitely a challenge.

I spent some time in the garden in the afternoon, despite the heat. Almost everything is now in its new pot, including an overwatered aloe that I found in someone's trash a few days ago. It may or may not survive.

This is such a funny time of year because everyone's windows are open and we all learn a lot more about each other. There's a guy who lives in one of the apartments behind us who has the most explosive sneeze I've ever heard. Naturally, we call him "The Sneezer." He's like the neighborhood foghorn or factory whistle -- the background sound we all subconsciously know and acknowledge.

Today it's supposed to be cooler, thank God. And it's also Dave's birthday!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

NSFW...But It IS Art

Right at the outset I must tell you that there's a rather shocking picture below. If you are a person of Victorian sensibilities you may not want to proceed further.

I went to the British Museum yesterday. Does the forecourt (above) look blazing hot? That's because it was! I'm impressed anyone was sitting out at the cafe, but around lunchtime it was actually quite busy. This photo was taken a few hours later, when things had slowed down.

I went to the museum partly to be in a cooler environment than our house, and partly to see a show of LGBTQ artifacts -- or more accurately, artifacts of interest to the LGBTQ community. They included political buttons from the '70s and '80s, an engraved print of a transsexual French nobleman from the 1700's, and antique coins and pottery shards depicting same-sex relationships.

And then there was this, from the Roman empire:

Those crazy Romans!

Some of these items were once considered so scandalous that they were housed within a separate "Secret Museum" section of the British Museum, no doubt away from the delicate eyes of women and children.

Anyway, it was an interesting exhibit, but incredibly tiny -- a shoebox-sized room that, ironically, was woefully under-air-conditioned. (Or perhaps not air-conditioned at all.) I enjoyed the museum gift shop more, where I found some non-scandalous birthday gifts for my nieces, which is a huge relief.

Speaking of LGBTQ, have you heard about Drag Queen Story Hour? I think this is possibly the best idea I've ever heard -- bringing drag queens in to read to small children. Kids love costumes and glitter and imagination, after all, and drag queens (at least the ones I've met) love to perform. Everybody wins!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bad Hold Music and THB

I spent virtually all day at home yesterday. But I did get a lot done -- I caught up on all our laundry and I finished a book I've been reading. I studied for our "Life in the U.K." test and collected some documentation we'll need to prove our residency when we take it on Friday.

At one point I called the local council to have them mail me a tax statement. They put me on hold, and I waited, and waited, and waited. I was listening to tinny, synthesizer-heavy hold music that sounded like something from Miami Vice, repeating over and over. I never even got to hear the whole tune -- it would play for 30 seconds or so, abruptly cut off, and start again at the beginning. It was so bad I began laughing, perplexing Dave. Finally someone answered the phone, but then her computer wasn't working, so she put me back on hold and I waited some more. It took me about half an hour to get that statement mailed. (Hopefully it will arrive in time, but I have a backup plan!)

The hot, dry weather continues. I made a salad for lunch yesterday from stuff left in our fridge after our dinner party, and it hit the spot. I may do the same today. Things are supposed to cool off on Thursday, when rain is expected.

Remember my West African beer labels? Well, here's one from Madagascar, from 1999. (I worked more yesterday on my journal transcribing project, as you can see.) Apparently it's known locally, or maybe just among expats, as "THB," and I called it mauvaise but I also seemed to drink it fairly often while I was there -- so it couldn't have been that bad. I got a kick out of reading about my experiences on that crazy trip. I went because one of my oldest friends was working there temporarily, and I stayed with him while exploring the island. It's a long story, involving lemurs and sea urchins and poverty and land crabs and torrential rain!

(Top photo: West Hampstead, yesterday morning.)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Caterpillars and a Collation

Good Lord, it is hot. At least for England. It was about 90ºF yesterday, and while that's slightly better than what I'll face in Florida in a few weeks, it's a challenge here in the land of no air-conditioning.

Dave and I visited our friends Sally and Mike in South London for a cold "collation," which, I learned, means "a light, informal meal." We popped into M&S for some beer on the way, and the store was deliciously air-conditioned.

"Let's just stay in here all day," I said to Dave.

But no, we did not. We got on the tube and went to their place near Greenwich, and sat out in the shade of their garden talking about the crazy state of politics, and pop culture and gardening and our summer plans. Sally recommended a TV show called "The Detectorists," a dry British comedy about guys with metal detectors trying to strike it rich. We haven't tried it yet, but it sounds promising.

Dave and I didn't even eat dinner last night, we were so inert and overheated. We just had strawberries and cream left over from Dave's dinner-party pavlova, and then we went to bed.

Today is supposed to be a scorcher, too, although right now, at 6:30 a.m., it's very pleasant.

This is the caterpillar of the Solomon's seal sawfly. Who knew that such a specific predator existed? We've been noticing for a while that the leaves on our Solomon's seal were looking tattered, and then the other day I noticed that entire stalks had been stripped bare. I took a closer look and saw these guys, munching away.

At first I thought they might turn into butterflies or something desirable, but no -- they turn into black, aesthetically nondescript flies. They drop off the plant and pupate in the soil before hatching and laying eggs in the tender stems of next spring's regrowth. Thus, the cycle continues, and the plant gets weaker and weaker.

I debated what to do, but eventually I grabbed a paper towel and killed them all. I still feel guilty about it. But as much as I am into letting nature take its course, I don't want to lose our Solomon's seal. You have to draw the line somewhere, right?

(Top photo: Chalk drawings on the sidewalk down the hill from our flat.)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Childs Hill, a Dinner Party and a Calamity

My dog is so weird. (Exhibit A: Photo above.)

Yesterday morning she and I walked to Childs Hill Park, an area north of where we live. We don't go up that way very often, but Olga seemed very certain about where she was going, pulling me this way and that. I don't think she had any idea, but she pretended she did.

I feel like there's a little Zen parable in there somewhere -- the value of not-knowing, rather than pretending to know. But honestly, it wasn't Olga's not-knowing or pretending to know that led us to the park. It was my iPhone.

In the background of the photo above you can see a couple of council tower blocks covered with cladding. I couldn't look at them without thinking of Grenfell Tower. I suppose councils all over the country, and probably the world, are re-evaluating the cladding on their buildings as we speak. At least, I hope so.

Last night, Dave and I had four friends over for dinner. I'm posting a bit late today because I just spent a couple of hours cleaning the kitchen and dining room. When Dave makes a five-course meal for six people, you wouldn't believe the number of dishes generated. We're on our third dishwasher-load now, and I did the rest by hand. But the meal -- an amuse bouche made with caviar, followed by cold white gazpacho, lobster newburg, chicken jardinière and a pavlova for dessert -- was quite amazing. Did I marry well or what?

My moment of mortification came when one of our dining room chairs collapsed beneath one of our guests, who is very big and tall but not overweight and certainly not accustomed to furniture failure. I believe my first response may have been "Did the chair break?" I honestly didn't mean that as an indication that I wasn't concerned for him, but I guess I took it for granted that he was fine. We have carpeting. Still, probably not the most caring thing to say!

So now one of my summer projects will be chair repair. Fortunately, the chair seems OK -- the joints simply became unglued, and I know exactly why this happened. We took the chair into the backyard at the beginning of the evening, and it sat on uneven ground, which, beneath our tall guest, led to uneven weight distribution and strain. Lesson learned: Keep dining room chairs indoors.

Still, it was wonderful to sit outside yesterday evening before dinner, with some prosecco and our caviar nibblies (apparently some caviar, like ours, is quite inexpensive). We also had thinly sliced, smoked ham and chorizo which one of our guests, who lives in Madrid, brought from Spain. Another guest brought several bottles of good French wine. The weather was beautifully warm and sunny, and everyone was out -- our upstairs neighbors, the Russians, had guests over and they were all sitting out on their terrace, and our neighbors a few doors down were playing volleyball in their garden and speaking some unidentifiable (to me) language. Piano music wafted from the windows of the apartments behind us. Magical London, a global crossroads!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Left Holding the Bags

More "Wild Kingdom" from our garden...a ladybird larva stalking some aphids on one of the teasel plants. We've seen lots of ladybirds and ladybird larvae this spring, which is a good thing, I suppose. And we don't mind the aphids, especially on a tough plant like the teasel.

Olga is barking and running around near our back fence at the moment, which makes me think there's a fox about.

I love this time of year. It's sunny and pleasant outside, we can open the windows and air out the flat, and the days are as long as the train on Princess Di's wedding gown. It starts getting light at something like 4:30 a.m. and doesn't get completely dark again until about 10 p.m. (That can be both a blessing and a curse, because it plays havoc with my sleep patterns.)

And look at our rescued fig tree! The poor guy is definitely behind his figgy brethren in terms of schedule -- I've seen figs not only with leaves but with fruit on them already -- but at least he's waking up. The leaf buds are recognizably fig-like.

I came home last night to another batch of garden recycling bags sitting on our doorstep. This is becoming laughable. It took forever to get our first batch -- more than a month after we paid for the service -- then suddenly we got a second batch and now a third. To make matters more complex, this batch's bags were labeled with other house numbers! I'm not even sure they were for this street, but I took them to the appropriate houses and left them out front. I have no idea why we got them.

Maybe this will be a question on the "Life in the U.K." test that Dave and I need to pass to get permission to stay here?

What should you do when the local council mistakenly delivers three times the correct number of garden waste bags to your house, some of them labeled with different addresses? You should:

     a) Give them to your neighbors
     b) Call the council and complain
     c) Use them all for yourself even though you don't need that many
     d) Write a stupid blog post about them

And now we all know the correct answer, at least in my mind!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Cats at the Window

Well, this is it -- our last day of school for two months. Woo hoo!

You'll be glad to know that nearly all our library materials were returned -- including a book checked out by a parent last September. I have to chase down one or two items today from some teachers (including a video camera checked out last September), but other than that, we're in pretty good shape.

Yesterday we had our big end-of-the-year school assembly, where departing faculty and staff members are recognized. So many people are leaving that this meeting took three hours. It was a special kind of hell, especially in our overwarm school auditorium. I understand that we have to give everyone their due, especially people who have been at the school for decades, and individually the presentations were amusing and entertaining. There were songs, there were jokes, there was a slideshow, there was poetry. But collectively it was a slog, and I don't think I'm dishonoring anyone by saying that and I don't think any of my colleagues would disagree.

Olga and I often see the cats above on our morning walks. They slink around outside until they see us coming, when they leap to their windowsill in alarm. They must be related -- don't you think?

The latest news on the Grenfell Tower fire indicates that composite cladding of the type that may have been used on the building is illegal in the United States on tall structures. I'm glad someone foresaw the danger of that material, but it's still a mystery why authorities here decided to use it. I agree with one of our elected representatives in Parliament, who called this event "a monstrous crime" and "corporate manslaughter."

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Grenfell Tower

This picture shows the view looking west from the bedroom window of our old apartment in Notting Hill. I took it at sunset on June 24, 2012.

Little did I know that almost exactly five years later, the 24-story building front and center would become an unbelievable inferno. Yes, that's Grenfell Tower, which made international news yesterday when it rapidly went up in flames, only a year after a £10 million renovation, killing at least 12 people and injuring many more.

When I pulled up The Guardian's web page and saw the news yesterday morning, I was stunned. In fact, stunned is an understatement. I don't recall ever seeing a fire -- certainly not in a residential building -- as large as this one, even on the news. Although the World Trade Center was obviously a much bigger structure, the visual similarities to Sept. 11 -- a tall, blackened, flaming ruin with desperate people waving from the windows -- couldn't be overlooked. All I could do was exclaim, "Holy sh*t!" (Which alarmed Olga.) I mean, I know this building -- Olga and I used to pass beneath it when we strolled over to Latimer Road, one of our regular walking routes from Notting Hill.

I didn't see or smell any evidence of the fire firsthand -- not from where we now live in West Hampstead.

The idea that a newly refurbished high-rise in a country like the UK, with no shortage of building codes and safety regulations and architects and engineers, could not only catch fire but burn as fiercely and extensively and quickly as Grenfell seems impossible. Doesn't it? Earlier London tower fires, like the already legendary Lakanal House blaze of 2009, pale in comparison.

Of course we aren't yet sure what happened at Grenfell. Was it faulty design, faulty construction, faulty materials? A combination of all three? Perhaps cladding, adhesive or insulation was of an improper (and highly flammable) type? An expert in The Guardian said that under current rules, insulation beneath cladding on the exterior of tower blocks doesn't need to be fireproof. I've heard people say the blaze may have been fueled by gas lines. No one really knows.

All I know is, that tower went up like it had been dipped in gasoline. "Like a matchstick," as one of the survivors said. It is a colossal scandal.

Before this occurred, I never would have been hesitant to live in a high-rise. In fact, I kind of wanted to live in one. My friend David lives on a high floor in a building in New Jersey and I've always envied his view. I would have just assumed (foolishly) that modern technology, fire codes and alarms and sprinklers and whatnot would keep me and my neighbors safe.

Now, I'm glad I live on the ground.

Someone has some serious 'splaining to do. And I'm guessing we're going to be hearing about lawsuits and possibly prosecutions for years and years to come.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Not BC but SC

Yesterday I got a call from the dermatology clinic at the Royal Free Hospital. Remember the presumed basal cell carcinoma on my forehead that they biopsied a few weeks ago? Well, it turns out it wasn't a basal cell -- it was a squamous cell, which is slightly more serious. Still nothing to worry about, the guy on the phone assured me, but they need to do surgery to remove more of a margin because squamous cell carcinomas, unlike basal cells, can metastasize and spread.


So now I have an appointment for June 29 to remove the rest of it. (If there's any left I can't see it, but I can understand how they might need to take more tissue just to be sure.)

What's going to make this especially interesting is that I leave for Florida six days later, and I need to have the stitches removed after about a week. So either I have to a) find a clinic to remove the stitches in Florida, or b) have them removed here a day or two early, or c) ask the Royal Free to use dissolving stitches, which they apparently don't like to do.

And I'm going to go to Florida looking like Frankenstein. But at least my remaining squamous cells will be whipped into shape. (Squamous is kind of a gross word, isn't it?) The dermatology guy said this type of lesion comes from years-ago sun exposure, of the kind I certainly received while growing up in Florida.

On the bright side, remember the acanthus we rescued in early April from the house down the street? Well, that leafless clump of roots has grown into the plant above. Kind of amazing, isn't it? There's even a little flower spike, which you can see in the upper part of the photo -- hopefully later this summer it will mature.

Also on the bright side, my sensitive tooth is better since I started using the Sensodyne. That stuff really works!

Today's the last day of the school year with students -- and it's only a half-day for them. Almost all our overdue books have been returned. Hopefully the five or six remaining dawdlers will turn in their stuff today so they don't start next fall with blighted library accounts. In past years we've successfully retrieved everything, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

(Top photo: A bird chirping on a fence along the Regent's Canal, last Saturday.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dave at the Back Door

I really like this picture of Dave looking out our patio doors during a rainstorm a few weeks ago. I'm not sure how he'll feel about me putting his snowflake pajama pants on my blog, but hopefully he won't mind.

I spent nearly all day yesterday writing e-mails to the parents of children with overdue library books. We're making that last push to get everything back. We have one and a half more days of school, so we're down to the wire!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Camo Dog and a Lost Hat

I know this looks like about a million other photos I've posted of Olga on Hampstead Heath. But check out how well she blends into that sun-dappled forest floor! Now I understand why dogs evolved with spots, and preserved them through all their hybridizing. Camouflage!

We had a long, thorough walk yesterday, which we enjoyed, even though we're both apparently showing our age. I could barely keep my eyes open after I got home, and I had to take an aspirin for back pain from walking so long with my camera bag. And Olga, well, she went practically unconscious for the duration of the day.

It somehow never occurred to me, while walking the dog on the Heath these past few years, that a day might come when we can no longer do it comfortably. Gather ye rosebuds!

The "David Bowie" beetles are back again. This one looks like he/she lost an antenna.

Olga took a few mudbaths during her walk, as usual, but by the time we began heading home she was pretty much white again. I was so happy that I wouldn't have to bathe her, and I deliberately steered clear of a few rivulets and puddles so she wouldn't be tempted. And then...

...she found a hidden bog I didn't even know about. Bath required!

Regarding yesterday's post, I think I gave the impression that summer vacation has started for us. But no -- we still have another week of school. The seniors are finished, and many Middle Schoolers are on field trips this week, but technically we still have students through Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are faculty/staff work days. Then we're done.

As one of my helpful commenters pointed out, even then we're not entirely on vacation. Well, I am, but Dave spends a lot of his time in the summer planning and developing music for the coming year.

Apropos of nothing, I also have to say a quick RIP for my Human Rights Campaign hat, which I bought in Provincetown back in 2010. It was an olive green ball cap with the blue-and-yellow "equal" sign on the front, aimed at the question of marriage equality. (I was wearing it here during my selfie with Olga.) Now that issue has been decided and my hat, alas, is no more. It blew off my head on Saturday as I crossed a bridge over the Thameslink tracks in West Hampstead, sailing over the railing and into the void below. I'm sure it's still lying down there, somewhere, but I'm not risking being hit by a train to retrieve it...and it was worn out anyway. Life goes on!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunny Camden Lock

Dave and I had to go to Camden Town yesterday morning to prove to our landlord's management company that we're in the country legally. It's part of the process of renewing our lease. Like the flat inspection, we've never had to do this before -- but this year they asked us for copies of our passports and visas. I don't know whether these requirements kicked in because it will soon be our fourth year of renting this flat, or whether they've simply tightened their renting rules.

Or does it have to do with the growing populist unease toward immigration and immigrants?


Anyway, it was an easy errand, and afterwards we went to the World's End pub for lunch. The pickings were slim -- the menu had about four items on it. I had a pulled pork sandwich, and Dave had rib ends, which were basically exactly the same thing, maybe slightly less pulled and in a different container.

Then Dave went to the graduation ceremony for the school where we work. He's faculty, so he's expected to be there. I, however, am not, so I took the opportunity to walk back along the Regent's Canal toward home. As you can see above, the crowds were out and about around Camden Lock.

As usual, there was some interesting and lively street art along the way.

When I got to St. John's Wood I popped into Boots for some Sensodyne toothpaste. As I wrote before, I have been having real problems with one of my molars, my "problem tooth" with the gold inlay. It's become incredibly sensitive to temperature changes. The dentist told me to try this toothpaste, so I'm going to give it a whirl. I bought the "rapid relief" variety, in a burst of optimism.

Then I came home, spent some time tidying the garden, and sat on our back bench reading. (I love my new book, "Echo Park" by Michael Connelly -- it's a light, summery page-turner. I'll probably finish it today.)

It may be my imagination, but my tooth does feel less sensitive this morning. Fingers crossed!

Saturday, June 10, 2017


On my way to work the other day I saw these red mylar balloons stuck in the top of this radically pruned tree, flapping energetically in the breeze. Then we had a couple of incredibly windy days and I thought sure those balloons would be somewhere over France -- but no, when I walked past last night, they were still there. Deflated and limp, but hanging on for dear life. They'll probably be there for years.

Plastics -- our modern curse! I guess they're better stuck in that tree than in the belly of a whale.

Dave had a work dinner last night so I came home and watched "The Big Chill" with Olga. I haven't seen that movie in years, and it was fun to watch it again.

Dave and I have been trying to watch the newest season of "House of Cards" this week, but I'm finding that my enthusiasm is lagging. I'm so confused by that show. Part of the problem is that so much time elapses between seasons -- now I can't remember all the characters and I have no idea what's going on. I think it's jumped the shark, along with "Orange is the New Black."

We have just a few days of school left! Three days with students next week -- and even then, they're not around much because they have exams and field trips -- and then two days with just the staff working. The library still has a fair number of books out, but I'm not going to worry about it too much. If they don't come back next week, the kids will have to return them in the fall before they can check anything else out. As Alfred E. Neuman used to say, "What, me worry?"

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Smattering of Politics and Aphids

By now you've probably heard about our election results here in the UK. When will these politicians learn to stop calling unnecessary elections that ultimately don't go their way?!

Dave and I, being newcomers to the British political system, are still unsure what it all means. But Theresa May has certainly weakened her position and that of the Conservatives. I'm not sure Brexit can be stopped, but it looks like we'll now have more of an opposition voice in crafting the details of the departure -- which sounds to me like a good thing. Not to mention more influence for Labour overall, and I am definitely a Labour sympathizer.

I'm also happy because our local MP, who's a Labour representative, kept her seat, and we like her. Whew!

I am cautiously optimistic.

Let's talk about something I do know about -- the garden. Our echinacea plant is larger this year than it's ever been (above) and it's attracted both aphids and ladybirds. Because we don't use pesticides we have several plants that are aphid magnets, but the ladybirds work hard to keep them in check. We bought three echinacea plants a few years ago and this is the only one that survived -- we had to put it in a pot because the slugs went after it with such vigor. And it looks like this year we're going to get a flower!

When I came home from work last night I spent about an hour tidying the garden. I swept up windblown leaves and dead-headed all the roses, and although these blossoms are loose and fading a bit, I put them in a bowl to enjoy for one or two more days. I usually let roses stay on the bush right up until the petals begin falling. Dave, on the other hand, is an over-enthusiastic dead-header -- he chops blossoms off almost as soon as they're fully open. He's like Morticia Addams! I tell him, "Dave, it's called DEAD-heading. The flowers are supposed to be DEAD first."

We asked our landlord for permission to remove a small holly tree at the side of the garden -- it's a spindly and ugly little thing, and it doesn't have enough space where it's growing. We even agreed to pay for it. She said yes, so we'll look into that in the coming weeks. Mrs. Kravitz will be thrilled -- she has complained in the past that the holly drops berries on her trampoline!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Olga the Purebred

Remember how Dave and I ordered a DNA test for Olga? The test was supposed to determine which breeds are in her background. A coworker did it for her dog and found out all kinds of interesting things.

Well, we got the test back yesterday, with the shocking result that Olga is basically 100 percent Staffordshire Bull Terrier. One or both of her parents were probably purebred. And that's all it said -- there was no indication of any presence of other breeds.

Anticlimactic, to be sure, but I guess at least now we know. (Occasionally I get asked whether she's a mix of some kind.) The breed description that accompanied her paperwork definitely describes her to a T: "totally fearless and tenacious...does everything at full throttle," "sees life as one big adventure and lives it to the fullest," "enjoys nothing more than to be around their people."

Yep. That's Olga.

Yesterday I opened the linen closet to get a towel, and a distinct whiff of dog emerged. I realized I'd never washed her pink blanket -- a blanket I used to have on my bed in childhood and brought from my mom's house a few years ago. Olga loves this blanket, and in the colder months it lives on the couch, and she lives on top of it. Well, when Dave's nieces visited a few weeks ago, I just folded it up and put it away for the time being, intending to wash it later, and I forgot. Let's just say it was a bit pungent. The situation has now been remedied.

Remember how I posted about bad book covers a while back? Well, we've weeded some of our library fiction since then, and I'm sorry to say "The Dark and Deadly Pool" did not make the cut. I kept it anyway, though -- it's on my desk now.

What about good book covers? Do you remember any that made an impact on you?

When I was a kid, my mom had a paperback copy of "Player Piano," by Kurt Vonnegut. On its cover was the artwork above. I don't know whose art it is, but I always found it such a haunting illustration. It made enough of an impact on me that I occasionally think about it even now, although her paperback is long gone and I never read it. (Maybe I should put "Player Piano" on my summer reading list!)

(Top photo: The closed buds of an allium blossom in our garden.)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Frog

Here's a little story about the strange places the Internet can take you.

While walking in Soho a couple of weekends ago, I came across this graffiti scrawled on a wall. It sparked something in my memory -- I was pretty sure I'd seen this image before. So I took a picture of it, intending to do some research.

I eventually remembered seeing similar graffiti in a photo from the USA, taken by one of my Flickr pals, Jake Dobkin. I'd marked his photo a favorite years and years ago, and I hadn't seen it in ages, but I went searching and eventually found it.

Jake's picture is from 2005, and indeed it is a very similar image, though his frog is bigger and much more polished-looking. Someone wrote beneath it, "Daniel Johnston!" I figured that must be the artist, and I did a Flickr search for more frogs by him.

As it turns out, there are many -- but mainly all pictures of the same piece, located in Austin, Tx.

So who is this Daniel Johnston? It turns out he's a musician, and he recorded an experimental album in 1983 called "Hi, How Are You." Its cover featured a frog, known as "Jeremiah the Innocent." As Wikipedia reports, the mural in Jake's photo dates back to 1993, when a Sound Exchange record store asked Johnston to paint the frog on the outer wall. The record store is long gone, but thanks to neighborhood activism, the frog remains.

Although Johnston's album is pretty obscure, the "Hi, How Are You" frog had a surge of popularity in the early 1990s, when Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt bearing the image. Here's a photo -- the last one in this inane article on Cobain's height.

In fact, the frog is so iconic in Austin that you can still buy "Hi, How Are You" t-shirts from an online outfit called Officially Austin.

Johnston's album itself can be heard on YouTube. I gave it a listen, briefly. It sounds pretty avant-garde -- as a commenter wrote beneath the video, "I feel like this is how a mental illness sounds like." (Johnston apparently has had some mental illness.)

So, anyway, apparently some fan of Johnston -- or at least his frog -- came through Soho not too long ago and left an homage on a wall. Not a very accurate homage, artistically or linguistically, but close enough that I recognized it, and it led me to learn a whole bunch of stuff I never knew before.

You're welcome!