Saturday, September 30, 2017

Second Skin

I wrote recently about my Doris shorts, and how I clumsily repaired them rather than face the fact that they need to be thrown away. Well, they're not the only article of clothing in my wardrobe that is approaching the end of its days.

Here are a few more examples of things I can't bring myself to throw out -- and in fact still wear with great regularity -- even though they're looking pretty ragged and/or stretched out and/or terrible.

First, my beloved United Nations sweatshirt. Everyone who knows me has seen me in this shirt. I wear it all the time, despite the fact that it's 22 years old. (If it were a person, it would be graduating from college!) I got it on my first visit to New York City in 1995, with my friend Sue. I'd always been an admirer of the UN and when we toured the headquarters I picked this up in the gift shop.

These days it's quite thin and utterly shapeless. But so comfy!

This is the front of a t-shirt I bought when I visited the Watts Towers in Los Angeles in 2006. It's a great shirt but it's developed some holes. Great for sleeping, though!

This is another shirt I wear all the time -- a rainbow parade of Volkswagens. I bought it at a charity shop in West Hollywood about ten years ago. I think it was produced for a gay pride parade or event. It has definitely seen better days.

This poor shirt is so old and stretched out that the logo isn't even straight! I went to Tanglewood -- an outdoor music center and the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- in 2001, right before 9/11. By this time I lived in New York, and I drove up with some friends to spend the weekend. One evening we spread a blanket on the lawn near the amphitheater and took in an orchestral performance, sipping wine and eating cheese. My memory of that time is forever tinged with the disaster that came just a few weeks later. It seems like a sunny golden period before the horrors of the world rushed in upon us.

Finally, another stretched-out, faded t-shirt. I went to Botswana in 2006 with my friend Liz and her pal Jessica. We did a camping tour of the country and saw lots of incredible wildlife, and at the end of the tour we arranged for souvenir t-shirts to be made by a local vendor in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I helped coordinate the t-shirt design and order, and it was a nightmare, with everyone's different design ideas and specifications for colors and styles and sizes. And then the vendor did a somewhat haphazard job of filling the order, and some people got shirts that did not make them happy. Mine, fortunately, came out fine.

I don't plan to get rid of any of these items right away. What's wrong with a few holes, after all? But I have to face the fact that, like my Seven Mile Grill shirt (which I also still have, by the way), they're going to self-destruct sooner rather than later!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Held Hostage by YouTube

Last night I fell into one of those black holes on YouTube where one video leads to another and before you know it you've wasted two hours of valuable time when you should have been asleep, like most responsible working adults.

I had fun, though. Holy cow.

I started with this song from the Eurythmics, which Dave and I came across last night in an episode of "The Sopranos." I loved it when I heard it on the show, without knowing who it was, and did some quick research to track it down. I might have known the incomparable Annie Lennox was behind those vocals. Turns out that although it reached No. 11 on the British pop charts, it was mysteriously never released as a single in the United States, which is why I never heard it when it came out back in 1999.

Then I slipped about 15 years farther back for some vintage Eurythmics. And then I changed the pace entirely by watching a lithe Joni Mitchell strolling through a wheat field in the '60s, and teaming up with Mama Cass and Mary Travers for a TV appearance. Those videos were already in my YouTube favorites, but I came across a new one of John Denver and Mama Cass singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane." And that brought tears to my eyes, with both of them long gone, and way too young.

And then I listened to Peter, Paul and Mary sing "Early Morning Rain," which might be the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, followed up by a stunning rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

And then I got into the '80s and listened to Peter Schilling and INXS and Wham! Let me just say, the video for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is the gayest thing I have ever seen. How were we not aware at the time that George Michael was gay? I remember loving his earrings, but what is up with those mini-shorts? And those "Choose Life" shirts? (They apparently have nothing to do with an anti-abortion message; they're meant to be "a comment against war, death and destruction.") And then there's this Wham! video, which I'd never seen but also hits pretty high on the gay-o-meter, Speedo and all -- the presence of the girls notwithstanding.

And then there's Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which is possibly the weirdest music video ever made -- and ripe for a hilarious parody.

Anyway, it was well worth wasting two hours of time, but now I'm going to be tired at work.

(Photo: A narrow side street in Hampstead. The panel on the ground bears a Roald Dahl quote: "Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.")

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Taking a Knee

Someone asked yesterday how I felt about the "taking a knee" controversy among football players and entertainers in the United States. (In case you've been living under a rock: It's become a method of protest for some NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. Our esteemed president has suggested that doing so ought to get players fired.)

My blog pal at 37Paddington has already addressed this far more eloquently than I ever could. I'd suggest you read her short post, because it's basically how I feel.

I don't understand why kneeling offends people so much, honestly. I'm not a very nationalistic person and actions like waving the flag, saying the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem have always made me a little uncomfortable. What are we, zombies?

When I was a reporter and I attended public meetings that began with the pledge, I always left out the "under God" sentence, and considered it my right to do so -- just as anyone has a right to say or not say the pledge, kneel or not kneel during the anthem, express themselves (or not) however they like.

I remember being at a baseball game in the late '80s with a friend. As we stood for the national anthem, my friend was wearing a baseball cap, and an older man behind us snarled: "Take off your damn hat!" We both thought it was so absurd, but my friend complied. Admittedly, that's not like kneeling -- we were simply being careless, not speaking out against injustice -- but it illustrates how touchy people get about these things, and how perplexed I am when they do.

The fact is, the United States has some real, lingering problems with race and justice, and acknowledging those problems seems pretty patriotic to me. Pretending the problems don't exist, on the other hand, and falling in line to pose single-file, hand-over-heart, identical and mute doesn't really do anyone any favors -- does it?

So I say, kneel away. Speak up. Protest.

The most bothersome aspect of all this is the President's use of the issue to throw red meat to his (white, racist) supporters and call for retribution against the protesters. That's what should offend us.

(Photo: A door in Hampstead, last weekend.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Few Updates, with a Geologic Mystery

My cold is slowly, slowly getting better. It's not a cold any more, in fact -- it's secondary sinusitis, the congestion, headaches and face pain I often get after a cold. I almost scheduled a doctor's appointment yesterday, but I read the NHS web site and they advise waiting 7 to 10 days for the problem to take care of itself -- and indeed I am feeling better this morning, so maybe that's a good sign.

Remember the book for parents of gay kids that we ordered for the library -- for which the bookstore mistakenly (or not) substituted a religious tome advocating celibacy? Well, after that kerfuffle, they finally sent the correct book. We got it yesterday. So I'm glad that ordeal is over. They insist the earlier shipment was just a wildly unlikely and inappropriate error.

I sorted out my wayward expense payment, too. It was in fact sent to our closed account, and the bank sent it back two days later -- but the school hadn't noticed! When I pressed the point on Monday the finance department found the returned payment and said they'd send it to me again, at the correct account this time. It's not there yet, but I suppose that's too much to expect.

You may also remember that while walking the London LOOP near Purfleet a couple of weeks ago, I found a section of riverfront along the Thames where shiny, glass-like stones were scattered. I picked up one of these "stones," which, as you can see, isn't a stone at all but some kind of artificial substance. What I didn't tell you at the time is that I asked some locals what it was, and they said it was an industrial product from an old nearby factory -- and it's mildly radioactive!

They said it wasn't dangerous, and I was skeptical about its alleged radioactivity. To solve the mystery I took it to school on Monday (which I obviously would not have done if I thought there was any danger) and asked the science department. They tested it with a Geiger counter, and indeed it's perfectly safe. A teacher told me it's "thermoplastic resin," similar to a bowling ball. There sure is a ton of it on the beach.

(Photo: This tree in Hampstead changes color earlier than all the others around it, and it really stands out. I blogged it last year too.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

More Negative Scanning

Here are some more old pictures from my negative archives.

First, some loungers in Central Park, New York, in 2005 or so. I remember this day -- I believe it was April, on probably one of the first warm, sunny, spring days of the year, and the whole city seemed to be outside.

When I lived in Morocco from 1992-94, I collected silver Berber rings. This was my collection, modeled on my own hand. (The negative has some damage, as you can see.) I still have four of my rings, but I almost never wear them. I gave some away in Morocco and sold some others after I got back to the states.

The area where I lived in Morocco was known for its whimsical metal doors. Here's a good example.

This is my cat, Armenia, in my apartment in New York. I remember buying those flowers because they were so peculiar -- they're called spider flowers or Cleome.

In 2005 or so I went to Miami with my friend Arne. We visited Vizcaya, the old James Deering estate on Biscayne Bay, which is open to the public. This is a shot of the garden through one of the windows.

Another Miami Beach shot from the same trip. What a groovy mural! Depicting Apollo pulling the sun across the sky, the work by artist Jack Stewart was recently the subject of a preservation campaign. The building is gone now, but apparently the developers who tore it down saved and stored the mosaic pieces.

When my friend Sue and I went to visit our mutual friend Arthur in Portland, Oregon, in 1996, Starbucks was still something of a novelty (to us, anyway). Sue used to carry this stuffed sheep in her luggage whenever she traveled. His name was Fred. Apparently, like any good Oregonian, he needed some caffeine.

Some Art Nouveau tile on the wall of the Paris metro, in March 2000.

And finally, an apparently accidental self-portrait from atop the Empire State Building in 1997. Hello!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Adventures in Metal Detecting

Yesterday morning, I got out the instruction booklet and assembled my new metal detector (quite easily, surprisingly). And then I grabbed a trowel and I went out into the garden and detected for a couple of hours.

You'd be amazed how much stuff is out there. But when I say "stuff," what I really mean is "junk." Unidentifiable bits of rusty iron, broken metal piping, nails. My prize find was this bottle cap, which was about two inches below the sod and apparently isn't that old. (It's for a Brazilian beer called Brahma, just FYI.)

You can tell the detector what you're looking for -- jewelry, coins, or "all metals" (which to me sounds like a nightmare of old screws and aluminum pull tabs). I set it for coins and it went off many times. I narrowed my search to the strongest signals and eventually dug three holes, based on the detector's report that something resembling a coin was 6-8 inches below the soil surface. I did not find any coins.

Don't worry! I'm not giving up! But I did tell Dave that I was going to think twice about digging any more than a few inches down, because you know, that's just too much work. I want my Saxon gold and Roman denarii to be lying right under the grass. Is that too much to ask?

Then I spent the afternoon working on photo archiving and negative scanning -- an apparently endless process. I was looking for several specific shots, and I found all but one of them, plus some others I'd forgotten about. Time for another old photo post!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Autumnal Heath, and Jaws II

On Hampstead Heath, we're starting to see just a touch of fall color. It looks very autumnal, doesn't it?

I took Olga to the Heath even though my cold is still hanging around. Now it's all about congestion in my sinuses and chest. I honestly can't tell whether it's even still my cold, or something else entirely like a sinus infection. I don't have any kind of fever, so I presume it will clear up on its own. Meanwhile, I'm not going to take a London LOOP walk this weekend, as much as I want to. I'm going to stay home and rest.

That will give me a chance to archive my photos from the past month or so, a process that always seems to take a couple of hours. I weed out the ones I don't want and store the rest on a portable drive.

Maybe I'll also have a chance to new metal detector! Yes, I have officially joined the ranks of crotchety old men. Dave bought me several early birthday gifts (my birthday isn't until November) and knowing how intrigued I am by the BBC show "The Detectorists," one of them is a metal detector. Woo hoo! He also got a Go-Pro camera (we may eventually see Olga's walks from her point of view, on "Olgacam!") and some new pajama shorts to replace the sadly depleted Doris shorts.

I feel guilty because I didn't buy Dave anything for his birthday in June. I took him out, and I told him I'd get him a drone or some new kitchen gear, but he never chose and I never pressed the point. Every time I try to get him something for the kitchen on my own, it turns out to be relatively useless. I'm a hopeless judge of kitchenware.

Anyway, last night we had a '70s movie extravaganza, watching "Jaws II" and "Airport '77." Pretty much my ideal movie-viewing experience. I remember going to see "Jaws II' with my friend Tony at the Varsity Six theater in Tampa in 1978, when I was 11, and I'm not sure I've seen it since -- but darned if I didn't even remember some of the lines. It's scary what the brain retains at that incredibly impressionable age.

(Photos, both taken yesterday: Top, Olga on the Heath; bottom, a close-up of a pigeon feather (I think?) found on the Heath.)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

My Missing Expenses

Remember how Dave and I both got our Indefinite Leave to Remain this year? The process in which we had to pass the "Life in the UK" test and jump through some other bureaucratic hoops in order to stay in the country?

Well, that process created some incidental expenses (study guides, test registration, passport photos) which our employer agreed to reimburse. So a few weeks ago I filled out an expense report, attached my receipts and turned it all in to the finance office.

Several days later I got a pay stub saying my expenses (about £95) had been paid by bank transfer. But the money didn't show up in my account. Well, I figured, I'd wait until my paycheck came -- maybe it would be included in that. But it wasn't.

So yesterday I went to the finance office and learned that the payment should have shown up immediately. In checking the account number, the finance guy realized he sent the payment to a different account. I assumed it must have been our old Barclay's account, which we closed in July 2016. This filled me with dread because it meant I had to call Barclay's again, and dealing with them is always incredibly painful. I thought perhaps the account wasn't closed properly and now had my money sitting there.

So I called Barclay's last night, and it was painful -- but not as bad as it's been in the past -- and the old account is in fact closed and has no money in it.

So, the bottom line is, where did my £95 go?!

Of course this all came to light on a Friday, so now I've got to wait until Monday to pursue the mystery further.

Stay tuned as, in the coming week, we try to unravel the tangled threads of modern British banking...

(Photo: A discarded plastic castle / toy kitchen unit (?) outside a house in Hampstead. Every time I see things like this in the trash, I'm filled with despair. All that plastic headed to a landfill, where it will linger for a million years -- and for what?)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Saving Doris

How's my cold, you ask? Well, I'm not sure. I feel like I'm past the phase of "active illness," but I am still congested as all get-out and coughing like crazy. So I don't know what's going on. Either I'm just clearing out my body after defeating the bug, or I'm courting a secondary infection.

I had planned to walk another segment of the London LOOP this weekend, but I'm not sure I'll be up for that. I won't rule it out yet, though. Let's see how today goes.

I think my Doris shorts are on their last legs. A big hole opened up in the soft, 23-year-old cloth the other day, and it wasn't along a seam. It was right over my thigh, showing a clear deterioration of the cotton. This is not a surprise, as old as they are and as much as I wear them, but I'm not sure I'm ready to give them up yet. Last night I sat down and sewed up the hole as best I could. My repair looks terrible -- like a four-legged brittle star crawling up my leg -- but it may prevent the fabric from tearing any more. Maybe I can get one more year out of them.

(Photo: A racing car and bicyclist at an auto yard near Erith, South London.)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

North Korea

I've been thinking about North Korea.

Of course I've been thinking about it for weeks now, off and on, though some of that "thinking" has actually been simply living in denial and pretending the whole situation isn't happening.

That's pretty much been the world's approach to dealing with North Korea, hasn't it? Close it off, pretend it's not there. Dismiss it as a tiny, isolated rogue state run by an authoritarian desperado.

In my defense, the North Korea problem is so big, it's hard to see what I, as an individual, could do. Worrying about it all day doesn't serve much purpose.

But I'm beginning to think that the best way to approach North Korea, on an intergovernmental level, is to do exactly the opposite of what the United States and much of the Western world has been doing for decades now. And definitely the opposite of what Trump is doing. Threatening Kim Jong Un is only going to bring on more aggression -- and unfortunately Trump seems incapable of responding to aggression with anything but aggression of his own. They're like two seventh-grade boys in a playground dispute, lacking the maturity to put a stop to it before they come to blows.

I think the United States should open diplomatic relations with North Korea. Kim Jong Un is basically a child throwing a tantrum. He wants to be seen, to be recognized, to be respected. Hostility is the only vehicle he understands to attain that goal.

America's continuing efforts to isolate him, to pretend he's not there, to tighten the sanctions that make his people suffer, are counterproductive. That attitude just makes him angrier.

So I say, let's give in. Let's talk to the guy. At this point, what have we got to lose? Not talking to him seems to carry a much higher potential cost. The United States needs to better understand North Korea, and North Korea needs to understand Americans as well. (My thinking on this point was influenced by, among other things, this excellent recent article in The New Yorker, which highlights our decades-long lack of communication as central to our current problems.)

This is assuming North Korea would respond to a diplomatic overture from us. I think they would. I think it's exactly what they want.

Trump's threat to obliterate the nation is, to put it mildly, not helpful. America should open diplomatic dialogue ASAP and, over time, involve North Korea in international discussions aimed at peaceful coexistence. I'm not sure it's an entirely attainable goal -- Kim Jong Un wants to unify the Korean peninsula under his regime -- but it's better than the status quo.

I don't see how talking to them hurts the USA in any way, except that it could be said North Korea bullied us into it. And frankly, I don't care about that. We must admit that they are now a force to be reckoned with.

Is Kim Jong Un a tyrant? Has he abused the human rights of his own people? Yes, but America has diplomatic relations with plenty of other tyrants. That in itself is insufficient reason not to talk to North Korea.

Diplomacy is the only way to head off the lunacy and posturing that will only edge us closer to planetary annihilation. Unfortunately, Trump has shown little interest in diplomacy in general. So I'm not optimistic about where that leaves us.

(Photo: Shadows in our living room.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Boston Baked Beans

Last spring, sometime toward the end of the school year, a mysterious bag of beans wound up in the library lost and found. Contained in this nifty canvas pouch, the beans were clearly marketed at tourists visiting Massachusetts.

"Take home the taste of Olde Boston," read the bag. On the opposite side, above a simple recipe, it continued: "This recipe for truly authentic Boston baked beans will remind you of the wonderful time you enjoyed in Olde Boston. For a great meal just follow these easy directions."

How these beans crossed the Atlantic ocean only to wind up abandoned in the school library, I'm not sure. But when all the students departed for the summer and it became clear no one was going to claim them, I took them home.

A few weeks ago, while uncharacteristically trying to clean off the kitchen counter, Dave decided to make them. But when he looked at the recipe, he realized that it called for molasses, and that is not an easy thing to acquire in England. At least, not that we could find. He ordered some from Amazon, and we waited a few more days for that to arrive.

Finally, last weekend, Dave was ready to begin cooking.

This is what was inside the canvas pouch -- a garden-variety grocery store bag of navy beans. Never mind that these cost something like $1, while enclosing them in canvas elevates the price to $8. Everybody knows tourists buy silly things at exorbitant prices.

Dave cooked up the beans, which took an astonishing six hours. (Not including soaking time!) As I told him, even if we didn't pay for the beans themselves, they were hardly free -- between the cost of the molasses and salt pork, and the power required to run the oven for that much time!

Still, they were yummy. I was most impressed. I haven't been to "Olde Boston" in about 10 years, but I guess this counts as a virtual trip. All courtesy of some careless student!

(By the way, although "Olde Boston" in this case refers to Boston, Mass., there is a Boston in Lincolnshire, England; the American city was named for it. I guess we could call it "Reallye Olde Boston." And I ate my Boston Baked Beans in the English style -- on toast!)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

More iPhone Curiosities

Since I was trapped indoors yesterday, mostly reading, I don't have much to blog about! So here are some more recent photos from the ol' iPhone.

First, the shadows are lengthening on my morning walks with Olga!

This strange, 2001-like monolith appeared on Finchley Road. I have no idea what it could be. I thought it was some kind of parking meter, but I don't think there's parking along this stretch of road, so that seems unlikely. Stay tuned!

A rather sad collection of free stuff on a bench outside the West Hampstead library...

I love that someone wrote graffiti outside the train station as "The Fare Evader." Not particularly skillful graffiti, though.

This medallion is on the exterior wall of a local auto supply store, but I have no idea what it refers to. I've tried Googling and come up with nothing. I'm not sure how long this shop has sold auto supplies -- it may have been something else in an earlier life. Any ideas? (*See addendum below)

I do know what this stands for -- the Zoological Society of London. Also known (at least by me) as the Sloth Car! When I was taking the photo a woman walked up and unlocked the doors. "I bet this car gets a lot of attention," I told her, and she agreed!

Finally, Dave bought a loaf of Warburton's bread recently that was the tiniest bread loaf I've ever seen. The slices were scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand. (I have biggish hands, but not gigantic.) I used it to make tiny sandwiches, which is pretty much all you can do with tiny bread.

*Addendum: The intrepid Jenny O solved this mystery! The LCS wreath is the mark of the London Cooperative Society, an organization that linked independent grocers, department stores and other retailers across the city between 1920 and 1981. Thanks, Jenny!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Crashing Through the Shrubbery

I took Olga to Hampstead Heath yesterday. Even though I've had this cold, I was feeling OK and I thought the walk would do us good.

We saw some asters in bloom (top). They're a late-summer flower and they're still abundant. I've been seeing fewer bees and butterflies -- another sign of the season changing -- although yesterday I saw a pair of red admirals on our butterfly bush.

Anyway, Olga was feeling super-energetic. I know I always talk about her running and running on the Heath, but in order to show you what this is actually like, I created the following video. Be warned that it's very quiet at the beginning -- all you can hear is the click of her dog tags as she's running in the underbrush -- and then I call out to her twice. (I just don't want that part to startle you!)

She's such a goofball.

Unfortunately, I don't think that walk actually did me any favors. I feel pretty terrible this morning and I called in sick. Maybe if I stay in bed all day (while someone else walks Olga!) I'll get over the hump with this cold.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pointing the Way

Well, my cold has settled into my nose. Mild, but super-annoying. I took the dog for a couple of walks yesterday but otherwise stayed on the couch reading and watching movies. We watched the cinematic equivalent of comfort food -- old favorites "The Shawshank Redemption" for Dave and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for me. Dave made me promise not to shout all the audience responses during "Rocky," but I did it in my head.

Anyway, I want to show you some of our local street signs, featuring fingers conveniently pointing the way to a nearby destination -- a larger street, maybe, or a public building.

Aren't these great? I tried to do some research to get some history about them, but I wasn't very successful -- so I don't know how old they are or if they are still maintained when, for example, a tile is broken or goes missing. I would guess they date back 100 years or so, which seems to be the age of much of the housing stock in this area.

I also can't remember whether I've seen them in other parts of London, or whether they're just a Hampstead (and West Hampstead) thing. There used to be a Borough of Hampstead, before it was consolidated into Camden in the mid-'60s, and maybe the fingers were a consistent feature of street signs in the old borough. That's all speculation; I just don't remember seeing them elsewhere in town.

Sadly, some of them have seen some damage.

To make things even more interesting, the design of the hands can vary from sign to sign. Some tiles feature a bigger hand with a more open palm. I don't have any pictures of those, but there's one here.

Anyway, just one of the curiosities of my London neighborhood!

Saturday, September 16, 2017


This is our kitchen windowsill at the moment. Do you like Dave's method of storing apples? Kind of sculptural, right?

Yesterday was a bizarre day. First there was the dud bomb on the tube train, which fortunately didn't do more damage. It rattled everyone, and a witness was quoted in the newspaper despairing that "nowhere is safe." But I think rather than feeling like we're all in danger, we should consider that everywhere is mostly safe. Yes, there is a modicum of risk, but walking down the street or riding on the tube, the odds are still overwhelmingly in our favor. I don't want terrorists to get more mileage out of this kind of activity than they deserve. (And yes, Dave and I rode the tube home.)

Then, to add to the bizarreness, we learned that a chilled giant iguana was found earlier this week languishing by the side of a highway in Scotland. Fortunately, he was rescued.

Dave and I had planned to go to the annual school trustees' reception last night, which was being held at Christie's auction house in Westminster. But I'd been developing a sore throat all afternoon, and Dave didn't really want to go, either, and the dog was so happy to see us when we got home -- so we just decided to stay put. I'm glad I did because my throat got much worse. I think it's just a cold, but I'm sucking on Strepsils like there's no tomorrow.

I learned a new expression this week. A couple of ninth-graders who came to my desk for one reason or another got excited about something -- I can't remember what -- and one said, "That's so clutch!"

"Clutch?" I asked him. And yes, it turns out, this is a thing that people say now. People his age, anyway. According to the slang dictionary, one of its definitions is "conveniently awesome."

As the kids left the library, I heard them laughing about my ignorance of the teenage vernacular.

"Generation gap," one of them said.

And since this is already such a strange mishmash of a blog post, let me throw in this photo, which I took from Google Street View. I happened to be checking out the street scenes in a little town on the Colombia-Peru-Brazil border called Leticia -- this was after reading a news story about native tribes in that area being endangered by gold mining. Street View happened to take me past this shop window, which I found pretty funny -- the gaudy flower arrangement, the assertively positioned mannequin. (If you'd also like to visit Leticia virtually, the shop is here. There's a second mannequin, also well worth a glance.)

What can I say? I'm easily amused.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Making Up Stories

Did you ever try to write fiction?

I've done a little fiction writing, but it was almost all decades ago, when I was a college student. I think I took a course in creative writing, because I have a couple of short stories from 1986 saved in a yellowing file folder that were obviously graded by a professor. But I have no memory of the class, or who the professor was. Sad!

When I was in eighth grade, I wrote a short story about a talking dog. The teacher liked it. I still have it. I will spare you any details because I can't quite bring myself to read it.

In high school, I entered a writing competition with two poems and a short story. As I recall, the story was an overwrought melodrama about a couple fighting in a hotel room in Istanbul. There was a lot of alcohol and screaming and breaking glass. What's funny about this is a) I had never been to Istanbul; b) I had never been in a serious relationship; and c) no one in my family drank much, so I had no experience with messy drunkenness.

So much for the age-old advice to "write what you know." I was just making stuff up. Still, I won the prize. I'm not sure anyone else entered.

Apparently I didn't save that story, because it's not in my yellowed folder. In college, though, I wrote a similar one with the lackluster title "A Night At Their House." It involves, unsurprisingly, a couple going to dinner at another couple's house. The men are business associates trying to work a deal, the women simply hangers-on. (So much for feminism.) The female host is a messy drunk who fails to provide any dinner at all and slings insults with abandon.

An excerpt:

     They walked up the long sidewalk to the front door and were just about to knock when, with a terrific cry of "Darling!" the door was flung open and a dark-haired middle-aged woman threw herself into Joe's arms, sloshing chablis from the glass she carried.
     "Well, hello, Linda," said Joe, looking embarrassedly at his wife.
     "Oh my God, did I spill something on you?" said Linda, pulling herself up on somewhat wobbly feet. Without waiting for an answer, she said adoringly, "Marilyn! How wonderful to see you again," and kissed her on the cheek. Marilyn smiled with great difficulty.
     "Linda, how are you?"
     "Well, I'm just fine!" She looked at Marilyn's clothes with red, disapproving eyes. "That is, until I saw your dress." And with that, she flounced into the darkened house.

It reads like an obvious rip-off of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But the teacher gave it a B-plus. "I appreciate the scope and energy, and flashes of style and wit, and fairly good ear and good social eye," he wrote. "But, there are blurry spots in the chaos, and Linda steals the show. Intentional? Also, the epiphany is unconvincing."

I also wrote one about a foreign correspondent in Africa who escapes a bloody political coup. Amid fires and looting he sees someone decapitated with a pane of glass (is that even possible?) and finally scrambles aboard an outbound airplane with only his typewriter. Again, an obvious rip-off -- this time, of "The Year of Living Dangerously."

There's also another B-plus paper, a character sketch of Mabel, a bar owner who pulls a gun on a pair of rowdy customers: "This is my bar, and that's my drink, and you two'll be leavin' right now."

It's all fairly terrible and derivative.

I made a meager stab at writing some fiction after I got laid off from the New York Times Company in 2009. But I threw it all out. I discovered I am just not creative enough to make up a truly original story out of whole cloth and keep it going to a satisfactory resolution. I'm better at telling stories about things that really happened. That way, my material is provided for me -- and as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

(Photo: Street art from Rainham, East London.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017


A couple of days ago, I mentioned playing my iTunes on the "shuffle" setting, and several of my commenters said they prefer to play songs alphabetically because they get a less repetitive assortment of music that way. I tried it, and by golly, it is much better. I've always disliked the tendency of "shuffle" to go back to the same songs or albums over and over. So thanks for that tip!

I retrieved our bird feeder lid. It's not worth explaining how, except to say that it involved a long pole and a hole in our fence. I didn't even need to disturb the neighbor again, though I suppose I should go introduce myself to her more fully and at least get her name!

And finally, we got a response from the book store about the book switcheroo. They insist, after investigating, that it really was an honest mistake and not some kind of homophobic message. They're sending us the correct book for free, as well as some vouchers toward future purchases. Frankly, I don't believe them. My co-workers seem more inclined to do so, but I think in the same way that people of color often recognize subtle forms of racism that I don't see, I am especially sensitized to homophobia. At any rate, there's not much more we can do, and if it was intentional on the part of a renegade holy-rolling employee, it will happen again. They can't say we didn't warn them.

(Photo: Moss growing in a sidewalk coal hole lid, West Hampstead.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Garden Mystery, and The Godfather

Still no resolution on the strange book switcheroo that I mentioned yesterday. My supervisor talked to the manager of the store, who said they'd recently expanded into international online sales and had to hire a lot more people, and that these new people have been making mistakes. My supervisor pointed out that this seemed unlikely to be a random mistake and urged him to investigate further. He said he would, and would let us know the outcome. Stay tuned.

I'd still love to flame them on social media, but my supervisor doesn't want to drag the school into a public conflict, which -- as much as it pains me to say -- I completely understand.

Dave and I have had to turn the heat on the last few mornings. Otherwise the house is painfully chilly when we first get up. It's 55ยบ out now, and I'm hearing lots of wind roaring through the treetops.

Did I mention that the top of our patio-fence bird feeder went missing? I went to refill the feeder with peanuts yesterday morning and the lid was nowhere to be found. Spirited away by some spiteful, frustrated squirrel, no doubt. I spotted it last night in the neighbor's garden beneath one of her rose bushes. Now I just need to retrieve it, which probably means knocking on the neighbor's door. Fortunately, this isn't Mrs. Kravitz -- it's the neighbor on the other side, who we barely ever speak to. I don't even know her name. I should consider this a bonding opportunity!

Prompted by "The Sopranos," Dave and I recently decided to watch the "Godfather" movies. I had never seen "The Godfather, Part II," which everyone says is the best one, and although I never really liked "The Godfather," I remember being tired and falling asleep when I tried to watch it many years ago. (It was allegedly my father's favorite movie.) Maybe, I thought, if I gave them a second chance, I would finally see what all the fuss is about.

So we rented them both, and watched them -- not on the same day. I still don't love them, although I agree that Part II is the most compelling. I am just not a mafia-movie person, and they are too darn long. I think we're going to skip Part III, since everyone agrees that it's terrible.

(Photo: A bench along the River Darent, Southeast London, on Sunday.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Panic Mode

It seems that everyone I know has escaped serious damage from Irma. So that's one hurdle leapt, although many, many people are obviously still coping with her after-effects.

I had a completely crazy day yesterday -- so crazy that I had trouble sleeping last night.

First, I was indirectly insulted by a British book dealer. We ordered a book for the library called "This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids," addressing questions that parents may have if their child comes out. A teacher had asked for books on this subject, and this seemed like a good one.

When the order arrived, though, the package contained a Christian book advocating virginity and celibacy. What?!

The packing slip was correct -- so I don't think someone accidentally sent the wrong book. Anyone could tell the information didn't match. I think someone was deliberately trying to save my soul. And my soul does not need saving, thank you very much.

I wrote a pointed e-mail to the bookseller, and received only a bland "we're sorry you received the wrong book" message. They asked for the ISBN numbers, which I provided (they aren't similar). So we'll see where this goes. My friends all think I should make this go viral, but I want to give the shop a chance to respond more fully.

Then, to add more drama to the day, Dave called me just as I was preparing to close the library to say the dog-walker contacted him with dire news. Apparently, during their rainy afternoon walk on Hampstead Heath, a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree (!). Two of the dogs panicked and got out of their harnesses, one of them being Olga. At the time of his call, she was still missing.

Needless to say, that sent me into panic mode. I pictured her running loose in London, trying to cross busy roads and navigate her way home. As many times as we've walked to the Heath she might be able to do it, but it would be a perilous journey. She is completely heedless of cars.

Fortunately, as Dave was talking to me, he got another call -- this time from a man who'd picked up both Olga and the other dog, and took them to a vet where their microchips were read. That's how he got Dave's phone number. The man offered to bring Olga home, and in about half an hour he showed up, with Olga none the worse for wear. He declined our offers of money and wine as a reward.

I'd always doubted whether that microchip would work. At least now I know it does!

I hadn't planned to drink wine last night, but you can bet I did.

Oh, and speaking of self-medication, our neighborhood pot plant has vanished. It was still in the ground on Sunday morning, but yesterday morning it was gone. Someone must have clued in and harvested it. It wasn't me, I swear.

(Photo: Crayford, on Sunday.)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Erith to Bexley

Let me say right off the bat that I feel insensitive blogging about anything other than Irma, given that my family and friends are being walloped. The storm is happening now, but it seems like it's not as bad as first feared. So consider today's post a reprieve from hurricane news.

I walked another segment of the London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP) yesterday. I started in Erith, on the opposite bank of the Thames from where I walked a few weeks ago, and wound past the pub above and through the marshes along the rivers Darent and Cray to Bexley.

The bit along the Thames was surprisingly industrial. There were a few lost shopping carts...

...and some large scrap yards and recycling and waste centers alongside the path. But all I had to do was turn around, so that I was facing the Thames, to see...

...seals! Yes, those really are seals. Two of them. I would have missed them except another man on the path, seeing my camera -- and probably wondering why I was photographing the scrap yard -- pointed them out to me. Thank goodness!

Here's a super-enlargement of the above photo, so you can see his (or her?) flippers and whiskers. Apparently seals are not uncommon along the lower Thames, where they arrive from the North Sea.

The River Darent was largely an open, muddy expanse. But the River Cray, once I'd moved away from the Thames, became much more overgrown with vegetation and reeds. It flowed through a combination of residential and industrial areas. (Do you see that big sunflower in the picture above? Very impressive!)

In Crayford, I came across these metal cows, frolicking in a pasture at Shenstone Park. The cows commemorate a herd that lived here beginning in the 1840s. Their manure was used to help fix dyes used in silk printing -- an industry that apparently put Crayford on the map.

And farther along the path, I passed two ornate cast-iron lamp posts. They're the last surviving remnants of an old theater, and date from the 1880s. They now stand guard over an automotive garage.

From there, I walked through woods and fields to get to Bexley. Along the way I had a little diversion: I looked to the side of the path at one point and saw a small briefcase, or a big purse, about ten feet up a hill toward the edge of a very busy road. I could tell immediately that it was probably stolen and discarded there. I debated what to do, and decided to climb up to get it.

I was right. It contained car keys, passports and other documents. The papers were a bit moldy, so it had probably been there a while, but the passports were in a plastic baggie and seemed fine. I touched it as little as possible and didn't look at the contents beyond pulling the bag open for a quick glance. I decided to take it to Bexley and turn it in to the police.

Well, you'd think finding a police station in Bexley would be easy, but here's a fun fact: If you put "Bexley Police Station" into the maps app on an iPhone -- even while standing in Bexley, London -- it directs you to the police in Bexley, Ohio! Not helpful!

I asked a couple on the street if Bexley had a police station, and alas, they said no -- they directed me instead to Bexleyheath, a 15-minute bus ride away. So I went there and turned in the bag -- the police seemed appreciative, though one officer was put off when a spider climbed out of it. Then I took another bus back to Bexley and had a cafe lunch before catching the train for home.

I can tell these LOOP walks are going to provide no end of adventure!