Friday, December 7, 2012

The story I wrote for Lionel

I know a boy and his best friend is a lion.  It’s a real lion too but even though he has sharp teeth and long claws, he never hurts the boy because they are best friends. 

One day, the boy was almost too excited to eat his dinner.  Why was he so excited?  Because that morning, the lion had whispered in his ear that he was going to take the boy on an adventure when everyone else in his family was fast asleep.  He couldn’t tell his mommy or daddy or brother about the adventure and he didn’t want to give it away so he forced himself to eat six small pieces of chicken, four pieces of broccoli, and three spoonfuls of potatoes.

He said he didn’t want any dessert and his mommy gave him a funny look.  Then he said, “Is it time for bed yet?” and his mommy gave him a really funny look.This was something new!  Before she could ask him if he was sick, the boy raced down the hallway and started putting on his jammies.  His brother just looked after him and said “I’m not crazy! I want dessert!”

The little boy sat in his bed surrounded by all his stuffed animals and clutching his lion really tight.  He knew that later on the little lion would become real.  He didn’t think his daddy would ever finish reading stories!  Finally, his mommy and daddy kissed him and his brother good night, turned on the wave machine and the nightlight, and closed the door.  Now the boy just had to wait for everyone to go to sleep.

He waited.  And he waited.  He could hear his parents puttering around in the kitchen.  He could hear his brother re-arranging his animals and straightening his blankets.  “Go to sleep!” the boy said.  “Geez Louise,” said his brother.  “You sure are acting peculiar today!”

Oh brother, thought the boy.   I mean really:  Oh brother!

Finally, finally, the house was quiet.  The little boy snapped his eyes open when he felt hot breath on his face.  The lion was snuffling nearby.  The lion put a paw on the boy’s bed and smiled a toothy lion smile.  His mane was twitching with excitement.  “Come on!” he whispered.  The boy grabbed his big paw and the lion set the boy right on his mane.  He pushed a button on the wall next to the boy’s bed and the ceiling slid open to the night sky.  “Hey!  I never noticed that button before,” said the boy.  “Just installed it,” said the lion casually, and then he sprang straight up into the air, through the hole in the ceiling, and into the night.

The next thing the boy knew, he was high up in a pine tree which smelled all fresh and kind of Christmasy.  “Did you close the ceiling again?” asked the boy.  “I don’t want my brother to get too cold.” 

“Oh, I made it so that it would close automatically,” said the lion.

“But can we get back in?” asked the boy.

“Shhhh,” said the lion.  “Let me worry about that.  You have to make an important decision.”

“What decision?” asked the boy.

“Well, see all these pinecones,” explained the lion.  “You need to pick the one you want to go inside.”

“I can’t fit inside a pinecone,” the boy sputtered.

“Let me worry about that too,” said the lion calmly. 

Wow!  thought the boy.  This guy can take care of anything!  He looked around at all of the pinecones.  How should he pick one?  Should it be big?  Small?  Heavy?  Light?  In the end, he picked a medium one.  Just right.

“Excellent,” said the lion.  “Now close your eyes.”

The boy closed his eyes.

“Now put one hand on your tummy.”

“Huh?” asked the boy.  He wanted to peek but he kept his eyes closed and since the lion didn’t say anything else, he put one hand on his tummy.

“Now put the other hand on your left ear.”

The boy giggled a little but did as he was told. 

“Now curl your toes under, press your knees together, blow air through your nose and sneeze.”

The boy thought this was pretty crazy but when he was trying to do all those things, he suddenly sneezed!  And when he opened his eyes he saw that he was no longer in a pine tree. 

“Are we inside?” asked the boy.  The lion nodded.  “Of a pinecone?” the boy continued.  The lion nodded.  “The one I picked?” the boy asked.  The lion nodded.  “You sure ask a lot of questions,” the lion said.  “Why don’t we take a look around?”

The boy turned and saw a monkey swinging by.  “Well,” said the boy, “where there are monkeys, there are banana trees.”  Sure enough, the monkey was swinging on a banana tree.  “And where there are banana trees, there are rivers.”  Just beyond the tree, the boy saw water sparkling.  “And where there are rivers there are crocodiles!”

“That’s okay,” said the lion.  “Because where there are rivers there are also bridges for crossing over.  Let’s go!”

The two friends set off through a grove of banana trees all of them with one monkey swinging from the branches.  When they got to the river, they saw six crocodiles on the bank.  They all slithered into the water when they saw the lion and boy approach.  “I think they’re scared of you,” the boy told the lion.

“They should be!”exclaimed the lion.  “I’m the king of the jungle!”

“Good point,” the boy said. 

The reached a bridge and started across it.  “Where there are bridges…” the boy began.

“Don’t say it!” said the lion.

“There are trolls,” the boy finished. 

“Grumble bumble grumble,” the boy heard a a grumpy voice say.

“Oh dear,” said the lion.  “You’ve conjured up a troll.”

“What does ‘conjured’ mean?”

“Never mind.  Let’s just see what he wants.”

“Hello troll!” yelled the boy.  “What do you want from us to cross the bridge?”

“Who said I wanted something?” the troll queried grumpily.  “Everyone always thinks trolls are mean and want things and threaten people.  It’s ridiculous!  I’m telling you, we’ve got a bad reputation from just a couple of measly stories.”

The troll emerged over the side of the bridge, lifting one leg and then another over the railing.  He was a very hairy troll with a big beard and mustache, red hair down his back, and hair on his arms, even on his knuckles!

He crossed his furry arms and pouted some more.  “You want to hear my story?” he asked, but he didn’t stop long enough for the boy to answer.  “I’ll tell you,” he said.  “I’m here all by myself.  The crocodiles won’t talk to me, the monkeys throw bananas at me, even the fish look at me funny.”

“I didn’t know there were fish,” the boy said. 

“Well,” said the lion, “where there are rivers…”

“There are fish!”

“It seems to me,” the lion said politely, “that you do want something from us.”

“I’m telling you I’m not that kind of a troll!” the troll said, stomping his feet.  “I’m telling you—“

“I know,” interrupted the lion.  “What I mean is:  you need a friend.”

“A friend?  What’s that?”

The boy laughed.  “You don’t even know what a friend IS?  Boy, do you ever need one!”

“Who would be a good friend for a troll?” the lion wondered.

“Another troll?” suggested the boy. 

“Too much grumpiness all around,” said the lion.

“I’m telling you—“ shouted the troll.

“I know.”  The lion interrupted him again.  “You told us.  But you have to admit you’re just a smidge grumpy.”

“Grumble bumble grumble!” said the troll.

“Well,” said the boy, “where there are rivers and fish and crocodiles and trolls, there are bound to be…”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked the lion.

“There are bound to be mermaids!” the boy smiled.  “Did I conjure one?”

Sure enough, when they looked down at the river, they saw a mermaid sunning herself on a big rock.  “Hello!” she called out.  “My name is Mermus.  I can’t go up on the bridge, but if you live under the bridge, I can be your friend.”

For the first time, the troll smiled. 

“We did a good thing here, but we need to be getting back,” the lion whispered to the boy.  “Your parents will be waking up soon.”

“And finding me missing!” the boy said.

The troll scooted over the edge of the bridge to talk to his new friend.  The crocodiles crawled onto the bank of the river and looked up at the bridge.  The monkeys were all lined up at the edge of the banana trees waving.

“Close your eyes,” the lion said.

The boy closed his eyes and got ready to put his hands on his tummy and ear but then the bear said, “Put your right foot on your tummy.”

“My foot!?!” the boy exclaimed.  “I’ll have to lie down.”  He lay down on the bridge and pulled his foot up to his tummy.  He could hear the river beneath him and the quiet conversation between the troll and the mermaid.

“Now, kiss your knee, smack the bridge with your left foot, and sneeze!”

The boy tried to do all of those things at once and suddenly he sneezed.  When he opened his eyes he saw that he was back in his bed, listening to the wave machine instead of the river and hearing his parents talking softly instead of the mermaid and the troll.

“What happened?” the boy whispered.

“You’re home again,” the lion said.  “We’ll do another adventure soon.  For now I need to un-install this button.  We don’t want anyone else finding out about it!”

The lion quickly erased the ceiling-moving button from the wall.  The boy pulled up his blankets and when his parents opened the door, the lion was small again.

“Are you awake already?” his mommy asked.

“Just woke up,” the boy said, and gave the lion an extra squeeze.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lionel's Story

Once upon a time some paint got spilled all over the animals in the jungle.  It was crazy!  The lions thought they were monkeys.  The giraffes thought they were tigers.  Nobody knew who was who!  The monkeys were chasing the lions, who were really other monkeys!  Finally the elephant put his trunk in the river and got some water.  He cleaned himself off and then he cleaned all his friends.  Now the lions were the monkeys' enemies again and they chased them.  Then again, the ground was now covered with colors.  Part was orange and part was red.  The animals who were in the orange part were orange.  The animals in the red part were red.  And the animals who were in the middle were pink.  No one knew what they were!  Everyone was chasing everyone!  It was crazy in the jungles of Africa.  Finally the elephant called for more elephants to wash the ground and then everyone knew who they were.  Everyone chased the right person. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Odds and bobs, part 5

On our way to Greenwich yesterday, we noticed Lionel having some trepidation about the escalators.  With calm coaxing encouragement, he managed to ride 3 and psychologist Keith figures that with every non-eventful experience, the fear will decrease.  I don't know about Lionel, but it certainly started to diminish for me..  I've been nervous about outings by myself with both boys and just try not to imagine if I had been alone on that other day.
The day of conquering our escalator fears, the boys both had their cameras with them.  I often bring them when I know we will be on the train for a while because in addition to taking pictures, they can use them to play games which keeps them from getting too antsy.  On this day Owen was framing and taking pictures of the attractive woman seated across from him.  She looked at me and mouthed "so cute."  After she left, an elderly man took her place and Owen resumed portrait photography.  "Oh dear," he said.  "You should be taking pictures of pretty people, not a plain old man like me!"  Actually, he had a very interesting face and posed comically.  I can't wait to see the results.  In response to his statement though, Owen swiveled his camera to the woman next to him and took her picture, much to her delight. 

In general, Owen is quite the charmer.  He fancied a little girl out in our back garden and picked a flower to give her.  At another playground he got into a teasing game with another little girl who kept dropping her toy next to him in the sand and then waiting for him to give it back.  He looked at me and smiled, while rolling his eyes:  "girls!"  When we visited Keith's friends Peter and Heidi, Owen left Lionel, Keith, me, and Peter in the back garden to go into the kitchen where Heidi was finishing lunch.  "I'm keeping my eye on you," he told her.  He made eyes at Ilora Finlay, the Baroness of Llandaff, and she blushed, saying, "My word!  What a flirt!"

And in food news.....

I love it that all the cucumbers here are English cucumbers.  I never thought about it before, but in the U.S. you can buy 'regular' cucumbers, the fat, waxed ones, or 'English/hothouse' cucumbers.  The English cucumbers are always twice as expensive as the domestic but I so prefer them to the others.  I'm sure you have seen them.  They are wrapped in plastic, long and thin.  They are not waxed so you can eat the peel, and they are crisper than their American counterparts.  I like to slice them and eat with a little salt.  Of course I add them to salads.  I often give the boys a chunk as a part of their dinner veggie bowls and they love them.

And speaking of salads---a 'salad' here is a bowl of dressed greens.  If you add anything it's quite another thing.  When I cooked for Richard and Tracey, I remember her saying:  "Well, you just put anything in your salad!" and then I realized that every salad I'd been served was mixed greens, mixed with nothing else that is.  I tend to follow in Michael Stumpf school of salads.  Tomato, cucumber, mushroom, of course.  But why not also add olives, artichoke hearts, cheese, nuts, garbanzo beans, baby carrots, and other goodies?  While here, I have discovered the joy of fennel.  I don't know what they use it for here, but I've been adding it to my salad and it's like extra-flavorful celery.

I don't know what to say about pears.  I can find two kinds in the grocery.  One is simply called 'pears' and the other is called 'conference pears.'  I'm not much for fruit in general so I'm not a conniesseur of pears but still, I cannot tell the difference between these two kinds.  They are both shaped sort of like a bosc but are the color and texture of a d'anjou.  There are no big fat plump pears, no red ones.  The variety of apples is limited also.  Maybe those fruits are more North American than I realized.  Or maybe it's because I'm not here in the autumn.

 In Greenwich we visited the British Maritime Museum which was fun for the boys but too rushed for me to actually take anything in (the problem with visiting museums with the boys in general).  Then we had lunch with Griffith and Sue Edwards.  Keith has worked with Griffith for many years and several years ago we stayed in their 17 century home.  They are quintessentially British.  Griffith was hard to understand when I first met him, but now he's quite a bit older and has suffered a stroke.  After we left, Owen said:  "That old man was really hard to understand.  He just sounded like 'mwah, mwah mway wa.'"  True. 

Keith asked Sue how it was gardening with all this rain.  Her response, so British:  "Well one doesn't garden, does one?"  It puts the whole thing out of anyone's hands. 

Because we are so far north, the sun rose today at 4:43 and won't set until 9:19.  This makes it incredibly hard to get the boys to sleep at their usual time of 7:30 and to get them to stay in their beds until their usual time of 6 in the  morning.  We've put cardboard over the window but there's just no denying the birdsong and the light creeping through.  By the time we get them up in the morning, Lionel says:  "Did you know it's been morning for 2 hours already?"  And we haven't hit the longest day of the year yet:  June 21. 

Speaking of time--the last time I was in Greenwich was when I realized the true meaning of 'Greenwich Mean Time.'.  Duh, I know, but part way through a tour of the Greenwich observatory I did a mental forehead smack.  So, while we are in London, we are not + or - any hours.  We are ON Greenwich Mean Time.  I don't know why, but that's kind of cool.

And speaking of time again--we somehow have only 4 weeks left in England!  But that doesn't mean the action stops.  We look forward to a weekend in Somerset and nearly a week in Leicester. 

In addition, Keith and I will have a dinner date at 'his club':  The Anthenaeum, a gentlemen's club, now accepting ladies as well, that dates from 1824 and boasts as former members Thackeray, Dickens, 52 Nobel Prize Honorees, and others.  Keith has been a proud member for several years (put up for membership by Griffith Edwards and also Roger Bannister, the first man to run the 4-minute mile, and others) and when he goes to London, which is fairly frequently, he often stays there, uses the facilities to meet with people and goes to dinners and events.  I have heard so much about it and cannot wait to actually see inside the fabled doors.

AND, on our last Saturday in London, we will take the boys out to friends in northern London, take the train back into the city and see a matinee in the theater district and then train back out to have dinner with our friends and take the boys home. 

3 date nights in 4 months!  I'm dizzy!  (Although I suppose one is a date afternoon...)  AND, tomorrow I get to go back to the National Portrat Gallery for another visit with the incredible Lucian Freud portraits.  Date nights and dates with art.  But no date nights with Art (whoever he is).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Parental instincts

When something happens suddenly, one learns about oneself by the instantaneous decisions undertaken  without consciousness. 

The other day, as we were returning from an afternoon in northern London, I was preparing to get on an escalator with Owen inside a tube station.  Suddenly I heard Lionel's fear cry from up the escalator.  Immediately I started running up the steps.  As I looked up I saw Lionel and Keith tumbling backwards, Keith's hat flying off.  I had to get to them.  Half-way up I realized that I had left Owen at the bottom in the middle of a busy tube station and I started trying to run down.  Turns out it is nigh on impossible to go down an up escalator and then I slipped and fell.  I turned quickly and saw that Keith and Lionel appeared to be upright so I stopped and urged Owen to climb on by himself.  A man came up behind and assisted and then I fell off the end of the escalator because I was looking down and didn't realize it had come to an end.  Finally we were all at the top, standing and whole.

My hands were shaking.  The adrenalin had complelely overwhelmed me.  All I had accomplished was getting myself banged up and stranding Owen but I could no more have stopped myself from leaping after Lionel than I could stop my heart beating.

When the man who escorted Owen up the escalator got to the top, he admonished me, "You really have to watch your footing on these." Um, yeah. Thanks.

What happened, I learned, is that Lionel lost his footing and started to fall.  Keith instictively threw himself under as he was falling so that Lionel essentially landed on Keith's arm and shoulder.  He had a small abrasion on his chin but that's all.  Keith, however, had wrenched his shoulder and knee and had landed so hard on the steps that both of his knees bore the bloody imprint of the treads--this through a pair of heavy jeans.

We  limped home, transforming into another parental mode:  spin control.  Keith said, "Boy, that wasn't very much fun.  Let's not do that again!" and the boys laughed.  Though we both felt somewhat traumatized we didn't want the boys to fixate on it and didn't want Lionel to feel guilty about it.  We examined Keith's wounds in private and he sat in the bedroom icing his swollen knees out of sight.

Reflecting later, I imagined with horror what it must be like to be a parent in a war zone where your children are constantly in danger and exposed to violence and death.  It's important to be grateful for the little things, but it's also important to be grateful for the very big things. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Two dates with art (not the dried fruit!)

On Sunday, I had an art-date with myself at the National Portrait Gallery, specifically the Lucian Freud exhibit. I set out early on the path specified by the London Transport website which was, I'm sure, as accurate as it could be. Still, by the time I was making my way to the bus stop, I was a little confused about which side of the street to stand on.  It was a brilliant clear day which made it hard for me to read the signs and the street was empty.  Suddenly, out of the shadows, stepped an older man dressed in blue.  His gray hair was long and smoothed down around his ears in what seemed like an old-fashioned debonair style.  His eyes were blue and very kind.  "May I help?"

He got me oriented; turns out he was waiting for the same bus.  To make conversation, I said, "It's a beautiful day."

"Yes," he said, pursing his lips, "but it's just wrong.  It shouldn't be like this at this time of the year.  It's completely off."

I agreed, thinking of global warming, etc. 

"All anyone thinks of is that it's a nice day," he continued.  "I'm a gardener.  I can read it in the gardens.  The daffodils came up and withered under all this sun.  In the right weather for this time of year, you can have a month or more of daffodils.  No.  In Augusta, for the Masters, they had no azaleas!  They tried wrapping them and refrigerating them.  No.  They always have azaleas then.  No."  He shook his head grimly.

"And the water!  Even with all the rains, we don't have enough."

"The earth can't soak it up?" I ventured.

"That's it.  When the ground is dry the worms all go down to where the water is.  You can tell there's enough water when the badgers start digging to get to the worms.  And of course it's terrible for the birds too who are trying to raise their young and can't get any worms to feed them."  He tsked.

I felt that this man loved the earth and was as connected to it as anyone I've ever known.  Our bus arrived. 

"So you like art?" he asked because I told him I was going to the National Portrait Gallery.  He pointed out a small gallery as we passed it, then said, "Lucian Freud used to live right over there.  Terrible gambler.  Terrible.  Used to see his brother Stephen down to the pub but not so much anymore.."

A brief pause as passengers boarded.

"Course he had the money to gamble, didn't he?  He sold his paintings for millions.  Now it's the footballers make all the money.  No one needs all that money."

We approached his stop and he gave me a sly look.  "I prefer the art in nature," he smiled.

Well, on that day, I preferred the art of Lucian Freud--a special exhibit at The National Portrait Gallery.  Previously, all I knew was that he was a grandson of Sigmund Freud and that he made portraits.  That's putting it mildly---his portraits are both incredibly realistic and deeply psychological.  In some the paint is layered so thickly that the art approaches sculpture.  In all, the variations of skin tone are acutely observed.  They say he painted 7 days a week with several paintings going at once to accommodate the various sitters.  He'd work on 'day' pictures in the morning and afternoon and then work on 'night' pictures after dark.  The night pictures were illuminated by bright electric lights which made for dramatic shadows. 

Many of the portraits are head and shoulders, but he also made many very large nudes, including one of an obese woman sleeping.  That one holds the record for the highest price paid for a piece of art by a living artist.  He was still working right up to his death at the age of 88 last year.  The exhibit concluded with a nearly finished portrait of his assistant and dog. 

Although he worked relentlessly, he somehow found time for 2 marriages followed by many, many affairs.  He is said to have fathered up to 40 children although I think only 10 or so are acknowledged. 

On the next evening, I accompanied Tracey Logan to her recital with the London Philharmonic Choir.   I've been in a few choirs, including one large one at Michigan State which performed Handel's Messiah.  This was MUCH MUCH more!

The rehearsal was with a guest conductor for the upcoming performance of Carmina Burana.  If you know the piece, you know that there are some very dramatic choral surges.  Amazing.  And what was more amazing is that the group could pinpoint a spot in the score from a cold start and 3,2.1: LA!  right on beat and in tune.  Then flip forward 5 or more pages, pinpoint, 3,2,1: lo....  As I was the only 'audience' member, I felt the full force of it coming at me.  Wow.

When I introduced myself to the music director, I mentioned that my great grandfather was Carl Nielsen, a famous  Danish composer.  Well---murmur, murmur, murmur---this news made its way around and I felt that I was suddenly afforded a level of respect certainly beyond what I deserve.  Carl's youngest twin sons, Ivan and Thorvald, came to the U.S. sometime in the 30's.  Thorvald is my father's father, but my father was adopted so I can't claim a real 'blood' relation although I was very proud of my name!

 I'm feeling artistically nourished to my roots--just enough water and sun for this gal.

Monday, May 14, 2012

odds and bobs, part 4

While we were in Cardiff, Keith and I were able to see a performance of Henry V put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company. We left the boys in the care of a woman who is a mother, a grandmother, a physician, and a Baroness.  Nothing but the best for our boys!  The play was really well done, and funnier than many versions (like the Branagh film version).  They really played up the fact that Henry V was Welsh and made much of Flewellen, a comic Welsh character, both of which, not surprisingly, played well in Wales.  We got to bed at nearly 11 pm---probably the latest we've stayed up in ages.  "If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek!"

The yolks in the eggs here are a much darker orange and are tastier.  Is that because of the chickens' diet? Are British chickens somehow different (superior)?

I am enjoying some of the British expressions.  I bump into some guy on the street (happens to the best of us; happens to me more than to most) and he says 'oh, sorry luv.'  Now, it wasn't his fault, but what a wonderful response!  I mean, he doesn't love me or even know me but I feel so much better after that encounter than after someone saying "Watch where you're going!"  Even the completely polite, "Excuse me," doesn't have that warmth AND can be said in a lot of tones and various inflections, some of which are quite nasty.  In general, the British are more casual than Americans about throwing around terms like 'luv,' 'dear,' 'darling,' and others.  I'm sure some of these words can be used in snotty tones, but so far I've not experienced it.

It's interesting to see how products we are used to seeing in the U.S. are renamed here.  I'm sure it's because of trademark and export/import laws or somesuch.  Frosted Mini Wheats are called 'Mini Max' and there is a character on the commercial so likeable that Owen actually took a marker to his cereal trying to recreate him.  Goldfish crackers, the old favorite that Grandma always had on hand, are called Finz here.  Conveniently, there is the exact same packaging so the boys can easily pick them out in the grocery store.  It's interesting also to see which products have 'jumped the pond' and which haven't.  No Cheezits.  Dang it.

The other day I passed a restaurant called 'The Proper Hamburger.'  Didn't get a chance to sample, but I am curious just what the Brits would consider PROPER.  I'm guessing there is little relation to the American-introduced Whopper or Big Mac.

I've been thinking about the book I read  and the movie I saw about Julia Child.  Because her husband was in the foreign service, she had to close up house and begin again over and over again.  My moves in the recent years have not been as dramatic, and I'm not a culinary equal by any stretch, but I have had the experience more often than I want of transferring kitchens.  When one is moving across town, things are a lot more simple.  You can take food in a cooler if need be.  When you are moving across the country and your stuff will spend a week on a truck, you have to get rid of everything that can spoil.  When you are moving to another country for 4 months, you have to get rid of almost everything but canned goods.  The experience of trying to gracefully run out of almost everything while still feeding your family is an adventure of which I have had enough.  The experience of building up a new kitchen is much more fun but remembering that it will be closed up again soon puts a damper on the excitement.  I'm happy to say confidently that I will go through most of the things I've bought for this kitchen.  And there will be a few things I'll try to take on the plane...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Tour of Parliament

A Baroness friend of Keith's arranged for us to have a private tour of the House of Lords. Unfortunately they had just gone into recess and most of the chamber was undergoing revamping in preparation for the Queen's address and so we didn't get to see everything. Just seeing the preparations was enlightening. So much has to be changed just for a very short visit from the Queen. All the pathways where she walks have to be carpeted blue. A room on the way from the Queen's robing room to the chamber where she will speak was in the process of being transformed into a pathway flanked by seating for VIPs and family. The robing room includes a royal loo and a trapdoor for escape if a Guy Fawkes-esque plot should emerge.

Some other highlights:

We were in the Westminster hall when our tour guide, a security/policeman named Anthony casually mentioned:  "That's the fireplace of Henry VIII."  Of course, since Westminster Hall was built in the 11th century, it had been the fireplace for many other royals as well.  Currently you can see the arc of what would have been the mantle with stairs going down to what would have been the base.  It's immense, as it would need to be to heat an extremely large hall made mostly of stone.

Originally the hall had wooden beams along its length  but in the 14th century, these were replaced with freestanding wooden arches.  It's still holding up the roof today.  At some point they realized that the aptly-named death-watch beetle had been making a snack of the wood.  There were holes in the wood big enough for a man to crawl into.  These were filled with some sort of metal.  As we looked up at the remarkable ceiling, Anthony pointed out one small segment of wood that had been replaced.  In 700 years!  One small piece of wood had to be replaced!  They just don't make houses like that anymore. 

On the floor of the hall are many brass plaques marking so many historic events.  The trial of Guy Fawkes.  The trial of William Wallace.  The lying in state of Winston Churchill (despite not being a royal), various royals--most recently, the Queen Mum.  Our host told us that when the current Queen dies, she will be the last to lie in state here.  Don't know if that's true.  After the monarchy had been restored sometime in the 17th century, they dug up Oliver Cromwell, who had been dead 2 years, and tried him there.  He mounted little defense and was declared guilty.  Then he (his body) was hanged, drawn and quartered.  Overkill?  Literally.

On display was a large stained glass window that will be presented to the Queen on the Diamond Jubilee and then installed at the very front of Westminster Hall.

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the parliament building.  Most of the rest of it burned in the late 19th century. "Tally sticks" had been used by the exchequer to keep track of debt.  When a loan was given, a stick was marked in a way to indicate the amount of the loan.  Then the stick was halved and each party kept one.  When the debt was repaid, the sticks were matched and burned.  Once, however, more people were literate and the system moved to paper, there were a lot of tally sticks which needed to be disposed.  Here's Charles Dickens on what happened next; 

"... it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighborhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the paneling; the paneling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof."

So, most of the building was re-built in the late 19th century, which makes the chambers a 'new' building, which is hard for my American self to take in.  But then when you look at the stone walls built in the 12th century...well...

Also surviving the fire, under Westminster Hall;  The Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft.  It was completed in the 13th century and is still used for weddings and such.  The incredibly beautiful font, from the 13th C, is still there and still used for christenings and baptisms.  I wish I had been allowed to take a picture.  The chapel itself is fairly small, although ornate, and was used primarily by the royal household and court.  For some time it was used as a stable and other less elevated functions until it was revealed to have survived the big fire and was restored.

Back to the House of Lords.....  Not all of it was burned as we learned when our guide told us that we had entered Henry VIII's nursery.  Around the top of the wall were portraits of Hank and all of his wives.  Not sure when those were commissioned or installed.  I can't imagine Henry himself commemorating wife after wife after they were deceased (she said politely). 

I'm sure there's more, but that's all I've got for now....

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Answering Email

Keith was complaining about how much email he gets, specifically requests for letters or reviews or to speak. He decided to give Owen a chance to answer a few for him. (Specifics have been changed--Owen's answers are verbatim.)

Keith: Owen, can I give a talk on May 25?

Owen looks up from his coloring: That's not possible.

Keith: What if they pay me 500 pounds?

Owen: Well, that's an okey-dokey then!

Keith: Can I give a talk in California right after we get home?

Owen: That's silly!

Keith: Can I go to a meeting in June in Cambridge?

Owen: That's not possible right now.

Keith: What if they pay me a dollar?

Owen:  That doesn't make any sense.

Keith: What if it's important to me?

Owen: Well, that's up to you then. Why are you asking me?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

London Guildhall, part 2

As the last part of the Guildhall tour, we went through an art museum there with lots of HUGE paintings and also several large sculptures. Our guide informed us that the larger-than-life standing statue of Margaret Thatcher was behind plexiglass because at one point a visitor had picked up a guidepost marker and knocked her head clean off! She still inspires quite strong feelings. After our tour through the Guildhall, Keith's friend took us to the office of the police for the City of London (again--this is an approximate square mile in the heart of what is called London). There we met Matt, the policeman and dog trainer, who gave the boys some seriously cool boy time. First he showed us the dogs: Billy the bomb sniffer, and Asa the drug sniffer. These dogs live with him, in his back garden, and come to work with him every day. It's clear that they have a very tight relationship. He let Asa out first. He was a beautiful black lab who immediately started sniffing at the hems of our pants. Since Keith's friend had just given the boys shoulder bags with assorted loot, I joked that hopefully nothing had been planted on them. Thankfully, Asa decided we were all clean. Then we met Billy, an English springer spaniel who was VERY excited to be out and about. He immediately started sniffing the vehicles nearby (we were in an outdoor garage type of area). Billy came and said hi but was totally into the experience of his nose. Once Matt explained how things worked, he put Billy back in his crate and then showed the boys......get ready...bombs! Matt brought out some real C4 plastic explosive and showed us all how moldable it was. The boys had to put on gloves to touch any of this stuff because Matt didn't want their smell to get onto the tools they use to teach the dogs and definitely didn't want to get the smell on them. He made sure we weren't about to travel abroad anytime soon because any dog would fix on them. Matt showed us a model of the bomb that was used in the tube on July 7, 2007. It was a backpack with a reach around sort of tube that had a button on the end. The whole thing was worn on a person's back with the trigger in their finger. One of the bombs was packed with pepper and the other with flour. When I told this to my friend Tracey, she understood why her bags of flour going from England to Ireland got so much attention at airport security. Matt and the boys hid a bit of C4 in the bumper of a truck---completely out view---and then he let Billy out. He put Billy on the lead to let him know he was working and then started him at the beginning of the garage. Very quickly Billy went to the bumper. Matt had told us that he might bark but instead he came up to the spot and then threw his head back over and over, in a very human-like gesture. Basically: It's over here! It's over here! Then he was rewarded with his favorite chew toy. Next, the boys got to hold a real gun--again while wearing plastic gloves. Matt made a show of removing the clip and bullets and instructed them to hold it pointing down at all times. They both remarked on how heavy it was. British police don't carry guns in part because there aren't handguns everywhere. When they have a violent crime involving a gun they can often pinpoint and find the exact gun--often with the help of the dogs. Matt then had the boys take turns wearing police protective gear. The heavy vest went down to their feet and the helmet completely covered their head and shoulders. They looked very proud and fierce nonetheless. Then he showed us special shields with an electrical charge. These are used when the police confront a violent dog but they don't actually shock the dog. They put out a zap and the sound combined with the change in the ozone smell causes the dogs to back off. Pretty sure this was slightly irregular, but the boys each got a turn holding a shield and pushing the button to cause the zap. Matt warns: 'Don't point it at your parents, lads.' Pretty cool afternoon of boy stuff. Finally, Matt gave them each a lapel pin with the police insignia and suggested they wear it when we fly home and show it to the police and dog handlers at the airport. I'm pretty sure my little superheroes in training have got enough fodder for many hours of play and many nights of dreams.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Guildhall, City of London

Through another friend of Keith's we got a personal tour through the Guildhall of the City of London, one of the oldest structures of the city. The story is that Brutus came to London and defeated the two giants of the city, Gog and Magog. Then he shackled them to the gates of the city and left them to defend the city. Inside the Guildhall, we saw statues of Gog and Magog. As Karen said, well, I guess you have your Halloween costumes sorted... The Guildhall was a place for the trade unions (as they were then) to connect and lobby and exert power about the standards of their various trades. There was a set measure of length that anyone could use to measure against. And then, pointed out to me, was another in the metric system --"just so you know we're modern." As our tour guide wittily put it, the building had been 'redecorated by the Germans in 1940.' Since then it's been rebuilt with as much of the original stuff as possible. But someone had forgotten how to make glass so some of the windows, still there, are made from clarified cow horn. How resourceful! He showed us the place where official meetings would happen and where, as he put it, "her madge" would sit and where she would come in, etc. Apparently he's half Scottish and (according to Keith) this is his irreverent poke at the Royals. Later, when I was looking at a painting of a royal gathering, he said: "I think that's Liz One." Of course I immediately thought of Liz Gifford! Liz One to me! Then we went down to the old crypt which was from the 12th Century. It was under a very important building and so no one wanted to dig it up until.....oops! There's that dang Roman Coliseum. Eventually the city came to an agreement with the scholars and archeologists which was that they would excavate a portion of what used to be the coliseum, animate it, and let it stay open to the public. The rest would stay buried under prime London real estate. What we saw when we went down there was really incredible. There were almost holographic images of people wrestling (they chose the more gentle coliseum events to stage) and tiers of seats. When you walk into the room, you hear the sounds of crowds and you walk over hard glass coverings over remains of the actual--the ACTUAL--Roman stones of the ACTUAL Roman walls. AD 47 I'm sorry--I don't mean to be shouting at you. It's just so incredible to be looking at walls that were built thousands of years ago. Built so well, mind you, that we can still look at them! Anyway, my sense of wonder aside... I've seen other Roman remains, by the way, and they have the same affect on me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Samir Bhana

I first met Samir Bhana when he was a 9 year old boy whose father was a grad school classmate of Keith's. He was a sweet, polite, boy from South Africa, hungrily taking in everything about America. I saw him last week for lunch. A 30 year old man studying for his MBA in London. Still sweet. Still interested in the world. He described his travels to Japan and all over Europe. And he talked about coming to America. I asked: 'Do you remember when the power went out because of the ice storm? "Clearly." And you were so cold? "Clearly." Keith and I came over with flashlights (torches) and candles and blankets. Do you remember? Big smile. "Clearly." In the time that we knew the Bhanas in Illinois, I learned to make proper tea from Asha and I wish I had learned more recipes. We had such wonderful meals at their house! They lived in the faculty housing, especially for international students. Samir tells me now, 19 years later that it was a good experience. He was excited to go to America. Mayur, his younger brother was too young to understand that their father was gone just for a while, not forever. Oh the joy when he saw his father again in Illinois! And what a strange place to be....he had just been told that the reason he couldn't have a bottle anymore is because a monkey took it. No monkeys in Illinois....


A week in rural, western Ireland? Don't mind if I do!

Several years ago, Keith was interviewed by BBC science reporter Tracey Logan. On subsequent of his trips to London, he became friends with her and also her husband, Richard. Now the whole family is in London and we managed to wrangle an invite to their vacation home in Rosmindle, Ireland.

I first met Tracey and Richard about a week and a half after we'd arrived when they had us to their house in Chiswick for lunch on St. Patrick's Day. Tracey and I got along splendidly and after another lunch (just the two of us) it was easy to see that we could enjoy a week together. When it had first been proposed to me, months ago in California, I had been a bit skeptical. A week in a small house in the middle of nowhere with people I've never met? Hmmmm.... It worked out brilliantly.

Tracey turns out to be the sort of person who says things like: "I dismiss decaf and all it's empty promises." Or: "Ever since I got that pep message from my Weight Watcher's leader I've been wanting crisps."

We flew from Gatwick airport to Knock, Ireland, a pretty small place which has an airport only because a priest decided to make it a pilgrim destination after someone saw the Virgin Mary in something. Tracey and Richard picked us up. We drove from Knock (very small city) through rural areas to Westport (very very small city) and finally to Rosmindle (hamlet) and then to their house outside that on the end of a spit of land facing Clew Bay which feeds into the Atlantic. I erroneously reported that their house was named Rosmindle but that's not the case. However, their house has no number and their 'street' has no name. I asked how they got mail delivered. They said they went to the post office and introduced themselves and told them where they lived.

What a lovely stone house! Most of the windows look out on Clew Bay or the finger of land across where sheep and cows graze and make their farm noises. We were there not long after many of the new kids were born---super cute little bits of fluff tottering after their mums. As often happens to me when I go to places that are supposed to be overcast (my favorite type of weather) we had unseasonably sunny days. Everywhere people were commenting about it and all I could say is: "You're welcome."

Because of the great weather we had fantastic views. An old schoolhouse on the island across the bay was perfectly reflected in the water, shimmering white. Even with a lot of sun, there were still clouds moving across the sky all day. Ireland is very moody. What I loved about being so far out is that the landscape was hugely uncluttered. I could look out and see nothing but natural features. When we were driving around we did see some areas of mc-mansions but for the most part it was just engulfing beauty.

The small town of Westport has a square of streets with shops and pubs and farther out some terrace houses and cottages. On a couple mornings when Tracey had business in town, I went in with her and just wandered around for an hour. What happiness! My favorite thing! Tracey and I took turns cooking dinner so I also ducked into the grocery store and the produce shop for fresh ingredients. For Keith's birthday I made sea bass with an olive tapenade sort of topping, rice pilaf, asparagus with Parmesan and a green salad. On one night Tracey made a traditional Irish stew with mutton and she routinely made Irish soda bread, scones, and tea bread. A yummy time was had by all. Or, as they say here, "Scrummy!" In addition, Tracey had stocked up on local homemade goodies, including fresh butter, cheeses, and an amazing rhubarb and ginger jam.

 On one day I went with Tracey and Richard to County Galway to a research institute on the coast so Tracey could interview a scientist about using seaweed in food. For tagging along, I also got to taste some. Dillisk (or Dulce) sort of tasted like lettuce. The one called lettuce seaweed tasted like cucumber. There was one called chili seaweed that did indeed leave a slow warmth in your mouth. Another looked like fat wholewheat spaghetti and tasted like udon noodles. I could absolutely imagine cooking with this stuff. What we tasted was literally straight out of the ocean and probably doesn't resemble the stuff found in markets. The scientist had also made varieties of a traditional Irish pudding (can't remember the name!) which tasted a lot like Spanish flan. There are a lot of health benefits from eating seaweed so it's great to find ways of including it in staple foods like bread. There will be a half hour radio show about this and I'll try to link to it when it's out.

On the way to the seaweed experience, Richard and Tracey and I stopped for a lovely crab salad lunch in Clifden, a picturesque small town with residents huddled under awnings drinking coffee or beer and enjoying the fresh air. We drove by a huge fjord and through mountains and valleys, passing people cutting turf for fuel out of the vast boglands. There were lots of sheep--some of them meandering on the road--and cows and horses in pastures.

 The boys loved the two beaches we visited with tide pools to explore, rocks to climb, and sand to build with. And they also had fun on the afternoon we went to visit Tracey's cousin, his wife, and their 3 kids. Their backyard was practically its own playground with a trampoline, swing set, teeter-totter, small wooden house, and soccer goal nets. We sat in their beautiful, large kitchen and had tea with sandwiches and pastries. I can definitely get into the ritual of afternoon tea--but oi! the pounds!

On the day we flew out of Knock, there had been an emergency landing at Gatwick which meant all the flights were delayed. We had to sit in the tiny departure lounge with all the other stranded travelers which is when, I'm pretty sure, we all contracted a cold.

There were a pair of 3 year old twins near us and I was struck with how much easier life has become with the boys. They were a little younger than those 2 boys when we moved to Virginia. What a huge amount of work that was, I thought. At that point our guys were doing great....however, by the time we were in the taxi and it was almost 10 pm, full meltdown had begun. At three they probably would have fallen asleep on our laps. At five they were yelling and demanding. When we had all just been sitting still trying not to breathe, Owen came out with: 'Don't touch me!' and Lionel, no where near him started crying and screaming "I didn't!' Keith and I just murmured and whispered and gently directed them into their beds. Within 5 minutes they were asleep. Whew. Still, no question. A week in rural Ireland? Yes thank you! Loved it!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Odds and bobs, part 3

In observing the differences between Americans and the British, I'm learning about myself, namely, my Americanism. I think I'm going along being myself and that I would be myself no matter what but being American has shaped me--not just in the way I talk. I know that the influence of culture is not a revelation. I wonder what sort of a person I would be if I'd grown up somewhere else. How much of me would still be here?

Commercials during cartoons here are heartbreaking! "Emma used to run and play. She liked reading books. Now she's going blind...." or "There are only 35 snow leopards left in the wild. She survives the harshest winters only to be ruthlessly hunted by poachers...." or (picture of a beagle looking out a window) "I know what it's like to love someone who doesn't love you. I loved my owner. One day he left and never came back..." They're all asking for money. I guess the strategy is to get the kids to beg the parents and who could refuse?

It's quite aesthetically pleasing that all electrical wires are underground. It wasn't until we were in rural Ireland and I saw a few wires that I realized I hadn't seen any before.

I've been noticing some differences between the twins that seem to be fairly solid traits. Of course they have sort of traded traits in the past so I could be wrong. Lionel wants to hold hands and Owen sometimes has to be coerced. When we are walking around an airport or other crowded place, Lionel takes care to make sure we are all together. Owen wanders off. In their roughhouse play, Owen is most often the aggressor and likes to play fight. This was even true in utero--poor Lionel was born with bruises on his back from Owen kicking him!

Owen informs me that he has planned an escape for Tubby, Keith's childhood (and adulthood) teddy bear. Tubby is currently inside a box in a storage pod in San Jose. Owen says to Tubby: "In one of your sleeves is a pair of scissors for opening up the box and in the other sleeve is a plane ticket." Now if only he can get to the airport...

One calls ON a number and lives IN a street.

If I think of the pound as a dollar, things seem mildly expensive. When I add the 60% exchange--blimey!--this is an expensive city/country. A large (600 gram)box of Cheerios costs 2.75 pounds. Seems reasonable. But that translates to roughly 5 dollars! For a box of cereal! And plain cereal at that. Rice Crispies will run you close to 7 bucks. And Cheerios here are from Nestle. Aren't they a General Mills cereal?

While the boys haven't developed an accent, they have started using some of the different colloquialisms. They'll say "mind that bush." I love hearing them talk about 'getting sorted.'

The London Eye

The London Eye is basically a Ferris Wheel on a gigantic scale. Instead of a seat for 2 or 3 people dangling their legs, the Eye is made up of oblong transparent compartments that hold around 30 people who can sit on a bench or mill about taking in the 360 degree views.

It took me half a day to get tickets for the London Eye. That's not the norm (I assume!) but that's what happened to me. There was some sort of problem with my address. Zipcodes here are very specific. The first part (W11) gives the general area. Somehow the second part (2NS) pinpoints our actual flat. The website had a function to search for the actual address. The options were 26a or 26 Lansdowne Crescent. Neither one worked. I eventually ordered by phone and the fellow on the other end was kind enough to give me the internet rate.

But then.....we arrive at the London Eye. There are people queuing all over the place and no clear signage. Keith opts to take the boys to the loo while I pick up our tickets. I spent about ten minutes in the wrong line until the person in front of me asked someone which line they should be in. Turns out I should be in the same line. Another huge long queue. There was the option of using a machine to print out your tickets using your reservation number and name but it didn't work for me---again the address problem. Behind me in line was a woman wearing an adorable baby. She spoke English and French and was with the baby's grandmother who spoke only French. Fun to listen because i could actually understand the daughter-in-law--probably because she was speaking 'learned' French and slowly. They left to use the machine.

Next up, a young couple. The woman had done the Eye before. She told me that there was another queue after this one but promised that it would move quickly. She also said that it was great that it was sunny because one of her friends had ridden the Eye on a cloudy day and couldn't see anything.

I remarked to Keith that the British were supposed to be known for politely queuing. He pointed out quite correctly that almost everyone there was not British.

The final queue did indeed move quickly. The wheel does not stop moving when you board. It is rotating slowly. At one point they open the doors and let the previous passengers walk onto the exit ramp and at the next stop they usher a crowd forward and then lock the doors. We could see everything. I purchased the mini guide which showed the view 360 in day and night. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament were the most obvious being so near by. We could see Buckingham palace in the distance, Charing Cross Station, boats along the River Thames, etc. The whole experience takes about 30 minutes which is plenty of time to enjoy the views and the cool shadow of the Eye on the river. I bet it would be a great experience at night. Keith wondered if anyone had ever gotten married on a ride.

Included in the ticket price was a trip to a 4-D experience. We lined up in the dark wearing the special glasses. There were the usual 3-D images but it became '4-D' when a bubble popped and we felt water on our face. Steam swirled at another point.

This day was quite harrowing with the crowds and the bright sun. Oh, and a mutinous Owen mid stair-way coming out of the underground. I kept trying to get to the railing to go down stairs safely but inevitably there would be a crowd stopped to take a picture that I would have to go around. Also, because I wasn't moving fast enough, people kept zipping around me which caused me to go even more slowly. Grrrr. This is an instance where using the cane would be helpful because it would indicate to other people that I'm struggling. I really need to carry that with me and whip it out more often.

While we were waiting for our train home in the underground, a little boy (2-ish) suddenly reached over, grabbed Lionel's shoulder, and shouted "HI!" Lionel was completely startled and moved down the bench. Owen moved down and Lionel moved even farther away. i sat down and said HI! After talking to his mother I learned that he speaks Italian and the only English word he knows is hi! "HI!" he shouted again. His mother is Italian and his father is from Mali but for some reason he looked like my niece Gem and I'm pretty sure she has no roots in Italy or Mali.

Also at the V&A...

The jewelry room: very dark except for the lighted displays of jewels. I'm proud to say that I only bumped into two people and it was their fault for wearing black. It's astonishing to realize that these elaborate tiaras and necklaces and rings actually were worn by real people to actual events. Glittering, teetering women and posing men. I also enjoyed seeing something more ordinary: a chatelaine. This is a sort of belt worn by housekeepers and landladies. Since most dresses did not have pockets, they wore this contraption from which dangled various useful household items such as keys, scissors, a thimble, a purse for coins, etc. I thought briefly of Snyder from One Day at a Time.

Design through the 20th century: Chairs, tea sets, lamps, radios, cabinets and more through the 20th century. For some reason it makes me happy to see these things and imagine the daily lives of people from another time. I find it easier to imagine sitting down to tea in a side chair next to a radio in the 1940s than to imagine wearing a gigantic frock and pounds of jewels. I'm really more of a chatelaine type of gal....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Victoria and Albert Museum

On April 5 I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design. Knowing that the boys would want to race through gathering pamphlets and that I would want to linger, Keith agreed to stay with the boys.

Once I arrived and looked at the map I was so excited....that I needed to find a bathroom ASAP. (I'm sorry--I know that's TMI. But because of this I saw the museum in fits and starts as I walked swiftly about looking for a toilet.)

It's amazing how much gold and silver and frocks and sculpture and jewels and gemstones and paintings and tiles and tapestries and design artifacts one can find in this building. Bathrooms: not so much. Partly my dilemma was my fault as I am basically incapable of reading a map correctly. However, I also blame the complete lack of signage. Even asking guards for directions wasn't very useful. "Go past the silver, turn right at the lion. There will be a staircase. Don't go up it, but nearby will be a wooden door. Just through there." Finally, after I'd encountered the same guard a couple of times, he sighed and walked me to the door. Teeny weeny sign. Inside the door, no signs, all white, stairs going down. I go down one level and find a door for the gents. No signs. Down another level and I find a handicapper level. Down another level and I see a sign to exit for the cafe. Having started on the 3rd floor, I was now in the basement and still no bathroom in sight. I inquired of a couple of women adjusting their jackets and they pointed to a door under the stairs. At last! But no.....there were only 3 stalls. One was clogged and 2 were occupied. Oh, will I ever get to see the museum??? Of course, eventually.

Okay, Victoria and Albert may or may not have been great rulers. They (well, their minions) were without a doubt incredible collectors and as their legacy the museum continues gathering and presenting artifacts. One of the most remarkable exhibits was a temporary one showcasing a very large cape and a shawl made from the golden silk of millions of female orb spiders. The time consuming process of removing the silk involves capturing individual spiders and placing them in a contraption that holds them still. Then a worker pulls their silk out all day. I couldn't gather from the short movie what happened to the spider after her ordeal. Did they let her go? Could she live a normal spider life after being debauched in such a manner?

The 'harvesting' of the silk and weaving of these gorgeous garments was accomplished in Madagascar over a period of 8 years. From the 'short sharp science' blog: "Weight for weight, typical spider silk is 20 times as strong as steel and four times as tough as Kevlar. It's also extremely flexible, stretching up to 50 per cent of its length without breaking. Silk is also biodegradable and does not elicit an immune response, which means it could be put to a range of uses within the human body." All in all, spider silk seems like a great resource. How long before PETA (or PETI?) become involved?

Like much of the V&A, the first floor is pretty boggling to walk through. A long sculpture gallery is flanked by exhibits from various parts of Asia. I was weaving in and out but I'm sure I missed some marvelous little room with an incredible little nugget of perfection. At some point I will learn how to post pictures here. In the meantime, I'm posting them on facebook.

Just a quick note: this museum was incredibly treacherous for me. Steps without warning. Large hard things looming everywhere. Children running underfoot. I just walked very slowly---which is not in my nature(unless I'm staring at a piece of art)
and little children ran around me and almost over me (well, over my feet). It's interesting getting used to being the woman that kids will secretly laugh at. I don't begrudge them--I was the same way--and I can let it roll off.

The 3rd floor is where I wanted to be. There I saw a wonderful display related to performance art----costumes, programs, posters, props, etc. At the end there was a place for trying on costumes. I will bring the boys back for that. They can dress up like Frog and Toad. And other fabulous things. One poster made me stop in my tracks: it was for an opera written by Carl Nielsen, my purported great grandfather. I once bought a CD of his music and Nielsen was spelled wrong. It was clearly right on this poster and so validating to see!

This is for you, Gal Friday: there was a hallway devoted to sketches and watercolors by Beatrix Potter. Super sweet. Some were of the characters with which you are familiar. Some were sketches of landscapes, etc. Very nice. I tarried awhile.

I will have much more to tell,but that's it for now.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Some thoughts on walking around with limited vision

It's been hard to describe my visual experience to others. People often underestimate and overestimate my limitations. To random people in the world, I'm sure I look crazy weird as I try to navigate stairs and shadows. To people who see me in my familiar settings, I appear completely free of disability.

A few months ago I had my yearly appointment with a retina specialist to get the latest information on the degradation of my retinal cells. No surprise--things are worse. But when I was talking to the specialist in this field and tried to describe my problem with stairs he didn't understand what I meant. As this is one of the signal difficulties I experience with RP (Retinitis Pigmentosa), I assumed he would be familiar with this and would have heard similar complaints from other patients. Nope. This just underscored to me the fact that every person experiences RP differently, which also makes it feel more difficult to explain the experience, and makes me feel more alone in my experience.

Lighting makes a huge difference. On a foggy or overcast day, I can navigate much more easily. On a sunny day every shadow feels like a looming tree branch or eave about to crash into my head. I've bashed my head enough times to be wary. Walking into shade feels like walking into an abyss. There could be flat sidewalk ahead or stairs or a hole. This is when I start to look crazy as I walk about. If I suddenly duck when there's nothing there (except a shadow) I look like the lady who talks to herself. Scanning about for signals like railings or stripes I will tentatively step forward. Most likely, I am talking to myself at that point which only adds to the craziness. I bump into people a lot. I am unintentionally rude in art museums because if I'm focusing on a piece of art I cannot focus on someone else's line of sight.

I have absolutely no ability to discern where steps start and when it is the last step. This has been the most hazardous aspect of RP so far. And it's been hell on my shoes because I have to tap forward to find the next step going up and bang my heel backwards when going down stairs. Have you ever had the experience of thinking that you are at the bottom of the stairs and then discovering, with a thud of your foot, that there is one more? That happens to me often when I am in an unfamiliar setting. Have you ever tripped on an unexpectedly lifted bit of cement? That happens constantly to me. It turns out you can't look down at the ground to watch your step at the same time as looking up for looming branches,etc., as well as traffic and other pedestrians AT THE SAME TIME.

All the vision I do have is at the center so I have to scan to get the full picture of what is around me. If I'm talking to you, I can't see the person next to you which leads to me unintentionally being rude in conversations because I'll miss cues that someone is about to speak and things like that. It also contributes to my hesitancy crossing streets. Did I miss any cars or bikes or pedestrians?

I have absolutely no night vision. My eyes do not adjust to the dark, ever. For some reason, many museums have very dark rooms or corridors, especially in displays of video. There I have to basically hug the wall and creep along slowly like an agoraphobic.

Westminster Abbey was an incredible challenge. The stone floors, being centuries old, are quite uneven and there are random steps up and down with no warning or railings. it was totally nerve-wracking, especially because I wanted to be looking around at the wonderful architecture and tombs and stained glass and not at the stones at my feet. London, in general, is a place of uneven sidewalks and then there's the fact of cars coming from unexpected (to me) directions.

I had a revelation this past summer when I dropped the boys off at preschool and walked out into the sun by myself. I was instantly incredibly tentative and realized that I had been using first the stroller and then the boys as guides. When pushing the stroller I had a way of 'feeling' what the ground was like and walking with the boys each holding a hand, I could gauge from their actions what the ground was like.

Tonight, walking home from dinner, I said to Keith: "I hate that it's just a matter of time until I fall again." He started in about using the white cane more often, etc., etc. Finally I just had to say that even with every precaution, it's still a matter of time. I still have a bump next to my eye from my fall in San Francisco. It's scary just to take a step when you don't know where your foot will land. And yes, I will use the cane more often.

Paper Chase

My boys are obsessed with paper. Obsessed! They have an uncanny ability to find and collect any bits of free paper around. Before we left California, I recycled bags and bags of paper. They each had a large shopping bag filled with old catalogs that they think I actually paid to put into storage for 5 months. I keep hoping they will have forgotten by the time we return but every time they mention their bags I sort of gulp. Mommy lied! To be fair to myself, I did save for them lots of notebooks and coloring books--legitimate paper that wasn't, say, a pamphlet about vaccinating seniors for shingles.

Since we've arrived in England, they have accumulated:

1 large catalog for kitchen equipment and 1 phone book (one for each--has to be even!)
grocery magazines of recipes and coupons
tube map
bus map
welcome to london pamphlet
info on buying cell phones
a newspaper
requests to donate to oxfam
guide to river thames boats
info on topping off cell phones
more info on cell phones
how to get a Boots advantage card
info on hair retention
business card for elite car rental
more info on London underground
the American Air magazine
guide to nutrition in pregnancy
car insurance offers
and more.....These collections also include cut snips of paper, drawings, napkins, and any other detritus of the flat and paper variety.

All times 2 of course. One nice thing is that when one of them finds available paper, they always get two so they can each have one.

They call these collections their 'information' and want to take it with them whenever they leave the house and no mommy-logic will dissuade that we will not need a catalog of furniture while we are grocery shopping. "Oh, but Beary is decorating his house and I can make orders using my brain computer." Hard to argue with that.

They are tearful when I explain that they can't take all of this to Ireland. Don't know how to convey that it's also not going back to California! We will allow a few pieces, of course.

And this paper is taken very seriously. The other day they placed all of their paper out on the floor to match with each other--each brochure matched, each pamphlet, etc. Keith said: "This is some game you've got going." Owen: "This is no game!"

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Feed the birds, tuppance a bag....part 2

It was such a buzz kill to be gathering birds around us at Trafalgar square and have a guy step up and say "not allowed!" Then he proceeded to use his little pincers to pick up every last piece of bread we had dropped (cue angry birds!) I said, well, I would have thought the birds would have cleaned that up....but I guess they don't want that. Don't want to encourage pigeons what with the Olympics and all. Still, disheartening. I had been building it up to the boys and saving bread.....Ah well, we'll always have Menlo Park.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What is up with Scooby Doo, part 2

Now there is a relationship between Velma and Shaggy, with Velma as the aggressor. What the hell??? Now you can't have a kids show without romance? Perhaps this is why 3rd graders are having oral sex. Please let the innocence last a little longer! We have a long enough time to be worried or stressed or frantic about romantic relationships. We don't need to start in the Scooby Doo years!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Portobello Road

My eye has healed to the point where it now looks as if I have been careless in applying eyeliner. This means I can go about without getting sympathetic looks (except, I suppose, from make-up artists). But there is a lump where the laceration was as if something got trapped inside. Grit? Eyeglass part? Who knows. But I did get my glasses repaired and I picked them up the other day. They don't have the cool blue/green undertones but they do fit my face.

On Saturday morning I had a wonderful outing to the shops and stalls on Portobello Road. This is an open air market alongside regular shops where you can buy furniture or fresh fish, strawberries or slippers, jewelry and jubilee souvenirs. It was packed and a bit overwhelming visually for me so I didn't fully explore but it was a delightful melange. The people too: funky, sporty, casual chic, dapper, and tourist. I heard French and Spanish and several languages I couldn't identify but made me think of Polish or Russian and also Asian languages.

I found a wonderful store that I went back to on Sunday when the crowds were less pressing. I couldn't figure out at first what it was because there were products with only Italian on the labels and others with only Spanish. Finally, I figured it was basically a Mediterranean grocery. 'Swonderful! When I returned on Sunday, I got orzo pasta, marinated artichoke hearts, pork pate, lentils, salami (among other fun things). They had great big pourable containers of fish stock, but were out of chicken--dang it! I wanted salsa, but apparently that's more Mexican than Spanish. There was something in a tube called 'spicy ketchup' but I wasn't brave enough to try it. They also had a lot of octopus (frozen and fresh and tinned) and anchovies (same ways). Oh! And I got gaspacho in a pourable container! So delicious and convenient. Lots of beans and pasta and olives and smoked meats. I will definitely be back!

On my way home I happened upon a jumble sale. 20p admittance. Then, for 5 pounds, I got a sweater, a sweatshirt, a warm pair of socks (thinking Ireland!), a funky pair of wide-leg/side-zip black pants, and two Scooby Doo magazines for the boys! With awesome Guillotine finger trick!

And now for a moment of outrage. One can no longer 'feed the birds' no matter how many tuppence a bag. Wow. I understand that pigeons poop everywhere but geez. No feeding the birds? Dang.

Scooby Doo--updated

The boys have gotten hooked on Scooby Doo. I remember enjoying it also back in the day when one only got to watch cartoons on Saturday morning instead of on one of several all-cartoon all-the-time channels. That's not all that has changed! Velma has wifi and gps. They have a new song (Please! The old one was perfect!) Fred has a complicated relationship with his father. Daphne always was a lightweight, but now she's completely airheaded. Even worse: Fred and Daphne are engaged. They're supposed to be meddling kids but they've got a whole storyline now that feels like a disney princess rip-off. Luckily the boys are oblivious to that part of things. Shaggy still has stubble and Scooby is the same delightful little prankster. Fred still always suggests that they split up to look for clues.

Hob = Stovetop
Rocket = Arugula
Interwebs = Internet/world wide web

Bacon is an entirely different shape here. There is a lot more meat and it's shaped sort of like a pan with a handle. It's quite tasty but is more like a piece of ham.

I'm a convert to European appliances. The washer and dishwasher take a long time but they both work so well. Ditto the dryer. It has a condenser that you pull out to pour the water into the sink instead of the steam being blown outside. Brilliant! No hose to get clogged over and over. In California, a bird kept building a nest in the small opening to the outside.

Tracey and Richard, the friends we visited in Chiswick last weekend, have a home in western Ireland. It has a name, Rosmindle. Isn't that wonderful? I love a house with a name. We are going to visit for a week in April and are very excited. We will fly into Knock, which is too small for most maps and is in the independent part of Ireland. Rosmindle is in a farming and fishing community with sheep and fowl wandering about. It's at about the western most part of the west on the Atlantic. (Next stop is Newfoundland, Tracey says.) We will burn turf for heat! I'm sure we'll also eat lots of wonderful fresh fish and farm products.

Yesterday, while walking on Ladbroke Grove, the boys came up with a game. Lionel was only allowed to step on blue and yellow squares while Owen could only step on green and black. Me? I only saw grey concrete. But the boys were skipping all around keeping to their 'colors.' Love the imagination.

I love this line from the novel Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson: "She was not, herself, beautiful. Her moments were beautiful." The book, like that character, has beautiful moments but being about the Vietnam war is not, itself, beautiful.

The other day in the grocery store I encountered a man going up and down the aisles opposite of me--going up the aisle as I was going down the aisle and so on through the store. He was 50-ish, slightly rumpled, wearing heavy black glasses and, it's true, a Member's Only jacket. When I passed him by the yogurt, he pulled out a phone and I overheard this: "Mum. They don't have the Activia. Do you want....Okay. Anything but strawberry. Okay. Love you Mum. Bye." Next aisle; "Mum. Do you want the whole chicken or just the filets? Okay. I thought you'd want...Okay. The whole chicken. Okay. Thanks. Love you Mum. Bye." Next aisle: "Mum. Free range eggs. Does it....okay. Love you Mum. Bye." And on and on. I don't know why he ever hung up the phone but I found it hilarious and so lingered to hear his half of the 'conversation.'

Keith is off to Leeds today to give a talk for 500 quid. The bill he was advocating for passed, by the way, and he was instrumental in making that happen. He's been going in to King's college some days and also working at home on a grant for his center at the VA. He's not being paid by the VA, mind you, so he's a bit irked at the lengthy review process which keeps pulling him back in....just when he thought he had broken free.....