Monday, August 21, 2017

A Wayward Pint Glass

Although my first day back at school was last week, today is the first day for most staff and faculty. This week's orientation and planning meetings, divisional retreats and other events run roughly 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. So Dave and I are competing for bathroom time and trying to get out  the door roughly at the same moment. I'll be happy when the kids are back (next week) and I slip into my later schedule of roughly 9 to 5 -- that lets him get ready and leave ahead of me.

We had a pretty nice weekend, though once again somewhat chilly. Sally and Mike came over yesterday for lunch -- we put out some sandwich stuff and salads, and sat in the garden nibbling. Ideally I'd have liked for it to be a bit warmer, but it wasn't unpleasant at all. As Mike said, "We're British, remember?" We wound up talking, as we so often do, about sixties television -- after we exhausted our rage at the current political climate on both sides of the Atlantic.

This has been the chilliest August I've ever experienced. Just lots of gray, rainy sweatshirt weather. I feel like we had about a month of real summer in June, and from there it went to hell.

Remember how I'm on an anti-litter campaign against the person dumping bags of meat wrappers on the next street over? It happened again yesterday -- I rounded the corner with Olga and there were about six bags of bloody rubbish torn open and spread across the street. (Olga, of course, was lunging forward in a desperate bid to eat/roll in it.) So once again I reported it to the council. I keep waiting for them to take action against (i.e. fine/arrest/otherwise penalize) the dumper, but if they have, it hasn't helped. Maybe this will just be our new normal -- the dumper dumping, me complaining about it, Olga lunging hungrily.

About two weeks ago, someone left a pub glass sitting on a garden wall a few doors down -- obviously someone who carried it away from a pub and abandoned it when they finished their pint en route. (Happens all the time.) I passed that glass every morning and no one ever did a thing about it. Finally, on Saturday, I brought it home, ran it through the dishwasher and returned it to the pub. Am I becoming the neighborhood busybody?

(Photo: A tattoo shop in Kilburn. Why does the fox look so fierce?)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Lone Tree Squirrel

We stuck close to home yesterday. I finished "Player Piano" in the morning -- I enjoyed that book a lot! -- and then mowed the lawn and vacuumed the house. Things are now about as tidy as they ever get around here.

In the afternoon, Olga and I took a walk to Fortune Green and the cemetery. The rugby fields next to the cemetery have been stripped completely bare and are littered with construction equipment. I have no idea what's going on there.


(Isn't it funny how you can have a lone tree standing in a field, quite a distance from any other tree, next to a footpath bordered by an inhospitable, spiky metal fence -- and by golly, there will be a squirrel in it?)

I've tried to come up with something pithy to say about all the demonstrations and Trump and everything else in the news, but honestly, I'd rather not go there. I am glad that most of the weekend's demonstrations seemed to come off more or less peacefully.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Revisiting the Carlton Tavern

You may remember the Carlton Tavern, which I've written about before. It's the historic 1920s pub in Kilburn that was demolished by developers one morning in 2015 -- without permission and without notification to anyone.

The pub, one of the few buildings in that area to survive the Blitz, had been due to receive historic designation. But the developers had other plans for the site -- they wanted to build apartments there -- so they moved in backhoes before anyone could object.

Westminster Council was so incensed that they ordered the developer, who is based in Israel, to rebuild the pub brick by brick. Appeals by the developer failed, and work supposedly began in July. As I understand it, they have a year to rebuild.

I've said all along that I'd believe it when I see it, and I don't see it yet. From the street, the site looks pretty much the same. But apparently the reconstruction includes sifting through the rubble to retrieve significant architectural features, like the remains of the lettered tiles that decorated the facade. So it may be a matter of time.

When I visited, I did hear scraping sounds from behind the wall -- but it literally sounded like one or two guys with shovels. Whatever is happening, it seems to be happening very slowly.

Still, at least there's progress. If the reconstruction goes through, this will be a significant victory for preservationists and a loud and clear message to other property owners that there are consequences to defying local regulations.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Happy Hour

It's a quiet morning, with rain coming down outside and Olga lying next to me on the couch, softly snoring. She's definitely not clamoring to go for her walk.

Caffeine, a la today's photo, is exactly what I need. (And believe me, I'm having it now.) I went out to a pub with my work colleagues last night, and let me just say, I may not be at my most effective at work today. It was a good bonding opportunity, but at the expense of some valuable brain and liver cells.

Work-wise the day went well. I was shocked at the amount of construction and renovation work going on at the school when I visited a few weeks ago, and the library was a wreck. Workers were digging around in the ceiling, running cables for something or other. So I'm glad to see they were able to pull everything together on schedule and we have a clean space in which to operate once again.

I spent the day checking in books and cataloging and updating all our magazines -- nothing very exciting. We've got some furniture rearranging to do as well, and lots of re-shelving. Don't you wish you were me?

(Photo: Kilburn High Road, on Wednesday.)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Walking in Kilburn

Went for a walk yesterday morning through Kilburn, not too far from where we live. It was good to get out, get some exercise and take some photos. My goal was to go check on the rebuilding of the Carlton Tavern, which is supposedly underway. I'll update you more fully on that another time -- not that there's much very visibly going on at the site.

In the afternoon I had a massage, and it was one of the stranger massages I've ever received. The therapist used some devices -- a bamboo roller thing and a metal thing shaped a bit like a crescent -- and at times it felt like he was doing laundry on my back, using my ribs as a washboard. It was not a good feeling. I belatedly remembered having the same therapist last year and hurting then, too. I gotta stop going to that guy.

And now, I've got to get the heck out of here and go to work!

(Photo: Kilburn, yesterday.)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Red Admiral

Thanks for all your comments on my post yesterday. It's an interesting discussion, isn't it?! Today, however, I have to stop thinking about equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee, at least momentarily.

(One final note: It belatedly occurred to me that another geographic location named for Lee is Lee County, in Florida. Not sure how I forgot that one, since it's part of my old stomping ground.)

Anyway, instead of the Confederacy, let's talk about butterflies.

This is a red admiral, which fluttered through our garden the other day. We've seen one come around three times, on different days. I have no idea if it's the same butterfly, obviously, but I suppose it could be.

Here it is on one of our buddleias, also known, appropriately enough, as a butterfly bush.

We also saw a speckled wood butterfly, like the one I photographed in the cemetery a few days ago, in our garden yesterday. So we're getting some interesting butterfly diversity this year!

I've spent the past two days pretty much at home. We had a tree surgeon come yesterday to give us an estimate on removing the problematic holly and trimming some other trees. We'll probably get that project underway soon. I haven't shown you a picture of the holly, but trust me when I say the decision to remove it isn't being made lightly. It's spindly and squeezed between two other, larger trees, and it's affecting their growth and the available sun in the garden. The landlord agrees that it can go.

I'm reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano," which you may remember features a book cover that I've found memorable. I bought a copy to finally read it -- and it's such an appropriate book for this moment in time. It's about a society where industrial efficiency has been perfected to such a degree that machines do everything, and huge numbers of people are essentially unemployed and purposeless. These are the same people who, in formerly industrial powerhouses like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, helped give us Donald Trump and our current political climate! So, yeah, even though it was written in the '50s, it's topical.

Anyway, I'm planning to take a walk today. I have to get out of the house. It's my last day of summer vacation -- work resumes tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Confederate Monuments

Let me just say right off the bat that this photo, taken in Hackney a couple of weeks ago, has nothing to do with the subject of today's post. I just liked the light and thought it was an interesting wall.

When I wrote about the outrageous events in Charlottesville the day before yesterday, I mentioned that I "have doubts about the wisdom of dismantling Confederate war memorials."

As I argued, "They're part of America's history, and rather than removing them we should be explaining them, and balancing their message with monuments that more accurately reflect our modern society and expectations."

I want to explore this issue a little further. I think my own perspective has evolved since I wrote those lines, and I want to explain why.

Let me say outright that I was born in the South, as many of you know, and I had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and who owned slaves. But I've never fully identified as a "Southerner." To me, it's always been a dead issue -- the Civil War is over, and south is merely a direction on a compass. Neither I nor anyone in my immediate family have ever sympathized with the Southern cause, and I've never found it anything but absurd that some people believe the South "will rise again." I freely acknowledge that Southern culture is rooted in blood and barbarism, and I repudiate all of that.

What has made me uncomfortable is the idea of purging artworks (and statues are artworks) because they cause pain or discomfort to a group of people. This may seem cruel, given the circumstances, but it's a position I've long held regardless of the art. It seems positively Soviet to me to demolish statues because they don't convey the proper message.

(As a side note, I do not feel this way about the Confederate battle flag. A flag is an overtly political symbol, not an artistic one, and I was overjoyed when it was removed from the South Carolina capitol dome a couple of years ago. The Confederate flag has no place in current government, or, for that matter, in civil society.)

I accept that I don't look at these statues in the same way a black person does. I get that. I've always seen them as historic symbols, and figures like Robert E. Lee, to me, are more tragic than heroic or menacing. There's a sadness that permeates those generals on horseback.

But I can see now that there's defiance, too. One of my friends, a white woman from Tennessee who was one of my editors, and who I very much respect -- and who grew up immersed in Southern lore and virtually surrounded by monuments to Confederate leaders -- pointed out on Facebook that most of the Confederate statues that permeate the South were erected about 50 or 60 years after the end of the war, during a time when the KKK was in resurgence and Lost Cause mythology was gaining traction. The statues were inherently political, indeed propaganda, from the beginning.

They were meant to drive home the message that the South was not dead -- that the ideals fought for in the Civil War were still alive in the hearts of many. And those ideals include deep-seated racism that views people as property.

So with the monuments' historical authenticity in question, we're left with artistic considerations. Obviously the artistry varies widely, but some of the monuments are impressive bronze statues by noteworthy sculptors. Well, the best place for controversial art is in a museum, where it can be placed in context and not forced upon people who don't want to see it -- people who justifiably feel pain, and a dark shadow of fear, when they encounter it. I've come to believe that New Orleans, which took down its Confederate monuments and (last I heard) plans to put them in a museum, has it right. Confederate statues should be removed from public display and put behind walls, where their true history can be made clear to people who choose to see them.

The best analogy I can think of here is Adolph Hitler. There are no Hitler statues in Germany, as far as I know, but there are surely Nazi artifacts in museums all over the world. And that's where they belong -- in a repository for dead artifacts of a dead past.

What I still struggle with is how monumental (no pun intended) this task will be. The South is positively stuffed with Confederate statues. There's one in every town, practically. In fact, many of the towns and counties themselves -- Jeff Davis County in Georgia, and Lee County in Mississippi, to name two just off the top of my head -- are named for Confederate leaders. Should they all be renamed?

What about the largest Confederate monument of all, Stone Mountain in Georgia? It's the South's own Mount Rushmore, with Lee, Davis and Jackson carved into a mountainside. What the heck do we do with that? (It's interesting to note that the U.S. Postal Service put out a stamp featuring Stone Mountain as recently as 1970!)

So, yes, it's a fraught topic. I'm still mulling it over. But it's time to remove the monuments from public squares and put them somewhere where they can be fully explained to viewers -- and by this I largely mean white viewers, because let's face it, we're the ones who really need to learn why their history is tainted and painful. Putting them behind walls drives home that they are elements of the past. They do not, and cannot, represent modern American thought, even in the South.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sunflowers, a Butterfly and Rocks

Olga and I like this stand of sunflowers on a street not far from our house. Well, I like them anyway. Olga looks a bit doubtful.

We had a quiet day yesterday -- lots of reading, and working in the garden and around the house. We took Olga to Fortune Green and the cemetery in the afternoon, where we saw...

...a new kind of butterfly, at least for me. It's a "speckled wood."

Dave found a lost football in the cemetery undergrowth, which backs up to an athletic field. No doubt the football got kicked over the wall ages ago. Olga was happy to have it and by the end of our walk she'd deflated it and torn off the spongy orange outer covering. We left it in a trash bin in the park.

The other day, when I posted a picture of our front window, someone asked about our little windowsill rock collection. I thought I'd give you a close-up. There is indeed a story behind each rock.

The top row, left to right, includes pieces of old pottery found on walks, a clay lizard my friend Sue gave me in 1995, and two rocks I've had since childhood -- an agate geode and an amethyst geode. (Like many boys, I went through a rock-collecting phase. I collected almost everything at one time or another.) The agate was given to me by a woman who worked for us at home and who helped raise me, a gentle southern grandmother type. The amethyst was given to me by a retired military colonel who lived in our neighborhood, and who collected rocks himself.

The bottom row, left to right, includes a fossilized scallop I found near Venice, Fla.; a smooth rock from the beach in Essaouira, Morocco; another smooth rock from a riverbed in the Draa Valley, in southern Morocco; a piece of smooth pink granite from the beach in Montauk, N.Y.; and a dark rock from Hampstead Heath.

Aren't you glad you asked?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Florida Water and Charlottesville

Dave grew sweet peas this year, a new thing for us. They looked terrific for a couple of months, and then the plants began to get kind of grey and moth-eaten, and laden with seed pods. The blooms began to diminish, and too late we learned that picking sweet pea blossoms encourages the plant to bloom more. Oh well.

I picked these, the last few blossoms of the season, before Dave cut down the plant. I put them in my Florida Water bottle, an antique that my British friend Liz (as opposed to my two American friends named Liz) gave me. It says on it: "Florida Water, Murray & Lanman, Druggists, New York." Liz thought it was the perfect gift for me because I come from Florida and she and I first met in New York.

It got me thinking: What was Florida Water, anyway?

Turns out that it was basically a citrusy perfume. There's a whole Wikipedia page about it. Apparently Murray & Lanman held the trademark for the Florida Water name. I'm not sure how old my bottle might be, but apparently you can still buy Florida Water. From what I read on the Interwebs, it has magical or religious uses (if you're into that kind of thing).

I borrowed that image above from Pinterest. Turns out there are a lot of great Florida Water ads from the old days. Here are a few others:

Actually, that looks a lot like my bottle!


I took Olga to the Heath yesterday, where we both had a long romp. Mud was involved (for her), necessitating a back-garden bath (also for her). I've discovered that hauling my shoulder-strap camera bag long distances is starting to really stress out my back. I may have to find a better way to schlep my equipment -- a backpack, maybe?

Mrs Kravitz is on us again about our rubbish and recycling bins. They are well-maintained and neatly tucked into the alley beside our house, right next to her bins in her alley -- but as she told me when she collared me on the street yesterday, she thinks we have too many. (We have four, which for two flats isn't so bad.) She asked me to get rid of some of them, or to petition our landlord to build a higher fence between our property and hers. (She has three bins for her single-family house, for the record.) I'm going to ignore her. Sometimes, when someone's all up in your business, that's the most reasonable response.

I'm horrified by the news from Charlottesville. The worst among us feel emboldened and, indeed, invincible, because they believe the man in the White House has their back. It's terrifying, and also just incredibly sad. For the record, I too have doubts about the wisdom of dismantling Confederate war memorials -- they're part of America's history, and rather than removing them we should be explaining them, and balancing their message with monuments that more accurately reflect our modern society and expectations. But violence only begets more violence. Trump, through his words and actions on the campaign trail and in office, has propped open Pandora's box.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Spider Time

Dave and I have been noticing hordes of little spiders all over the garden. They've been hanging their webs and, presumably, feasting on the bugs that are attracted by the ripe blackberries and the late-summer blossoms.

It must be the season for them. We definitely weren't seeing as many a month or two ago, though maybe they were out there and they're just now getting large enough for us to notice.

Remember our balcony arachnopet, Pat, from five (!) years ago? Pat was this same variety of spider, I think -- a common garden spider. We first noticed him/her in June, so he/she was a bit ahead of this crowd, and was a pretty good size by the time August came around. Pat disappeared in October, as I recall, when the weather got blustery and autumnal.

But Pat laid a cluster of eggs, which hatched the following spring. And I guess that's what's happened here. The circle of life! (To quote "The Lion King," which I'm sure did not originate that phrase.)

I spent yesterday morning trimming and weeding the front garden and the side alley, which we almost never use. The alley was full of weeds and detritus like a stray Coke can (from who knows where, because neither Dave nor I drink Coke). I definitely disturbed lots of little critters living in their weedy sanctuaries, but the job had to be done and I must admit it looks much better now. I tried to relocate the critters when possible. I carried shovelfuls of buggy dirt to the back of the yard, where the pillbugs and millipedes and ants could escape on their own time -- and then I saw a couple of robins pecking it over later, no doubt relishing the feast I had uncovered. Circle of life again!

Friday, August 11, 2017


Olga hates this cat.

To be clear, she hates all cats. But this cat, in particular, is her sworn enemy. It lurks behind this brown gate, which has a little cat-sized hole cut into it. We pass the gate every morning on our walk. And every time, Olga has to....

...shove her face as far into that cat-hole as she can get it. If the cat is on the other side, it often comes out swinging.

They've never actually fought, because I always pull Olga back. But that cat sometimes follows us out onto the sidewalk, just to make sure we're leaving. It's a tiger! And you can't blame it, really -- it's just defending its turf.

I'm always afraid whoever owns the cat is going to come out and yell at me, but I just can't resist allowing the animals a frisson of excitement.

In other news, the management company for our flat sent a handyman over yesterday to take care of some minor problems -- cracked floor tiles, a ceiling that needed painting, a broken doorsill and a gate that wouldn't close, among other things. He worked pretty much all day, and supposedly will get answers about a few other repairs we'd like to have done, including carpet replacement (or simply removal) in the dining room, repainting the kitchen and possibly re-enameling the bathtub.

Meanwhile, Dave made plans for a tree surgeon to visit us next week and give estimates for removing the holly (won't Mrs. Kravitz be thrilled?) and trimming a few other trees. Now that we're leaning toward staying here as renters, we're trying to spruce things up!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Baggy Book and Rain, Rain, Rain

Yesterday may have been the rainiest day of the year so far. According to The Guardian, we were set to receive a month's worth of rain in a single day. I spent the whole day on the couch reading, and every time I looked up, it was pouring outside. I didn't even go out into the garden.

Olga, needless to say, was not thrilled at the prospect of leaving with the dog-walker. I wondered if it would feel more like punishment than pleasure. But we sent her along anyway and dried her off well when she got home.

We watched the second episode of the BBC's "The Man in the Orange Shirt" last night, a two-part miniseries with Vanessa Redgrave exploring how gay men coped with social and familial pressures and expectations both back in the 1940s and in the modern era. Vanessa Redgrave is a few months older than my mother! I think it's pretty impressive that she's still acting, and so effectively. Anyway, it's a good show -- I recommend it if you have the opportunity to watch it.

I also learned, happily, that I don't have to be at work until the 17th -- and not the 14th, as I'd previously thought. Woo hoo! A few extra days of vacation!

I am not enjoying this Arundhati Roy book as much as I had hoped. I was following the initial story really well at the outset, and then the book leaped to another set of characters and circumstances that I didn't follow as well, and now it's coming together but it feels very...loose. I think there's an excellent novel in here somewhere, but it's still buried in what feels like a very long, overstuffed draft. Someone needed some more rigorous editing -- that's my non-novelist's take on it.

(Photo: Our inula plant, through the rain-streaked living room window.)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Escape to Downton Abbey

I'm sure many of you recognize this view -- the approach to Downton Abbey! This is not a film still, but a real photo taken by yours truly. Yesterday Dave and I visited Downton, or actually its real-life alter ego, Highclere Castle, in Hampshire.

We took the train from London early yesterday morning, and after an hour's ride and a 15-minute taxi trip -- which we shared with two women visiting from Finland, to cut costs -- we were at Downton's door.

What you can't really see in the picture is that it was pouring rain when we arrived. We bought our tickets about two months ago, so weather wasn't a factor in choosing our date to visit, and we had to simply make the best of it.

We started by touring the interior of the house, where, unfortunately, visitors are not permitted to take photos. Let me just say that it looks almost exactly like it does on TV. The furniture, the paintings -- nearly all of it is featured in the show. So if you want to see what we saw, watch some Downton reruns!

We saw the public rooms on the ground floor, the large central atrium and grand staircase, and the bedrooms on the second floor. Other parts of the house we did not see, which is perfectly understandable because since the late 1600s Highclere has been home to the Earl of Carnarvon and his family. They really do live there, at least part of the time, and there are signs of modern life here and there, like James Patterson and John Grisham novels stacked on bookshelves. Highclere is not a museum.

Fortunately, by the time we finished walking through the house, the weather cleared a bit and we were able to explore the gardens (above.)

We had a great time checking out all the plants, peering into the greenhouse, crossing the wildflower meadow and watching pheasants wandering around on a hill where a columned temple once stood. The landscape around Highclere was designed by Capability Brown, a legendary landscape designer to the British nobility, in the 1770s. The house itself was rebuilt beginning in the 1840s, according to a design by Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament. The interior wasn't completed until after Barry's death, about 35 years after the work began.

There's a columned architectural folly across the lawn called the "Jackdaws Castle," from 1743. As Dave and I approached it, we began hearing something peculiar. It sounded like a huge crowd murmuring in a sort of monotone. The sound was coming from beyond the temple, so we went to check it out. It turned out to be...

...sheep! Lots and lots of sheep, hundreds of them, crossing a field some distance behind the temple. I'm giving you a video so you can hear them. You can also barely hear the excited Japanese children who followed me to the edge of the field to watch the passing parade.

Anyway, it was a fun day out, and aside from the brief burst of rain at the beginning of the morning, we were pretty lucky with the weather. (Watching the forecast, we'd been afraid it might rain all day.) We caught an afternoon train back to London and were home soon after Olga got in from her walk...just in time to watch a few episodes of Downton Abbey!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Bomb

This is the view looking out our front window. I needed a picture that conveys domesticity, because we spent all yesterday at home, except for a shopping trip to Sainsbury's which hardly counts as adventure. (Even though we went to the big Sainsbury's at the O2 Centre, which is like an American grocery store, with all kinds of exotic things on offer like tofu and tamarind seeds and even clothing.)

While we were at the store, a stooped older lady came up to me and said, "Excuse me? Can you help me?" And I said "Sure," even though I was inwardly thinking, Am I dressed like a Sainsbury's employee?

"There's a bottle on the floor over there. I think it could be a bomb," the lady said.

She began to guide me around the corner, but then she peered down the aisle and said, "Oh, it's gone now. You know, you can't be too careful!" And with that, she tottered away with her shopping cart. I thought, it's a sad state of affairs when little old ladies feel like they have to fear bombs in Sainsbury's.

Dave and I also went to Homebase, where I bought some completely unnecessary geraniums -- or pelargoniums, to use the proper name -- that were on sale for a pound apiece. You can never have too many geraniums. Dave bought a showerhead, in his ongoing quest to make the flat more comfortable. (He thinks our existing showerhead is clogged with lime deposits from the water. I'm not necessarily disputing this, but I'm not necessarily confirming it, either.)

Mrs. Kravitz came back from vacation and I confessed to her that I climbed into her yard to retrieve Olga's dog toy. I felt compelled to say something in case she had a security camera filming me. She didn't seem too fazed, but seized the opportunity to argue once again that we should cut down our holly tree.

I finished that questioning book I had to read for work -- thank God. Now I'm just working on Arundhati Roy's newest. I'm about halfway through, and there are millions of characters (well, it does take place in India, after all) and I'm not exactly loving it. I'm hoping it all comes together by the end.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Juggling and Dancing

Thanks for all your feedback on yesterday's post. (Except for the Thai spam commenters who keep leaving links to mysterious football blogs that I suspect are actually phishing scams or something. You have been deleted.) I will certainly keep everyone up to date on our discussions! I hope I don't come across as a whiny brat -- I'm perfectly aware that I'm privileged to even be considering buying in this place and time.

Dave and I took Olga on a rare joint outing yesterday to Kilburn Grange Park. The Kong was enthusiastically pursued.

Oh, and speaking of the Kong, remember how it disappeared overnight from our back garden several days ago? Well, we gave Olga another one, and that disappeared too! This time I was really kicking myself, and then yesterday morning I saw it in Mrs. Kravitz's back garden, lying in the long grass. Apparently whatever fox absconded with it didn't get very far. Mrs. Kravitz and her family are away somewhere, so I wound up climbing over the garden wall to retrieve it. Let me just say: Climbing a garden wall is a lot harder than it looks. And then, as I struggled back over the wall to our own garden, a neighbor in one of the apartments behind us leaned out his window and said laughingly, "Everything OK, gentlemen?" He probably thought we were up to no good and was checking up on us. So we explained the situation and fortunately everything ended without the involvement of police or an ambulance.

I also bought two more Kongs from Amazon, just to be safe. And by the way, I grossly overstated their price the other day. I got two for about £14, so that's not so bad.

At Kilburn Grange Park, we came across this guy juggling five balls at once. Pretty impressive! Olga laid down next to him, because he was standing in the shade, but then she tensed up the minute he began throwing those balls around and I was afraid she would spring for one of them. We had to lead her to a less stimulating shady place.

On the walk back home, we saw this. I love the Burt Reynolds tire cover. Unfortunately no mac n' cheese was being served at the moment, or we might have had some.

Speaking of '80s nostalgia, on Saturday I got a sudden urge to watch the movie "White Nights," from 1985, with Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I don't think I'd ever seen it before. It was pretty good, with a youthful Isabella Rossellini and lots of Cold War intrigue. It's so weird to watch a film like that, produced when the Soviet Union seemed mighty and mysterious, and think that the country lasted just four more years. (Of course, it didn't go away entirely -- now we're left with its mysterious, meddling successor, Putin's Russia!) It was also great to see Baryshnikov and Hines dancing to Twyla Tharp's choreography. A worthwhile rental!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Real-Estate Tycoons?

What I was getting at yesterday, when I mentioned Dave and I debating whether to stay in our current flat, is that age-old question: Should we buy a place of our own?

We've been talking about it. We're committed to our current flat until next July, so there's no need to make a quick decision. But in my mind there are some barriers that have me thinking it's actually better to keep renting, at least for now.

One of them, as you all pointed out in comments yesterday, is the garden. We've put a lot of work into this space and we have some more ideas for things we'd like to do. And the simple fact is, wherever we buy in London, we would never be able to have a private garden this big -- not on our budget. This garden is immense by London standards, at least at our socio-economic level.

It's also very likely that as buyers, we'd have to move to another part of the city, which is perfectly feasible but not as convenient. It's nice to be able to walk to work. It's amazing to walk the dog to Hampstead Heath. I would hate to give those things up, but West Hampstead is a relatively expensive area.

There are the practical concerns -- as buyers we'd be responsible for maintaining a house, and given London's housing stock it would quite likely be 100 years old or more. We'd have to buy insurance. We'd have to budget for major repairs. We'd have to get a mortgage, and as two 50-year-olds, that could be a challenge, with our working lives abbreviated to the next two decades or less.

And finally, we'd have to put all our eggs in one basket. London housing prices are astronomical, and buying something here -- at least in our area -- would mean liquidating some or all of our stocks and other savings and pouring the money into a downpayment. Dave and I were looking online at half-a-million pound properties -- which, in theory, we could just barely afford -- and in our region that gets us a ground-level two-bedroom flat on a busy road. That is a hell of a lot of money to pay for something that is, frankly, uninspiring and not nearly as nice as where we live now.

Obviously, buying would be an investment and theoretically, at least, we would get all that money back and then some when we eventually sell -- whereas renting simply sends money down the drain. But when the real-estate options are as high-stakes as the ones in London, uncertainties rankle. What about, for example, Brexit? There's a lot of debate about whether London is poised to continue its international role when Britain exits the European Union in a couple of years. Is now a bad time to pour all our savings into London real estate?

Renting, on the other hand, gives us freedom. And we could say we're pouring our money away by renting -- or we could say we're buying that freedom. There is a purchase being made. By renting we can live in a convenient area in a house that we would otherwise never be able to afford. (If this place went on the market I'm guessing it would fetch, maybe, £900,000? Or more?) And we don't have children to educate or any need to build a "nest egg" to leave to the next generation. We only have to pay for our own retirement.

Dave is frustrated because the interior of our flat is showing some wear and tear -- not from us, but from previous tenants -- and trying to get anything repaired tends to be a time-consuming (if not entirely futile) process. But I think we should simply renew our pressure on the management company to fix what needs to be fixed -- and perhaps continue to overlook some of the cosmetic issues, like the cracked floor tiles in the bathroom and the fact that the bathtub's enamel has worn down to a dull coating that is frustrating as hell to clean.

Dave gets itchy for change. He likes to refresh and renew his surroundings. He wants to put more stuff on the walls and to paint, for example. I think we need to find ways to accommodate Dave's need for a fresher environment (which I, frankly, do not share) while staying put. Meanwhile we continue to build up some savings, we wait out Brexit, we enjoy our garden and we see where the future leads us.

But who knows. The discussion continues!

(Photos: From my walk with Olga in the cemetery yesterday. The middle picture is a common blue butterfly -- that's actually its name -- in the cemetery's butterfly meadow.)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Hyper-Hydrangea, and Others

A little plant update for you. Above is one of our hydrangeas, blooming away. It wouldn't be all that remarkable except it's the same plant as in the second photo of this post. As you can see, it miraculously recovered after being unearthed by ravenous foxes!

And this is verbena, which we didn't (officially) have in our garden this year. We used to have a couple of verbena plants and they bloomed last summer, but this year they didn't come up at all. And then this one appeared all on its own, between the patio stones outside the back door, of all places. It must have seeded itself. Seems like a few others may be growing there too. We're stepping around them, carefully!

Meanwhile the offspring of my ancient houseplants are doing well, too. Above is the purple heart...

...which is so happy, it's blooming.

And here's the bird's-foot cactus, doing quite well on the windowsill!

Yesterday was uneventful. I vacuumed, I mowed the lawn, I read a lot. That's pretty much it. Dave and I are wrestling with questions about how long we want to remain in this flat. But that's another subject for another day...

Friday, August 4, 2017

Holland Park and Alma-Tadema

Well, I did get myself out of the house yesterday. I went to Holland Park, took in an art show and had a long, long walk through the city. It was a fantastic day.

When we lived in Notting Hill I visited Holland Park fairly frequently, but I hadn't been there in years. It was like visiting an old friend. The peacocks in the Kyoto Garden were strutting their stuff for visitors:

Then I went to the Leighton House Museum, which has a show of works by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a prominent Victorian artist. I was curious about Alma-Tadema because his former home is near the school in St. John's Wood where Dave and I work. The house has a blue plaque bearing his name, and until I saw that plaque I swear I'd never even heard of Alma-Tadema. So when I got wind of this exhibit I thought I'd check it out.

I was very pleasantly surprised. Alma-Tadema was a brilliant painter whose dreamy scenes of antiquity conjure an idealized, lost world. His perspectives, compositions and level of detail -- the mosaic floors, marble surfaces, draped fabrics, embroidery -- are amazing. His wife and daughters were artists, too, and some of their paintings were on display as well. (I'd post a picture, but photography isn't allowed in the museum. Still, Google him.)

When I got out of the show I went walking through Kensington, Brompton and Fulham, winding all the way to Fulham Palace on the river. This took me the rest of the afternoon -- I didn't get on a tube for home until almost 5 p.m. I stopped in a little restaurant along the way and had an "earth bowl" for lunch. It did not contain, as Dave later surmised, twigs, bark and snail shells, but instead broccoli, carrots, quinoa, kidney beans and walnuts.

It felt great to get out and move around! I'm going to do more of that as our vacation winds to its inevitable conclusion. (I go back to work in a little more than a week!)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Splooting and Scooby Doo

I have done little the last two days but lie on the couch and read. It poured rain yesterday afternoon, which is one of the reasons I've been more or less housebound. I'm also trying to catch up on a bunch of stuff -- magazines, saved news articles, small household tasks -- and make progress on those two books I mentioned Tuesday.

Yesterday's rain began just as Olga was about to go on her walk -- she was not happy and the whole time she was gone we thought about how miserable she must be. But then she bounded in the door in late afternoon, none the worse for wear, requiring only a brief rubdown with a damp cloth and some dry paper towels.

I don't know how those dog-walkers do it. It's got to be miserable parading around with a bunch of dogs in the pouring rain. They earn my unending admiration and gratitude. (Yes, we kept Olga's dog-walkers on through the summer, even though Dave and I are both home. We'd have to pay a small amount to maintain her slot anyway, so we figured, why not just let them keep walking her? It gives us more freedom to go out during the day, and it certainly helped while I was in Florida. Dave still doesn't have the energy for daily dog-walking.)

Incidentally, we learned that Olga's method of lying down -- with her back feet stretched out behind her and her belly flat on the ground -- is called "splooting." I never knew there was a word for it. But there you go.

On Tuesday the neighbor's gardeners were working on her back garden, and I ran out and asked if they could trim the monster bush that hangs over our patio. (Remember how we paid to have it cut back last year?) They agreed and came over with their ladder and did the job in no time. It's only fair, since it's the neighbor's bush. (This isn't Mrs. Kravitz -- this is the neighbor on the other side, who we barely ever see. I wouldn't know her if we collided in the aisle at Tesco.) We tried to give the gardeners an extra £20, but they wouldn't take it. Anyway, I'm so glad to have that done, and the patio once again feels much more open and sunny.

For dinner last night, Dave made pasta. He bought a bag of Italian noodles for bambini, and although the package doesn't say so, aren't they definitely derived from Scooby Doo? That middle noodle is clearly Scooby's profile, and the one on the right is the Mystery Machine. I suppose the one on the left could be a random ghost. What do you think?

We binge-watched the rest of the second season of "Fargo" -- it got so good we couldn't stop! So we're done with that show, now. We're also watching "Designated Survivor" on Netflix, which I have mixed feelings about but it's not bad, and "Ozark," which I like a lot. And we're still working on "Mad Men," which is consistently terrific, but we must be near the end by now -- maybe a season or so to go.

I have to get the heck out of the house today.

(Top photo: Hackney Wick, last weekend.)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

iPhone Offloading

Here are some more photos from my iPhone, taken over the past few weeks. First a couple of discarded chairs in West Hampstead. K's chairs, apparently.

Here's another chair at my brother's house in Jacksonville. I liked the evening shadows on this one, particularly the red shadow. It's from light coming through this glass vase, which was once my grandmother's and now belongs to my brother.

When I took this photo my brother was not impressed. "Desperate," he said.

More shadows, at night in downtown Jacksonville.

While we were in Jacksonville we encountered this several times -- a flock of geese, moving very slowly, meandering around in the road. They'd stop traffic, even on the busiest thoroughfares. My brother said the geese population has really become a problem. Which makes me wonder: Why don't people eat Canadian geese? They must taste really terrible.

Back in West Hampstead now -- a big bin of construction debris on the street.

Here's Olga, enjoying yet another sprawl in the mud on Hampstead Heath. I have a million pictures of Olga in mud and I can never resist taking another one.

I picked a bunch of blackberries in our back garden and Dave turned them into Eton Mess, a dessert featuring berries, crumbled sweet meringues and whipped cream. I love Eton Mess and this was delicious, but I had to eat mine over two nights because there was too much for one sitting.

Eton Mess, by the way, is supposedly named because a student at the posh private school Eton once dropped a tray of meringue desserts, smashing them and mixing them up. Someone discovered they still taste pretty good that way! (That's the explanation for the name that I've heard, anyway. It could be legend.)

Finally, I don't know what the heck they're doing to this house down the street, but they've ripped out its innards and the other day a crane actually had its boom extended inside the front door, apparently installing or delivering something heavy. Some serious renovations!

This house had been the home of the orange azalea. For a while it remained in the front garden, even when the other bushes were cut down and construction had begun, and I thought the owners were going to save it. But when I came back from Florida, all this rubbish was piled where the bush had been. I don't know if they dug it out or just gave up and cut it down.