Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dear People Who Live Next Door to Kate

Enough already. It's almost April and we have had a couple of days with a temperature above 80. I'm not a purist when it comes to Christmas decorations. It isn't much fun to go outside in January and un-tangle lights from trees or cut down roping. A little latitude is in order, and in fact I'm not averse to twinkling lights all year long.

But this is wrong. Pick up this sad little snowman and pack him away. The daffodils are nearly out, the tulips are following on their heels. We have nine more shopping months until Christmas.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It's a Dog's Life

I have nothing against dogs. We had one, a friendly, gentle, not-too-bright Golden Retriever called Murray. That’s him, all muddy and disheveled, with an equally muddy and disheveled Lucy, after they had been swimming in Lake St. Clair off Lake Shore Drive in the up-scale area where there are signs saying “No swimming, no fishing, no picnicking.” I think that even then it was all about the photo shoot for Lucy, because everyone would agree that Murray was mostly Andrew’s dog. Andrew took him off to Iowa one summer where he was able to run free and pick up all kinds of ticks and general nasties. Murray, that is.

We had made the executive decision that the kids could have a dog when they were old enough to look after it, without realizing that a healthy dog was going to be remaining at our house long after the kids departed for college. By default I became the dog walker, which probably resulted in a lot more exercise than I would have undertaken without my canine buddy. It also resulted in a broken wrist, when I took Murray out one icy evening in February. It was certainly winters that were the most problematic, because Murray was an “outside” dog. In the summer there was almost always someone in the yard to throw a ball or pat his head as he curled up under the picnic table. He could amuse himself for hours chasing the squirrels as they ran along the electricity cables way above his head. I often wonder whether he seriously expected to catch one. In the winter he had a wonderful kennel in the garage, insulated by straw. He was warm enough (in fact, after one of those “bring your pets inside” advisories when the weather turned particularly vicious, we tried to lure him into the house, but he wasn’t having any of it.) I just felt that he must be bored, especially when Ernie and I left for work and he had no one around.

All this is to say that I wish dogs well (not to the extent that Bev Sykes
does as she lovingly fosters and hand-rears puppies.) I’ve changed enough diapers: I don’t want to be scraping that stuff off the floor.

I know that my children have based some purchasing decisions on whether a car can accommodate four child seats (the Honda Odyssey does particularly well), but I have learned that 47% of dog owners think of their pets when buying a car. Consequently the car companies are paying attention to the needs of a dog ferrying public. According to an article in Marketwatch, Volvo is advertising features specifically for dog hauling, including a vertical divider ($157) “if you don’t want pooch to tear into the groceries.” The article continues:

Some dog owners who travel a lot use airline crates to keep all the accoutrements of traveling with pets—the wads of hair, the canine slobber, the unfortunate results of queasy stomachs—contained.
There’s a lot more on the practical features for man’s best friend (washable urethane flooring, plastic ramps to help arthritic dogs into cars) and then we move on to the luxury items. We have dog booster seats and slings. “The latter attach to a car’s headrests and look a bit like the vinyl lunch boxes office workers carry. Pampered pets can sit in sheepskin, their harnesses attached to seatbelts.” And for the dog who has everything? Doggles, of course—goggles that fend off flying rocks, insects and harmful rays when the dog sticks his nose out the window.

Somehow I can’t see Murray in doggles. I like to remember him chasing squirrels through my flower beds.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The British Invasion

Among my guilty secrets is American Idol. It was a stroke of genius on the part of some programming functionary to air the show at this time of the year. A dose of this program cheers up even the most SAD-befuddled people. It is rather a dumb show for me to watch: even my best friends will tell you I am completely tone-deaf and there are many occasions when I hear a performance and think it is the worst thing I have ever heard, only to have the judging triumvirate declare it a stellar performance. It works the other way too. What do I know of “pitchy” and “getting in front of the music?” Worse still, about 95% of the time I have never heard of the song being performed.

But not this week. The theme was “The British Invasion.” My profile is brief, but helps explain why I was familiar with all the songs performed on Tuesday (except that rock number from the chick with the red streaks.) O the memories! I was back in my tiny bedroom in Bedford Crescent, listening to Pick of the Pops. I am pretty certain the show aired on Sunday evenings and I listened to it on the radio my father built for me. (Pretty handy, my dad: he built our first TV, the one where the picture was upside down until he reversed some gizmo.) By the time I left home we had passed through the Elvis era and had moved on to those performers who became known as the British Invasion. I can still remember the words and the tunes of a number of those songs, some of which I haven’t heard for over 40 years. I could find CDs, I know, but it wouldn’t be the same and I don’t listen much to music these days.

I want to take back my nasty remarks about Peter Noone. He was a coach on this show and though I wouldn’t pay to sit through a whole concert by him, I thought he was a lot of fun. He certainly hasn’t aged much, especially when you compare him to people like Ron Wood and Mick Jagger. And as for Lulu, she looked smashing.

All in all, the show made me sad. Not because the contestants didn’t do the songs justice, but because most of them had never heard any songs from that era before they had to perform one. Why should they? None is much above 30. Even Simon Cowell admitted he wasn’t familiar with one of the songs. But how can anyone hope to join the ranks of great performers of today without a nod to the great performers of yesterday? I will cling to my memories of my little room, and the radio in its square box sitting on the red formica table that my dad also made. I remember my parents referring to the music I loved as “that row.” I admit to making equally disparaging remarks about the music my kids played. Tempora Mutantur.

FYI: I think the red-streaked girl could have sung a wicked House of the Rising Sun.

Monday, March 19, 2007

There are Many Reasons . . .

. . . why I am glad Lucy is home for a while.

This is one of them!

If you look very carefully at her hands—sans gloves—you can see they are turning red. All those lectures about avoiding hypothermia were for naught.

Patrick is Nine

Kate and Ron gave a birthday dinner for him on Saturday so he could celebrate with his uncle and his aunts and cousins. Gone is the era of fluffy animals and plastic cars: he was delighted with his presents of games and books. The book he is holding is an old copy of A Christmas Carol which my parents gave to me on my ninth birthday. I hope Patrick will treasure it for another fifty eight years.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Team Rudy

This is not a political blog. That would not be appropriate for someone who doesn’t get to vote. But I do reserve the right to comment on candidates and campaigns on a theoretical level and from a non-partisan viewpoint. After all, I’m a West Wing junkie, who often daydreams of a life as an arthritic Josh Leiman, proffering wise strategic suggestions to the denizens of the West Wing.

So what would I tell Rudolph Giuliani? I would suggest that at this stage in the game he—and indeed all the potential candidates—needs to forge a strong identity and place himself squarely in the sights of the American public. Physically there’s not much Giuliani can do. Put him in a line-up with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and . . . well, you get the picture. Absent any distinguishing characteristics of gender or ethnicity even a shock of grey hair or a southern accent would help. When I have trouble visualizing Rudolph Giuliani, I conjure up the image of Bob Newhart, take away the phone and add a “I heart NY” baseball cap, and voilà, here’s Rudy.

So it’s his message that has to be strong and distinctive. This week we got a letter inviting us to become part of “Team Rudy.” At least, Ernie did, because “you are someone who makes up your mind early. You are influential in your community. . . " Hmm. Such is the insight of the “Rudy Giuliani Presidential Exploratory Committee, Inc.” Now this missive should be a strong introduction to the candidate, right? His defining message?

Sidebar: there are several words in the English language that set my teeth on edge. One is “passion.” Ever watched Project Runway? Every one of those people wants to avoid elimination because “I have a passion for creating clothes.” Every one. Same with the contestants on Top Chef. How does one get passionate about squid gelée? Remember the skivvy on Upstairs, Downstairs who had a passion for the coachman? She hanged herself: that’s real passion. Another word I can’t stand is “vision.” St. Bernadette had one: the rest of us use the word as an amorphous excuse for lack a particulars.

So what does Rudy (well, I think he wants us to call him Rudy) say?

I am passionate about seizing our opportunity and sharing a vision of how America can be better. I want your help to begin that work today.
What does that mean? Too many gerunds, for one thing.

What’s a ”better” America? A richer America? A more educated America? A safer America? A more moral America? Get on message if you want a distinctive identity to attract votes, Bob . . . er, Rudy.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Happy Birthday, Andrew

It was wonderful to talk to Andrew today. The weather in the DC area is great: his daffodils are flourishing. His two little boys are suffering the effects of a bug and he and Marcie are watching Liesl for signs that she has caught it too. The joys of parenthood!

As usual, I have too many photos of some things and not enough of what I need. Obviously it's time for a trip east to bring my photos of Andrew up to date. Until then, I'll make do with this one from last summer when he and Marcie brought everyone to Michigan. Just seeing the green grass cheers me up.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Climb Every Mountain

I love books about exploration and adventure. We have already talked about crossing miles and miles of arid sand in search of salt ,
about sailing across a treacherous ocean on a few square feet of balsa wood and the saga of the great Robert Falcon Scott .

I’ve read a number of books about traveling unexplored and hostile rivers in the last few months: Nepal and Siberia seem full of them, not to mention their accompanying gorges and rapids. My favorite area of exploration is mountaineering. The first paperback book I remember owning was Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna. The name of that mountain, like so many others, is a siren song: Changabang, Nanda Devi, Dunagiri, Kangchenjunga, Nuptse. If you want an uplifting but tragic account of mountaineering, try the splendid The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2 by Jennifer Jordan.

I just read a book about the pioneers of British mountaineering, the climbers who followed Sir Edmund Hillary. How sad that his first ascent route—the equivalent of the four-minute mile—is now referred to as the “yak route.” I’m somewhat critical of the book, and I’ll get to the reason later, so I am not going to name it. The last time I mentioned a book (fortunately favorably) the author left a comment here and I don’t want this guy coming after me with an ice pick.

So why did I plough through all 516 pages? I couldn’t ignore the importance and the drama of the selected climbs. The book was also a concise history of British mountaineering and the only the British could understand the chasm between the two schools of climbers—those who had taken up the sport at their public school or at Sandhurst and honed their skills as members of the Oxford or Cambridge Mountaineering Clubs and on trips to the Alps, and those who ventured at weekends from Northern industrial towns and their jobs as laborers to the nearby Peak District with little or no equipment but a passion for climbing. To their credit the two groups merged on these expeditions where skill and courage were the common bond.

And it is the story of these men that held my interest. What an extraordinary bunch of human beings. Time after time I would follow them agonizingly down a mountain after an expedition marked by unbelievable hardship and suffering and breathe a sigh of relief—only to turn the page and find them packing up for another expedition. Doug Scott literally crawled down from a mountain with two broken legs, but more often death claimed the wounded or the unwary.

So what didn’t I like about the book? The author is a climber, but he wasn’t on these expeditions. He knows the bare outline of the climbs, but the climbers certainly didn’t take notebooks along with them. They were often too tired to melt snow for a hot drink: there was no chance they could preserve their impressions and their thoughts. So the author decided to manufacture these musings as a filler. Obviously he needed to pad the pages: there are only so many ways to describe ice and snow and rock and cold. My feeling is that he could have included a lot more in terms of background and logistics—who financed the trips, how they provisioned them—and certainly some maps. I could have used some diagrams of the faces of the mountains, showing the site of the various camps. His photos were back and white, and though he wrote at length about the rock band on the Southwest face of Everest, he doesn’t attempt to point it out on the photo.

It is the thoughts of the climbers that he manufactured in labored New Age jargon that really put me off:

He felt empty and abandoned, furious and stricken, frightened, without resource. He wanted the night to end. He wished it might go on forever, to delay what was to come.
What amazed him was the inexhaustible nature of his memory. He could skitter anywhere he liked, crossing continents of time to recover fields of blurry data. He was a boy in a library; he plucked books at random from the shelves to find he had read them all.
I really didn’t get the significance of this passage:
. . . he was conscious of carrying his heart in his body. The earth became a moving flood and entered him: he woke and struggled and black fear rose—it seemed composed of everything he knew. The sun receded and vanished and something clanged; he felt a terrible pain. The flood of earth had turned to pitch or cinder but someone had left a door just barely ajar and not for the first time in his life he was lost entirely in a wish to thank someone. He reached for the door but something caught and his head turned as if to greet or beckon a pursuer.
I was too busy unscrambling the metaphors to realize Dougal Haston had died. A similar barrage of woolly mystic drivel obscured the death of Joe Tasker on the Northeast Ridge of Everest.

It was hard to mourn him: I was too busy looking to see if John Tesh was dragging a piano up the mountain to play the requisite accompanying mood music.

That Was the Weekend that Was

Just in case anyone missed me, we had a busy few days. Lucy arrived home from DC, bringing with her garbage bags full of her winter clothes. She has put her furniture in storage and will drive back for her summer clothes. In the midst of the Welcome Home festivities, Ron landed up in Bon Secours with . . . something. Looks like it is not appendicitis, as they thought and we are still waiting to hear more. And the painter is coming tomorrow so we are busy moving furniture from our bedroom and finding an empty bed to sleep in for a week or so.

If you are looking for something to read, go check out the winners of the seventh annual weblog awards. That will keep you busy for a while.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Haute Couture for the Wee Ones

We’ve talked before about the totally inappropriate catalogs that have appeared in my mailbox: perhaps you remember the up-scale athletic outfits or the pricey ersatz Tyrolean haberdashery. Who could forget the sausage casings?

Right now I am looking at another catalog. It is much more up my alley–children’s clothing—but I won’t be buying anything, partly because it is way too expensive. I keep it beside my sewing machine to get ideas for sewing for my grandchildren. That’s probably illegal, so I won’t name the catalog. Their little girls’ dresses are adorable and I have been blessed with four granddaughters, so I can start getting busy for summer. But there is also the matter of eleven grandsons. Cute seersucker rompers don’t do it for nine-year-olds, so I was thumbing through the pages looking for inspiration when I came across these:

In my opinion “white gabardine” and “boys 2-4T” are not words that should ever appear in the same sentence. And when you throw in “dry clean”, I wonder what planet these designers come from. I love my grandsons, and Easter is coming and the Eton Suit (sizes 4-7, zip fly, $106.00) is really lovely, but . . .

It also comes in ivory.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

My Name is Nohbdy

“ Mother, father, and friends, everyone calls me Nohbdy.” In Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, that’s how Odysseus responds to Polyphemus’ question: “Tell me, how are you called?”

Clever answer, Odysseus, and one which stood you in great stead as you escaped from that dangerous island. But while the answer Odysseus gave was tricky, the question was straightforward. Not so the question of nomenclature facing those who sign on to the various parts of the Internet. Questions pop up on the screen requesting “default name”, “admin name”, “user name”, “display name” or “account name.” Once in a while they take pity on you and explain what the name means and what it will be used for. The unwary find their names appearing where they hoped for anonymity—and vice versa.

Whether to use a real name or a pseudonym is a problem that plagues forum contributors and bloggers. On the whole, the younger writers who are employed or want to be employed hide their identities. No employer or prospective in-law wants to read exactly what the object of their interest got up to on Saturday night. Heather B. Armstrong single-handedly introduced a whole new word into the English language when her employer found her blog and fired her. My heart went out to the guy begging for help on the Blogger Help Group. He had published a Blog under his real name using the “new” Blogger and his employer demanded that he remove the identifying features (or else.) He couldn’t figure out how to do it.

It’s the older bloggers who cheerfully write under their own names. Just take a look at the writers from the 1930’s who contribute to the ageless project. What have we got to lose? Our pensions?

If a blogger wants his friends to find him, he has to forgo anonymity. Odysseus instinctively knew what we find easy to understand today. Googling “nohbdy” doesn’t yield good results.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Gospel According to Sudoku

What is it with the clergy and Doonesbury? If you scroll down Septuagent’s entries for February you will find several posts including Doonesbury strips. A couple of weeks ago I heard a homily based on another strip in the Iraq war series where the Iraqi soldier tells his American military partner he cannot capture a Sunni suspect alive, because he is sworn to vengeance for the killing of one of his family members. “What? When did this happen?” asks the American. The reply: “1387.” I don’t have to tell you the moral of that homily.

I was struck lately by a message from a recent hobby if mine: Sudoku. I had never tried one—I‘m a crossword puzzle gal—until my sister in law was here from England this summer. She got me hooked. I am dreadful at them, but I find them strangely calming, even in the face of my inability to solve anything more than a simple puzzle. Logic was never a strong point of mine, and even more disturbing are the incidents where I find the right place for a number and put it in the wrong column. The ophthalmologist tells me there is nothing wrong with my eyes, so it must be plain carelessness.

When we were in Chicago, Ernie’s sister saw me wrestling with a puzzle and I tried to explain them to her. She’s a good bridge player and was soon using her thinking-ahead skills on a puzzle. At one point it was obvious she had made an error and her solution was to go back and erase the last number she had entered. I explained it wouldn’t work. I don’t think she believed me.

Last week I was working on a puzzle and realized that something had gone irretrievably wrong. When I am stuck, I usually don’t look at the solutions to the puzzle, but this time I did. What was amazing was that I must have made a mistake right at the beginning. I had managed to get half way through with just about every number in the wrong place and, in spite of the compounding of errors, it had all worked, until suddenly I came to a grinding halt.

Tangled web, indeed. Figure out the message there.