Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Change of Plans

Up early today. We were looking forward to going to Elizabeth’s to look after grandchildren while she went for her (possibly) penultimate check-up with her doctor. For once, the weather forecast was correct and there was a healthy snowfall on the ground and snow coming down, soft and fluffy, but relentless. It looked pretty and it wasn’t really enough to keep us from venturing out, but Jeff’s company had told everyone to take work home, so our services were not needed. There will be plenty we can do to help in a few weeks.

There’s something luxurious about “found” time: the time you didn’t expect to have. I started with an extra cup of coffee as I dealt with the newspaper. It was somewhat disheartening to read this article. If Detroit doesn’t get its 2005-06 and 2006-07 audits filed in a couple of days, the city stands to lose $52,000,000 in state revenue sharing. Apparently city officials figure they will have the earlier audit(14 months late) done in a day or two, but the 2006-07 audit hasn’t been started yet. A councilwoman said "This is a matter of grave concern to me. It could have a dramatic impact on our ability to deliver services." Duh.

So I turned to something more fluffy and learned that the preliminary ratings for the 80th annual Academy Awards telecast are 14% lower than the least-watched ceremony ever. I am not surprised. TV executives will deconstruct the events. Who should host next year? Were the jokes too political? What film clips should we use? But they miss the point.

Time was people flocked to the movies and became enamored of “stars” for their acting ability or their looks. Then the Oscars were a huge bonus. It was a rare opportunity to see your favorites, what they had chosen to wear and whom they came with to the ceremony. Did they smile and look friendly? Did they applaud each other?

It is all so different now. Tabloids and E! Online and Entertainment Tonight and You-Tube and People Magazine and even the mainstream newspapers write stories and show photos of romances and addictions, babies and rehab, infidelity and Hollywood haute couture. You know what the stars are (and aren’t) wearing every day and if you wonder about their fashion sense, you need go no further than those witty, vitriolic women at go fug yourself. I watched a couple of Red Carpet shows and heard the same dresses being labeled both the best and the worst. One tatty-looking Brit-sounding man with a blue satin rag instead of a tie (or shirt) was gobsmacked that the most spectacular woman a on the Red Carpet was a model, Heidi Klum, and not an actress. Hadn’t he noticed that none of the people entering the theatre was required to perform a Shakespearean monolog? Rather they minced and posed and made a moue for the camera. What’s that got to do with film?

Once inside the theater we had, as John Stewart promised, a bunch of people giving each other awards. I think I might actually enjoy a segment explaining what a sound mixer is, what he does, what he is attempting to achieve. But I do not enjoy seeing a bunch of sound mixers bound on the stage and start thanking a lot of people I have never heard of. I doubt the “stars” do either.

The recent crippling writers’ strike was caused in part by an industry refusing to acknowledge that times have changed. New technologies and delivery methods require new compensation procedures.

And maybe someone needs to re-think the whole Oscar business.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Last February Birthday

Today is Ron's birthday. I won't say how old he was, but the beard he grew a few weeks ago had several silver threads nestling in it. So goodbye beard. As usual, I have way too many photos of dead ash trees and not enough of family members when their birthdays roll around, but I rather like this photo of Ron with his niece, Evelyn, which I took last summer. Happy Birthday to a great son-in-law.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Embarrassment de Riches

I love tomatoes. A big, juicy tomato, its bursting skin still warm from the rays of the sun, is my idea of good eats. I have written before about our inability to grow decent slicing tomatoes. No matter, I have resigned myself to a lifetime of cherry and grape tomatoes and we get through plenty of them.

In any event, homegrown tomatoes are only readily available in Michigan in August and September. Then I buy tomatoes for salads at the grocery store or at farmers’ markets, and as the winter gets more oppressive and comfort food beckons, I turn to recipes calling for cans of tomatoes to supply color and, so they tell me, lycopene. What could be easier than adding a few cans of tomatoes to my shopping list?

What indeed! For years recipes for soups or stews stipulated, “Add a can of whole tomatoes and break them up with a wooden spoon.” It seemed an exercise in futility, so I was happy when the manufacturers introduced diced tomatoes. But look what Messrs. Hunt, Kroger, Dei Fratelli, Red Gold and Del Monte have come up with now. We can buy our tomatoes stewed, peeled, whole, crushed, diced (even petite diced) or chopped. We can buy organic versions of all of the above. There are subsets of the main varieties: steam peeled, chopped Mexican and chopped Italian. Our choices are not limited to cut. We have to decide whether we want our tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano, no salt added, chili ready, fire roasted, all natural (as opposed to . . . ?), zesty chili style, with jalapeno peppers or with garlic and onion.

I have headache writing about it. I must go and get dinner, which tonight will feature pork chops and applesauce. That’s chunky applesauce, as opposed to organic, unsweetened, home-style, natural, cinnamon flavored . . .

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cadets, 1956-59

When we reached the age of sixteen or so, we were no longer eligible to be Guides, and for most girls, that would be the end of the road. But we were fortunate: our school, Enfield County, had a troop of Cadets, a companion organization for older teenagers.

Our troop was lead by Miss. F. Sharp, my formidable Classics teacher, assisted by Miss Margaret Hodgson (funny, we actually knew her first name), who was a retired County School gym teacher. We must have held our meetings after school—we all traveled a way to get to school, so we wouldn’t have gone home to change and then returned. Did we eat a meal together? I think I need to pick the brains of some of the people who attended these meetings with me. I don’t recall a single activity in the two or more years I was a cadet. This photo of my friends Diana and Ann is labeled, “Cadet Investiture Test, Chigwell, Easter 1957”, so we must have had to prove our worth, and it looks like cooking sausages over an open fire was a requisite skill.

What I do remember is the camps that we held in the summer. I have lots of fading black and white photos commemorating a trip to Cornwall and two to Scotland. I remember the train journey north. I assume we had all our tents etc. in the luggage compartment and Miss Sharp had arranged for us to be picked up in a lorry. All the food for the week or so were to camp had been ordered and the latrines had been dug. It never occurred to me at the time what a headache all the logistics were. They were great times. We took it in turns to cook, we went on walks and trips, and in Cornwall, at least, we relaxed on the beach. I remember that Miss Hodgson, who was pretty ancient at the time (or at least, she seemed so to us) was especially fond of standing on her hands in the sea with her head under water. We probably sang Kookaburra, too.

I labeled my photos well. Holy Loch, Kyles of Bute, Glen Massen, the Trossachs, Glen Eagles Station and the final destinations in 1959, Portscatho and St. Just-in-Roseland. After that, I would be off to University, never again to be assigned latrine duty. Here we are, gathered around the flagpole. That’s Miss Sharp on the left, Miss Hodgson on the right. Both of them are now dead. I am still in touch with one of the cadets in this photo and I would dearly love to know what happened to some of the others.

For Your Reading Pleasure

I interrupt my memories of childhood to introduce you to a new figure on the Detroit blogging scene. You will find her blog, Detroit PR Guru, listed under “People I know.” I have known Barbara since she was a student of Ernie’s at Wayne State. She now runs a successful PR business and I look forward to reading more of her views on the Detroit and national scene as viewed through the eyes of a Public Relations professional.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Be Prepared

We were eating lunch the other day when Ernie asked, à propos of something he was reading, “Have you ever heard of someone called Baden-Powell?”

How could I not have? So many of us grew up in England as members of the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides (known in the States as the equal opportunity Girl Scouts) and we revered Robert Baden-Powell as the founder of the organizations.

Girls under the age of 10 or 11 could be Brownies. I don’t know why, but I was never a Brownie. They wore —you guessed it—brown uniforms, cotton tunics, I think, and their pack (nest?) leaders were called Brown Owl and Tawny Owl.

Around the time of the 11+ exam, we were eligible to become Girl Guides. We met on Monday evenings at 6:00 in St. George’s Church Hall, and I remember Monday teatime being a rush to find the Brasso and iron my tie. I must have walked to the meetings with my friends Diana and Yvonne and we joined about 25 or so other girls in the 11-16 age group. Our leader was Beryl Miller and her sister Brenda was her assistant. I really am having trouble with my nouns here: if there is anyone from England reading this, help me out. I am not sure what the leaders were called, or whether we were troups or packs. But I do remember we were divided up into patrols, with patrol leaders. My patrol was called White Rose and we proudly wore the White Rose emblem on our uniforms. I eventually became the White Rose patrol leader. That’s the significance of the two white stripes on my left pocket and probably of the lanyard, to which a whistle was attached. I am not sure what we actually did at the meetings. I remember a lot of marching around the hall and we finally landed up in our patrols, lined up to the left of the leader. We then had to adjust positions to finish up an arm’s length away from the next person. Then came inspection and we saluted with our special Guide salute as the leader made her way to our patrol. We could be found wanting for unpolished badges (hence the Brasso) or malformed ties. These ties were actually large triangles of yellow cotton, which were folded in some arcane ritual into a strip. The fancy knot was pre-tied and the whole business fastened around our necks with a knot at the back under the collar. The point of this complex accessory was preparation for the eventuality of finding ourselves in the presence of someone with a broken arm, so we could whip off the tie, unfold it and make a sling. We practiced constantly, making sure we asked the patient whether the break was in the upper or lower arm, because each scenario required a different sling methodology. Fortunately, I was never required to use my expertise. While in line we recited the Guide promise:

I promise on my honour to do my best to do my duty to God and the Queen, to help other people at all times and to obey the Guide law
and we then broke off for patrol meetings. I remember a lot of knot tying, but I have little recollection of what else we did as we huddled in our little groups of six or seven.

All that marching came in handy, because the patrols took it in turn to carry the Union Jack down the aisle at Morning Prayer at St. George’s. The patrol leader wore a leather flag holder and struggled to keep the flag at the right angle while she bore it to its place in the sanctuary, escorted by two members of the patrol.

We usually wound up our meetings with singing. I am tone deaf, so I hated that part. Some of the songs and rounds were South African, a legacy of Baden Powell’s history, but the one I remember is Australian:
Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree
Merry merry king of the bush is he
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra
Gay your life must be
The badges on my right arm are merit badges. You could earn these for showing expertise in some area. I don’t think we were encouraged to go overboard earning these badges, although I remember some other troups with girls festooned in them. I don’t recall what merit badges I earned. I have a nightmarish recollection of one called Child Care. I had never taken care of a child in my life, but for some inexplicable reason the Cranfields at the end of Bedford Crescent loaned me their four year old, Ruth. I took her somewhere on a bus and we spent the afternoon together in a hall and took part in some activity with bread and jam.

In the pursuit of healthy outdoor activity, we sometimes went camping. This photo bears the caption “Whitsun Camp, 1956: Theydon Bois.” I appear to scrubbing a pan. Our camps were close to home and of short duration. We didn’t get serious about camping until we became Cadets. But that’s for another entry.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Three More Birthdays

There were three birthdays in the last four days. First came our daughter-in-law Marcie in Maryland. I am a great admirer of Marcie's organizational skills and she puts them to good use in her life as the mother of four small children and a supervisor in a Social Work agency charged with protecting children in DC.

Next came grandson Charlie, who celebrated his 8th birthday. His siblings and his Detroit cousins and the respective parents came over for brunch on Sunday. There was chocolate cake and ice cream and Charlie was delighted with his gifts. His knowledge of the family tree of all the bionicles is most impressive!

Today Liesl turned 6. She's the proud sister of three younger brothers and can more than hold her own. Unlike the schools her Detroit cousins attend, her school in Rockville has all day kindergarten, so this year she started school in real earnest.

Happy Birthday to all three of them. Just one more to go in February.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I am an old girl. Specifically a dues-paying member of the Enfield County School Old Girls’ Association. I recently received the latest edition of the newsletter with the un-welcome, if not entirely unexpected, news that the association is likely to fold up its tents in 2009. As is often the case with organizations run by volunteers, too few valiant leaders have been struggling to steer the organizations, too few old girls are interested. One of the joint chairs, Harriett Nailon, stated it eloquently: “the structure, ethos, organisation and activities of ECSOGA are not attractive to those aged under 55.”

As a member (significantly) over the age of 55, I shall be sad. I’ll still have memories, fading slightly every year, but there will no longer be a structure for keeping track of some of my fellow pupils. In actuality, not many of my contemporaries have made their present circumstances know to the association as it presently exists. That is one of the reasons why I was so happy to spend time with my friend Ruth on my visit to England this Christmas. We patched together some of the old days from our joint—and sometimes differing–memories. To further quote Harriett as she defined our era:

Memories of Houses, a spirit of (sometimes fierce) competitiveness, the annual Carol Service in St. Andrew’s church, echoes of World War II and the Cold War, impassioned debates about CND, listening to Radio Luxembourg, hitch-hiking, the terror of unmarried motherhood, how difficult it was for some of us to keep our stocking seams straight, the motto—ONWARD EVER— so (frankly) Victorian and confident, our taste for formality and decorum learned at a school where hats or berets were compulsory for two terms of the year, where some pupils (not students) chose to wear white gloves with their blazers in summer, where rules included walking along corridors in single file and silence, where pupils stood up when a mistress entered the room, where each and every day started with the whole school assembling for prayers, a hymn and a reading of a religious (generally Biblical) , philosophical or moral nature and where Jerusalem and The National Anthem were known by heart and proudly sung at regular intervals.
I have picked up a few English readers of a certain age, and all of this will sound—perhaps annoyingly—familiar to them. It evokes memories for me, some of which I must capture before they fade into the dim mist of forgetfulness.

Here’s a photo of the school prefects of 1957-58. That’s me scowling second from the right, second row from the bottom. We were members of VI B Arts or Science (junior prefects?) and VI A Arts or Science (senior prefects?) By the time we reached the Sixth form, gym slips had given way to skirts and blouses, and one student (Anne Robbins, what became of you?) is wearing the “school dress”, which wasn’t too popular as it couldn’t be washed. Notice our ties and our prefects’ badges and the white ankle socks I mentioned in the last post. The white sashes worn by some are the coveted “white girdles” awarded each term to the students who had shown exemplary conduct, outstanding neatness of dress and, I suppose, obnoxious brown-nosing. I was awarded one at some point, but obviously not at the time of this photo.

That’s Ruth, sitting one place removed from me, and next to her are the two magnificent women who ran the school. Next to Ruth is the Deputy Head, Miss F. Sharp, who was a strong disciplinarian and my outstanding and beloved Latin and Greek teacher. She knew her stuff! To her right is Miss M. C. Sharp (no relation), the Headmistress for all my time at the school.

If my grandchildren read this, I suspect they will laugh their heads off. But I want to preserve for them my memories of another time and another place. Onward Ever!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ah, bitter chill it was!

"The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:"

Keats’ poem, St. Agnes’ Eve, was on our “O” level syllabus, and I was never fond of it (though it made a lot more sense than that Basil pot poem.) I wasn’t impressed by Keats’ description of cold. I was used to it. We all were.

It isn’t outside cold that I remember in post-war England. It was the cold inside. Our house, like that of most if not all my friends, had no central heating. We made use of one small coal-burning fireplace, which had to be cleaned out and relit in the morning. I really don’t think it threw out much heat, but it felt cozy if you sat right by it and ran the risk of the ensuing chilblains. The fireplace was in our dining room, where we spent most of our time and I seem to remember an electric fire in the unused fireplace in the “front room.” Our bedrooms were always chilly, but a hot water bottle helped warm up the sheets. There were no flannel sheets or pajamas, which would have helped. I used to put my underwear in bed with me, so that I could jump into it in the morning. We had vests and liberty bodices, which we topped with jumpers and wooly cardigans, but we didn’t have much comfort for our nether regions. We wore skirts, which ruled out long johns, and I don’t think warm tights had been invented. White cotton ankle socks were our uniform, in and out of school.

I had a small electric fire in my room so I could do my homework there in the evenings and I also have vivid memories of lying beneath the warm water in the bath and dreading the moment when I would have to get out and dry myself in the chilly bathroom.

But that cold pales into comparison with a day like today in Michigan. It is cold. Frigid.

The photo on the left shows the azalea in front of the house as it will look in at the end of April. The photo on the right shows how the poor thing looks today, with its leaves curled up to combat the icy temperatures.

So how did I spend the day? In part reading about a woman who, at the age of 63, walked from one end of the Gobi Desert to the other, accompanied by her husband and while she was still suffering from the effects of a car accident. In the currrent chapter the temperature is 116° and the camel just rolled over on their water jugs and split them wide open.

Who invented the weather anyway?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Back to the Window

Remember my waiting window? This is the view from it last night as I ... waited. The snow was coming down thick and fast, Ernie (phone message as he left Elizabeth's "I’ll be back in fifty minutes”) had stayed too long across town and the hands of the clock were almost through their second rotation. The view was certainly pretty enough. Maybe you can get an idea, even though I haven’t quite got the hang of the setting on my new camera thoughtfully identified with the icon of a snowman and designated “shoot whitish scene brightly”. An hour and three quarters after his phone call, he pulled into the drive.

And I edited out the wallpaper because I still haven’t replaced it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Blow Out those Candles

It was an honor to be mentioned in Ben Burn’s column in last week’s Grosse Pointe News. Ben is a distinguished local writer, editor and journalism professor, and he noted that I live in the Park where I write “heartwarming copy about life and times in that fair city.” So enough of perjury and rhetorical devices for the time-being and let me catch up on a few birthdays I glossed over while I was without camera. I like to mark these milestones in my grandchildren’s lives.

October 28 was a real milestone. Emmanuel was my first grandchild to reach double digits. I couldn’t take a photo when we saw him in Virginia or when he was here for Thanksgiving, but here is one of his entire All-Star soccer team. That’s him on the upper right. He was the only player to score a goal in the semi-final or the final of the All-Star Championship, but a penalty by the other side meant the end of their first-place trophy hopes. The second-place trophy looks pretty impressive.

Evelyn got half-way to double digits last November 1 and her sister Caroline was four this January 3. I took this picture of the two of them when we went to Canton on Tuesday so Elizabeth could go for a check-up. They are great friends and we see them here with ballet outfits, hair ribbons and matching crackers. They are ganging up against their brothers in the hope that the new addition will be a new sister. Evelyn (right) is a cat lover and officially in charge of Faygo, while Caroline (left) has a duck fetish and this week’s photo (right) shows that while other people build snow-men, her family have mastered the art of the snow-duck. Good work, Jeff!

I did manage to scan a photo of Nathaniel when his birthday rolled around in December. Al followed tradition and took him off to have his haircut as soon as he turned one—much to Gody’s dismay.

That left Eleanor who shared her fourth birthday this year with the Super Bowl. To avoid any conflict of interest, Kate and Ron celebrated on the day before and we joined the family for dinner. Eleanor has the whole business figured out, from blowing out the candles to opening gifts. She still loves her “babies,” but she is now the proud owner of her own bionicle.

More birthdays coming up this month, so be prepared. It will be heart-warming!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Give this Guy an "A."

Couldn't get the HTML to work in the comments section, maestrocc, so here's your answer. Praeteritio. And thanks to Chris Renaud, the original list, in one form or another, made it to various Classics Departments. See here, here, here and here.


Saturday, February 02, 2008


When we returned from Chicago, we found Detroit enmeshed in a mayoral scandal. The Free Press, in a piece of investigative journalism reminiscent of Woodward and Bernstein, had unearthed text messages between the mayor and his chief-of-staff indicating that the testimony Mayor Kilpatrick had given at a trial last year was less than truthful and that the two of them were indeed engaged in extra-marital hi-jinks . Apparently hizzonner had been absent the day they covered perjury in Law School.

Now I am not going to give a homily here. Enough stones have been cast and the windows of my glasshouse are thin. So I am not going to write about the fact that the mayor’s select memory on the stand cost the city of Detroit $9,000,000 plus some considerable lawyers’ fees. I am not going to write about the firing of decent public servants who were doing their jobs with honesty and integrity, presumably with the acquiescence of the mayor’s stable of bodyguards. I am not going to discuss the fact that the “other woman” has resigned from her position as chief-of-staff and, since she is currently in Law School, will presumably never be allowed to practice law if the Wayne County prosecutor lines up her ducks. I am not going to mention that the mayor went “into seclusion” and got together a group of writers (from a Hollywood picket line?) who wrote a speech which was a masterpiece of obfuscation. I’m not going to mention the obvious parallels to another politician which came to mind as the mayor of Detroit sat there clutching his wife’s forgiving hand.

I am going to talk about language. Semantics. Word choice. Here are two extracts from the mayor’s address to the citizens of Detroit:

  • I ask you not to have helicopters flying around our home. I ask you to leave them alone. I am the mayor. I made the mistake. I am accountable.
  • I told my sons this past weekend that when you make a mistake you learn from it. You get up. You dust yourself off and you keep moving forward.
See that word that crept in there? Mistake. Somehow a mistake doesn’t call for atonement or remorse, compensation or forgiveness. Forget about the nine million dollars or the ruined lives. Mistakes are harmless little things, aren’t they?

I might not have labored the point had I not listened the very next day to an interview on NPR between Jack Lessenbury and Rep. Paul Condino. I missed the beginning of the broadcast and when I tracked it down, it appears that it dates back to 2006 and I didn’t follow up to see the outcome of the legislation that Rep. Condino was proposing. I am not opposed, under certain circumstances, to offererring clemency to a prisoner who committed murder as a juvenile. But in his analysis, which you can hear in the audio story, Mr. Lessenbury (who I think is a fine journalist) supports the legislation by saying it isn’t right for someone to be imprisoned for life for a mistake he committed as a juvenile. Murder as a mistake? If I were on the parole board I would want to hear an applicant admit to a crime, express sorrow and remorse, and prove he was ready to live an exemplary life, not take refuge in the word “mistake.” Same goes for the mayor.

And the title of this post? Let’s introduce a little levity here. It seems like the perfect time to tell my favorite classical anecdote. Anyone who remembers their Latin will tell you that “peccavi” is the Latin for “I have sinned.” Here’s the story, adapted from a letter to The New York Times:

The 1840's was a time of British expansion in India. There were those in Britain who doubted the wisdom of too rapid an advance, and in particular, the capture of the province of Sind, which was thought likely to lead to an overextension of lines of communication. (Sir Charles) Napier was therefore under express orders not to capture the territory. Once he discovered, however, how little resistance there was, he took the province with ease. He telegraphed back to headquarters a marvellous double entendre—Peccavi.

Enough of history, ethics and rhetoric for tonight.

Friday, February 01, 2008

What's in a Name?

I got back from England, posted a couple of entries—and took off again. This time to Chicago for an Ament mini-reunion. Ernie got together with his brother and two sisters at Mary Ann’s house in Glen Ellyn. The door is always open and the welcome mat is always out. It was cold and dreary, so for the most part we stayed in and ate wonderful food and enjoyed the company of our nephews and our niece and their families who came to visit.

There was lots of spirited discussion, much of it about politics. Remember, I promised I wouldn’t discuss politics except in a theoretical way, but I feel a general comment is in order. Perhaps this point has been analyzed somewhere else and I missed it. I suspect someone or other will produce a dissertation in the near future with the title “Nomenclature of the Democratic candidates and its effect on the voting patterns of the uncommitted.” For the most part—and I know this is a generalization—people in normal conversations tend to refer to the candidates as “Hillary”, “Obama” and “John Edwards”. Well, until “John Edwards” dropped out. Is it demeaning to call a candidate by her first name? Were there campaign posters for "Harry " or "Franklin?"

When I got back from Chicago, I spent some time catching up with my favorite bloggers and with the news from England. Here the BBC reports on the South Carolina primary. After an introductory paragraph in which all three major candidates are identified by their first and last names, the playing field is leveled and they are subsequently referred to as Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards. This is no insult. In England a GP is “Dr. Smith”, while a surgeon is “Mr. Smith”. There is a reference to “Former President Bill Clinton”, but his wife has no more of a special title than my mother had.

But look what Mrs. Thatcher delivered.