Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Cotswold WayFifteen miles of sheep dung cover the northern end of Cotswold Way, a series of footpaths that meander through English farmland from the city of Bath to the town of Chipping Campden. This is the heart of England’s Cotswold region, with its yellowish stone villages, rolling hedgerows, and loosely piled rock walls. On the beautiful October day I spent along these paths, it was easy to understand why walking is such a beloved English pastime, second only to standing in orderly queues.

Broadway Tower

Finally, I am able to get a photo without anyone in it. No wait…

The official Cotswold Way is marked with a National Trails acorn, which is variously displayed on metal waymarks or carved in posts and signs along the trail. But the main path is crossed and re-crossed by countless other public trails, bridalways, and something the English tantalizing call “permissive paths.” With all the connecting trails, it is easy to put together a loop through the countryside rather than needing to backtrack. This means that you might pass the same walkers going in various directions two or three times on your way to a destination. It also makes it easy to get lost.

Much of the Cotswold Way is not a path at all, but just a general direction to be followed across a field of grass or mud or crops. Arrows point vaguely toward an unseen stile or kissing gate somewhere beyond the horizon, and you are on your own to find a way there.

The most distinctive structure along the northern leg of the Cotswold Way is an architectural folly called the Broadway Tower. I spent much of my time at the tower trying to capture a photograph of it without any people. I told myself that others would like to see the structure itself, but there were so many walkers, and they kept getting in the picture. In retrospect, I should have focused on the people. Broadway Tower, like Chartres Cathedral, remains essentially the same through the centuries. But the tourists, after a time, become increasingly strange and interesting.

Leaving Broadway Tower with a walk across Clump Farm, I came upon something that was already strange and interesting. Potato Road. Now here is something you will never find at Chartres Cathedral.


Potato Road in Clump Farm



St. Nick’s Church in Saintbury


One field, many choices.


Cotswold Way Maintenance Committee

Cotswold Way Maintenance Committee

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ATM Soup

underground_gazpachoLast night I dreamt I was using an ATM in the London Underground to get cash, but inadvertently ordered a £17 bowl of gespacho. Then the machine ate my debit card, and I came away with nothing but a voucher for cold soup. I’ve heard that heart attacks are most common in the early morning hours. Maybe this has to do with circadian rhythms and heart rate, but I think it is more likely related to the stress of having to endure a good night’s sleep.

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divorce plate

Charles and Di Divorce Plate at Windsor Castle

A rival pub owner described Windsor Castle to me as the cluttered basement of an eBay addict. He was talking about the little Windsor Castle pub near Edgware Station in London, which I should point out is not the actual castle where the British royal family lives. That is a different Windsor Castle.

But this Windsor Castle is definitely worth a visit. The walls are covered with curiosities that seem at first glance to be dedicated to the House of Windsor, but also include collections of obsolete tools, celebrity photos, countless plaques, and—my favorite—a bas-relief of the exploits of Sir Francis Drake.

Prince George Plate at Airport

Prince George Plate at Heathrow

The ceiling is covered with commemorative plates, which if you come from earthquake-prone Seattle can be a little unnerving. These plates are really where the royals get their best tribute. Kings and queens, princes and princesses, maybe a distant cousin or two. Having visited the pub in August 2012 (based on the “cluttered basement” recommendation), I was eager to return this year to see what sort of plate they had commemorating the July 22 birth of Prince George. But I couldn’t find one anywhere. Finally I asked the barman, who politely explained that it would be unbecoming to exploit the birth of a child with a plate. That was a private family matter, he said. He said it standing below a plate commemorating the divorce of Charles and Diana—complete with a jagged painted crack.

At Heathrow Airport a week later, my colleague found a plate celebrating the birth of Prince George of Cambridge and was kind enough to share the photo with me. Possibly it is too unbecoming for the hoarder’s museum. Also it is £30 new, and might still be too expensive on eBay.

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Ghoulish GirlTwo blind contour drawings  from my son’s junior high art class: Good Girl and Ghoulish Girl. The exercise required sketching a classmate without looking at the paper. It did not, however, require creating a gruesome version of the model. That was Nick’s idea. Good Girl fulfilled the assignment. Ghoulish Girl took the inevitable distortion of blind sketching to a perfectly (un)natural conclusion.

Good Girl, I tell myself, is real and outgoing and full of confidence. But I see Ghoulish Girl and I remember Annette from my own childhood, who lived in the last remaining farmhouse on Pacific Avenue with its peeling apricot paint and grandiose porch columns; Annette who was never ready when the school bus stopped in her long gravel driveway each morning so that the driver had to sound the horn while thirty kids watched for movement in the pulled draperies and closed front door, waiting for the shy girl who never wanted any special attention but found it day after day; who one afternoon in fourth grade broke a full bottle of perfume and brought a classroom of her enemies to its knees.

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Red Pup

molly_mediumThe dog trainer eyed our puppy suspiciously for a moment before quizzing me. “What kind of Labrador is this?” I sensed a trap, but was prepared. I knew that the AKC only recognizes three variations: black, chocolate, and yellow. Red Labs like ours are officially yellow, whereas yellow retrievers are officially gold, and golden poodles are officially apricot. Makes perfect sense. Talking about breeders made the trainer animated and grumpy. He was looking at a yellow Lab, but he was seeing red.

A week later, our puppy outraged a woman by prancing about happily in a park without a leash. The woman pulled out her cell phone and began photographing the license plates of every car she could find near the park, presumably so that she could turn us all in to the authorities. This may have been unfortunate for the owner of the car behind us, whose dog was also off leash. But our puppy is not yet registered with the city, so in addition to not being officially red, she does not officially exist.

Regardless, the red puppy cannot be bothered with philosophical problems when the physical world is so engaging. Yesterday she found a taxidermic piranha and chewed it to smithereens. All puppies are existentialists.

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This quail is going to be eaten.

I would like waiters to stop using the simple future passive voice to describe my food. As in:

The special today is going to be a sablefish, which is going to be lightly grilled. And it is going to be served with bright saffron sauce and quince puree.

I understand that my food is going to be prepared in the future. That’s not so special. And as far as the passive voice is concerned, I think someone has tricked America’s waiters into believing that it creates a more formal dining experience. Perhaps they don’t realize that I tip more for the active voice.

Latest incident: This Tuesday at Wild Ginger, our waiter came by to ask what food we would like boxed up for leftovers. Panang curry? Yes. Duck? Yes, please. Then someone at our table carelessly motioned to a half-eaten short rib. What about this? The waiter looked serious for a moment, and then explained that we should not try to save the rib. He offered helpfully, That is going to be a bone.

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Facebook Hurricane Sandy

On Facebook, October 29 around 8 PM Eastern Time, buried amid stale political rants and drolly amusing someecards, I found a status update from my friend in Morris Plains, New Jersey:

Power keeps flickering and I think my windows are going to blow in. Storm hitting now. #timeforadrink

By this time on that terrible night, most of Christine’s 550+ Facebook friends were watching Hurricane Sandy on TV, safely hundreds or thousands of miles away. Surely everyone in its path had long ago evacuated. But there it was in a simple status update: Christine had stayed.

Now the storm was personal, and the social media network of virtual “friends” that skeptics often downplay became very real. Friends from years past and far away kept vigil, posting prayers and good wishes and the jokes which sometimes seem to help most of all. Friends watching conversations develop between Christine and other locals as they reported from the heart of the storm—familiar buildings torn apart, fires breaking out, the strange calm of the eye as it passed over. And through it all, the cracking winds, bowing windows, exploding transformers and flooding neighborhoods, we stayed connected. For Christine and for each other.  Television news suddenly didn’t matter so much. Who cares about Al Roker when you have your very own friend in a hurricane?

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Stone birds perch atop the Two Eagles House in South London. They have long curved necks like vultures, but presumably they are eagles. From way down at street level, it is hard to tell. And in any case, there are four of them.

Twenty-three years ago I lived and worked here, pulling blue-collar pints for room and board while working at another pub over in Piccadilly to earn travel money for a trip across the Continent. Not long after I left, the Two Eagles closed down and the building was sold for flats. I knew this, but I wanted to visit anyway. So last week I took the Bakerloo Line to its dungeon terminus at Elephant and Castle, and walked back toward my old home on 27 Austral Street.

Just one block shy, I worried that perhaps I was lost. That I might have misremembered the way to 27 Austral Street. So I stopped into a corner store to ask the clerk if he knew where the old Two Eagles was.  He was a young immigrant and had never even heard of a place called the Two Eagles. I continued to the end of the block and came upon the familiar building rising up in the late Sunday darkness. Complete with “Two Eagles House” in large lettering. The clerk will never know what he missed.

I stood outside the old building for a while, trying to photograph it in the dark. Trying not to attract undue attention from the neighbors. There was a light was on in my old bedroom on the top floor, but the building was mostly vacant, with flats still available. Hanging in a window next door, a bright poster celebrated Eid, the end of Ramadan. Not likely pub patrons, I thought.

One block onward I came to an open pub, but they didn’t have traditional English ales and the few people inside were far too young to remember the Two Eagles. So I moved on to the Three Stags, where the bartender allowed me one post-closing-bell pint of ale. It was a chance to sit and meditate about the Two Eagles and its long-gone patrons and my lost youth. Crap like that.

It occurred to me that this bartender with his two-foot dreadlocks was about the same age I had been when as a young college student, I  worked in the same neighborhood, pulling pints of bitter so that I could see Europe. Maybe he was doing the that too. Nostalgia. “I used to work in pub just around the corner there,” I offered. “The Two Eagles.” He stopped cleaning long enough to answer: “The two what?”

So the bartender at the Three Stags and the young people in the pub nearby and the clerk at the store a block from Austral Street and the neighbor celebrating Eid not ten steps from where a pubic house operated between 1809 and the early 1990s, they do not remember the Two Eagles.

But I do. And this is a little of what they missed:

The Proprietor, who confused me when offering me a job by calling himself Joanne. I later realized that he and his wife were Joe and Ann. He believed that it was bad luck for two people to be on the same flight of stairs at the same time, which in a four-story building will cause an occasional traffic jam.

The Proprietress, Ann, who lovingly created the sturdiest of English meals as my board for nearly four months without once changing the oil in the deep fryer. Her son suffered from cystic fibrosis. Her daughter taught me to watch a regular patron whose abdominal hernia grew visibly throughout each night of drinking.

Barry, the master cellarman, who told me matter-of-factly that dogs don’t trust black people: “It’s like they know something.” His assistant, who was my age, believed that the BBC was trying to cover up the truth about spontaneous combustion. Some people just erupt in flames.

The Friend of Ned, whose name I cannot remember, but who I do remember was especially cheap. He could not stand to see any of his money invested in a proper head of Guinness—that would be less alcohol in the glass. So for every pint poured for him, he would stare distrustfully and coach, “Just like that, lad. A little more. Just like that, right up to the top.” Until every hint of froth had spilled over the edge and he had a perfectly flat top for a perfectly flat Guinness.

Eddie, who Joe banned from the pub during my first week of work because he was an alcoholic. For three weeks after that, Eddie’s friends boycotted the Two Eagles until the proprietor relented. The Two Eagles needed business as much as Eddie needed his health. So Eddie and his friends returned, and all was well again. Eddie made me a cassette tape of his favorite American jazz so that I would better appreciate my own culture.

Jimmy, who in his 80s was completely tone deaf.  But he had once been a marvelous singer. Eddie and his friends waited until Jimmy had downed enough sherry to lose his better judgment, and then they would demand that he sing. Then Jimmy would stand up and howl, looking up toward the ceiling with eyes half closed, glass of sherry still in hand. During each performance, his so-called friends would laugh and slap their knees because the singing was so awful. But for those few minutes every night, the voice in Jimmy’s head was as beautiful as the music in his heart. And if he knew that his neighbors were laughing at him, he never let on.

Sidney and Aimée Bloxam outside the Two Eagles Pub, September 1919.

Sidney and Aimée Bloxam outside the Two Eagles Pub, September 1919.


Many thanks to Lawrence Pearse for sharing this photo of Aimée and Sidney Bloxam standing in front of the Two Eagles in 1919. Lawrence writes:

The couple are Sidney Bloxam (born 1898) and his French wife Aimée Bloxam (born 1900, maiden name Bertin); Sidney was serving at the time in the RAF as a Leading Aircraftsman. He was my mother’s uncle, and thus my grand uncle. The photo is dated to September 1919. Sidney and Aimée lived opposite the pub at 6 Austral Street with his parents and one of his sisters and her husband. You can see a picture of their house (now divided into nrs 6a and 6b) on Google Street View.
If you enlarge the photo on screen, you can see the name Austral Street above the pub. I would love to know what the main sign on the pub read. My guess is: [Two Eagle]s. Importer of the [finest wines/whiskies/ales?]. In the window there is an advert for what I take to be [Bu]chanan’s [malt whis]kies. There is a listing on the original publicans of the Two Eagles on line. The 1911 census shows Edward Phillips, a Somerset-born man, as the licenced victualler.

I have always been struck by the direction of their shadows, and their length, which seems to indicate that the photo was taken late on a very sunny day, as they are looking towards the north west. London would still have been on daylight saving time in September.

Best regards

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There is a deaf and homeless woman living on the outskirts of St. Louis, and she is trying to get to High Ridge. She lost touch with her childhood friends up north a long time ago. She is estranged from her alcoholic husband. She left her car by the side of the road when it broke down because she couldn’t afford repairs. But she is convinced that help is just 30 miles away, in the city of High Ridge.

She has been told that somewhere in a public library in High Ridge, there is a woman who can look up your relatives on a computer, print certified state documents for you, and reconnect you with a support network of friends from your past. If only you can reach her.

But it isn’t easy for a homeless woman to get to High Ridge from the outskirts of St. Louis. No public transportation goes there. It isn’t safe to walk. And cab fare one way is more than $60.

If you meet her, she will tell you her life story and ask for help–use of your computer, a ride to High Ridge, or money to help get her there. And in exchange she will give you Xeroxed sheets of sign language letters and vocabulary.

She compulsively wraps all kinds of things in tissue paper–maybe for decoration; maybe as protection. She pushes her worldly belongings around in a stolen shopping cart, overfilled with blankets, empty water bottles, toiletries, Butterfingers, and seemingly useless objects that she finds along the road. Even the homeless struggle with clutter.

And she fills notebook after notebook with information to help in her quest for High Ridge, including the names of people she has met trying to get there. Names of strangers from across St. Louis and Missouri and the United States. People like you and me. These strangers are willing to help a little, but afraid to help too much, believing that the car has long ago been towed away and sold for scrap, that the friends and relatives up north do not really want to be reconnected,  that the librarian with the magic computer does not exist. And the only thing standing between the homeless woman and a realization of these bitter truths is a stretch of 30 miles.

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Valentine’s Day

A duffel bag of clothes, an old guitar, a section of obituaries torn from the Sunday Times. This is what it takes to say goodbye to my father.

In a way, the goodbye started more than 10 years ago when I found a bottle of St. John’s Wort in his medicine cabinet. For a man too hardy to believe in doctors, this was a startling admission of vulnerability. A label on the back of the bottle offered hopefully that the pills might prevent memory loss. The security of grasping at straws. He was a licensed architect who had memorized the values of trigonometric functions and carried an encyclopedic knowledge of building codes in his head. And now he owned a bottle of unproven medicine—something you could get without consulting a doctor or talking to your family. It was the first logical step in a quiet, private battle with dementia. I closed the medicine cabinet and let it remain private.

Dad was more than an architect. He was an accomplished athlete, a musician, an artist, a mechanic. He was the closest thing to a Renaissance Man I have ever known. And he was funny, which is the best skill of all at the dinner table. And most important, he was a good father.

So tonight, one more time, I will pull out the old guitar and play the same songs he used to sing to me when I was a child. And he will fall asleep to them as I used to fall asleep. And then I’ll pull out the torn sheet of obituaries—a page of love letters on this Valentine’s Day—and try to learn from them how you say goodbye to someone you love beyond words.

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