Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sorbonne and Cigarettes

[Warning:  this post drifts anywhere and everywhere.  Just so you know.]

I've just been over at the Daily Connoisseur (had to go check how to spell that).  She lived for a while in France and is writing about that experience.  I had a work colleague in Utah who also lived in Paris, where she studied medicine at the Sorbonne.  Of course D spoke fluent French, which was demonstrated one afternoon when a handsome young black man came to visit the office from Atlanta.  He, too, had spent time in France and as the two chattered away in French, both clearly enjoying the practice, the whole office stood around and watched, mesmerised.  We actually applauded them afterwards.  Clearly, we didn't get out and about much. 

D was perhaps only a couple of years older than I, but her style was completely different.  Being from Oklahoma, my style was more along Texan lines; it is widely recognised that Texas Women Try Harder.  D wore flat shoes with classic skirts, blouses and jackets in quite serious menswear type fabrics.  Her jacket and skirt were often colour coordinated but not a matched suit, something men also do.  She rarely wore make up, particularly not eye make-up, and her shoulder length hairstyle was neat but natural looking.  She was thin, with lovely translucent skin that made her ultra-feminine in spite of her serious clothes.  She was never one to confide very much about herself, but she was still quite open and approachable.  She was great company and huge fun.  I shall always be grateful to her for introducing me to the music of Bonnie Raitt.  I, in turn, introduced her to the joys of  shopping at thrift stores.  

D often spoke about her experience of being an au pair, living in the attic, getting Madame's permission to take a weekly bath in the family bathroom, about the strict rules of the house, washing her clothes by hand, etc.  She never seemed to see it as a hardship, though it must have been challenging.  She was clearly enriched by her experience of living in a different culture.  I hope to enjoy D's company again sometime when we live in Salt Lake City.  The Daily Conneisseur always makes me think of D.

In this post, her point about the rude way in which people use their mobile phones also hit home.  (Don't even get me started on personal music players.  Suffice it to say the railways instituted a quiet car for those of us who wish to keep their remaining sanity.)  I've lost count of the number of times I've had to step out of the way of some one so engrossed in their text message or phone conversation that they were about to walk straight into me.  If they can't walk and talk at the same time, why would anyone believe they could safely drive?   The lost peace and quiet of libraries, changing rooms and even toilets (does the person on the other end really want to hear the toilet sounds?) sometimes makes me wish for the good old days of phone booths.   I always feel sorry for the girl or boy whose partner is busy talking on the phone as they walk down the street, supposedly together but obviously are not.  

People have actually begun to look rather strange to me, walking around with their hand stuck to their head, elbow waving.  They make me think of the adverts Brooke Shields did years ago as part of an anti-smoking campaign. 

I don't believe any of the health scare stories about mobile phones causing brain cancer or anything, but there are sufficient social ills I sometimes wonder if an anti-mobile campaign wouldn't be in order.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Angels in the Garden

I noticed the white feather beside the path as I came in one afternoon.  My first thought about was how pretty it was, was quickly followed by the fact of birds carrying mites and salmonella, so I left it.  Bill commented the next day when we went out to the car, “Looks like we’ve had angels in our garden, taking care of us.” “How’s that, like?” Turns out white feathers are taken -- in Geordie-land anyhow, to be evidence of angel occupation.

“What about that grey one over there?”   “Naw, that’s just a bird, probably a seagull.”  I thought it strange that birds should be loosing feathers just as winter is approaching.  Bill said it was the young ones molting their grey baby feathers.  Seagulls aren’t white until they are grown.  I’m guessing that losing a white feather is not the usual plan and so they are rarer.

I decided to stick that white feather into the ground near the flowers, just to keep it from drifting away.  I went straight in to wash my hands. Good hand hygiene is important for good health and whilst having angels about is a good thing, we still have to do our part.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


Surely I’ve mentioned at some point how Brits like to talk baby talk?  They don’t give gifts, they give ‘prezzies’.  Their swim suit costume is a ‘cozzie’.  They take their dog to go ‘walkies’.  It’s not a couple of quaint old dears speaking this way, it’s practically universal.  If it’s not baby talk it’s chop-talk: modern conveniences are mod cons, holidays are hols, the long vacation (school) is the long vac. It’s contagious of course and I’ve picked it up over the years. But this post isn’t about language, not spoken anyhow.

I’ve noticed the autumnal weather of late and the nights drawing in. It’s been a good summer and it occurred to me that we ought to be going for a walks before it gets too dark or too cold to enjoy the evening. So I made the suggestion and last Sunday we walked. Not too long a hike, just down to the beach, up past the headland, along behind the monument, about 30-40 minutes. It was pleasant and lots of people were about, in fact the pavement was downright crowded in places.

There is something about walking along hand in hand in this leisurely way that brings a communion that can calm the odd jangles of perverse moods and tiresome miscommunication.  I have found that difficult subjects or tangled thoughts can be best sorted on a walk.  When I was working at a stressful job, and particularly when I worked under a horrible boss, we walked many evenings.  I would look at the river and the sea and hope they would somehow help me keep my sanity; I know Bill worried for me at times.  I’m so grateful those days are long past and I can just enjoy the beauty for its own sake. We have time to wander or to stop and enjoy the view before we wind our way back home. However slowly we go we will reach our destination eventually. It might be partly due to holding hands, but it seems to me it’s more the walking in the same direction that is the secret. It’s almost a companionable form of meditation.

There were no knotty problems to unpick, nothing tough to decide, it was just a walk. It was good, though, to be reminded of this mysterious means of communication.  Just in case.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Time and Motion

When I was a child, the sounds of night in our house were my Dad’s raucous snoring and the mournful howl of the freight trains, rolling along about a mile from our house. One noise comforted me, the other made me somehow sad, but both seemed to belong to our house like part of the furniture.   Over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, the busy main road should have kept me awake, but I heard a familiar rhythm that lulled me to sleep as the whooshes of passing cars gradually dropped off to the occasional lost wanderer. Why else would anyone be out after my bedtime?

Of course there were the airplanes that made scraping sounds and left white trails scratched through the blue sky and occasionally a sonic boom that was always cause to stop and thrill about this modern wonder, a gift like a falling star or a fabulous crack of thunder that shook the house.

These days there are different modes of travel around me.  I quite forget about the airplanes looping overhead on their return flight path to Newcastle ‘International’ Airport; they all seem to stick that ‘I’ word in their name these days, don’t they?  Bill still gets excited to see them, particularly when he’s itching to be on holiday.  Our street is a rat run used by scurrying commuters who routinely ignore the new speed limit.  With cars parked on both sides of the street, this is of course foolish.  Occasionally in the wee hours I hear a motorcycle whizzing past and consider whether traffic calming lumps in the road would or would not be a lesser evil.

The ferry to Amsterdam passes through the mouth of the Tyne, every day about 5pm, and blares its big horn as it leaves.  I hear it in living room or garden and appreciate being reminded I live near (above) the river. In the morning or evening silence, I can just hear the clatter of the Metro train beginning its circular loops, round city and coast, crossing and re-crossing the river. 

Lying abed in the weekend quiet, all this movement seems anchored for a moment when a church clock, somewhere south of the river, tolls the 6 bells announcing morning. It’s not a ring but a clang that sounds old, history drifting through the open window.  The church is stationery, but its bell sounds the movement of time.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Return to Corbridge

I got told off for the poor content and typos in yesterday’s post; sorry, I’ll try to do better.  I’m a bit distracted just now.  We have Jane and Chris visiting again, which I always enjoy.  

Tuesday was Jane’s birthday and, having read about Corbridge on this blog, she wanted to re-visit the place of her and Bill’s births. So we all hopped in the car and spent the day prowling the riverside, the shops, the church and all the little streets.  Bill was able to clarify which building was formerly the Bridge End Maternity Home (the one at the end of the bridge, duh).   


We could buy an apartment in the annex for "only" £275,000. Do you think I should swap my house – probably 3 times the size – for a river view? I don’t really think I’m up for it.  Rivers flood, you know.  It’s the only really exciting thing the weather does over here. 

We browsed the art gallery again, perhaps Bill’s favourite of the day.  I sent them ahead and nipped into the fabric shop across the road.  The day Vivien and I were there, the shopkeeper was on holiday; on this day she'd taken a half day for a funeral.  Jane and I decided it was only decorating fabrics anyhow.  I only realised on the way home I could have taken photos of the raku clocks in the gallery, but didn’t think of it at the time. 

Bill steeled himself for Bishops Yard and drooled over all the lovely things just like I did.  He told me I was a horrible person for exposing him to such awful temptations. Turns out he didn’t want anything but the biggest of items, big in price and duplicates of what we already own and love.  Jane and Chris were quite taken with the RE shop and I can tell you that the wine bottle chandelier is now sold. As is the Biba poster out of the other shop.

We stopped for tea and cakes at Tea and Tipple – they bought four different kinds of cake while I was in the loo: ginger, coffee, vanilla and plum. That was Jane's birthday cake, of course.  Though they were all lovely, I could only nibble at mine. Sugar just doesn’t suit my stomach. About 2 pm we had lunch at the Black Bull – I really am a creature of habit in many ways.

We stopped into Craftworks at the Forge, and Bill fell in love with a goose wearing a plaid pinafore with a few words embroidered on the front. We debated on whether he should buy it now in case it was gone when we returned. Chris said that it surely would only apply to the four of us, but a woman standing near us assured us that we weren’t unique in this. I couldn’t believe he was serious about buying it, but he did when we were supposedly on our way back to the car. As it happened we got waylaid by a path along the river and walked about a mile to where an amazing old (renovated) 


mill house sat overlooking a millstream diverted off the Tyne River. 


At one point a flock of ducks greeted us expectantly. Jane guessed that office workers in the area brought their sandwich lunches down to the river to share. 


Bill sat his goose down to see if the ducks responded; of course they were smarter than that. When we got home he promptly sat her in the front porch.

In the evening for dinner we had smoked salmon on crackers, a pork roast that had been simmering away in the crockpot all day, savoy cabbage, which Jane told me ages ago she loves but can’t get in Australia (Chris had never seen one), also roast parsnips and, finally, champagne. I think Jane enjoyed her birthday; I definitely did.

So, what shall we name the goose? 

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Seeing and Being Seen

Some of you will be pleased to hear that I finally splashed out and went to the eye doctor.  I bought new glasses and have been wearing them out and about instead of contacts.  I went for the newest (and most expensive) technology to get the lenses as light and then as possible and they seem to do the trick of allowing me to see just fine.  Strangely enough my prescription hasn't actually changed from the glasses I bought sometime in the 1980s and have worn around the house - but never in public.  The huge square-ish pink frames with coke-bottle bottom lenses just were more than I could handle.  I did buy another pair - two, actually, about 10 years ago, but never wore them much as they gave me major headaches and weren't really much more attractive than the ancient ones.    I wouldn't say these new glasses were wonderful, but they are a vast improvement, with no headaches other than at the point of payment.  I shall post a picture soon so you can see them.

This afternoon I will go back to have the trial contact lenses assessed.  I'm pretty sure the opthomologist was used to seeing people wear their contact lenses for longer than intended, both longer day wear and longer without replacement of disposables.  I knew the consequence of too long day wear:  vascularisation, or growth of blood vessels into tissue to improve the oxygen supply.  This is part of what caused the industry to produce more air permeable contact lenses.  He said I showed signs of previous vascularisation which was receding.  I knew that finishing work would be good for my health on many levels, and not wearing my contacts for so long is just another one of those benefits.

My monthly disposable contacts were long over due for replacement and I'd always thought the risks would be physical, that an old lens would become scratchy and uncomfortable, so I've thrown them away as they've become uncomfortable or damaged.  He started to tell me about acanthamoeba, but I interrupted, saying I thought that was associated with tap water.  I'd worked in public health at a time when the Centers for Disease Control published an article about anathamoeba keratitis associated with using home made saline with tablets and tap water.  My boss had just got some contacts to help with the swimming part of his triathlons, and was disappointed to to learn that he'd not be able to use them after all.  I promptly stopped using the homemade solution.  There has since been an outbreak associated with an over the counter lens solution.  

I have to confess to being a major skeptic about professional advice.  I used to work for a consultant doctor who sometimes gave what I knew to be bad advice; he bragged that you could say anything and be believed if you said it with enough confidence.  About a decade ago, I bought contact lenses from SpecSavers, a chain here in Britain.  The optometrist, a young woman, insisted I buy the monthly solution along with the lenses, saying that in her 'professional experience' people who didn't have that particularly purchasing plan, which included a repeat visit within 6-9 months, didn't return in a timely fashion.   At the back of my mind I was thinking she wasn't so much a 'professional' as an employee of a big chain.  I couldn't say for sure whether she was giving me professional advice or a sales pitch.  She was right, however; having been forced -- I believed she wouldn't write the prescription if I didn't -- to spend an extra £7 per month for solution when I already had a drawer full of the same stuff, I've never gone to SpecSavers again, and I won't.  Bill has remarked more than once about how stubborn I am that way.  

So when this optometrist said that he was happy for me to do as I liked as long as he knew he'd given the correct advice, I wasn't worried he wouldn't write me a prescription and I was actually more open to hearing what else he had to say.  He did say that acanthamoeba was ubiquitous, not just in tap water (lakes, swimming pools, hot tubs, etc.), which made me wonder what one did to avoid it other than use over the counter solutions rather than homemade (and hope for the best).  The logic of infection as the rational for disposing of lenses every month fails when they say that the more I wear my glasses and the less I wear the lenses, the cheaper it is as the lenses last longer.  That suggests to me that it is about the physical life of the lens, rather than the risk of infection.

When I got home, I went to the source of advice that I trust the most, the Centers for Disease Control (they aren't selling contact lenses, you know), to see what they had to say.  I was horrified to learn that they recommend not wearing contact lenses in the shower.  Besides making life at the gym after a run more complicated, I've been known to put in contacts in order to shower, so I could see where the shampoo was.  Never in my 38 years of wearing contacts - or to be more applicable, in the 24 years since the initial outbreak of acanthamoeba keratitis in 1986, have I ever had any professional advise me not to shower in my contacts.  I suspect this recommendation is on the basis of logic rather than any statistical association between infection and showering, but I've not researched it further.  Has anyone else ever been told not to shower when wearing their contacts?

I can just add a contact lens case and some solution to my gym bag and buying a 3 month supply of contacts was a snip compared with the high tech glasses.   Life is easier with contacts in many ways, but I have to say, those glasses are looking better and better and I plan to definitely get my money's worth.  At £270, we're talking about daily use to get the lowest possible cost per wear

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Money and Problems

During the last few years of my working life I had more moola than I knew what to do with.  I remember feeling that I could potentially travel with just a few pounds in my pocket, my credit card, my cash card and my passport.  Between those resources there wasn’t anything I couldn’t manage. It was a great feeling.  Of course I never tried it and I’ve always been fairly chicken in my travel choices, so the challenges have  never been that great. Also, money only takes care of certain problems; but it can solve them.

This really came home to me on a short journey – a long weekend trip – that Bill, Bob and I made to do a race a few years back (OK, nearly a decade now). We took the overnight ferry from North Shields to Amsterdam, then the bus into town from the port. We walked along to the B and B where we thought we had reservations but the man opened his book and discovered he had double booked and our room was already occupied. He gave us €50 for our trouble and sent us across town on the Metro to a place run by his friend. It was a large apartment over an Indian restaurant where the other two bedrooms were available to let and they all shared a single bathroom. I wasn’t happy that we couldn’t lock our room, not that it looked very inviting to begin with. One sight of the bathroom, however, and my mind was made up. The guys were relieved when I vetoed the place; they didn’t care for it either.

So, this led to our our first experience of finding lodgings at the tourist information office. It was a busy place and we stood in the queue for seemingly ages. Bob was anxious and found another queue that we perhaps should be in so we moved over there, but it turned out that wasn’t right and we re-joined the end of the first long line. Bill and Bob were both increasingly nervous about our situation. None of us had got a good night’s sleep on the ferry, being surrounded by youths who stayed up all night partying. We still needed to get to the sports centre and register for the race, which was the next day. A good night’s sleep was going to be needed for a decent race. The guys looked at their watches and at the long queues and worried that we weren’t going to get somewhere to stay.

I was pretty calm, funny enough, as I figured Amsterdam and the surrounding area was pretty big and there was bound to be a place available somewhere, at some price. We might end up staying further out than we liked or paying more than we had planned, but I was feeling confident. I told them, “This is a problem that money can solve.”

It has been a comforting phrase to me ever since. Not that I tend to "throw money at" every problem.  This is a phrase I heard a British doctor use to criticize an American institution – “They just throw money at it”; given the source and the context, I chalked it up to envy.  In many situations a little creativity or some preventive measure can take care of matters without much cash. Heaven knows there are too many problems that money cannot touch: lost heirlooms, ruined health, infirmity of old age, bad relationships, addictions, lack of intelligence, personal unhappiness, to name a few.  So, when faced with a problem money can solve, I find it quite a relief.

We did find a place to stay, a Novotel one Metro stop from the sports hall where the race would start. It cost more and wasn’t in the interesting area of the city, but it was clean and convenient and we discovered it had a restaurant that produced extraordinary food. We took the lazy option and ate in the restaurant both nights. We spent more money than we’d planned, but thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

For all that it was a nice, clean bed I still didn’t sleep well that night. Waiting in the sports hall for time to go to the start I could be found trying to catch a few winks lying on the hard wooden bleacher, a ridiculous condition to be in before a half-marathon (13.1 miles). Still, I got through the race and even managed to enjoy parts of it, though I didn’t do as good a time as I would have liked. Never mind. Being a slow runner, that’s another problem money can’t solve, eh?

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Trains in India

Apparently there were two shows on BBC called 'Tracks of Empire'; we only caught the one.  Brits -- Bill included -- have this amazing fascination with railways.  I can see the magic in some respects; I love travelling by train (for fun, definitely not for work), but my fascination never gets near the obsessional level of many Brits.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this programme, narrated by John Sergeant.  Bill and I both remarked how much he reminded us of Jo Brand.  I thought I read that they are siblings, but in looking to verify this, they are not.  Anyhow, he's there in India to talk about the railway that the British built:  40,000 miles of tracks that reach every corner of the country and serve over a billion people.

He kept saying that railways were about more than the nuts and bolts that made them, something about the irreducible logic of a train schedule.  I think that would be even more special if trains actually ran to their schedules.  Sergeant almost convinced us that trains in India actually do.  However the story begins at sea, where in the 1850's Britain ruled the waves.  India was run by  the British East India Company, with major trading centres at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta; (Mumbia, Chennai and Kolkata).

In 1848, Governor General James Broun Ramsay (Lord Dalhousie) was the President of the British Board of Trade.  Within 10 years he brought 3 million tonnes of construction material in 3,000 ships and used 10 million people to built the railway in India.  In his 1853 memo to Parliament proposing the railways he used words like 'magnificant system', 'grand unified plan' 'vastly surpassing the noble monuments' of the pyramids of Egypt, the aqueducts of Rome and the Great Wall of China (so, not a small ego there).  This was even more ambitious considering there were no factories in India nor any skilled industrial labour.  Mind, iron and steel mills in Britain were happy to supply these materials and they were also a boon to British shipping.

Sergeant said that to understand the railways one must understand India (who writes these scripts?).  They initially experimented on short lengths of track, all built to Imperial measurements (that's feet and inches).  He talks about the station at Calcutta being used for travel by 20 million passengers and for shipping 3 million tonnes of freight, whilst walking through the station that is reminiscent of scenes from Slumdog Millionaire, or of the video of Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) if you missed the movie, which I highly recommend. 

Of course, there was of course a clash of culture -- putting aside the whole colonial-political and racial things.  The railways ran roughshod over historical Indian, through the jungles, over mountains, in intense heat, across the six states of northern Indian.  Sergeant travels overnight to Jamalpur in the train that had the first air conditioned, two-tiered cars.  Of course Indians had to travel in third class whilst Brits enjoyed relative luxury. British rulers never encouraged Indian nationalism, and perhaps it is ironic that the railways were paramount in uniting India as a country and probably made the nationalist vision possible.  One of the big challenges was laying track across the swampy agricultural heartland of the Ganges Plain where the river overflowed with each monsoon season.  This required the building of embankments, which only gave water a better area in which to gather, and increased the curse of malaria.

Sergeant mentions an incident caused by Maoists, left wing terrorists, who have targeted the railway and delayed his train by a couple of hours, though the incident was well away from the filming.  Jalmapur only exists because of the railways where it was built in 1862 in only 4 weeks.  Now 10,000 employees and their dependents live there today.  While the the British are gone the ghosts of their rule are everywhere.  Road signs hark back to the days of the British Raj, (raj means 'reign') such as the Queen's Hotel.  Houses of the railway managers still are surrounded by the hedges prevalent in Britain, so that everyone knows their place and continuity is valued more than individualism.  Rulers of the Raj could say that the railways brought progress to India and that Indians were benefiting, but there was still segregation.

Dalhoosie pushed for more and more material progress and development.  Senior British railway staff who required both Catholic and Anglican churches and Sergeant visited an Anglican church where an interesting Indian version of the Anglican service was being held.  Sixty years since India's independence, more people learn English than did under the Raj.  Railways run the local school, which is integrated with Indians from all across the country, from Kerala, Gujarat and Bengal.  Railway employment mixes people from all over.  They say they 'belong to the railway', like family.  Generation after generation serves the railways with 1.5 million employees, India's largest employer, the fifth largest employer in the world.  Strangely, railway staff supported British rule at the time; I suppose good employment opportunity was a powerful incentive to maintain the status quo.

Travelling 70 miles west to Ara, where it is poor and rural, in belligerent Behar there is more Maoist violence, though none affecting the programme's filming.  One hundred fifty  years ago at Ara there was an Indian Mutiny, though Indians call it the Rebellion or the First War of Independence.  It centred around the house of Richard Boyle, a railway engineer with 15 British and 50 armed Sikhs withstanding several thousand rebels.  They defended themselves with 2 cannons, loaded with heavy brass casters from easy chairs and pianos, not cannon balls.  The siege lasted for 8 days - musta been a lot of chairs and pianos in that house - until the rebels withdrew.  Boyle went on to build the Japanese railway.  Kuwah Singh who led the rebellion is still commemorated at Ara.  I thought it was strange - and more than a little insensitive - of Sergeant to query whether British rule didn't actually benefit India and why Singh was celebrated as a hero, but not British engineers.

When India began to fight for freedom, the nationalists saw the railway as their first target, the aim being to cripple the British economy.  Railways carried iron, sulphur and other of India's natural resources to the coast where they were sent to Britain.  They saw the railways as a tool to exploit India.  When asked about what was important, a railway employee listed administration, discipline and punctuality as all important, but none as important as freedom.  Britain gave India the railway (sounds rather more generous than I think the facts reflect, but nevertheless this is a true statement).  Dalhoosie was blamed for the mutiny because of his greedily annexing land, through the Doctrine of Lapse -- ironically, his own title as First Marquess became extinct with his own death and was therefore lapsed --  but it was the railway that aided the quelling of the mutiny, by moving troops.  It was also the symbol of the Iron Hand, the power of the paramount authority in India:  Britain.

After the mutiny, Britain tightened its grip, doing away with the British East India Company.  The Raj was born.  The railway network was consolidated and there was a boom of railway building.  Within 10 years, 3,000 more miles were laid, transporting troops and weapons.  There were 10,000 staff in workshop towns, bringing the industrial revolution to India,  and the court of the British Empire.

Gandhi recognised that but for the railway, the English could not have had such a hold on India.  The mile long Dufferin Bridge - now called Malviya Bridge - was built at Varanasi in 1887, with 7 thousand men.  Vast rivers needed strong bridges to withstand the monsoon foods.  They were later nicknamed the Meccano bridges, with huge brick pillars extending 140 feet below the river bed.  1887 was also the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee (a celebration of her 50 year reign - any excuse for a party).

Rudyerd Kipling wrote about the building of the bridge.  It was hugely controversial, the building of this modern industrial monstrosity across the holiest river in India, the Ganges, AKA as Mother Gunga.  It was a 19th century intrusion by the ruling power upon a sacred place with an ancient history.  The locals were extremely upset. 

Even though the railways have made it possible for many more Indians to come bathe in the Ganges river, Gandhi felt that this ease of transport devalued the purity of the pilgrimage; that the great difficulty of the journey meant that only real devotees came to bathe.  Now "rogues could come to practice roguery" and pilgrimage became big business.  Though five hundred million passengers could and did unlock resources and local trade, Gandhi attacked the railway because its power and scale were the means by which Britain plundered India.  Whilst part of him was reconciled to the practicalities, he still held it as evil.  He didn't like modern inventions, modern meaning Western and industrial.  Industry to him equated with greed and violence.  He didn't like speed in travel.  He believed in local self-sufficiency.  He felt that the huge growth brought about by modernism was a threat to Indian culture and society.  Paradoxically, the railway was the only way he himself could tour the country and spread nationalist literature.

In 1947, India gained her independence.  Under the Raj, Hindus and Muslims lived together, but Muslims wanted a Muslim state, through the partition of India - or that's how this programme portrayed history.  I have a feeling it isn't that simple.  Anyhow, Sergeant is at a town in India near the border with Pakistan.  He speaks with a man, Kauldit, who at the time of partition found himself caught on the wrong side of the border.  He was suddenly not welcome in his own country, coming as he was from across that border.  The partition resulted in the killing of a million people and the uprooting of 20 billion, mostly Hindus.  Kauldit relates that refugees traveled by train, Hindus to Indian, Muslims to Pakistan.  Train stations were battle grounds, bodies were thrown from the trains en route.  Two and a half million people crossed the border looking for new homes.  He relates how he was threatened with being thrown off by his fellow Hindus.  They made him prove he was not Muslim.  The only way to do that was to show them he was not circumcised, as Muslims are.  He was still bitter about the indignity of it.  He said he learned through that experience that Muslims have no kindness and Hindus have no forgiveness, all men are beasts.  Life before the partition was so much better, he thought.

Between the late 19th Century and 1947, the railways doubled to 40,000 miles, but partition devastated the railways.  The network was dismembered at the political border.  Only two trains a week cross into Pakistan.

At the border there is a nightly ritual.  Crowds gather to watch the border guards from each side do their military swagger, both sides shouting nationalist slogans.  The guards come together and shake hands, but the border is nonetheless ferociously guarded and to cross it is not lightly undertaken.

Thirteen million Indians travel daily on the railways.  India, the world's largest democracy, hosts the 4th largest railway in the world.  Gandhi's ashes were carried in state on the train.  The English language which is spoken across India, their legal system, and their democracy are all British constructs, as are the railways.

The Indians interviewed clearly value the railway system as necessary transport and as good employment.  Sergeant seemed to want them to express gratitude to Britain for the railway, which I found a bit much.  I thought the fact that they smiled and were friendly to him was pretty good.  Still in all, it was a good programme and Bill enjoyed and I both it a lot.

Saturday, 18 September 2010


The sound doesn't work on the PC upstairs that I normally use, which is probably a good thing, else I would spend my days watching videos.  


That said, occasionally I'll use Bill's laptop downstairs and watch a few, like this one from The Happiness Project.  It happened to be about starting a collection.  

I've collected any number of things in the past, from rocks to sea shells to butterfly jewelery, but my latest collection is via digital photography.  


The advantages are huge, the main one being that it doesn't take much space.  You'll have seen my collection of doors and balconies from Prague.  This year it was street lamps in Italy.

Increasingly, however, it looks as though Bill and I may collect items from the 1920s and 30s.  


For example, I picked up a set of dessert bowls at a shop in Manchester this year that we quite enjoy using.  


I still have a few pieces of depression glass that my Grandma and Grandpa had from that era and Bill loved Mucha's work enough to buy some posters, which we still need to frame and hang.  Granted Mucha is art nouveau, not art deco, but we love both. 


I think it's a better thing to collect something jointly rather than one of us hogging all the space with stuff the other doesn't enjoy (and I already hog plenty of space just with all my 'stuff').

What, if anything, do you collect?

Friday, 17 September 2010

Picture Project

I’ve lately been in the throes of scanning hundreds, maybe even thousands of photos onto the computer. It’s a sort of madness that’s lasted for days; a sort of reliving of my whole life. Bill came home to find me yet again glued to the computer, stacks of pictures all around, some waiting to be scanned, some being put into albums of different sized pockets, most piled up in the trash bin. 

Once scanned, I’m keeping people, not places, except for pictures of homes, like mine, Mom’s and Rita’s; and then only people I know and would still speak to. Some of them may yet be deleted once I’ve marked the occasion. I threw away a whole trip to the zoo from maybe the 1980s because none of the pictures were particularly good and I have no idea where it was.  I can’t believe I’ve carried those around for 25 years. I told Bill was I felt fanatical about the photos for the moment, but blasé about blogging and, apparently, addicted to alliteration. That’s when I turned off the computer and went to do something else. Enough is enough.

I’ve scanned them in groups, with as many as I can fit on the scanner at a time, keeping them as square as possible. They can be rotated or copied and cropped later. I’m putting them into folders by decade and then where possible, into folders by year. The photos are going into whatever sized album pockets suit for now. At some point I’d like to have them better organized, but that can wait. I’ve discovered that digital photos are far more accessible to view, to share and to organise. They are brilliant.

Have you done any big project like this? How did you organise the photos, both digital and physical?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Property Management

I changed property managers in Oklahoma City recently. This was because the last ones rented to tenants who left $4,000 worth of damage. This constituted 65% of the rent left after the management fees. I decided they didn’t manage very well, they only collected rent.

So I found all the other real estate management companies in Oklahoma City I could that had with websites and email addresses in Oklahoma City. Even in the 21st century it’s amazing how many still aren’t on the internet, but I figure ease of communication is a priority for me.

I contacted each company via email and gradually narrowed my list to three. I contacted the Oklahoma Real Estate Commission and asked about any complaints against them and I prepared a list of questions about fees and management practices. I rang and interviewed the manager of each company and then made my best guess about handing over Mom’s house again. The first bad news was that they charged me nearly $8,000 to do the repairs on the house. I told them the next time I had repairs to that extent I would make them to sell, not to rent.  Our first tenant experience together would be a make-or-break deal.  The house looked nice - from the pictures -  with new paint, new carpet, new window blinds, new kitchen floor and new cooking stove. I should get to live in a totally refurbished house one day, eh?

This company gives the owner the final decision about prospective tenants. Reviewing the application information was interesting, to say the least. The first applicants were a married couple with three children and two small dogs (one 4-years; one 1-year old). They were proposing to pay $745 a month to rent my 3-bed house after paying only $450 per month for an apartment. She was a clerk in a doctor’s office for the past 2 years, while he has been in the National Guard for not quite two years. Their total wage income was $1,844 a month plus $472 in child support. Credit scores were 567 (hers) and he had no score available. She had rent debt judgments for 2004 (because of living with an abusive boyfriend), 2006 (because of a job loss) and 2007 (no excuse offered) plus other recent account collections. Her rent debts were paid up, except for one that was ‘an error and she had fulfilled the lease’. They asked to move in without paying the full deposit (two month’s security deposit, another month’s rent in advance because of the credit risk, and $500 for the pets). The management company recommended I approve this application if they came up with the deposit, except that they would move in before that was paid.


Most of this was Greek to me, not having lived in the US in 15 years, not being acquainted with the credit scoring system, etc. I did a bit of internet research about credit scores and Weekend Warriors and thought about the reliability of child support payments (from both abusive and non-abusive partners).  Then, as politely as I could manage, asked the management company folks if they were out of their minds. Whilst they said it was not unusual to allow people to move in still owing the deposit, it seemed they had more information about other debts this couple had and agreed that it might not be best choice to accept their application. Clearly I was going to be the main filter in this process. 

In addition, I really itched to send that couple on a personal finance course.  Then, maybe ship her off to  counseling to see if she could find a man who could a) not hit her and b) work full time.  I keep saying I’m not the welfare department, so I suppose I can’t be a social worker either.

The second application was from another married couple with no pets and no children. They had been leasing a house for a year for $595 but the house loan had gone into foreclosure and they needed to find another place to live. Before that they’d paid $470 for an apartment and both landlords said they were excellent tenants. They both worked in sort of hippy type shops – natural foods and crafts -- and brought home $2,065. Again, one of them had no credit score and the other’s was 674, not great but OK. The rental management people explained to me that people with really good credit tended to buy houses, not rent them, which makes sense. I was ready to take on, at a reduced rent of $695, even though they were pushing for a refrigerator to be added to the kitchen and asking that the house be cleaned again (?), but somehow the foreclosure was forestalled and they decided to stay where they were. Bummer.

Finally, the current tenant is a single man with no pets and he’s both a student and a musician who had been paying $850 rent and would be happy to pay $695. He also works part time for his mother who owns a construction company. His credit score was slightly better and his mother co-signed the lease. She has an excellent credit rating and earns a whole lot. So we took him on.

I thought about these people a lot in the weeks that the house was on offer to rent. I did the math to see what percent of their income was going to go to rent, considered how far the house was from their places of employment, wondered why a single man needs three bedrooms, will the neighbours complain about the noise? It was quite an eye opener about people who rent their homes.  I rented a room for the first 10 months I was in Newcastle, until I could save up a deposit and get to know the area.  I rented a house in Salt Lake for a year for the same reason before buying.  Before that, I rented a house for a year after divorce number one.  Other than those occasions, I've owned my home since 1979.  I much prefer paying a mortgage to paying rent.  Then again, I've never really experienced negative equity.  

It’s hard for me to judge the neighbourhood Mom’s house is in from this distance. I gather it’s not great, but not useless either, not yet. I’ve had about a 6% return (for no investment) over the 20 years she’s been gone. Not great, but not useless either. It is income that has helped me to pay off my other houses, another sort of compound interest, I suppose.

I’m not sure yet about the management company. It’s too early to tell yet. Cross your fingers for me, OK?

Monday, 13 September 2010

Happy Birthday to Grandma

I've been working on my pressure cooker skills, in honour of Grandma.  Also because it's wonderfully frugal to cook beans in the pressure cooker, not to mention quicker.  Fortunately I have an expert in residence (Bill) who walked me through this once and I made notes.

  1. Fill the baskets.  One of the two pressure cookers we have has three baskets so you could cook different things that require the same cooking time.  We put in three varieties of beans. 
  2. Put in enough water to just cover the bottom shelf on which the baskets rest.
  3. Boil until the small steam release rises and then the large release begins rising.
  4. Before the 2 white lines on the large pressure release are showing, turn the stove top temperature down to level 3 (medium-low) and set the timer for 20 minutes.
  5. Turn the heat off at 20 minutes and leave the pressure cooker to cool. 
  6. When cool, open the lid, remove the baskets and drain the water.
I'm not sure these are adequate instructions if you've not got a resident expert or time to practice with one, but I found the most amazing website that tells you everything about pressure cooking:  Miss Vickie.

We freeze the cooked beans in one cup portions, for later use.

Clara Rose, aged 22, 1912

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Happy Birthday, Rita

I think of Rita every single day.  I think of her even more often than I do of Mom, who has been - unbelievably - gone for 20 years now. This is no doubt in large part because I have so many of Rita’s things around me to remind me of her. 

I still feel like a child with a dress up box sometimes, but I really enjoy finding ways to wear Rita’s scarves, her belts and her jewelry. I carry her favourite purse everyday; it matches my hair, if not always my clothes, which is good enough for me. In fact, my hair is currently the same auburn as hers was on occasion.

I regularly use the sewing notions that came from her stash, particularly the buttons and ribbons. Some of my latest cooking projects come from her cookbooks, one of my favourite being the Weight Watchers book I’ve mentioned before.

I still feel cheated at not having more time with her, but one of the best things I did after she died was to scan all the photos I had from her photo albums. Pat and I went through those that she had of the years before she and Jack married, selecting only the ones of her or of people we knew. Scanning them to send back to Pat made me realize that she had lived very much in the present, having lots of fun and friends and traveling as much as she could. She crammed a lot into her short 63 years.

That’s a pretty good example to set, I’m thinking.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

No Cook, No Book

Grandmother gave me my first cookbook, Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook (1976), as a wedding present when I was 21. These recipes, many of which started with a can of soup, were about all I could manage, though I wouldn’t rate it much these days. Now I know what goes into cream of whatever soup, I just make it instead of buying an overpriced tin. I rarely use this cookbook now, except for a few go-to pages, for cornbread at Thanksgiving or for cookies at Christmas time.

Mom gave me a few other cookbooks over the years, which of course I still have. Hers tended to be for ethnic cooking and though I quite like Chinese and Mexican food, these recipes are neither particularly healthy nor quick to make. H1 wasn’t much of a fan of either cuisine. The first cookbook I bought myself was Betty Crocker New Cookbook (1987), because it had calorie counts for each recipe. I circled all the ones below 350 calories. H2 thought he was being starved to death, but it was on then he was fit instead of chubby. I still use this cookbook occasionally.

Over the years I’ve acquired many more cookbooks, kept in the kitchen on shelves probably intended for decorative items. I have the large New Good Housekeeping cookbook I gave to Mom in 1986 (selling for $39.97?); I don’t think she used it very much, but it gives good hints about how to succeed at things like biscuits (scones), pastry and angel food cake. From yard sales and flea markets, I’ve collected Native American, Russian, French, East Indian and German cookbooks. Again, the recipes are horribly fattening, so I use them very occasionally. A sports cookbook, Eat to Win, at the opposite extreme, uses no fat and only Parmesan (Bill calls it dirty sock) cheese for flavour. I’ve not used that one in a while and I’m sure he’s very grateful. I’m more likely to dive into one of two cookbooks labeled Food for Sport Cookbook; one British (Judy Ridgeway), one Australian (Christine Roberts et al), both very practical for tasty and healthy meals. 

Two other specialist books that have been useful are The Breadmakers Bible and 

The Bean Book


I also have a good number of my Aunt Rita’s cookbooks, which fall into two camps: diet or luxury. Though her Weight Watchers Meals in Minutes cookbook has points instead of calories, it still has great ideas and reminds me what portions are supposed to look like. Most recipes are for one or two people. I think cookbooks should err towards this as it is usually easier to multiply the quantities than to divide, or maybe that’s just me. 

One of the books Jack urged me to take was associated with a vacation they’d taken. Being Williams Sonoma, the recipes call for the most expensive ingredients known to man. 

This has always been my bias against Cooking Light recipes, though I took the Light Baking and the Best of books. It’s nice to be able to make something festive that is still a bit healthy.

Bill has bought me several low fat cookbooks, that you’d think I’d use more that I do, also, include Delia’s Frugal Food, mentioned before.

One Christmas he gave me The Vegeterranean, written by a couple of chefs about their posh restaurant in Montali, Italy. It is more a coffee table book, filled as it is with lush pictures. I wasn’t very excited about this book until I looked at it with dinner parties in mind. I marked a couple dozen recipes that looked fun to present. I finally had a go at making crepes with a goat’s cheese filling the other day. It tasted great, but definitely needs more practice. If I ever master any of these, you’ll be the first to know!

I also have most of Ella’s cookbooks, collected from her various moves, for example The Best of Good Housekeeping (1973). 
I’m not a big fan of traditional (high fat/cholesterol) British cooking, but these have occasionally been indispensable when faced with local but foreign-to-me foods, eg gooseberries or rhubarb.

My ideal cookbook is one I’m probably going to have to compile myself. I prefer recipes that are universal (encouraging substitution of whatever is on hand), inexpensive, healthy, relatively easy and fairly quick. It’s asking a lot, I know. So far, the healthy section at comes the closest, allowing me to enter the ingredients I already have. On the other hand, I like to know the country of origin a recipe has, and this is not generally provided

I’m determined to cull some of these cookbooks but, like Frugal Scholar, find this difficult, for the usual sentimental reasons. I’m torn between learned to cook without relying on a cookbook, and wanting to learn more; between wanting the variety of ethnic foods and the healthier lower fat recipes. I’ve made a list (never!) of these cookbooks and will try use at least one recipe from each over the next year in order to justify keeping them. “No cook, no book.”

Yeah, right.

Friday, 10 September 2010

It's Grandpa's Birthday Again

I mentioned before that Mom admired Grandpa's profile.  She always said he had a "Barrymore profile", but I never really knew what that looked like until now.  I think she wasn't too far off the mark after all.

Happy Birthday, Grandpa!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Ten Things about Sleep

Here is yet another set of notes from a BBC iPlayer programme.  I seem to go through stages where I sleep very well and others when it doesn't go so well, so I'm always interested in ideas about how to improve on this.  Cousin Sharon and I used to swap emails between England and Australia during our sleepless nights, so it wasn't all bad, but I'd bet both of us would first choose a good night's sleep!

1.  Warm bath.  Turns out that the key isn't just to raise your core body temperature; it's actually the drop in temperature after you leave the bath that tells your body it is time to sleep.  Apparently during sleep our temperature drops even further.  They suggested taking a warm bath about an hour before bedtime.

2.  Sleep restriction.  A journalist with chronic insomnia was featured and apparently he is either Mr. Fun or Grouchy Old Bear depending upon his sleep success.  He said he'd tried a million things, but the professor in this scenario gave him two rules:  a) the bedroom is absolutely out of bounds except to sleep; b) don't go to bed until 2am and get up at 8am; c) get up at the same time every day, regardless of how well or badly he slept.    The journalist was sent away to practice these principles for a month and he reported a wonderful new relationship with bedtime.

3.  Naps.  British culture - and perhaps US as well - sort of frowns on taking naps, as though they are a sign of laziness or perhaps of getting old.  The person featured in this segment was the first woman to sail solo around the world.  Apparently sleep deprivation goes hand in hand with this job and she was averaging only 3 hours a day.  The professional she consulted said she needed 5 hours to maintain her physical and mental performance even if it meant taking 8 to 10 short naps per day.  She reported this added two hours made a huge difference for her.  For normal people, the takeaway message was that our body clocks strongly discourage us from napping between 7 and 12 in the morning or between 6 and 8 in the evening.  The optimal time to nap is between 2 and 5pm and for no more that around 30 minutes.  I confess that during some of my latter years at work when I had to read very long, technical documents, I would find myself nodding off around 3pm.  When it got impossible to bear, I would go out to my car, set a timer for 20 minutes, recline the seat back and have a snooze.  When the timer went off, I went back to my office with a nice cup of coffee and my brain fizzed effectively for the rest of the day. 

4.  Snoring.  They said 15 million people in Britain snore (about 25% of the population) and that snoring has a negative effect on 1 in 5 relationships (hand up here).  Apparently the tissues in the nose and throat relax when we are asleep and this allows them to vibrate.  I'm not convinced that either of their solutions was wonderful.  One was an over the counter moistening strip that the man put on the roof of his mouth and they seemed to think it made the snoring less if not ceased altogether.  The other man used some sort of mouth guard to keep his tongue in position but it caused him to gag.  It was recommended he practice wearing it during the day to get used to it and he was going to, so he said.  Somehow I don't see this happening.  The more useful message was perhaps that snoring in people who are very overweight and where people find themselves dropping off to sleep during the day can be a sign of other serious health problems and this should be discussed with one's doctor. 

5.   Sleep Cycles, Coffee and Alcohol.  There are five stages of sleep:  one - drowsiness; two - light sleep; three and four - deep sleep; five - dream stage / Rapid Eye Movement.  We should have four to six of these cycles during a healthy night's sleep.  Drinking coffee too close to bedtime makes it harder to drop off to sleep (duh).  Once asleep, a person stays only in light sleep for more time and doesn't get enough deep sleep.  Drinking alcohol helps a person drop off to sleep faster but they take longer to reach deep/REM sleep.  Also, in the second half of the night they are likely to wake and have difficulty dropping back off.  The recommendation is to not drink alcohol or coffee in the four hours prior to bedtime.

6.  Daylight.  In has only been since 2002 that it has been known how daylight makes us wake up.  Apparently there are cells in the retina at the back of the eye that are light sensitive, even through closed eyelids, to a form of blue light.  When these cells perceive daylight they signal to the pineal gland to stop manufacturing melatonin, a sleep hormone.  The obvious information here is to keep one's bedroom as dark as possible.  They sell blackout plastic here to line window curtains.  The person who was narrating the programme was a woman who worked as a presenter on morning TV and had to report to work at 3am.  For her there was the additional advice to purchase a special blue light that mimics daylight to those cells.  She said it helped a lot (that and the coffee).

7.  Food.  A restaurant chef fed two different meals to identical twins whose pre-meal response times had been measured.  One meal was gnocchi - very high in carbohydrates; the other was cod - a protein meal.  Carbohydrates release insulin which triggers the production of tryptophan which in turn causes us to produce seratonin, associated with sleep.  Protein food releases amino acids which lower tryptophan levels and so is less sleep-inducing.  Their advice was to eat a carbohydrate rich meal four hours prior to bedtime (contrary to all that diet advice...).  I should have been eating protein at lunch instead of carbs.

8.  Jetlag.  This was supposedly a piece of research, but call me a skeptic.  That said, I wouldn't dismiss this advice out of hand.  Some researcher from Harvard hypothesised that food can reset our body clock.  The subjects were two British race car drivers who race in the US and spend their lives jetting between the two countries.  The researcher believes that the food clock is located in the hypothalamus and, in most humans, is largely dormant.  He believes that food restriction can help trigger that food clock.  The race car drivers were tested for response times as a marker for alertness, then sent on a plane back to the UK.  One driver ate anything he wished; the other had nothing but water for 16 hours.  On his return home he ate breakfast and went about his usual day's routine.  He reported a slight amount of tiredness that afternoon, but otherwise a huge improvement over his usual jetlag experience.  The other driver who'd eaten (in truth probably eaten more than usual to tease his colleague) had the usual backwards feeling and weariness associated with jetlag.  Their follow up response time tests showed that food restriction was a success.  The narrator reported this technique helped her on her trans-Atlantic journey when she was only foodless for nine hours.   I think for me to go without food for 16 hours all of these sleep tips would have to work so wonderfully well that I managed to be unconscious most of the time.  Call me weird, but I actually like most airline food.

9.  Stress / relaxation.  The punter in this segment was a hyperactive stand up comic / DJ.   His main problem, aside from having quite adrenalin producing work, was that his schedule was so erratic he needed to be able to virtually sleep on demand.  They sent him to a physiotherapist who taught him progressive muscle relaxation.  You know, where you tense your feet, then relax them; tense your calves, then relax them, and so on up the body.   Of course it showed him dropping off right there on the table in front of the camera...  This would be something to do about 15 minutes before bedtime.  I recall my mom playing 'rag doll' with me to help me get to sleep.  She would pick up my hands or feet and let them drop and my job was to be as limp as a ragdoll.  I loved the game and didn't want it to end, but in order to play I had to relax...and it worked.

10.  Herbal potions.  The last scenario had two gardeners brewing up lavender tea or tincture of valerian.  The guy doing the lavender went further and gave himself a lavender foot bath.  They traded brews and each reported the next day having slept marvelously.  I'd no idea one could make tea from lavender and I gather a true tincture takes quite a bit of time to make.  Valerian plant isn't that commonly cultivated these days.  I can report having taken valerian pills purchased at a health food store and the did seem to work, but I wouldn't swear by it.

I always took good sleep for granted when I was younger, but no more.  I wanted to share this in case it was helpful for anyone else, but also to tuck these notes away where I'd be sure to find them again.