Tuesday, September 30, 2014

a most wanted man

It appears that Felipe Zapata, John Calypso, and my mother (my mother, folks!) have joined forces to have me, to use Felipe's term, "institutionalized."  I suspect that is not quite the same thing as being declared an "institution" or even a "national treasure."

Now, I will hold my hand up (as Dr. Bob is wont to say) to being a tad eccentric on some topics.  The weather comes to mind -- and my tolerance of it.  You can now add dry cleaning to the list.

One reason I drove from Bend to Salem was to drop off my dry cleaning.  I know that sounds as if I crossed over the border of Eccentric to the land of Crackpot.  But hear me out.  It is not as odd as it first seems.

On the cruise and in London, I managed to accumulate a soiled pile of clothes that need dry cleaning.  During my last trip to Bend, I discovered Darrel and Christy do not have a local dry cleaner.  They are part of the ever-growing group of Americans who do not wear clothes that require the equivalent of chemical warfare to refresh their duds.

I do.  Plenty of wool and silk.  All requiring the artful hands of a professional.

Melaque does not have a dry cleaner.  And we don't need one.  Who would wear wool in the tropics?  The nearest dry cleaner is an hour away in Manzanillo.  And I have no idea how skilled the shop is.

Since I was coming to Salem to see people and take care of some financial matters, I decided to give some custom to my favorite dry cleaning shop in town.

I have been handing over my laundry and dry cleaning to Tammy Nelson and her family at Quality Shirts and Laundry for over 20 years.  And, even though I now let long periods of time pass without stopping to see them, Tammy always greets me by name and asks about my recent adventures.

And that is probably the primary reason I keep coming back.  Relationships with business owners have always been important to me.  I am not going to fly up here from Mexico with all of my dry cleaning.  But when I have a choice while passing through, it is nice to know those old ties are there.

Speaking of old ties, I caught A Most Wanted Man last night.  The movie had just opened in London while we were there.  But it has already slipped out of the first-run theaters here in Salem.

I ended up seeing it at Northern Lights -- one of those establishments retrofitted from an old time cineplex to a new-fangled brew pub.  The screen and sound were decidedly 1970s, and so was the ticket price.  $3.

In this filming of a
John le Carré novel by the same name, American intelligence with its reliance on arrest, torture, and electronic surveillance is taken to task by a German intelligence officer who believes in the superior nature of human intelligence. 

But it is more than that.  It is also a film about personal and national redemption.  And because the novel is by
le Carré with his peculiar form of of Manichaeism, American optimism is mocked in favor of European angst.

Given its ideological straight-jacket, I liked the film.  Because human intelligence is all about convincing people to act against what they perceive to be their own interest, the plot takes time in rolling out and developing.  To have filled the movie with chases and gun fights would have made the subtext fraudulent.

The real reason I went to see the movie is P
hilip Seymour Hoffman.  It is his last starring role.  And a great bit of acting it is.  He so commanded this film that every time the scene turned away from him, I was never quite certain if he would return.  A similar sentiment was applied to Frederich Hölderlin: "Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him."

And we have.  But it was a brilliant chord that set his departure.


Monday, September 29, 2014

wagons ho!

I am on the move again.

Today I am on my way to Salem and Portland. 

To Salem for a chat with my accountant to determine if there are some alternatives to coming north in February to file trust tax forms.  And to Portland to get a date certain on when my retirement funds will be transferred to my bank account.

The Portland trip is the most urgent.  That money makes up a sizable portion of the purchase price of the house in Barra.  I will update you on that process as soon as I get some good information.

I am hoping I can let you know about that this afternoon.  If not, I have another essay warming up in the wings.

See you in Salem.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

the drowsy chauffeur

I felt well enough to get out of bed this afternoon to take a drive through Bend.

In the battle against colds, there is a moment of irrational exuberance when the Nyquil is left behind during the day for the comfort of Dayquil.  I say "irrational," because, based on my experience, Nyquil drugs you up enough to let you know you are severely impaired. 

And Dayquil?  It provides one of those paternalistic impairments.  The type of drug that tells you: "Go ahead and drive.  You can still see, can't you?"

So, the drive was short.  And drowsy.  I climbed up Pilot Butte to get a Peregrine's view of Bend and its accompanying scenery.  It was not the best day for mountain sighting.  Clouds were rolling in from the Pacific and hiding the peaks of the Cascades.  A sure sign that snow will soon be on the way.

But there was no snow today.  The temperature in Bend was perfect.  Around 57 degrees or so.  Warm enough that the windows of the Shiftless Escape (still alive and clutching) needed to be powered down.   Perfect weather for a short-sleeve drive.

And that got to me to thinking how fortunate I have been on my journeys during the past month.  London.  Blackpool.  Oxford.  Le Havre.  La Rochelle.  Bilbao.  Vigo.  Olympia.  Bend.  Each stop has had great weather.  Ranging from the 50s to the 70s.

Christy, my sister-in-law, asked me this morning if I needed an extra blanket.  I told her the temperature has been perfect.  I have been sleeping on top of the covers.

Yes, I know, I am merely stirring up another of those "Then, why do you live in tropical Mexico" questions.  To which I respond, I can tolerate almost any weather.

But I will confess that adding air conditioners to the new house is daily becoming a stronger possibility.

Speaking of the house, I need to being you up to date on some developments.  But that will need to wait until tomorrow.  Or later in the week.

Now, I am heading back to bed to shake off the rest of this cold.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

man down in bend

Today's post will be short. 

I am in bed with one of the maladies travelers often suffer.  A cold.

It certainly could be worse.  The imagination runs wild while sitting on airplanes and standing in line with people who have been exposed to all sorts of microbes.  We live in an era of intercontinental germ sharing.

And I am far more fortunate than my friend Isla Gringo, a former blogger now on Facebook, who suffered a heart attack while visiting family in Minnesota.

Most of my tasks here in Oregon can wait.  So, I will return to the sleep-welcoming arms of Nyquil.

But rest assured, I will be back to continue this journey.  After all, there is a house to be purchased.  And tales to be told.

Friday, September 26, 2014

the red thermos

I think that was their name.  Or maybe it was the Red Thermoses.

The name should have been easy to remember.  It seemed as the band was ubiquitous on the ship.  If there was a stage, there they were.

Four primary musicians.  Bass guitar.  Lead guitar.  Cello.  Peruvian flute.  With an occasional saxophone or keyboard drifting in and out.

All women.  Dressed in rather blocky red outfits that evoked the band name.  The type of clothing cruisers wear to cover the extra pounds that have taken up camping space on hips and thighs after a few days of starchy buffet lines.

I don’t remember ever stopping to listen to them for more than a few seconds.  When I would, it seemed as if they were always playing the same tune.  Over and over.  The kind of tune that is vaguely familiar, but my mind simply could not grab the title.  Something that Karen Ziemba could dance to.

What I did grab was one of the eponymous red thermoses, filled with mediocre coffee, tea, or soup, that were served up by the waiters who drifted through the moving herds of passengers being driven from one eating venue to another.  Like cattle in a Kansas City abattoir.

Of course, none of this happened.  It is all a dream.  Literally.  From Wednesday night.  And one of those dreams that looped around to the same spot no matter how many times I would get up to find the toilet in the dark.  That number requires more than one hand to calculate.

I suspect the proximate cause was my melatonin-fueled attempt to acclimate to the eight-hour time zone shift.  Re-setting my circadian clock is getting more difficult as I age.

What I found interesting is that my mind is still trying to sift through a cruise experience that ended almost a week ago.  I have gone from a cosseted environment where music, food, and amusement were served up with limited variety to a more libertarian space where I can actually make my own choices.  My mind must be purging the more fascist aspects of my quasi-socialist cruise experience.

Or maybe, it is simply having its own party.  And I have not been invited.

Where I have been invited is on a road trip to Portland with the Latsches.  The plan is to drive down on Thursday afternoon.  (That is today as I write.)  I will then fly to Redmond to spend time with my family in Bend.

That is where we will pick up this tale tomorrow.  If I can get some sleep.  I need to get the stopper back in this silly thermos.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

dahlias and dogs

His dahlias were always beautiful.

When the Burkes (including that red-headed girl who had won my fourth grade heart) moved away, an older couple moved in.  They lived on property behind us that once belonged to our house on Risley.

Mr. and Mrs. Strang.  That is how I knew them.  For people a generation older, my brother and I used honorifics.  Calling a 50-year old woman "Mary" was as unthinkable as an adult taking our childish ways seriously.

Scots, they were.  With accents as thick as the oatmeal they ate.

They treated my brother and me with kindness.  Most of that centered around their bumptious Irish setter, Heather.  She loved running circles in our back garden.

But it was Mr. Strang's dahlias that came to mind yesterday morning.  Ken, Patti, and I arrived in Olympia late Tuesday night.  When I woke up yesterday morning, I was welcomed by a sea of dahlias.  Grown by the neighbor next door to the Latsches.

Those dahlias were nice.  But Mr. Strang's were better.  Or, at least, my memory is that they were better.  Memories can do that.  Facts get mangled in the service of nostalgia.

My memory can be trusted on one point, though.  Mr. Strang was generous with the fruits of his labors.  He regularly handed over bouquets, wet with morning dew, for my mother.  And, as I said at the start, they were beautiful.  And large.

I learned several things from that generous man.  Unfortunately, the art of growing dahlias was not one of them.  My attempts in Milwaukie and Salem produced the faintest of copies.

What I did learn was a love for big dogs.  In the form of golden retrievers, for me.  And an appreciation for the art of working hard to create something beautiful.

But, most of all, I learned the power of generosity.  How something as simple as a flower can build lasting relationships.

After Mr. Strang died, Mrs. Strang's debilitating arthritis and a stroke put her in a nursing home.  Despite her physical limitations, her accountant-trained mind was always in high gear.

I enjoyed the hours we would spend once a month reminiscing about our shared days on Risley and trying to figure out the almost undecipherable ways of Medicare.  The first was always exhilarating; the latter was frustrating, and has left me with an ongoing distrust of government medical insurance.

Mrs. Strang died almost 30 years ago.  And, to this day, I remember her and her husband as mentors.  Through their generosity and kindness, I learned new things about myself.

Things -- such as the mere glimpse of a flower that casts a spotlight on a niche of my past that I thought was long forgotten.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

the london bits

I am drafting this on our flight from London to Seattle.

Even though it is an afternoon flight, most of the passengers are sleeping on their flat bed seats.  Me?  I am basking in the glow of my laptop monitor.  That gives you an idea how easily I snooze on airplanes -- even when the conditions are optimum for sleep.

Instead, I will put together some snippets that I have not yet shared with you on our post-cruise London visit.

Even though there was a day when I would make an annual trip to London to refresh my wardrobe, those days are long gone.  On this trip, I had a very short list: an extra formal shirt for my white tie costume (single French cuffs, thank you very much); a lens cap for my camera; a box of pickled onion crisps; and some underwear.

As you can guess from the photograph, I ended up only with two pair of underwear.  And not quite what I wanted. 

During my two years living in England, I became quite fond of a certain style of underwear.  Boxers.  Cotton jersey.  Cloth over the elastic waist band.  Reasonably priced.

Since then, I have periodically replenished my stock at Harrods, Selfridges, and Marks and Spencer.  Apparently, styles have changed.  The only similar product sold by Harrods were brocaded silk at about $470 (US) a piece.  Nothing at Marks and Spencer.  All Selfridges offered were white boxers at about $60 each.  I bought two pair -- and mourned the passing of an era.

This man, perched atop the Selfridges marquee, appears to be suffering the same problem I had.  Searching for a good pair of underwear.


You know how much I love trains.  Rather than hiring a car or taking a bus from Harwich back into London, I convinced Ken and Patti to take the train.  The Harwich Express.

Despite being the only direct train to London that day, we had our carriage almost exclusively to ourselves.  Or so I thought.  Apparently, the engineer had dropped his bottle in the seat behind me.


Shooting the horse-mounted soldiers at Horse Guards is a favorite tourist activity.  I decided to reverse the project.  How the horse boys manage to not laugh when faced with such Kafkaesque behavior is beyond me.


This bar-restaurant may have been on Shaftesbury for some time.  But I noticed it for the first time while on our hop on-hop off bus tour.  Any place named the Ape and Bird deserves a visit.  Next time.


On that same bus, the commentary must have told us ten times about one of the most questionable bits of travel lore.  It goes like this.  If you stand in Piccadilly Circus for 37 minutes, you will see someone you know or recognize. 

I doubt it.  I have.  And I haven’t.  Unless the theory includes the possibility of seeing the same stranger you saw five minutes earlier.  But that would simply be a shameless tautology, wouldn’t it?

In any event, I like these crowd shots.  There are always plenty of stories playing out in the human bait ball.  Such as, what is up with that couple on the far right?

If you look closely, you can see the marquee for the theater where I saw Jimmy Stewart in Harvey in the 1970s.  The circus has been greatly revised since then.  But it still has that “center of London” feel to it.*


And what would a post of London be without a tourist cliché shot?  I waited for what I thought would be  just the right moment.

I can count at least four London clichés.  There may be more.  Take a shot at identifying them.

* – Yes.  Yes.  I know.  Piccadilly Circus is not the center of London.  At least for measuring purposes.  That honor goes to the diminutive figure of Charles I mounted on a horse in Trafalgar Square.  But, I ask you, what is more central -- young people having fun or a monarch about to lose his head?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

this old house

Our last full day in London was devoted to houses. 

Well, really only one house.  A big house.  But I decided to pad out the essay with a broader topic.  Housing in London.

I have already talked about how expensive housing in southern England can be.  As you know, I almost moved here in 1989 to take a law job with an entertainer.  When I started looking around for accommodations in London, I was amazed that anyone could live here.

I still am.  After we returned from our cruise, we walked over to Shepherd Market for lunch.  On a street corner, a notice was posted advertising a 5 bedroom home for rent.

Admittedly, we were in the middle of Mayfair -- as was the house.  But, it is hard for me to wrap my head around paying the equivalent of almost $5,000 (US) for a rental.  Terrace or not. 

In one year, my rent would be more than what I am paying for my four bedroom house in Barra de Navidad.  Of course, it would still be in Barra de Navidad, and not in London.

There were several other houses on offer, but no prices were listed.  Where the price should have been, the notices read: "Price on application."  I think that translates into American English as: "If you have to ask the price, you cannot afford it."

Patti pointed out a number of young men in Selfridges who were looking at shoes with £1,200 price tags, about $2,000 (US), were all wearing similar shoes.  They were not merely browsing.  I suspect they (or their families) were the people who live in such digs.

The rentals in the less elegant area of Marylebone are closer to my price range.  But they would still be a stretch.

Interested in a 3-bedroom?  Furnished, mind you.  A bit cramped.  I can give it to you at £1,350.  A week, that is.  By now, you can probably do your own conversions, but that is about $2,200 (US).  A week.  Slightly more than the cost of a pair of Italian-made shoes.

Or, if you really want to economize, perhaps you would like to settle for a two-bedroom flat.  Once again, it comes furnished.  For the incredibly reasonable price of £825.  

Yes, it is the weekly rate, but $1,400 (US) a week is a bargain for an American.  Well, maybe if you are comparing apartments with the lower east side of Manhattan.

Because estate agents are a crafty lot, they have posted several homes that are a bit "out of the area."  It may be difficult to see the prices, but they run from £350,000,000 to £5,8000,000.

I won't even bother converting them.  They are all in Monaco, one of the world's most expensive housing markets.  Either the estate agents are posting these prices to make £3,000 a week look like low-cost housing -- or they simply know their market: people who will rent expensive houses in Mayfair are the type of people who buy incredibly expensive houses in Monaco.

Well, I am not part of that crowd.  My type of accommodation is posted at the top of this essay.

It is my room at the Green Park Hilton.  When I walked in, I swear the bed was still warm from the Little Sisters of the Poor nun who vacated her cell to make room for me.

Small though it is (and it made me nostalgic for my cruise ship cabin), it had everything I needed for these four days in London.

And that brings me to the central topic of this essay.

When I lived here in the 1970s, the only way that an ordinary bloke could get inside Buckingham Palace was to scale the walls.*  And several did.  It was the private residence and office of the monarch -- and has been since Queen Victoria moved in in 1837 to hatch her brood.

That changed in 1993.  In an attempt to raise funds for the repair of the palace, the Queen opened the palace for the 60 summer days the royal family spends on holiday at Balmoral in Scotland.

Traditionalists were appalled.  The palace was one of the few places where the royal family could wall itself off from the hoi polloi.

It has turned out to be a public relations home run.  The Queen stumbled badly with her initial response to the death of the former princess Diana.  That snafu tied with several other minor royal scandals had many British talking about turfing out the whole Windsor lot and turning the sceptered isle into a republic.

To walk through the palace with the Queen's subjects (and hordes of shorts-clad tourists) is to witness a political miracle.

Certainly, all of the glitz and pageantry is there.  Everything that makes the magic of monarchy work. 

And, of course, there is the history.  To walk through the state rooms open to the public is to feel the patina of two centuries of empire.  Even after the empire is dead and gone.

But that was not the miracle.  The Windsors are a wily lot.  To hide their German roots, they filled their palaces with references to their Stuart lineage -- and jettisoned their very Germanic family name.

That is child's play compared to what you can now see in the palace.  The place is filled with photographs of royal children.  Four rooms are dedicated to films and museum displays of what it is like to be a royal child.  To be just like every other child -- just a lot better.**

In the throne room, British grannies crowd around three photographs of various generations of Windsors.  Bony, arthritic fingers point out faces from the royal past and present while completely ignoring the art and furniture of royal power.

American presidents could probably learn a thing or two from Betty and Phil.  I suspect many an American visitor to Washington, DC wishes that tumbrels could be filled with occupants of the White House -- past and present. 

Not so in this old house.  I suspect that plenty of Scots, even after last week's big battle, feels a personal kinship to the queen who has more than a bit of Scot blood.  That is because she is probably the sole symbol that holds the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish together in their United Kingdom.

The Queen (and this house) are more than a mere tourist attraction (though the palace does have a heavy scent of Disney about it).  They are a symbol of what holds four diverse nations together in one state.

Twenty years ago, I would not have bet a dollar on the British monarchy surviving another decade.  And now?  If this visit is any gauge, the royal house that William I brought across the channel in 1066 may outlast the American republic.


* -- During an extended reserve duty tour, I was fortunate enough to join some embassy staff in attending one of the Queen's garden parties.  I have almost no independent memory of the event.  I suspect my republican sentiments clouded my memory.
** -- I apologize that I cannot share any photographs of the rooms, furniture, and. most importantly, art collection in the palace.  It is another of those no-camera experiences that are becoming far too common.  But you can see all of that on online.  Here is one example.

Monday, September 22, 2014

on top of the world

I love hop on-hop off buses.

My introduction to the concept was in Barcelona.  Buying a day pass gave me the ability to take a bus around the city -- along with a rather good commentary -- to learn where the major sights were located.  I then had the option of getting off the bus whenever my fancy was tickled or I could make up a walking itinerary and return later.  Either way, a couple of hours were well-invested in condensed research.

Even though I have taken hop on-hop offs in several cities, I have never been on one in London.  Until today.

When I came to London in the 1970s, I learned the city the old-fashioned way with guide book in hand and a sturdy pair of shoes on my feet.  So, I have never felt the need to ride on the open level of a double-decker bus.

The three of us decided today was a good day to face the streaming breezes.  The weather was slightly cloudy.  But the sun promised to break through.  And the 63 degree temperature was perfect for being outside.

I thought I was going to get some good photographs.  I should have known better.  Photographs from a moving bus are never very good because of the framing problem.  And the bus itself tends to get in the way.

Even with a bit of luck, shots like this one of the monument to the 1666 fire that burned most of London barely creep out of the clich
é box.

So, I just sat back and enjoyed myself on the ride past Hyde Park through Kensington and north to Bloomsbury.  We switched to a second bus to head to the south bank of the Thames on a circular route around the Tower of London.

I had a bit more luck with the Victorian decorations on Tower bridge -- a bridge that tourists often mistake for London bridge.

Of course, it would be better without the scattered tourists.  On a bus, though, there is no waiting.

This skyline of London worked better.  Not only is the light stone of the Tower a distinct contrast to the blue of London's financial district, but the Norman lines of the Tower make an interesting juxtaposition for the post-modern curves of the contemporary buildings.

Speaking of contrasts, you have already seen the World War One poppies filing the moat of the Tower.  But, from this angle, they truly look like flowing blood.

We hopped off of the bus on the south side of the Thames to visit the new (for me) Tate Modern Art Museum.  The building itself is a piece of art.  A converted power plant, to be exact.

As interesting as the exterior is, the building holds plenty of artistic gems.  Such as, these Richard Tuttle pieces being installed in the old Turbo chamber.

These pieces do not interest me much even when they are in their completed state.  But it was fun to see them at this stage.  The emperor without his clothes.

The largest draw was a sampling of the Tate's modern art paintings.  And a draw it was.  What better way to spend a Sunday than at a free afternoon looking at a Picasso?  Especially if you are young.

Or looking at people looking at a Picasso.

This Procter caught my eye.  Following the First World War, several artists veered away from impressionism and the emerging expressionism.  Procter's Morning is a good example.

Initially it appears to be a retro piece.  A regression to Romanticism.  Until you look at it closely.  It is almost a Tamara de Lempicka -- but with humanity. 

Even though the lines are softened, the piece is as abstract (in the sense that it captures the essence of form rather than merely representing it) as a Picasso.  The tension between the forms and the appearance of a woman at rest optimistically awakening to a new day provides an almost magnetic attraction for the viewer.

For me, the next room had a far different draw.  For some reason, the Tate has installed a full room of Soviet Communist posters.

On first glance, the installation seems to mock the very essence of Communist pretensions at idealism.  Especially, since we know how the story ended.  (Or, at least, we think we do.)

The description of the exhibit completely strips Communism of its basic evil notion that human nature can be changed -- if the force of the state is compelling enough.  I find it hard to imagine that the Tate would mount an exhibition of the equally-abhorrent propaganda of Hitler's National Socialism.

When we came out of the Tate, God had a far better art show in mind for us.  Sunshine broke through the clouds to light up the opposite shore.  What could be more dramatic than an historic city lit bright with a dramatic black backdrop of clouds?

I couldn't decide which of these two shots to share.  So, I give you both.

Even the silly pun-ridden statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, with his bow and arrow honoring the charitable deeds of the Earl of Shaftesbury, was improved by the day's dramatic lighting.

But the prize for the most unexpected sight of the day goes to this series of banners stretched across the upscale shopping precinct of Regent Street.

I am accustomed to seeing American flags in Britain.  After all, even with the recent foreign policy disagreements, Britain still maintains a "special relationship" with The States.

A certain segment of Brits has long been fascinated with American football.  That was true when I lived here in the 1970s.  But that love has broken out into an obsession.

Last year, the merchants of Regent Street sponsored a kickoff event honoring the annual series of American football games at Wembley arena.  It is happening again this year on 26 September.  I will just barely miss it.  And that is a shame.  It sounds like a fascinating cross-cultural event.

Instead, I will be in either Oregon or Washington.  Patti, Ken, and I fly back to Seattle on Tuesday.  But, before we go, we will have one more star London attraction to visit.

You can either guess -- or wait one more day.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

england swings like a pendulum do

So sang Roger Miller back in 1965.  Tony Blair probably said it better -- Britain rocks.

No one ever had to teach me to love this country -- or this great city.  My two years of living in England in the dark days of the 1970s made London a top candidate for a retirement home for Steve Cotton.

That didn't happen for a lot of reasons.  But my repeated visits here over the years have been filled with nothing but great memories.  And I added several more yesterday.

London is best enjoyed on foot.  While Ken and Patti were getting some well-needed rest, I took off on a random walk to renew my affair with this once imperial city.

We are staying at the Green Park Hilton.  That made my first stop easy.  You can see by the photograph how this 47 acres of rolling woods got its name -- green park.

Urban parks are always places of magic.  After ten steps in this particular park, you feel as if you are in the countryside hunting rabbits.  The canopy is low enough that only glimpses of the wonders of London peek through the limbs.

And crossing one busy street puts you in the next park.  St. James's Park -- an entirely different feel.  With its lawn, trees, and duck ponds, it sets off two of London's most famous buildings.  Buckingham Palace in one direction and Horse Guards in the other.

I suspect I have about a hundred photographs of the Byzantine domes of Horse Guards reflected in the park lake.  Almost all of them featuring the white skies that are an almost-constant feature of London.  The city's big effort to clear up its air has merely exposed the fact that there is no sky there.

What is there is signs.  The English love their park rules.  But, even more, they like to apologize.  The motto emblazoned on the royal coat of arms is "Dieu et mon droit."  It may as well be "sorry."

You hear it everywhere in London -- at least, from the British.  One little rubbed shoulder in a shop will elicit an avalanche of "sorry" "sorry" "sorry."

I cannot imagine this sign showing up anywhere in Melaque -- or Mexico City, for that matter.

Especially, when the "danger" conveyed by the sign was nothing more than a few loose rock chips.  It is moments like this that makes quite clear why Britain felt compelled to pass off its responsibility of policing the seas to the newly-emergent American power.

Speaking of policing, this sight was not new to me.  But it was rather disheartening.  Even though it reflects the time in which we live.

These armed policemen were standing at the entrance of Downing Street.  Number 10, of course, is the home of the British prime minister.  (The black building, if you are curious.)  And, because of the recent failure of the Scottish referendum, David Cameron still lives there.

When I first visited London in the 1970s, you could stand right across the street from the house's front door.  We all know why that is not true these days.  Evil men wish to do evil deeds in such symbolic places.  Thus, the machine gun-toting police throughout the city.  Especially, at embassies

Just up Whitehall from Downing Street, is the Centotaph -- a plain monument celebrating the lives of all the people who died in the service of Britain.  It has always been a very powerful symbol standing in the very center of Whitehall Street.

Since 2005, it has been joined in that honored position by another monument.  One dedicated to
the work that women undertook during the Second World War.

Don't get me wrong.  The work that women performed in the allied countries made the difference in defeating Germany and Japan.  And added proof positive of the important economic role women would provide in the future.

Ironically, the monument may actually minimize the value of the work provided by women during the war.  The Centotaph, and other war monuments, celebrated the sacrifice of all in the state's monopoly of unregulated violence. 

Whenever politicians want people to join together, they invoke "how we all worked together" during the war.  To start slicing the unity of effort into thin pieces of salami seems to give no credit to the supposed honorees.

At least, women deserved true credit.  There is one monument along Whitehall that makes me wince every time I see it.

The equestrian statue of Field Marshal Douglas Haig was meant to honor a "hero" of the First World War.  In truth, Haig was perhaps one of Britain's most incompetent commanders -- sending two million troops off to join a casualty list in ill-conceived battles.

It is probably appropriate that the statue sits in front of the Banqueting House.  The building was part of a much larger and older palace (Whitehall) that stretched along the Thames until it burned down in 1698.  Only the Banqueting House survived.

On a cold day in January 1649, Charles I stepped onto a scaffold from the center window of the house to have his crown (and head) severed from his body.  Providing a name to a number of British pubs -- The King's Head.  There seems to be a certain irony that Haig the Butcher and the butchered king should be remembered so close together.

Immediately across the street is the Horse Guards -- the 18th century building where the Household Cavalry stands guard over a palace that no longer exists.  But it is a first rate tourist attraction. 

These young men with their dragoon outfits and mounted on awe-inspiring steeds are worth their pay in the number of slack-jawed tourists who come to gawk as if they were at a Wisconsin State Fair freak show.  And, yes, I was one of them.

That may be the sole value of maintaining all of this royal pomp and circumstance that has evolved over hundreds of years of conquest, war, empire, and Elgar ramblings.  Take St. James's Palace -- perhaps my favorite royal palace in Britain.  The birth of royals and the deaths of kings are announced from this balcony.  Ambassadors from throughout the world are accredited to the "Court of St. James."

All of that because this interesting pile of Tudor bricks is designated as the official residence of the sovereign -- even though she lives down the street in a building that resembles a 19th century warehouse. 

She was not a recent evacuee.  William IV abandoned it in the early 1800s, and the German monarchs, who ruled Britain, never looked back.

Instead, they moved into what had once been the Duke of Buckingham's town house, and thoroughly modified it over the next two centuries.

It is now center stage for tourists.  The place where the changing of the guard brings together everything that foreigners consider Britain to be.  Power.  Color.  Pageantry.  Royalty.  And a sense that things were once better than they are now -- even though they know that is probably not true.

The British taxpayers provide us tourists with a bit of authenticity and even more hype than Walt Disney could conjure.  And we love it.

Look at this crowd.  They are pushing and shoving to see that young boy I shot at Horse Guards ride by in all of his finery.

Of course, they really do not care about the boy.  It is the symbolism.  The sense of belonging to something big.  Something that matters.

For me?  It means that Britain not only rocks; it still has some of those values that are eternal and just may survive the machinations of politicians.

And that is good enough for me.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

sucking on the lemon

When I moved to Mexico in 2009, the debate over Obamacare had just begun.

My sole source for how the discussions were developing up north came from The Economist, The American Spectator, and National Review.  Each magazine had differing editorial policies on the topic.  And they each published some very thoughtful pieces on the options facing Congress.

I was convinced that a high-level policy discussion was taking place between the political elite.  It wasn’t until I returned to Salem for a visit in 2010 that I learned there had been no high-toned discussions. 

Both parties had reduced what could have been an exercise in scholarship into a mud wrestling match that would have made pigs leave the sty.  Four years later, we are learning the extent of the deception used during the passage and enactment of the legislation.

I thought of that missed opportunity at dinner on our last night of the cruise.  We were dining at Qsine -- a specialty restaurant on the ship whose concept of serving food is supposed to be edgy, but comes off as far too jejune, if not pedestrian.  The pictured sushi-pops are a perfect example.

There were five of us at dinner.  Ken and Patti, of course.  I knew the couple who had joined us for dinner had leftist sentiments.  That did not bother me.  In fact, I was looking forward to having a frank exchange of views over dinner.  Diverging opinions are not necessarily a recipe for animosity.

Or so I thought.

Patti and I had earlier discussed how both American political parties had made a mishmash of the recent food stamp debate.  To read the press, you would think that the choice was between letting millions of Americans starve in the street or letting a budget go out of control that will have our grandchildren starving in the street. 

I heard nothing about areas of agreement -- such as, what is the purpose of food stamps or welfare in general?  And what is an appropriate assistance level that meets some basic needs, but also provides an incentive to do something better?  Without some common agreement on that question, the process devolves to positioning as opposed to finding common interests.

The topic should have been a great hook to talk about finding common ground in these discussions.  So, I pitched a slow one over the plate, and the husband of the other couple grabbed the ball and did not turn loose of it until he proved my point.

To my opening “Patti and I were discussing food stamps the other day as an example of how real issues get lost in political posturing,”  he began what can only politely be called a diatribe.  One of those diatribes that appear to be based on logic, but are merely facile.  A bit like the food we were being served.  All form; no substance. 

He was quite proud of his particular denomination of data -- the religion of the left.  But, like most quasi-socialist arguments, it was heavy on logic and devoid of almost any relationship with human behavior.

I guess the proper regulation of humans will cause us all to act as compliant automatons.  And we all know how well that turned out in Uncle Joe’s neighborhood.

I was ready to join the conversation when my political philosophy was referred to as “intellectual masturbation.”  Where can you go with a comment like that?  It has all the subtlety of tossing out one of the other conversation-stopping bombs. 

You know them.  “Fascist.”  “Racist.”  “Sexist.”  Code words to show one’s moral superiority while reducing discussions to choruses of teeth-grinding and growling.

Frankly, I was shocked.  Even though I should have seen that the outcome was inevitable.  There are not very many people who any longer find joy in the give and take of witty repartee. 

Ken and Patti do.  Along with my friend John Hofer.  I cherish my friendship with them because an afternoon spent discussing serious issues is like spending time with Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. 

So, to those few people on this planet who are still capable of looking their political and social adversaries in the eye and building bon mot on pun on sardonic wit, all with the grace of Dame Edith Evans, I raise my far-too-precious codsicles. 

Long may they wave.

Friday, September 19, 2014

waves and wrinkles

My allotted days are at an end.  At least, on this cruise.

As I was walking through the cafeteria at noon yesterday, I had an apotheosis.  I have spent the last 12 days on a floating retirement center.

Not the type of “rest home” I knew in my youth where people in their seventies were shunted off to stinky rooms furnished with beds that would do a prison proud.  I mean the type of “retirement centers” built by cities to prevent active seniors from roaming the streets with their idle hands.

You know the type of place.  (You may be reading this in one right now.)  Exercise rooms that would put a smile on Torquemada's mug.  Coffee shops serving up lattes and a heavy does of wifi to send buff photos to the great-grandkids.  And cafeterias awash with enough ethnic food to be mistaken for the lower east side -- but no spice please, we’re English.

It was not only the sea of gray heads that made me believe I had walked into the Salem senior center.  The tipping point was the parking lot of scooters walkers, and wheel chairs that cluttered the cafeteria’s entry.  And what sealed the deal were the repeated questions of the staff asking if the chili con carne was spicy.  (It was blissfully so, and conspicuously avoided by my fellow oldsters.)

Now, that may sound like a dig against the cruise.  It isn’t.  I am rather pleased that people my age and older are willing to get out of their comfort zones at home to see more of the world.

Well, see more of the world in a rather controlled environment. 

Even though my fellow passengers feel emboldened enough to saunter the streets of western France and northern Spain, they often huddle together on bus tours clutching on to one another with eyes filled with fear that someone might say something to them in a foreign language.  And always ready to say that they have something just like that back in Edmonton, or Milton Keynes, or Helena no matter how exotic it may be.

But none of that really matters.  Spending time with Patti and Ken has been an unalloyed joy.  When we started putting this trip together, we were not certain what Patti’s health would be.  With some limitations, it has been fine.  And I would not have missed a day of the trip with them.

And now, we are off to London for a few days.  By the time you read this, short of some nautical disaster, we should be disembarked, on a train, and situated in our internet-surcharge hotel.

Because everything works out well in the end, I am certain there will be more tales of wonder to share before I head home to deal with the vagaries of the closing on my new house.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

hemingway had a boat

Yesterday was a sea day.

If you have not been on a cruise, especially if you are one of those people who is not content unless you are “doing” something, the description of a “sea day” will sound like your worst nightmare.  For me, they are my favorite days on a cruise ship.

A sea day is a full day in the ocean without any ports of call.  The whole world is the ship -- and what you can see from it.

The usual question I hear about sea days is: “What do you do?”  And I answer the same way I answer the “What do you do in Mexico” question.  Anything I want.

Take yesterday.  I have absolutely no idea what I did. 

I may have read The Economist.  I may have stared out over the ocean watching its subtle mood changes.  I may have gone for a walk on the upper deck.  I may even have simply sat and chatted with people from different countries who I have never seen and who I will never see again.

In truth, it does not matter what I did.  What I do know is that after a superb dinner and a rather bumptious song and dance show, I was fully relaxed and at peace with the world.  Maybe even with myself.

For me, it was a great state.  For you, that is lousy essay material.

So, as a makeup call, here are some nautical shots from northern Spain.  To share the harmony.  With the exception of the last two shots, they are all from the Getxo harbor.

I collect Medvedev paintings.  Some of his best work is of small boats.  This is my homage to him.

This is another perspective of the same set of boats at the top of the post.

There was something about the pairing of these two boats.  The color.  Their shape.  The fish that echo the craft on the surface above them.

I am also a fan of the dilapidated.  The combination of textures caught my eye, especially the dock juxtaposed against the once-smooth surfaces of the boats.  There may be an aging analogy in there somewhere.

And what could be a better tribute to our recent visit to Braque than these bands of color on the Bay of Biscay?

By now, you know what catches my eye.  In this case, it was the flash of colors on the tender waiting to service us in the rather monochrome bay at Vigo.

My last shot does not center on boats.  At least, not directly.  Even though the bus window’s tint adds an eerie painter effect, I liked the result well enough to close out this set.

The objects you see in the water are platforms atop four piers.  Nets, seeded with mussel buds, are then hung on the four sides of the platforms.  The resulting crop makes Vigo the largest producer of mussels after China.  (I realize the comparison is non-parallel.  But that is what our guide said.)  Even if that statistic is off, the photograph intrigued me.

Today, we are at sea for our last day of the cruise.  If I “do” anything, I will let you know.  If I don’t “do” anything, we will still talk.