Tuesday, August 31, 2010

of leavings, comings, visits

These boulangers-patissiers on Ile Saint-Louis are taking a break from the baking academy established in 1845. You can just see the coved entrance on the right. Don't I wish I perched quai-side with them sharing a cigarette. Sigh.
This morning I drove Tristan to the airport for his flight back to Paris. A little sad I couldn't wedge myself in his overflowing bag or fit into his backpack. A Sorbonne student, Tristan stayed with us this summer and corrected my French, called everyone 'duuude' and taught me how to use my new iPhone when no one else would. Handy also to have this 20 year old Parisian in house to answer questions about breaking and entering ie his building's courtyard was the 'office' of a neighborhood drug dealer - now gone.
Tristan's in the clouds now, eating a pre-packaged meal watching the first of three movies. But in the car he told me how he'd get home from Charles de Gaulle 'take the RER to Gare du Nord then line 5 and up the Metro steps at Jacques Bonsergent'. I pictured this, having done it myself from his parent's place; pulling his roller bag over the cobbles, smelling the whiff from nearby Canal Saint Martin and the boulangerie on the corner. The sounds of the #56 bus rumbling on Boulevard Magenta, the busy pavement swelling at 'la rentrée' with parents taking children to school, people rushing off to work. For a moment I was with him.

Then my friend Dorothy called from NY, excited as she's leaving for Paris next week. Dorothy, a fast paced 70+ year old Manhattanite will take photos for our Paris presentation at the Natl Arts Club in NY next spring. Planning, talking of where she'd go, what night shots we'd need; the narrow alley behind the Balzac museum at twilight, the eau de Paris sign on rue Copernic. All the narrow streets came back to me, the Place Victor Hugo with it's spraying fountain, the mist on my face, the whoosh of the milk steamer drifting from the cafe. Always a deal finder, she's staying at one star hotel, shower down the hall but a steal at 30 Euro's a night.

But then it was time to go Bangkok. Again all I had to do was hop in the car, this time head to M is for Mystery. Our fellow blogmate Tim did an incredible power point presentation on the Queen of Patpong. He spoke of his story and where the characters came from and his foundation in northern Thailand helping impoverished girls stay in school instead of leaving to work in the sex trade in Bangkok. At times, poignant, moving and funny Tim took us north to a poor village and then the bright neon of Patpong.

No frequent flier miles earned but Paris and Bangkok...all in one day!

Cara - Tuesday

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Murder in Brazil #2

Brazilians have an expression: neste país, os ricos não vão para a cadeia.
It means, in this country, rich people don’t go to jail.
Not true in all cases, but…
…consider the case of Antônio Marcos Pimenta Neves, well-to-do, politically well-connected and a confessed killer.
The former managing editor of the Estado do São Paulo (Brazil’s newspaper of record; our equivalent of The New York Times) he spent four years carrying on a love affair with a young journalist named Sandra Gomide.
For much of that time, he abused her physically.
Finally, she summoned the courage to end their relationship and went to the cops. They photographed her bruises and abrasions and told Pimenta Neves to leave her alone.
He didn’t.
On the 20th of August, 2000, he showed up at her family’s farm, in the countryside near São Paulo to force a reconciliation.
She refused.
So he drew this revolver and shot her.
Once in the back.
And then, to make certain she was dead, again in the ear.
Arrested, he was released to await final judgment in liberty.
Final, is the operative word.
Final, in Brazil, is after all appeals have been exhausted.
The constitution that defends Pimenta Neves’ rights is one of the most modern and democratic on earth.
It exists, in part, to make sure that no one suffers unjust punishment.
And, to that end, offers numerous safeguards, numerous opportunities for appeal.
Of course, you need good lawyers to take advantage of them.
Pimenta Neves has very good lawyers.
It took six years to get him convicted.
(Yes, he confessed, but, in Brazil, murder cases still have to be submitted to a jury.)
He appealed.
In 2008, his conviction was confirmed.
But then his lawyers sought grounds for a second appeal – and found them.
And have been finding other ones ever since.
He continues to inhabit his mini mansion in São Paulo.
He continues to spend summers at the beach in Guarujá.
In this cartoon, entitled Meanwhile, in Gurarujá, a guy’s wife is saying (black balloon) “Isn’t that Pimenta Neves, the guy who confessed to killing his girlfriend? Look, he’s got a new one.” The guy replies, “Be more discrete. Don’t comment on promiscuous relationships.” The new girlfriend is, of course, justice. And Pimenta Neves is declaring his faith in her.
People are outraged.
Pimenta Neves doesn't care. His permit to carry a firearm has not been revoked; he’s gone out and bought himself another pistol.
He’s 72, and in excellent health for a man of his age.
Meanwhile, Sandra’s father, four years younger than Pimenta Neves, living with the frustration of seeing his daughter’s killer getting away with it, has undergone quadruple bypass surgery, has had one of his legs amputated because of a circulatory problem, has lost his job and is living on a small pension.
Living, he says, for the day he’ll see Pimenta Neves behind bars.
But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon.
Pimenta Neves is lucky to be Brazilian.

Leighton - Monday

The Beast in the Basement

So the eighth month of the eleventh year of the new century is almost over.  Eleven years in to century 21, and I'm just learning to fill in the date blank on my checks with a number that begins with two.

So far, the 21st century has been a blur.  Tempus has never fugited at such speed.  It seems like I've barely had time to feed the dog.  And there's a new year coming and a new year after that, and they'll come faster and faster, and I'm finally forced to accept the idea that sooner or later, one of those new years will arrive without me in it.

There comes a time in everyone's life when it becomes impossible to continue to ignore the Beast in the basement.  We may have persuaded ourselves that we'd be young always or that middle age now lasts longer than ever, or even that 60 is the new 40, but at a certain point you hear the Beast bumping around down there.  Once in a while it scrapes its nails against the door at the top of the stairs.  It's getting impatient.

If I belonged to a religion that promised either resurrection or reincarnation -- some kind of post-mortem dance card -- I'd probably feel a little different.  But I don't.  So that leaves me in the position of asking all the usual questions: why, what for, where to now?

One of my favorite films (if I've written about this before, forgive me) is the Japanese movie "Afterlife," written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda.  You die and you find yourself a member of a group of new arrivals at a rundown facility that looks like an abandoned high school: drab corridors, linoleum floors, drafty rooms, the tea never the right temperature.  You're there for a week, and you have only one thing to do: through a series of interviews with the staff', you're going to choose the moment from your life in which you will spend eternity.

We follow one group of interviewees through the film, and we watch them, one by one, sift their lives for meaning or happiness.  Most of them start with something big and gradually refine it into something tiny.  A high school girl killed in a car crash begins with the night she and her friends went to Tokyo Disneyland, but she finally chooses a moment when she was four and she was resting her cheek on her mother's knee and she could smell the freshly laundered linen of her mother's apron.  One man chooses a moment in which he himself was miserable, but he had just freed the woman he was to marry so she could be with the man she loved, and she was ecstatic.  He decides to spend eternity in the moment of her happiness.

When everyone has made a choice, the memories are filmed in a wonderfully low-tech studio, and then the interviewees all come together in a small theater, and as a person's moment in screened, poof, he or she disappears.

When my wife and I saw this film for the first time, it changed the way we look at our lives.  We made a commitment to try to acknowledge good moments, however tiny, as they arise.  And for eight or ten years now, we've worked to keep the commitment fresh.

So, as the Beast gets bumptious, I guess what I need to do is keep myself open to the richness of those moments while I'm in them; love more and love better; write more and write better; and try never to go numb to beauty.  And to have as good a time as I can, because the only god I could ever believe in is one that regards joy as the highest form of worship.  In other words, I should live as I should have been living all along.

Tim -- Sundays

Friday, August 27, 2010

A real pea-souper, make no mistake...

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither.

Since getting back from the sauna heat of the US, the weather in London has been nothing but dire. So damp it pervades your bones, skies the colour of dull aluminium, a cool wind shaking leaves from the trees prematurely - autumn in all but name. I couldn't be happier. I love the sun, but I also love to feel a cold blast of air in my face every now and then, and is there a more comforting sound than lying in bed while the rain taps gently yet insistently on your window? In one US cafe I remember mounting a stout defence of the English climate, or what passes for one. 'I'd sure like to experience one of those London fogs,' the lady behind the counter said.

I didn't have the heart to tell her London is no more foggy than LA these days. But it's strange how the idea of London fog has seeped into the US consciousness. Their spiffiest raincoat is called London Fog, after all. One wag over here said it was like Indians paying homage to the Old Country with a very fine brand of sari called Unreliable Plumbing System. Maybe it was all those Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies where the fog swirled and curled under gaslit streetlamps, or the works of Charles Dickens, from which the quote above comes.

The fact is, like my patron in the cafe, I'd love to have experienced a real pea-souper, or London Particular as the fog that periodically enveloped the capital became known (in a sort of reverse branding, a brand of pea soup was launched called London Particular...). They were little fun for the city's inhabitants, especially for the infirm, but there is something enticing as well as unsettling about the idea of being in a teeming city of millions where you can't see more than a few yards in front of your face.

The last great pea-souper was in  December 1952, lasting four days, from which all of these remarkable photographs come. It brought the city to the proverbial standstill, even working its way inside. A performance of La Traviata at Sadler's Wells was cancelled because of the audience's incessant coughing. Film theatres closed for the same reason and because no one could see the screen. Dog racing at White City was postponed because the dogs couldn't see the mechanical hare. It got so bad that people couldn't see their own feet, and stumbled around lost, the absence of any kind of visible landmark as a guide rendering them for all purposes blind. The sulphur stink that made its way into every house. It would make a fabulous backdrop to a crime novel (and who knows, it might...)

Of course, with the reduced visibility came choking, thick air. The pea-soupers were no natural phenomenon; they were caused by millions of people and businesses belching acrid, coal-burned smoke into the atmosphere. So many people fell ill the hospitals struggled to cope, not helped by ambulances that clanked and wailed through the fogbound streets, unable to locate the sick and needy to whom they had been summoned. It is estimated 4000 people died. Which is why we don't see them any more. The authorities ushered in various acts banning black smoke and forbade the burning of anything but smokeless fuels. The London air, thankfully for those of us who live here, is probably as clean now as it was 200 years ago, pre-Industrialisation. But am I the only one who doesn't wonder what it must have been like to have felt their way through that impermeable fog?


Dan - Friday

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Elephant Whisperer

Occasionally one finds a book that changes one’s perceptions about how things are. Lawrence Anthony’s  “The Elephant Whisperer” is such a book. It’s actually not that easy to describe what the book is about. At one level Lawrence gives us an inside view on managing a private game reserve in South Africa – a challenging occupation involving everything from bank managers to dangerous poachers, with uncooperative wild animals, crocodiles and politics in between. At another level the book is about situations that go beyond day-to-day anecdotes and display a philosophy of conservation, and an appreciation that nature is not predictable or even always amenable to normal understanding. Then there are the elephants. And this is what Lawrence says in his prologue: “It is about the elephants - it is they who whispered to me and taught me how to listen”. This is a book about Lawrence Anthony and elephants who adopted him as their friend and let him into the periphery of their world.

In 1999 Lawrence had the chance to add a small herd of elephants to his game reserve in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. He wasn’t ready for that development. It wasn’t even his idea. But the elephants were causing problems in their current location and if he didn’t take them they would be destroyed. So he accepted them, and they arrived traumatised and angry with two of the herd having been shot just before their capture. Almost immediately they escaped and he had to fight to keep them alive and then to get them back onto his reserve. Then he had to decide how to handle his new charges. He decided to go against conventional wisdom - which was to leave them isolated until they settled which it seemed they had no intention of doing – and instead spent all his time with them. Outside the “boma” in which they were held, but visible and obvious. And at last there was a change - an acceptance of him by the matriarch Nana – and the elephants could be released to move freely on the reserve. They made it their home.

You can watch Lawrence with the elephants at http://video.yahoo.com/watch/4734572/12645809

Lawrence points out that his relationship was a personal one; he makes no general claims, nor did he allow others to compromise the intrinsic wild nature of the herd by joining his circle of friends. But his insights and discoveries must challenge the way we see these magnificent creatures. That they communicate using low frequency stomach rumbles is known, but Lawrence noticed that it could be used over quite large distances. He believes he became attuned to it so that he could tell if the elephants were nearby. The sounds are inaudible to us, but he describes it as the bush “feeling empty” when the elephants were not around. When they were, it felt different. Unless, of course, they didn’t want you to know they were there.

There is a still more thought-provoking story in the book. Lawrence travels quite often – trips to cities in South Africa and the like. As their relationship developed, the elephant herd took to coming down to the house to greet him on his return. Only thing is, they came down before he arrived. Perhaps they could sense approaching vehicles from some distance? Even how Lawrence drives? It seems unlikely. How about the time they were heading to the house, but turned back and melted away? It turned out that Lawrence had missed his flight back from Cape Town that day...

The book is full of insights, anecdotes, and touches of philosophy. Anyone with an interest in the wild parts and wild life of Southern Africa will find it fascinating. As a bonus it is well written and laced with a charming self-depreciating humor.  But the story of Nana and her herd goes further. This is not a treatise about elephant behaviour. It is about the nature of the friendship of equals across species.

Michael - Thursday

The pictures and the video of Lawrence Anthony with the elephants are from his website

The Elephant Whisperer is by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence and was published by Sedgewick & Jackson in 2009.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Yesterday was my birthday. The less than sparkling festivities were marked by the fact that our house is at the stage of refurbishment where it seems near demolished – a strong shove or a loud sneeze is all that seems needed at the moment to send it crumbling down and we cannot stay there any longer. The day before my big day the plumber had phoned, urgently requiring information regarding one of the toilets to be installed, preferring to have the actual fixture itself so that he could place pipes in the correct manner in a floor that is being concreted. I immediately realized what I would get for my birthday from my family.

Because I did not have any party to arrange or presents to unpack (a toilet requires too much wrapping and the shape is a dead giveaway making it pointless) I used the time to think about birthdays and wonder when they became a day to celebrate. This train of thought took various twists and turns, one of the more interesting ones involving who in the way-old days kept track of time. I can understand Romans doing it, they each probably had a calendar slave to keep the tab, but what about the less domesticated people living off the land somewhere in the woods? Did they count days or even realize there was a system more complex than the seasons or the recurring swings of nature? Did pregnant women count down the days until birth or did they just look down and use how much of their toes they saw to gauge how close the happy event was? I think they did. I certainly would not have counted days and if I had I would have messed it up. Having attempted to count the number of stairs leading down a hill in Sorrento Italy and reaching the bottom with the figure 376 +/- 12, I know for a fact I cannot count with any assurance figures over about 150, which approximately marks the step where I began to become vague as to the previous number. There is no way I would remember to count once every day for 365 days and keep this figure in check, at least not without the aid of the calendar from my mechanic (the lower section) or a computer. I also believe if I were living off the land in some woods there would be more burning things on my mind other than: “Do you know what day it is?”

My daughter is born in 1996 which is a bit of a worry to me as it is so close to the year 2000. Can you imagine how much this will add to her age when she becomes an old woman? I remember finding anyone born in 1800 completely prehistoric when I was a child, while someone born 1901 was old, but not likely to have had dinner in a pyramid following a day of hearding dinosaurs.

When the year 2000 came along there was a big fuss here in the media at the end of 1999 about whether this was the turn of the millennium or if the following New Years eve 2000/2001 wasn’t the proper big night. At first it seemed ridiculous until one realized that the Gregorian calendar which bases itself on the birth of Jesus allotted the year of his birth Year 1, not Year 0. Maybe the pope or his advisors thought zero to be a lackluster number to mark this occasion but still – there was only under a week to go until it became Year 1. The system I prefer (Jesus born in the year 0) is much more elegant and it would also have been really useful for him as he would not have had to do much calculating when being asked how old he was. “I will be twenty five in December”. Ask anyone born in 2000 if they don’t find it convenient, I am sure they will agree.

Regarding the argument about the exact turn of the millennium I find the obvious celebration was that of New Years 1999/2000. It looks sleeker and requires less explaining to young children for one. My main reason for not finding the 2000/2001 turn very impressive was however more of a record keeping thing. You see, what are the chances that in 1000 years of tracking time that one year wasn’t forgotten or misplaced somehow? What occured of mention in the year 313 for example? Remember also that over this period they kept changing calendars, conducting variable calendar reforms to make up for their not so perfect handling of leap years. This is not to mention the mix up in Europe where all sort of local versions of calendars existed all through the middle ages. So who is to say that the year 2000 wasn’t actually 2001?

My forefathers probably had a lesser clue than others regarding what year it was. Their system was simple – it was winter and if it was not winter it was summer. It did not really matter to them how many winters or summers had passed before.

In Japan they have three systems running, one where start anew with the inauguration of a new Emperor meaning it is now year Heisei 22. I will suggest to my daughter that she move there soon after 2050. There when asked for her year of birth she can say Heisei 8 which will be guaranteed to sound better at that time than 1996.
Remarkably few people seem to have been born on August 24th, at least few famous ones. Reading the names of note-worthies with this birthday on Wikipedia left me with this impression. To give you an idea of how little is required to get on this list there is a gut named Dragutin Lerman (1863-1918) who is said to have been a Croatian explorer. Now I may seem harsh but I cannot imagine there was much left to explore in his heyday, let alone if he is not an explorer from Croatia but an explorer specialized in exploring Croatia. Another guy who made the grade is Hideo Kojima, Japanese video game director (born in Shōwa 37) – I did not even know there was such a profession as video game director. Maybe he directs Grey DeLisle, also born on August 24th, titled voice actress. A number of relatives and the like are dragged into the light as filling material, I share a birthday with the mother of Napoleon and the brother-in-law of Custer. Oh yes and Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian swimmer and surfer born in 1890. I wonder if he considered moving to Japan in the 1950s. The list is so unimpressive that I feel I should be on it. Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Icelandic homeless person.

But none of this really matters any more than the number of winters or summers that have passed. What matters to me now is if I should bake a cake or not for a friend of mine that has announced a visit on Sunday. She had heard that I got a toilet for my birthday from my husband and wants to drop by with a present of her own. She could not keep the contents of the package a secret and has giddily told me what to expect. She is bringing me a toilet brush.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

la Rentrée

In August, major sectors of France slow down or close up shop completely. It's the sacred 'vacances'. School is out, of course, the government is more or less AWOL, and many restaurants and other businesses are closed as well. Therefore, many French people are on vacation for all or part of the month, which means that la rentrée, in September, is more than just students and teachers going back to school; it's also everyone else returning home and going back to work, returning to normalcy.

À la rentrée ! is a valediction, similar to bonnes vacances ! (have a nice vacation), a way of saying good-bye and an acknowledgement that you'll see the other person when you both re-enter the real world after your prolonged vacation.

You can also use à la rentrée as a reference to that point in time, to explain when something will happen, as in Je vais acheter une nouvelle voiture à la rentrée - I'm going to buy a new car in early September / when school starts back up.

The French Ministry of Education has published its list of recommended items ahead of la rentrée and the return to school.
Les essentiels de la rentrée is a collection of everything from books to pens through to sticky tape and school bags.

Many of the prices for the products have been agreed upon between the government and suppliers with the majority of them the same as last year.

The list features items for the three different school ages, école élémentaire, collège et lycée, and look out for the words 'essentiels de la rentrée' and the logo above when stocking up in the shops.

Here's the list in case you're interested :)

Grand cahier 96 pages (21 x 29,7 cm)
Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Grand cahier 96 pages (24 x 32 cm)

Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Petit cahier de 96 pages (17 x 22 cm)

Dos agrafé,80 à 90 g/m2
Feuillets mobiles perforés (21 x 29,7 cm)

70 à 90 g/m2
Copies doubles perforées (21 x 29,7 cm)

70 à 90 g/m2
Cahier de musique de 48 pages (17 x 22 cm)

Classeur rigide (21 x 29,7 cm)

Cartonné recyclable
Classeur souple (21 x 29,7 cm)

Protège-cahiers (17 x 22 - 21 x 29,7 - 24 x 32)

Pochettes transparentes perforées (21 x 29,7 cm)

Lot de 90 à 100
Rouleau de plastique pour couvrir les livres

Stylos à bille

1 bleu, 1 noir, 1 rouge, 1 vert -
pointe moyenne
Crayons à papier

H.B. - bout gomme
Pochette de 12 crayons de couleur

Pochette de 12 feutres de couleur

Lavables, sans solvant, non toxiques
5 tubes (10 ml) de gouache - 5 couleurs primaires

Peinture à l'eau

Stylo correcteur

Bâton de colle - lot de 2 à 4

Non toxique - sans solvant
Rouleau de ruban adhésif

Sans dévidoir
Porte-vues - 21 x 29,7cm - 40 à 60 vues

Matière plastique ou recyclée

Fournitures supplémentaires pour le primaire

Cahier de textes

Pochette de papier dessin à grain 180 g/m2

21 x 29,7 cm
2 porte-vues - 21 x 29,7 cm - 40 à 60 vues

Matière plastique ou recyclée
Cartouches d'encre (bleu)


2 porte-vues - 21 x 29,7cm - 40 à 60 vues

Matière plastique ou recyclée
Cartouches d'encre (bleu)


Pinceaux de tailles différentes -
lot de 3 - n° 6, 10, 14 ou 4, 10, 16

Poils naturels
Kit de traçage 3 pièces :
- Règle plate en plastique - 30 cm
- Rapporteur en plastique - 12 cm
- Équerre en plastique - 21 cm - 60°


Paire de ciseaux (scolaires) 12 à 13 cm

Bout rond, acier inoxydable

À réservoir plastique

Fournitures supplémentaires pour le primaire

Cartable solide et résistant, inférieur à 1 kilo

Fournitures supplémentaires pour le collège

Sac à dos solide et résistant, inférieur à 1 kilo

Fournitures supplémentaires pour le lycée


Wow when I went back to school we were only required to have 2 pens and three pencils!

Cara - Tuesday

PS I'm going to catch fellow blogmate Tim Hallinan this Sunday at M is For Mystery on tour for Queen of Patpong...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Tragedy in Paradise

The island of Fernando de Noronha is another one of those isolated islands you sometimes hear about.
This is a sign on a post in front of the airport. As you can see, it’s a pretty long way from almost anywhere.
Like Mauritius, it has been occupied by the English, the French and the Dutch.
Like Diego Garcia, the Americans built an air base there. (Back in the days of the Second World War – it’s longer operative.)
Like Devil's Island, it was once a prison.
These days it’s a Brazilian possession, a maritime national park, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The sea around the island is an important feeding ground for tuna, cetaceans, sharks and marine turtles.
There’s a huge population of resident dolphins.
It has some of the most pristine, most beautiful beaches on earth.
And it is visited mostly by surfers, marine biologists and divers. (See photos here http://tinyurl.com/25zbonj of the Ipiranga, a Brazilian warship sunk in 1987. Click on each to enlarge.)
For most folks in Brazil, Fernando de Noronha had long evoked nothing more than a tropical paradise, a getaway for the favored few.
That changed on the 31st of May, 2009.
On that night, the aircraft you see pictured above flew directly over the island. An Airbus A330-200, registered as F-GZCP and assigned the flight number 447 by Air France, she was on a nonstop flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Just after 10:30 PM AF447 passed out of radar range.
And, some 45 minutes later, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
No one knows exactly where or why.
The black boxes have never been recovered; the exact spot where the fuselage hit the sea has never been determined.
There were 228 people on board.
It was the greatest disaster in the history of French aviation.
On the 5th of June, five days after the disaster, searchers spotted a piece of the aircraft’s tail.
The first two bodies were recovered on the sixth; sixteen more on the seventh; eight more on the eighth.
The media flooded onto Fernando de Noronha, started reporting from there, kept sending out images of recovered victims.
I was in Paris at the time.
I heard the name of the island cited again and again on French television, saw it appear again and again in French newspapers.
Most, in that country, had never heard of the place before the disaster.
Their introduction to it was horrific.
We, in Brazil, can still think of it as a tropical paradise.
I doubt that is the case for the French.
For them, Fernando de Noronha has become one of those place names associated with death and disaster.
Like Verdun.

Leighton – Monday

Saturday, August 21, 2010

WIN!!! WIN!!! WIN!!!

FIRST LINES, LAST WORDS:  This is a pop quiz.  Following is a list of  first lines and exit lines.  The first lines are from books, relatively well-known or maybe not.  The last lines are dying words by literary people, mostly well-known.

GOAL: The goal, for those who confuse easily, is to identify the book title and the dying literary lion.  The first five people to do so and to send me the answers will win prizes, as follows:


First – All four Poke Rafferty books, signed

Second and third – THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, signed

Fourth – THE FOURTH WATCHER and its Spanish version, EL CUARTO OBSERVADOR, signed (the Spanish book's inscription will be in, ahem, Spanish.)

Fifth – I'll think of something.  It'll be a surprise!

And then there's a floating prize that anyone can choose over whatever prize he/she qualifies for: I'll edit and comment on 20 pages (double-spaced) of the winner's work-in-progress, accompanied by a one-page overview of the work.  So if, say, the fourth-prize winner chooses the edit, I would move the fifth-place winner up to fourth and name a new fifth-place winner.

Still with me?

KICKER:  Okay, here's the kicker.  There's also an essay question at the end of the quiz, which I've added because I've always wanted to know what the hell the quotation means.  The quotation is from Richard Harris's literally unlistenable hit McArthur Park, and I'm asking for an interpretation of the lyric.  I don't care whether it's right (I privately believe there's no right answer).  I'm looking for something plausible, however absurd, that actually uses the lyric as a starting point.  Please hold your interpretations to 300 words.  And don't use the word “ineffable” because I hate it.  

KICKER PRIZES:  In the case of a tie on the Q&A section of the quiz, the essay question will decide who wins, but essay interpretations will also qualify for prizes of their own.  The second, third, and fourth-best interpretations will each receive a signed copy of THE FOURTH WATCHER because that's the title I've got the most of.  The very best interpretation will win all four Poke books, signed.  And, if I can find one, a VHS copy of “A Man Called Horse,” and someone to watch it with.  (Subject to availability. Not legal in all areas.  Watching companion cannot be transported over state lines.  If you're under 18, you don't remember the song anyway.)



1  “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”

2  “What was the question, Alice?”

3  “It's all over now; write, 'Eddy is no more'.”

4  “Does nobody understand?”

5  “It's been a long time since I had Champagne.”

6  “I must go in.  The fog is rising.”


7  The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. 

8  For a long time I would go to bed early. 

9  Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.

10  It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. 

11  If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that before they had me, and all that David Copperfield crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 

12  The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. 


Three hundred words, no more, explaining the following:

McArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down.
Someone left my cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to make it
And I'll never have that recipe again
Oh, nooooooooooooo . . .


1  Leave a comment on this site saying “I'm in” or something even more clever.

2  Do your best to answer – if you can't get them all, enter anyway.  Who cares?  Maybe no one will get them all.

3  E-mail your answers to thallinan@gmail.com  with the topic heading QUIZ ENTRY.

4  If you want the edit instead of any other prize you might win, just put EDIT at the end of the entry.


Friday, August 20, 2010

An Englishman abroad...

Sorry for my absence the previous two Fridays, but I’ve been on holiday with my family. And apologies also if this blog is somewhat disjointed, but I’m writing though a fog of jet lag (anyone got any good remedies for jet lag? I once had chance to interview a senior executive at a huge worldwide corporation, who spent his life shifting time zones. ‘How do you cope?’ I asked, out of personal and professional curiosity. ‘Off the record,’ he said. ‘Whenever I reach a place, I drink as much beer as I can and knock myself out. The next day is a struggle, sure, but it works.’ Sadly, with three kids, this isn’t an option for me…)

We visited the United States, taking a road trip that incorporated parts of Maryland and Virginia. I’m an Americophile (if there is such a word) so love visiting the US. I find it a bewildering, fascinating place, rich with contrast and contradictions. I thought I’d share a few observations from this trip.

  • Glen Beck. Oh. My. God. I’d seen clips of this popinjay on various satirical TV programmes over here. But nothing prepared me for watching him delivering one of his unhinged rants live on air. Just a snippet - Glen was lecturing us on the wasteful budget of Philadelphia’s civic leaders. They spend millions on free libraries but not enough on combating crime for his tastes. ‘Look, I read more books than most people,’ he simpered, though the evidence so far was to the contrary. ‘Libraries are good things.’ The anger built in his face. ‘But how can you read books with blood dripping into your eyes?’
  •  US roads are in a seriously bad state. Thankfully my hire car was made of stern stuff, but a few billion could be ploughed into re-laying them and so help ‘this economy.’ (I heard the phrase ‘this economy’ more times than I heard the phrase ‘I love your accent.’)
  • Driving on the Beltway around Washington, the phrase ‘murder is everywhere’ carried a fleeting, extra resonance.
  • How many blocks away from Ground Zero is it acceptable to build a mosque? Four? 16?
  • Why do mosquitoes eat me, a hairy, sweating, beer drinking, fast-food guzzling bloke, alive, and leave my practically teetotal, healthy diet eating, fragrant, mildly perspiring wife alone?
  • Old Bay Seasoning is as addictive as crack. Probably as nutritious too.
  • In Ocean City I saw tourists queuing around the block to eat crab. A local had told me that the ‘local’ crab the tourists were waiting patiently in line for was actually imported from south east Asia. Flush with inside knowledge, I ordered the Chesapeake Mahi-Mahi instead
  • Why take a perfectly good beer, drain it of all taste and append the tag ‘light’? The good Lord had an answer if real beer makes you feel fat. He called it vodka.
  • I passed near or close to several Civil War battlefields, and sadly couldn’t visit them all. The ones I did were awe-inspiring and humbling. However, if the South’s cause was ‘glorious’, what does that make the cause of those fighting to preserve the world's first true democracy and end slavery?
  • When I’m rich I’ll buy a place where I can see those wild Atlantic waves crash on the shore.
  • In the airport waiting to fly home I saw someone wearing a t-shirt with Dubya’s grinning face on it, bearing the legend ‘Are you missing me yet?’ ‘No’, I thought. ‘I'd managed to wipe your entire existence from my memory until now.’ Then: ‘How much trouble is Obama in if people are getting nostalgic for you?’
  • Baseball is a glorious game, though it loses some of its lustre when the only games you can view feature the Orioles. 


Dan - Friday

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Love to fly

Since I left South Africa for the United States in 1970, I have flown a great deal - probably close to 3 million miles.  Other than being addicted to airline food, I have had nothing bad happen to me. Touch wood!

However flying has become very stressful, particularly since 9/11.  The hassles of security and associated delays have taken most of the fun out of flying, even if you are not strip-searched and your hand luggage scattered over the airport floor by surly TSA (the US Transportation Security Administration) personnel.  Planes are fuller than ever, seats narrower and closer together, and the person sitting next to you always seems to overflow the real estate he or she rented for the duration of the flight.

One no-frills South African Airline, Kulula, has decided to reverse the trend.  Somewhat in the style of the US Southwest Airlines, it tries to make flights more entertaining.  Not only is the crew more relaxed about the in-flight announcements, but even the maintenance personnel have joined the party by repainting the aircraft so that each flight could be a learning experience.

Here are photos of a Kulula plane.

As I mentioned, Kulula staff also try to make the atmosphere during a flight more relaxed and enjoyable.  Here are examples of what has been heard on Kulula flights:
On a flight with a very "senior" flight attendant crew, the pilot said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've reached cruising altitude and will be turning down the cabin lights. This is for your comfort and to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants."
On landing, a female flight attendant said, "Please be sure to take all of your belongings.  If you're going to leave anything, please make sure it's something we'd like to have."
"There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only 4 ways out of this airplane."
"Thank you for flying Kulula.  We hope you enjoyed giving us the business, as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride."
As the plane landed and was coming to a stop at Durban Airport, a lone voice came over the loudspeaker: "Whoa, big fella.  WHOA!"
After a particularly rough landing during thunderstorms in the Karoo, a flight attendant announced, "Please take care when opening the overhead compartments because, after a landing like that, sure as hell everything has shifted."
From a Kulula employee: " Welcome aboard Kulula 271 to Port Elizabeth .  To operate your seat belt, insert the metal tab into the buckle and pull tight.  It works just like every other seat belt; and if you don't know how to operate one, you probably shouldn't be out in public unsupervised."
"In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, masks will descend from the ceiling.  Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face.  If you have a small child travelling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs.  If you are travelling with more than one small child, pick your favourite."
“Weather at our destination is 50 degrees with some broken clouds, but we'll try to have them fixed before we arrive.  Thank you, and remember, nobody loves you, or your money, more than Kulula Airlines."
"Your seats cushions can be used for flotation; and in the event of an emergency water landing, please paddle to shore and take them with our compliments."
"As you exit the plane, make sure to gather all of your belongings.  Anything left behind will be distributed evenly among the flight attendants.  Please do not leave children or spouses."
And from the pilot during his welcome message: "Kulula Airlines is pleased to announce that we have some of the best flight attendants in the industry.  Unfortunately, none of them are on this flight!"
After Kulula 255 had a very hard landing in Cape Town, the flight attendant came on the intercom and said, "That was quite a bump, and I know what you all are thinking.  I'm here to tell you it wasn't the airline's fault, it wasn't the pilot's fault, it wasn't the flight attendant's fault, it was the asphalt."
On a Kulula flight into Cape Town on a particularly windy and bumpy day, the Captain really had to fight it during the final approach.  After an extremely hard landing, the flight attendant said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Mother City.  Please remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened while the Captain taxis what's left of our airplane to the gate!"
Another flight attendant's comment on a less than perfect landing: "We ask you to please remain seated as Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal."
An airline pilot wrote that on this particular flight he had hammered his plane into the runway really hard.  The airline had a policy which required the first officer to stand at the door while the passengers exited, smile, and give them a "Thanks for flying our airline.”  He said that, in light of his bad landing, he had a hard time looking the passengers in the eye, thinking that someone would have a smart comment.  Finally everyone had gotten off except for a little old lady walking with a cane.  She said, "Sir, do you mind if I ask you a question?"  "Why, no Ma'am," said the pilot.  "What is it?"  The little old lady said, "Did we land, or were we shot down?"
After a real crusher of a landing in Johannesburg , the attendant came on with, "Ladies and Gentlemen, please remain in your seats until Captain Crash and the Crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching halt against the gate. And, once the tire smoke has cleared and the warning bells are silenced, we will open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal."
 Part of a flight attendant's arrival announcement: "We'd like to thank you folks for flying with us today.  And, the next time you get the insane urge to go blasting through the skies in a pressurized metal tube, we hope you'll think of Kulula Airways."
Heard on a Kulula flight. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to smoke, the smoking section on this airplane is on the wing.  If you can light 'em, you can smoke 'em."
A plane was taking off from Durban Airport . After it reached a comfortable cruising altitude, the captain made an announcement over the intercom, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  Welcome to Flight Number 293, non-stop from Durban to Cape Town , The weather ahead is good and, therefore, we should have a smooth and uneventful flight.. Now sit back and relax... OH, MY GOODNESS!"  Silence followed, and after a few minutes, the captain came back on the intercom and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so sorry if I scared you earlier. While I was talking to you, the flight attendant accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee in my lap. You should see the front of my pants!"

A passenger then yelled, "That's nothing.  You should see the back of mine!"
I hope to see you all in South Africa sometime soon.  I think you will enjoy the scenery, the food and wine, and the South African sense of humour.
Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's in a name?

I have just received a request from abroad asking me to provide the phonetic spelling of my name. This caused me some problems since phonetics are only mastered by linguists in Iceland as here we know how all the words sound. What probably instigated this request is my last name: Sigurðardóttir, which looks a bit easier to pronounce than Eyjafjallajökull , but only by a slight margin.

If I am repeating myself I apologise but here we go by first names and last names are mostly used to discern between the Yrsas, Örnólfurs, Þórs, Freyjas and so on. Gravestones, formal letters etc. use full names but you will never see the last name placed in front of the first name as is common elsewhere. The phone book contains full names but you look under the first name. This relates to our last names not being a family name but a patronym, i.e. it says who your father is. My father is Sigurður (his first name) and I am his daughter (dóttir) so I am Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa the daughter of Sigurður. Had I been a son I would have been Sigurðarson or Sigurðsson. This way last names change with every generation, my son and my daughter are Ólafsson and Ólafsdóttir, last names which neither my husband nor I carry, nor do our parents and neither will their children. This system is pretty good in my mind as it removes the existence of fancy family names and increases the likelihood that each person makes their own dent in society based on their own worth. (I feel the need to mention that the photo accompanying this paragraph is not of my family, this particular photo opportunity has never presented itself in our case).

Women never take their husband’s last name when they get married here and never have. It would make no sense at all as although married they remain the daughter of their father and would become the son of another father altogether if they were to assume their husbands name. This coupled with the whole patronym thing, does have its downsides. When my parents moved to Texas to study in the 70s with my sister and me, they were not able to take a hotel room as they had separate last names, in addition to my sister and me having the third last name. To the receptionists at the hotels they had all the makings of a sinful couple accompanied by  someone else’s children to boot. This was not considered good form in the Bible belt at the time. We ended up having more conventional passports issued for the whole family under my father's last name Þorsteinsson, and were subsequently able to travel without having to camp.

Back to the phonetics. Since I know not a single linguist I had to figure out some way to explain how my name sounded. Needless to say I drew a blank when it comes to my last name. There is a letter in it that does not exist in English: Ð, in small caps: ð and it sounds like trying to say a T when leaving the dentist’s office having had too much aanesthesia which has affected the toungue. So I focused on my first name noting that the last name is never used. Yrsa luckily does not contain any odd letters and originates from Latin, having evolved from the word Ursa meaning female bear. So I was able to use my newly acquired ad-hoc phonetic ability to say my name sounded like Ursa with an I.

This is the version explaining the meaning of my name that I like. There are other much less appealing ones that I keep trying to forget but seem unable to. To give you an idea the definition provided in the book of Icelandic names says it means: wild person, madcap, giantess, grumpy sheep. Not exactly something I want my name associated with.

I was brought up being told that the first woman to be named Yrsa was a Scandinavian queen known as “the mother of kings”. I tried looking this up to boost my self esteem and found the following on Wikipedia:

"Yrsa was a tragic heroine of Scandinavian legend. She appears in several versions relating to her husband, the Swedish king Eadgils, and/or to her father and rapist/lover/husband Halga (the younger brother of king Hroðgar who received Beowulf) and their son Hroðulf. The consensus view is that the people surrounding Yrsa are the same people as those found in Beowulf, and the common claim in Beowulf studies that Hroðulf probably was the son of Halga is taken from the Yrsa tradition. Several translators (e.g. Burton Raffel) and scholars have emended her name from a corrupt line (62) in the manuscript of Beowulf, although this is guesswork."

The brief paragraph above is at best runner up to the worst written paragraph on Wikipedia, but putting aside the incomprehensible text and connections, what threw me completely was the reference to the rapist-lover-husband. The three are really ill matched and I thought the Wikipedia people must have misunderstood the saga – maybe thinking they were written in phonetics. So I looked up the original saga where Yrsa appears, Hrólfs saga Kraka, and lo and behold the name appears very early on with an explanation of the origin of the name to boot. Only not in the way I expected or wanted, and incredibly enough seem to have been able to forget at some point.

“As time passed queen Ólöf gave birth to a child. It was a girl. Ólöf hated the child in every way. She had a dog called Yrsa and she named the female child Yrsa, after the dog. “

I stopped reading, the rapist-lover-husband hook no longer working. But, being a crime novelist I don’t like leaving readers in the dark so I can tell you what I do remember of Yrsa’s story, she was given pauper farmers for bringing up as their own never knowing that she was a princess. She ended up marrying a king but before you get your mind set on a happy ending you should know that this particular king was her father. Think female Oedipus less the eye poking out dramatics.

If you have time on your hands I suggest looking up the origin and meaning of your name. Who knows, maybe there is another name out there meaning grouchy sheep.

Yrsa - Wednesday