Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Department of Missed Opportunities

There will be No Picture at all in the blog today. This morning around 5:10 a.m. I looked at the dark sky outside and then I looked at my heavy old camera that only works half the time, and I thought "Who needs more pictures of the pitch black park?" and left it on the counter.

Just past the dog beach I saw a creature the size of a cat run across the path about 20 yards in front of us. The dogs raced towards it, but it climbed up the fence and shimmied up the lamp on the other side. There at the cross-bar of the lamp, with the light full on its face, was a baby raccoon! Henry and Simone were on their hind legs trying to climb the fence but luckily the raccoon was safe on its perch. It would have made a wonderful picture, but you will just have to imagine the tiny hands wrapped around the post, the luxurious dangling tail, and the little pointed face with its ringed eyes peering down at us in the lamplight.

I harbor no illusions about raccoons and know how fortunate we were to avoid a physical encounter. A Brooklyn husky I know ended up with a wound on its haunch the size of a saucer when it tried to attack a raccoon in its back yard. And I once observed a fight between a raccoon and a possum on the porch of a place I used to visit in the Berkshires. That wasn't pretty either. It's wild out here in Brooklyn! East Yorkshire has nothing like this.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Simone Best of Breed!

There are many people, who go out with their sighthounds most weekends to let them chase three plastic bags tied to a string that zigzags around a field on pulleys, who could paper their walls with these things. Among them is the owner of Simone's sire Calvin, a dog with more letters after his name than a Harvard Professor. To us though, yesterday's haul of ribbons is a big deal. After numerous false starts in coursing, Henry got the second leg of his Junior Courser title (although I do need to check that it wasn't the same judge as the first leg, in which case we'll have to go through this again), and Simone won first place and Best of Breed in the Open. She only beat out three other whippets, but we don't care, we think she's the greatest.
I have no pictures from the Big Apple Sighthound Association AKC lure coursing meet yesterday at Stillwell Woods near Syosset on Long Island, because the battery in my camera was dead, and anyway, a cold drizzle alternated with a thick mist all morning. It felt like a thoroughly English thing to do, to stand shivering in a muddy field in your wellies and Barbour jacket, defying the weather, with hounds baying and racing over the turf, then taking refuge from the elements in the car. The only thing missing was a flask of hot tea, or the little brass spirit stove my Grandad used to fire up on such occasions to make a fresh brew.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Seven feet off the ground, and Darth Vader

One of these days I will figure out how to take better pictures of running whippets. Watching the pair of them in a good chase is a fine way to start the day. They really do fly, and my ambition is to take a clear picture of them with not a single one of their eight feet on the ground. This one is seven out of eight. Next time.

Unlike those many residents of the outer boroughs who commute to the City every day, I manage to spend most of my life in Brooklyn, and I like it that way. My travel time to work is around 15 minutes, and in spite of too much high rise development along Fourth Avenue, you can still see big swaths of sky out here. In fact, I spend most of my life in the stretch between Green-wood Cemetery and Grand Army Plaza, and it's rare for me to get on the subway, which I dislike, to go to Manhattan. Yesterday I had to do it though, and as I approached the bridge over Fourth Avenue at Ninth Street I noticed some sad art deco details, grimed over and disintegrating. Aside from the Central Library building, one doesn't see much deco in this neighborhood, which is better known for its nineteenth century brownstones. A cursory glance at online sources proves that I am far from the first to see this. Of course Francis Morrone has checked it out: in an article in the NY Sun he writes, "The Art Deco station is handsome, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is desperately ill-maintained, and given the transit authority's budgetary woes, the station will get even worse before it gets better." Right. There were rumors of a coming facelift, but nothing seems to have happened yet. That Darth Vader lamp would look scary if it actually worked.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

April 5 2009 deadline for buying back UK Social Security

My day was going quite well until I started reading my email. A kind relative reminded me that there is an April 5 deadline for buying back 1999-2000, 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 UK Social Security. You can also buy back 2006-7 without penalty until April 5th but you have until April 5 2013 to do it at a higher rate. Apparently for every year you buy back you get another L.157 added to your pension, so if you can survive around three years after retirement age you are winning. I'd say it's a risk worth taking, but in my case it requires finding something over L.1000 in short order. The good news, from my point of view, is that the pound is as low as it has been in years.

This being Wednesday morning, I double parked my car to allow for street cleaning, setting an alarm to remind me to move it back again at 10 a.m. The alarm went off at about 9:40, just a little too early to go down, so I sat down again and began figuring out how to save money in the long run by paying Her Majesty's Customs and Excise before April 5.

When I next looked up from my calculations, it was 10:05. Anyone lucky--or perhaps the proper word is stupid--enough to own a car in New York City will know that if 10:00 is your time, 10:05 is already too late, unless you are very very lucky. I went down, and found the expected orange envelope stuffed under the wiper.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The sky is blue

I would just like to point out that the sky over Brooklyn is perfectly, cloudlessly, impossibly, blue. The imperfections in the image come from my camera. Anyone who has spent half an hour in the north of England will understand the need to make this point.

English whippets from Virginia

Here are two English whippets from Virginia basking in a patch of spring sunlight near a window. The whippet was bred in England in the 19th century to race and hunt small animals over the moors and warm the feet of miners in their chilly beds. I have heard that a whippet and a ferret used to be required accoutrements of working men in the west of Yorkshire, but I am from the east so I only know by hearsay.

One of mine was sired by an English dog (Nevedith Justa Joker) but the other, Simone, is an all American girl.

On the right is what happens to a resting American English whippet when you take a packet of New York Cheddar cheese out of the refrigerator.

Cheddar, by the way, is the Somerset village where the cheese originated and home to the well-known Cheddar Man, whose death around 7000 BC according to Wikipedia, may have been connected to the cannibalism then practiced in the area. They don't still do that now down in Somerset, do they? It's been quite a while since I was last there.

To the left is Simone's dream.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Signs of spring

One of the strange things about spring in Brooklyn is the way it seems to come all at once, although this year is a little more nuanced than usual. At the end of March you might have a snowstorm and then three days later people are walking around in teeshirts. Signs of spring yesterday in Grand Army Plaza included the return of the ice cream stand, a baseball bat apparently carried without intent to do harm, and witch hazel (I think). Signs of spring you don't see here: snowdrops, carpets of crocuses, people dusting off archaic adages like "Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out."

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Here is the promised spider spinning its web on the side of PS 107 on 8th Ave in Brooklyn. This must be a terrible picture because it looks much better in reality-- really like a big old spider hanging over its web.

I have learned a lot over the course of these posts--not least, that there is a way to actually see what you are photographing in sunlight in the camera's viewfinder. I could never figure out why I couldn't see what I was pointing the camera at when outside of the house, but now I realize there is a button. It was the spider who taught me.

There may well be another blog along different lines, and soon. I'll let you know.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm during which I remembered to take this heavy first-generation digital camera out with me on walks, life has crept back into its old channels. And so, this version of the blog has found its sunset here:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Playing with Youtube

All of these grandiose plans for outdoor activities and self-improvement and productive use of time are pipe dreams. What I will really do if I ever have more time on my hands, is play on the internet. I will watch stuff like this:

which may be an advertisement but it's still clever. Or if it's a cold rainy day with only about six hours of daylight as sometimes happens in England, where I might end up or might not, I could give in to this little addiction:


In the meantime I'm enjoying my views. I say views (plural) because I always turn the camera towards the river, but actually I now have another very nice view from my window, and it is this:
When I first heard there was to be a mural on this blank wall I feared the worst, but as it turns out, this is a fine piece of public art, almost in my front yard. And on the theme of local additions to school walls, I must soon add a picture of my favorite spider.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Dreamed Up Project

When a whippet braced itself against me with all sixteen toes last night I half woke up, to find that I had been dreaming, a rare event. I dreamed someone called me and asked me to do some research for them. The caller wanted me find information for a catalogue raisonne of the works of Joan Eardley, a Scottish painter I have long admired. They then hung up without leaving a number or email address.

In the morning I knew I had yet another retirement project to add to the house, the vegetable garden, the flower garden, the unfinished novel, the cycling holidays, the lure coursing and the online bookstore that will help support all this leisure activity. (For all I know it has been done already, but if not, it seems like a good idea.) (And no matter that if I ever finally make it that far I will probably be too decrepit to rise from my Bath chair.)

Knowing I will never own a painting or even a sketch by Eardley has been a little tougher to get used to than, for example, knowing I'll never have a ski lodge in Vail, but you know what, I'm there, totally fine with it now. Instead, I thought, to the two small publications about her that are already on my shelf I will add a book I somehow failed to pick up when it came out in the late 1980s. I checked online. The cheapest copy of Joan Eardley R.S.A. is now about $200, the exact amount that is my upper limit for the purchase of a piece of artwork. (I have been known to cheat.) So now not only can I not afford a work by an artist I admire, I can barely even afford a rotten BOOK about an artist I admire. This put a momentary crimp in my retirement plans, but then I remembered Inter Library Loan, and things began to look up again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In loving memory

Constance Edna Holland, March 18, 1921-March 16, 2007.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A day of walking dogs

I was wide awake at 5 a.m. today, so we walked to the park and were in it by six. This is what it looked like:
We ran into lots of friends and ended up spending about two hours there. By the time we came home, Henry was dog tired, and Simone was dog tired. Tired is good. (Too bad the same is not true of children.) Later my daughter wanted to make good on a promise to volunteer at a local animal shelter, so we went over to Sean Casey Animal Rescue on East 3rd Street in Windsor Terrace, and my day of walking dogs continued. Passing the parrots, cockatoos, a shar-pei puppy, and a very large tortoise, we headed to the dog room. First we walked a pitbull for about half an hour. This dog was sweet with humans but didn't like other dogs very much. R. had her on a long rope leash and soon had rope burn--that was one strong animal, in need of training and a ton of exercise. Then we took out a collie mix and a beagle mix, both pullers. Suddenly I remembered why you leash train dogs when they are puppies. An untrained, full-grown canine is all muscle and sinew and thwarted energy, and walking one of those creatures on a leash is not a lot of fun. Still, they need exercise so badly that anyone who has a spare half hour and can handle a strong dog should consider giving a little time. (They have plenty of smaller and easier dogs too.)

We came home and I took the whippets to see the end of the Brooklyn St. Patrick's Day Parade, arriving just in time to see a line of horses with tails dyed green and a garbage truck, and to hear bagpipes skirling in the distance. How gently the whips trot along beside me on a loose leash, and what a pleasure it suddenly was to walk my own dogs--again.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Investment opportunity! What do you think?

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Pollyanna's Progress

At considerable risk of being a Pollyanna, I have to say I am grateful for the many gifts that life unexpectedly brings along, like a friend who, after a long day of physical labor, rides her bike home from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and stops by to put together the plumbing that I in my idiocy had torn apart. The option of picking up and going somewhere completely new, where nobody would think of swinging by to fix my j-bend, looks less and less appealing.

On a different note, here is another unexpected gift:
You either like this kind of thing or you totally don't see the point. I had felt the space above my sofa needed a good big canvas but could not afford anything I remotely wanted. One day not long ago I walked into Time Galleries on Fifth Ave around 16th Street and saw this leaning against a bureau. I knew instantly it was the right size for the space and it had something I liked-- an anarchic, in-your-face 1960s energy, with blues that pop out at you and casual blobs of orange.
I checked for a signature and found one--Jim Tiroff, '61. The price I negotiated was less than a dinner for two at a good restaurant. I still couldn't really afford it, but bought it anyway.

Then I started looking for information on Jim Tiroff. If you Google him, he turns up as a member of the Living Theater group, a Texan by birth described as "a gifted graphic artist" and a person who staged happenings that involved taking off his clothes and impersonating clergymen (not at the same time.) Maybe he even knew Jackson Pollock.

A little more digging revealed that a marriage of just over two years ended in divorce in September 1975. In December of that year he died of a heroin overdose at the age of 36. One day I will head to Lincoln Center to comb through the archives of the Living Theater to see what else I can discover about this vigorous young artist. Until then, a little bit of Jim Tiroff is still there acting crazy on my wall, and I like it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Lost Contact Lens

I believe it is advisable to hang on to as much money as you can for retirement. With this precept in mind, I worked hard at saving money this morning.

Unfortunately I made the mistake of passing the mirror as I was getting ready to go to the park. What a fright! I looked like a myopic chicken. At least, I told myself, put your contact lenses in. So I went to the bathroom, and who should follow me but Miss Mouth, Simone the whippet, who likes to whine whenever I am there. I was just rinsing my right lens in the washbasin with the stopper that has never worked properly, when Simone gave a particularly annoying whine. I turned around to tell her to zip it, and--bam--my right lens went straight down the plughole. Ha! Losing a bifocal gas permeable lens is not like losing a soft lens. I was probably looking at a couple of hundred dollars down the drain.

Knowing next to nothing about plumbing, I had heard of a sink trap and suspected that the lens was lurking in there, stuck in a melange of grease and hair. If only I could get to it, I could possibly save all that money, and avoid having to appear before the world in thick spectacles for a couple of days. In the park I ran into my friend T, who is great at fixing things, and asked her if she had a pipe wrench I could borrow. She kindly dropped off a couple of same on her way to work.

I cleared out the stuff in the cupboard under the sink and got cracking. Exerting all the strength of my highly toned biceps, I cracked a nut into three pieces while undoing the j-bend. No matter, I thought. A trickle of water fell into the bowl I had carefully placed beneath the pipe. There it was! My lens, as good as new!
I cleaned the precious little thing and placed it back in its case, then went to Greschlers plumbing supply at the end of my block for a replacement sink trap. It cost $14.63. I went back to work in the narrow cupboard under the sink.

Using all my patience and reading the directions over and over for forty minutes I am still not able to figure out how this thing is supposed to fit together without yanking the pipe out of the wall. So let's see--pay the plumber or call the optician next time. Which will it be?
Simone says she's very sorry.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


In order to reach retirement, it is advisable to stay alive. Anyone who has lived in the city since 2001 has made some sort of accommodation with the threat of sudden violent death, but leaving that aside, one takes what little health maintenance steps one can, or feels mildly remiss for not so doing.

When I moved into this fourth floor walkup, I remember thinking that the stairs would be a healthful daily exercise, a small contribution toward weight control and heart health. In an excess of enthusiasm I also joined a local gym, imagining toned abs, well-defined arm muscles, the end of the stubborn fatty deposits at the tops of my thighs. My one--or two...glasses of wine in the evening would do me no harm and might possibly do some good. No matter that red wine in moderation is supposedly good for the heart and I prefer white. And as for the moderation part, well--near enough.

The light of an upper floor after years in a basement was invigorating. The view out over the Hudson River from the balcony made me feel positively rich. The apartment itself, while lacking in charm, was well laid out and spacious. The roof at that time showed no propensity to leak.

I was delusional. I have two dogs who need to go outside four or five times a day, who might occasionally get an upset stomach and need to go out in the night; my knees sometimes pop out of joint, making four flights of stairs a feat of endurance; the car has to be moved for street cleaning two mornings a week; gravity exerts its pull on furniture and groceries; the roof sprang a leak that went unrepaired for six months while the condo owners argued over who would pay, so that whenever it rained water streamed down my walls.

The movers flatly refused to bring my piano. It is sitting in my old apartment where I can neither play it nor sell it. The grocery deliveryman is so exhausted by the time he makes his way up here that I have to tip him a small fortune out of guilt. I cancelled the gym in an effort to cut monthly expenses.

On the other hand--although they'll be the death of me, when you do get to the top of the stairs, you have this:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sharif Memorial Update

This is the memorial to Sharif on Tuesday morning. Someone had cleaned it up, people had added more candles and more pictures and balloons, and little knots of people gathered to look at the pictures and wonder what could have happened--even at 6 in the morning.

And the movie village was back, but only for a day, in fact I almost fell flat on my face tripping over their wires. Which is all to say--what a rich and varied tapestry of life there is in this corner of Brooklyn, and how easy it is to dismiss as unimportant the little things that add texture and interest, and sadness, and humor, to your day--the man in the Korean store who gives you a nod that is close to a bow as you go by, the woman in the bagel store who calls you darling when she is in the mood, the star spangled changing rooms of the leading actors in a movie without a name. It takes years to build up this degree of acquaintance with a place, and that's not a thing to throw away lightly.

I didn't post yesterday because I read the Times instead. Also, WARNING. My computer is threatening to die, so if I suddenly disappear for a few days, that will probably be the reason.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Yesterday my normal entry to the park at 15th St was blocked by yellow tape. As I walked around it, an officer in a patrol car rolled down her window about two inches and addressed me. "Go around the front of the ve-hicle, this is a crime scene." I wondered about it, but not too hard. A day before that entrance had been lined with film production trucks, dressing rooms of stars, heavy set men guarding expensive-looking cars, and people alert to the off chance of seeing Meryl Streep or Alec Baldwin. By yesterday though, the corner had morphed from glamor to squalor.

This morning the nature of the crime, if crime there was, began to emerge. A kid had been killed. Not quite 18, a skateboarder by the name of Sharif collapsed after a fight some time after midnight. According to news reports, it is not clear whether he succumbed to some pre-existing condition or whether the violence caused his death. His friends had torn up a cardboard box and placed candles and pictures for a makeshift memorial, and someone had transformed one of the sculptural columns that guard the entrance into a tombstone etched with his dates in permanent marker.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Springing forward

The days of watching the sun rise are over for now. This is the moon at 5:30 this morning, seen through my bedroom window which is apparently not very clean. I bravely sprang forward, but some members of the household were less keen.

Now it is probably time to start writing in some way about retirement planning, but I have been procrastinating over that. So let me take the bull by the horns--or should I say, the bear by the...--and mention my 403b, which is not unlike a 401k except that you pay into a 403b if you work for a tax-exempt organization as I do, while a for-profit organization should have a 401k plan.

There, I mentioned it. Now what. Oh yes, the reason my checking account is down to a single digit this weekend is obviously because I am paying too much money into my 403b and had better scale back my savings. Save too much, and you get into the kind of situation I am in today. I would be wondering how on earth to pay for the guinea pigs' timothy grass and the dogs' Mother Hubbard, were it not for my secret weapon. Did you know about the Ing Direct overdraft facility? It's a life saver. Those guinea pigs would be on the road to all kinds of vitamin deficiencies--scurvy, pellagra, beri beri-- were it not for the availability of instant cash through Ing. As it is, look at Button--she doesn't seem too worried.

Another thing about 403bs: there are times when you pay in your $100 per paycheck, you do that for a 3 months and you figure OK I must be $600 richer. Then you look at your account and your 403b has magically reduced that $600 to $400. That's the power of compound disinterest. Moral--keep an eye on those 403bs. I went for years just letting money trickle into mine and not thinking much about it. Then came the economic downturn so I thought I'd better take a look. Lucky I did! The compound disinterest was running amok. I called TIAACREF, breathlessly requesting that my savings be transferred into a no-risk account. What I failed to ask was that all savings from that moment should also go into the no-risk account, so while most of the old money was safe, the new funds kept on disappearing.

Finally I figured out what was going on and learned that you have to be very vigilant, or else your little green shoots of savings will be eaten by Madoffs and corporate CEOs.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Things worth keeping

Imagining how your life of ease could be different, and better, is a risky business. It could so easily turn out to be different, and worse. With this in mind, I turn today to those things that are really pretty good in the life I have, and wonder if, in any other place than this, they could possibly be bettered.

For example--I hate to harp on, but it just keeps on being superb--sunrise in the park. This is the view from the dog beach into the trees beyond.

And for example, my whippets, Henry and Simone, seen here during a good chase this morning. (You will probably have noticed by now that I am not the world's best photographer, nor do I have any capacity to edit photographs. Better get over it--I'm probably not going to get much better.)

And for example, breakfast, which may well be the very best moment of the day. By the time I get to breakfast, I have usually been up and about for up to two hours, so I am good and hungry, often cold, and more than ready to get my hands around a cup of hot coffee.

And for example, the New York Times including the Metro section, a privilege not accorded to those who obtain the paper outside of the city. It's true. Have you never been say in Massachusetts, picked up a copy of the Times for about $5, and found the best bit missing? It's dreadfully disappointing.

And say I were to go "home" to the North of England for my life of ease, I would have to give up the Times for good and revert to some other newspaper, that would not have Paul Krugman and a daily assessment of how well or badly Obama is doing and that dreadful Maureen Dowd to make me spit. I could get used to the Guardian again, but it would be a wrench. Is it still even worth reading? I have no idea. It's twenty three years since last I lived in England and all kinds of things have changed. My own brother, who ate Weetabix for breakfast for the first 60 years of his life, suddenly turned to oatmeal at the age of sixty-one, so obviously anything can happen. It's scary out there.

To go back to my list of things worth keeping, there is of course my dear daughter, but I have not asked her permission yet to include a picture of her, and so I will not. Aside from her, you may notice that I am having some trouble getting beyond breakfast time in my list of things worth keeping. Hmm. Food for thought there.

Friday, March 6, 2009

What's to dream about?

I wrote, "I dream of grass and trees." What's to dream about? I have grass and trees, right here! I have acres and acres of parkland to wander in every morning with my dogs, the sun comes up over the hill, the red-winged blackbirds sing from the topmost branches of the trees near the dog beach, a pair of cardinals hop in the leaves; there is snow for the whippets to eat, and friends to meet, and when I come home there is the New York Times waiting for me on the doorstep in its blue plastic bag (so useful for dog walks later in the day) and coffee to be made and breakfast to be eaten. It is really all quite blissful provided nothing goes wrong in the park, which it does occasionally. In fact, if my day could stop right there, be rounded by a little sleep and start all over again with the same thing, I might be perfectly happy--for a few days at least.

I met Bita on the path. She loves Henry and Simone and always gives them a treat when she sees them.

Thank you dogs. There are dogless folks who walk in the park every day, but I know that without you I would not be hauling myself out of bed before dawn seven days a week--my world would be all asphalt, for sure.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A late beginner

At the age of sixteen, when, under the British education system of the 1960s, I was finally able to end the torture of lessons in mathematics and concentrate on the three things I could do moderately well, it finally began to appear that I might not be quite so dumb after all. Alas, that was a mere chimera. My final years of High School were probably the pinnacle of all my careers, academic and other, and those bright years of appearing to begin to shine were actually a flash in the dark. Far too often in the years that followed, I was led by my heart and not my head. It has been an unmoored kind of life; not exactly drifting aimlessly, but lacking that inner drive and passion that are required for absolute success in any field.

In short, I've had a regular, mediocre kind of life, for the last 15 years working in a public service position in Brooklyn NY, my days full of details and childcare and a relationship falling disastrously apart and wouldacouldashouldas everywhere. My daughter, who appeared marvelously in my life when I was 43, is growing into a fine young woman and, in my unbiased opinion, a great beauty. I have amassed no great wealth, but I am more or less solvent, with an apartment and a car and a couple of sticks of furniture. And now I am thinking about what is to come, perhaps more than I should. There is a fine line between planning for the future and failing to embrace the present. And when the past has become quite long, there is the temptation to wallow in it too.

Here is a little tiny wallow. In the school photograph I am 12 years old, second from the right in the front row, sitting up straight and a bit stiff, actually half blind, my glasses probably clutched on my knees. In the middle is my form mistress and history teacher, Mrs McGee, who spent hours writing on the chalkboard careful accounts of English history for us to copy into our notebooks. That was long before the mistaken detection of sparks of brilliance.

After spinning out my education to unheard of lengths, I finally got a proper job with a pension and just about enough money to live on at the age of forty-one. The fact is, though, that I'd really rather not spend too many more years tracing my repetitive little loops across the asphalt of New York City. I dream of grass and trees, of country houses, of England. I dream and dream, and sometimes, as I tramp up the four flights of stairs to my apartment, it seems as if this is all there is, and I should stop dreaming and just make the best of it.
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Anglo-Brooklyn by Joy Holland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.