DID YOU MISS ME?

I didn’t show up here last week because I was in Boston when my blog failed to publish and I did not have the password with me and was thus  unable to access the damn thing to re-set the command to Let Rip.

This is me, Letting Rip at the Boston Public Library last Friday night (attending the lovely wedding of Top Cat’s nice and new nephew):

Oh yeah, I still got the moves. And, as I had about three pints of champagne in me on this particular eve, I’m still in keeping with the theme of this week’s last week’s story.

So here, in full, is the Blog Post That Shudda Happened When Vivian Was in Boston Being Super Groovy:

Top Cat says that this was my characteristic pose in London:

Shot with DxO ONE

That’s me, figuring out our next 1,000 steps in my handy Mini London A-Z (updated for 2001). Yep, I still use maps on paper instead of my smartphone.

This is Top Cat’s London Look:

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He upgraded his footwear to leather loafers because I insisted that his usual ratty sneakers and droopy socks would not do on this trip. (I let him keep his beloved day pack.)

What I’m saying is, I don’t think our 20-year-old selves would be crushingly embarrassed by our 60-year-old selves. No, I’m not talking about our looks. I’m talking our outstanding ability to quench a thirst.

We only had 4 days in London (because we took one full day to visit Windsor, Oxford, and Stonehenge at sun set — see how important that Oxford Comma is???), yet we were able to see The British Museum, The Geffrye Museum, the Museum of London, and the V&A  AND take in 10 — TEN– drinking experiences.

London’s 7,000 pubs outnumber its 200 museums, so I’d say we got the ratio just about right.

I’ve already blogged about our visit to the Lamb & Flag (see: Is That, Or Is That Not, A Corgie?), Charles Dickens’ favorite watering hole in Covent Garden:

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So here, in order, are our 9 other Memorable Tipples:

No. 9: The Lamb, on Lamb’s Conduit Street, Russel Square:

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We were there at the stroke of noon on a quiet Saturday. The Lamb is more of a bustling weekday hangout for the local regulars, in operation since 1729.  The pub was updated to its current look c. 1890. You can see in the photo (above) the rare and famous etched-glass “screens” above the bar, which were put in place to shield Victorian upper-class drinkers from the rabble on the other side of the “public” bar. If you’re into etched glass screens in pubs, well then, this is your kind of place.

No. 8: The Cross Keys, on Endell Street, Covent Garden:

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London Time Out likes The Cross Keys a lot because this pub “makes zero effort to appeal to tourists. Sort of ironic really, as standing outside in the failing sunlight, sipping a pint, taking deep lungfuls of the aroma wafting down from the nearby chippie, is one of the most perfectly English experiences you’ll get in the West End.”

I liked The Cross Keys because Top Cat had wandered off to check out the fading sunlight of an unseasonable warm and clear Thursday evening, so as I was on my own I began a chat with the English guy sitting next to me on the banquette and I really enjoyed talking to someone new. It was a nice break from the non-stop one-on-oneness with my significant other, which is is one of the hazards of traveling deux. 

No. 7: Discount Suit Company on the backstreets of Shoreditch:

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Top Cat and I split up on Saturday afternoon so he could go to a Premiere League soccer match (home game for Tottenham Hotspurs v. Crystal Palace) while I checked out The Geffrye Museum and gardens and the V&A. But first, I made a detour along Bishopsgate. . .

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. . .  to pop in at this 5-star speakeasy known as The Discount Suit Company because it’s in the basement of the Discount Suit Company!!! Some people have trouble finding the unmarked black door on the Wentworth Street side . . .

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. . . but I spied it easily, and descended a narrow stairway the led into a wood-lined room that is instantly comfy:

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It was just 2:00 in the afternoon, so I only had a vermouth on the rocks and a delightful discussion about English wines with a very handsome Millennial bartender, who told me about a place in the Spitalfileds Market that might have some plonk from Blighty. Everyone under the age of 35 looks sooooooo appallingly young to me.

I liked this place because I actually went into the Discount Suit Company on the ground floor, which is a going concern that sells — wait for it — discount suits and had a chat with the father and son who run the place. I really wanted Top Cat to come back and buy a shirt or two at discount. . .

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. . . but alas, that’s one of the things that we just ran out of time for.

P.S. I did stop in a the Spitalfields Market, because it was on the way to the Geffrye and because Spitalfields.

No. 6: French House on Dean Street, Soho:

 

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Top Cat picked this place mostly because of its name, which he thought would please me (being the Francophile that I am) but it is also a very well-known watering hole. It was opened by a German called Schmidt in 1910 who was deported at the start of the first world war. The name was changed to the French House under its subsequent Belgian owners because during WWII it was a home base of the Free French. General De Gaulle was supposed to have written his famous rallying call to his occupied nation, A Tous Les Francais, here.

Top Cat and I nabbed a great table in the cubby . . .

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not my photo: credit goes to www.pennybloodsblackbook.com.

. . . which gave us a good view of the clientele, which is young and trendy. The management does its best to nurture the art of conversation; no singing, no TVs; beer is sold only half pints; and if you dare to talk on your cell phone, you will swiftly be told to hang up or clear out.

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Gifford’s Guide for Discerning Drinkers notes that The French House is the U.K.’s top consumer of Ricard Pastis, a French licorice-flavored liqueur. The wine list at The French House is superb and prices are reasonable, which is why this pub is always crowded with an army of regulars.

Outside in the “patio” (sidewalk area)  I saw this young lady with her gray hair:

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Millennial gals with gray hair is quite a thing in London these days. I happen to really like the look — it looks very fairy-tale-ish, IMHO.

***This Just In: I just learned that the correct term for what I called “gray” hair is lavender. FYI: Lavender is the new IN color.

No. 5: The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town.

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photo from the world wide inter webs

The actual address of The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is: Inside the Breakfast Club’s fridge:

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There are three Breakfast Clubs in London. Each one is a casual, hip place for great breakfasts and fine comfort food the rest of the day and night. . .

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. . . and each Breakfast Club has its own speakeasy. But I had to come here for obvious cat-people reasons.

The rule is that when you get to this Breakfast Club you have to tell the hostess: “We’re here to see the Mayor” because, duh, it’s a speakeasy and there are rules. So that’s what we did, and after a very short wait we were let into the fridge:

Shot with DxO ONE

Shot with DxO ONE

We had a bottle of Pinot Grigio and poutine (dinner, because we’d forgotten to eat since lunch):

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Cute couple at the next table and their waiter smiling for my camera. THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN PARIS.

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I can’t tell you exactly why we had such a good time here, but both Top Cat and I enjoyed sitting in this little basement, but maybe these notes from the menu will give you an idea of the “vibe”:

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Naturally, I could not get the great old XTC song The Mayor of Simpleton out of my mind for a week.

No. 4: The Mayflower in Rotherhithe:

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Rifles, ropes, model ships and pulleys clutter the ceilings and sideboards, evoking images of explorers and drunken sailors. Dickensian scribbles above the chunky black beams read “poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”

This nautical-themed pub sits on the site of the former Shippe pub, built in 1550, making it the oldest pub on the River Thames. It’s famous for its connection to the Mayflower that set sail to American in 1620 — the ship’s original mooring was just off the back deck, which is on the actual bank of the Thames:

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

This pub is very convivial and well off the tourist track, and it’s in a section of London that I had never even heard of — so it was fun to venture south of the Thames for a Saturday night out!

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I love a pub that has a big tent over the deck lets puppy dogs drop in for a beer.

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After a quick diner of pub grub and a drink or two, the rain had stopped so we — me, Top Cat, my sister the brilliant Oxford scholar and my brother-in-law the brilliant head of congressional liaison for the Dept. of Justice — headed out to a place right around the corner:

No. 3: Midnight Apothecary at the Brunel Museum, in Rotherhithe:

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The Midnight Apothecary is a roving party that hits select venues in London — I picked the one held at the Brunel Museum because that’s the one that the Evening Standard (the dominant London newspaper) called “the hottest pop-up bar in town.”  Also, I had to see The Brunel Museum, which is the kind of place that gives me hope that the London that I loved for being a tad quaint and behind the times has not totally disappeared: it’s a museum about a tunnel. That’s it. A tunnel. A rather short tunnel, at that: it’s only the width of the Thames River.

The museum exists to tell the “fascinating” story of the world’s first underwater tunnel, namely, the Thames Tunnel, nearby, built 1825 – 1843. In its time, this tunnel was called “the 8th Wonder of theWorld”, which I know because we got to hear a very enthusiastic lecture down in the old entrance shaft of the “wonder” itself:

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But the main reason we were here was for the Saturday night rooftop garden party called Midnight Apothecary. Well, “rooftop” was stretching it, because the museum is mostly underground, hence the “roof” is on top of a one-story building.

First, there are excellent cocktails flavored with unusual (apothecary) herbs:

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And Second, there’s a garden, and lots of people, and a  campfire over which to roast marshmallows and meet friendly Londoners:

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I really liked the towering thistles.

I’m going to stop here at No. 3, for now, because Top Cat always complains that my blogs are too long and the stories I have for the final two Drinking Events (# 1 and 2 in the Top Ten) are so good that they deserve their own posts. Really. You’ll like them. One’s about a cat and a martini and the other is about The Chelsea Physic Garden.

So, my Dear Readers, get out there and live it up this weekend — the LAST WEEKEND OF SUMMER — and meet me back here next Friday.

And I mean it: get out there and do something fun before the Summer of ’16 becomes just a memory!

 

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Hurricane Party!

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Last week we got all the dire warnings — including a “code red” evacuation order that was issued by an over-eager emergency management pin head — regarding the havoc which would be wrought upon the Isle of Long when Hurricane Hermine blew our way. But as you might already know, the old girl veered east, out to sea, after she hit the Carolinas, so what else could Top Cat and I do but throw ourselves a little Hurricane Party? We headed out to the nearest  tiki bar on the Long Island Sound and I had my first ever Long Island Iced Tea (see above).

We all know that Yours Truly is not much of a “foodie”. I’m more of a “drinkie”. So, when I travel, eating out is not a high priority. . . but drinking out is huge.

Naturally I put some serious designated drinking on my 4-page To Do List for London (see last week’s post to catch up) — as well as a few Must Eats. This week’s post is all about how I dang near accomplished everything I set out To Eat and Drink in the UK, in true epicurean style. Starting with breakfast.

If you look carefully at the photo below, you will see my dear Top Cat doing some food prep for his salmon baguette while I, on the other side of the table, indulge in my favorite English breakfast of Eggs and Beans on Toast:

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We were sitting in our Earl’s Court cafe, on the morning of Day Two, when I observed my dear Top Cat pull a small Tupperware container from his daypack. He pulled off the top, removed a tomato from the vessel, and proceeded to cut it into fat, juicy slices.

I furrowed my brow. “Is that. . .”, I began, but stopped because the idea was too stupid to articulate. But then I decided to go through with it: “Is that from our tomato patch at home? That you brought to London?”

Of course he had. The tomatoes were peaking when we left Long Island and Top Cat couldn’t bear to let them all rot on the vine while we were away. So he packed one for exactly this occasion. I like a man who has priorities.

BTW, I would recommend this breakfast spot to all travelers:

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See how the nice guy behind the counter is smiling for my photo? THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN PARIS.

Our breakfast spot is called Gusto and you can see its red awning cosying up to the massive Prince of Teck pub next door:

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Ah, the Prince of Teck. I have known this pub since 1976, when Earl’s Court was so packed with Australian ex-pats that it used to be called Kangaroo Court, and the Prince of Teck was the neighborhood dive bar. I mean, it used to be really divey; full of of boisterous Aussies and grungy back packers from the nearby youth hostel and the bums who pretty much lived in the tube station a few yards away. The pub smelled very strongly of stale beer and very faintly of puke. But things have changed, even from when it had got slightly less crummy by 2001 (the last time I popped in for a drink, see below):

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photo credit: Me, 2001

I stopped in at the Prince of Teck after our Gusto breakfast and holy cow, was I shocked by what I saw:

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I don’t ever recall seeing sunlight in the Prince of Teck before. Or anything close to decor. Or such blinding cleanliness. I don’t even remember ever seeing the floor — this place always used to be crowded with low lifes. See that banquette way in the back, on the right? In the late ’70s I watched a drunk (or stoned) Australian pass out and slump over that table, which attracted absolutely no special notice in those days.

As I stood in the 2016 Prince of Teck all I could do was exhale, “Wow.” I asked the sweet bar maid if I could take a photo, and she said “Of course” and she even smiled for me. THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN PARIS.

I couldn’t help myself: I then said to her, “I remember this place from the seventies, when there used to be a stuffed kangaroo hanging from the ceiling right there,” and I pointed to a space at the far end of the bar. (How many years did I watch that stuffed kangaroo molt, year after year, and shed its ears and become so threadbare that it looked as if it had mange, which it might have, considering the context? Way many years.)

The sweet girl just kept smiling. And then I shut up because, really, do I seriously think that this sweet girl wants to hear what The Prince of Teck was like 20 years before she was born? No. (P.S. to my Aussie Dear Readers: Does anyone else remember Kangaroo Court? Or Ye Olde Prince of Teck? How about the youth hostel that used to be urther down on Earl’s Court Road, near Bolton Gardens?)

BTW, the urge to exclaim to clearly uninterested present-day people, such as Top Cat, what a certain place used to look like 40 years ago is something that I had to reign in, often, during this trip.

I have already mentioned that it was later on, on Day Two, when we went to the top of the weirdly-shaped sky scraper Walkie-Talkie building, at 20 Fenchurch, for lunch at their sky-top brasserie called Darwin’s (here’s a view of it from the foot of Tower Bridge):

Shot with DxO ONE

Top Cat and I met up with my sister and her husband to hear all about Oxford and their ramble through the Scottish Highlands — fun lunch! The cocktails were super cute:

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Tiki in London!

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I didn’t have a drink because I wasn’t here for the booze: I was here to cross off Item #1 on my Must Eat List, Darwin’s  Red Onion Tarte Tatin:

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That’s a carmelized red onion baked in a pastry shell topped with a hunk of Rollright cheese from the Cotswolds (mild, soft-rind; this cheese won Supreme Champion at the 2016 Artisan Cheese Awards), served atop a salad of wild rocket and walnuts drizzled with two dressings: one balsamic, the other a creamy garlic. It was heavenly, and a bargain at £11.25.

P.S. When Top Cat was about to sign the credit card receipt he noticed that the server had rung up the £115 tab as £155.  Travel Tip: always read your food and bev receipts.

For Item #2 on my Must Eat List, Top Cat and I had to head to the Borough Market south of the Thames in Southwark:

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What brought us to Borough Market was this: If you love grilled cheese sandwiches as much as I do, then you’ve heard of Kappacasein, home of the most outrageously delicious grilled cheese sandwich IN THE WORLD:

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That’s a big hunk of an Ogleshield cheese wheel there (above), in prep for the raclette. The grilled cheese sarnies are made by scooping the 4-cheese shred (see: below) between two slices of artisanal bread:

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I have to confess that I wimped out on the famous Kappacasein toastie because the fragrance of the Ogleshield was so overpowering that I lost my appetite. I just don’t care for stinky cheese at all. You might be thinking that only a real dope would pass up a taste in a lifetime: I totally agree. But, seeing as I’m not much of a “foodie” anyway, I think I can live with being a dope. I just couldn’t get past that Ogleshield.

The third and final item on my Must Eat List was Authentic Fish and Chips. Lucky for me, our AirBnB room in Hampstead was just around the corner from The Flask:

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A Yelp reviewer from Australia wrote: My partner is still raving about the fish and chips he got here a year and a half ago/ I think it was the mushy peas that made it particularly special for him.

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This is cod, deep fat fried in a batter made with a premium ale called London Pride, served red hot with pea purée, chips, and home-made tartare sauce (£13), served on artisanal newsprint, and it is delicious. P.S. I discovered that I DO NOT LIKE mushy peas.

And so it was that on my last night in London I was able to fulfill my Fish and Chips fantasy. But wait, there’s more:

Top Cat and I spent Sunday morning wandering around crazy Camden Town where, at the Camden Market we could have had a beigle. . .

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. . . or a bowl of cereal at the  Cereal Killer Cafe:

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

Shot with DXO ONE Camera

Cereal Killer Cafe is the world’s first international cereal cafe, which only serves cold cereal. Fun, right?

photo credit: The World Wide Web

Meanwhile, out on Camden High Street, the Mad Hatter was holding his Tea Party:

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Mad Hatter, Tea Party: This is how I will segue to the part of this blog post that I call: The Must Have Teas.

My #1 Must Have Tea was going to be at the  Victoria & Albert Museum:

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I used to be a paid member of this museum through most of the 1980s, back when the strict economic policies of Margaret Thatcher repudiated the socialist system of yore and cut back on government aid to national museums. Because of this, all the previously free museums had to start charging admission for the first time in their history. During those Thatcher years, museum attendance dropped by as much as 55% and I was totally fine with that. I mean, the admission was only a pound or two — cheap! —  but it was enough to keep out tons of people who really should not be visiting museums in the first place and no, I’m not being snotty. You know exactly what I mean. Young parents with screaming kids in strollers! Single dads who don’t know what else to do with their tear-away kids on custodial weekends. Grubby backpackers, bored teenagers, entire clans of foreign tourists herding through the galleries in a daze, etc. These are the people who now clog up all the museums, now that they are all free again.

So I set out to the inner sanctum of the V&A, my heart full of fond memories of all those nearly-empty galleries and cafes spared of the 55% of people who didn’t want to pay a lousy pound to get into the V&A, and a keen, heart-pounding anticipation at seeing, for my first time, the finely renovated grand tea rooms by Gamble, Pointer, and Morris:

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These photos can not convey the din and fury of the V&A on a Saturday afternoon during the tail end of the school holidays in August. The rooms were as welcoming as a Chicago O’Hare airport lounge during a fire drill. Oblivious parents with screaming kids, herds of tourists, and one severely annoyed V. Swift. It was a nightmare. So I  admired the appointments of these great rooms and got the hell out, hot-footing it back to the peace and quiet of the Piccadilly Line.

My #2 Must Have Tea would have taken place in Oxford, where I wanted to take a table in the “Garden” bit at the Vaults & Garden Cafe where I would sit with Top Cat and our Pot of Tea for Two and gaze upon the Radcliffe Camera (reading room):

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But it was drizzly and chilly, and neither of us felt like sitting in the somewhat cramped “Vaults” of this 14th century church building:

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So we just walked around the town for a bit and got on our tour bus for our special private inner-circle Sun Set at Stonehenge encounter.

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Photo credit: Top Cat, August 16, 2016

Sun set at Stonehenge was very cool. But that’s another story.

So, as for tea: I had one cup of tea each morning with my eggs and beans on toast, and it was perfection. But I never found a place for a nice afternoon sit down, due to the infestation of people everywhere and the fullness of my To Do List. If I had had one more day, I would have made a bee line to The Muffin Man near the High Street Kensington tube, on 12 Wrights Lane:

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photo credit: Me, 1987

This is the self same Muffin Man that was featured in my Tea Time Memoir in Five Minuscule Chapters in When Wanderers Cease to Roam:

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I also would have stopped in at The Ritz.

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photo credit: www.bookatable.co.uk

There are several Afternoon Tea experiences to choose from at The Ritz, starting at £52 per person. However, I don’t care for sugary cakes, or any kind of meat sandwich, or an undue amount of unctuous pomp that hints, ever so slightly, of insult — and you get all of that at Afternoon Tea at The Ritz. Used to be that you could sit in the lobby and order a fairly inexpensive pot of tea and enjoy being at The Ritz without the shenanigans of their Afternoon Tea, which is of the kind that I can’t stand, but I didn’t get the chance to check out that possibility because I never found myself in the neighborhood.

At least The Ritz hasn’t capitulated to calling it High Tea. High Tea sounds fancy, but it’s not: High Tea refers to the height of the table on which it is served, in this case a kitchen table. High Tea is the working class name for their evening meal, usually served at the un-chic hour of 5 PM. But because so many tourists (it’s usually blamed on the Americans) want a High Tea, thinking it’s the fancy one, many English outlets have started calling the Low Tea “High”.

The really fancy afternoon tea, Low Tea, used to be served on a low table in a lady’s drawing room at 4 o’clock. There would be only very light snacks served with the tea, in order to ward off hunger until one dressed for dinner, usually dished up at 8 PM.

When I worked for an English company (Christie’s auction house) I was shocked, at first, to hear my fancy co-workers call their evening meal  “suppah”. Yeeesh. Where I come from, only hicks call it “supper”. But then I learned that that’s what the upper classes call the meal after lunch; only the dreaded middle class calls it “dinner”.

High Tea, Low Tea, Supper, Dinner . . . class-climbing in the UK is hardJulian Fellowes ( that is, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, the creator/writer of Downton Abbey) explains it all in his irresistible novel, Snobs; A Novel of Modern Manners.

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I hope Snobs will tide you over until we meet back here next week, when I tell you about the cocktails I hunted down in London, in underground speakeasies and roof top apothecaries and garment store basements. There’s more than one cat involved.

Have a great weekend, my Wonder Ones. I hope a hurricane, or a hurricane party, is heading your way!

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It’s so good to see you all again!
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One too may vodka tonics for Taffy.

Come to think of it, “One Too Many Vodka Tonics” would be a good way to summarize my August vacation.

While you were gone we got a good old fashioned heat wave here on Long Island, 99 degrees for days on end, which necessitated the numerous inhaling of ice cold refreshments because, duh: health. Also, Top Cat’s tomatoes started to ripen in force, I found 6 more Blue Jay feathers, and I got at least 12 more bad ideas for books that I won’t write.

I also had a great adventure, which I am going to tell you all about in the post that immediately follows this one. Yes, it’s the one titled: Is That, Or Is That Not, a Corgi?   (see below)

 

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You know how it is, when you’re deciding whether or not to go to London, which would be a great trip except for it taking so much effort and you’re in a funk that makes “effort” so very tiring even thinking about it, so you take a walk into the village with your Top Cat to discuss the possibilities and in the back of your mind you’re thinking, OK, Universe, Now’s the time to give me some kind of sign, and then you’re walking down Main Street and your Top Cat goes, Hey look over there, and you think, Well, That could be a Sign . . . 

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. . . but you’re still in a shitty mood about having to do all the packing and thinking and doing that it takes to “do” a trip to London, so you taunt the Universe with the challenge OK, I’ll off to London if I find a Blue Jay feather. And not just any blue Jay feather. I want a tail feather, you got that? and so you stroll all the way around the village and start to make your way back home when something on the ground catches your eye. . .

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and yeah, it’s a Blue Jay feather . . .

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. . .  and yeah, it’s a tail feather. Sure, it’s a ratty, skanky, Blue Jay tail feather left over from the last time a lawn mower ran over it, but still: The Universe has spoken and the message is clear.

I’m going to London.

Immediately behind that message is another message, which is that the Universe, She doesn’t like it when I make Her double-down on the giving of the signs. That Blue Jay feather is without doubt the plugugliest one I’ve ever found. But there you are. That’s my Going-To-London feather!

This story truly happened on a walk I told you about in my post of July 22, when this is what I was wearing:

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Well, obviously, I couldn’t be wearing that kind of schmatta in London:

Shot with DxO ONE

Weird thing is, this was a bright, warm day.

That’s me in my ever-faithful black cashmere sweater draped over my shoulder (the one I took with me when I went on Le Road Trip, 10 years ago, back when this sweater was only 15 years old). But my new purchases especially for Going to London include: a better-fitting sheer long sleeved shirt to pull over a black tank top; a pair of sturdy but very comfy Michael Kors leggings; Michael Kors black suede loafers; and a slim little shoulder bag to carry my To Do List in.

Top Cat took this picture of me on our second day in London, as we walked across London Bridge towards that doofus-looking fat skyscraper in the background (known locally as the Walkie-Talkie building) to take our reservation for lunch at Darwin’s Brasserie on the 36th floor, above what is called The Sky Garden:

Shot with DxO ONE

From which one has incredible views of The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, City Hall, HMS Belfast — etc:

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Shot with DxO ONE

I haven’t been to London in 14 years, way back in 2002, so this Walkie-Talkie building is new to me, along with The Shard (the pointy thing seen below). . .

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. . .  the Cheesegrater and The Gherkin:

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But I am getting ahead of myself here.

The reason this whole “Go To London” thing came up is because my little sister was spending a Summer term at Oxford, studying for part of her LLM degree, and she had the idea that it would be fun to, at the end of her term, all get together in London! When she first mentioned it, I was pretty busy, moping all day and being miserable about not having a book to write seeing as I have the kind of personality that wallows in self-pity. So it took me a while to change my focus and get on board with this “having fun” concept. (Thanks, Universe, for all your help!)

Then I had to convince Top Cat to come too. That done, I spent about 10 days happily doing what I do best — plan. For London I came up with a 4-page To Do List:

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I like To Do Lists. In a travel context, they become my outline for a fabulous treasure hunt. Top Cat and I were in London for 5 days: I am going to give you a day-by-day run down on our To Do List which, no brag just fact, is a perfect blend of tourist sights and insider secrets.

DAY ONE

Arrive Heathrow at 8:45 AM. Discover that there is nothing to fear from the scrum of Immigration and Baggage claim; we are out of the airport and on the Piccadilly tube by 9:30. Take tube directly to Earl’s Court. Drop bags off at the Garden View Hotel on the delightfully green and calm Neverns Square:

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Next, seek victuals. Find a cute, tiny caff on Earl’s Court Road. Order the local delicacy.

Beans and egg on toast — I am home, baby!

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Walk (because you’ve misjudged the distance) towards The Chelsea Physic Garden, by way of the surprisingly semi-abandoned Brompton Cemetery. . .

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. . . 39 acres (16 ha) of very pleasantly weird scenic decay, used by a scant number of local joggers, dog walkers, and meanderers as a way to escape far, far from the madding crowd:

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We wind our way along the Thames on the elegant Cheyne Walk, which is where former New York City Michael Bloomberg has his London pied a terre (he bought the historic mansion that used to belong to the novelist George Eliot):

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And then past the house boats and the Battersea Bridge so beloved (and painted) by James Whistler:

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Small point of fact: The wooden bridge that Whistler painted was knocked down in 1885 and re-built to look nothing like Whistler’s quasi-Japonesque half-moon transverse, but still. . . we were walking in the footsteps of Whistler’s Mother’s Son!

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Top Cat with the Albert Bridge in the background.

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Sunny days wreak havoc on photos — too many shadows. But that middle Sphinx was all dolled up so that her boobies had red nipples. BTW, this is a GREEK sphinx; the Egyptian ones were male. See? Any old walk in London is a lesson in history that makes me LOVE LOVE LOVE this city.

Whereupon at last, we arrive at the Chelsea Physic Garden:

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I’ve already written about this garden in my book but I’ll have more to say on the matter of gardens that might be getting too big for their own britches — a Vivian Blog exclusive! — in a later post.

For now, jet lag is catching up on us and we head back to Earl’s Court via a walk up the famous King’s Road . . .

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Sand. The dog is made of SAND.

. . .which is not quite as swanky as it used to be. We take the tube from Sloane Square back to Earl’s Court and Top Cat naps while I read the Daily Mail on my iPhone until 4. Shower, tidy up, and we’re ready to hit the second half of my Day One To Do List.

Tube to Covent Garden:

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My fave tube ad. For OBVIOUS reasons.

Shot with DxO ONE

Covent Garden is no big deal, but Top Cat had never seen it and we had to pass through it anyway  on our way to visit the nearby Hospital Club:

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The Hospital Club was founded by Micro-soft co-founder Paul Allen and Dave Stewart of the band Eurythmics in 1996.

The Hospital Club’s raison d’être (it’s true: Dave Stewart speaks French) is to support the creative industries by providing an inspiring environment that actively encourages its members to create, connect, and collaborate. Its private, by-invitation-only membership includes designers, writers, creative entrepreneurs, performers, producers, musicians, and film makers.

I had recently read Dave Stewart’s autobiography, called Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, about his immensely exuberant,  wayward, and successful creative life and he had written rather proudly of this club (which used to be an actual hospital) so I wanted to check out the club’s public gallery to see an exhibit that sounded very promising: Twelve Tall Tales.

12 artists, makers and designers have been selected by guest curator Onkar Kular (never heard of him) to tell stories through an object they have made.

Stories told through objects! This show sounds right up my alley! I love material culture! I used to sell Faberge objects at Christie’s auction house so I know all about the depth and quirkiness of the stories that are embodied in the items that our culture decides to cherish, as well as those they deem unworthy! I am dying to see what context-heavy objects these 12 clever craftspeople have come up with!

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First impression: Well, this doesn’t look like fun. Looks more like a high school shop class exhibit.

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Uh-oh. “Beyond conventional approaches.” I don’t like the sound of that.

You see, our kind has been telling stories and making stuff for, I don’t know, 6,000 years, and to me, that seems to hint that we have pretty much perfected the object/story format.  But this is a curated show at the Hospital Club, so I guess I can’t complain that the artists were forced to come up with the most convoluted, narrative-smashing, lo-fi/hi-brow manner of justifying the space that they take up in this gallery. You know, to make it “unconventional”.

But I’m going to complain. My chief complaint is that, without exception, the objects that were created, specifically to be as sui generis as possible, were all so god awful dumb.

Example, The Politics of Shoes:

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This is by Dash MacDonald and the curator, Onkar Kular. They are probably very nice guys. This is not a personal critique, although really, how can it not be?

First of all, I consider this display a cheat.  A truly profound object should, and can, stand alone; that is, present itself in splendid isolation to let the viewer decipher it herself. But this object — those red shoes — has too much support material scattered around it, to much context”, to serve as clues as to its creator’s intent, clues which include a George Bush mask, a 1907 pamphlet by H. G. Wells called The Misery of Boots, and a video of the artist, dressed up like a medieval shoemaker making these shoes, intercut with scenes from the social unrest of the 1930s. All this surrounding clutter only points out how weak and/or didactic the object is, that it needs so much mediation from its creator. Also, the stuff is unattractively arranged. Also, the shoes are stupid.

What makes this show even more disappointing was that it was co-sponsored by The Crafts Council, the national development agency for contemporary craft in the United Kingdom. It was the participation of The Crafts Council that made the show a must on my To Do List, but  The Crafts Council of 2016 is a totally different creature than what it was when I first fell in love with it in 1985, when it was housed in a spiffy set of rooms on Pall Mall and had a gallery and a shop and a nifty showcase of the fabulously hand-made crafts of its members.

In 1985 I was 29 (on my 5th or 6th visit to London), and I moseyed into that exhibition space on Pall Mall by accident. There I discovered a space that was filled with thought-provoking and connoisseurship-level handmade objects in glass, ceramic, textiles, wood, and metal. Most significantly, I discovered the work of fabric artist Janet Bolton. She had one piece on display in the gallery:

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This object was called Bird, and it did not have any “support” documents attached to it. This allowed me to establish my own relationship to the object, and I was quite intrigued by it. I got the feeling that this object embodied a very personal iconography and esthetic that I was just on the verge of understanding. There was something delicate and brave about this piece that I wanted to live with. So I bought it.

I asked the young woman (whose name I remember to this day for obvious reasons : Vanessa Swan) who was on duty that day in the Crafts Council gallery about the possibility of my seeing more of Janet Bolton’s stuff. Ms. Swan contacted Ms. Bolton personally. That’s how I got invited to visit Janet Bolton in her home studio the next day:

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I bought three of the works that are in this photograph (directly above):

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Then Janet Bolton made tea and we sat in her breakfast nook that overlooked the back garden, and watched as the friendly neighborhood red fox obligingly trotted out from amongst the bushes for a wander around the flower beds. I mean, does a visit to a London fabric artist get any better than that?

Like me, Janet Bolton has gotten famous since 1985. Unlike me, she’s actually pretty well known.

As for the Crafts Council, it has undergone several re-iterations since 1985, becoming ever more diminished in the process. It was moved out of its pricey Pall Mall digs in the 1990s and now it exists, as far as I can determine, as just an address in Islington that storehouses stuff and sponsors exhibits similar to Twelve Tall Tales. Which breaks a little tiny bit of my heart.

The reason I have gone into such a lengthy digression is because this is how I experience London: very, very digressively, because almost everything I see and do London links me to an awareness and consideration of my personal history in a way that, for example, Paris does not. This is because I have never lived in London; I’ve only visited it about 20 times over 40 years. This means that my experience of London, as opposed to that of Paris, is not on a continuum.  My experience of London is quantum: My visits to London have happened at specific, short-term intervals in my life, so that after 40 years I have a collection of memories of London as so many discreet packets of time, after time, after time, etc.

So, while you and I mosey on from The Hospital Club in Covent Garden towards The Strand, keep in mind that it’s been 14 years since I’ve been in London and my head is whirling with all the quantum memories that such a trip down Memory Lane arouses (for the most part, I will spare you the ruminations). It’s now 6 o’clock on a warm and clear Summer evening on August 17, 2016, and we’re at The Savoy for a martini:

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At first I was drinking my martini alone because Top Cat objected to the concept of having a martini at the Savoy. Long story.

But this martini was a MUST on my To Do List while, to someone whose name rhymes with Zop Bat, having a martini at the Savoy seems stupid when martinis are so easy to get AT HOME. Well, too bad: I didn’t want to have to justify having a martini at the Savoy by going into a whole other long story along the lines of The Crafts Council in 1985, so Top Cat and I parted ways (some strong language was involved) and I was fuming until he showed that he was the bigger person and joined me and we bickered until we came to a decision about our future handling of the To Do List, and the cocktails were divine. We came to refer to this as “The Attitude Adjustment Incident.”

We then wander up on Shaftesbury Avenue past the Palace Theater . . .

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. . . and through back alleys — it seems that all of London is taking advantage of this delightful break from what has been a cold, wet Summer so far in the British Isles. . .

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. . . and we stop in at two casinos in Leicester Square so Top Cat can suss out the poker room action (for later) before we fetch up in a narrow alley called Rose Street for a pint and dinner at Charles Dickens’ favorite pub, The Lamb & Flagg. . .

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Then we moseyed to Piccadilly Circus, which neither of us photographed because it was almost 11 o’clock and we were tired and the place was horribly packed with people. We got the tube to Earl’s Court, dragged ourselves to the Garden View Hotel, and called it a day.

Total miles walked:  11.79

Total items ticked off the To Do List: 13

The next morning we pack up again to head for our AirBnB room in swanky Hampstead, on a tiny little mews — our room is above a bakery!

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But that’s a story for next week, when we break down the To Do List into things that you can eat and drink.

See you!

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I am very happy today. I woke up this morning from a dream in which I was auctioning off toast for charity.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what would be my dream job if this book-writing thing is over for me, and I think Charitable Toast Auctioneer just might be it. Thank You, Universe!

And Thank You, July/August issue of the magazine of The American Horticultural Society for your nice words for Gardens of Awe and Folly:

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Linda Larson, the Traveling Gardener, wrote that review — Thank you, Linda! — and she called some of the illustrations in the book collages. I think she means the multiple-exposure kinds of things I do  . . .

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Or maybe she knows my secret about the rescues I perform:

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But as for actual collages, I have a story for you today:

I’m the kind of person who has always had hobbies. The hobbies change — from making things, to sewing things, to collecting things, to collecting different things, to painting things, on and on — but whilst I’m in the throes of a passionate new interest I go all out. (That is one reason why it pains me to not have any hot hobby/obsessive avocation/calling at this moment in my life, not counting the exciting new career option of selling crisp warm breadstuffs on behalf of widows and orphans.)

Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, I suddenly became preoccupied with collage.

Is this too cute or what: I began my collage-making hobby by making Triscuit-sized collages! This one (below) I called, Inspiration:

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I was going through my Dada phase when I called this one, The Angel of Death Says, That’s All, Folks:

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I eventually embiggened my vision to post card-sized assemblages:

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Yeah, that one (above) is called Gulf, Sea, Ocean.

And then I began to make 3-D collages, which I mounted inside of 8″ x 10 ” shadow boxes. This one is called Electron Ascending a Staircase:

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Quoting William Butler Yeats, I named this one The Pilgrim Soul:

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This is a crap photograph of how I made a sunken doorway there of the far right side of the Pilgrim Soul piece:

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Heading back to the William Butler Yeats well again, I quote from his poem Towards Break of Day: Nothing That We Love Overmuch Is Ponderable To Our Touch:

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I hope you can grok the 3-D-ness:

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Hey! I just realized! William Butler Yeats has solved the age-old problem: is it “toward” or “towards”? It’s towards!

This next piece got its title from some bit of popular science I was reading at the time — it’s called If The Atom Were a Cathedral (note use of the subjunctive tense — very classy):

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I was very meticulous in the papering of this “cathedral”:

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As it happened during this year of collage-thinking, I came across an item in a local newspaper that in upstate New York State there was such a thing as the annual Schoharie County Small Works of Art juried show, held in August. It was open to works of art in any medium, but the catch was that it could not exceed 18 inches in height or width. Perfect!

I submitted some slides of my collages and one piece was accepted, a flat, postcard-sized piece that I called Let’s Distinguish Paradox From Contradiction:

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Out of 589 entries from 22 states, only 50 pieces were accepted. Since this is the only “competitive” juried show I have ever entered, I really don’t know if these stats make acceptance to the Schoharie County Small Works of Art juried show  a Yale or a New Haven Community College kind of thing. But there you are.

I didn’t win anything. So I quit fine art.

But I’m still very fond of these little works on paper — through several epic purges of clutter and bad ideas and outgrown identities, I have held on to my little mementos of Self, c. 1996.

I have read that having a hobby is not popular these days (people are too busy, and on-line too much), but I don’t understand how people can get through life without one.  Hobbies are about being a doer, a thinker, a creator. A Hobby (in the most catholic sense of the term) is a framework of being, a scaffold that supports a particularly clarifying and comforting theory of how the world works. To collect  (watches, 1980s punk records, camembert labels, etc.), makes the universe a more linear and comprehensible place to be. To make (birdhouses, pies, ships in a bottle, books), life is about constructing useful or playful objects out of the void. Hobbies give you something to think about instead of death. Hobbies make people happy, or at least less lonely in the great void.

When I was making my collages, I felt very engaged with the Universe. As a Capricorn, I tend to prefer hobbies that require tangibility, so making collages was vastly more therapeutic than, say, praying; or meditating, which are pastimes that are far too abstract for me.

Because so few people have hobbies these days, I think that’s why coloring books for adults are so popular: they give people who only consume their entertainment on TV or the internet something to do.

Thoughts, my Dear Readers?

On a completely unrelated note: It’s August! My favorite month of the year! And I need a vacation! So I will be taking the next two weeks off from blogging. I’ll be saty-cationing and hunting for feather treasures etc. and reading and responding to your wonderful Comments, but I won’t be posting anything until Sept. 2.

Keep collecting Blue Jay feathers! Keep watching sun sets! Keep the champagne flowing! Keep toasting yourself!

And meet me here in 2 weeks when I tell you all about my latest wanderings, findings, and paintings.

 

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I woke up last Monday morning and it was AUGUST. My favorite month of the year! In addition, last week’s Commentors gave me two votes for getting a DoG. Last week’s Commentors also taught me the word ensorcelled — thanks, Thea! — and informed me that a wheelbarrow will only fit one wombat  at a time  — thank you, Megan! — so I’ve had a lot to process this past week.

Now, about the DoG thing:

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Mac here (above) is, of course, a Scottish Terrier, a breed that is, as they say, an acquired taste, much like Scottish people themselves. And like your typical  Hatfield or McCoy, Scottie DoGs are proud and stubborn and manically loyal, usually to one and only one person at a time. But this Scottie here is a very rare Scottie of bifurcated doggedness having met, one day, a DoGless lady of his one person’s acquaintance and, sussing that this DoGless lady was sadly lacking a Scottie in her life, took it upon himself to make her his plus one. Some guardian angels have tiny little legs and extremely strong personalities instead of wings.

I imported this portrait of the noble Mac Scottie in the snow to my iPhoto file and brightened the contrast so I could differentiate his various hues and textures. Why?

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Because we’re going to have some DoG fun today! We’re going to paint Monsieur Mac!

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Grumbacher paints in the round, Winsor Newton in the square.


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I confess that I traced his outline from a print out of his photo, to get the proportions exact. Then I researched the woof and tweeter of Scotties’ fur, which is very particular. Plus, painting a nearly monotone black dog is very tricky — I have to take my time and think and plan ahead how I am going to use artistic license to not paint a big black puddle of black and call it “Mac”. Do I detect hints of blue and brown in M. Mac’s coat?

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I start with eye — if I don’t get the eye right I will have to throw out the whole shebang and start over, so I might as well do the most crucial bit first. It’s time saving, really, to start with the most diffy bit first.

Mac has very soulful eyes. And I think he looks very pensive in his photograph. I hope to get all that.

I start with a pale blue:

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Over which I wash a very watery brown:

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Still working wet-in-wet, I dab in deep black around the edge . . .

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I let that dry and I paint in a semi-circular pupil with a dot of white acrylic:

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I like this eye. I make a note to self to be very very very careful what I paint around this eye so that I don’t loose the oomph.

Next, I’m going to paint in the far-away shoulder area — I’ve never done this kind of painting before, so this is where I will “practice”. I’ve already decided that I can’t use a pure black color, for puddle reasons; I will mix in blue for the “shine” of this black coat. I’m also using two kinds of black paint, the powdery Grunbacher and the vivid Winsor Newtons — more about that later. So I swab in a blue outline and blend in a very watery WN black:

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I also used G[rumbacher] brown for the front ruff (barely visible int his pic below).

I have, beforehand, plotted out the areas that I am going to paint, one by one, in sequence (you can’t paint the whole DoG at once!). This is a step that I didn’t use to take when I was a beginner: the THINKING AHEAD part. But it makes life so much easier if you have a strategy.

So I proceed to the next bit, a blue/black wash on his little head:

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You’ll notice that I let the water and the paint mix itself and dry — I like the effect. I don’t mind that this watercolor portrait will look like a watercolor. And I am intentionally lightening up this part of his face to avoid the puddle thing.

Now I have to do the ears . . .

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Dang. I slopped a little drop of black paint on the paper where it doesn’t belong. I have to let it dry so I can white-out that drop when I finish the picture (I’ll use acrylic white paint). I hope you can see that I still “outline” Mac in blue. This is pure artistic license. Even if only a hair’s width of this blue remains when the ear is finished, I think its presence will add to the complexity of the black that I am layering:

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And now I begin Mac’s eyebrows:

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Note the two tones of black: Here is where you can see the difference between the paler, powdery Grunbacher black paint and the saturated Winsor Newton black paint. Using them both here adds to the complexity of “black”, don’t you think?

The closer that I get to the eye, the more nervous I get. One slip of the brush and poof! All is lost!

I’m showing you this photo (below) because you can see how I am layering in some brown on Mac’s nose, and also you can see that I got his foreground eyebrow wrong:

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So I erased half of it, by dabbing a brush soaked in clean water over the area:

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I am careful to leave the tiniest line of unpainted paper surface around Mac’s eye in order to make it the visual center point of this portrait. I’m painting his nose a mix of G blue and G black:

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Now for the fun bit! I love mixing brown and black!

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I have to work quickly here and it’s nerve-wracking — I have to work wet-in-wet with G black and WN brown and black, and make the brush strokes go in the right (whiskery) direction.

For this portrait, I have turned Mac’s body sideways to paint him in profile (he’s actually photographed in 3/4 mode), so this is all hypothetical to me! And can’t over-do this face; it has to look effortless, assured, and correct — which means that I can’t get away with erasing anything here. I t has to be right the first time:

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I forgot to photo my day’s work here, because I then put it away. I like to sleep on such an important painting. So the next day I came back and made a few tweaks and then the Noble Monsieur Mac was finished:

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You might notice that on Day Two I corrected his eyebrows so that they would be all lined up, neat and trim as in his photo. I also changed his eye, from this:

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To this:

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My first (and probably only) Scottie DoG portrait (for Beth):

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If I had thought of it earlier I would have Googled watercolor scottie dogs, to see what I could steal. Now that it’s too late for me to pilfer from the professionals, I trolled the inter webs  anyway and found a U.K. watercolor artist by the name of Patch Wheatley, who paints quite a lot of Scottie DoGs and it is interesting to me to compare:

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See? I thought I was ever so clever in mixing blue and brown in my two black paints. Ha! We don’t ever think of anything new on our own, do  we? No, we just bump our heads against the good ideas that hang in the ether forever.

Have a terrier weekend, my Wonder Ones!

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It’s a busy Monday morning at the Starbucks in the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As I wait in line to order my cup of tea I ponder things.

How many wombats can you fit in a wheelbarrow? Is Freud’s theory of personality still relevant? Should I get a DoG?

Observing the young lady strolling past the food court, I wonder about girls who wear teeny short cut off jeans and big tall leather boots: Is that a thing?

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I looked it up, and I guess it is.

For narrative purposes, I’ll say I had this thought, too: That squirrel I watched in my back yard, eating cream cheese off a fork — was that the cutest thing or what?

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Point is, I had plenty of time to think there at the Starbucks. But I snapped to attention when I saw that I had shuffled to the head of the line and I was on deck to place my order. When one of the two baristas on duty called out, “Can I help the next guest?” (they don’t just yell NEXT at Starbucks), I walked right up to the counter and spoke up, loud and clear: Small English breakfast tea, please fill it only 2/3rd full, and one croissant you don’t have to heat it up thank you.”

Then the other barista called for the next guest, and the next guest/woman behind me seemed to be very surprised to find herself on line at Starbucks. Oh! “the next guest” exclaimed, Oh! Um, hmmm…um…what I want…um…hmmmmmm…. And she frantically scanned the menu board above.

Wow, I thought to myself: You’ve been standing on line for 7 minutes and you don’t know what you want??? Are you always an asshole or is this a special occasion? Because, as we all know, it should come as no surprise that when you stand on line at Starbucks, sooner or later you’re going to have to order.

But then I decide to give humanity the benefit of the doubt:

She’s having a real hard time spitting it out, I think. WOW! Her order must be very complicated — one of those secret off-the-menu S’mores frappacino/non-dairy foam from Jupiter/ wave a degree from Cornell over it things that I’ve heard about. 

I eagerly awaited her choice. And then, after lengthy hesitation, she, the next guest/ Starbucks customer, finally summoned the language she needed to ask for:

An iced coffee.

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These days, I’ve been wondering how I can fill all the hours that used to be taken up by book-writing, now that these days, there isn’t a book that needs me to write it. I have very few options.

I can not do customer service because, present company excluded, I hate “customers” (see: Starbucks story above). I can’t do reality TV because I don’t want to frighten the cats by having a film crew stomping around my house. I can’t be Susan Branch because I’m waaaaay too damn cranky.

And it seems that there is no money in collecting Blue Jay feathers, which is really all I want to do these days.

By the way, on a day when I was not looking for Blue Jay feathers I had 3 feathers delivered to me, such as like this:

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Ca-ching!

Sadly, the only thing I’m half good at is watching paint dry:

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I’m painting a large (or should I say, Venti) view of the Chelsea Physic Garden. In my world, that’s 8 inches x 10 inches. But I got as far as this foreground bush (above) when I messed it up. It’s too dark — that’s a problem I often have: I load on the color too much, and I like it when the watercolor has a lot of water in it. I tried to rescue it by painting a layer of white goauche over it:

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But that looked really stupid. So I started over, this time from the background:

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And then I forgot to take in progress photos until the end:

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It’s all about the crop. This:

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Or this:

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That’s it, my Dear Readers, that’s all I got this week. Well, that’s almost it:

Thank you for the love you gave my girl, Dame Helen Mirren, last week. I liked how I was close enough to get the spill-over! THANK YOU!

And, to follow up on having my article on my Top Ten Garden Books published by The Guardian last week, I got some push-back by a Commentor there who did not like my criticism of John Muir’s writing and wrote:

How appalling to open by denigrating John Muir who did more for the world than you surely will ever do. He helped found the first national park system which spread worldwide and caused more good in the world than any other conservation measure. You say you thrill like one of the bloggers to Marvell’s work; hard to believe. Muir is a beautiful writer who saw interconnection in all things. That vision remains desperately undernourished and misunderstood today.

Write your own books, fine, but think about the cost of rubbishing a fine thinker.

I wrote back a message that told her, in effect, that she should go soak her head, and she responded:

Nice person! True colours at last.

Try reading, thinking, understanding rather than resort to crudity. That is the last resort of the weak minded. Also, I don’t think you should be paid for writing this kind of language. It is appalling.

Ha! I wrote back: If you think I’m forfeiting the million dollars that The Guardian paid me to write this article…I’m laughing all the way to the bank!

I really can’t stand people.

So that’s what I was doing in Atlantic City this past Monday:I was looking to invest my windfall (journalism is so lucrative!) in property and I’d always fancied owning a casino. But since the Borgata. . .

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. . . isn’t for sale, I had to search for other investment opportunities. I settled on buying the sunset:

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So, appalled Guardian Commentor, if it’s twilight where you are and the sun is setting, don’t look at it. It’s mine.

Here’s the latest portrait of Dennis Whiskabottoms, with his newly-tipped ear:

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See you all here next week, my Wonder Ones, with more stories from Down Time on the Isle of Long.

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Dear Readers, it’s been an ugly Summer, day after day of bad news that breaks your heart 50 ways before breakfast . . . last week it was so bad that I and the 5 o’clock angel kept company every single day.

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And now it’s Thursday and my article in The Guardian came out and I want a vat of white wine for breakfast. You can read it here, and then you can Comment on it all you want, but the author of the piece hates it. I want to go on a very serious whine about editing that shreds your Guardian article to shreds, but you and me and the world all have more bigger problems to worry about. See how mature I’m being? And, for being so Zen, I think I know just how to reward myself (see above).

Anyhoo:

Thank you, THANK YOU for the brilliant Comments you all left last week on the post about How To Be A Jerk. I love you all for making me feel that it’s not yet time to hang up the paint brushes and go all florange AGAIN — I really needed that. THANK YOU. You all deserve for me to respond to your brilliance one by one in this blog post, but the timing is off (don’t peek . . . I have a present for you at the very end of this week’s blather) so let me go back and reply in the Comments section of last week, and please allow me to explain this illustration before I give you all the best July prezzie ever:

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From Le Road Trip, that’s my illustration of the tower of Michel de Montaigne who, while I’m being so philosophical and all, I want to thank for keeping me company this past week:

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“I doubt if I can decently admit at what little cost to the repose and tranquillity of my life I have passed more than half of it amid the ruin of my country.”

If the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne had not died in 1592 . . . wait, let me start over. If the opinionated and always entertaining Michel de Montaigne were alive today he’d be a top lifestyle blogger, and he’d have written the above line more like this:

It might be indecent of me to admit this, but I’ve managed to live these past 30 years happily engrossed with my own inner life at the same time that my country was shitting out its brains in bloody civil war, brutal religious retaliations, and government-sanctioned massacre and assassination of its own citizens.

If you have to be sober these days, and I don’t recommend it, reading Sarah Bakewell‘s charming examination of the life and work of the immortal Michel de Montaigne will give you much-needed mental repose amid the heartbreaking reality of the world we live in.

In How To Live; A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer Miss Bakewell breaks up Montaigne’s life and classic Essais into 20 chapters that each provide an answer the question that preoccupied Montaigne the most ( How To Live? ) with chapter sub-headings/answers such as Don’t Worry About Death; Pay Attention; Survive Love and Loss.  

Montaigne’s own words are, thanks to the wit and brilliant scholarship of Miss Bakewell, put in context of his bizarre upbringing (he was the son of a rich man who employed special tutors who only spoke to him in Latin for the first 5 years of his life) and the fashions of the day (the French King Henri III was considered weird because he had outlandish personal hygiene habits, such as washing his hair from time to time) and current events (the above mentioned wars and atrocities) of his time. And lordy, Montaigne lived in terrible times, more terrible than our own.

If Montaigne can do it — retain a personal and philosophical delight with the world while it was beheading Protestants, spreading the plague, and murdering cats — well, my Wonder Ones, so can we. I have to believe that.

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That’s Steve (above), on my front wall, chowing down on dinner; and that’s the little Blue Jay feather I found floating in his water bowl when I went out to feed him. What can I say? Life has its moments.

Now for my gift to you all:

This is me (below), walking around our little village of Roslyn the other day, wearing what I thought was a very nifty walking-around outfit until I saw the picture that Top Cat took of it and me:

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NO, that’s not the gift.

Helen Mirren turns 71 on July 26 and I’ve been collecting photos of her this past year because it is obvious that I need a mentor in how to look extremely nifty, and Helen’s my It Girl. And because I know that all you Dear Readers are My Kind of People, I know you love Helen Mirren too.

Happy Birthday, dear Helen; you are the human equivalent of a Blue Jay feather.

So here, from me to you, with love, is my photo essay titled

How To Live in Helen Mirren’s World.

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Oh, man, we do loves us some Helen Mirren.

I ended with the coat that I want almost more than BlueJay feathers. How’s about you?

Dear Readers, XX OO, and you’re welcome.

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I’ve been meaning to give author R. L. Stein a piece of my mind for some time now, but world events and The Real Housewives of Orange County (please, Bravo, please fire Vicki) ate into my stockpile of ire. But it’s been almost a year since I was deeply offended by R. L. Stine and so, today I’m in the mood to discuss R. L. Stine’s interview with The New York Times Book Review of  August 23, 2015.

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You’re hosting a literary dinner party, the Times posits; Which three writers are invited?

R. L. Stine (who I never heard of but turns out he writes very popular children’s horror books) answers: Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Jane Austen. 

So far, so good. But then he goes on:

And I would ask them all my all-time least-favorite question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s that last bit, the part about how annoying it is for R. L. Stine, famous author, to be asked: Where do you get your ideas? that chaps my butt. Which I will discuss while I show you how I painted my latest Triscuit (since my anti-R. L. Stine tirade has no visual component):

I just love the way a Summer lawn looks when it is shadowed by sunlight flickering through leafy tree branches. Is there a word for that? There should be a word for that, and that is what I tried to paint in my latest Triscuit, which I painted this far (see below) before I had to throw it out and start all over because of those two mushy lumps of greenish yellow in the upper left quadrant, which are very ugly:

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So I start over:

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Back to R. L. Stine: Well, excuuuuuse me, R. L. Stine, and other writer-snobs of your ilk who I have heard and read deploring the same query posed by the un-writerly otherwise known as reader-type persons, if you find it sooooooo annoying to be asked how/where/when or why you were inspired to write what you wrote. 

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Albert Einstein, who by the way got a lot of far more important ideas than any freaking Goosebumps plot (by R. L. Stine), and he gladly answered the question re: How did yogurt that idea for general relativity? by describing the moment as “the happiest thought of my life“, when this idea popped into his head: To a man falling freely in a gravitational field, that gravity does not exist. And from there, a lot of important mathematics and an total upheaval of the Newtonian Universe ensued.

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The only physicist since Einstein’s death to rival Einstein for brilliance, Richard Feynman, wrote about how he was sitting in a college cafeteria watching an underclassman throw a plate across the room (?), and realized that the center of that plate wobbled at a different rate than the edge of that plate and that there was no equation that explained the rate of spin, so he worked it out, just out of curiosity, and next thing you know he’s figured out quarks, and time travel, or some other such momentous usefulness that I can’t quite remember (but that’s a true story about the plate).

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Virginia Woolfe wrote, in her diary of 1918, about a time when she was sitting in a field and saw “a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly “This is Earth Life”. I seemed to see how earthy it all was, & I myself [just] an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.” Next thing you know, Virginia Woolf is writing other-worldly stream-of-consciousness novels about the Earth life of characters such as Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.

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And R. L. Stine feels put out because someone wants to know where he got the idea for his character Slappy the Dummy???

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 R. L. Stein, I have just the T-shirt for you:

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Ideas are wondrous gifts from the Universe!  Ideas are what keeps us from being bored to death! Ideas can end up as anything from the double helix of DNA to croissants! And I LOVE croissants!!

So I think it is extremely shitty that R. L. Stine, or anyone who elaborates upon his or her unique ideas for a living (whether in words, numerals, chromosomes, or pastry dough) would find it tedious to explain the wherefore-art-thous of those ideas. Because maybe the people who ask that question, Where do you get your ideas?, are people who need to be inspired by the mysterious way that an idea, of, say, a red hare or a spinning plate lobbed by a college kid, becomes a novel or a Nobel Prize.

Or, maybe, that person is like me, and hasn’t come across a good idea in a long while and is looking for a hint as to where to look.

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I got my idea for this Triscuit from walking past the local duck pond here in Roslyn village, on the Long Island of New York state (America) on a beautiful June afternoon.

I got the idea for my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, from a 1939 Popular Science Encyclopedia article about electrons, titled When Wanderers Cease to Rove. As soon as I read those words — BOOM. I had a fabulous title and the raison d’être of my quasi-travel life story. Buying that dusty encyclopedia set for $10 at a Salvation Army Thrift Shop in central Pennsylvania 20 years ago and waiting 8 years to open volume 5 to that page with “Rove” printed on it remains one of my Top Ten Happiest Thoughts in my life.

My second book, Le Road Trip, wasn’t much of a hot idea — doesn’t everybody who goes to France want to make an illustrated travel memoir out of the trip? — but the idea for breaking the trip down into chapters that tracked the stages of a love affair came from a Wallace Stevens poem called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  I made every chapter of that book a different way of looking at France, one as a straight, linear story; one as a Day in the Life; one as a Top Ten list; one as an A to Z inventory; etc.

I regret not thinking of a better title than Le Road Trip, though — turns out that a lot of English-speakers are troubled by the “Le“. True story.

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I felt compelled to write Gardens of Awe and Folly when I was looking through the huge Garden section of my local library couldn’t find not one book about garden travel at all, and none about gardens that I wanted to read. Why did every garden book have to be a How To, and a lot of that about How To determine your dirt’s personality?

So, if I had to invent an entire new genre of garden writing to produce a garden book that I could stand to read, then so be it. And voila: Gardens of Awe and Folly.

I didn’t have a title for the book until the week before it had to go to press. All I knew was that I had to have the word Garden in it, but nothing during the three years that I worked on it had appeared in a vision, not even when I went back to the Popular Science Encyclopedia and browsed all 10 volumes.

So, with time running out, I sat myself down and just began to make a list of all the words that related to the gardens in the book. And then the phrase Garden of Earthly Delights chimed in my head, and I knew that it had the perfect syllable count for a great title, but I had to substitute words for Earthly Delights (too cliche) and so, from sheer doggedness, I finally got to Awe and Folly.

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I have to admit that I haven’t had a good idea since I worked that title out. And I am desperate for a good idea. I need a project.

So . . . where do your ideas come from?

If you’ve ever had a nifty brainwave from the Universe, or you know of a good story about where an idea came from, or you ave an idea that you wish someone would execute for you, please Comment. (It’s a tiny bit awkward to do that on this template: you have to click onto the READ MORE button at the bottom of this post.) If your idea or idea story triggers some scathingly brilliant notion for my next book, I WILL DEDICATE THAT BOOK TO YOU. I’m talking full page, front-of-the-book acknowledgement. Illustrated.

I await your many wobbly ways of looking at Earth Life.

XXOO

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It’s like finding an early morning treasure when I come across Dennis, our recently-acquired feral freeloader, on the back patio when I go out to feed him at 6 o’clock in the morning — isn’t this a great way to start the day?:

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And, sometimes, there’s other treasures out there, awaiting me:

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You might remember that in last week’s blog post I demanded that the Universe send me a damn Blue Jay tail feather (for my collection). Well, later that same day, after sending my peevish request out into the infinite benevolent indifference, I was cleaning out my refrigerator and I smacked my head really hard and good against the corner of the freezer door handle, and it hurt like being jabbed with a hot pocker and smacked with a sledgehammer at the same time (I’m guessing) and is an injury that is only possible because I have this kind of out-of-style refrigerator:prod_2041918312

A bump on the head is how the English actress Natasha Richardson died (in 2009) and is what killed Michel de Montaigne’s brother (in 1569). So I took care to notice any symptoms of double vision or confusion the rest of the day until bedtime, at which time I warily laid myself down to sleep with the thought that if I don’t die during the night, I would most likely wake up the next morning and sincerely thank my lucky stars (and you well know that in my case, I do that literally; the “stars” being the Sun and Deneb Algedi).

And I did wake up the next morning, and the first thing I did do was promise the day that I would love it and treasure it. And then I forgot about it as I got out of bed and put Top Cat’s coffee on and fed the indoor cats and cleaned litter boxes and headed out to the back yard to give Dennis Whiskerbottoms his breakfast. And then came the small jolt of electricity when I saw the Blue Jay feather right at my tootsies.

Without meditation, without searching, even without being the least bit mindful of my endless quest for Blue Jay feathers and their purpose to remind me to pay astonished attention to life, there was my treasure, as if delivered right directly to me. I was reaching down to grab it into my chubby mitt when I remembered that such a momentous find needed to be photographed in situ:

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I know it looks staged, but I can’t help it if the Universe is a tad ham-handed when it comes to depositing Her gifts at the feet of a wretch like me, and I promise that this is a true story:

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And yeah, it’s a tail feather.

I KNOW! Life is like a dream! If, that is, you dream of Blue Jay feathers! Thank you, Blue Jays and Universe!

You know who else gives me dreams?

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I have Taylor Swift to thank, from the bottom of my heart, every time I make a reservation or leave a message or make an appointment and I don’t have to spell my last name, S like Sam, W, I, F like Frank, T like Tom. And it would still end up as Smith or, most of the time during the 11-year run of the television show M*A*S*H, Swit.

Loretta Swit is a fine actress and exemplary animal rights and military veteran rights activist, but I don’t like her last name and I absolutely hated the inevitable “joke” whenever a stranger heard my name: Any relation to Hot Lips, ha ha?! I must have heard that “joke” thousand times in my 20s. No wonder I can’t stand people.

Taylor Swift is her generation’s Joni Mitchell, a brilliant singer/songwriter dream girl who is always ahead of fashion, and always has the hottest boyfriends. (If you don’t know Joni’s dating history, here’s partial list from back when these guys were the topper-most hot guys: James Taylor, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and I think one or two of the Byrds.)

Until recently, Taylor Swift was the long-time girlfriend (15 months, which is almost a decade in famous pop star years) of a handsome, 32-year old  6’5″ multi-millionaire DJ and Scotsman named Calvin Harris:

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They were such a cute couple. But they did break up and shortly after they went to splitsville, I began having infrequent but repetitive dreams that I was back in my 20s. That alone would be a most excellent reason for me to wish for 12 hours of sleep every night, but wait there’s more. In my dreams, there’s also a young man, courting me, with a fervor and sweetness that only happened once in my real 20s, back when a book shop co-worker confessed that he had a crush on me and thought I was so adorable that if I were a dog, I’d be a collie.

I dreamt of that same scenario last night, only this time the dog-allusive young man gave me a gift that I was able to inspect in detail, and then later remember in detail after I woke up. It was a necklace, a fine gold chain on which were strung white pearls alternating with polished rock crystal spheres of a very beautiful type. Namely, colorless rutilated quartz:

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Photo from the internet, curtesy of mineralminers.com.

I guess you can tell that I am a certified gemologist (from waaaaay back); I hardly ever dream of jewelry but when I do, I tend to be very specific about the gems. But rutilated quartz? That’s a new one. I didn’t know I liked it enough to dream about it. (FYI: I can not think of a way to put pearls and rutilated quartz beads on a gold chain, since piercing the quartz would pretty much ruin the effect of the rutile inclusions.)

It was while I was pondering upon this jeweled necklace that I figured out why I was dreaming these weird happy dreams of dating.

It’s because I’ve been closely following Taylor Swift’s new romance with the elegant and sexy actor Tom Hiddleston because yes, I read the Daily Mail.com every day so sue me.  Tom Hiddleston is 35 (9 years older than Taylor), 6’2″, from a very classy family, English with a Scottish father, Eton and Cambridge educated. They met at the 2016 Met Gala and, in my opinion, he fell for her like a ton of rutilated quartz and swept her off her feet as soon as she became available. I like her with him.

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So I’ve been feeding my mind lots of Taylor Swift romance and my brain only hears the Swift part before it jumps to conclusions, i.e., that the Swift it knows best is the Swift who was once favorably compared to a collie, so I’m dreaming about my old romance when I was Taylor Swift’s age. I’m old enough to have been Taylor Swift’s kindergarten teacher. Should I feel creepy?

Other follow-up from last week: I did make contact with the Cat Lady three streets over and she graciously gave permission to TNR her crew of feral freeloaders, so: YAY! Master trapper Susan has captured 9 of these guys so far, including the very sick one that we were out worried about.

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Three Desperados (out of 15)

And as for Steve, well, he’s still Steve on our front stone wall, sleeping off a two-course dinner of Friskie’s Turkey & Giblets pâté and more Friskie’s Turkey and Giblets pâté, and dreaming of a three-course dessert of Friskie’s anything:

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And, without segue, here are pictures from my little village on July 4th, Independence Day, America’s 240th birthday:

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And, for obvious reasons, my favorite:

P1080282Sweet dreams, everyone.

 

 

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