Wednesday, December 30

Practice And Goals

The past few days Eitan and I up at the crack of dawn to work the football skills, which means Dad commanding the boy to run laps, do jumping stars, ball control and long kicks.  I have been waiting 25 years for this, I tell the boy, ever since those cold mornings pool side where Coach seemed to have the best job in the world.  Eitan improves, too - he practices his target-shots aiming for the goal posts and gleeful when struck. Since it starts raining, we call it a day.

We set out goals for the spring school term.
Madeleine: (1) to improve hand-writing; (2) multiplications, 1-11; (3) learn how to make meat loaf "by heart."
Eitan: (1) stop peeing in the bed; (2) 100% every week in Kumon; (3) KPR to League One.
We sign the bottom of the page, which is posted in the kitchen.

Eitan to Natasha: "I am going to clean the counter with extreme prejudice."

Eitan: "Dad, can I make cleaning up after dinner my chore every day?"
Me: "Is this a trick?"

Tuesday, December 29

Richmond Park Fog

Here is Richmond Park.  The weather forecast for snow which cheers up the kids. 

"To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug."
--Helen Keller

Sign 'O The Times

Last night's train to W'Loo. I now sit next to our hero while Eitan cleans the table/ does the dishes for "Caramel Chew Chew."  I blog.  Madeleine late at the table as she refuses her brussel sprouts.  Today I sample work for several hours but nothing going down. My building empty except for construction workers who tear out the lobby.  I ask if they are going to rob the place? which gets a few smirks.  50-50 which way that one goes.  From my office I drive Katie into town where she meets Sonnet and together they go to a fancy schmanzy spa to soak and massage. All naked, too, and a good thing since KT forgets her swim suit (Madeleine finishes another sprout and looks at me imploring but no-go until plate clean).  I don't really need to know who has a "Hollywood."

In other news, the world has not come to an end but a comprehensive hour-long program on this morning's Radio 4 with Andrew Mahr goes into detail how, inside eight years, the US went from the peak of its influence, post 9/11, to today - second soon to China.  Experts here and there give damning reviews of our strategy under el presidente. Our nation took its eye off the ball fighting Iraq while China squared its position in Africa, Russia, Latin America... we will look back sadly, Dear Americans.  So: do the times make the man or the man make the times?  I fear we have learned the hard way, the latter.

Madeleine excused from the dinner table.

Me: "Will you always give me a hug, even when you are a teen-ager?"
Madeleine: "I'm not sure. I can't see into the future."

Into The Hoods

Last night we visit Southbank Centre to see "Into The Hoods" (sic) which is "the award-winning smash hit from the West End and two Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, Into the Hoods features groovy tunes and wicked dance moves and includes music from Massive Attack, Kanye West and others."  The performers from ZooNation UK Dance Troupe started by Kate Prince in 2000 when Prince teaching at the Pineapple Dance Studios in London, which led to their 2002 debut performance in London of BoxBeat at the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadlers Wells.   It is all about funk fusion and hip hop. The Royal Festival Hall on its feet by the end and deservedly so - the performers confident, proud and mostly black though a few white dudes bust some rhyme looking like, well, Vanilla Ice. Remember him, 1990? I guess you cannot blame them, though - they were born uncool.

Price a choreographer whose work, when not teaching at Pineapple, includes theatre, television, music video, commercials, fashion, documentary and live events. Most recent credits are the 'Opening Ceremony - Tour de France 2007,' 'Strictly Dance Fever' (BBC), 'Hey Kid' video for Matt Willis (Mercury Records), 'Blue Peter' for ZooNation (BBC), and 'Top of the Pops' (BBC), 'CD:UK' (ITV), 'Smash Hits Pollwinners Party' (Channel 4) Wembley Arena, and 'The Official Olympic Celebration' Trafalgar Square. She is blowing up with 'Into the Hoods.'  All good.

To think the Southbank Centre almost demolished - Tony Blair pledged by 2002.  Not surprising as it is a 1960s concrete monstrosity (the Royal Festival Hall finished in '65).  Still, this an important place in London's psyche: Southbank Centre started with the '51 Festival of Britain, and described as "a tonic for the nation" (politico Herbert Morrison) - it showed Britain’s recovery from World War II. Today Southbank is culture, happening restaurants, singles bars (Las Iguana shows some serious leg) and the best views of the river's northside.  Magic.

We listen to some 'chill' music. Me: "Doesn't this make you feel good?"
Eitan: "No, actually. It makes me feel kind of frustrated.  And cramped."

Web Brands

This graphic from Strategy Analytics who did some work with young people on "which brands would you want on your mobile phone?"  The top-five obvious. What is catching is Twitter, ranked by MSN which survives thanks to Hotmail, around since, like, the Stone Age of the Internet. I would have thought Twitter right at the very top given the hype and all that - even I, this very week-end, looked into signing up and me, being over 40.  Despite the racket, Twitter only has 55 million users against Facebook's 325 million (VentureBeat) so while Twitter buzzy, the numbers catching up. The SA graphic sets the stall for the Web's next turf battle - your mobile phone.  Indeed, the war began years ago but mobile power now allows cool stuff in your pocket, all the time. My wise Grandmother recalled the family's car - a horse named Bessy. The idea talking to anybody from anywhere - totally bonkers, though she accepted these things gamely.  Inside ten years my guess that PCs and notebooks - at least as we know them - obsolete. The advantage to applications that cross platforms seamlessly.  Jim is all over this for Google and I would not bet against him. Still the future wide open - Google turned 11 this year while Facebook launched in 2004. Soon, as Luke Nosek who founded PayPal and invested in Facebook, once told me: "one day, all search will be 100% personal." If this turns true, Facebook may one day surprise Google.  Or maybe it will be somebody else, working in her parent's garage instead of going to business school. Or college. Hope so.

Monday, December 28

Blackfriers Bridge

Black Friers bridge, pictured, opened in 1769 after nine-year's effort; it was the third crossing, supplementing the ancient London Bridge dating from several centuries before, and Westminster Bridge. Initial shoddy work, followed by many extensive repairs and a good deal of 'patching-up' - which continues today as we can see - required a new-build and officially (re)opened by Queen Victoria one century later. Yes, Portland stone. The gun-metal grey building at the bridge's terminus is Ludgate House or home of United Business Media while the tall one the Shell Centre (Por..t ..l..and .. stone).

At the photo's bottom, the small barge-like thingy has always been a curiousity as I have observed it in various locations on the Thames. The signage gives it away: "I eat garbage."

Katie and I go to the hot yoga then home for dinner where I make that tried-and-true recipe: rice and beans (thank you, Eric). The kids decide to do a "sleep out" in Katie's room so they drag their buddies to the third floor and spread them across the floor. They also bring other crap until I say: "Enough!" which gets the usual why-do-you-have-to-spoil-our-fun and all that. Upstairs I overhear Stephen Fry read Harry Potter and I hope he got paid - 67 CDs and all wonderful. How Fry keeps his enthusiasm through seven volumes beyond me. Katie also reads the Shakespeares one of her Christmas presents: "The Hobbit" by Tolkein, which Eitan and I discuss walking to the football pitch. We agree it would be pretty cool to live in a tidy hole in a shire in The Midlands somewhere. Though the pipe would have to go.

Eitan, listening to the BBC radio news: "The world is a bad place, mostly."

Me: "Do you know what small talk is?"
Me: "It is when I try to talk to a dude even though I don't really care what he is saying."
Eitan: "Well, there is a difference between small talk and pestering."

Me: "You will do your chores today."
Eitan: "Do you really think anyone in the Premiere League had to do chores when they were a kid?"

1:03PM and no sign of Katie.

Sunday, December 27

Model Train

On Richard Hammond we watch, stunned, a World Record attempt for longest miniature train rail.  In this instance we go for a replication of the now defunct 'Atlantic Coast Rail' also fondly known as the 'Ocean Express' connecting Waterloo station and seaside resorts in the south west. The Ocean Express ran from 1926 to 1964; at its peak it included coaches for nine separate destinations. These were mostly steam engines and the distance, like, over 100 miles.  And now it comes back to life for those suffering the savant syndrome  and we, the viewing public. Every now and then I am reminded: "this is England."  Thousands of volunteers lend Richard assistance while we kids watch mesmerised ("Can you believe this, Dad?" Eitan asks).  The day of the attempt looks like rain (been here before, oh boy).  Since Waterloo a tad too busy, our beginning Barnstable.  Five .. four... three.. two.. one... the train goes 20 yards and .. stops.  Hammond keeps it together while several worried middle-aged men huddle over the toy.  Oh, yes -- we are on the wrong track.  Since Britain, there is redundancy and our trains should have been .. on the other track.   And we are off.  Village people turn out waving local and England flags.  At the terminus some strange dudes in kelts play wind pipes - the oldest, looking at his watch, points out: "it is about a hair past a freckle. We will see you at the pub."  During the meanwhile our train chugs through fields, over rivers and passes via (cheering, gay) towns.  In front of the petite engine, an official dude greases the rail grooves while others, mostly men, follow in all seriousness - they are not allowed to touch the train, you see, or WR disqualified. Sadly, the effort goes kaput at Instow at 11PM.  The show ends on a certain, er, downer. Hammond dodges gallantly noting the English enthusiasm and all that. Some went without sleep for 24 hours. Me, I know the sad truth: founder of the steam engine and once owner of the world's greatest train network, Britain today cannot do a model set. Ah, but what a try -- the attempt alone world class.

Me: "Can you you give us an example of 'subtle'?"
Katie: "If I said, 'you stink' or 'wouldn't you love a bath?'"
Madeleine: "Well, the first one is a complement."
Me, Katie:
Madeleine: "I mean, the first one is a complement for a kid."

Eitan: "Once, when we were learning about the food pyramid, Mrs. A asked what a carbohydrate is."
Eitan: "And Oscar said it is something to do with cardboad.'

Saturday, December 26

Hampton Skates

We have tickets to ice skate at Hampton Palace and go early thinking the Royal Grounds open to the public. Fat chance, Boxing Day (Starbucks rule: if Starbucks closed, everything closed) so we stroll along the Thames, pictured, killing time and burning the Shakespeares' energy.  We are west of the Teddington Lock so the river no longer tidal yet it flows eastward. I will need to think about that one.  Sonnet opens her tote bag to a picnic of leftover goose and gravlox and we watch the the sun go down at 3:30PM munching away on a picnic bench. God bless Sonnet.  By five the temperature winter-like and everybody in the mood .. to get the afternoon over with.  But happily on the ice rink the vibe shifts towards fun and soon we are having a family time - Katie an expert on blades while Eitan jumps into the mix. Very different then before.  Madeleine holds back and inches around the rink ever mindful of her safety, the wall. At first, even Auntie Katie cannot pry her loose, poor dear. After a half-hour, though, off she goes, the little trooper, and I am way proud.  This what I am used to.

BD 09

Boxing Day. A serious holiday in England and the Common Wealth. It has nothing to do with boxing anything BTW. Instead, the name derives from a tradition of giving seasonal gifts, on the day after Christmas, to less wealthy people and social inferiors, which was later extended to various workpeople such as labourers and servants. It may date to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin unknown and some claim it goes back to the late Roman/early Christian era. In modern times it certainly became a custom of the nineteenth century Victorians for tradesmen to collect their 'Christmas boxes' or gifts in return for good and reliable service throughout the year on the day after Christmas. A banker's bonus.  Now it is all about the Christmas shopping sales - similar to that Friday following Thanksgiving.  Go. Go! Go!! As far as I know, Boxing Day the only named official British holiday after Christmas Day and Easter Friday.  Monday a righteous Bank Holiday and thus begins a three day week-end.  The kids half-way into Disney's "Herbie: Fully Loaded." Life is a beach.

Sonnet to Eitan (surrounded by bread crumbs and face covered in jam):  "You are turning into a ripe old slob. I hope this no indication of your teenage years."

Eitan: "This is the first time in our life that we are allowed to watch television, and everything, without permission. We are taking advantage of it."

Monty bites Madeleine, who shrieks and cries for half an hour. I search the WWW for rabies.

12:29PM and no sign, yet, of Auntie Katie.

National Treasures

Stan and Silver get me a wonderful coffee-table cover "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" for Xmas, which Sonnet reads now as I drink coffee and Madeleine paints walnuts. Alaska and California each have eight National Parks, the most in the United States. There are also State Parks and Monuments and here is the difference: a National Park a reserve of land, usually, but not always, declared and owned by a national government, protected from most human development and pollution. The world's largest National Park is the Northeast Greenland Natrional Park, which was established in 1974. State Parks are decided by the state while a Monument similar to a National Park except that the President can quickly declare an area to be a national monument without the approval of Congress. National monuments receive less funding and protections.

Now I must give credit where credit is due: 43 did a service to our Great Nation by adding seven National Parks (from 52) including the National World War II Memorial (5/29/2004), African Burial Ground National Historic Site (2/27/2006) and the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (4/23/2007).  He also redesignated another five, including the Great Sand Dunes NM and Congaree Swamp NM which became Great Sand Dunes National Park and Congaree National Park and,in 2002, the renamed Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, GA, where Sonnet's uncle Shelton the President and CEO where he raised over $100 million before retirement several years ago.

If we had all the money in the world (if had hit) Sonnet and I day-dream of spending one year visiting the the Nation's beauty. Eitan and Madeleine have a stamp book, straight from the 1950s, where one may check off each  visited national landmark. What a cool accomplishment, that. Another trip, which I contemplated for Sonnet's 40th, an architectural tour beginning in Chicago.  And for me: one season of baseball, following a team (preferably a winning team so not my hometeam, the Oakland A's) across the country. Maybe the Yankees. Or St Louis.  Wow.  Parents, friends and family - join us so stay tuned. Keep working, baby. Keep working.

The building behind me in the photo BTW is Tower 42, or the NatWest Tower. Seen from above, the tower closely resembles the NatWest logo or three chevrons in a hexagonal arrangement. This kinda like the Citicorp tower in NYC which is shaped like the Number One - for the US's largest and most importantest bank. No more.

Friday, December 25

Gherkin, Dude

The Swiss Re building, affectionately known to everybody in London as "The Gherkin," located at 30 St. Mary Axe tower and opened in 2004. At 40 stories or 180 meters, it is London's first environmentally sustainable tall building. The windows, for instance, allow natural ventilation to supplement the mechanical systems. You know- those little hook thingies that let you raise them. The landmark London skyscraper -- which reminds me every time of San Francisco's TransAmerica Tower -- designed by Norman Foster and was confirmed sold on February 5, 2007 for over £600 million to a group formed of IVG Immobilien AG of Germany and Evans Randall of Mayfair. Swiss Re on the top floors while the rest, I believe, vacant so somebody losing their shirt.

I worked right next door for a time in Bury House helping Paul raise some dough for his tech-company ShipServ; ShipServ provides supply logistics to the shipping industry and doing something like a million transactions a month.  I helped Paul secure £5.5 million, if memory serves, in 2002 which was like squeezing water from a brick .. rock.  Today the company jams and Paul remains CEO while I started Trailhead Capital which, I like to say in these difficult times, "the rock of Gibraltor." Yep, that would be me and my voice mail.

How the Gherkin got its nick-name:
"At the moment it looks as though London seems to be turning into an absurdist picnic table - we already have a giant gherkin, now it looks as if we are going to have an enormous salt cellar."
-- Prince Charles comments on Renzo Piano's 1000ft 'Shard of Glass' London Bridge Tower in 2003

The Monument

In The City we stop at The Monument, a tower remembering the fire. The Latin inscription, cut in portland stone, translated to bronze which I repeat, in its entirety, below:

"In the year of Christ, 1666, in the 2nd of September, at a distance Eastward of this place of 202 feet, which is the height of this column, a fire broke out in the dead of the night, which, the wind blowing, devoured even distant buildings, and rushed devastating through every quarter with astonishing quickness and noise.  It consumed 89 churches, gates, the guildhall, public edifices, hospitals, schools, libraries, a great number of blocks of buildings, 13,200 houses, 400 streets of the 26 wards, it utterly destroyed 15, and left 8 mutilated and half-burnt. The ashes of the city, covering as many as 465 acres, extended from one side of the tower along the bank of the Thames to the Church of the Templars, on the other side north-east gate along the walls to the head of the fleet-ditch. Merciless to the wealth and estates of the citizens, it was harmless to their lives, so as throughout to remind us of the final destruction of the world by fire the havoc was swift.  A little of time saw the same city most prosperous and no longer in being. On the third day, when it had now altogether vanquished all human counsel and resource, at the bidding, as we may well believe of heaven, the fatal fire stamped its course and everywhere died out.
 *But borish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched (these last words were added in 1681 and deleted in 1830)

Sonnet to Madeleine: "Please snip some thyme for me (in the backyard)"
Madeleine: "I am just your slave."
Sonnet: "Sometimes."

Madeleine gets me a skull and bones for Christmas; she: "The great thing about it is that you can paint it whatever colour you want."

Tower Bridge

We cross the majestic river while my photo facing east towards Tower Bridge; to the left, the peaks of Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs three miles upriver.  London is a good walk, too - each neighborhood's history remembered in brick, stone or metal.  Our route begins at the Tate Modern, then Millenium Bridge to the Wren Cathedral. From there, Cheapside (where the Great Fire began) and the Bank of England followed by Lloyds of London and the Swiss Re Gherkin, the Sir Francis Drake and finally The Globe.  All this inside two hours. It is a perfect day for a walk - cold and clear with plenty of moisture in the air. No sane Englishman to be seen Christmas Day though we bump into Italians and Japanese, who photograph pigeons (I have never understood this).

In the second half of the 19th century, the East End's development demanded a new river crossing downstream from London Bridge (where I take this picture). A traditional fixed bridge could not be built because it would cut off access to the port facilities in the Pool of London, between London Bridge and the Tower of London.  A Special Bridge or Subway Committee was formed in 1876 to oversee a solution - they opened the design to a public competition similar to, say, The Freedom Towers in NY. 50 plans submitted, including one from architectural hero Sir Jospeph Bazalgette who built, like, everything of great importance during the Victorian era.  All sorts of controversy ensued (also like NY), and it was not until 1884 that a design submitted by Horace Jones, the City Architect (who was also one of the judges), was approved.

So finally construction started in 1886.  Eight years, five contractors, 432 construction workers and - voila! - the bridge done: two massive piers of 70,000 tons of concrete sunk into the riverbed supporting 11,000 tons of steel which, in turn, provide the framework for the towers and walkway. This clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone to protect the underlying steelwork and to give the bridge a rather pleasing appearance. Total construction cost: £1,184,000 (sources: "Cross River Traffic" by Robert Chris, 2005; "Tower Bridge" Archive- The Quarterly Journal for British Industrial and Transport History; The Times)

And more: the bridge is 800 feet whose towers 213 feet high, built on piers. The central span of 200 feet between the towers split into two equal bascules or leaves, which can be raised to an angle of 83 degrees to allow river passings including Michael Jackson. The bascules, weighing over 1,000 tons each,  counterbalanced to minimize the force required and allow raising in five minutes. The two side-spans are suspension bridges, each 270 feet long, with the suspension rods anchored both at the abutments and through rods contained within the bridge's upper walkways. The pedestrian walkways are 143 feet above the river at high tide (Source: "Tower Bridge" Archive- The Quarterly Journal for British Industrial and Transport History).

Katie: "That Habitrail is complex."

Christmas Massacre

Ok, Ok, Okay - the goose about to be cooked. In our house, it is a 10-pounder or "a rather modest bird" my wife says.  Sonnet sticks her hand in the goose's, er, ass and pulls out the accompanying gizzards and fat, which takes a moment to appreciate: "foie gras!" which she now fries up for buttered toast.  I live my life between foie gras.  Meanwhile the living room a bomb fall-out and the Shakespeares ignore my reasonable request to clean it up before dinner time - in unison "yeah, right, Dad."  They are glued to the television.  They stuff themselves with chocolate. They refuse to go outside.  I do what every dad does at this point: bail.  Katie and I head for the Tate Modern and a walk.  Everything closed - everything, including the trains and Starbucks. The trains no surprise but Starbucks?

Eitan whistles: "Mo-om. Will you come here please? Mo-om - can you come here now?! Mo-om why aren't you listening to me?"

Christmas in London

Bang! Like a starting blast Eitan in our room at 6AM. "Go away" I mumble. Even Sonnet ignores the boy until he turns on all the lights.  If I had a shoe, I would throw it at him.  He goes back into his room to wait it out; I get up to turn off the lights. Repeat at 7AM. Repeat at 7:30AM.  Finally we agree: 8AM and all is "go."  Madeleine wanders in and gets into bed to curl up with Sonnet.  Both kids nervously raise Auntie Katie (Madeleine: "Is she asleep?" Eitan: "I don't think so." Madeleine: "You go." Eitan: "No, you go." Madeleine: "Dare you." Eitan: "Double dare you" and so it goes).

Finally their moment arrives and we assemble in the living room with plenty of coffee. The Shakespeares tear into their gifts leaving a full-carnage in the wake.  Madeleine gets a Habitrail extension from Auntie Katie while Eitan thrilled by his Manchester United shirt, flag and table (thank you Natasha!).  Both scream over the Harry Potter box set and euphoric with Madagascar II, Escape From Africa and The Muppets Christmas Carol Movie and Christmas Buddies about a bunch of dogs which I have blogged before. Unwatchable if over ten. Having Auntie Katie here is our present to her and hers to us. Thank you everybody who sent their warm wishes or presents and thoughts. We appreciate you.

Sonnet listens to Rigoletto and the kids assemble toys - Eitan knee deep in his Republic Attack Shuttle Lego kit (I duck his attempts to draw me into that sink hole).  Katie and I jog Richmond Park and we settle into a day of movies and .. nothing. Peace.

Eitan: "Here, Mom and Dad, is your presents from me.  I got them from my room."

Sonnet: "Can we be out of pepper?"
Sonnet: "This family goes through so much pepper. I re-fill the pepper mill on a weekly basis."

Eitan, triumphantly: "This is the best Christmas ever!"

Sonnet: "Why don't you spend the rest of the day doing your chores, home work and Kumon"
Eitan and Madeleine ensemble: "Nooo!"
Me: "Sonnet, you rascal! I am the one that always winds them up."

Madeleine: "Why did Piglet smell?"
Madeleine: "Because he was playing with poo."

Thursday, December 24

Cranberry Mousse And Martini

Sonnet makes a cranberry mousse which, she says, "is a vintage recipe from the Gourmet Cook Book, circa 1962. Stan and Silver used to serve it at their dinner parties."  For Christmas Eve, this evening, she also prepares gravlox which is salmon brined in salt, sugar, dill and vodka - perfect for bagels, which has become our tradition the Night Before. Tomorrow, goose.  I make Katie a proper martini which is prepared as thus: everything frozen, including glass and olives (if used). Pour a few drops of dry Vermouth into proper martini glass, swirl once, dispense.  Then vodka (ideally from potatoes, like the Russians), straight from freezer, straight from bottle (the idea of shaking over ice absurd).  The liquid should be nicely viscous (80-proof vodka freezes at approximately -26.95C; 100-proof vodka will freeze at approximately -40.43C).  Ideally there are thin bits of ice - since water freezes at a higher temperature, the proof increases with the ice. The glass should be filled to brim for increased surface area which receives the vapors. In my drink, this a lemon peel sharply twisted then dragged along the edge. Perfecto. Olives, in my opinion, the inferior choice though Katie and many swear by them. They are a bartender's trick to displace volume. Olive brine for a "dirty" or "dusty" martini another horreur but to each his - or her - own.

I listen, as I blog here, to Diane's Christmas CD, which she produced some years ago to raise money for charity.  Diane has recently moved from Albany, where she was the morning anchor for Fox News, to South Carolina where she informs a bigger audience - a Top 30 market, in fact.

"The martini: the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet."
--H. L. Mencken


The boy and I stand, in the rain, for our Christmas goose. Same as it ever was.  Our local chop good and butcher Dave scores us tickets to the Fulham matches. He also cuts a good joint. Gruesome but waddyagonnado? Otherwise us dads stamp our feet in the cold and eyeball the line's progress.  I tell Eitan to get me the papers and himself some "match attacks" which excites him considerably.  That and the £20 note he palms ("change, please" I command). Eventually the rain/sleet so miserable I begin to wonder if dangerous as Eitan turns blue; Sonnet arrives in a nick of time to spirit him away. Ah, yes, we do have our traditions. 

Wednesday, December 23

Another View Of Richmond Park

I take this photo near the Isabelle Plantation.  We bump into a couple with a pair of black labradors, which are beautiful dogs.  Katie and I told that black labs the best of the breed while brown and golden labs are "bred insanity."  Because of their personality, they get injured often and small surgeries can cost thousands of pounds. I did not know. Also, we are told, a lab nor any big dog, should walk its first six months of life. This to allow their joints and stuff to set before burdening them with weight. Otherwise the poor things suffer arthritis or other similar ailments.  This makes me think of my running which was injury-free until 33 then - wham! - every one in the book: achiles tendinitis, planter fasciitis, lower back, sciatica and so on and so forth.  Like a dog, my body not inclined for high-mileage in middle-age which is too bad since my ambition the marathon.  

But back to the black labs- Madeleine wants one. I want one. And we came pretty damn close over the summer with the house and all. Our problem the 9 to 3, or when the house empty while the Shakespeares in school.  And holidays - kenal costs £25 a day and that adds up.  Maybe one day yet.

Madeleine watches the home decoration channel. Me: "Why on earth are you watching that?"
Madeleine shrugs: "I don't know."

Upper Pen Pond

Katie and I go for a stroll in Richmond Park and I take my camera.  Good day for pictures, too, since the snow dusting.  The Upper Pen Pond, pictured, frozen.  Flints from the Mesolithic period found here, which is pretty cool all things considered.  I can see the sabre tooths and wooly mamoths roaming about.  The origin of the Upper Pond may be a smaller 1636 pond (Lower Pen Pond was maybe the main gravel pit in the park -  there being several such pits - some now ponds). Both Pen Ponds possibly assumed their present form at the end of 17th century, when known as "The Canals" though who knows whay? The ponds drained in the Second World War because they formed a landmark for the Luftwaffe. Water pumped from Pen Ponds feeds the Main Stream in the Isabella Plantation.

All this about the pond makes me investigate the park. During King Edward's (1272-1307) reign this area known as the 'Manor of Sheen' and we, of course, East Sheen.  The name chaged to Richmond during Henry VII.  In 1625 Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague and turned it into a park for red and fallow deer which he and his compatriots hunted for sport. The King's decision, in 1637, to enclose the land was most unpopular with the locals, but Charles did allow pedestrians the right of way, God bless.  The walls remain BTW and paralleled by the toe path, which I often run.  Today Richmond Park the smallest National Park in the UK but the biggest park in London. Weird factoid: All houses backing on to the park pay a feudal fee known as "Richmond Park Freebord" ranging from £2 to £200 per annum. Go figure.

Katie catches me up on her business, The Op-Ed Project, which is going great guns and employing a number of staff and over 60 volunteers.  More to come.  

Madeleine: "Can I have a Jammie Dodger?"
Me: "What do you think I am going to say?"
Madeleine: "No, like you always do."
Madeleine: "But it is the holidays. And you said we can have anything for the holidays."
Madeleine: "Seriously, Dad. You said you can never say 'no' to me."
Me: "Ok, have a Jammie Dodger."

The Day Before The Day Before Xmas

Katie arrives and Eitan and I greet her at Heathrow.  The flight delayed and the queue at Border Control nets a couple of hours before little 'sis pops up.  During this interval, which is well past the boy's bedtime, Eitan fades into various moods of euphoria, fatigue, giddiness and silliness.  (Surprisingly) grumpiness not on the list.  We entertain ourselves with numbers games (times-tables and divisions), thumb-wrestling and singing (to the amusement of the Pakis who also await their travelers).  Eitan realises he wears pajama tops ("Aw, Dad -- this is so silly of me"). 

I fascinate myself with various shapes and forms before us - following the long-haul flight, I appreciate, most not their best still it strikes me how unattractive the human race.  All this money spent on botox and make-up or clothes - better in the bank. Yet there is beauty in the masses: families unite, lovers squeeze and friends whoop.  

Eitan and I check out the older dude with white beard, skinny tie, with cane and unsmoked pipe (Eitan: "He is definitely a spy or something"). Or the Japanese with tight black trousers, funky trainers and shiny faux-down jacket, purple of course.  His hair a gelled mess. Cool. I scope the outliers - younger women with chop-stick legs, painted jeans and high-heels; usually with scarf thrown across chest and casual make-up.  Greeted by drivers or boyfriends - where to?  I make a final point of reviewing glasses - yes, my vanity.  I have been four eyes since 1986 and interesting how specs change.  I love my Buddy Holly blacks.

Eitan: "Ew, Dad! I can see the dandruff in your hair!" (Very loudly)
Eitan: "You look awfully silly in that hat."
Eitan: "You arae going bald, you know."
Eitan: "What is taking that woman so long?"

Tuesday, December 22


The boy and I horse around this early morning.  He in his new pajamas, which makes for joy, while both kids as much television as they wish+no bedtime - holidays, after all.  Last night I find Eitan sound asleep over his book, lights on, 11PM.  Good on him.   

Thankfully today the darkest day of the year and we can now work towards the summer solstice.

Here is why the English think Americans nuts:  "When people doubt me, it gives me huge motivation.  I want to show that I can achieve things they consider impossible.  The first time it was the teacher at school, but now I trawl the internet looking for anyone else who doesn't think I am going to cut it.  The more negative they are, the more determined -- and the more certain -- I am to do it.  And you know what? If I have an ambition in my mind, whatever it is, nothing is going to stop me. Nothing."  Bring it on, baby! This the US I know and love and the quote from Michael Phelps who is in Manchester following the a US-European dual meet.  As we have seen recently and forever, putting our sports heroes on pedestals begs for disappointment.  I think Phelps may be different. Firstly, having grown up in a pool, I recognise his wacko temperament and willingness to train five, six, seven hours a day.  Redemption comes via PBs or, in Phelps case, medals.  As for drugs, other then Mary Jane, Phelps progression persistent vs. dramatic. 

Phelps' parents divorced at his early age, and from the beginning he was "difficult" due to ADHD.  The pool became a safe haven and likely burned off extra energy while focusing his mind.  This what I recall - no room for anything else, really. A nice tunnel through those teen-age years.

What I like about Phelps, beyond everything: he may be psycho but there is no psychobabble. Phelps states his intentions and delivers.  Bam! Who would have ever thought eight gold medals - pow!  He put it on the table - and boy was I screaming and hollering at the TV when he stole the 100 meter butterfly from Milorad Cavic on the last stroke. Bam! Pow! The dude does not quit.  And now he focuses on 2012.  I will most definitely be there.

"People say that I have great talent, but in my opinion excellence has nothing to do with talent.  It is about what you choose to believe and how determined you are to get there.  The mind is more powerful than anything else."
--Michael Phelps

Sunday, December 20


We go to Kingston to return some party glasses at John Lewis.  The parking garages full and we are forced to walk a long ways to get to the department store. Meanwhile I endure a lower form of human being stuffed inside too-tight jeans exposing fast-food derriers, elevated by grotesque brown, worn, high-heeled knee-highs into which trousers stuffed.  The blokes equally horrific and everybody smokes, like, right next to me.  How the population changes outside Mayfair or Knightbridge and suddenly I appreciate why Central London property prices so high.  The thing is, without London, there is .. nothing.  In my Internet days or now, it is easy to get excited about setting up a business in W1, an enthusiasm which deflates proportionally from the Capital. I have been to Birmingham and Ipswich and Swindon and Slough.  Just the name "Slough" makes me cringe. Who would ever risk something there?

So Kingston, which is not all that bad, I suppose.  The city on the majestic Thames, after all, where it offered the first upstream crossing from London Bridge.  The area once occupied by Romans and later a royal residence.  There is record of a council from 838. All good history.  There are two fabulous state secondary schools - Tiffin School and Kingston grammer.  Kingston mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086, which perhaps forecasts today: one giant shopping mall.  Visitors drive from near and far for the brands, especially Boxing Day when JL slashes prices by 70% to clean its colon of inventory along with the rest of the holidays bloated High State. The queues all the way to the A3. But why wait for the mark-downs? Today these Brits flush: junk, junk, junk they buy like the instant soup maker or turbo espresso machine. There is an ice crushing thingy and a chrome vegetable masher.  All this crap slammed down on the John Lewis credit card and to hell with our consumer debts. A young cashier tells me the chain has set record sales the last two weeks, "surprising everybody" she gushes.  Indeed.

Yes, today's visit wears on me. The traffic. Lack of parking. Grotesque, damp, housing estates and faux fat Santas with advertisements flashing on their cardboard sleigh. Christmas carols belt too loudly down the main street.  It is just .. so .. American.  I spend the rest of the afternoon indoors, under the covers, reading the Times. Now what is that Tiger Woods up to?

Madeleine: "I still got that thing that I got."
Me: "Can you be a little more specific?"
Madeleine: "I still have that thing that I got."

Eitan, during dinner: "Can I have an after-snack?"
Me: "What is an 'after-snack''?"
Eitan: "It is a snack after dinner but before desert."
Me: "Congratulations. You should start a company with that idea and make lots of money."

Eitan gets a thimble glass and pours himself several glasses of ginger-ale: "Look, I am so drunk!"

Eitan: "Do you still think Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world?" 
Me: "Yes."
Eitan: "So why is he in so much trouble then?"
Me: "Because he got caught lying to his family and gambling and drinking and smoking cigars and having sex with women he should not have been having sex with."
Eitan: "You mean he smokes?"

Unexpectedly I toss an ice cream bar to Eitan. He: "Gee, it must really be Christmas."

Saturday, December 19

The Turks And Copehagen Failure

I take Eitan to see The Turks for a haircut.  He protests loudly but I tell him "it is my way or the hard way," an expression I learned from Eric.  I then bribe him with the Manchester United v. Fulham game.  Eitan's hair his one place of concord and usually I let it be despite Sonnet's frequent protests that he should, at least occasionally, wash it. So here we are, at the barber, who actually asks: "do you comb your hair?" which, really, needs to be heard with his accent. Both he and Eitan suffer as The Turk drags his comb through the rat's nest.  Madeleine, beside me, squirms: "I don't think he's really liking it, Dad" she notes privately.   We want the boy to look good for Auntie Katie (she arrives Tuesday).  

Somehow Eitan's hair smoothed enough for a few clips and Mission Accomplished.  Wish I could say the same for Copenhagen, which serves up a bagel despite 119 heads of state in attendance - the largest-ever United Nations gatehering of leaders and governments - and further representation bringing the figure to 193 Nation member countries. In  the end they agree to "take note" of the non-binding Copenhagen Accord.  Milk toast. Here is what we, the planet's citizens, get: $100 billion of annual fundraising commitments by 2020 to help poor countires adapt to global warming.  Developing countires will involve themselves in a climate change pact with stated emission-reductions accords, but not legally binding (hello, China and India, you beautiful gluttons of coal). There is no plan to renew the Kyoto Protocal which has accounting, compliance and reporting measures built into its structure.  As for targets, industrialised and developing countries will list their pledges by Jan 31, 2010 while developing countries must communicate their efforts to "limit" greenhouse emissions every two years.  This is sorta like asking Eitan to monitor his "Carmel Chew Chew."  Or trusting Madeleine and Kumon.  In the grandest understatement of the week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon states: "It may not be everything we hoped for, but this decision of the Conference of Parties is an essential beginning." We're toast, dude.

Madeleine: "Dad, have you ever got vegetables from Santa?"
Madeleine: "Not even when you knocked down the Christmas tree when fighting with Auntie Katie?"

Holiday Rules And More Sponge Bob

Saturday morning and it feels like holidays.  Outside below freezing and a sprinkling of snow on the ground following yesterday's storm that jammed the grid and brought the M20 to a standstill for, like, seven miles. Poor bastards.  The Eurostar also stops.  With people on it, who spend 12 hours in the tunnel between England and France. They were asked not to breathe deeply in order to conserve oxygen. Again, poor bastards. Leave it to the French.  Adding to the festive spirit, the children have their last school where they watch movies .. all week, making them and the teachers happy, I am sure.  Both groups deserve their reward, working hard inside an allotment of public resources, and doing a damn fine job.  Ours one of Britain's best primaries.  Eitan and Madeleine may not learn Latin or Mandarin, as the nearby privates, but theirs a happy bunch and I always enjoy the good vibe at the drop.  They are keen to learn. So the holidays .. and the rules. I tell the Shakespeares they may stay up as late as they want and watch television until their eyeballs swell. The little mouths drop: "Really, Dad? Are you fooling?" in unison. I also indicate unlimited junk food and point to the fridge which contains four containers of "Carmel Chew Chew," ice cream bars and those yummy frozen ice cream cones with a bit of chocolate on the bottom.   Sonnet rolls her eyes.  

In photo: Eitan watches "Sponge Bob Square Pants" and, while completely beyond me, is (begrudgingly) funny.  Today's episode sees Sponge Bob capturing Plankton, a plankton, who has a plan to end the world. But then Sponge Bob accidentally electrocutes him and - poof! - he explodes. It deserves a guffaw but the boy does not raise an eyebrow.

Madeleine and I at toy store Pandemonium. Madeleine: "Dad, do you think this is a good Christmas present?" (she shows me a plastic skull and cross bones).
Me: "Sure. It is a wonderful gift."
Madeleine: "If you were getting it, would you want it?"
Madeleine: "Maybe I will get you something else."

Friday, December 18

2012 Aquatics

This amazing structure, designed by the extraordinary Zaha Hadid, will be the site of the 2012 swimming competition.  As profiled in the New Yorker magazine, Hadid a Baghdad-born, London based architect whose modern designs change their surroundings - and wow.  Yet despite this and her celebrity, Hadid's output small: thirteen structures including the Vitra Fire Station, in Weil am Rehin (1994); a train station in Strasbourg (2001); a ski jump+restaurant in Innsbruck (2002); the Lois and Richared Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati (2003); the Phaeno Science Center, in Wolfsburg, Germany (2005); the BMW Plant Central Building, in Leipzig (2005); and the MAXXI museum in Rome.  And now the pool.

While Hadid's structure spares no cost, London's Olympics won by suggesting the construction of a world class sports center and the regeneration of the city's East End possible without bankrupting the country.  The initial cost-estimate was £2.4 billion.  Fat chance. Anybody who followed the Millenium Dome knows what a good budget in England means: about twice that.  Ken Livingstone famously informed us that the costs of a London Olympics would be 38p per week "the same price as a walnut whip" (whatever that is). The Olympics now stand at £12 billion. Still, this is doggone cheap compared to Beijing which came in at £20 billion, according to The Guardian, though others conservatively suggest $65 billion when the new airport and transportation lines included.  London will be less splashy, accepting the Aquatics Center which becomes the center piece of the show - like the Bird's Nest stadium for China. And to pay for the honour, Londoners incur various surcharges and taxes .. it all adds up.  Closer to home, Livingstone shifted a substantial burden of the Olympics cost on us, Richmond, who - he said - "can afford it." Rat bastard.

I am delighted we are hosting the games. Britain will shine. London will shine. It will be an extravagant month and wholly appropriate for the world's Greatest City.

"I swam my brains out."
--Mark Spitz

Thursday, December 17

Hamsters And A Carol+Alphie Neutered

So here is the hamster update (for anybody who really cares): Monty got out three times including two weeks when I caught her scrambling across the bedroom floor, pitter patter. During the missing, tell tale clues: nuts and wall scratchings.  Foxy now awol for one week and not a trace. I think she's gone.  When Monty disappeared, Madeleine devastated so we got Foxy then Monty found and two hamsters or one for each kid. All good. Then Foxy gone and Monty's cage second to the Habitrail, pictured, so Monty back to the Habitrail from Eitan's room to Madeleine's room. See the problem?  Oh, boy. The simple solution, as I indicate from time to time: "chuck 'em in the street." 

Last night kids carols at the local and Eitan and Madeleine and their school chums belt out Christmas cheer. The teachers, too, dress up in red and colour to serenade us, the parents of the neighborhood.  I try to keep a low profile while Sonnet chats and makes eye-contact with the Shakespeares (Madeleine in particular peeps over rows of uncombed heads).  Between songs,  the chosen read about baby Jesus or the Holy Mary or Bethleham or whatever. Eitan's name probably disqualifies him since otherwise he participates in the "Challenge of the Books" with three others chosen from his year. Jesus was a Jew, wasn't he?  We are entertained by the recorders and, in a coup de grace, the trumpets conclude the evening. Oy, vey.

Madeleine: "Alphie is getting neutered tomorrow."
Me: "Do you know what neuter means?"
Eitan: "It is when they cut your balls off."
Me: "Poor dog, he'll never be the same again, will he?"
Eitan and everybody cracking up: "You said 'willy'!"