Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Times & Travails of Manny

Got out of bed, poured a cup of coffee, added a splash of half & half and looked on unbelievingly as it instantly curdled. Not a good start to my Thursday morning and despite a Christian tongue I did let loose with a few loud “Damn! Titty-Titty, Damn Damns!” Nobody wants to get in the car to drive five miles for more half & half when they’re standing at the kitchen counter in nothing but a pair of ratty shorts at 7:00 A.M.? 

Thirty minutes later a fresh cup of coffee with a splash of good-until-next-month half & half erased my sour temper. 

By anyone’s count it has been much too long since I gave some attention to writing in this blog. Not surprising how practice can easily dwindle away, every day aims becoming once a week goals and soon enough something that was once a week diminishes to an infrequent trickle. I have to hope it isn’t the nature of life in these woods around Old Dixie Lane that has turned my head from spending more time in Scriblets. It prompts the question, what is the nature of life in these woods? 

Manny and Jimmy were barbecuing Mexican sausages across the fence late yesterday before sunset. Back at the edge of the woods where Jimmy’s trailer is set up, it’s nasty to imagine what the mosquitos must’ve been like around their picnic table. Jimmy’s sister, Jean threw him outta the house because she had company coming, told him he could buy a trailer to park out in the backyard. And he did. Then she upped his rent from 400 to 500 a month, her own brother. Since he had that quintuple bypass surgery last summer, and with an assumed prognosis of little time left, he’s busy drinking himself to death, trying to spend the 50,000 in savings he’s got left. Jimmy is a Vietnam vet living off his pension, which seems to do him okay. Thin as a rail, somewhere in his early 60s, I guess. Along those jungle paths back in the day he got shot up and came home with a Purple Heart. Now he smokes funny cigarettes and drinks all day long every day. I don’t see much of Jimmy but sometimes hear his 70s rock booming out of the trailer. Manny says he plays it so loud they can’t hear each other talk inside the trailer, have to go outside and sit in the mosquitos.

Speaking of Jean, about a week ago I walked over with Farina to say hello around 4:30 and stayed until 7:00 sipping on Randy’s nasty Canadian whiskey and ginger ale. Jean sat across from us throwing back Southern Comfort on the rocks. At one point Manny came tooling down the road on his lawn mower pulling a baggage cart, come to pick up some laundry Jean had done for him (a bedcover she said later hadn’t been washed in 36 years) and without even the foam off of one beer managed to drive his mower and cart bang into Jean’s car, a broadside to the passenger door. In her state, Jean didn’t give a damn but Manny was discombobulated. Conversation came around to pests in the area and Jean announced she wouldn’t harm a single pink hair on an armadillo’s belly and even enjoyed watching two babies play out in her yard. Two seconds later she told us if she ever got her hands on one of those guys who raise fighting dogs she wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet through his medulla oblongata and walk away like she’d just swatted a fly. Me and the dawg didn’t get home until after dark, treading carefully along the dirt road, eye out for night vipers.

Hard to understand Randy and Jean getting all over Manny for fattening a wild hog in his pen down the road. Not sure how they did it, but they badgered him into letting the hog free, saying it was cruel to pen it up for fattening and eventual death on the chopping block. Wild hogs are popular with hunters in these parts, a delicious meat for the table which is what it’s all about for Manny and his small government pension, barely enough to live on. Missing the point, Randy and Jean tell him if he wants to eat roast pork to go to the supermarket and buy it. Not the first time they’ve freed his catch, last year they sent Jimmy down to Manny’s place when he was gone and let loose another wild pig he was fattening. Well, Jean is a forceful kind of animal lover, but she’s given up on me and the pesky critters. I told her she better make sure those not so cuddly armadillos stay on the south side of the fence because I’ll blast them to smithereens without blinking an eye and go off hunting more of them.

Manny had a roadkill cookout last week but nobody showed up so he was unhappy about that. Walked up here later, grumbling, bringing his insurance guidebook and needing help picking an eye doctor out from the list inside. I looked at the book for ten minutes and told him I couldn’t find any eye doctors, full of dentists, orthodontists and periodontists, without an eye doctor in the bunch. So he took the book on next door to have Jean, a former blood technician study it. Last time Jean drove him to the doctor, the doctor was head down over Manny’s lab report when Jean snatched it out of his hand to get a look at it herself. The doctor told Manny when he was leaving not to bring that woman back again. 

Hallelujah! The county tractor came to mow down the head-high weeds on the verge of our road. Farina had a conniption fit, running up and down the fence line barking her fool head off. We’ve needed those weeds chopped down for a while now. The last time they sent a guy out here who’d never done it before and he drove his ginormous tractor halfway down into the canal and came out of it with a dozen water moccasins coiled around the underside. 

Big mufflers on muscle cars are rumbling hard across the way. Haven't laid eyes on another person today but the air has been seasoned with gunshot and roaring engines, pow! and vroom! all day long. Doesn’t bother me much, all part of the soundscape out here. Distant airplanes, trains, birdcalls, barking, lawnmowers, and who could ignore the goats that at a certain time of day conduct goat talks that sound like recess at the nuthouse.

Life gets serious around here once in a while and there are always a few books to enjoy in the cool of my back porch. A couple of good ones here of late that I’ve given thought to writing about but always falling short in my distraction with dawg, yard or visit from Manny. Here is a list of some recent good reads that have impressed me.




The Bone Collector (1997) by Jeffrey Deaver — This first in a long series featuring forensic criminologist Lincoln Rhyme is surely one of the best and most compelling crime novels ever. It offers a fascinating look into the history of New York City as well as introducing a devilish serial killer pitting himself against a bed-ridden detective.
Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges — A big book of 800 pages about Alan Turing, the man who helped break the Nazi Enigma codes in WW2 and was also the first to conceive of thinking machines (computers). An awful lot of math, logic and physics but nonetheless a satisfying look into the man Turing was and the tragedy of his short life.
The Martian (2014) by Andy Weir — No, not science fiction, but an incredibly convincing tale about a fictional astronaut’s time on Mars. This first novel by a software engineer-space hobbyist is funny, compelling and believable down to the last tiny piece of space hardware. This one went from blog to Kindle to bestseller to movie deal in a matter of months.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr — A Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award finalist, this one tops my list of books read this year, an exquisitely written story of a young blind girl finding her way through the rubble of WW2. 

Sympathy for the Devil (2015) by Michael Mewshaw — The latest biography of the iconoclastic and prolific writer, Gore Vidal. With such a colorful life to work with, the writer has balanced well both the serious and outlandish sides of his subject. Vidal was a remarkably intelligent man who could turn his words from reason to scandal in the blink of an eye and Mewshaw catches all the colors and shadings.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Gin & Tonic Hitchcock

Take an idea from Alfred Hitchcock—the one about looking in windows—stir in a moderate to heavy mix of paranoia, obsession, loneliness, drunkenness, lying, cheating and self pity, spice it up with a heavy dose of psychological twists, then write it all down. What do you end up with? Well, if you’re an experienced writer and possess a certain skill for plotting, you just might end up with a bestseller that goes through ten printings in three months, selling 1,000,000 copies—and that’s just getting started. 

I live in a very small town with a public library the size of my second bedroom but when I asked to reserve The Girl on the Train, a new book by Paula Hawkins, the librarian said, “Okay. You’re number 338 on the waiting list.” I got lucky though and a week later came across an “express copy” the library circulates without taking reservations. If you can grab it off the shelf before someone beats you to it, it’s yours for two weeks. But I doubt anyone would take that long to read this book.

Readers of The Girl on the Train have been comparing it to Gillian Flynn’s 2012 megahit, Gone Girl. The comparison is understandable but not something that occurred to me at any point in reading the Paula Hawkins book. Gone Girl is a suspense novel and The Girl on the Train is another suspense novel that, like the earlier book uses psychology to build a story. There is a good deal of flashiness in Gone Girl that you will not find in the Hawkins book. And there are a good many things in it that you won’t find in Gone Girl.

Rachel Watson, a thirty-ish woman living in a small village an hour outside of London rides a commuter train every morning at the same time, and at the end of the workday takes the train back to her suburban village. She likes to look out the train windows and observe the doings of people living in the houses along the train’s route. The problem is, she shapes what she sees into romantic imaginings that ultimately become her undoing. Those fantasies aren’t helped by the fact that Rachel is half-drunk most of the time, commuting to a non-existent job, and seriously pining for her ex-husband. Oh, and she also has trouble remembering things, has blackouts and often staggers home mysteriously bloodied. Five pages into the book you already know that Rachel Watson is a mess and heading for worse.

With multiple narrators, non-linear time jumps and the writer juggling so many moving parts, getting into the story was slow for me but as it reached midpoint the suspense took hold. We follow Rachel’s progression, turn the page and are suddenly seeing it through the eyes of the woman she’s watching from the train. Five pages later it’s back to Rachel, and in a sudden switch the story is being told through a third narrator, Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife, Anna. Who is to be believed? Who can we trust? Again I am reminded of the Hitchcock technique. 

In Rachel’s fantasy the woman she sees from the train is named Jess and her handsome and loving husband is Jason. Rachel imagines them living the life of a happy couple, the very life she herself always dreamed until that dream was shattered. One day, Rachel sees from the train the woman kissing someone other than her husband and a part of her fantasy is badly rattled. It appears that Jess, who is really a troubled wife named Megan, is not who she appears to be. This is the first clue that no one in The Girl on the Train is who they appear to be. Jess-Megan disappears and Rachel becomes obsessed with what happened to her. A day or two later the tabloids announce that Megan Hipwell is missing and Rachel realizes it’s “Jess” the woman of her half-drunk fantasies. She becomes desperate to help, to inject herself into the investigation. Meanwhile, she has been late night drunk dialing her ex-husband and sending nasty emails to him. The big complication is that her ex-husband and his wife live just three doors down from the missing woman, in the same house that Rachel lived in when she was married to Tom, her ex. And believe it or not, it gets even more complicated. She goes to the police to tell them what she saw but they dismiss her as an unreliable drunk who can’t stay away.

It is hard sometimes to like or find sympathy with such a flawed character as Rachel Watson, but that can be of no concern to the book’s author for whom Rachel’s discomposure serves to heighten suspense. In Ms Hawkins’ story, preconceptions of who people are and the sense of identity are built upon shifting sands. No one is who they seem to be in this novel. By the end of the book Rachel has become a sympathetic character, someone unimaginable in the book’s first half. It is growth and development like this that earmark the writer.

But don’t take just my word for it. Have a look at what Stephen King tweeted after reading The Girl on the Train… The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect. —January 26, 2015.

Friday, February 27, 2015


From the early 1880s, as Japanese painters began finding their way to Europe and beyond, they brought back to Japan on their return the Western influences that in many ways modernized the Japanese tradition. The practice of careful observation and sketching from nature was ultimately combined with contemporary Western painting practices and led to an innovation in the nihonga style of painting.

One of those who returned from Europe with new ideas was Takeuchi Seihô, considered by many to be a leading modern nihonga painter.

Takeuchi Seihô (1864-1942) was born in Kyoto and even as a boy loved drawing, leaving little doubt he would become an artist. At the age of sixteen he began studying traditional painting with Kôno Bairei, a well-known master of paintings depicting birds and flowers. Two years later, in 1882, two of Takeuchi’s works received awards at a prestigious painting competition and that was enough to launch the young artist’s career. He made a European tour in 1900 where saw the Paris Exposition, visited art schools and made the acquaintance of Western painters. The young man’s greatest impressions came with the work of British painter, J.M.W. Turner and the French, Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot. After his return to Japan Takeuchi developed a style combining the realism of traditional Japanese painting with Western realism as he saw it in the techniques of Turner and Corot. Takeuchi’s new style became one of the principal principal influences in modern nihonga. Though noted for his landscapes, the artist more often turned to drawing animals in amusing poses and it is in those drawings that we see his commitment to capturing sometimes in only a few brushstrokes the essence of his subject.

Easy enough to count the brushstrokes in a drawing that perfectly captures horse and movement.

One in a series of twelve animals from the Zodiac; done sometime in the 1920s, this painting is good example of the artist’s whimsey.

Striking in this large work covering two six-panel screens is the precise anatomy and musculature of the immense animals. Note the monkey perched on the back of one, reaching for the birds in the top left; notice too the eyes of the elephants. Painted in 1904, the work is in black ink on gold paper.

A very different example is the oil painting Suez Landscape painted in 1901 after the artist’s return from Europe. The work is based on a postcard from the collection he gathered while abroad. The influence of Turner and Corot is obvious in this landscape, especially in the palette and the painting of the water.

Most striking in this undated ink and color painting is the use of space. The artist has placed the focus in the lower right, leaving a broad and largely blank space. The red and black in that large space is Takeuchi’s seal and signature. Once more the touch of humor is there with the inquisitive rat.

Simple but impressive watermelon; undated

Seals and signature used by the artist

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Piñata Store & Gardenias

Texans recently looted a demolished piñata store and a woman in Boise, Idaho, was arrested for attempting to convert a Jewish acquaintance by pulling her hair and stepping on her neck, screaming that she accept Jesus. The victim had no alternative but to comply, temporarily.

In a small town north of New Delhi, a 32 year-old Indian woman described as 95 percent genetically male gave birth to twins last week, and in Hong Kong doctors reported the case of an infant diagnosed with fetus-in-fetu after discovering two siblings gestating in her abdomen.

A 1965 poem by Elizabeth Bishop…“Filling Station”

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

English Crime novelist Ruth Rendell once said, “Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”

Rain for most of Tuesday night in Oak Hill. Wednesday came around dry and sunny but chilly until the afternoon. The new gardenia freshly planted on the east end of the carport is flourishing and heavy with buds the size of peanut M&Ms. This past Saturday a longtime Tokyo friend and I passed an hour wandering the aisles at the weekend flea market up the road. She wanted to buy something for the yard and found a gardenia bush she decided would be just right in a spot behind the carport. Home later, we planted it, admiring the number of buds not too far from opening. Gardenias most commonly bloom in spring but I’m not sure we’ve crossed that line yet here in central coastal Florida. Makes me think the gardenia was coaxed along by greenhouse conditions before landing in my yard. I noticed today one bud among the many just starting to show a bit of unfurling white.

Didn’t know until now that gardenias are in the Rubiaceae family, the same as a coffee plant.

K from Tokyo is now recently departed—I pause over the words ‘recently departed’ thinking it might imply death…but then I’m certain it doesn’t always have to carry that meaning. She’s back now at her life and routines in the city I continue to miss particularly. I knew it would happen; when I got home from taking K to the airport, Farina was her usual excited self but seeing only me at the door she ran to the car trying to see inside, to see if K was there. She turned in circles whining, looking back at me, then back to the car and finally barking, as if to say, "Where is K?" I think it took about an hour for her to realize her new friend had gone away. (K gave me the gardenia plant but she gave Farina a whole pumpkin pie.)

I haven’t seen my down the road neighbor, Manny in several days. He called a few days back wanting a ride to the store but K and I were just leaving for a drive into Orlando. I felt bad about not being able to help him out, called him the next day seeing if he still needed a ride but got no answer. Last time we spoke out at the gate I said whenever he was ready I would take him to the social security office for some business he has there. The folks who live across the road from him want to charge him $50 for a ride there but I got the impression he told them to go straight to hell. Where do they come off anyway asking a near penniless and seriously ill old man for $50 to drive him twenty miles up the road? In my opinion, someone needs to pull their hair while stepping on their collective necks and ask them in threatening tones, “What would Jesus do?” Hallelujah Lord, I’m converted! Go get in the car.

Books at my elbow these days are Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, one I’m rereading after seeing the slightly unsatisfying movie version and Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt. I’m also reading a big thing from poet, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) called One Art: Letters. I read somewhere recently that she was an exuberant and delightfully articulate letter writer who once wrote forty letters in one day. A collection of her lifelong letters was selected and edited by Robert Giroux and published in 1994. It sounded like something for my book collection and I got lucky, hitting upon a first edition hardback for a paltry $7.50 from a bookseller in Texas. Less than halfway through now and never a hesitation over the 668 pages ahead.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Library with a Big Mouth

First, due homage to the guys at the source of this post: One of my favorite websites is put together by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras who produce something called Atlas Obscura. Always fascinating, their latest offering includes a page on the secret libraries of Rome. Among those “secrets” The Bibliotheca Hertziana instantly grabbed my attention.

Palazzo Zuccari is a 16th-century building in Rome located near the Spanish Steps at the crossroads of via Sistina and via Gregoriana. The house once belonged baroque painters, Taddeo and Frederico Zuccari who started work on the house in 1590. Two years into construction of the palazzo they decided that both door and windows would be designed as huge gaping mouths, and the ground floor of the house painted in frescoes.

In the early years of the twentieth century a German woman with a love of art arrived in Rome with the idea of establishing a library to encourage research and study of the city’s ancient and modern treasures. Her name was Henrietta Hertz and she came with the support of a wealthy German industrialist who helped to acquire the Palazzo Zuccari situated in the heart of Rome. Hertz began putting together a collection of books on Italian art as a private library. The Bibliotheca Hertziana welcomed its first art historians and research scholars in 1912.

Still owned by the German government, today the library’s collection includes 300,000 books and 800,000 photos on the history of Italian art and architecture. In addition, researchers have access to computers at eighty work stations with a view out over the rooftops of Rome.

The Bibliotheca Hertziana is probably the only library in the world with a front door shaped like a giant mouth, where inside the Bibliotheca Hertziana, visitors step into a modern glass-walled atrium with white marble floors displaying three floors of open-stack shelves. Upon entering the library, the sharp contrast with its entrance and the surrounding architecture is quite the surprise.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Onboard the HMS Beagle

Conrad Martens, self portrait, 1833

Conrad Martens sketchbooks from his voyage with Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle have recently been added to the Cambridge Digital Library. The drawings were done between 1833 and the summer months of 1834. It was on this voyage that the first seeds of Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, were planted.

Conrad Martens (1801–1878) was a London born painter, best known for his landscapes. He trained under prominent watercolorist and teacher, Copley Fielding. In 1832, at the age of 32 Martens joined the ship Hyacinth as a topographical artist. On that voyage while at a stop in Montevideo near the end of 1833 he met Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle and obtained the position of draughtsman, replacing the ship’s artist who was leaving the ship for reasons of illness. One member of the ship’s company was Charles Darwin. The young Darwin was serving as a naturalist and companion to the ship’s captain and during their time together aboard ship he and Martens became lifelong friends. Some critics suggest that it was aboard the Beagle that Martens developed his particular style of artistically imagined but geographically accurate landscape painting. But his time on the Beagle was not long and he left the ship at Valparaiso in the summer months of 1834. His eye has been drawn farther west and he booked passage on a ship sailing to Sydney via Tahiti.

His ship arrived in Sydney in 1835 and the artist remained there for the rest of his life. Captivated by the sea and landscape of Sydney Harbour, he began sketching even as his ship approached the wide harbor. He was fortunate to gain an introduction to members of the gentry in New South Wales and quickly built up a clientele of the social elite. He painted watercolors and oils of their estates as well as landscape views. One of his more famous works is the 1866 watercolor below.

 North Head from above Balmoral, Sydney Harbour; watercolor 1866

A Patagonian Indian, 1834 sketch

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Nature of Emergency

An article in The Japan Times the other day had me laughing again over nutty 911 emergency calls. Funny 911 stories are about as common as lawyer jokes but it’s a good guess that most of us haven’t heard the ones coming out of Japan. Until reading the article in Japan’s English language daily, I naively imagined that most of those oddball “Help” calls came from people in the US. Apparently the same thing goes on in Japan where police have complained that “unsuitable” emergency calls increased between January and November of 2014, raising the number to over two million. According to the National Police Agency non-emergency calls to 110 accounted for 24.3 percent of the total number of calls. Here are a few examples…

One woman called police about there being no toilet paper in a public bathroom. Another caller wanted assistance with a forgotten smartphone password. With Japan being the world capital of roadside vending machines it isn’t too unexpected that at some point a person would call complaining that a vending machine did not return the correct change; in fact, many have. Then there was the caller who must have been on the edge of insanity when he called begging police to PLEASE come and remove an insect from his ear. Never having heard of plumbers, a housewife tried getting police help in unclogging her home toilet, while another caller asked for a police cruiser to be dispatched to clear congested roads allowing her to drive a sick child to the local hospital faster.

Best though that we not point fingers too laughingly at Japan’s weird calls and perceived emergencies. Conceding that I live in a land where alligators and armadillos roam the nights and vehicles with the largest tires have the right of way, luckily, I’ve never had to call 911. But out here you never know what tomorrow holds. Some months back the county Sheriff’s Office contacted me with news that my address had been changed for the sake of 911 calls. Pinpointing my location was the problem. Maybe they’ll be able to find me now should I call asking for help subduing a wild pig.

 Judging from a list I collected, Florida residents seem to dial up 911 for a variety of quirky reasons…    

One man called 911 because he had been splashed by a car driving through a puddle. Another complained of too many onions in his takeout. An outraged woman called because her new rabbit did not have the floppy ears promised in a newspaper advertisement.

In Jacksonville, a man was so peeved when a sandwich shop left the special sauce off his hero that he called 911 twice. The first time to ask if officers could make sure his sandwich was made properly, the second to complain that the police weren’t responding fast enough to his first call. 

Hysterical voice: “My car will not start! I’m locked inside my car and nothing works and it’s getting very hot in here! Plus, I’m not feeling well." The dispatcher suggested pulling up the lock. The woman tried, undoubtedly surprised when the door opened.

Angered that her local McDonald’s was out of Chicken McNuggets, a Florida woman called 911 three times to report the fast food emergency. She called police to complain that a cashier would not give her a refund. When they arrived at the restaurant, the woman told them, “This is an emergency. If I had known they didn’t have McNuggets, I wouldn’t have given them my money, and now she wants to give me a McDouble, but I don’t want one.” She was arrested for misusing 911.

A Sarasota man being followed by police tried to sidetrack the officers by making a fake 911 call. The police car suddenly got a call from dispatch alerting them to an armed robbery happening several blocks away. The plan seemed to work at first when the police car sped off to answer the armed robbery call. Unfortunately for the man, another police car followed him into a parking lot and spotted the gun in his car. After his arrest, officers discovered the bogus 911 call had come from his cell phone.

A couple of funny 911 call transcripts:

Dispatcher: 9-1-1 What is your emergency?
Caller: I heard what sounded like gunshots coming from the brown house on the corner.
Dispatcher: Do you have an address?
Caller: No, I’m wearing a blouse and slacks, why?

Dispatcher: 9-1-1 What is the nature of your emergency?
Caller: I’m trying to reach nine eleven but my phone doesn’t have an eleven on it.
Dispatcher: This is nine eleven.
Caller: I thought you just said it was nine-one-one
Dispatcher: Yes, ma’am, nine-one-one and nine-eleven are the same thing.

Caller: Honey, I may be old, but I’m not stupid.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America