Saturday, January 28, 2012

Social Networking -- in the Local Community

We have lived in our house since 1986 and other than our neighbours on the right have met very few people from our neighbourhood in that time.  I am not entirely sure why that is -- other than 'keeping ourselves to ourselves' as some tend to do. We live only a few blocks from the town centre and many of the houses on our street have been turned into flats and bedsits and there is a very high turnover. But there are also several single family dwellings and in all that time there has only been one occasion when I met anybody from our block and that was our neighbours  barbecue one summer evening a long time ago. I  think last night that may, thankfully, have changed because we met a whole bunch of people!

A few weeks ago we received an invitation to attend a 'Home Watch' meeting to be held on the 26th of January at 7.30 p.m. Both The Man and I have long felt it would be a good idea to have a 'Home Watch' group as from time to time there has been trouble -- Once there was an armed robbery in a nearby supermarket and the man had run from his car when the bag of money spewed forth pink smoke in front of our house. It was quite a shock for us to look out our front window and see an armed policeman standing in front of our gate! (Fellow Americans, this is England and armed police are still not the order of the day!) More than once the police helicopter has hovered over our street in the middle of the night searching for suspicious characters. And then there are Saturday night drunks -- men and women -- mostly young -- swearing and screaming obscenities as they made their way home at 4 in the morning! One night fire we heard a terrible commotion and looked to see flames pouring out from the windows of one of the  houses across the street -- we stood mesmerized as the fire engines screamed to attention. Though things have quietened down for us the past couple of years, we have always worried a bit during the summer when our house has been empty during the annual French sojourn. Most years either one of our boys has remained behind and taken care of things and last year we managed to rent it out for 6 weeks.

We arrived at our host's home and the room was brimming with people. Several of them had been part of a Home Watch group for several years but there were just as many of us 'newcomers'. The room was a-buzz with excitement and after tea and coffee were served by our hostess we settle down to introductions and discussion. As talk went on we discovered to our amazement that four or five houses down the street there was a big problem house of flats. Drugs, arson, disreputable people and lots of suspected illegal activity. In addition there were problem children -- one boy in particular, aged 11.

Two young women seemed to have taken charge of contacting officialdom and had already made several contacts. One woman, who we already knew, had had lots of problems as she her place was next door to the problem house. One of the big problems that emerged was the inability of the police to do anything effective when there was an emergency. Once when she called because she smelled smoke through a fire wall, the 999 responder told her not to worry that she had an hour before the fire would get to her house...

A couple from a block or so away advised that they got action after they had contacted our Member of Parliament. His office is not far from our neighbourhood and we have found that various problems with officialdom have been solved when he gets involved -- and with other locally elected officials 'stick their oar in' as well. We are hoping to be able to get people from the police and Home Watch as well as our MP to come to future meetings. In the meantime we have been advised to:

  • Keep a diary of all incidents and to record the date and time
  • If we call the police or other emergency people, get the log number from the person to whom you report the incident.
  • Keep a record of when the police or fire or ambulance respond
While a lot of what we heard was disturbing -- blissful ignorance is a tempting state to want to be in -- it was reassuring to feel part of a community and the realization that people really did want to help each other and to work together to solve the problems that are facing every town in the UK. I left the meeting feeling very positive -- The Man lay awake all night worrying! But then the next day he was out finding out what he could about surveillance cameras for the woman living next door to the problem house. And he said he would even install one for her if no one in her family was handy at that sort of thing.

It was really good to finally meet so many people, some of whom have been living in the area for as long as we have been and all of whom seemed to genuinely want have a real community instead of streets of strangers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Violence and Murder = Entertainment Tonight!

Along with millions of others I was completely enthralled by the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy and its heroine Lisbeth Salander. I confess to being an ardent fan of Scandinavian crime fiction and have devoured the entire Swedish Wallander series by Henning Manning and the Norwegian Jo Nesbo's rather dubious Harry Hole detective thrillers.

Early in January my sister-in-law and I went to the cinema to see the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which had been recently released. I had not seen the 2009 Swedish version of the film, but I had been  told that it was excellent -- with lots of praise going to the actress who played Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace. The last review I'd read on the American film was that it was very well done -- especially if you had not seen the Swedish version.

The American movie is very good and I am glad to have seen it. Broadly speaking, the story in the Millennium Trilogy is one about violence to women and it is at times quite brutal. Lisbeth Salander is a victim of this kind of brutality and her character and her response are what makes the stories so compelling. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo two years ago, and as with almost everything I read, after time my memory of the details of the story was vague. But there were aspects of the story that I really didn't remember at all. I wanted to see the Swedish version of the films so that I could compare the first two and was able to get all 3 for a very good price on Amazon. Last night I watched that version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had not realized that these films were made to be shown on Swedish Television and as a consequence each book in made into two films, each 89 minutes long. The American cinema version is 158 minutes.

In my opinion, both films are good and Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara are each incredible in their performances. Rapace has a colder take on the role -- but it is possible that this is more authentically Swedish -- and the differences are really only 'shades of difference'. At least to me. The Swedish version was definitely closer to the story in the book. Daniel Craig is a more attractive actor but I couldn't say he was better in the part.

I would never have believed how much I would enjoy seeing a woman exact her revenge on a man. It is quite a shock to realize that I was actually cheering her on -- in the book and the films. I amused me to look around the movie theatre and see the enjoyment that was evident on the faces of women of all ages -- some quite elderly as Lisbeth 'took care of business'! I'm glad though that I'd read the book and knew what was coming. The other thing is that I watched both films that made up the first book and then I went to bed -- it didn't make for a good night's sleep as I kept going over different parts of the story.

I can't help but think it interesting to consider how we might look at a Swedish version of Gone with the Wind or to stay with a similar genre, Goldfinger ... It must be very odd to watch the American film if you are Swedish. One thing though, unlike most of us, they will understand the English and not have to read subtitles!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Honesty Is All Well and Good -- So Is Funereal Discretion the Better Part of Valour?

On Wednesday last The Man and I journeyed to Girvan in Ayrshire, Scotland to attend the funeral of a very old personal friend and colleague from The Man's days in the Royal Air Force. We were only in Scotland for a little over 24 hours, but to say the least, it was a very interesting visit and a very beautiful part of the world. I had only been to Scotland twice before -- once to an RAF reunion at Lossiemouth and the second a birthday surprise for The Man to the Isle of Skye. I enjoyed both visits very much.

Shortly after our arrival at our hotel -- just before dark -- I managed to take a photograph of the sea with Ailsa Craig in the background. I first saw it as we came down off the hills into Girvan where it loomed before us. Very impressive. The photograph from the front of our hotel complex was from a surprisingly different angle.

Our purpose for the visit was not tourism, however, and most of our time was spent in reminiscences with another couple who was at the hotel with us. Tony was a huge character and definitely one of a kind. He was a man of strong convictions and a colourful personal life! He had been ill for quite some time with cancer and had fought a very brave fight against the disease. Though like many others he never did give up those cigarettes and denied to the end that smoking had caused is condition! Women adored him -- he had a James Bond aura about him and to me a bit of the Noel Coward as well! Against all odds he made it through the RAF training process and through his persistence and determination attained his dream: he was a fine RAF pilot.

The failure of his two marriages led to estrangement from his children and it was only a few years ago that there was some reconciliation with his youngest child. As you can imagine this caused disquiet and tension at the service for family members as well as for others who shared his life toward the end. Not to mention endless speculation as to what final outcomes would be!

To begin with the church service went very well. His closest friend gave a moving and interesting synopsis of his life and the minister's address was very considered and thoughtful. His son was present and his stepchildren and many of his friends and colleagues. We all set off to the Crematorium in the nearby town of Ayr.

At 1.15 we gathered in the chapel. The minister said a prayer, Tony's sister recited a poem and then his son spoke. He told us that he would not be a hypocrite when talking about his relationship with his father. He spoke of the many difficulties and issues in their relationship but also about the joy of their reconciliation and of seeing his children rollicking with their new-found grandfather. Unfortunately, he could not refrain from the build up of a great swathe of emotion as he spoke. He began to repeat himself -- over and over again he would repeat how terrible a father he was and then he would say 'But he was my father and I loved him...' The atmosphere began to feel somewhat uncomfortable -- but he could not stop himself and finally his anger and frustration and the pain of his loss and tears overwhelmed him and he said 'He was a bastard... but he was my father and I loved him.' Honestly, I think we all winced together.

Fortunately, Tony's story was known by all those gathered in the room and much of what was said would not have been surprising. But I hope his son's final outburst was as cathartic for him as it was painful and shocking to hear.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Is It Fiction or is it Emotional Perception and Social Cognition?

Gosh but the news for what seems like forever has been glum glum glum! Between the global economy, upcoming elections and extreme weather, not to mention cruise ships too close to shore turning over and dire predictions for everybody -- why does anyone in his or her right mind watch the news or pick up a newspaper?

So it was a special treat for me yesterday to find an article which truly interested me! It is to be found several pages within the Sunday Times -- on page 11. It's a pity I can't link you all to the article, entitled Be Careful What You Curl Up with by James Gillespie. It refers to an article by a British cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto who has discovered that
the apparently solitary act of curling up with a book is, in fact, an exercise in human interaction.
"It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for comeraderie, collaboration, even love," Oatley says in the magazine Scientific American Mind. 
What made this article so interesting to  me was that the books referred to in his study were works of fiction not of fact:
"The defining characteristic of fiction is not that it is made up but that it is about human beings and their intentions and interactions," Oatley said. "Reading fiction trains people in this domain just as non-fiction books about say genetics or history builds expertise in those subject areas." 
Brain scans show that a reader internalises what a fictional character experiences by mirroring those feelings and actions themselves.
Thus, when a person reads about something the protagonist did, the reader's brain responds as if they were performing the same action themselves. Over time, their personalities can be subtly changed by the nature of their reading material.
However, those who hope that a quick canter through Dick Francis's oeuvre or the collected works of Jeffrey Archer will make them a better person should think again. Artistry in writing is vital to encouraging change in the reader. "Our most recent experiment found that the more artistic the piece, the more people changed," Oatley said. 
Isn't it a shame that The Times Online insists on having only subscribers who pay! Anyway, I went to the magazine Scientific American Mind's website and bought an online copy of the issue! It's a very interesting and absorbing article and as a lover of fiction, I heartily agree with what he has to say!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

You Might Like to Know

Recently, so many of the blogs I follow and those that follow me are writing about diets and needing to lose weight. Well, it's not as if I'm not in the same boat or anything but I just want to say to one and all that for me YOU ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL!

This is the wonder of the blogosphere -- we can see with a different eye and the 'eye' that we see with is the one that we alone can see -- it is not coloured by anyone's image but our own. It is true that the Internet can spawn many a loathsome creature but I feel truly blessed with the absolute beauty of those that come here. And the essence of YOU does not have pounds to lose, or bad hair days or baldness or age or youth. It's such a relief not to have contend with the physical veneer -- to be part of the ether ...

Ok, ok, now you can all go back to your diets and counting the calories, etc. Just thought it worth mentioning in passing the mayo light ... :-)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas Memories: Putting Away the Old and the New

There is nothing like seeing our ornaments and decorations brought out to bring back memories  of Christmas Past. I try to add at least one new ornament to my collection each year. There is not telling what might take my fancy from one year to the next. This year a little Eskimo angel bell took my fancy! There are two decorations that I cannot bear to put away, one is a pewter Christmas tree and the other is a Renaissance angel. At Christmas time I put them in a more prominent place on a fireplace mantel. But the rest of the year I so enjoy having them in the background for me to see. My youngest sister gave them to me so they are a very special treasure.

I have never been much of one for a 'themed' tree -- all gold or silver or red or whatever. But I do have a second tree that I put up every two years that is exactly that. The theme is the ballet and I found myself absolutely seduced by these little dancers representing many different ballets. I can't believe I did it, but I actually joined a group selling 'collectibles'  and I've never regretted it. In all I have 36 figures, all exquisite and delicate. I put this  tree up in my study and decided a couple of years ago that I would enjoy going to the trouble of putting it up if it didn't become a yearly tradition. I was surprised to discover so many ballets I'd never heard of -- I never knew there had been a Snow White, for example.

Bavaria is an irresistible place for anyone who loves Christmas baubles. This hand-painted ornament for the Christmas tree is not always easy to find a place to hang, due to it's size. To my shame, I cannot remember if it was a gift or if I bought it myself ...

If I had to choose a favourite it might be the two angelic choir boys by Rot Ceramics. These two always make me laugh because I imagine the one is singing so loud that the other boy has to try to drown out the sound by putting his hands over his ears. Anyway, I find them quite adorable with their cherubic fat hands on tummy and little toes peeping out from under their celestial robes...

So today being the 12th Day of Christmas it is the time to put all these things away until, 'the good Lord willin' and the crick don't rise', we take them out again and remember once again Christmas Past, the a bit of Christmas Present, and the hope for Christmas Future. This year we had a great surprise that connected the memory of Christmas past -- 10 years in the past -- to the present! Ten years ago a friend gave us an orchid -- in full bloom. The Man is not one to give up on a plant and faithfully watered it in winter and presented it to the elements each Spring. It was not particularly attractive, but nevertheless, it was a living thing and The Man continued to look after it in his own inimitable  Nice, dontcha think?

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas Memories: Conspiracy

One year Mom decided to take my little sister and me to see Santa! I must have been around 6. We headed downtown to the local Sears and Roebuck store and down the stairs to the basement. I don't remember much of the detail , but what I remember is quite clear. The queue/line was quite long for St. Johnsbury, Vermont -- there must have been a dozen mothers with their children in tow.

As I stood in line something rather interesting occurred to me, but I couldn't quite believe it -- but as I stood there I became more and more convinced that it was true. Standing on my tiptoes I whispered into my mother's ear and she bent down, said 'yes, but don't tell Mary -- it's a secret.'

My first conspiracy began ...

In the meantime, the little girl at the front of the queue got her chance to tell Santa what was on her Christmas list. Now I realize that I was only about six years old, and things get exaggerated over time in our memory banks. However, this little girl had an amazingly long list and Santa was amazingly patient waiting to hear it all. Each time it would seem she had finished as was about to go she would remember something else! When she finally did leave she came back again because she had forgotten something -- but finally I think Santa had to remind her that other children had been waiting and he had to get their names and wishes on his list as well as hers.

At long last she left and one by one the girls and boys in front of us had their time with Santa's ear and possibly his lap. Finally, Mary and I stood in front of him. First he asked Mary and she told him what she wanted. I stared at him intently and he turned his gaze upon me, asked me my name and if I had been a good girl -- which made me giggle for some reason and then what I wanted for Christmas. I told him I'd been pretty good most of the time and then all I could think of to ask for was 'books'.

"Oh, you like to read," said Santa -- I think maybe he was impressed!

"Oh, yes," I replied. Honestly,  my mind went blank -- it was really on something else altogether, you see...

And so the interview with Santa Claus came to an end.

Mom, Mary and I left Sears and carried on home. She was happy to have met Santa and I had a secret to keep. You see while I was standing in line, I heard a very familiar voice. And I listened and listened and when I was quite sure, I asked my mother and she confirmed my suspicions.

My father really was Santa Claus!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

On the Tenth Day of Christmas Memories: Food Food Glorious Food!

As a child I was a very very very fussy eater! Of course I loved cookies and cake but not if any of those had raisins or nuts or orange peal or anything lumpy... And I liked ice cream as long as it was vanilla or chocolate! It wasn't until I was quite a bit older than I developed any kind of palate, my point being that my memory of Christmas food is somewhat limited as I didn't like most of it.

But I do remember: Christmas cookies! My mother spent hours making them -- cutting out shapes and painting them with colored icing and sparkling green and red sugar: Candy Canes, gingerbread men, Christmas trees, bells, snowmen, wreaths -- so many different shapes and sizes. After she made them all they would be put away in special tins and would come out on Christmas Eve -- as would any other Christmas goodies that she made.

The other thing she made every year, which I didn't take to at first -- except for the peanuts was this stuff called 'Chex' mix. The recipe was on the back of the dry cereals, Wheat Chex, Rice Chex and Corn Chex. The other cereal present in the concoction was Cheerios. And then the final ingredient was peanuts. All of this was mixed together and roasted with some oil in the oven. Looking over the ingredients in the original recipe, it would seem the Cheerios and peanuts were my mothers ingenious idea! By the time I was a  teenager, I loved this stuff and wish that those cereals were available here in Britain so I could add it to my Christmas food list.

Growing up Christmas dinner was a repeat of Thanksgiving -- except for the desserts. I hated Christmas dessert as a child: Plum pudding and Mince pie and lurking in a corner somewhere was a fruit cake. I hated them all and I still do!!!

When I grew up and had my own family, I never got into the baking of Christmas cookies. Perhaps it was because my mother never included us in the process herself. I know many mothers and daughters for whom this is a very happy tradition and I can see why it would be. Instead I opted to choose favourite baked goods that were yummy but less of a creative endeavour. Chocolate chip cookies, the original Toll House recipe, of course. When I am in the States semi-sweet chocolate chips are on my list of things I can't get back in the UK. The chocolate chips you buy here don't melt right! Sounds weird, but that's the problem. Another problem that I solved was that you needed to add more flour to the dough to get the right consistency in the cookie.

Another chocolate chip goody that was on my list each Christmas were what I dubbed 'meringue-ee-doos'. Most of the incredients were the same as for the cookies, but the differences made these amazing.  The dough would be spread on the base of a  rectangular  tin/pan and then the chips would be spread evenly over the top of the dough. Then you would spread over the top a meringue that was sweetened with brown sugar instead of white. Ohhh scrumptious! The recipe was originally given to my mother by the wife of a Yorkshire couple who were caretakers for our church in northern Vermont. And that would have been in the early '50's so it's been around for a long time...


 Part 1
½ Cup margarine
½ Cup white sugar
½ Cup  brown sugar
2 egg yolks (save whites)
1 Tbs cold water
2 Cups flour
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda

Part 2
 1 6 oz pkg chocolate chips
1 Cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Part 3
 2 egg whites
1 cup brown sugar

Cream shortening. Add white and brown sugars. Beat egg yolks, and all other ingredients in Part 1. Grease pan (oblong brownie sort of pan 8" by 10" or similar). Spread mix evenly in pan.

Spread chocolate chips and nuts evenly over the first mix.

Whip egg whites until stiff. Beat brown sugar into egg whites until smooth and spread on top of everything.

Bake for 25 minutes at 350 – yummmmy

Monday, January 02, 2012

On the Ninth Day of Christmas Memories: Boxing Day?

New Year's Eve 2011/12
If I'd been thinking I'd have written this to post on Boxing Day -- but I wasn't so here goes. In Britain Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, has many different theories as to its origin. The truth is no one really knows. And I get the feeling a lot of people don't really know what to do with the day. Often it's a day for visiting relatives or for them to visit you -- but I suspect that for many it's a day to recover from the day before!!

For many years it was a day in which I indulged in the pleasure of cooking for dinner guests. The main course was always Salmon en Croute. If I were a really really good gourmet cook it would have been the Russian dish -- coulibiac, the eating of which was one of my all time greatest eating experiences. This year I will be having the salmon en croute for New Year's Eve because visitors are coming here instead of us going 'there'...

I chose a salmon dish because I figured it would appeal to people after the traditional heaviness of Christmas Day. So I could devote the day to the kitchen and preparations. One year, for some reason known  only to the angels, The Man chose this day for a special project of his. This project was the restoration of a very very old, very damaged model sailing ship that he had found in  the dusty old corner of a second-hand shop. I think he paid 15 pounds for it. And where do you think he decided to pursue this project? On the kitchen table -- and there he was, ensconced with this dilapidated  ship and newspaper spread out underneath, etc. etc., when I came in to work on filleting and encasing and otherwise preparing my fishy friend.

I have a reasonable size kitchen, but not extensive counter space, but I managed to make enough workspace in a corner of the room and set to work hacking and skinning and flouring and rolling out dough. The kitchen was  utterly confusing and in total chaos, but we were happily working away and enjoying our very different projects! Oblivious to the fact that not very far away in the other room Granny was holding down the family fort, which was two young boys.

Imperiously, Granny suddenly swept into the kitchen -- no one could do 'imperious' better than Granny! "I'm going to make the boys some lunch", she declared.

"NO" I thoughtlessly retorted! I'd completely forgotten about the practicalities of family life! My thoughts were that everything was covered in either flour or ship bits and there wasn't any room for anything like other people let alone lunch fixings!

In the end, of course, I relented ... I had to really -- and after all Granny the Imperial wasn't demanding that I fix lunch -- only that she was going to do it. So I put down my rolling pin and graciously relented and she took care of her grandsons stomachs.

It used to be that absolutely everywhere was closed on Boxing Day -- but now it is more and more becoming a day the after Christmas sales begin and more and more people venture into the High Street to see what's on offer that wasn't two days before. Personally, I am too exhausted after Christmas Day to want to pound the shopping pavements and most years lack the enthusiasm for another day of gourmet cooking. The children are now grown and I'm eager for one of those boys to take over the planning and execution of culinary celebrations!

Here is a menu I prepared one year:

Fresh melon balls with shrimp in a sour cream and fresh mint sauce.

Fresh Leek Soup with rolls

Salmon en Croute with wild rice  and Hollandaise
French fried parsnips
sauteed courgette/zuchini 

Lemon chiffon pie

Cheese and biscuits

Coffee, Mints, liqueurs 

Sunday, January 01, 2012

On the Eighth Day of Christmas Memories: New Year's Eve

Overall I would say I have not found New Year's Eve to all that it is cracked up to be! The most memorable of all was seeing in the year 2000. We spent the evening through to the early hours of the Morning with our closest friends in Southport. There were four couples in all and quite a few of our children to see in that special year. Because of the intimacies of the friendships the evening became a joyous event of laughter and food and of course champagne. A few minutes before the magic hour we turned on the television to see the Queen in the Millennium Dome in a great traditional circle singing Auld Lang Syne and looking mightily uncomfortable, too. How much luckier we were in a favourite home with our favourite people and no wish to be anywhere else in the world. Our friends lived in a very big old house overlooking the sea and soon after mid-night we went outside to light up the sky with some fireworks. None of us were exactly sober, but we were very funny -- especially The Man who managed to set off a firework and blow up some bushes -- but no harm was done and he will be forever teased his 'prowess'!

The Man and I have had our share of going out to a restaurant and paying an enormous amount of money -- finding ourselves squeezed into tables that have been squeezed together to take more and more people -- so the quality of the food is often disappointing and the party atmosphere is hindered by the discomfort everyone is feeling. One year we went to a restaurant that was booked up -- but not over-crowded and had a brilliant meal. Around 11.00 the band began to play and we were all dancing away quite happily. At mid-night a Conga started to wend its way through the place, when suddenly the band stopped playing -- for good. The owner of the restaurant was on the verge of bankruptcy and when he tried to pay the leader of the band with a check instead of the promised cash -- well -- the show did not go on!!! So the owner opened up the bar and it was drinks on the house for the rest of the night. The last night the place ever opened -- which was too bad because it was a good place to eat and we had enjoyed several fabulous meals there.

Most years, however, have been spent at home, in front of the box watching Jools Holland's Hootenanny. Last year we discovered to our dismay that this extravaganza is recorded several days before New Year's Eve and they pretend it's being aired 'live'! What a scandal!!! For a few years now we have spent the evening with very close friends in Gargrave, Yorkshire and last night for a change they came  here. So on that note, and since this post has itself been 'pre-recorded' I will wish you all a very Happy and Blessed New Year!