Thursday, May 28, 2015

A College Prank

I've been meaning to write this post for a long time -- since the police incidents in Ferguson and Cleveland and South Carolina and elsewhere.

When those events occurred, those fatal police clashes with young black men, I got to thinking about my own history, and how it relates to the pervasive injustice in the differences in police treatment of blacks and whites. Aside from traffic infractions, I've only had one brush with the law myself, back in the mid-1980s.

This is how it unfolded:

I was with a group of friends, and we were drinking. (How familiar is that for an opening line to a story about a night gone wrong?) We were in college at the time, and somehow we got it into our heads to pull a prank on one of the college administrators. We chose as our victim the housing director, who was responsible for maintaining the dorms and food service and that sort of thing -- which of course, being students, we found lacking.

One of our group knew where the housing director lived, not far from his own home in a small suburban town just outside Tampa. So we bought a bunch of toilet paper, went to the administrator's home, and TP'd the large tree in his front yard. We also put dish soap on his car.

Then, like the complete and utter idiots we were, we jumped in our car and drove away, then drove back again to view our handiwork. Laughing hysterically, we went to a neighborhood park not far away and sat on the swingset.

Of course, the police showed up. We'd not only been seen TPing the tree but also driving back and forth in front of the house. The cops asked us some questions -- I think we had to give them our identification, but I'm not sure -- and they instructed us to come back to the house, apologize to the administrator and clean up the mess. (This despite the fact that we must have been visibly intoxicated and surely shouldn't have been driving anywhere.)

We got to the house and the police marched us to the front door. We knocked, but thank goodness, no one was home. So we scurried around the front yard in what must have been a fruitless effort to collect the toilet paper, and then the cops let us go. They never saw the soaped car. To my knowledge, they never made a police report. They never administered a breathalyzer or any other tests for intoxication. We were merely instructed to go back to my friend's house -- which we did, driving drunk all the way. (They may have escorted us -- I can't remember.)

We got the velvet glove treatment from these suburban cops for a couple of reasons. Obviously, our crime was relatively minor. There was no real damage. My friends lived in this small town, so the police saw us as locals. And we were clearly middle-class and white, out for a lark.

I'm not arguing that we should have been treated more harshly. I think the cops did the right thing in cutting us a break. And granted, this was 27 years ago -- the authorities may be less forgiving today, in the age of "broken windows" policing.

But what would have happened if we'd been middle-class black college students? Would the police have let us off so easily? It's speculative, but I suspect this is where the injustice would have occurred. What if we'd been poor and black? Surely the consequences would have been much more dire. We'd probably have been arrested, and quite possibly roughed up in the process. In fact, if we'd been poor and black, I suspect just sitting in the park at night -- without the TPing, without the drunkenness -- would have been enough to get us questioned.

Whenever someone mentions variables in the way police treat suspects, I think of this incident -- my one brush with law enforcement. In all likelihood, a black kid would have walked away from that incident with a criminal record -- not to mention the attendant fines and costs of legal representation and loss of driving priveleges.

I walked away and went back to my regular life -- albeit with a hangover -- the next morning.

(Photo: A photogenic pub in Bloomsbury.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sub Frenzy

I have not had a day as stressful as yesterday in a long time. I'm still serving as the substitute coordinator, and for most of yesterday it seemed as if I'd be in this position for at least the rest of the week -- in addition to my normal library job. And things were crazy. Lots of subs are out this week, maybe because of the holiday weekend, and two cancelled pre-existing agreements to come in and cover classes. So that left me scrambling.

In fact, I even substituted a class myself. My first teaching gig! (I don't mean to say that in a way that suggests there will be a second.) It worked out fine -- it was a single journalism class, and when the regular sub cancelled late yesterday morning I thought, "You know, I ought to be able to handle this!" So I volunteered. The kids were great, stayed focused and worked on a project with only minimal instruction.

There were some other kerfuffles that needed attention, too.

But then, in the evening, the regular sub coordinator said she'd be returning tomorrow (meaning today), so that's a relief. I think I'll be able to hand off these duties and I will have made a little extra money, so that's not a bad thing.

Otherwise, honestly, I haven't had time to think about anything else!

I have, however, been meaning to highlight a comment from one of my readers. Remember when I mentioned the upsetting New Yorker story about elephant poaching, about a week ago, and I asked, "What am I supposed to do about it?" I suspect this is a feeling a lot of us get when we read the news -- a feeling of frustration at injustices that we cannot control or seemingly influence. I've even had friends stop following the news because they've felt this way. Well, the writer of 37 Paddington left a comment that I really appreciated. She said, "I once asked this question of a Buddhist monk, in connection with something else, and he said, 'It is enough for you to know it, to be awake to it. That ripples out. That is doing something.'"

I love that. And I believe it, too. Awareness is much of the battle. When people are aware, change begins to happen.

(Photo: Wedding photography at All Souls Church near Oxford Circus, a few weeks ago.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Stinking Iris

I am back in the hot seat today as substitute coordinator for the school, finding subs to fill gaps for absent teachers and staff. The real sub coordinator is away, and returning to my old job has not exactly been fun. I spent yesterday evening dealing with repeated interruptions and wound up unable to fill one position -- so they'll have to cover it internally. Ugh! I hope to god that phone doesn't ring again before school starts this morning.

Yesterday was fun -- a holiday here in England, as well as in the United States. I had brunch with my coworkers in the morning (two brunches in two days!) at The Wolseley, a schmantzy restaurant on Piccadilly. One of our number is retiring this year, so we gathered for a little celebration. (And she's not being replaced, which means one less librarian next year.) I had eggs florentine, at the absurd price of £16.

Afterwards I came home and, in between vacuuming and doing laundry, I took Olga to the West Heath. She had a fantastic time and became positively wild-eyed at the prospect of chasing more squirrels. She even ran up a tree trunk -- the tree was growing at a low angle -- and fell about four feet to the ground. She was unfazed, but everyone around her seemed momentarily stunned -- probably thinking, "Did I just see that dog go up a tree?"

And look! Our Iris foetidissima or "stinking iris" has bloomed. It's an underwhelming blossom, to be sure -- a sort of sickly beige. Dave said he actually likes it, but I am not impressed. It doesn't really smell at all. Apparently the "stinking" (I read somewhere) refers to the scent of the leaves when they are crushed. I'll take their word for it.

(Top photo: The sign for a show at the London Palladium, yesterday.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Eurovision Brunch

Several years ago I wrote about this old Art Deco cinema near Queensway, the Queens Cinema. Back then it was an empty hulk with an ornate facade. This is how it looks today. The project to turn it into condos -- in which the entire building was demolished and rebuilt, except the facade -- is finished. Pretty swanky!

I was in that neighborhood yesterday to visit our friend Keith, who hosted a special brunch to watch the Eurovision song contest, broadcast live the night before. You've probably heard of Eurovision, the annual event where each European country (and increasingly, a lot of countries not in Europe) enters a pop music act, and through a complex system of viewer and music-industry voting, one is deemed the winner.

I'd never seen Eurovision, and I must say it was really fun. (Dave was not the least bit interested, so he stayed home in the garden.) Sweden justifiably won with this performance by Måns Zelmerlöw, which perfectly combined the elements of a catchy song, clever production and an adorable, sexy singer. My personal favorite was Belgium's entry, which came in fourth. I thought it was very unusual and imaginative. The tragedy of the evening, as far as I was concerned, was the shunning of France's entry, which got only four points and wound up near the bottom. I thought it was a good song, well-performed and well-produced.

Wanna see something terrible? Watch Albania.

Anyway, we had a fun time, though the show ran for four and a half hours so it killed off quite a bit of the day! Afterwards I took a bus to Wandsworth to do some photography in South London, where I haven't been shooting for months. (Aside from my recent trip to the South Bank, which really doesn't count -- that's only barely south of the river.) It was gray and lightly rainy and I didn't get a whole lot before climbing onto the tube and coming back home.

And look! Jesus was on my train! (I believe he was a costume-party Jesus, as opposed to a super-religious Jesus. He seemed quite drunk and his robe was none too clean.)

Here's our latest garden mystery. We have these bugs on our roses. Apparently they're a kind of aphid, though they're the biggest, meanest-looking aphids I've ever seen! We discovered quite a few aphid infestations on the rose bushes, and we can't spray them, because that's also where we released our lacewing larvae. Dave is thinking about ordering more ladybirds!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Squirrel Killer

Olga and I took a walk in the cemetery yesterday, and a landmark event occurred: Olga killed her first squirrel.

I am not celebrating this. In fact, I feel terrible about it. But I suppose it was bound to happen.

She was running through the grass, Kong in mouth, when she heard a noise from a thicket. She crashed into the bushes as she usually does, and I laughed at her eagerness until I heard what I can only describe as a tiny squirrel scream. I ran to the thicket shouting "Drop it! Drop it!" When I got there, Olga was nose-first into a pile of leaves. She backed up to reveal an adolescent squirrel with no outwardly obvious injuries. It wasn't really moving -- just oddly flexing its little squirrel jaws.

We walked away to give it some time to recuperate -- I hoped it was playing dead. But when we went back a few minutes later, it was still there, and even the jaw movement had stopped. The prognosis was not good.

I can take a small degree of solace from the fact that gray squirrels are invaders in the U.K., displacing the native red squirrels. If Olga had to kill something, at least it was an exotic species. I suppose squirrels (and probably other critters) are particularly vulnerable at this time of year, when the new generation is young and clueless. Dave and I have discussed the need to keep her indoors early in the morning to protect the young fox(es?) in our garden.

On a brighter note, our first rose of the year blossomed yesterday, and we have two other bushes that are just a day or two away from flowering. The blackberries are also blooming -- berries for cereal later this summer! And the ladybirds are still on the campion.

Last night Dave and I went to dinner with several others at our friend Keith's house, where we had beef bourguignon and several bottles of his co-worker's special stash of Châteauneuf du Pape. We contributed some champagne to kick off the evening. Now I am contributing some much-needed coffee to my system.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


I had the dubious honor of sitting in a dunk tank yesterday afternoon at an event for the high school students at work. One of the student organizers sent an e-mail a few days ago to me and a list of other teachers, saying we "had been selected" as potential candidates for the dunk tank, and did we want to participate? This, of course, set off immediate speculation among those of us on the list about why we were chosen. Was it because the students hate us, or because they like us?

At any rate, I agreed to be dunked. So yesterday at 1:15 p.m. I traveled to the school athletic fields in suburban North London, and soon I was sitting on a tiny little board over a huge tank of water while kids threw tennis balls at a target. It wasn't the warmest day to be doing this -- about 65 degrees, I'd say -- and I kept praying they wouldn't hit the target. But of course someone did, and it was the strangest sensation, going from completely dry to underwater almost immediately. I didn't even have time to be shocked. I just thought, "Oh, hey, I'm underwater."

I sat on that board for 15 minutes and in that span I got dunked five or six times. But my crowds were definitely smaller than those for the high school principal. One girl walked by and said, "None of us want to dunk you, Mr. Reed, because we like you!"

I told them to think about all those times I harassed them for overdue materials!

Anyway, it was fun, but I was glad when it was over.

Then, last night, Dave and I met up with one of his former students, who's now at Yale and working temporarily in London. He took us to Cadogan Hall to see the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which was terrific. I'd never been in Cadogan Hall. It's a great space for a concert -- smallish and with pew seating upstairs that allowed us to spread out a bit. Among other things, the orchestra played one of my favorite pieces, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major, which was a nice surprise. Dave had said they were going to play Rachmaninoff, but when the pianist started, I thought, "Gee, this sounds like that Ravel piece I like!" Turns out Dave got his composers mixed up.

(Photo: A bookstore in Bloomsbury, two weeks ago.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Wild Kingdom

We've had some more "Wild Kingdom" excitement around here. (And I apologize that this has become something of a gardening blog lately, but what can I say -- that's where the action is!)

Our lacewings came in the mail yesterday. They turned out not to be fully-grown lacewings, but rather lacewing larvae, which are incredibly tiny and thus not very photogenic. So, sadly, I have no pictures to share. We opened the envelope and extracted the cardboard "wafer" the larvae inhabit, and put pieces of it on various plants. Supposedly the bugs will crawl off the wafer and onto the leaves. Somehow this is far less satisfying than releasing easily visible ladybugs that begin consuming aphids right away!

Speaking of which, the ladybugs are still visible on the campion, eating. I can't find them on any of the other plants where we released them, so they may have moved on. Who knows.

We also had a bit of excitement with our foxes this morning. Olga leaped out of bed at about 4:30 and stood in rapt attention at the bedroom door. I didn't hear anything but I got out of bed and went to the window, and sure enough, the adult fox and at least one kit were romping around in the back yard. The kit hopped up on the birdbath and knocked it over. Such a puppyish thing to do! Once again, I couldn't get to my camera while they were out and about -- and I think it was really too dark to get a decent shot, anyway.

"Hey, are you eating behind me?"

I read the most distressing article in The New Yorker yesterday, about elephant poaching in Africa. It began with an account of a caravan of well-armed poachers -- hundreds of them, including janjaweed fighters from Darfur -- traveling from Sudan to Cameroon, where they proceeded to occupy a national park for three months and slaughter 650 elephants. Even the Cameroonian army couldn't drive them out. A group of them went north to Chad and killed several park rangers along with more elephants before heading back home again. And of course, they only want the elephants' tusks, which they sell to the Chinese.

The article made the point that this occurred in a relatively well-governed African state -- so imagine what's going on in Congo or the Central African Republic, places with huge national parks and barely functioning government. The central figure in the story is an elephant researcher in the CAR, who was driven out of the country by political instability and later returned to find many of "her" elephants poached.

Are the people in Asia who buy all this ivory aware of what they're doing? Do they not care, or simply not understand? I just don't get it. Such a waste, for nothing. And even more frustrating: WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT IT?! I could donate money -- somewhere -- but forgive my skepticism that it actually reaches the elephants.

One thing the elephants have going for them is that the proceeds from poaching often help fund terrorism and war -- which gives governments like ours in the U.S. and Europe an even more urgent reason to pay attention. But still. Agony.

(Top photo: Blue doors in Bloomsbury, a couple of weeks ago.)