Category Archives: Musings

The Haints’ Sunday Best: April 15, 2012

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You can’t have failed to miss that this week marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. However, one would be excused for not realizing it’s been 100 years, as every year since I’ve been born has seemed like the 100th anniversary. I can’t recall a year where the tragedy hasn’t been marked by re-showings of all the Titanic films (my favorite is A Night to Remember), documentaries etc. I can understand the fascination, but it really is a sick obsession. We all know how the story ends, but yet we can’t tear ourselves away from the inevitable conclusion. This year, many people actually took memorial cruises to the exact spot in the North Atlantic where the ocean liner went down and 1500 people died.  I can’t say I’d be prepared to do the same. The North Atlantic scares the bejaysus out of me. I fly across the ocean a lot, but each time, the thought of perishing in the frigid waters of the Atlantic in the pitch-black night, surrounded by icebergs causes my hands to sweat and my teeth to hurt from clenching them so hard. The distance between Iceland and Ireland is the worst (if anyone knows of a secret landing strip in that corridor, please let me know. My blood pressure would thank you). Courtesy of Slate, I came across this fascinating article about Theodore Dreiser (author of that darling of required reading lists everywhere – Sister Carrie). He was very nearly a passenger of the Titanic, and provided a very poignant perspective of quite literally “missing the boat.”

Santorum suspends his campaign; Mittens can now let rip

The man with a name like a Latin genitive finally called it quits. But technically, he just suspended his campaign, which still allows him to raise money (for what, you may be asking. I have no idea). Intriguingly (or perhaps not given the tone of the campaign to date), Santorum didn’t refer to Mitt Romney by name, yet he gave a shout out to the Duggars for their support. Fortunately for Mitt, the Duggars have now officially endorsed him for President. Romney now has the election in the bag! Can’t beat those families with 19 kids. Imagine if they all could vote. I think Michelle Obama needs to get in tight with the Sister Wives.

Anyhow, some commentators have started speculating that Santorum may have his eye on 2016 already (assuming President Obama wins a second term). Most, though, have ruled him out a potential running mate for Romney. Personally, I would love to see him as Romney’s running mate. And I’m sure David Axelrod would do.

 

Rosen encounters a foe bigger than Napster

OK, so Hilary Rosen stepped in it this week, but it’s only because the chattering classes said she stepped in it. The trouble with the times we live in is that people do not process what’s been said before they react. It drives me bananas how both the left and right jumped all over Rosen before she even came to a full stop of the offending sentence. I am sort of paraphrasing (which is a little hypocritical seeing that I loathe people who take things out of context or paraphrase the meaning out of a statement), but Rosen basically said that Ann Romney was not the right person to advise her husband on women’s economic issues as she has “never worked a day in her life”. It was a poor choice of words (and tone as well), but what she meant, and I think what we all know she meant, was that Mrs. Romney has lived a life of privilege all of her adult life and has never had to think about the monetary issues which affect most women in the U.S. or anywhere. I would hope no one would dispute that raising kids is a hard job and just as important and significant as any work which takes place outside of the home. However, having a fat bank account creates a very different experience for those women raising those kids. There’s a big difference between sitting at the kitchen table at night itemizing the high costs for basic necessities like food, electricity, gas, clothes, etc. and sitting at your desk in the home office telling your personal assistant to book your hair and pilates appointments. If I were a mother with a husband whose job barely paid the bills or a single mother on government assistance or juggling the needs of work with costs of childcare, I would not be interested in Ann Romney’s opinion about what matters most to me (though, to be fair, Mrs. Romney’s views on strength of character and the emotional needs of raising a family are certainly relevant). Maybe it’s just me, but I think Hilary Rosen nailed it. Now if only people would stop being so afraid to admit that she nailed it.

Charity starts at home

Back in here in the U.K., all hell is breaking loose over the Government’s Budget. It’s a very long document, so I understand if the reality of it takes a while to settle (for those seriously interested in the minutiae of it, you can find it here). There are so many to choose from, but the latest issue (you must pronounce it “issoo”, rather than “ishoo” to get the full effect) to stem from the Budget is that tax relief will now be capped at £50,000 on charity contributions. According to the Government, this is to prevent wealthy individuals from getting tax relief from bogus charities. You don’t say? Well, I know of a bogus charity. It’s called the HM Revenue & Customs. I give them all of this money, and I haven’t a clue what they’re doing with it.

Anyway, I sense a retreat. Even though countries like the U.S. cap tax relief on charitable donations, I don’t think this policy will fly over here. You can hear the “tut, tuts” from the Royal Academy of Art all the way to Burma.

I honestly do think now would be a good time for George Osborne to jump into the family business. Why anyone would want to be Chancellor over being a wallpaper magnate is beyond me, but hey, what do I know?

How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

So North Korea’s rocket didn’t launch and Iran has entered into talks regarding its nuclear program. I am grateful, but always amazed at how far we’ve gotten without one of those monstrous weapons actually being launched against an enemy. Maybe the dreadful memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is even too much for the twisted mind of despot. I am being optimistic but maybe anti-democratic, tyrants have their own version of MAD, which kind of defeats the point of launching one of those things in the first place, no?

On the road to Damascus

I don’t think the ceasefire will hold. Until Assad is gone, there will be no peace. How that happens I don’t know.

Next Year in Jerusalem

There’s nothing like a good Passover seder around Easter time. Sadly, it’s been a few years since I’ve been to one, but I do manage to make a meal of some bits and pieces. However, I mostly live vicariously through other people’s seders. My good friend David sent me a mouth-watering picture of his gefilte fish. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I shared it with you.

As always, here are some other highlights of my week:

What I’m reading: Band of Brigands by Christy Campbell (still).

What I’m listening to (new): Roman Reloaded by Nicki Minaj

What I’m listening to (old): Performance by various (including Mick Jagger and Ry Cooder)

Most anticipated event of the week: The release of the 1940 census. Such an amazing treasure trove of history. You can check it out here.

Until next time.

All best, HaintsFollow me on twitter.

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Bugbears #1

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Like many of you, there are many things which cause my neck muscles to spasm and my right eye to develop a rapid tick (ok, maybe you just get gooseflesh). A good deal of these irksome things are words and phrases which for some known or unknown reason, drive me bananas (and not in a good way). I thought it would be a good idea to share some with you every once in a while. Because, hey, we all need to offload our own irritations onto someone else.

I’d be happy to hear your bugbears if you’re so inclined.

In the meantime, here are a few of mine:

1. Teachable moment:  Is Oprah responsible for this overused phrase?

2. Speak to: as in “that book really spoke to my childhood experiences.”

3. On trend: What’s wrong with “trendy”?

4.  ‘pant’ used in the singular:  mainly by fashion commentators who probably know better than I do, but it still sounds annoying to my ears.

5. Different to, as opposed to different from: I mean, can you really differ to something?

6. The use of “I” as a direct object:  e.g. “If you have any questions, please contact Haints or I.” Please, people, do not contact I. I cannot help you, but me is always ready to assist.

6. The word bugbear?

Simpaticos

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Once a month, I give tours at a war museum in London. Right at the start, I always tell my groups that my tours won’t be focusing on the nuts and bolts of the tanks, bombers or anti-aircraft guns. I can’t even change a tire, let alone remember what sort of fuel a Sherman tank used (petrol, actually, but I had to look that up just now). To be honest, I don’t find those details very interesting, though I know many people do. What I do find interesting are the stories behind the objects – both the human sacrifice and the reasons why we got ourselves in such a mess to begin with. But above all, I like to remind people that although what they see in the museum may seem to be relics of an increasingly distant past, armed conflicts are an on-going part of our modern world.

Before I kick off the tour, I like to ask where people are from. Usually they are from the U.K., but I get people from as far away as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. I also get lots of people from the United States, Canada and Europe. Sometimes the Americans seem bemused by the fact that they’ve travelled all this way only to be given a tour by a fellow American, but they quickly get used to it. I love mixed groups. However, there are two groups which really intimidate me: veterans of the armed forces and Germans. The veterans because I want to make sure I give them proper respect by not questioning the causes for war too much; and the Germans because I want to make sure my tour doesn’t provide a one-sided history or demonize them in any way (e.g. don’t use “Germans” and “Nazis” interchangeably).

A couple of weeks ago, a man from Leipzig and his daughter joined my tour. They were both very engaged – especially the father. He wasn’t afraid to ask or answer questions, which is sometimes the case with non-UK participants. With or without Germans on the tour, I make a point to mention the bombing of Dresden. Over three days in February 1945, Allied bombers killed more than 20,000 people. To appreciate that scale, consider that 43,000 people died over a six-month period during the Blitz (September 1940 – May 1941). This is an incredibly sobering statistic which a lot of people don’t realize and are appalled to find out.

The German dad was quite helpful when I got to the V-1 and V-2 rockets, as he was able to say the German word for the “V” part – Vergeltungswaffen (literally, “revenge flying weapon” or “payback weapon”). I usually end my tours with these objects as they lead directly into what we’re dealing with today in terms of missiles and nuclear weapons. I also like to point out here that as destructive as the V-2 rocket was, it paled in comparison to the over 25,000 people who lost their lives in their construction (inmates from a concentration camp, laboring in inhumane conditions in an underground factory).

After the tour, the Germans hung around, as the father was quite keen to share some thoughts. Although I was running late for another engagement, I couldn’t tear myself away from the conversation. He was glad that I included the atrocity of Dresden in my tour and related some harrowing accounts told to him by his grandfather of people literally burning alive in the streets and dying from smoke inhalation. As it transpired, the father was a World War II enthusiast who spent a lot of his time examining the SS, and in particular Heinrich Himmler. Not as a believer in their cause, but to understand how madness was able to gain so much power. He pointed out that Himmler’s motivation for the murder of millions of people was that it would lead to the ultimate good and purity of the German people and that everything was subordinate to that. The father was interesting here as you could see him struggling to find the exact words to express his thoughts. He often said something to his daughter in rushed German for her to translate, but he would just as often veto her interpretation with an impatient “nein, nein”. But I understood him completely.

I raised the point that, unfortunately, countries don’t usually enter conflicts to stop genocide but to protect its interests. And this led us to Rwanda, to Bosnia and finally to Syria. How often have we said never again only to see history repeating itself over and over? And if I’m honest with myself, my alarm buttons haven’t been pushed as quickly as they should have. For months now, the Assad government has been butchering its own people, but I would argue only recently have people really started to pay attention. Perhaps it was the deaths of a western journalist and a photographer that finally highlighted how real this is, but never again doesn’t seem to be such a forceful statement. “Ja, ja. This is true,” said the German father. In the end, the father, his daughter and I all tried to imagine how brave we would be in standing up to the madness which perpetuates tyranny and genocide. Sadly, we realized we couldn’t say for sure what we’d do. The ideal of doing good is always there, but in reality who knows? And then I thought about an email I recently deleted from Amnesty International.

Before we parted, the father tried to find a word to describe our connection. Out of the back and forth in German between him and his daughter, I picked out the word simpatico. “Ja, you have that word in English?” “Yes, we do, and it’s a good word.” On that, we shook hands.

And when I got home, I made a point of going through my deleted items and pulling out that email from Amnesty International about the Syrian atrocities. It’s a start, but far from never again.

A Snowy Day in London Town

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Last night and into this morning, the snow fell in London. I loved it. I got up during the night, made a cup of lemon ginger tea and watched it like a movie. It was oh, so Narnia.

Unfortunately, London can’t handle snow, so due to delayed newspaper deliveries, I had to walk miles to find an Observer (ok, I exaggerate, but you get the point). It was well worth it though, as I saw Stoke Newington in all its glory. Here are a couple of snaps I took in Clissold Park.

Mapping the New Year

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As long as I can remember I’ve hated New Year’s, for hiding in the midst of every New Year’s Eve gathering is an undercurrent of sadness. Sadness for the passing of time; sadness for lowered expectations; sadness for not finishing what you started; sadness for all the things you didn’t start in the first place; sadness for the realization that Dick Clark is basically a talking robot, and Ryan Seacrest is the person this generation will most likely remember as the face of New Year’s Eve. And finally sadness for the crappiest of all holiday theme songs: Auld Lang Syne. Could there possibly be a more maudlin tune to ring in the New Year?

But all is not lost to me around this occasion. I value any moment of reflection and the end of the year is as good a time as any. I could sit and ruminate over the good, bad, twists, turns, jump and false starts of the year, but I won’t. I like to find that one hidden bit which, when magnified, encapsulates some truth, motivator, or revelation.

Although it was a fairly recent event, seeing the room of maps in the Palazzo Ducale (a/k/a the Doge’s Palace) in Venice is one of these moments from 2011. It connects to a theme I’ve hit before that in this age when we have our noses glued to the navigation apps in our smartphones, it’s truly amazing to see evidence of a time when people mapped the world using the stars, science and their wits. The level of detail was extraordinary. I’m not sure when the maps were done, but I’m assuming before the end of the 15th century. The shape of the world was essentially as we know it today. The cities were plotted, the New World documented. I saw California – which bore that name even then. Sitting in that room at the dawn of the Age of Exploration must have been scintillating and intoxicating. The whole world was literally at your fingertips. You couldn’t help but feel powerful. When knowledge was in the hands of the few, it was as valuable as gold. Now, we have everything to hand and it’s as useless as stock in RIM. I, myself, “google” everything under the moon (so much so that my friend Jessica has suggested that I title my memoir She Googled It) but just as soon as I google it, that kernel of information leaves my brain and I struggle to recall what I just looked up. I don’t remember that happening very much when I actually pulled a book down from the shelf to get the information I needed. But this is a circuitous way of reaching my point: Namely, that having knowledge is meant to drive us forward, not confine us in a state of inertia.

Every city, country, and continent plotted on the maps of the Doge’s Palace probably represented an innumerable amount of suffering, failure and hard slog. Hardly any of us can really imagine what it’s like to map the world. Most of us just sit in it. This year the only resolution I’ll make is to put my knowledge to good use. There’s only so much our brains should hold without expressing it in action.

So, my final words for 2011: Skip the Auld Lang Syne. Instead, look at the stars, then plot your own point on the map.

Conversation with a Parisian Taxi Driver

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“Pour Collins?”

“Oui”

“Gare Montparnasse, s’il vous plait.”

“Pourquoi la gare Montparnasse?”

“Je vais prendre le métro  à la Gare du nord.  C’est plus rapide, non?”

“En ce moment, Gare du Nord est bien.  Le trafic ne sera pas mauvais.  Quelle heure de votre train?”

“18h13”

“Oui, it’s ok.  Le trafic est OK.”

“OK, nous irons à la Gare du Nord.”

[silence]

“Vous etes anglaise?”

“Non, non. Je suis américaine.”

American?  Well, now I must speak English.  I always tell my American passengers that I must practice English with them.  This is my classroom.  Yes?”

“OK, but I need to practice my French.”

“It’s OK.  Why are you not taking the plane?”

“I live in London.”

“Yes, the train is faster.”

“I love America.  I watch American films, American TV.  I love it.”

“Yeah?”

“I learn so much when I watch the films.  You see how Americans live.  And what their villages look like.”

“You know sometimes they’re not always filmed where they say there are.  It might be Toronto you’re actually seeing, not New York.”

“Uh, yes.  I love America!”

“I love Paris.”

“Paris.  It’s OK.  It’s not America.”

“That’s good, no?”

“I would love to visit America, but I need to stay here and make the money.  I have my family.  I want to go to New York and Florida.”

“I wouldn’t go to Disneyland.”

“I love American films.  I love Clint Eastwood.  He’s a good actor and, um, how do you call it?  Un metteur?”

“Director.”

“Yes!  Director!  I saw Le Changement.  I love 1930s.  I love Al Capone and Prohibition.”

“I love that period, too.”

“And I love the spy and crime films.  I love them because in America you can make films about the government being bad and it’s OK.  Even if it’s not true, you can make these films.  In France, the films are all the same.  A woman has a problem with her husband or psychology woman; a man has a problem with his psychology woman or his one, two, three lovers.  Always the same.  Pfft.  Boring!”

“Maybe one day you will get to America with your family.”

“Yes, I want to.  Hopefully next year or the year after that.”

“It’s not as expensive as you think.”’

“Yes, I make the money and go.  You know another thing about Americans?  You say ‘love you’ when you finish a call to your family.  In France, we don’t do that.  My daughter wrote me a note and signed it ‘love you.’  I didn’t understand.  It must be the young people here who are starting to do it.  No one in France would say ‘Je t’aime’ when you hang up the phone.  It’s funny.  Americans are so open.”

“I suppose so.”

“Je t’aime, Je t’aime.  Strange.”

“Were you born in Paris?”

“Ah, see that is the question.  You Americans are funny.  You ask these questions.”

“Um, I was just asking because France is a big place and I can’t place accents.”

“Ah, but you see, in France that is a big question.  I was born in Algeria, but I am 50 years in Paris.”

“So you’re French.”

“I am not French.  Not to the people here.  They ask this question, but they do not think you are French here.  This place is crazy.”

“I think Sarkozy is crazy.”

“Pfft.  Sarkozy.  Pfft.  I want it to be different for my children.  My son ask me, ‘Dad, I was born here, and live here.  Am I French?’  I say to him, ‘Don’t ask me.  I’m still asking myself that question.’  This country is crazy.”

“In America, if you are born in America or become a citizen later, you are American.”

“See, that’s why I love America.  I tell my son to make the money and leave, but I don’t know.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yes, bad.  Well, here we are.  That’s €36.”

“Can I have a receipt please?”

“Before you go, I tell you this:  France went to war with Algeria, then they ask us to come over and make their money, but then they tell us we are not French.  I hope it’s different from my children.”

“I hope so too.  Merci.”

“Merci…et bon voyage.”

I’m going to Palmers Green

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I was thinking recently about an incident on the bus last year.  I had got on the 141 at London Bridge heading towards Palmers Green (though that wasn’t my destination).

Palmers Green station platform signage

Palmers Green

Somewhere near Old Street, a not quite elderly man got on with a backpack and sat across from me (it was one of the older bus models where the back seats faced each other across the aisle rather than side by side). Anyhow, he seemed equipped for a long journey and he had the look on his face like a kid en route to the science museum on a day off.  Eventually, he reached into his backpack and pulled out an A-Z guide (a street directory of London).  It looked about as old as he was and I was wondering to myself how many London streets might be missing from his edition.  After thumbing considerately for a few minutes, he looked as if he found the page he was looking for.  At this point, he smiled and announced to no one in particular “I’m going to Palmers Green because I’ve never been.”  The look of pleasure as he said it was quite contagious, so rather than averting my eyes as I usually would have done, I smiled back.  Having been to Palmers Green myself, I hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed.  After all, it wasn’t any place noticeably special – just a terminal point on a bus route in the middle of a rather bland neighborhood.  But it was good to know that for just a little while a place like Palmers Green could seem as exotic as Marrakech in someone’s mind.

I rarely go anywhere just because.  I wonder how many of us actually do.