Longitude

London offers such a concentration of museums, brimming with objects “collected” from all over the world. And all the museums in London are free – sometimes special exhibitions have entry fees, but day in, day out, you can travel the globe with an Oyster Pass (the amazingly convenient plastic card you swipe on a pad at Underground or on a bus to ride).

Much as I love revisiting favorites in London, we discovered someplace new to us but very old, on our Greenwich day. After visiting the Royal Maritime Museum, we climbed a hill rising from green parkland to the Royal Observatory. It’s a beautiful spot, capped by Flamsteed House where a reddish-orange ball on a mast still rises and falls to mark 1 p.m. – as it has every day since 1833, so mariners on ships in the nearby Thames could set their clocks. Modern timekeeping methods make the orange ball obsolete, it rises and falls now for tradition.

The museum inside Flamsteed House is much about time, longitude, and the competition to solve the navigational problem plaguing mariners of old – without accurate charts, ships foundered and many seamen lost their lives, countries lost their ships.

Our younger son and his sweet bride studied an enormous globe, finding Thailand (such a long way and across the International Date Line), and trying to really understand geography and time. Latitude is easier to get, as it was in the past, but figuring longitude, the invisible lines running up and down on our globe is trickier – and vital.

In her book, “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” Dava Sobel says: “The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child’s play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma – one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.”

To know longitude at sea, one must know the time aboard ship, and the time at a known longitude. Sobel writes: “Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks.”

Sobel’s fascinating book traces the competition and surprisingly underhanded maneuvers involved in finding a method to determine time at sea. She writes about early attempts at solutions, involving the stars, the moon, even the yelps of wounded dogs.

At the museum we saw the work of the creative scientist John Harrison, a “mechanical genius,” who, after devoting his life to the quest, invented “portable precision timekeeping devices” – clocks unaffected by the a ship’s rocking motion. Sobel tells the story of the stubborn, almost malevolent, scientific elite who distrusted his invention – men who refused to accept a new way.

The Observatory is also the site of the Prime Meridian, longitude’s starting point, and the line from which we measure Coordinated Universal Time – sometimes called Greenwich time.

As the wordsmith predicted, it would have been a tourist thrill to stand on the Prime Meridian itself, but we just hovered in the vicinity watching a long line of tourists waiting for their moment to straddle east and west.

Visiting Greenwich provided a day out of time to consider the time before people weren’t so cavalier about being at the same moment, if not the hour, as the rest of the world.

not a chronometer, but-1

Luminaries, Luminous, and a Life

Language is much on my mind as I watch Lady Baby put it together using nouns, a sprinkling of verbs, adjectives, and the tiny connectors making sentences of meaning. She’s on the early end of the novelist’s trade. How to use words to express one’s feelings, what kind of words, how many words.

How a reader feels about a novel is such a tangle of reaction to setting, characters, plot, and above all, language. Rarely does one book hit on everything – and never for every person.

Long airplane trips make for much reading time. I left the U.S. reading “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Booker Prize winner, and flew home reading Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” Both are long and very good, and I read them with pleasure on my pink birthday present Kindle.

I’ve been thinking about them, and about a third novel, John Williams’s “Stoner,” a novel of far less renown than the others – but maybe more perfect.

Catton’s book is truly unusual, but I confess to reading it as a straight narrative, a story that follows a group of people in gold rush, 19th Century New Zealand – at its heart a whodunit.

The setting is barely there – the goldfields themselves, the harbor, hotels and bars of a gold rush town. Catton introduces her characters along with their moral makeup and Zodiac sign (if you select a name as you read in an e-reader you get reminded, which is helpful since there are so many male characters). Astrological signs and the movements of plants have meaning to the overall book, but I never puzzled this out, it would reward a second reading.

I loved what Catton said in an interview after the Booker was announced. Asked if she was surprised, she said something along the lines of you never know, do you, because it is so subjective, but you hope the jurors will recognize that this is something “unique to you.” It truly is.

“The Goldfinch” is Donna Tartt’s third book, the first two came 10 and 20 years ago, and I remember reading each with great pleasure. This time Tartt’s fictional world begins with a terrorist attack and traces the journey of the treasured painting of the book’s title. “The Goldfinch” is closer than “The Luminaries” to the kind of language I love in a novel, delicious excess, paragraph-long sentences rich with words describing a scene in luscious detail – New York, Amsterdam, antiques and art.

I began it as we took off from Heathrow and settled into the long day with that illicit feeling of nothing to do but read this terrific book. And I stayed with it for a long time happily. But somehow, once home, and the reading richness became redolent of drugs and crime, Tartt lost me a little. I wanted to stay and I did, but (in the useless way of readers) I wanted it different.

The third book “Stoner,” seems perfect to me. The quietest book I can imagine, one man’s life, an English teacher at a Mid-west college, an often, but not always, sad life, pain from cruelty, moments of joy from love and work.

Nothing I say will convince you it’s the wonderful read it is. The young writer gave it to us for Christmas, and she, too, was at a loss to explain why it so captivates. A deliberate book, that sometimes hurtles along with a paragraph full of life changes. I stayed up till two one night reading, not something I do often.

The week I nearly finished it, The Workroom group contemplated Toystoy’s three conditions necessary for art: individuality, clearness, and sincerity. I think the answer lies there. Williams’s work is best described with those words.

In “Stoner” and “The Luminaries” every word tells (as E.B. White cherished), but in “The Goldfinch” the excess is often what I love. Luckily we don’t have to choose.

Oh what good winter reading!

book forms with saved stamps

Icy River and Tiny Moon

Grandparents and toddler grandchildren often share commonalities, conditions particular to their stages of life. Nowhere is that more noticeable than on really icy sidewalks. While the folk of middle years hop up slippery inclines and wear totally inappropriate footgear without mishap, we were careful.

Lady Baby could walk on the little stretch of cleared front sidewalk, and she rode Snowy Puppy there (a plastic poodle on wheels, sturdy artifact from Mrs. Hughes’s childhood). I had borrowed ice grippers (“clackers” we call them), so I stayed upright when we walked through the gate to the skating-pond sidewalk, but Lady Baby could only walk if I held her arms. Even then she slipped often.

It was so clear she really wanted to walk that I fashioned clackers for her from an adult pair. I thought she might object to something attached to her little boots – but no, she got it right away. “Clackers!” she said. They worked well, and she loved the word.

Being specific about exactly what she wants or thinks seems to delight her. Offered a choice for after lunch treat – the cookies her dad made or the ones I made – she replies: “Daddy coco and Kaytee coco.” And she’s getting the concept of adjectives.

Gearing up to go outside one day, Lady Baby spied my black wool long underwear and said “tight pants.” I said, “Well maybe, but my other pants are baggy.” “Aah,” she agreed, “baggy pants.”

Barely holding hands and at a good clip on her clackers, she walked the six blocks to a nearby elementary school playground. As we crossed the playground, and the frozen outfall from the skating rink, I said by way of conversation, “Oh look, we’ll cross an icy river!” “Yes,” she repeated, “icy river.” (More fun comes later when she repeats those phrases as she reports about her day.)

That night, when she, Poppa, and I were eating dinner together, she declared several times “Good day!” (easy to agree with that). She also said with a question mark, “Home?” and I said, “Yes, tomorrow, to see Frances we’ll go in the airplane.”

That night I put her to bed (Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes were on a date), and as I turned to go out of her room, she said sleepily: “Sleep well Kaytee.”

And driving to the airport the next day, we could see the moon in the early morning sky – a sliver of a moon.

I said, “Oh a little moon,” and she said, “Tiny moon – I see a tiny moon.”

Icy river and tiny moon - a postcard cropped

Booley Girl

A quick week at Downtown Abbey in late January was all about words and ice. While the East Coast shivered under Alaska’s missing Arctic air, thawing rain alternated with freezing to coat Anchorage streets with a thick layer of ice, polished by wind one day, covered with water another.

When we arrived (my good-natured husband, Poppa, also came north), Lady Baby seemed glad to see us but very calm. She sat us on the couch and placed plastic firemen hats on our heads, one pink, one red. We reacquainted ourselves with all the babies, Lady Cora, and the Lords Cromwell and Wolsey. We inspected the babies’ new clothes, and Lady Baby requested that we hang the babies’ jackets in the “entryway.”

And it’s like that with everything. It isn’t anymore marveling that she can pronounce things – as Mrs. Hughes said – she knows all the words of her world. The joy now comes with how the words are used, so appropriately, in comments and judgments and the telling of stories.

Her little narrative phrases exactly capture the essence of a situation. To her mother, about her dad during a very busy work week: “Daddy. Nice guy. Works.” We all took to saying it.

And she’s learning words to songs. We audited her music class where she and toddler friends and their mothers or fathers greet each other with song, learn about rhythm by drumming with sticks or clapping, and follow the teacher’s lead as she sings. Lady Baby sings along now – with her mother whose pretty voice can defuse a potentially difficult situation with a verse or two of “Baby Beluga” or “Shake Those Grumpies Out,” and with her dad who learned “Amazing Grace” to share with her.

When I started my usual version of our “Booley Girl” song, a sometimes lullaby, repeated since she was born to a sleepy Lady Baby, (I can’t sing, the words are nonsense, and packed with truth: I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck, you’re the booley girl, I love you truly. Etc.), she startled me mid-hug by joining in and knowing all the words.

We often realize now how much she’s been listening and absorbing all along. She still has that agreeable, conversational “yes” or “yeah” (though sometimes it’s accompanied by a contradicting shake of her head). And the way she employs those affirmatives allows one to chatter on to her.

We talk about the increasingly complicated books we read, sharing repeated laughs about “Miss Honeycutt’s Hat” (it’s a real chicken). She delighted her mother one evening by saying “I’m glad to see you mama.” Since we’d been cautioning one another about the ice, she’d say, “Be careful Poppa,” when he headed out the door.

Her mother always understands what she says, and as the week went by I learned to translate things better – but not always. The one day I saw a true glimpse of two-year old was when we needed to wash hands. I tried to do “wishy washy” where I rub her hands gently with soap under the water. She would have no part, pulled her hands back and said a word several times with increasing frustration. Luckily Mrs. Hughes called out from the other room: “Self – she wants to do it herself!”

Of course – I’m reminded – “You know nothing Granny Kaytee.”

jar of buttons

“About Time”

I love England (you might have noticed) – the buildings and vistas, the old days and nowadays, the British sense of humor and the British sense of design, the way they use the words of our (sort of) shared common language with so much variety of accent, speed, and colorful expression. (And they write so well.)

Having devoured Downton Abbey in an undisciplined, delighted week (on DVD, a premium from the PBS station here), we then spent a dismal and dark time in crime drama land. I hadn’t realized how such watching affects my everyday outlook until watching “About Time” the other night.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (who also made “Love Actually”), there is much familiar dithering of male and female leads, the charming and ever wonderful Bill Nighy, beautiful Cornwall scenery with stunning cliff top house, a so cheerful soundtrack. And London – lots and lots of London – a Tube station on the Bakerloo line surely painted anew to be such beautiful shades of green, the girl and boy pass through the station as the buskars play and sing “How Long will I love you.” Time passes and their relationship grows.

It’s a comedy, and it’s sad. The men in the hero’s family can time travel (suspend disbelief here), providing opportunity and complications – plot twists aplenty – romantic love, family love, fathers and sons. A functional, happy and loving, but not boring family.

It’s about how an ordinary life is happy or not – about not wasting the days we have, and posits that it’s not the big things or achievements mattering in the end, but the little everyday happenings we can really influence. Whether we smile or not, take joy or not, whether we value as the hero says at the end about his life, “my ordinary, extraordinary life.”

Happy Heart Day tomorrow – an ordinary, extraordinary day!

Valentine - England (cropped)

Yotam Ottolenghi Dresses My Fridge

The great strength of our London flat was location. From a bus stop at the top of our street, we could ride for five minutes, hop off at Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and be transported to royal London, business London, theatre London.

And just a short walk from our flat, making it easy to bring home boxes of delicious food, we found the famous chef Yotem Ottolenghi’s Notting Hill establishment, on Ledbury Aveue. It’s a tiny skinny place with just one big communal table at the back for eating there, but in the front space, which can’t be more than 10 feet across, huge platters of salads and meats are on offer each day. In a display window on the street, delicious desserts vie for attention.

Thanks to Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, you can do it all at home with your own fresh, seasonal ingredients. I have his book “Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi,” and, most cherished in a recipe book, it’s full of inspiration. (The links here are from his Guardian newspaper recipe column.) Ottolenghi’s meal-making salads combine unexpected ingredients and dressings. The wordsmith recently made “Sweet Winter Slaw”( http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jan/12/recipe.foodanddrink) using green cabbage and substituting kale for savoy cabbage – so good!

I read his recipe “Roasted parsnips and Sweet Potatoes with Caper Vinaigrette” (http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2008/jan/19/weekend7.weekend4) before tackling the motley, approaching antique, vegetables I found in my fridge when we got home. An investigation of the crisper drawer revealed parsnips, turnips, some of which turned out to be very large radishes, and some mature beets. I also had a big sweet potato, several shallots, a garlic bulb, sprigs of rosemary from the garden and thyme from a pot on the porch. Ottolenghi magic transformed this bunch into an amazing winter meal!

His hints about the order and time for roasting make this work. To begin he mixes olive oil, parsnips, red onions in a bowl (I used the shallots and the other vegetables I had). He roasts these (at 350°) for about 20 minutes. Then adds the sweet potato, chopped into wedges to the mixture, and stirs to coat.

After another 40 or 50 minutes, he adds halved cherry tomatoes. (I didn’t have those.)

I had to make substitutions in the dressing – I didn’t have the called for lemon, so squeezed a little tangerine juice into two tablespoons of olive oil, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, capers, and salt. Ottolenghi also calls for roasted sesame seeds.

Lately watching “Downton Abbey,” I think how we certainly don’t dress for dinner. But we should dress the vegetables, giving then a new life out of the drawer, a dressier life. Delicious.

Parsnips with Hats - cropped

Harry Potter’s Creative Life

When we visited London three years ago with my young friend and her mother (a trip we still speak of often), we joined a Harry Potter walking tour and saw places where the movie was filmed and sites “that probably inspired J.K. Rowling.”

But Warner Brothers’ Studio Tour “The Making of Harry Potter” wasn’t yet open. My young friend would have loved it – not just because she grew up reading Harry Potter, but because it is all about the work of clever and creative people.

Reaching the studio requires a long ride from London on a bus dressed up to suggest the night bus. I felt a little sheepish climbing aboard – wishing we had in tow all sorts of fans: my young friend and her mother, my niece’s best friend, Mrs. Hughes who loved those books, and my painter friend’s grandson for starters.

But the sweet bride was there, and very excited, having read all the books in Thai, in Thailand. (Thinking about that makes me pause in awe of J.K. Rowling – of how she created a whole imaginary world to enchant countless children all over the real world.)

The actual sound stage, a warehouse-like complex where the movies were filmed, now welcomes masses of visitors. The ticket line snakes below larger-than-lifesized photos of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the others at various ages.

The cavernous space contains the enchanting sets, complex and detailed in person – Hogwort’s Apothecary Department, Hagrid’s Hut, and Daigon Alley (where you could walk). In the Gryffindor Common Room, comfy red couches and plenty of cushions, a beautiful room-sized rug, good lighting, and an enormous fireplace with inglenook seemed a great place to be with your friends, and worlds apart from the sad, bleak set depicting Harry’s bed under the stairs at the Dursley house – electrical junction box and bare, dangling light bulb. (Our younger son commented that it resembled the small bedroom in our flat.)

We were there in December, and snow fell as we circled around the enormous model used for filming Hogwarts Castle. In the Great Hall we walked among decorated tables piled high with dishes for a Christmas feast. In the boy’s dormitory, a red garland wound around Ron’s bed with its coverlet of colorful knitted squares and worn velvet curtains.

Descriptions of how moviemakers achieved effects accompanied each set – books and furniture distressed to look worn (fat London phone books became ancient volumes, apothecary potion bottles labeled by hand), intricate costumes designed and made – we learned how artists and crafts people used models and mocks ups in their creative process. The scale model of The Owlery intrigued me, a little line drawing depicting each individual owl.

But the best part might be the stories and videos about the animal actors and their trainers. “Four talented Red Persian cats – Crackerjack, Oliver, Bo Bo, and Prince” – played Hermione’s mangy cat Crookshanks. The Animal Department attached little fur mats with hair clips to make them appear more unkempt. (Lord Wolsey might have played Crookshanks – without effort he inhabits the part.)

Near the Dursley house on an outdoor street set, we sampled “butter beer” beside the real night bus. I bought a Gryffindor House scarf for my painter friend’s grandson for his seventh birthday (and was rewarded later by a video of him, wearing Potter glasses and gown, twirling with wand in hand as though to take off).

Having walked and gawked till exhausted, we each fell asleep on our night bus going back to London.

All that creativity – Rowling’s words, the actors, the behind the scenes people – magic.