The Greece Trip, Part 1: London

Saturday, 1 November 2014, 16:50

Late – very late – blogging about this, but better late than never, I guess. About this time last year, my wife came home from school talking about a school trip to Greece in March (last March). We’ve often talked about places we wanted to go, and honestly Greece was never on the list – not because we weren’t interested in Greece, but because it just never bubbled up near the top of our lists. But this seemed like a great chance to take out first overseas trip – a planned, interesting agenda with people we knew. So we signed up, and that’s how we came to be traveling to Greece, with a one-day stopover in London, and ending with a three-night Greek Islands cruise.

We left on Sunday, March 9 – because the group was so large, we had to fly to Atlanta in 2 groups. We got the earlier flight, and had a 5-hour layover in Atlanta. But the time passed faster than I would have expected, and soon enough we were on the plane for London. I checked the flight path – right out over the Atlantic, no Greenland-Iceland skimming stuff for us. Arrived in London at 7AM, took our bags to the hotel, and then we were whisked off on a walking tour of London. The hotel was near Heathrow, so we rode the Tube to Piccadilly Circus, then started walking with our London guide. The day was cool to cold, windy, gray – I guess typical of London in mid-March. Our walking tour went from Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square, then to the Admiralty Building, then up to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard, then across St. James Park to Big Ben and Parliament, then back to Trafalgar Square for our first real stop, the National Gallery. They gave us about 45 minutes. Then to a shopping area called Covent Garden; then on to the British Museum. We had an hour there. Then on to a pub for fish and chips, then finally back to the hotel – it was about 8:30 by this time.

I did, of course, take pictures, but often they were rushed, as my group began to move away from me. But I had time for a few. In some semblance of order:

We took the Tube to our first stop, at Piccadilly Circus. It wasn’t actually that cold at this point, so I foolishly left my jacket at the hotel, a move I would seriously regret later in the day.

As I said, this was a walking tour, and we walked briskly to make it to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. But we didn’t get there early enough to get up to the Palace itself, so I settled for a spot alongside St. James Park, where I could see that day’s guard marching by:

Honestly, I thought St. James Park was more interesting, the early spring daffodils and blooming trees were really nice on an overcast day.

We made the obligatory stop at Big Ben (which is actually just the bell at the top of the tower – the tower is officially the Elizabeth Tower)…

After a short stop at the National Gallery and Covent Garden, we finally made it to the British Museum, the thing I most wanted to see in London. As I mentioned earlier, I only had about an hour, but at least I’ve been inside.

I will go back, hopefully soon, and make sure I have plenty of time.

Notice the lack of details here? That’s because there weren’t any. This was an add-on day designed to give people a taste of London, and it was just too rushed. I mapped our route when we got home – we walked about 6 miles that day. But, I can at least say I’ve been in London now. Up early the next day for the flight to Athens, where the trip got much better.

Category : Britain, Travel

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Senate Pondering

Thursday, 30 October 2014, 14:39

With just a few days left before election day, it’s getting more and more difficult to see a way that Democrats retain control of the Senate. In Montana and South Dakota, the Democratic candidate has essentially no chance. In Arkansas and Iowa, slim chances appear to be slipping away. Colorado, somewhat surprisingly, is moving in favor of Cory Gardner (R), even though Mark Udall seems to be a fairly popular incumbent. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana looks increasingly like a losing candidate. Lose those six states with no offsetting Democratic gains, and the Republicans take control of the Senate, 51-49. Of those, Colorado looks like the best chance for Democrats to hold on, but if the polls are correct, that chance is fading. And there are other states where Democrats could well lose their seats – Alaska, North Carolina, New Hampshire. Kay Hagan appeared to have stabilized her race in North Carolina, but the past few days have seen her lead shrinking. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is a couple of points behind in most polls, but Alaska polls are notoriously inaccurate, so nobody can really say what’s happening there. Jeanne Shaheen looks like she’s ahead in New Hampshire, but the race is tight. On the Republican side, two races that should be safe are surprisingly not, and the most surprising is in Kentucky, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a very tight race with Allison Lundergan Grimes. Georgia, a red state that is beginning to trend purple, wasn’t expected to be a problem for Republicans, but David Perdue (R) and Michelle Nunn (D) are probably headed to a January runoff. And then there’s Kansas, which will either re-elect a very unpopular Republican (Pat Roberts) or elect an independent (Greg Orman) who isn’t saying which party he would caucus with.

What’s the likely worst case for Democrats? Losing all six of the states where they’re in the most trouble, and adding one or more losses in North Carolina/New Hampshire/Alaska would put Republicans in control with somewhere between a 51-49 advantage and a 54-46 advantage. And given the factors lined up against Democrats – President Obama’s unpopularity, traditional mid-term losses by the President’s party in the mid-term of his last term, and the lack of gaffe-prone Republican candidates this time around – the most likely outcome is a Senate that ends up with 52 or 53 Republicans. But if Democrats somehow manage to hold on to their expected wins, and salvage victories in a couple of their endangered seats – say, Colorado and Iowa – or pull off upsets in Kentucky or Georgia, then they could retain control with 50 or 51 seats (a 50-50 tie keeps Democrats in charge with Vice-President Biden casting the tie-breaking vote). That would be a shocker, however. And given the advantages for Republicans this time around, a Senate still controlled by Democrats would be a crushing defeat for Republicans.

Why? Because 2016 could be a strong year for Senate Democrats. 23 Republicans will be up for re-election, compared to only 10 Democrats. And among those 23 Republicans are a number in traditionally blue states: Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. John McCain (Arizona) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) could well retire. And if a Republican Senate majority following 2014 starts playing hard to the Tea Party faction, they could turn many moderates against them. So a Republican win in 2014, while painful for Democrats, may be a short-lived pain, and could actually enhance Democratic prospects in both the 2016 Senate and Presidential races.

Category : Politics

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Garden Update – A Year’s Difference

Sunday, 26 October 2014, 11:58

A little over a year ago, I posted about a new perennial bed I’d made in the back. Now it’s a year down the road, and you can see the difference a year makes in the life of a garden. Here’s an original photo:

and the same shot this morning, about 14 months later:

Another shot from last year:

and today:

The asters hadn’t been transplanted into that bed at the time of the earlier photos. The azaleas have grown, but they’re overshadowed by the asters. In the next year or two, once the azaleas have grown more, I’ll have to start moving some perennials away from them. I hadn’t realized how much the Vitex had grown until I compared the photos. And I added the border using blocks I removed from the front yard, which I think really helped the looks of the new bed.

Category : Gardening

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Crayons And Cakes

Friday, 24 October 2014, 14:37

The things you remember from childhood are probably not the things your parents would expect you to have remembered. It’s often little things that stick with you – not that they’re the only things, or even the most significant things, but they’re sitting there on your memory shelf alongside the big stuff. For me, from my elementary school days in the early 1960s, it’s crayons and cakes. And let me say at the outset that I’m not complaining that I was made to do without. I had three older sisters and a younger brother, and a mother who stayed home to take care of us, so money, while never absent, wasn’t flowing in abundance. Every year, when it came time to buy school supplies, I wanted one thing – one of those big, genuine Crayola 64-crayon boxes with the sharpener in back and the unbelievably cool gold, silver, and copper crayons.

What I got was the smaller box, no sharpener, no gold, silver, and copper crayons. I do think maybe one year I got the big box, maybe 5th grade. Or maybe a friend gave me the cool crayons, I just know that one year I did have gold, silver, and copper. But I always felt just a little less worthy, only having the 24- or 48-count box (whatever was the minimum required, probably 24).

And then there’s cake. My memory is a little hazy, but what I remember is that our weekly lunch tickets came in two variants: basic and deluxe. I’m sure they weren’t called that, but that’s that they were, I think. The basic ticket got you lunch, but no dessert. The advanced got you dessert. And dessert was often either square yellow cake with chocolate icing, or chocolate cake with chocolate icing. And I almost never got dessert. As I said, my memory is a little hazy, and it’s barely possible that rather than having two levels of lunch ticket, dessert just cost extra and you had to clean your plate first, and I almost never cleaned my plate, because English peas were often on the menu and I’ve always hated English peas. And I’m sure much of the rest of the menu was nasty by my elementary school definition. Anyway, for whatever reason, I rarely got the cake. I wanted the cake, especially when it was chocolate on chocolate. Somehow I survived and grew to be a mostly-responsible citizen of these United States, but imagine how much further I might have gone if I’d had 64 crayons and cake?

Category : Life

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What I’m Reading Now…

Thursday, 23 October 2014, 20:26

is a lot of Cold War spy stuff. Novels – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Non-fiction – Legacy Of Ashes (not just Cold War, but that was the driving force behind my picking it up), The Art Of Betrayal. It’s not coincidence. After reading several books about the period leading up to World War I, and the war itself, I was looking for a new genre. And despite all the books I’ve read through the years, spy fiction and non-fiction was something I rarely delved into, unless you count some Tom Clancy novels during the 80s and 90s. But while I liked Clancy’s stuff early on, there came a point, I think probably with Debt Of Honor, when it felt like Clancy would get two-thirds of the way through a book, get bored, and decide to just wrap it up. But I digress….

I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. As an elementary school student in the early-mid 1960s, I lived in a world of atomic-bomb tests (we, students and teachers alike, still called them atomic bombs then, although I’m pretty sure everything was thermo-nuclear by then) and Civil Defense signs, and fallout shelters. A family up the street from us had a fallout shelter in their back yard. I never saw the inside – I never knew the family – but you could see the entrance to the shelter through their carport. All of those things were constant reminders that the Godless Russians might very well one day decide to blow us all to Kingdom Come. It was a strange time, I guess. We were not far removed from World War II, although at the time that seemed like ancient history. But we were only 20 years beyond that catastrophic struggle. Now I look back on things 20 years past, and I wonder about all the men and women – our fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles – who served or just lived through it, and I think about things that are now only 20 years in my past, and I think how strange it must have been for them. Maybe strange isn’t the right word, but there they were, just two decades past an event that dwarfs anything I’ve experienced in my life, and yet the world they made for us was so normal, so seemingly free of problems. Except that atomic bomb thing. And then Vietnam, which was piped into our living rooms every evening at 5:30. My idyllic existence began to crumble a bit then, as I approached the teenage years, then the later teenage years, then draft eligibility. Vietnam was winding down by the time I was actually eligible, in 1972, but it was a cloud hanging in the distance during my high-school years. It was the Cold War turned hot, on the other side of the world.

So the Cold War has always held a certain fascination for me. What would have happened if it had ever really turned hot? What if Soviet armor had come pouring through Fulda Gap? I’ve read many books about what might have happened in a World War III. But the actual conflict was played out in the shadow world of espionage and counter-espionage. And so, when I went looking for a new subject area for reading, Cold War spies were waiting. And there’s something else at play here, I think. The conflict between the West and the Communist Bloc, frightening though it was, seems so much simpler and more understandable than the world we’re in today, with religious fanaticism and Third-World nationalism fueling an ever-changing set of enemies that don’t match up well with our traditional means of applying resolutive force. It’s almost a sense of nostalgia for a conflict that made more sense, even if the potential for national destruction was much, much higher. So, for now, I’m reading about Cold War spies. Duck, and cover.

Category : Books, History, Life

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