Thursday, August 18, 2011

They're Baaaack!

It's time to engage the annual invaders. After mysteriously disappearing last spring, the ants are back. They always take me by surprise, appearing suddenly to swarm over one small kibble that has escaped the pet food bowl or struggling to take a crumb of bread up the wall and into some dark inaccessible recess of the roof where they no doubt confer with the squirrels who disrupt our sleep, joyously romping across the bedroom ceiling in the wee hours of the night. Once the ants gain access to a space that holds even the slightest possibility of scoring a hit on people or domestic animal food, they send back ever more scouts until they find a morsel that obsessive cleaning nonetheless has missed.

Experience and education has taught me that a chemical defense is unwise. Not only do the toxins stay on the surfaces awaiting absorption by a mere touch of our skin, but drift easily on the heavy tropical air until being pulled into our lungs. Even a heavy dousing of the house interior only delays their return: following their own chemical trail, the thousands that escape the human made sprays simply sacrifice a few hundred scouts until a new reconnaissance path around the insecticide can be blazed and the hordes return. Those that survive a brush with the aerosol bombs send on their genetic resistance to the next generation anyway. It is well documented that we are growing super pests and simply making the chemical companies rich in the bargain.

So, faced with an 11,000 species adversary who has had about a 100 million year evolutionary head start on us cocky Homo sapiens, I use the only weapon I have left: the power of thought processes that leads to complex problem-solving. Surely, I reason, my superior brain can come up with a solution and defeat the automatons marching through my kitchen. I use all sorts of techniques such as soapy water or citrus rinds to disrupt their trails, hoping it is enough to discourage them. I especially enjoy watching them suddenly break ranks and scramble around aimlessly when the pheromone trail is washed away (I know that it is only a temporary victory, but it's entertaining and interesting, at least from a Biology teacher point of view).

The pet dishes now sit in water-filled trays to stop their advance, and it works until the dog, in her voracious energy, pushes the bowl to the side of the tray, kindly offering easy access to the persistent arthropods; setting the kitchen table legs in coffee-filled margarine tubs also halts their advance (OK, so it won't be in a Martha Stewart spread--the containers don't even match). Despite all my tricks, however, nothing can stop them from running across the shower stall to the sink and back into a hole in the wall. Even sticking cloves into their holes only diverts them to another opening. I eventually concede, and let them have limited access to our space. They don't bite, they eat very little, and if I happen to put a small bit of cat food out of sight, they are content to bite off microscopic bits for 24 hours, so I can at least declare a temporary victory. It would work fabulously if only I'd remember to replace the nugget with another, but of course I never do, and exactly 24 hours and twenty minutes later, about six hundred finely honed ant scouts descend on the kitchen and fan out in all directions. Their greatest victory, I grudgingly admit I admire, is the penetration of the tightly capped honey jar that sat in a bowl surrounded by a moat of seemingly impassable water: scores of them gave their lives to build a bridge to the jar for others to eventually drown, blissfully I imagine, in the sweet nectar. By mistake, I had constructed a rather effective ant trap.

For the next few months we will battle it out, and they will let me think that I am winning once in a while. At some point, they will simply leave and stay away for months, just long enough for me to let my guard down. Wait till next year! I think. Yeah, right.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Charming English Street Names

One of the charms of England is its adherence to tradition, particularly in place names. One has to search hard to find a street name there that is a number. Come to think of it, I don't remember any. Here are just a few that by their very names tell you that you are not in Kansas anymore. Honestly, one might expect Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Christopher Robin to come skipping by at any moment. Photos taken in Strood and Rochester, Kent.

A "close" is an area, e.g. a field, enclosed by a hedge.

I vote for the former name.

Unfortunately, I didn't see the object that inspired the name.

A "row" is a narrow street, lined with identical houses. In the U.S. the only one I know is "Skid" Row. That American term originated in the Northwest lumber towns when skids, or logs were used to move or slide ("skid") the large timbers down the street. Later, of course, it meant any area where those who were down on their luck lived.

By the way, a "mews" is a 19th century term that describes a cobbled street with rows of stables and carriage houses facing one another. Alas, such is no longer the case on these streets.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Night Market

Every now and then I get together with my good friend Jeff Harper (former colleague at the American School in London, now, happily, in Bangkok [counselor at ISB, and photographer extraordinaire]) for a walkabout in a Thai market, followed by a most satisfying session of the best live blues in Asia in an adjoining night club, Saxophone. This time we were accompanied by friends, one of whom was visiting from New York City, and one of the best photographers I know, Ed Haynsworth. To view exceptional photos by both of these fine photographers, go to the following links:

Following are some of the scenes I happened across. The ever-changing market bubbles with energy and activity, giving a glimpse into Thai life. As we shared our photos, we quickly realized that none of us had taken the same shots as the others, despite criss-crossing the buzzing marketplace numerous times.

I think I found half of the remaining pay phones in Thailand.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


There simply is no other city like it in the world. Amsterdam, where one can sit for hours alongside a canal, sipping some of the best beer on the planet and watch the Dutch life glide across your field of view. The Netherlands shows what "laid back" means. For a change of pace, get up and walk around the city, alternating between pubs, coffee shops (they like it strong and often--I'm talking coffee AND beer!), and pot cafes (be warned: you can't buy alcohol there, just marijuana and soft drinks). Bicycles, "pommes frites," storefront prostitutes, bicycles, window boxes, cheese and pastry shops, sex shops, more bicycles, houseboats, and did I mention bicycles? Following are some of the sights that are unique to Amsterdam, one of my all-time favorite cities, the first place outside the U.S. I ever visited, when I was 16. It draws me back again and again.

How in the world do folks find their bikes? Notice the bike parking ramp in distance. Outside Centraal Station.

A quintessential Amsterdam scene.

The city has preserved a great many of its beautiful 17th century houses.

Some of the newest cars are so small that they park in spaces traditionally reserved for bicycles.

John's version of "Where's Waldo?" Find the photographer in this Amsterdam pub.

This scene could be nowhere else.

If you want it, Amsterdam has it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Express Education

During a recent visit to England, I was educated about the lack of education that special needs kids receive in many parts of Britain. The teacher I talked to has an autistic child who attends a public primary school. One would think that in a 21st century western school setting, with the great mounds of research done regarding essential services for those with special needs, a rich country would readily provide everything necessary to assist those recognized with learning difficulties. Let me describe the school setting and you tell me if you think there is anything amiss.

The school sits in a pleasant neighborhood, and is accessed by a stroll down a lovely shaded path. In the morning uniformed children run and play on the grounds with friends while parents gather to chat on the basketball courts. At the appointed time, each teacher gathers her charges and troops them off to the classroom. Imagine if you were the parent of a young boy or girl who is very bright, but has trouble interacting with others without pacing about the room. Imagine also that your child is but one of THIRTY. Then imagine that the school will provide no special services for your child, not even a teacher aide in the room. Finally, imagine what will happen when the child reaches the ripe age of 11, and must sit (in some--not all--areas of Britain), a four-part test that will determine the quality of grammar school the child will attend. If your child is highly verbal with a high IQ and adult vocabulary, but cannot concentrate to write well for any length of time, you know s/he will not likely pass, as writing and math are weighed double that of verbal reasoning.

It must be frustrating for parents with a talented child who nonetheless needs special accommodations but does not receive them, and agonizing to wait as the exams get closer. According to the child's mother, she and her husband are resigned to receiving the news that their child will not be admitted to grammar school, which is basically the college-track route. This 9 year old child has enough science knowledge to easily pass my grade 10 biology course now, as long as the exam is not written! It is a sad situation when a school has such a high stakes exam for such young children. Shameful, really.