Saturday, March 17, 2018

I'm Baaack


It’s been three weeks since my rotator cuff shoulder surgery, and I’ve decided to take a shot at typing with more than the index finger of my left hand.  I feel I must take that risk—painful as it may prove to be—in an effort at breaking a horrid addiction contracted in the course of my recovery. 

No, it’s not to the dreaded oxycodone pain medication. I was well aware of the risks of that, and avoided it except on the few occasions when, on a scale of 1 to 10, pain hit 12.

No, I fell victim to an insidious hallucinogen that preys upon the innocent in their most vulnerable of moments, such as when one tires of balancing a book or e-reader on one’s belly with one hand. 

I’m talking about our singular national narcotic, competitively produced and distributed nationwide to generate profit and power via the exploitation of our disparate tribal urges.

Yes, dear reader, my name is Jeffrey and I’m addicted to Cable TV News.

It started off simply enough, with the teaser of a “breaking news” headline, followed by commentary from folks with distinct agendas.  Whether or not I agreed with what they said did not matter, for the game was to hook me into the personalities, and bristle or cheer while they added partisan spin to seemingly objective facts.  Soon I was jumping from channel to channel to catch how networks with polar opposite political views were handling the same state of facts…or ignoring them.

You find yourself in swoon, one that has you turning on the news when you rise in the morning, and falling asleep to it at night.  Then comes delusion, for you think you’re well-informed, on top of things.  But you’re not. You may know a lot about a half-dozen titillating tales, but you’re woefully out of touch with the world, for those news networks universally neglect almost all but headlines.

You’ve become myopic, endorphin-driven, and out of touch with the real world. You’re dulled by the stories, think that what’s debated is actually being resolved by the process, and, thus, do nothing but impatiently wait for the next big headline to break across the screen.

Congratulations, you’re now addicted to the reality TV world of Cable TV News.

Thankfully, not all have fallen victim to the scourge.  There are those who realize that if you wish to change the real world, you must participate in it, and bust your hump at making things happen.

Like, for example, the students and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, and the hundreds of thousands supporting them, in their efforts at spearheading the “March For Our Lives” on March 24 in Washington, DC.

Yes, I watched that horrible tragedy unfold on TV.  I watched the analysts, watched the looping videos, and watched the partisan interests roll out their spin.

Then I listened to classmates and families of the victims speak from their hearts with poise, intensity, and truth.  Their words have inspired a movement, if not a generation. They give me hope for our future, and reason to end my voyeuristic addiction and return to the parapets…

Right after I catch the latest update on the Stormy Daniels affair.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


Friday, March 16, 2018

From the mouths of Babes...

 Twitter was wittering this week about those dreadful situations when the brain is working hard, maybe multitasking and the mouth suddenly gets involved and blurts out something inappropriate and often hilarious…

Like the man who said a confused  "Many thank you" to a woman in a shop.”
Or the young gentleman whose colleague asked very politely if she could ask a question.  His brain was thinking along the lines of  “fire away” or “go ahead” but his mouth said  “go away”.

 And we feel the mortification of the cat owner walking along the street. A woman, walking her dog passed and the dog stopped to have a sniff. The cat owner said, ‘I bet he can smell my pussy.’
Or in a bistro in France, a young English lady was having some pea soup. She didn’t  think she’d like it but  she really did, she loudly declared “you can really taste the pea-ness.”

And asking for a packet of smokey bacon crisps….  but actually asking for a  "smacket of pokey acon"  . And a kid who asks for ‘cock prawntail crisps.’  Or maybe you might fancy some  “stiffy cocky pudding”.  Somebody actually did go into a cinema and ask for ‘Large Cockporn.’  Maybe that was the name of the film… but I wouldn’t know. I think that one might stay with me, as has the word minnellium  when I mean millennium. And irrelevant can become illrevelant.
A common one on the twitter thread was replying ‘You too,’ when somebody wishes you a happy birthday.

Or the poor man who  said ‘Congratulations.’  At a FUNERAL!
We did have a boy at school who once said  ‘Thanks Dad,’ when the physics teacher handed him a Bunsen burner. ( They weren’t related ) In a similar vein, some poor sod has a terrible habit of getting off the bus, waving and saying ‘Bye Mum.’
Imagine answering the phone at work and thinking ‘Can I help you’ or ‘Please hold for a moment’ when the mouth goes into motion and says  ‘Can I hold you’

And how much concentration does it need to answer the phone correctly.  Imagine answering the phone at work and saying ‘Hello. Can you help me?’
And when the plumber comes to your house and comments 'I've got the same wall tiles as you'  and you reply… 'I know'. That’s kind of spooky and could maybe lead to a rather good crime novel…

A great one on twitter was the young man who caught sight of a female ex boss. From across the street he wanted to make himself known and as his brain tussled between Hi and Hello,  his mouth settled the issue for him and came up with a shout of ‘Ho.’
Dearie me. Imagine leaving the office on the Friday of a bank holiday,  and as you go out the door  your brain is thinking ‘Have a nice weekend,’   or’ have a nice bank holiday.’  And settled for ‘nice bank holiday’ but substituted  a 'w' for the 'b'.  Ouch!

Here’s a quote from the tittersphere..’This thread is hilarious. And this one reminds me off the time I asked for £200 worth of Friss Wanks in the Post Office.’
And we can all empathise with the man who was spelling out his rather long  surname over the phone  and  began with "M for millipede...".. then, instead of his name, he  proceeded to spell out 'millipede'.

I guess it’s easy to be in a shop, choosing a birthday card., The brain is saying birthday birthday birthday so when the card is purchased and the change is handed back over, instead of saying ‘thank you,’ the mouth says ‘Happy Birthday.’
Aiming for the words Cheeky Piglet, I once called a puppy a peeky chiglet.

Caro Ramsay  16 03 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cuddly coils

Stanley - Thursday

Michael and I are desperately trying to meet a February 28 deadline for our new thriller, DEAD OF NIGHT, which is due to be published in the UK in July.  Here's a sneak preview of the cover.

Deadlines are often accompanied by frequent distractions.  It is easier to read about the Pennsylvania special election or watch South Africa beat Australia in the second test (that took four days!) or do profound research on the internet, than it is to write the denouement of the book.

So, when I read Annamaria's Monday blog on Reptiles, I started wondering about motherhood.  Are snakes good mothers?  Do they look after their kids or do they just kick them out and let them fend for themselves?

Given the deadline, I couldn't go overboard on the research, but I did find one fascinating article about a snake that is common in South Africa - the southern African python.

Southern African python
The first tidbit that was new to me was that only 70% of the world's snakes are oviparous.  That is, they lay eggs.  The rest are viviparous, giving birth to live babies.  Oviparous snakes tend to live in warm climates because the warmth helps the snakes to incubate the eggs.

Needless to say, pythons lay eggs.

And what the female has to go through is remarkable.

Graham Alexander, a researcher at my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, has spent years doing field studies on snakes at the Dinokeng Game Reserve just north of Pretoria.

He reports that the female pythons do not eat during the six-month breeding cycle and lose about 40% of their weight.  They also turn black, which helps them get hotter, which in turn, helps incubation.  Unlike other python species , which can raise their body temperature metabolically, the southern Africa python has to rely on the sun.

When the python basks in the sun, its body temperature rises about 5°C to about 40°C, which is close to being lethal.  It then wraps itself around the eggs to provide warmth.

When the babies hatch, they spend each night for about two weeks within their mother's warm coils.  This is the first time egg-laying snakes have been to show maternal care after giving birth.


Graham Alexander with baby pythons
Now I have to see if a python has a role in the last chapters of the thriller.


Thanks to all of you who sent good wishes for my quick recovery.  I am much better and sleeping through the night, but still have a tenacious sinus infection that keeps me pretty tired the whole time.

We had some light rain in Cape Town last evening.  Probably not enough to make a significant difference to the reservoirs, but what a pleasure!

(I found the information in this blog in Dave Chambers' article titled Coils and cuddles: python babies feel the love from mom in Times Select.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

Sujata Massey
what is it?

On my recent sojourn in India, I kept a lookout for animals.

This is because I’m striving to write a lot more about animals in my books. They may not solve a crime or talk (thank God!) but they will be characters.

In my book-in-progress, Perveen Mistry 2, I've included an Indian breed dog called Rajapalayams that were especially appreciated in royal households of Tamil Nadu. Rajapalayams are handsome white hounds that look similar to many of the aboriginal pariah dogs seen throughout India. The reason there are different colorations and body types of strays in Indian cities goes back to these dogs mixing with breeds brought in by Europeans. Most of the dogs I see in India are gingers. But I've  learned that it's mostly dust I'm looking at, not the real color of the fur underneath.

I also have different kinds of monkeys swinging through my story. One is the rare Lion-Tailed Macaque indigenous to the Sahyadri Mountain range of Western India. He is elusive and beautiful. The other monkey I’m featuring is the Bonnet Macaque, a pink-faced monkey with a very long tail that is common in rural and urban areas. That monkey is super social and inadvertently becomes involved in a crime.

I have not heard about anyone bringing stray monkeys home from India. But I do know a few people who fell in love with stray dogs in India and brought them home.  

A well-built white hound who came from the streets of India used to visit Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis. When I was there, the dog was extremely interested in the scent of my pocket. He was also interested in the free tiny candy bars by the cash register. His owner told me he is always looking for food.

India is estimated to have 30 million stray dogs. In some cities, dogs are rounded up and exterminated as a public health control. There is an estimated 20,000 rabies deaths to humans from animal bites in India per year. However, some animal rights activists in India point out that 75% of dog bites in India are from pets, not strays. So where's the greatest risk?

I knew that I should not pet a dog while in India, but it was hard to resist. My trip took me from Delhi and Udaipur to Mumbai and Ahmedabad, going from north to west.  I noticed two styles of behavior with the stray dogs. Many of them roamed in family groups, and of course these dog families sometimes got in fights with others at night. I am a dog lover, but the sounds of these ferocious dog wars were pretty frightening. These dogs didn’t come near people, and people never touched them.

The other style of dog behavior was “individual beggar.” In Udaipur, I visited a college where a student club was formed to help with stray dogs. The students in the club feed the animals. When I visited outdoor areas in the college, very friendly dogs wanted to play. I could see they’d come to rely on the students for much more than a bit of supper. They were relishing love.

 In natural areas where tourists go, like the Matheran Hill Station—where I visited in 2016-- and Elephanta Island near Mumbai, dogs wag their tails, cock their heads, and beg for a petting. They are also the frequent recipients of leftover snacks and lunches—just like the monkeys who hang nearby.

I traveled by boat in the Mumbai Harbor to Elephanta Island, a site where tourists come to look at a labyrinth of cave temples carved between 450 and 700 AD. While there, I noticed a lot of scavenger dogs and monkeys. I was warned that the monkeys could be more than I bargained for. I was used to the idea of monkeys grabbing food of tables and from people, but here the bonnet macaque population is known to grab cell phones and cameras. I asked why and was told some people who train the monkeys, who are rewarded for bringing them these goods. However, Elephanta Island had no panhandlers, just a lot of successful vendors, so I am skeptical about this idea, at least on Elephanta. My theory is that monkeys are smart and become annoyed at being gawked at without getting a payment of food.

It was funny to see monkeys drinking from half-filled soda bottles (especially sweet drinks like Pepsi). Monkey see, monkey do. Yet I wondered about the impact on their teeth and health.  Just across the path from the soda-drinking monkeys, dogs were tucking into the remains of food still in foil wrappers. I hoped they knew when to stop.

Most Indians don’t keep dogs in their homes, but it’s common for one stray to be fed regularly outdoors by a person. A popular news story  during my trip was the behavior of a stray dog that always showed up by the ladies’ only car of a Mumbai commuter train in the evenings. When the passenger the dog waited for didn’t arrive, she would run sadly after the train, and then return to her puppies. Who was the one who fed the dog? Did she just change to a different train…or did something else happen, the mystery writer in me wonders?

Films of this black and white dog have thousands of YouTube views. The story of a loyal dog coming to the train reminds me of the tale of Hachiko, a dog who regularly looked for someone to arrive on a certain train in the evening at Shibuya Station. This dog tale, which took place in the 1930s, is so beloved that it resulted in a statue of the dog at Shibuya Station and a Richard Gere movie, Hachi, retelling the legend in an American setting.

My dogs Daisy and Charlie, who nap by a cozy, odorless gas fireplace live better than many people in my city. I will never feel comfortable about that. However, I am glad that our two dogs that had tough lives to begin—especially our beagle, Charlie, who lived caged up for years in a puppy mill—can enjoy serenity in their later years.

For animals living the free range lifestyle in India, I wish good weather, plenty of water, and a safe bite to eat.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cactus and Macarons!

What a great weekend of writers, readers and edible cactus at the Tucson Festival of Books.
Here's some quick shots.

And now to the writers!
 What a total thrill to moderate (actually just listening to these two) Scott Turow and Greg Iles
And hang with the amazing Tayari Jones whose book is topping every chart and an Oprah pick. I met Tayari years ago with my editor and am so proud of her!!
Every year Susan comes by and give Libby et moi macarons from Paris!
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, March 12, 2018

Africa 2018: Reptiles

Annamaria on Monday

Selfie taken from my accustomed seat during game drives

Much of the time, when fellow travelers in Africa talk about what they saw, they speak of animals--and then almost always the impressive ones, especially the big cats.  At Lake Manyara, on this last trip, I went on a game drive with a Chinese couple.  The woman lamented that she had not brought her own camera, because her husband was only interested in taking pictures of lions and leopards.  She was going home without her own photo souvenirs.  Poor thing.

I thought her husband would also one day regret the photos he did not take.  But who am I to tell another human being what to like, much less what to photograph?  I photograph everything: animals, birds, flowers, rocks, landscapes, birds, trees, birds, bodies of water, people, birds, insects.  Very often, I capture marvelously clear and precise shots of tree limbs that were very recently occupied by a beautiful bird.  Michael Sears dubbed those shots "was-birds."  Here is the best of this year's photos of was-birds:

Taken with a 30x zoom, with my splendid Panasonic Lumix camera, which
has a Leica lens.  Look at the clarity of those leaves.  Imagine how clear the
bird would have been.
I also  got some wonderful photos of reptiles:

None of which were snakes

A terapin, of the Order: Slightly-Out-of-Focus

Leopard Tortoise 

Michael, HELP! You told me, but I forget this critter's name

Are you a Nile crocodile?

At Lake Manyara there were scores of these on my mosquito netting each night.
I was happy to see them because I believe they eat insects.  Anything that eats
mosquitoes is my friend!

This cutie's body was maybe two inches long.
I tried to ID this tiny one, Michael, but the only thing I found that looks
remotely like it lives only in North America.
This guy, by comparison, was about three feet long tip to tail. 

Here you can see his size in relation to the clumps of grass and get a gander at
 his formidable tongue.  Look at the beauty of his markings.  What a guy!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snow Business: Bringing Out the Best and the Worst in People

Zoë Sharp

Last week the UK had a bit of snow. If this was Canada, say, or the French Alps, or Moscow, it would have seemed an insignificant amount hardly worth mentioning.

We English, on the other hand, are never prepared for our weather.

The calm before the (snow) storm

In this case, it wasn’t simply snowfall that caused the trouble, but a combination of snow and wind. The snow landed, and then the wind swept it into drifts that blocked local roads and created utter chaos with supply lines and transport.

First came a reduction in visibility, just to make you feel isolated ...

For two days, the village where I house- and cat-sit over the winter was more or less cut off, so the tiny village shop was raided for supplies vital to withstand this kind of siege—bread and milk, vegetables, soup, and chocolate. (All the major food groups.)

Then came the drifting snow across the roads...
And now the majority of the snow has gone, most people’s patience has run out altogether. It’s gone from a pristine white carpet to dirt-encrusted remnants by the sides of the road. They’ve had enough. It’s nearly Easter, and high time Spring was making its presence felt.

The mogs were fascinated by the white stuff, and found their usual hunting camouflage remarkably unaffected, sadly.
I am always fascinated by what happens when the normal order of things breaks down, even to a small degree. Two days, I concluded, was about the maximum length of time that most people’s patience could stand the disruption. Any longer than that and it went from novelty to serious inconvenience. A day or so off work was fine. More than that and deadlines would be missed, and the scramble to make up lost ground was not worth the enforced downtime.

For a while, everything looked pristine and beautiful.
How people behave when they find themselves in a situation that is one of overall rather than personal adversity tells you an enormous amount about them. It pares down human nature to a more fundamental level. Some people take a step up, and others a step back. Light and shadows.

It doesn't take long for everywhere to look dirty and churned up. The snow in the lane was thigh-deep in places.
It is also why setting any kind of crime fiction during a period of upheaval can be so intriguing to explore for the writer. Setting ABSENCE OF LIGHT during the aftermath of a major earthquake was a deliberate decision and one that gave me a chance to put the best and the worst of human nature under a microscope.

I am currently reading Andrew Taylor’s THE ASHES OF LONDON, set during and immediately after the Great Fire of 1666. Although this book does not use the fire itself as a major part of the storyline, the fact that it caused many Londoners to be ruined and made homeless, not to mention those who died, brings out the worst in people. Quite apart from the fact that a number of tenants found themselves financially responsible for the rebuilding of their home, despite not owning the building, and still liable for the rent as well. Desperation breeds ever more desperation, and that’s where the writer comes in.

The last remnants of snow-bones in the fields.
Needless to say, no fires broke out in the village here during our minor blizzard. All that's left now are a few snow-bones in the fields. As soon as the thaw started, naturally there were burst pipes aplenty, causing the water supply to be shut off, but only for a day. There weren’t even any power cuts, nor did the phone lines or cellular masts fail. 

But if they had …

This week’s Word of the Week is pusillanimous, meaning to show ignoble cowardice or contemptible timidity. It dates back to the 16th century and comes from the Latin pusillis, very weak or little, possibly connected to pullus, a young animal, from pau few or little, and animus, courage or spirit.