Friday, June 30, 2017

500 - 250 = 890

Some very clever person sitting in the Scottish tourist board decided that Scotland should have an iconic drive like the Sur highway or route 66.  As they were thinking this, they might have been whistling the Proclaimers tune about the 500 miles and how they would walk 500 more.
And then they looked at a map. I would presume at this point that the person who did it was not a driver, so they  worked out vaguely, that if you go from Fort William to Inverness by going all the way round the top of Scotland that would be about 500 miles (And nearly 500 more) The drive is called the North Coast 500.
You buy t-shirts, hats, key rings, special road maps. You can join the North Coast 500 society. It has been a tremendous success everybody is being encouraged to do it. The two things we don’t have are decent roads and decent toilets.  After driving on some of these roads the one thing you need is a toilet.
The Drive become tremendously successful, probably far too quickly. The infrastructure is simply not there and the locals are really getting hacked off with it and I can understand why. Most of the roads are the infamous single track passing places - often with 1 in 5 gradients and soft edges...and a huge drop down, a hairpin bend and a HIghland cow standing in the middle of the cracked tarmac with a look on her face that says she knows how big her horns are, and how puny the front of your vehicle is. Pictures  will follow.
The next 4 blogs will be about our journey where Alan and I drove the first 250 miles of the North Coast 500 in a motorhome. When we returned to base the ‘mileometer’ had clocked up 873 miles, and apart from 80 miles at the start, we did not diverge from the route. It was an adventure, something that was endured, at times enjoyed and at other times was scary. I still have a sore wrist where I had to hold onto a pole to stop myself being blow off my feet in Durness ( a bit right at the top). 
Here is a pictorial  tour of day one - the day we had sunshine. THE day we had sunshine....
We had to drive from  our house out to Edinburgh  to collect the motorhome and then up to Tyndrum to get on the start of the 500. This was day one. We set off at 1pm.

This is the one piece of sunshine we had. By 7pm we were parked in  Tyndrum within 20 minutes the midges joined us and chased us back into the van.  The van had a midge screen. Tyndrum is a starting and finishing kind of place. It has a campsite, three houses and a café called the Green Welly that does not sell wellies.

Tranquil river bubbling through campsite.

I bet they had a lovely view as they ate their breakfast.

This sign said danger - crocodiles.
The midges were more dangerous.

The camp shop's two best sellers- ice cream and midge repellent.

This (above) was the very European toilet block ie it had a door, was clean, the showers worked! The owner explained they had to do that as walkers on the west highland way kept using the showers. The West Highland way is a 155k walk from Glasgow to Fort William, on wee mountain paths, now as busy as the cookie counter at Walmart.

Tiny sleep only lodges for walkers. (It had a kettle)

Slightly bigger lodges for two walkers

Brave walkers in tents- they wore midge face nets 24/7 which gave them the look of an orienteering bank robber.

I love the variation on the camper van theme... this was Norwegian I think, covered in moose/elk stickers
I thought this camper must be very dark, then I realised it was the midge repellent delivery van

And the next day we were up and off on our adventure,

driving on slow roads that seem to go no where....

Caro Ramsay 30th June 2017

Thursday, June 29, 2017

You won't like Minneapolis!

When I tell people that I live in Minneapolis, the most common response is “Ooo, that’s a very cold place!”, accompanied by an exaggerated shiver.  It’s mainly people in the States that react this way, but a surprisingly large number of people elsewhere in the world have the same reaction.  I guess the word is out.

And truth be told, it can be cold – very, very cold.  The record low is -41˚C (-41˚F).  During the 2014/2015 winter, the temperature dropped below -20˚C (0˚F) on over fifty days.  In the broader context, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state of Minnesota is −51°C (-−60 °F).  Brrrr.  BRRRR. 

When one takes into account the wind, the coldest wind-chill temperature ever recorded was -52˚C (-61˚F).  Another brrr.

Downtown Minneapolis from the Sculpture Garden

Iced lake

Hoar frost

Ice and snow

The cold doesn't stop people from being outdoors
So, why do I live here when I have the choice to live in many other places?  Why did I choose to move to Minneapolis from Illinois, when I could have stayed there?

There were two basic reasons I moved.  First, I did not like the weather in Illinois: summers were very hot and humid, to the extent that when walking down the street, I would duck into every other shop to get to the cool air-conditioning.  And winters, which I normally like, had little to offer.  The problem was that the temperature often hovered around freezing.  So, when it snowed, it melted during the day and then froze at night, leaving glare ice everywhere.  Cross-country skiing was impossible or very dangerous.  Ice storms were common, bringing down trees and power lines.  

Ice-storm damage
And, worst of all, one could go without seeing the sun for weeks on end.  I sort of resolved my need for sunshine by renting a small plane and flying around above the clouds for an hour or two.  Bliss.

Above the clouds
You may reasonably ask: “Why didn’t you move south rather than north?  To somewhere warm in winter?”

My rationale to move north was that I don’t like weather that is too hot – Minnesota summers are just fine.  And, even though the winters are very cold, the sun shines most of the time.  Also, of course, everything is designed to deal with the cold.  For example, the entire downtown area is connected by enclosed walkways.  So, one can walk around downtown without ever going outside.  Hence no bulky coats for the most part. 

Enclosed skyway
Stone Arch Bridge crossing the Mississippi

Summer in Minneapolis - downtown from Lake Calhoun

Summer in Minneapolis - canoeing the lakes
The second reason I moved was for what the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) offer in terms of culture. 

I think it was during the 1930’s, some of the big Minneapolis companies were having difficult hiring top management from the East Coast, largely because the wives said there was nothing to do.  So these companies, such as Pillsbury, General Mills, 3M, etc., created a foundation for the arts to which they contributed 3% or 5% of their pre-tax profits.  This money was used to create amazing cultural offerings.

Today, the Twin Cities boast two full-time orchestra, the wonderful Minnesota Orchestra and the delightful and adventurous St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  Both are affordable – a friend
and I went to Mahler’s 2nd the other evening for $34 each.  Tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are often $10 to $15.

We have 76 professional theatre companies, including the remarkable Guthrie, whose productions are envied everywhere.  A ticket to Sondheim’s A Walk in the Park with George this last weekend also cost $34.  And I can walk to both Orchestra Hall and the Guthrie.

The Guthrie with its remarkable cantilevered viewing area

The Mississippi from the Guthrie
We have an excellent opera company and myriad art museums, both traditional and contemporary.

For those of us who write, The Loft is a remarkable writer’s resource, a guild really, offering courses, lectures, internships, and apprenticeships.

The city fathers of Minneapolis, probably also in the thirties, had the foresight to declare that all lakefront on the city’s many lakes was to be public.  Today, there are walking and biking paths everywhere.  I live a hundred metres from the Mississippi and can bike along it, through dense forest, for miles and miles.  It never ceases to amaze me that I can be in the middle of the city and see no buildings.

Running path around the lakes

Bike paths are everywhere.

Very much a biking city
And then there is fall in the Twin Cities - they are worth a vist for that alone!


Cruising the Mississippi
Who wouldn't want to bike?
For me another appeal to the Twin Cities is that people here are generally personally conservative and socially liberal, although this is changing somewhat.  People are very generous in their contributions to charity, and the cities have welcomed large numbers of refugees from Vietnam and East Africa, bringing welcome upgrades to the cities’ food scene.

For the sporting-minded, we have multiple franchises, mostly perennially disappointing, although the Twins have won the World Series twice while I’ve been here.  However, I don’t watch baseball very often.  Give me cricket and rugby any day.

We are very happy with what we have here ,and the real reason we tell stories about the ferocious winters is to deter people from coming and spoiling things.

My friends who don’t live here ask me the whole time how I can tolerate the winters as I get older.  My answer is simple: I live in Cape Town from November to April.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dancing Dictators

Leye - Every other Wednesday 
Why do people dance? What is this thing, this human ritual? You throw your limbs about, twist your waist, count steps, follow the beats, and all for what? To what avail? What does it do for you? Exercise? A prelude to some amorous act? Advertisement? What? I just don’t get it.

Surely it’s a carry over from earlier times when we humans were a lot closer to our ape cousins. A residue of some instinctive social ritual that originated in caves amongst early humanoids that could never have imagined that, one day their bones would be studied, thousands of years since they last danced.

            Very much like the universal handshake. Why do humans shake hands? Another vestige of our ancestral chain, no doubt. But dancing, that one really gets me. Why do we do it? What do we gain from it?

            We also kiss. We wave goodbye. We close our eyes to pray. We build idols. We kneel before them. We bow. We courtesy. We are.

The human child learns the words mama and dada without being taught. It’s there in what we are. It’s what we’ve always done. Its what we’ll always do.

            Now, dancing, pointless as it seems, I can accept. It harms no one. But other things, surely we should have advanced from what instinct handed to us. It is instinct that compels us, I am convinced, to choose one person to rule over millions of us. To have a queen, a king, a pope, a bishop, a prime minister, a president, a dictator. A donald.

            In the cradle of mankind: in the sweltering jungle or the sweeping savannah, who knows, one person must have emerged as the most courageous, the most ruthless, the strongest, the boldest, the most hungry to grab power, the most likely to scare off those eyeing the clan with murderous desires. Brute strength, cunning, superior hunting skills, these make the one leader.

            Then came kings and queens. Single rulers who saw to it that their blood, their house, continued through power held in wealth won and held by violence. The people need a single ruler; the strongest ruler makes it easy for them. “Here, have my son to own you all after I’m gone.”

            Surely, we are a long way from those days. Surely, we have sufficiently evolved to stop clubbing each other over the head.  

            But I dream. We humans, we are still cave men, only that our clubs with which we smash at one another now have nuclear warheads.

            Why do we still choose a single person to rule over millions of us? What can one person have that is absent in all others? Take Nigeria, a country of about two hundred million proud Africans. Every four years, unless interrupted by the military, we go out and vote. We know our votes don’t always count, but we troupe out and we cast them all the same. For show. Then, a leader is chosen. The One. And he, (we have never cracked the ‘She ceiling’), acquires legitimacy to misrule, mismanage, loot and plunder, disregard the law, silence the press, slander and eliminate competition, and attempt to install their house to rule after them.

            Why do millions of people still think they need one person to rule over them? One person? One human chosen from amongst them. Why?

            Why do we dance? Why do we need a king? I cannot accept the authority of any one human being over me, nor do I desire any authority over anyone. But I’m a great dancer.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Guest Blogger Lisa Alber: Memory is a Slippery Mistress--Thoughts About Ireland

Lisa Alber for Cara—Tuesday

Cara asked if I (Jeff) would mind introducing her guest blogger this week, Lisa Alber. Little did Cara know that Lisa and I have a loooonnng history together.  One that always makes me smile when I think about it…and there are very few folks I can say that about. :-)   You see, back when Lisa published her debut novel, Kilmoon, and appeared on her very first author panel (at Left Coast Crime in Monterey), guess who was her moderator.  Yep, moi.  And I enjoyed it so much that a couple of years later I popped up again as her moderator on another panel.  So, folks, I know of what I speak when I say Lisa is a truly gifted writer and delight to hang out with. 

Lisa sets her County Clare series on the West Coast of Ireland, amid a setting reminiscent to me of The Quiet Man, in a county familiar to many of us from the glimpse we get of it as our planes land in Shannon airport.  That idealized image is the subject of Lisa’s post, and I must admit she raises points and feelings I share regarding the Mykonos I write about. I guess you could say that panelist Lisa is now showing the way to moderator Jeff.  Welcome, my friend, to Murder is Everywhere. --Jeff

Thanks for inviting me to join the gang for a day, Cara! For those who don’t know my novels, I represent the Republic of Ireland. I’m a Yank from Californian, with Irish blood, and I chose to set my first three novels in Ireland because a novel idea found me the first time I traveled to Ireland. I should say, a workable idea that excited me found me. From there, I started a mystery series set in County Clare. The third novel, Path Into Darkness, comes out in August.

The title of this post comes from the novel. Memory as a slippery mistress is a theme for one of my more troubled characters, Nathan. He can’t trust his memories—can’t be sure they’re the truth. Memory isn’t truth, anyhow, but we tend to think of them as the truth about past experiences, don’t we?

This came home to me last year when I traveled to Ireland for the first time in a decade. My first twenty-four hours in County Clare, driving around, reacquainting myself with old haunts and routes, were an exercise in disillusionment and righteous indignation.

There I was, expecting the march of progress to bypass County Clare. Hah! The wild and wooly nature of the area is definitely on the decline.  Tourist signage everywhere shortened distances. New housing lining the roads between villages felt more suburban than rural. The narrow roads between villages were widened and—gasp!—actually painted with dotted white lines to keep drivers civilized.

Gotta tell you, I missed barreling along just shy of head-on collisions and every once in a while pulling onto a verge to allow a truck to pass.

It took a solid two days for me to get a grip on myself and accept what I was seeing. I was there for novel research. The tourist crap and cookie-cutter housing developments were the reality. Here’s a quote from my travel journal:

… gorgeous except dismayed by my lying memories and the changes – so many more houses. The vast expanses of fields and narrow, unlined lanes not so much anymore … I realized that my disillusionment at seeing Clare again stems in large part from living with my fictional Clare for so long – it had become reality.

In other words, I realized that I wasn’t just once removed from reality through memory. I was twice removed – from memory to fiction. My fictional Clare had become more real to me than reality, more real than my memories even.

No wonder I was disoriented and resentful at first. Hold the phone, this isn’t Clare!

No, what it wasn’t was the land of my novels. I use fictional license, as we all do, highlighting some aspects of my location, not mentioning other aspects that aren’t important to the story.

What amazed me was how well my brain erased those other aspects—like the ugly rock quarries, for example, and the sad mud-coated donkeys forgotten in their pastures. Between the old stuff that I’d conveniently forgotten and the new changes, I didn’t recognized Clare at first.

HOWever, after the first few days, I was back to loving Clare and eager to experience it objectively and with an open heart. I needed the dose of reality, and, in the end, an ugly rock quarry and a housing development and a tourist cottage made appearances in Path Into Darkness.

On a deeper level, my experience helped me deepen Nathan, which helped shape the story. If my brain could erase reality so easily, what about people with actual traumas in their backgrounds? I don’t know the answers, but it’s the kind of question I like to play with in my stories.

Have you ever gone to a beloved place years later and felt it was diminished somehow?

Thanks, Lisa.

Lisa Alber is the author of the County Clare mysteries. Her novels have been called “rich, dark, and complex” and “lyrical, tense, and haunting.” The third novel in the series, Path Into Darkness, comes out in August. Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Facebook | Twitter

Monday, June 26, 2017

HVSF: My Thirty-Year Love Affair

Annamaria on Monday

Where to begin to describe a requited love affair that has lasted so long.  At the beginning, I guess:

Shortly after David and I moved into our country house in Garrison, New York in 1986, I noticed a banner along Route 9D.  There at the entrance to the Boscobel Historic Restoration, it said, “Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.”

“Oh, look,” I said, “we have to go.”

David's answer was the most common that one would expect of most Americans, I imagine.  “I hated Shakespeare in high school.”

I, his Bardolator wife, wasn’t going to let that stop me.  “Oh, David, how can you say that.  You are an intelligent, sensitive, well-read man.  You can’t dismiss the greatest writer ever.”

I got him to indulge me.  One performance that summer thirty years ago and he was hooked too.

Our evenings with HVSF began with a picnic overlooking one of the most majestic views in the country.  That helped.  But it was the clear, contemporary, American style of the acting and totally entertaining productions that worked the magic. 

An early Romeo and Juliet cemented our love relationship with the Festival.  The company then performed that greatest of all love plays under a hand-me-down catering tent, with just a few props and what looked like 1950’s costuming that could have come from a thrift shop.  The players were young, looked like we did when we were teenagers.   Like all HVSF productions, the staging was simple—the show was about the intimacy of the setting, the night, the poetry, and the actors’ voices.

At the ball at the Capulets’ Romeo and Juliet danced to “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Falcons.  Brilliant.  Finally, a production of that play where the main characters were actually presented as teenagers.  And it wasn’t just any old song from my teenage years.  It was one where the imagery in the lyrics matched the imagery of the play—the stars, the moon.  At intermission, I looked in the program for the name of the director.  Terrence O’Brien, a theater magician, was the Founding Artistic Director of the company.

We love what brings us joy.  Joy is what the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has delivered to me over the years.

Eventually, the old catering tent was replaced by a venue worthy of the excellence of the performances underneath it.  Lately, I have had the addditional privilege of serving on its board.

One sterling example of joy: the night my six-year-old identical twin grandsons returned from seeing A Comedy of Errors and demanded to know if I had any DVDs of Shakespeare plays.  They wanted more Shakespeare.

These days HVSF is led by our second-generation Artistic Director--Davis McCallum, who is surpassingly  competent at creating great theater and incredibly sure-footed at company leadership.   For the 2017 season, he has given the audience our first world premier, and I got to be there for the opening night.

Joy under the tent reached a new high on Saturday at the company’s current production of Pride and Prejudice directed by Amanda Dehnert in an adaptation by Kate Hamill, who also played Lizzy Bennet to Jason O’Connell’s Mr. Darcy. They and the rest of the cast gave an exuberant, madcap rendering that was at once true to Jane Austen’s novel and a contemporary interpretation of her characters.  Hysterically funny and moving at the same time.   I loved it.  I am going back to see it again.  I wish I could bottle the joy it delivers

The setting ready for the play to begin.

The Bennet Family with Mr. Collins
Photo: T. Charles Erikson

Jason O'Connell as Mr. Darcy
Photo: T. Charles Erikson

The Opening Night After Party

Our Playwright/Our Lizzy

Jason's Mr. Darcy is more than a reserved Englishman.
He is also interpersonally inept, making him 19th and
21st Century at the same time.  

You can learn more about HVSF here.

If you are nearby, I urge you to attend.  If you are far away, the Hudson Valley is absolutely worth a visit for its many attractions.  And if you decide to come, don't miss seeing whatever is on under the tent.  You will fall in love.  I know you will.