Monday, September 28, 2015

Digital (and maybe smart, android, HD or HDMI or HDD…) TV

We all know that analog is giving way to digital everything and
everywhere, so it was no surprise when the Swiss TV announced the cessation of analog broadcasting. For me this means parting with my 15+ year old heavy, boxy set and getting one of the sleek new thin screens. Rather fun, I thought as I perused the ads in the flyer accompanying the newspaper. And how inexpensive! I do not want one of the humungous, living room-dominating screens, but rather a discrete affair enough bigger than my old one to be kind to my aging eyes.

Then I began reading the details. Smart or, presumably, dumb? 4 K? Ultra high definition? And what is this HDMI? And what about HDD-recording and android, whatever those are? Or let’s consider DLNA network function. Sounds like a good thing. Continuing with the alphabet salad, here is one with DVB-T2/C/S2 Cl+ tuner: surely Chinese would be easier to decipher than all this arcane language.

Nothing for it but a trip to the shop to confess my incredible ignorance and to ask for guidance. Delivery is also going to be costly but a necessity for me in my carless state. The very pleasant clerk commented that the one I liked weighs less than 4 kilos and I had a picture of myself staggering down the street with a big clunky box weighing 4 kilos. No. Considerably enlightened, I inquired about programming the thing – well, there are instructions on the phone company website.

Home to the phone company’s website, which is a marvel of good organization, presenting either/or questions so that one branches off stepwise in the appropriate direction. I feel quite smug when I know immediately that I do not need a converter. I was, however, brought up short by their wi-fi connection using Horizon. Horizon? Seems it is associated with its own box and is used to change the SSID. I’m so glad to know this. Instead of Horizon there is a mediabox or a smart card or a DigiCard/Cl+. It was immediately clear that to the expensive of delivery is to be added the expense of programming, which is rather steep.

Maybe I will stick with watching TV on my computer. Not as good for the eyes, probably, but a lot less complicated.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Back Porch Dawn

This morning I got up even earlier than usual, feeling my way through the first hints of dawn light to the back porch. Usually it is chilly out there in the morning, as it is on the north side, but in the present heat wave it is delightfully cool. The overseas planes, which I have watched many times, were moving down the lake toward Zurich airport, and this morning I suddenly realized that I can see the trains across the lake as well. Tiny moving bands of light, following the shore and disappearing behind trees or buildings. In 11 years in this apartment, I have never realized that the trains that I enjoyed watching from my former apartment also make a brief appearance in my line of sight here.

Chastened, I fetched breakfast and sat down on the porch to
watch the dawn, another first from this position. Following on the gradually increasing light was the sudden rosy pink illumination of the clouds nearest the horizon. As I watched, the clouds higher up glowed pink also, until the strips of cloud that always seem to hover in the east became a study in pink and purple. The color intensified and then the rim of the sun appeared, and the center spectacle moved from east to west. The trees on the hill glowed gold, and then the field further down, and finally the trees outside my building. The day had begun in beauty; something to carry with me throughout the hours to follow.

It’s easy to do things the same way every day, and of course routine is efficient and comforting. Once in a while, though, it is refreshing to break the pattern, even in small ways. Good for the old brain, too, from what one hears!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Snake on the balcony

Sitting on my balcony, I do feel that I am in my little bit of paradise, as a friend has called it. Come time to water all the many plants on a hot day, however, and my plantation is more like a thirsty jungle. Back and forth to the kitchen with watering cans, often morning and evening. So when I saw a TV ad for a lightweight, expandable garden hose, I immediately sent for it. 700 grams of crinkled green tubing arrived, rather resembling a snake’s shed skin. Attached to the water faucet in the
kitchen, the snake sprang back to life, stretching out, writhing on the floor and looking decidedly eerie. Weirdness was forgotten once I opened the spray attachment at the end over a thirsty plant, as this gadget does just what a garden hose is supposed to do. Memories returned of watering gardens in my old life. My plants drank up the libation with their usual thirst and in a far shorter time. Whee! Furthermore, it is fun to use.

I’m sure that a garden hose snaking through the living room would not be welcome in everyone’s home, but my Ikea cotton rugs and tile floor would not mind a bit of dampening. Not that there is any sign of leakage; this is a well-made gadget. Worthy of comment by visitors, of course, as in “whatever is that wrinkly thing?!” A friend could hardly wait to order one for her garden, having had it with the heavy old-fashioned snake making its way from her bathroom tap out through her living room door.

One imagines second-hand stores full of these old rubber hoses, rather nostalgic actually. They stood between harvest and ruin, and no one knew of any other solution. My new snake is part of a long lineage, just in a more lighthearted, dancing form. Gardening is forever, and to be celebrated.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The real thing

Surveying my cellar, I realize how necessary is a good cleanout. The room is large enough so that I have saved many things “just in case” – you know how it is. But when ten years go by and the cases never arise, out these things should go.

I get a mental handle on the larger items that need to be given away, taken to the second-hand shop or sold. Then I tackle the boxes and boxes of manila folders. Documents from more than ten years ago – most of them go to the trash. Then I begin on the “memorabilia” folders. I find items I had forgotten all about, some triggering nostalgia and some no longer memorable and to be tossed. As I look and read through Christmas and birthday cards and letters, I feel how good it is to have an actual card in the hand, written in the sender’s own penmanship. I remember finding the card in the mailbox and opening the envelope, full of anticipation. I notice the stamp. Many cards found a place on the kitchen table for a while, both nostalgia and decoration. Old friendships, long-dead relatives, family concerns from long ago, major and minor events; all come back to me as I read. I picture the sender sitting at his or her desk, pen in hand, expressing himself or herself in forming the letters as well as in words.

And today? This is the era of e-mail and online cards, easier and
quicker and fine in their way. But something important has been lost, I feel. The present generation has lost the opportunity to experience communication as it was, and we older folks have lost something tangible and meaningful.

There is a parallel in the book world, as e-readers gradually replace the hardcover and paperback book world. The convenience of course is great, from the light weight of the reader, the speed at which one can have a desired volume at one’s fingertips and the many volumes that find a place on one’s reader. But I do not think I am alone in wanting a book I can hold, whose pages I can turn and flip back through manually. I like to see my current read on my bedside table. I like the books residing in my bookcases, varied as to size, color and thickness. Meaningful decoration, a treasure trove, a spring of nostalgia. I remember reading this book at the beach, that one on a trip. I note that the font was generally smaller in the early paperbacks, which were themselves truly pocket sized. The pages are getting brown. All tangible, material, almost symbolic. I cannot get rid of even the books I will never open again.

A friend a bit older than I said that she thinks the printed book will not disappear in our lifetime. I certainly hope not. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

My little bit of paradise

A friend writes that she has prepared her balcony for summer, buying geraniums, tiny roses and lobelia, which she has planted in pots and boxes. Her terrace is a sea of color, she says, and indeed, her photos of neatly arrayed pots and boxes show a palette of pink, blue and white.

 California poppies

I reply that mine is a sea of green. There is the clematis climbing nicely up the wall, but it will be awhile until it blooms. The California poppies that lived through the winter have put out lovely lacy leaves, and I think I see a bud forming. One rose survived from last year, as did the balloon flowers and the ivy in its box; all sport healthy leaves. Green for some time will be the small plumbago, which doesn’t blossom until July. Meanwhile, the large plumbago and the salvia patens have overwintered nicely in the house, and I bring them out to start their new season. Contributing a bit of color are the tuberous begonias, also overwintered in the house and beginning to bloom, the faithful small campanulas in their froth of white and purple and the dependable forget-me-nots.

I can’t furnish my balcony entirely with plants purchased anew every year. Not only because I like a space festooned with as many plants as possible and the cost would tax my budget. Much more is the fact that I like the gradual development, as in nature and also in actual gardening. I don’t want a garden at my age, but I do want to start some seeds, wrap plants in the winter to protect against the cold, watch the tulips, grape hyacinths and callas, already several years old, coming up in their large pots, nurse a plant or two that is having a bad spell. The helleborus, a present from a friend, gave me a few anxious days, but is now sporting a couple of new leaves, whew. I have hope for the red oxalis, which lost its leaves in the house this winter and appears to have withdrawn into the pot, but this is its usual behavior. Bringing sensitive plants into the house in the fall means decorative windowsills, especially as the two jasmines send out meter-long stems carrying delicate leaves. Installed now on the railing, in a month or so they will be covered with tiny white flowers, something to anticipate.

new morning glories
Some plants are special. Two big pots on the floor sport a huge fern and a mystery plant that bears yellow blossoms and has the shape of a euphorbia plant, but reddish leaves. Both of these I dug up along the walk leading to the house and they have grown rapidly, liking the shade. A few smaller examples are potted on the windowsill. Next to these are the beginning morning glories, starting growth nicely in those little discs one can pop right into the larger pot on the floor. It is rather shady at  floor level in this corner, and starting the flowers in a sunnier spot means that the tendrils will be reaching up above the shade by the time they are planted out. I also like to watch them put out those wing-like seed leaves and beginning tendrils.

Also special this year are mixed wildflower seeds given to me by a friend, and growing exuberantly in a box and a pot. Will they notice that they are not in the ground? How much do I have to thin them? Just what flowers will they produce? Experimental also this spring are some tall campanulas, but I am not sure whether the thin stems popping out of the soil are not weeds.

mystery wildflowers
For me, the balcony is the best of both worlds. It is a tiny garden with mostly raised pots and boxes on the windowsill, the wooden shelves below the sill and the railing. It is an extra room in the summer, for reading, eating and working. It is a new experience every day, as I look for the nasturtiums to pop up, scan the poppies and the balloon flowers for buds and wind the clematis around its wire trellis. It has its hopeful beginning in March, when the tulips appear and I can take away the wrappings around the pots, its lush growth in summer and the autumn work of putting the plants to bed for the winter. Its plants are faithful companions and fun experiments. Its bounty comes into the house in the form of herbs, mint, tomatoes and cut flowers. It enables swapping seedlings and experiences. A friend best described it when she called it my “little bit of paradise”.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Reading Culture Clash

Returning books to my local library (Michael Connelly! William Boyd!) and picking up new ones (Michael Ondaatje! Alice Hoffman!) I overheard a conversation between the librarian and another patron. “May I bring in books at anytime for the second-hand sale?” inquired the other book-lover. “Anytime, ” the librarian assured her, “but they must be in good condition.” Of course, I thought, no missing pages, reasonably intact cover, no signs of having been dunked in the bath or a puddle of cocoa. But the librarian was continuing, “The edges of the pages should not be yellowed, or people won’t buy them.”

Never in my life have I even noticed whether the page edges were yellow, white or pink and green striped. I’m not reading the edges. Not for the first time, I thought how different is the leisure reading culture in different societies.

Brits and Amis scarf books. The food for the brain and the spirit is
important; the vessel in which it is served up is not. New or used, pristine or a trifle tattered, it’s all the same to us. Our books make the rounds of friends’ mailboxes, are schlepped onto the train and gently steamed in the bath; they acquire the marks of loving handling. We snap them up at sales, loan them out to our social circle. Even the small-town library enjoys the same opening hours as the grocery store and the gas station. Book clubs and reading circles abound.

 Compare this with the approach to reading of a Dutch friend. There are no dog-eared paperbacks lying about on her coffee table. But when a philosopher appearing on television impressed her, she went to the bookstore and bought one of his books, in the original German. Hardback, full price. She read it with absorption, then placed it reverently on her bookshelf with a few other such treasures, some also in German, some in Dutch, some in English.

And here is the other side of the reading culture clash: do we Anglos check out media in other languages, German for example? Do we read Durrenmatt, Hesse, Luise Rinser and Martin Suter at all – never mind in the original? Rather few of us, I fear. Something about our way of life makes us cling to the language and literature of our homelands. Something about European society, by contrast, opens its citizens not only to the cultures but also the language across the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and in the antipodes.  

An article appearing in a Zurich newspaper a few years ago mused on just this topic. The author opined that English language literature weaves the most profound life lessons into the good read and the whodunit, whereas German-language literature, for example, is either serious and heavy, on the one hand or just for fun, on the other. The two seldom mix. Perhaps this is why so many of the titles on the German and Swiss best-seller lists are translations from the English. Perhaps it is why my local library features a bookcase and a half of English-language paperbacks. It’s not only we Anglo expats who read them; they are popular among the Swiss as well.

For an Ami living in Switzerland this makes for stimulating contemplation, and I muse about it from time to time as I go about my expat life. But now I must do a resorting of the paperbacks I plan to take to the library sale. I’m afraid a great many of them have yellow page edges, alas.     

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Yoyo flu

It’s been donkey’s years since I have had the flu. When I woke up a month ago with rather vague symptoms I didn’t even think about it. Only a week later, when I had only the same very mild symptoms but felt rotten, did I go to the doctor. “Oh, I’m seeing this presentation a lot this year,” he said. “Typical of the present flu. Here’s some symptomatic relief”.

The symptomatic relief finally brought a return of health a week later, although I was very tired. I enjoyed 3-4 days of feeling good and beginning to get a little exercise. And then – back again. The scratchy throat, the cement in the sinuses, the feeling that my head had become much larger. And increasingly, a weird pain in the ear. A short stabbing pain, or a pain that came on with certain movements of the head or the jaw. I inhaled steam, which helped, but a couple days later the pain was back and getting worse.

Accordingly, I made a second doctor’s appointment. My physician will retire in the summer, and his replacements are already working part time at the practice. So I was not too surprised to be greeted by a slight young woman who looked about 20 – a mere child from the perspective of my age. I told her my symptoms. She painstakingly typed in the computer, asked questions, typed again, asked more questions. She looked in my ears, nothing. Then she just stared and frowned, the picture of perplexity. I assured her that I realized the symptoms were weird. She probably thought I was pretty weird, too, but discussed possible medications and I left with two little boxes.

It’s been several days, and my symptoms come and go. The ear
behaves for the most part, except once in the middle of the night. Naturally I saw a gloomy scenario in which I would call the ENT specialist, who wouldn’t have an appointment for ages, and I would end up on the weekend in the ER of the local hospital, where I would have to explain my weirdness to a callow intern. You know how it is in the middle of the night; worry, worry.

But then I began to hear from friends who have the same story to tell of improvement, setback, improvement, setback. If it is not this very strange flu it is a cough and sore throat, equally debilitating and difficult to shake. One has a picture of especially virulent viruses and then feels ashamed, remembering Ebola, bird flu, SARS. It is not the severity of the illness, which is mild, but the strange behavior of viruses that do not follow the pattern that makes one feel uncertain. Will their behavior get even less predictable in the future?

It was then that my negative thoughts were interrupted by a friend with the cough and sore throat affliction who said that she was quite accustomed to this yoyo effect and assumed that it would play itself out in time. Do not expect constant improvement. Take it easy. Have confidence. Spring is coming. Few things in life climb steadily upwards, most processes proceed in an up and down fashion, in fits and starts. Don’t panic. Forget the gloom, go with the flow.

How different are our experiences with real life and our neat picture of constant, steady improvement! One can philosophize for quite some time about this and apply it to virtually all aspects of life. Something to think about while convalescing.

Perfection or Not

One of the joys of retirement is that one can do things just for fun. Top performance is not necessary. One is no longer acting to please the world but rather oneself. To be sure, one can do a volunteer job after retirement that calls for competence and responsibility, and very satisfying it is too. One begins to feel, however, that part-time performance is quite enough. One wants to spend time pursuing a hobby, developing a new interest or just enjoying an activity during what used to be working hours.

I knew that writing would continue to be a vital area of my life after retirement, but according to my own schedule; deadlines were out. I also had a stimulating volunteer job in which I learned many skills in an entirely new area. When it came time to leave it, I wanted to continue learning new skills but increasingly just wanted to have a good time. My puritanical background balked at this, but it was impossible to ignore. So in addition to taking painting lessons – new skills! – I decided to take a dance class.

Perhaps I was harking back to my childhood, when I desperately
wanted to join a ballet class, but dancing was frowned upon by my parents as a waste of time and money. I used to accompany a friend to ballet, where I sat crying in the back of the room. At my present age, ballet was out of course, but ballroom dancing seemed a possibility. To be sure, I have never been able to follow a partner, but I would be joining an Everdance class, in which each person is on his or her own, all in a line or in a circle.

Everyone else had been in the class for some time, so I was able to look at my first class hour as stumbling about because I knew less than they did. By the second week, however, it was clear that I was just terrible at this activity, possessing neither the grace nor the physical acumen to pick up the new steps so beautifully demonstrated by the teacher. I have not even two left feet; two or maybe more left hooves is more like it. Everything moved too fast as well. I was always lagging behind. Disciplining the hooves was not working.

So did I put it down to experience and leave the class? No way! I haven’t had so much fun in ages. Just watching the teacher, a fiery woman of Spanish background, was a joy. My relative success with the waltz helped, but it was the very imperfectly performed salsa and the cha cha that made me feel zingy.

A few days into the course I regaled a friend with a tale of this experience. A perfectionist, she just shook her head. No way could she take such a course and not perform perfectly. As this is a woman of world renown in her professional field, one would think she would not need perfection in a fun activity as well. Oh yes, it would be necessary.

I am well aware that it is perfectionists who produce most of the
excellent work done in the world. But does this have to carry over into fun activities as well? Yes, they tell me, it does. How exhausting! And I feel for their inability to celebrate the basic imperfection of mankind. Imperfection is not always something to moan about; sometimes it is something to appreciate. As in my dance class.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I Love March

I love March. To be sure, it frequently does come in like a lion, and he roars from time to time during the following weeks. It sometimes snows. On the upside, snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils nod in the breeze and literally bring color into the still-wintry landscape.

I enjoy all of these flowers, but especially the snowdrops. Unafraid of snow cover, the green leaves forge a tunnel upward so that the blossoms can open. Simple, near the ground, unpretentious as they are, they are the very first brave heralds of spring.

Accompanying the modest show of the snowdrops are the gradually lengthening days. To suddenly realize that it is 6 p.m. and still light, to awaken at 6 a.m. and see streaks of pink in the east, is to know universal experiences that underlie our very existence on planet Earth.

It is not surprising, then, that it is the beginnings that mark the change of seasons that delight me most. The clematis will cover the balcony wall this summer and bear lovely purple bells, but right now I am thrilled with the rapid shooting up of the still-short stems and very first leaves. Late in the summer the leadwort will bear blossoms in my favorite blue; at the moment the plants are dry sticks with the tiniest red buds beginning to form. I check up daily on this red affirmation of fullness to come. In the pots of grape hyacinths stand lush, spring-green pointed leaves, while at their base begin to form the tiniest tight clusters of the “grapes”. The tulip leaves are much further along, but the buds are only just getting fatter and taller. The forgotten pot of crocuses on the shady back porch is not daunted, just slow to show green above the earth.

We are conditioned to find new life, whether plant or animal, appealing. Kittens and puppies, baby chicks and of course human babies all elicit joy and awe. From an evolutionary point of view, new life needs this appreciation so that it is cared for. For the human spirit, new life is a message of hope and renewal and confidence. In a world of war and catastrophe this message is not naive but rather an affirmation of meaning and trust in the continuity of the most basic life-giving processes of our world.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The People-friendly Whiplash

One of the problems involved in getting people fired up about global warming is the enormous gap between realization of the severity, size and complexity of the problem, on the one hand, and the small efforts of the individual to do something about it, on the other. One feels overwhelmed by the former and useless in the case of the latter. The social and governmental involvement with this subject is the definition of complex.

Another problem is the earnestness with which the subject is approached. To be sure, climate change is hardly a state of affairs to be taken lightly, but it is my contention that it is in just such situations that humor and imagination can bring the issue to life in a meaningful way.

Right up my alley, therefore, was an article by Marcel Hänggi in the Tages Anzeiger, one of the Zurich newspapers; a fable considering a scenario in which the slavery of 150 years ago was treated the way we are now treating climate change.  There are parallels in the two subjects: tackling climate change effectively means finding a way out of our chief energy providers, fossil fuels, while abolishing slavery also meant losing a major energy source. A realistic climate policy must overcome powerful industrial interests; it was necessary for the prohibition of slavery to do the same.

Here then, Marcel Hänggi’s fable:
The watchword nowadays is “sustainability”; the watchword in our slavery fable is “people-friendly.” One can buy people-friendly cotton, “libero-cotton” perhaps, and people-friendly sugar endorsed by the Slave Stewardship Council. Scientists develop high-tech materials to make whiplashes more people-friendly. Just as we now have LOHAS, lifestyles of health and sustainability, our fable would have Lopaf, “lifestyle of philanthropy and feelgoodness”.

A few unrealistic people want to abolish slavery altogether, but most recognize the impracticality of such a move. No one wants to pay more for cotton and sugar, and abolition would have unforeseen consequences on the economy. One’s lifestyle must not be threatened.

International policy thus takes gradual practical steps, like an
agreement among the richer countries to reduce the number of whiplashes by a definite future date. Rather than reducing one’s own whiplash quota, one can compensate with the reduction of whiplashes in poorer countries. New plantations would be founded on which the whiplash count would be somewhat lower.

Industry does not lag when it comes to new inventions: better cotton-pickers, GMO sugar cane that cuts less deeply into the hands, clever whiplash-management systems, whips with built-in whiplash control for precision slaving.

These measures would not, however, function too well. The international whiplash agreement would not be ratified by the richer countries. To be sure, these efforts would bring the subject to public attention, particularly after a fighter for people-friendliness wins the world’s major peace prize. Small-minded critics complain that he himself owns slaves; he counters with the argument that he needs them so that he is free to spread the word against slavery. Politicians rail against slavery out of one side of the mouth while endorsing new – presumably people-friendlier – sources of slaves with the other.

We can now turn the fable around and try out applying the features of abolition to the solving of the climate crisis. One cannot, of course, make a law abolishing global warming, and the latter is a situation with multiple aspects. What is meaningful about Mr. Hänggi’s fable is that there was, in fact, real intention on the part of governments in slave-owning countries to legislate effectively to put an end to the practice. One misses this intention in many governments today when they are faced with the climate crisis.