Haunting Melody

My wanderings amongst the twisting lanes and streets of Antwerp yesterday took me once again to the Hendrik Conscienceplein, one of the loveliest squares in Antwerp.  I find myself visiting this lovely spot again and again.  Surrounded entirely by charming facades, including the fabulously ornate Saint Carolus Borromeus Church, and ornamented by one large, lovely shade tree, the square is amazingly insulated from car traffic and the noise of the city.  I imagine the quiet and the startling acoustics, with sound powerfully enclosed in the stone confines of the square and magically free of echoes, thanks perhaps to the softening characteristics of the tree, are why I am so often delighted to find musicians performing there.

This picture is of the tree, which stands in the northwestern corner of the square.  Yesterday’s performer, a lone clarinet player, can be seen on the bench that surrounds its trunk.  He played slow, haunting melodies in rich tones, darkly creamy and sinfully smooth as the chocolate truffles sold nearby.  The collection of jazz ballads, some familiar and some not, suited the overcast day and my mood.  I’ll remember his “Stormy Weather” as one of the saddest and loveliest renditions I’ve ever heard.

Shortly after this photo was taken, three small children came  toddling into the square, darting about and chasing each other.  The two older kids can be seen in this larger photo.  They weren’t rowdy or noisy, just curiously checking out the statues and the fountain together.  It wasn’t long before the sound of the clarinet caught their full attention.  Drawn closer and closer to the player, their paths converged slowly towards him, as though they weren’t sure if it was okay to get near him but unable to resist the shrinking of their orbits, with him as the magnetic force in the center.  Eventually, they all stood a just few feet in front of him and froze there, rapt.  He played and played, swaying and twinkling his smiling eyes at them, encouraging their interest.  When at last the song came gently to an end, the children shook off the spell of their stillness and wiggled and jumped with delight.  Their father (I presumed) beckoned them over to him and gave them each a coin, instructing them to go back and place it in the basket at the player’s feet, which they did shyly before running away to resume their adventures.

I took it as my cue, as well, adding a few coins to the basket as I left to resume adventures of my own under the leaden sky, my ears still haunted by the beautiful, sad notes: “Stormy weather… it’s rainin’ all the time.”

Not Bronze

This photo shows a group of bronze 19th century statues at the base of the southern spire of The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.  The sculpture celebrates the architects who were in charge of construction.  Or some of them, anyway.  The cathedral was built between 1352 and 1551, requiring herds of architects and workers.

Oops, but one of these guys is not like the others.  One of these guys is just not the same… One of these guys is not like the others—Sing it with me!  Okay, you don’t have to sing, but can you tell which statue is not actually made of bronze?

One of the figures is a performance artist with an uncanny costume and hilarious way of holding very still–almost.  Every inch of his clothing, skin, and hair is covered with paint to match the sculpture.  He waits until just the right moment to startle the poop out of someone with a small movement of head or tap with his hammer.  Doh!  There, I gave you a clue.

To view a larger version of this photo, click here.

Snail Mail Goes Digital

If you are like me, you don’t particularly enjoy dealing with all the snail mail — much of it crap you didn’t ask for and don’t want — that comes flying your way via the US Postal Service. Perhaps, also like me, you figured dealing with the stuff to be an inevitable and inescapable chore of modern life. Perhaps you, like me, would jump at the chance to significantly reduce the hassle of dealing with your mail.

I don’t mean just rerouting or reducing the amount of mail you get, although that’s great, too. I’ve taken advantage of every “opt-out” and “do not ever mail crap to me on pain of death” option I could lay my hands on, and still I am deluged with crap. There’s no sense getting mad at the USPS, though, they’re just the messenger. What are we, the poor tired masses, to do?

Well, who knew that radical alternatives were being cooked up by some mad geniuses in Seattle. I probably would not have found out about the company at all if it weren’t for our European Romance. Since we’ll be away for the entire summer, I had to find a way to deal with the darn snail mail. As per usual, I started with a Google search, and wonder of wonders, there was Earth Class Mail.

Earth Class Mail proposes to make dealing with snail mail as simple, portable, and easy as dealing with email, while aspiring to make a significant dent in the waste stream by recycling a huge percentage of the crap mail that tends to end up in landfills. From the company’s “about” page:

Earth Class Mail is changing how postal mail is delivered, for the betterment of individuals, businesses, national post offices, and most importantly – the planet. Instead of making physical postal deliveries which are so dependent on fuel for planes and trucks, we deliver postal mail online - where people can deal with it instantly, anywhere in the world.

No matter where our customers are, they simply log-in to view pictures of their mail and decide what they want to do with each piece. For example, they can choose which pieces to have opened and scanned so they can read them online, and which to recycle, archive, or have sent to them in “snail mail” form wherever they are located – all with the click of a mouse.

Wow, this sounded great to me! I love my computer and am happy handling my business tasks online as much as possible. I’ve even been noodling on going paperless entirely. In contrast to many activities in our ever more digitally-enhanced lives, standard mail has remained hooked on physical paper. Even worse, since we moved to a private road in the country, we must get in the car and drive to the post office to retrieve our mail, since the USPS does not deliver to our home. Talk about old tech!

Annoyance factor aside, I dislike the waste of my and everybody else’s time and other resources, both monetary (those advertisers’ dollars are going straight into the trash) and environmental (I have to drive my trash to the collection site in order to dump all that useless paper I never wanted in the first place).

I read as much as I could find online about the company, which was not a whole lot, and not all of it was flattering. I decided to sign up anyway, since if the service actually delivered on its promises it would be the perfect set up for Conal and me. I created an account for both of us, chose a mailing address in Seattle (for no other reason than because it’s my hometown), and went about obtaining and mailing notarized authorization forms to ECM, which are required by USPS in order for the company to receive mail on your behalf. I was all set to receive mail via ECM.

I asked my mom to mail me something as a test. Shortly thereafter, I received an email notification that I had received a piece of mail and voy-oh-lay, there it was in my online inbox, including a scanned image of the front and back of the envelope. Cool! I proceded then to instruct the USPS to forward all our mail to our ECM address.

Now, after about two months of using the service, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  Automated email notices are sent to alert me of activity on the account.  I can log in to the system anytime and review JPG images of the front and back of new mail, decide what I’d like to have opened and scanned, recycled, shredded, forwarded to another address, or archived.  Conal reviews his mail on the same account, and we can transfer items back and forth, with notes as to what sort of action might be needed.  So far, I’ve not needed to have anything forwarded to me in Europe.  Items that I want to have frequent access to, I download onto my hard drive (the scanned files are in PDF format) for reference as needed.  Even that is usually overkill, as archived mail is always available in the system.

When we get home this fall, I’ll stop the USPS forwarding and our regular service will resume.  However, I will very likely be switching a good deal of our mail to our ECM permanently.

This is technology that reminds me of Skype, which changed how many people (including me) perceive and execute voice communication.  I’m enjoying a similarly seismic shift in how I relate to postal mail.

An appreciative tip of the hat to Earth Class Mail.

Antwerp Apartment Photos & Update

Okay, okay, I have been a terribly lax blogger these last weeks, it’s true.  Living in Antwerp has me on total input overload, which has somehow disrupted the output circuits.

All is well, never fear, we are having a marvelous time, Conal is enjoying his work and exploring the city with me, and we are even making some friends in the neighborhood.  I’m over my cold, which I obtained internationally when I traveled to Zurich to record with Michael Stillwater.  Jet-set germs, apparently.  With the help of the powerful antihistamines available over-the-counter here, as well as some cough syrup with codeine to help me rest at night, I’ve pretty much kicked the beggers out.  I think this is the fastest I’ve gotten rid of a serious bout of bronchitis for years.  Usually, the thing will drag on for a month.  I am ever so delighted to be clear headed again.

Within the compact central portion of Antwerp, there are a gazillion restaurants, shops, malls, cafes, cathedrals, museums, lovely squares, statues, fountains, and endless historical architectural masterpieces.  We are living quite a contrast to our San Andreas lifestyle, let me tell ya.  People here, who can hop a train and be in freaking Paris in two hours, are impressed with the idea of having to drive a half an hour just to visit a sizable grocery store, or an hour to reach a city of any size.  When I tell them that a drive from my hometown of Seattle to my new home in California takes about 18 hours, they knit their brows and think about that, then I remind them that San Andreas is only halfway through California on the way to Mexico, and they give up.  Belgians can drive from one end of their country to another in a couple of hours.  I sympathize with the shock, as I have it in reverse.

However, Antwerp is so ridiculously charming I don’t know why anyone would ever want to leave.  Oh, all right, I know why.  There is ridiculously charming stuff everywhere in Europe.  If you live in one ridiculously charming place, then of course you’d like to visit other ridiculously charming places, just for a break.

At the moment, it is after midnight and I’m a little bleary.  I’ll call this one good for now, and direct you to some photos of our wonderfully weird apartment.  Enjoy.  More pics to come, here’s a taste:

Sunset Spire, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp

The spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady, lit up in the sunset.

Ester and a house with a moat

The lovely Ester with a house with a moat in Schoten, a town just outside of Antwerp.  More on that story later.

Der Partybike Incident

Juices, Java, & Jazz CafeWednesday I visited the café across the street from our apartment (pictured here from our balcony) for the first time. Our landlord, Frank, invited me to join him and his two friends Jennifer and Sel for a drink. Jennifer is an art dealer from Toronto, and Sel (pronounced sort of like “sill” but more complicated than I’m prepared to explain here) is a local. Both live in Antwerp not far from us. We sat at the bistro tables on the sidewalk and enjoyed our drinks, watching people (which seems to be a well-favored international sport, here in Europe), and chatting. Sel and I each had a Masala Chai, which the server had assured us did not include sugar. Served in a tall glass, the tea was exotically spicy and as promised was not at all sugary, had a lovely layer of foam on top sprinkled with spices, and was absolutely delicious.

As we sat visiting at tables outside on the sidewalk, the noise of an approaching rowdy party began to build. Soon it was enough of a commotion to bring conversation at the café to a halt, with all heads turning to see what on earth was coming up the street. Around the corner came a vehicle that I have to say was completely unique to my experience, although I understand now that it is not an uncommon sight here. I was sorry I did not have my camera with me. I’ll attempt to paint a mental picture for you.

The contraption was about the size of a large van. It was constructed with a surprisingly open framework, so you could see through its gears to the other side. High in the center of the vehicle was a lengthwise bar, with a bartender standing in the middle serving beer to the other passengers, a small counter surrounding him completely, and taps at hand for serving his “customers.” I could see the metal beer kegs mounted at the, er, stern of the vehicle. The passengers alternately crawled all over thing, walked along side, or sat on the built-in bar stools. The stools faced inward, as if one were sitting at any non-mobile bar. Seated at the bar with your elbows resting on the counter whilst nursing your beverage, you’d be facing sideways to the direction of travel. A photo of a similar contraption is shown here, though this is not exactly like the one I saw.

If you look closely at the picture, you can see that each stool (I think there were six to a side on the one I saw also), is equipped with pedals. No engine whatsoever. The whole monstrous thing was pedal powered. Beer powered, one might say, as the group of partying young men looked to be well lubricated and feeling it. Glasses of beer sat on the bar’s counter in receptacles designed to keep them from tipping over as the rig went ambling down the bumpy streets on it’s car-like wheels and tires. An arched canvas canopy shaded the whole affair and added a generally festive look. Imagine a ridiculous vehicle straying from Terry Gilliam’s imagination into your neighborhood, and you’ve pretty much got it.

I stared in amazement at this spectacle while Frank shook his head with a bemused look on his face. Suddenly, just as the party came abreast of our sidewalk tables, one of the young revelers who had dismounted the Pedal Monster staggered into oncoming traffic. A car struck and flipped him in a cartwheel motion, and up and over he went like a rag doll. He landed on the pavement and lay there for a moment, while people screamed and rushed about. He had bent in ways humans should not bend. I stayed put in my seat, figuring I would only offer first aid assistance if no one else could. Amazingly, Rag Doll Man’s mates had him up on his feet, if rather unsteadily, in less than a minute.

The driver of the car had slammed on his brakes immediately but his options were few in that narrow street.  He was hemmed in on one side by parked cars and on the other by the Pedal Monster itself.  Short of vertical take off, I don’t know what else he could have done. To him, it must have looked like Rag Doll Man appeared out of nowhere.  He sure seemed to do his best to stop, tires screeching. I felt bad for him. He seemed shaken, and looked relieved to see the guy get up and walk around under his own steam.

The police were on the scene within five minutes.  They spoke to the driver briefly and let him go, I was glad to see. The revelers milled about for a bit longer, being interviewed in turn by the officers. Somebody gave Rag Doll Man a cloth to clean the cuts on his face. He continued to walk around a bit, smiling while looking dazed and rather gimpy. Eventually the police got the whole gang back aboard, instructing them to follow one of the police vehicles. At least, that’s what I inferred based on how the now subdued Pedal Monster subsequently followed the police van closely around the corner and out of sight like a meek pony on a lead. I’m only inferring, since I did not understand a single word of the speaking and shouting that went on during the entire incident.

We at the tables surmised that Rag Doll Man’s state of inebriation was probably a blessing for the moment, keeping him loose and not too keenly aware that he’d narrowly missed sharing his next beer with the Grim Reaper. He was probably in shock, as well. I said I’d be willing to bet he’d be feeling very, very badly the next day. Frank mentioned that the party bikes, as they’re called, will likely be banned from Belgian streets because of the dangers of drunk people ambling about in traffic.  I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding.  There’s more than one of these contraptions? Hosting a beer bash on an open vehicle moving through city rush hour does seem sort of risky to me. No wonder I have never seen or even dreamed of such a thing in the States—I can’t imagine any self-respecting government official allowing citizens to have so much fun endangering themselves and others on American roadways.

After the uproar from the incident died down and peace returned to the neighborhood, I spent a couple more hours visiting with my new friends and enjoying the mild sunshine. Time flies when you are sitting in the sun drinking yummy tea and enjoying some excellent people watching with new friends. And all across the street from your house, no less. Heh.

Sel and Jennifer are both interested in future museum visits and shopping with me, and I’m looking forward to getting together with them again soon.

Next time, hopefully, without pedestrian casualties.

Arriving in Antwerp

The first week of our European Romance has tumbled by in a blur of new experiences, sometimes exhilarating or awe-inspiring or humbling, sometimes simply overwhelming.  I have been alternately fascinated, charmed, and exhausted by the endless little differences I discover, one after another, as I move through the course of any given day.  Although upon arriving in Amsterdam I was struck by the similarities to the US as much as the differences, many small everyday things require some getting used to.  Aside from the obvious adjustments to an unfamiliar city and the language issue, there are a million tasks to learn how to do all over again: operating the laundry machines, using the gas stove, finding cash machines and using the currency, adapting to different electrical standards, learning how to buy groceries, etc.  Even the light switches operate differently.  I have entered an alternate universe where things look familiar, but everything is just a little different.

We began our trip with an unexpected delay, as we discovered that our seats on the plane had been reserved but tickets never actually purchased.  I admit to staring at the agent in disbelief as we stood at the check in counter with our pile of suitcases after the four hour drive to the San Francisco airport.

Continue reading ‘Arriving in Antwerp’ »

Our European Romance - It’s for Reals

Antwerp city square & Cathedral of Our LadyIt’s official! After months of preparation (and a bit of nail-biting), Conal and I have our tickets to fly to Belgium next Thursday and stay for the summer. I have refrained from posting here about our trip, because… umm, well, honestly, out of superstition. I was afraid I’d jinx it!

But, no worries, things are at last falling into place and we’re actually going. For reals.

In case there is anyone whose ears I have not already worn off talking about this, Conal will be doing some consulting work with a tech start up based in Antwerp. The folks with the company have been gracious and delightful, to say the least, in assisting us with all the requirements and details. From the moment we first met Rudy, the CEO, and Peter, the head software architect, in San Francisco to discuss working together, we got along like old friends. Rudy’s wife, Natascha, is the COO of the organization, and has also been lovely and helpful. I’m looking forward to getting to know these wonderful people and their families and friends.

Antwerp apartment gardenWe will be living in a spacious apartment above an antique shop in a pleasant neighborhood. It is walking distance to the office, and is located in the old, central part of Antwerp, so there are lots of fun things to do and look at nearby. The owner of the apartment also owns the antique store below, and is even now completing its remodel and furnishing the place with all sorts of awesome wacky antiques. The building has a garden courtyard, where the tenants gather for dinners and parties. The photo at right, showing the view into the courtyard, was taken last week by Elina, another lovely company member. Elina, who is friends with the owner, passed along the idea that we might like to be invited to some of the courtyard shindigs. Sh’yeah!!

If the place is half as cool as the photos, it’ll be heaven. Our most excellent landlord is even installing a new king sized bed to accommodate Conal’s long legs, so we’ll be able to rest well. I cannot wait to meet these awesome people.

Belgium is centrally located in Europe and we’ll be spending our weekends and days off exploring whatever fairy tale places catch our fancy. The major cities of the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, etc., are just a train ride away. London, Paris, Amsterdam… Sigh. Antwerp itself is a major maritime city, being one of the world’s largest ports, and I’m excited for the added bonus of getting to hang around boats and big water again.

Stay tuned for photos and and stories from our European Romance!

Real Rain

What is that?

ANGLE. DAVID. He is still in an amorous daze and doesn’t even feel the increasing rain. It starts to pound harder and Margaret looks to him in terror.

Guess what movie? (click to cheat)MARGARET
What’s going on?


Real rain?

Yeah … You don’t have rain either?

She looks at him frightened. David smiles.

Right. Of course you don’t …

He puts his jacket around her and starts to lead her up the grassy slope. A dozen other couples go scurrying up the bank, looking in terror at the water falling from the sky.

Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiin!!!!! It started sprinkling lightly yesterday and has been raining all day today. Real rain. I bet the firefighters are as happy as I am for the late spring soaking. I was afraid we were done with rain for the year, having had none since March. I’m happy to report that the windshield wipers on the Blazer actually work pretty well, as we discovered when we drove to town to visit the post office and have lunch at a favorite restaurant.

The air outside is cool and misty, with lacy curtains of water drizzling from low gray skies. The scent of the damp earth is heavenly. Living in Seattle all my life, I have sometimes forgotten what a luxurious gift rain can be. The bugs have taken the day off, and the hummingbird swarm is unusually mellow. I had an afternoon nap in the gentle, cloud-filtered light with a book and a blankie.

I like today.

Autism Service Dog for James

My friend Kate in Seattle has a young nephew, James, who is coping with autism. Today, I received an email Kate forwarded from her sister-in-law requesting financial help in obtaining an autism service dog for James.

The family is seeking 1350 people to donate ten bucks in order to raise the funds needed by June 6th.

Details from James’ mom Raven are as follows:

Hey All:

James and his dream dogWe need your help. For about the third year in a row, James has had a very difficult April and May which ultimately resulted in increasing his anti-anxiety medication. He is finally doing better, but he has lost a lot of his skills. Apparently, May is a very difficult time for many Autistic children in this area as the seasons change and things get a bit more frenetic at school.

After talking to James’ Neurologist, teachers and therapists, Mark and I have decided to apply for an Autism Service Dog for James. The Neurologist, Dr. Stobbe, has seven other Autistic clients with service dogs and says that James is a perfect candidate. These dogs help relieve anxiety, keep kids from running away, help keep the children focused at school, and provide a constant in the child’s life as the dog goes everywhere with the child. Dr. Stobbe is even hopeful that we can wean James off his medication once he is used to working with the service dog.

Even though there is usually a one to two-year waiting list for programs, we have found a highly-recommended program that has room in its February graduating class for James IF we can raise the necessary money ($13,500) by June 6th, 2008 (TWO WEEKS FROM NOW). (This covers less than half of the cost that the organization puts into the dog and includes two weeks of training - one week at the facility and one week at our home!) Here is the link to their website: http://autismservicedogsofamerica.com

Our hope is to get 1,350 people to each donate $10.

We’re asking YOU to do TWO things for James:
1) If you are able, please donate $10.
2) Please forward this email to anyone whom you think might be willing and able to also donate $10.

Checks should be made out to ASDA (for Autism Service Dogs of America, a 501(C)(3) organization). GIFTS ARE TAX DEDUCTIBLE TO THOSE WHO ITEMIZE.

If you are OFF-ISLAND (or prefer the mail), here is the address.
James McCrackyn
PO Box 1451
Vashon, WA 98070

If you are ON-ISLAND, you can drop off your donation at any of the following locations:

R. Peter Lake, CPA, Bank of America, Beachcomber, Bob’s Bakery, Cafe Luna, Fair Isle Animal Clinic, Green Ginger, John L Scott Realty, Little House, Minglement, Monkey Tree, Pandora’s Box, Thriftway, True Value, Vashon Book Shop, Vashon Print and Design, Vashon Tea Shop, Windermere Realty, Zoomies

I have also attached a flyer.

Thanks so much!


I did not know there even was such a thing as an autism service dog and I think it’s totally awesome! I hope you’ll be inspired to contribute, too.

Triple Digits

It’s happened a bit early this year. Today’s high temperature at our house: 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Did I mention that it is the middle of May? Good gracious.

Thank you Jesus for central air, ceiling fans, and automatic ice makers. Today I have partaken of all these special blessings, and I am sooooooo grateful.

My handy dandy Google weather icon indicates a forecast with more of the same for the coming week. Our temperatures at Murray Creek tend to run anywhere from five to ten degrees hotter than Google predicts for San Andreas, so we’re in for some more scorchers.

The Seattle area, on the other hand, appears to be enjoying perfect Pacific Northwest weather.