whistlestop caboose

The view from the back.

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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Souvenirs and memory: Brazilian earring color wheel

Part of the series: souvenir and memory.

Before visiting Argentina in 2002 I had a week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the rich perfume and brightness of the flowers and the gaily dressed people charmed me but the poverty and fear of crime were too pervasive to enjoy the city as much as I had expected. My first night I woke very early because of the time difference from Europe. I stepped out onto my hotel balcony and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. A few stories below me was a campfire in the middle of an empty lot. Around it were two mangy dogs and several children - street children - slumped against each other for the night. One stood watch, teasing one of the dogs. I had read about the extraordinary number of homeless children in Brazil's cities but somehow I had never imagined them around a campfire next to a fenced-in highrise hotel.

At the end of the week I had time and a few Brazilian coins left when I arrived at the airport, so I bought souvenirs, including a wall hanging made by street children, that brightens my office wall. Down to my last small coins I counted just enough to buy these earrings, inexpensive little circles that capture all the color and brightness and beauty, as well as the complex patterns of that corner of Brazil, at that time. When I wear them I brighten my day but I also think of those children.

Friday, April 28, 2006

GenevaLunch: now you can nibble

GenevaLunch is eating up my week, which means that things are the wrong way around, of course, but as the site gets moving, that is beginning to change. The result is that the site is now mostly up, with a small amount of content. For those who have not yet heard of it GenevaLunch is an English-language news and information web site, with both professional and community reporting, text and images, for the Lake Geneva area in Switzerland. Rough calculations indicate that it will reach out to a population of more than one million. A special feature: it uses blog technology which will allow the site to be highly dynamic.

For now, go have a nibble - but come back next week for a small feast. The explanations for many of the menu pages are missing and some basic functionality is not yet there.

The birthing process is closer to that of a blog than of a typical web site, where testing is done behind the scenes and the site is launched when most bugs have been worked out, at some expense. Blogs are born only partially formed, and the first few weeks are a time of steadily adding and playing with site features. GenevaLunch will not have a loud, splashy launch, as most new news sites do. At some point in the next two weeks, when the basic features are in place and a few members of the community who have been invited to post have added material, I will invite a larger group of people to visit.

When I was a university student, like so many other American students I spent my summers working in restaurants. I always loved the time between meals, the pause between the kitchen madhouse and rush of one set of diner's and the adrenalim flowing again when the next set arrived. There was usually a moment when the first of the new group arrived - you glanced around and made sure the dining room looked all right. You tidied napkins, added missing forks, straightened the flowers, checked the menu again. And then the bustle and fun began.

GenevaLunch is currently a bit like that. Things are starting to bustle.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

And now, the message from the fairy godmother

I was too tired last night, from teaching and getting a new web site up and attending the high school graduating class dinner (and baking a pie for it), to write the true story that goes with Cinderella's shoes, posted here yesterday.

It's a birthday story, so this is for my nephew Jason, who has a birthday in two days (and who should post a comment here telling us all how to find his music on the Internet, since he's part of the open mike circuit in Chicago). Not to worry, Jason: you're not getting fancy old shoes for a present this year. Keep reading.

Back to Cinderella: a couple months ago I wrote a "Time capsule" entry here about inheriting or in some cases not inheriting things from older sisters. I mentioned my sister Mary's magnificent Cinderella slippers, which I longed for as a little girl but never saw again after Mary came home from the ball where she'd worn them.

Yesterday, the fairy godmother, or maybe it was Cinderella (in any event, aka my sister Mary) delivered a belated birthday box to my house. Inside were the magic slippers, the real thing, vintage 1958! The rhinestones still twinkle and you can hear the dance steps if you listen carefully. A card with the shoes had this message: "This little gift is to remind you never to give up on your dreams, because sometimes they come true."

It's a nice thought to carry around on a birthday.

Mary is the source of another nice birthday thought. A week ago, on my own birthday, I wrote that your birthday is a time to do something nice for yourself, following the advice some years ago of my sister. Mary gently pointed out yesterday that this was not exactly her advice. It was probably more like this (improved) version:

"One's birthday is a time to celebrate one's self or one's life so far."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Cinderella, 1958

And half a century later, deep in the closet that her stepsisters never got around to cleaning, once they had the housekeeping job, she found these wonderful slippers.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Another red bench

Red benches are a part of Swiss life (also see "Living on thin air.") This one is in Nyon.

Living on thin air (part 2)

[printable version]

(part one is here)

"Francine," her older brother said one Sunday as the family, reduced to those left in Switzerland, melted raclette cheese over thick slabs of bread. The raclette had always been from their own cows. "The house will be very big for you."

Most of the family had by now moved away to seek a better life. Their father was dead and their mother, old and frail, was content to sit outside on a red bench, sipping a hot brew made from the Alpine flowers that grew around her.

“Why don’t we share it?” he continued. “The taxes are too high, because of that window Father put in the roof, and you don’t have work. “I don’t need much space – I will just take the small room with the window in the roof, and you can have the rest of the house, but we’ll split the cost. We’ll need to share the kitchen, of course.”

He was pleased with himself, for the offer was generous.

“I don’t think so,” Francine said dreamily, sipping her wine. “You’re welcome to come as often as you like, of course, but that room is my favorite place in the world.”

That was the beginning of the end of the smooth relations in the Alberghettini family, but Mother’s hearing rapidly faded and she continued to smile at her children, believing hers to be a happy family. Francine and Jean-Louis smiled back at her while muttering at each other, with increasing vehemence. The brothers and sisters who lived close enough to come for Sunday meals took sides.

Francine painted the room with the window to the sky a deep purple (“the better to feel the airiness of the mountain light”), which deeply offended Jean-Louis’s sense of Alpine simplicity. He in turn began to spend his days digging and hammering just outside the window, spoiling Francine’s sense of peace and quiet. He never offered to explain what he was doing and one day his sister had had enough.

“You could tell me what you’re doing.”
“It’s my property. You might recall I drew the stick for it.”
“Yes, but it’s my ears you’re ruining, and I would like to know why.”
He continued in stubborn silence.

Jean-Louis had an idea. His father had left him a small piece of land, useless because it was too small to build on. It was valuable in a way that only Marcel had seen, for the piece of land was no more than two scraps on either side of a river. His first son now began to dig holes for small rock pylons, and eventually the stone was put in place, piece by piece.

Francine stared at the strange columns rising a meter out of the ground and decided that Jean-Louis was mad, for he was spending the middle of his life building a very small bridge to nowhere, it seemed. She wondered if the strain of having so many younger brothers and sisters had been too much for him.

The floor of the “bridge” was laid, and then steadily, but slowly because he was working alone, four walls grew up from the floor. It was too large for a bridge.

“You’re building a small house!” said his mother one day, from her bench in the garden. She looked pleased with the idea. Francine was horrified, for the house looked as if it might block some of her view from her small window.

Jean-Louis spent the summer finishing his house, with precious days taken to build a window into the roof, a frame for his beautiful mountains. Francine stopped speaking to him the day it was clear that the roof would indeed now always be part of her view. She bought a new stereo system and put it in the small room at the top of her house and began to play classical music very loudly “so Mother can hear it,” she told her brothers and sisters. Those who said Mother was now completely deaf felt that Francine had lost her sense of proportion. The others, who felt Mother could still hear somewhat, felt that Francine should be given more credit, and wasn’t it a shame that Jean-Louis had ruined that view they had all loved as children?

The only member of the family to avoid the window war was Martial, a peaceloving man who preferred to view the mountain from outside a house in any event. He had inherited a small hut in a high pasture, too far from civilization to have electricity or plumbing, and of little commercial value. He became an accountant because it promised a steady, quiet income and regular time off so he could go to his hut. He planted 10 flowers and tended them carefully. More, he felt, created obligations and he preferred a simple, uncluttered life. He graciously accepted, nevertheless, an offer from the commune to oversee some of its work.

For 20 years the window war raged and the family’s relations grew more acrimonious, while Mother grew increasingly deaf, and more silent. It was possible, the children conceded, that she could see the family was no longer happy. Fewer and fewer of them spoke to each other regularly and three of them began to drink more of the local Humagne blanc wine than they had in the past, so that when they did meet, words were often harsher than they might have been in sober moments.

Winter arrived and Mother Alberghettini fell sick and weakened rapidly. The children quietly drew near and waited for the end. Those who lived abroad came home. Mother was 84 and her children now ranged in age from 66 to 44.

It began to snow and snow. It snowed yet more, and everyone tried to think of a time when it had snowed this much. Mother Alberghettini appeared not to hear.

Her eyes suddenly opened wide.

“The window!”
Just as they looked from her to one another, puzzled, they heard a noise, as if a small train were running through the top of the house, and cold air rushed at them.

“Nooooo!” Francine screamed, rushing up the stairs. The others followed.

Indeed, the window had collapsed, and with it, most of the roof.

“Nooooo!” yelled Jean-Louis, for he suddenly realized that in the storm his own window to the sky and roof had caved in.

For the next two hours they rushed about trying to patch and plug the damage, to keep the wild mountain from the houses. Only Martial stayed where he was, holding his mother’s hand.

Martial was the only one sitting with her when she died, peacefully, with a small and slightly wicked smile on her face.

“You did the right thing,” she said to him.

That evening, the family talked, seesawing from quiet conversations and memories of Alberghettini, Marcel, the father, and his wife, to arguments about fixing the roof on the big house and the little bridge house.

“I will build my house higher this time,” said Francine in an ugly voice.
“So will I,” said Jean-Louis coldly.

“I don’t think so,” offered Martial. They all looked at him, for he rarely raised his voice over theirs.

“You see,” and he coughed shyly. “Last week I had the new planning guidelines approved by the commune and you can no longer have a roof in your window. For that matter, both of these houses are too high for the new standards, and you’ll have to put on lower, flatter roofs than you had before.”

No one said anything.

“The village felt that we needed to take measures to protect our heritage,” he said, sweeping his arm to take in the mountain commune. He looked at them all and then swept his arm in a smaller circle, one that took in just the family.

“Our heritage,” he repeated.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Piercing the Matterhorn

Zermatt and the Matterhorn
Did those people flying over know how wonderful they looked?

We spent the day in the sun, showing the family tourists a few Swiss highlights. I am too weary to write, but here is one of the places we went. This must be the most photographed mountain in the world, and I thought oh well, just one more snap . . .

Living on thin air

[a work in progress - return tomorrow for the completed story] [April 24, small typos corrected]

This is for Tara, part of the "Moonbeam Drawer" series (Use search this blog to find others). It could be fiction, but then again much fiction is like real life and real life has so much fiction that sometimes it is hard to know what's what. Any resemblance to real people is probably intentional, and I hope they find their way here.

There were once five brothers and four sisters, who started life under the same roof, which had been put on their house by their father before they were born. They ate the same meals prepared by their mother for the more than 40 years it took them all to grow up. They drifted away, all but two of them.

This is the story of a roof, but not the one built by Alberghettini, Marcel, as the father was known.

Everyone in the valley was known by last name, first name because at that time people knew your clan first and you as an extension of it, only secondly. There were few families, but they spread and put down roots far and wide and deep, like the weeds that Alberghettini, Marie-Antoine, one of the daughters, spent her childhood forking out of the rocky soil. She vowed to live somewhere with soft, rich soil and to stay far away from gardens when she grew up. (She did: she moved to Hawaii where she watched with great satisfaction as a neighbor, Christopher, developed a garden business and she joined the Immaculate Housewives club).

The Alberghettini family lived in Switzerland, in the Valais, a region of high mountain peaks and narrow rushing rivers that ran continually down to the great Rhone River. From its start as a glacial drip, the Rhone tumbled and flowed steadily to Lake Geneva, where it chilled and stirred the deep waters. At the other end the water gathered its forces and flowed in a narrower channel, with great beauty and elegance, down to the Mediterranean.

The Alberghettini children learned about this in school. Some of them felt that so much travel and constant movement was too abstract. They filed the information away as something you should know. Adults were filled with such knowledge, possibly useful and then again, maybe it wasn't. Alberghettini, Jean-Louis, was far more interested in knowing the mountains intimately. They were easier to live with than his large family, crisscrossed with the stress points of too many relationships in too small a space. Jean-Louis was the oldest child, the first son. He became a mountain guide. From his vantage point, often in the clouds, he could ignore the taunts and comments he had heard as a child, about his family coming from elsewhere and not really belonging. They had left Tessin, which his family continued to call Ticino, nearly 300 years ago.

The second youngest child, Francine, loved her parents' house more than any of the others. It may have been because the wooden chalet, more than a century old, had so many stories hidden in it, of lives and loves, won and lost, disappointments and hopes. To her, the chalet was a treasure chest filled with secrets.

"Tell me about the roof," she begged her father often, when she was little.
He had had little time for the older children, but his two youngest, afterthoughts as the neighbors called them, arrived at a point in his life where he could put down his tools and tell stories.

He humored her.

"My grandparents built this house, and my parents lived in it after them," he would begin. He recounted the tale of the many children taking their cows up to the middle alps, or mountains, in June, and up to the higher alps, later in the summer. There he and his brothers would stay, sleeping in a hut, looking after the animals. Nights were cold, days were hot, and there was time to dream. The dreaming was their salvation, for the house could not be divided among all of them, and in each generation there would come a day when the father would ask them to pull sticks. The one with the shortest would get the house, and the others would wander off to follow their dreams. One went to Paris where he joined his cousin, Caesar Ritz. He earned a fortune and fame in the hotel trade.

Marcel drew the shortest stick and inherited the house. But the family had had little money, for times were tough and Switzerland was still a poor country, living in the economic shadows of its strong and rich neighbors. One day, the roof fell in, literally, and Marcel and his wife and their new baby were covered in debris and dust.

He climbed up and began to repair the roof and soon several cousins and brothers were helping him, for it was clear that the roof would have to be replaced. Marcel suddenly paused and looked up at the view of the peaks high above.

"We will put a window in this roof so my children can always see the sky and the mountains," he declared.

The men thought it was a foolish notion and an impractical idea, and they told him so. No one put windows on top of a house. Heavy snow would cover it and then break it. There was no way to build a window strong enough. Children should learn to love the mountain, yes, but they should also learn to keep their heads to the ground and to their books. Too much dreaming was not a good thing.

Marcel persevered, and his second youngest daughter, Francine, loved that roof and its special window for children. She dreamed her way through childhood and when it came time to draw the shortest stick, it went to Francine. She thought she would grow old doing nothing more than looking out the window, but she thought it might be wise not to mention such a lack of ambition to the others.

Jean-Louis, the first child and son, was taunted again by his childhood friends, though they had all long been adults. No other family drew short sticks foir the family home: their property was divided equally, with the oldest son getting the most valuable piece of property.

He had been a mountain guide for some years and knew the softness but also the wildness of the Alps around him. He loved the mountains, but his knee had been bothering him for some time and he began to think about spending more time at home rather than on the mountain itself.

He began to dream about the view from the window his father had made when he was just a small baby, the window that was designed for him to dream about the mountains.

"Francine," he said one Sunday as the reduced family melted raclette cheese from their cows over thick slabs of bread. "The house will be very big for you." Most of the family had by now moved away to seek a better life. Their father was dead and their mother, old and frail, was content to sit outside with a hot brew made from Alpine flowers.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


The greening of the lime meringue pie

The South African branch of the family, currently London-based, is visiting, so we had pie. Lime meringue pie, served with the last of our Alpine garden strawberries [raspberries!] from last September.

Teams sometimes come up with better ideas than individuals, and sometimes they don't. The hovering team in the kitchen agreed, as I was about to pour the pale filling into the baked crust, that a lime pie should be green. So we greened it, using the coloring generally reserved for Easter eggs.

It tasted delicious and the pie disappeared in 15 minutes, but we all agreed that it was confusing to eat lime and think kiwi - we didn't get the shade of green quite right.

We will just have to bake another one.

An early start

[photo resized, others added]

Some days I get an early start. Here is my reward:

An hour later the sun is shining brightly on the castle and monastery ruins in Sion, Valais, Switzerland.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

'Tis my birthday, ladidadi

Ah, the day is nearly done, but it has been a good one. A birthday, my sister Mary told me a few years ago, is a time to think about yourself. She always spends the day doing something she really wants to do. Some years it is a big thing, involving a trip somewhere, and other years it means driving to a park and listening to Mozart. She has a large family, so taking a day for herself if very wise, I think, but also often very difficult.

A red birthday flower

This is my birthday and I did have some obligations that I had to consider, but otherwise I managed to do a few things for me.

We are awestruck

The first was to go to a garden center, Schilliger, in Gland, and wander around for two hours. You have to be my age and female to appreciate this, I suspect.

Wee rabbits on display (about 6 inches/15cm long)

The flowers were magnificent, the peacefulness wonderful and there was a magic touch: rabbits. For Easter, Schilliger invited a neighbor who raises beautiful pet rabbits of many sorts, to set up cages around the rows of flowers and plants. They were nestled in and under clean piles of straw. Parents and grandparents trying to decide on plants were left in some peace by their children who were enchanted by the rabbits.

I bought some lovely new plants for the veranda and the garden. It's far too early to put them out, up in the mountains, so I will have to nurture them indoors for a while.

I also planned to bake a lime meringue pie, but the day was too short. One rule about birthdays is that nothing is obligatory. The pie will have to wait until tomoorow.

The contractual part of the day involved teaching a writing class. I decided to hold off on the part I find less interesting, which is insisting that the students follow a set of rules to edit their work. I said we would do some creative writing. Groans. I gave each of them a photo, harvested from my large crop of personal ones, and asked them to write 3-4 sentences describing a character who was sstanding nearby when the picture was taken. I then gathered up the character descriptions and handed them out to other students, who had to write a short story about the character, somehow including the photo. The point of the exercise was to try to use action verbs. It was tough. Verbs like "was", "had" and "said" overpopulated the stories, and exciting verbs were hard to find. So we worked on that a bit.

This evening I announced to the family that I intended to find a good book on the shelves, one I had not yet read, and retreat to a quiet corner with the book and a glass of wine.

"I can't wait to be yur age," moaned my 17 year old. "What excitement on a birthday!"

"Mmmm," said my husband, because the semi-finals of the European football (soccer to some of you) cup were starting soon.

The best way to get a bit of peace is to be so boring that no one notices you have sneaked off. Believe me, this is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Paul Revere taught me to revere history, kind of

In a few short hours the clocks will chime midnight in Massachusetts and it will be the on-the-minute anniversary of The Ride of Paul Revere. This may or may not be one of the great moments of history, but it has always been a great moment for me because thanks to Paul and his ride, I suddenly saw history as interesting.

Here, in brief, is what I learned from Paul Revere: men had once worn costumes instead of clothes, including three-cornered hats (surely not a practical design?) and white stockings to their knees. Their coats had tails and when they rode horses at great speed to warn fellow Americans of danger, the tails flew in the wind, the hats stayed on and the stockings stayed clean. Now there were real men for you! He had something to do with tea and taxes, neither of which I could get excited about when my teacher first read those thrilling lines about the Midnight Ride, but the party where everyone threw chests of tea over the edge of a ship sounded like fun.

Strangely enough, after this bumpy start with history, where I was a bit weak on fact, I went on to study history. Some facts seemed more true than others, the world began to look more complex, and costumes, I continued to believe, are a key element in making history interesting.

On that basis, I don't think Saddam Husseim or Milosevic will ride out the centuries as well as say, Paul Revere. I wonder who will. Any candidates? Ghandi, maybe. Madonna (of the 20th century), undoubtedly.

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five . . .

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (compliments of Iowa State University)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Day off, day's end

Here is what I saw when I peered closely, in the dusk, at the rock garden flowers. Pulsatilla alpina, aka Easter flower or Paque flower, closes tightly at night and the little fine hairs on the outside protect this gem from frost and cold - the temperature still dips dangerously close to freezing here at night.

pulsatilla alpina

For the benefit of those who don't plant potatoes, we dig trenches, plant the little fellows, mound the dirt up around them and wait.

There is a mountain in the background.

And here, in case you agree that it's rather ugly, is what it looked like outside, when I stopped hoeing.

My family thinks this is possibly the most unattractive photo I've ever taken of our mountain home. I think it is like most snapshots, and that is fine. It shows the beauty and the story that lies beneath the surface image.

Here, then, are my newly planted potatoes, which of course you can't see. And for pleasure, afterwards, the nearby pond.

the pond, reflecting dusk sky

The clouds that are reflected in the pond

The day after, a day off

There are two days of the year when I always plan to catch up on work, do the filing, sort out the various messes that surround me - and when they arrive I say uh-uh, it's a day off. Bank is closed and offices are closed and it won't make an ounce (gram?) of difference if I don't do a scrap of job-related work.

One is December 26. The other is the day after Easter, Easter Monday. Today.

But I did something useful. I raked over the garden, put in stakes, hoed two rows and planted some nice red potatoes. I have friends, mainly people who love to cook, who will say yum! because garden fresh potatoes are wonderful. And I have other friends who will think I'm crazy to get so dirty and sweaty and unintellectual (well, they wouldn't put it that way, would they?) as to go out and dig spud holes.

The sun is going down, the air is getting cold and I'm going to go out and photograph my spud mounds right now, just for you.

Back in a moment.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


We love them, always have, always will.

That's all, folks.

Alpine rock garden

Here it is: a real alpine rock garden in the Alps, in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the gardener (me) has not yet cleaned up post-winter.

At long last, it is starting to come into bloom, a day of magic I would like to share with you.

Robert Scoble and I have the same furniture

One happy person: Tara, with her dad on her favorite swing, on Easter Sunday.

Robert Scoble writes a famous blog for Microsoft. I write a less famous one for me and my pals, or whoever. But Robert and I now have the same furniture in our living rooms: our white leather comment policy. It's one that says, this is my living room, I want to keep it clean and elegant, and you can visit if your comments respect that.

I get comment spam and I delete it. Doesn't take too long and people don't have to bother looking at comments like "Hey! I love your site and I know know where you can get a super discount deal on 100 purple washing machines!" I have had a few nasty little comments, not many really. I'm not interested in letting you all see the potentially racist and just plain obnoxious one to my post "Bright chicks in Yunnan" (okay, okay, I was asking for trouble with that title), for example. Of course, I have fewer visitors and fewer comments than Robert.

Robert has had a kind of brown and tan washable tweed comment policy, where anyone could come in and put their feet up and eat chips and smoke cigarettes and generally leave a bit of rubbish if they felt like it. Mostly they haven't, but I get tired of skipping over that stuff, and so do a lot of other people. He's come to the same conclusion.

Long live white leather comments.

Speaking of which, Christopher from Hawaii wrote a long and thoughtful comment to my post "Blogs mean equal voices". I've been reflecting on it since, meaning to reply, but meanwhile visited his site (see my blogroll to the left, here), Tropical Embellishments, and read an interesting exchange about seeking happiness and a better life.

This is one of the other threads on Robert Scoble's post, and I think he was just given some very good advice. Spend more time with happy people, surround yourself with happy people and give less time to those who are not.

I have a friend, Mary, who very actively lives this way. I have observed an interesting phenomenon, in case you think this might be unkind to those of us who are sometimes grumps. People know she looks for happy people, and even the grumps tend to be happier around her - they give it their best try. So by raising expectations, she brings out the best in people.

Here is one of the happy people in my life, Tara, with her dad on Easter, on the swing.

Shooting from inside a bowl

Fr0m inside a toilet bowl, and shooting a movie, that is: this is not as ummm, awful as it sounds. In fact, it is really interesting! If you've ever wondered how they get some of those really weird camera angles, read Linda Sunshine's new blog, about the making of a movie in Hong Kong. She's working on the script for the DVD about making the movie, and if the blog is any indication, I will want to see the DVD. Maybe even the movie!

Pearl - Alone But Not Alone

I view many flowers on Flickr, but this one is special, even among macros (extreme closeups).

The sun rose

And for about 10 minutes we had proof of it. The rain then won out.

A time of light, of lightness

When I was a child Easter Sunday was a day of light and lightness, celebrated in my family as a religious feast but also as a formal acknowledgement of Spring's arrival. I loved the sudden shift to white vestments of the priest and the uncovering of the statues that had been shrouded in purple.

I loved the jelly beans and colored eggs we had made. We picked flowers from the garden, wrapped damp tissues around them and then a layer of tin foil, tying the bunch together with a lovely pale blue or green satin ribbon.

And then, long dresses to cover our bruised and knocked about knees and shins of weekday life, and an airy hat on the head, we posed for pictures in the garden.

Every year I had a new "plate hat" and I believe this one, from 1957, was my favorite.

It was a time of lightness, but oh, the heaviness of the burden of being good and keeping clothes tidy for a day.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Souvenirs and memory: Argentina's shoes

When the shoe fits . . .

I visited Argentina four years ago to write about international education there. I never found time to look for a little souvenir piece of jewelry, so I bought pale green strappy shoes. They were totally impractical ones that I fell in love with because they represented the me who would have liked to go dancing and be light on my feet like all the women I seemed to see in Argentina. Switzerland never feels the right place to wear these.

When I see them I always remember the shoes I really fell in love with in a school art room.

My apologies to the unknown artist, who should be given credit for this magnificent bit of footgear gone arty.

I especially liked her message, "I fit." Every teenager's dream.

China-chatting on my mind

Children outside fast food restaurant in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, July 2004

Blog conversations are limited in China

China is on my mind a good deal these days, in part because when my son leaves home in six weeks, more or less permanently, he heads for Beijing. Later he will go to Vancouver to study Chinese and film, but first he will spend three months studying and traveling in China, his third such summer there.

This year he has decided to write a blog about his travels. His Chinese wushu (martial arts) demo videos have now been viewed more than 66,000 times (since December 25), so chances are good that he will have a few readers for his blog.

The catch is how to post to the China travel blog. China doesn't allow Blogger blogs to be viewed, nor apparently other blogs hosted by blogging companies - we have tested the first but not the others by asking friends in China to visit URLs we've given them.

I just read Martin Varsafsky's blog on his firsthand attempt this week to check out blogging censorship in China; he didn't think it was too bad, and he puts it into perspective by looking at censorship of various sorts elsewhere. He points out, rightly, that he is looking in English and if he did the same thing in Chinese the results might well be more limited. Varsafsky is a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist whose latest venture is FON, connecting global wifi users.

There are ways to get around the posting dilemma but it does provoke reflections on China's struggle to manage (censor, if you prefer!) the flow of information and access to it. I think it is mistakenly seen too often as a primarily political issue, an effort to staunch all criticism of the Chinese government. There is clearly an element of this, but I think there is also an unhappy effort by the government to stay one step ahead of technology that is accessible to the population, for business reasons.

I fail to see how the government will succeed in the end. The task is simply too great, even for Mao's successors. I suspect the pressure for the government to change will come not from angry voices outside the country but from steady pushing within the country.

If, as the government has decreed, every taxi driver in Beijing should speak English by 2008, when the city hosts the Olympics, every taxi driver will be able to read Internet stories about the lives and charging methods of taxi drivers in New York and London. English makes it possible to get around some of the Internet censorship.

I have recently lectured MBA students from IIPM, an Indian business school, when they were visiting Switzerland. I talk about the impact of the rapid growth of the Internet in China, and the growth of cell phones in Asia but particularly in China. I show them this slide I took in July 2004 in Kunming, Yunnan Province, from my hotel room. At the time I wanted to show the construction of the new underground subway system that would tunnel under the old central part of the city.

I realized only afterwards that the photo showed something more significant: the massive growth in the use of cell phones. Ads show love and romance and success and consumerism all rolled together, a blend bound to appeal to young Chinese. The majority of cell phones sold in Asia now have cameras. Cell phones + cameras + Internet connections is a powerful tool for change, in the hands of millions whose view out the window is getting clearer and more interesting by the day. Curiosity is hard to keep in bounds, once it gets started.

souvenirs and memory: Quebec monkeys

Monkeys in the office

I have a few in-jokes with my memories. One is that for a few years I only wore my see-hear-do no evil earrings to meetings where I knew I would have to work with an impossibly difficult colleague. The boss thought he was wonderful and didn't see, as several of us did, that he lied and cheated and generally made life difficult for several other people.

Monkeys native to Quebec

I bought the earrings at a little shop in Quebec a long time ago, before I had children. We had driven there from Boston, thinking it was not far (distance is relative) and it might be our only chance to see the city and province. We speak French with English accents that have Swiss tones to the them and to our astonishment several people in the province asked if we were Swiss. This was at a time of some tension with the U.S., and I started to find that it was easier to pretend to be Swiss than to claim to be American.

When I saw the monkey earrings I laughed, thinking I was a bit like them, trying to drift peacefully through a corner of Canada that seemed ready to pick a fight with me.

Later, the monkeys did the same trick for me at work, helping me focus on my job in order to get around the problem of the dishonest colleague and his ambitions. Oddly, when I finally decided the only solution was to leave, I lost one of the earrings. So now my Quebec monkey rarely gets to go out. People look at you oddly if you wear one earring or two mismatched ones.

I learned something by quitting that job: management gurus, MBA programs and newspapers like to speculate about why women managers don't go higher, but they rarely ask women at the moment when they can get a straight answer, the point at which a woman is walking out the door.

I got out of an unhealthy rat race and I haven't regretted it because I see and hear less evil, and I'm rarely tempted now to do any. May that other little monkey rest in peace.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A short series on souvenirs and memory

The bowl of travels past

A wooden bowl from Costa Rica's highlands

Supriya, a Flickr photo friend who is Indian but lives in London, told me she likes my travel photos and the memory lane writing I sometimes add to my blog. She suggested that I photograph and write about the wonderful things I bring back from my travels.

Her comment reminded me of a conversation long ago with a friend who would describe himself as a minimalist, in particular where his living quarters are concerned. My sense was always that his minimalism was essentially pragmatic, that if he didn't like the job or the woman of the moment he could pack up and leave quickly. He was taken aback to see our apartment - very cluttered with books and in between and on top of the books were objects from around the world. He struggled to find something complimentary to say about these objects, but the task was too great.

After he left I looked at the clutter, for there was no other word for it, and the undusted objects, and I decided to change my travel habits.

That was some years ago and since then, I mostly limit myself to buying jewelry. It is usually not valuable. It is decorative, but its real purpose - as with the other objects I bought earlier - is really just to trigger a specific memory. When I wear a pair of earrings from Ghana or Brazil, I remember what happened that day, what conversations I had, who I was with, the smell of the flowers and the color of the sky.

Thank you, Supriya, for the suggestion, and now I will share some of my bits and bobs from around the world, and the memories that go with them.

Costa Rican bowls are larger than earrings

In 2001 I visited Costa Rica, my first trip to Latin America. I attended an education conference where there was more job tension than I would have liked, so the four free days at the end dangled in front of me like a wonderful gift. Nick joined me, we rented a car and drove away from San Jose and high into the hills, over them, through deep forests and beyond. But when we reached the hills we found a place that sold beautiful, mostly simple objects made from the exotic woods that cover the middle of the country.

My grandfather was a carpenter and my father, an engineer, spent much of his spare time as a woodworker. He loved special woods from far away, but they were usually too expensive for his small projects and budget.

I bought a wooden necklace, light and easy to pack, but I kept circling the shop, and laughing at a small girl who followed me at a safe distance. And I kept wandering back to this bowl, which felt like silk and weighed nothing. It was a ridiculous thing to carry home: you couldn't easily pack it and it was too pretty so I knew I would never put anything in it, like fruit.

Costa Rican bowl, mora wood (fustic)

My mind drifted and the raw beginnings of a novel took root in that store, and the little girl who peered around the edges of the counters found a second home in that novel. I bought the bowl. I held it as we traveled up and down the mountainous roads, occasionally getting lost. I got out to photograph impatiens, a flower that had never impressed me, but then I had never seen it climbing wildly. As we drove down a narrow and narrower road and finally straight into a shallow but rapid river, I remembered Jurassic Park, which Nick assured me was filmed there. I held the bowl and thought of my father and the way he loved to touch and weigh wood.

Light it is, my bowl, and empty, unless you consider that it is laden with memories.

Blogging dirt around the world

All the dirt means our gardens

[updated at 12:41pm]

Sorry if you've come here looking for gossip, based on the heading. This is about how gardening + blogging with friends around the world keeps me grounded.

This morning it is glorious out, and I think Spring might finally really be here. The first bug we see in Spring is the gardening bug, and we've spotted it, replete with gloves torn last November when racing against frost to cover up prickly plants and rip out weeds that shouldn't winter over.

On days like this I try to remember to look up, rather than just down at the dirt. So here is the view today:

Rhone valley, best viewed large (on Flickr)

I also try to think further afield, and blogging plus Flickr for sharing photos helps with this.

Here are the places I've visited and the people I've seen there, in the past 24 hours. Charlie Tan, aka charliebrown8989, lives in California, or maybe he's in Honk Kong. He struck up a conversation with me on Flickr, where we both post flower photos. His are magnificent. He also has a set of wonderful photos of China, so I looked at those. They inspired me to start posting some of my photos from 2004 in China, which resulted in an ebook (feel free to buy it :)). He then showed me how to use Picasa, which I had heard of but was unfamiliar with, and there he suggested changes to one of my photos:

Charlie's snazzier version

My original of Long Tan Lake in the center of Beijing, with old boats and dragon bridges and a backdrop of skyscrapers being built at the ring roads.

I visited Christopher's web site in Hawaii (see my links here: Tropical embellishments) and saw the amazingly lush plants he offers for sale in his nursery there - hard to get my Swiss-based mind, still looking at snow, around that. I went from there to Don's blog, An Iowa Garden (also under blog links here), where he wrote beautifully about waiting for a tornado to arrive, and the destruction it causes when it does. He ends up where he started, with small flowers bursting forth in his garden.

From there it was back to Kong Kong to visit a new blog written by a friend of a friend. Linda Sunshine is a writer in Los Angeles who is spending some weeks in Hong Kong writing about a movie being made there and her blog is the diary of that time. She talks about the DVD that will be made about the making of the movie - I've always wondered how that happens. She talks about fried food in Hong Kong. She wonders why she had to fly 8,000 miles to have the best margarita she's ever had, something she can get around the corner at home in L.A.

I then read Maki's food blog, from Zurich, and she talks about the wonder of rhubarb this time of year. That sent me out to study mine in the garden, not very far along, but always impressive in terms of speed of growth. I expect it to double in size today. Maki has started a blogging food event called "Food Destinations" where you write about your favorite food place around the world, little or big, but just plain good. Check it out.

[update: And just in - here is friend Mary's fantastic aloe plant in Arizona, where she is visiting it, from New York]

And then I looked at my site stats for this blog. It is not read by millions or even thousands, but there is a steady stream of visitors from all over - in the past 24 hours from 6-7 countries and as many states in the U.S. You can check it out, too, by scrolling to the end of my pages and clickin gon "site meter" - you'll find yourself there.

The world is great, the world is large, and my garden is one patch in it, and I am only one of so many creatures in that patch. Time to go peer at the dirt, and remind myself that we need to look out, and to look in as well, to keep things in perspective. Time to take a deep breath of that fresh Spring air.

A leader is someone who...

Claimer: motherspeak

I had no intention of doing the womanly thing, writing a family diary, when I began this blog. My family has, on occasion, seeped in here because families do and this is true for anyone who has a job outside the home - a family is not a solid mass relegated to the edges of our work lives. I think it's a happy development that people like Robert Scoble, who impishly (and accurately) introduces himself as "Microsoft's most famous blogger" writes one minute about a new product and the next about taking time off to play with his son. Blogging can help us find a bit of balance, if only because we find ourselves writing about it. May the actions follow the words.

This blog was designed to be an all-purpose outlet, a place where I could ramble as I pleased, writing about work and family and dreams and intellectual endeavors and more, including the news when it struck my fancy. It's a place for photos that will benefit from more words than a Flickr title can offer.

I find myself very surprised, therefore, to be posting today about family. More specifically, about Number One Son, Liam, an award he has just won, and how the effort to get it has made us all think hard about the nature of leadership.

Family news: we have a leader, it seems

First, the family news: the award is a wonderful four year scholarship called the "International Leader of Tomorrow", given to a small number of international students to study at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Canada in general, and UBC in particular, actively encourages students from outside Canada to apply.

Liam starts in September and will study Chinese and film production. Between classes he will devote himself to wushu, Chinese martial arts. We're excited for him, and proud of him.

He almost didn't apply when he saw that he had to write an essay about why he thinks he might be a leader. I'm not a student council president or head of the debating society, he moaned. We all had to stop and think and discuss: what makes someone a leader?

This is a question that is troubling nations - look at Italy's recent elections and all the discussion in the U.S. about why the Democrats are floundering as they try to come up with a good candidate to move us firmly past the Bush era. Trying to write a student essay on a topic that has entire countries arguing seemed a daunting prospect.

Here are some of the thoughts that were thrown into the debate at our house, a few of which made it into Liam's essay. He spent considerable time as he grappled with his changing notions about leadership. Among other things he remembered how other students watched him recover from a broken back (stress fracture) with a fiberglass corset and no sports for a winter, and go on to learn new backflips and other physical feats that involve overcoming fear.

In the end, we the parents learned a good deal from his efforts to find a definition of leader that he was happy with. He influenced our own thinking, and that, we think, is part of leadership.

True leaders step through PR screens

A leader is not simply someone who seeks out political roles, positions of power, traditional paths to places where a wider audience listens to you. People who go that way exist, and they are often in positions of leadership, but they are not real leaders. A few politicians come to mind. The business of speech-writing and PR spin for politicians comes to mind, for they create a screen between us and people in positions of power, so it is harder to know the person behind the position. We will know a real leader when we see him or her step forcefully through these screens.

Creativity: the leader's elixir

A leader must inspire people and influence them to behave and think differently. To do that, a leader must be creative. Creativity is simply the ability to look at things in a new way, to find solutions to problems old and new. I think some people are probably born more creative than others, based on my own observations of small children, but we can all learn to improve our creative abilities. It takes a certain amount of work and determination, but we all have the ability to become increasingly creative. Leaders take that ability and run with it.

Leader's are risk specialists

You are more likely to be perceived as a leader and therefore to become one if you learn to calculate and then to take risks, and you grow from the effort. Risk-taking is one of the things in life most people find hard: a leader shows us that if we go about risk-taking in the right way we can improve our lives.

A leader listens and learns: the human factor

And a leader must understand people and want to spend time with them and learn more about them. If relationships are important decisions will be influenced, as they should be, by a sixth sense that balances the measurable - technical or political or financial - with the infinitely varied and therefore unmeasurable human factor. This, I think, is where business leaders too often fail. A company that knows its business but whose management has never focused on making it a place where human beings can be happy is missing the mark. An organization whose leader has expertise but who is not at ease telking to an employee and understanding their problems, at their level, will weaken and die.

In the end, being called a leader of tomorrow is a challenge: the gauntlet has been thrown down and Liam will need to pick up the skills and develop the traits that make a real leader. University time and travel are designed to help him do this.

How can we throw down the gauntlet to those leaders we are seeking right now, not tomorrow's but today's? How can we send them the message that management schools and political training grounds are well and good, but even the best of them cannot provide something that comes from inside. A leader must first of all listen to himself, or herself to sound out the weaknesses and fears and inadequacies that trouble us all, then seek the ways to rise above these.

A leader must, first and foremost, set the example.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Blogs means equal voices

Christopher in Hawaii left a comment on my posting "Dear blog reader", and Scott left a reply to a comment I made on Bruno Giussani's blog posting about Thomas Friedman. Reading the two comments on the same day gave me pause, and here is why.

Both reacted to the fact that I have, in the past, worked for Time Magazine and other major publications. Christopher seemed a bit awestruck since he thought I was just another soul out there blogging and now he sees me as a professional writer. Scott was less impressed and seemed annoyed that I should offer an opinion in a kind of citizens' forum (blogs) when as a professional journalist I presumably have more clout than Joe and Jane Blogger.

I started this post with the question in my head: so where do and should journalists fit into the blogging world? But even as I write it is shifting into: so where do non-journalists fit in? Or maybe more to the point, is there some reason we need to divide bloggers into these two groups?

Blogging started out as the great equalizer. Everyone could have a voice, a say about anything and everything. This is still true and the numbers are probably the best indicator of this. Estimates vary but there could well be 50 million blogs today, worldwide. Some are dormant, but no matter how you count this is still a lot of people having something to say and saying it.

After the great equalizer start, journalists started to notice blogging, especially in the political arena. The last U.S. presidential election in particular caught the attention of the media. Journalists started to blog. We might all have been created equal, but it is a lot easier to get more than your equal share of attention if you have a name and publication that already mean something to the general public. And a curious phenomenon started: blog groupies. If a famous journalist or writer published on a blog I could add a comment, no matter who I was. I could enter the fray and I could also have my seconds or minutes of fame because more people read a Famous Person's blog than Joe and Jane Public's blogs. Some people sending comments really did have something to say, but a few others wanted just to be seen to be saying something. That, in turn, put off others who are embarrassed that people might think they are groupies, or don't deserve to have their voices heard.

I think that is where we are today, and it's a shame for the last group in particular, and for those of us who stand to learn something by listening to them.

It would be nice to think that anyone who writes well and is exploring interesting ideas will have a widely read blog, but the reality of how people find their way to blogs means this will happen only some of the time. Joe and Jane are likely to rest in relative obscurity. People with too-busy lives will try to find time to read their blogs, but might not always manage.

I think that is all right. I also think it is all right that many more people will visit the Famous Person's blog, but on one condition: that the author of the blog and visitors give equal time to the comments. If the Famous Person is a journalist, there is too much of a tendency, on his or her part, but also the part of readers, to assume that this voice has greater value.

That is just plain wrong. Good journallists and writers seek out information and try to put it into a perspective that will spark debate. The debate is crucial for any society where the masses have an impact on, and a say in, what happens in their lives. Call it democracy if you will, but that is a word that has become so distorted recently that I tend to avoid using it. Let's say the debate is about the value of keeping a house clean. Democracy doesn't seem to fit in here, but it's a topic on which many, many women (and some men) wax passionate. We can all learn by discussing it (I might try this one next month, when I hope to have time to think about cleaning the house).

Journalists are not smarter than other people. If they are better informed, and sometimes they are, but not always, it is because this is their job - but with the goal of informing others. They are moderators and enablers, not keynote speakers, to borrow business conference lingo. Even the most famous ones, who sometimes forget this.

I do not want people to be impressed or put off by my journalism background because if they are, they will stop writing and contributing to the discussions that blogs generate, mine and others. I fear that they will reach a point where they feel their voices do not have equal value. I'm here precisely because I want to hear their voices, I want to keep things equal, as much as possible.

When I was little I really hated kids who shouted louder and got more attention because of it. I still do, and the blogosphere has a few shouters. Most of the time, they have had or still have a job that gives them an ego that frankly is rarely deserved. One of the greatest dangers of having a job or position of power is that you easily develop the illusion that people love you or admire you for yourself and your smart ideas. You start to believe your opinions matter because of the person you are.

And if the Famous Person no longer had the clout and the power that go with a particular job? Sometimes it turns out that the former Famous Person did indeed have smart ideas and interesting opinions, and we keep listening. Sometimes not.

I had a usefully humbling experience a few years ago. It also reminded me about one of the dangers of my profession, flattery. I interviewed people at Fiat in Italy for Time. I was wined and dined and given the VIP treatment. I learned a lot about Fiat and my hosts learned a lot about me, including the fact that I love Italian food. Time had a policy that we could only accept gifts of food and drink, or things we couldn't carry away, so I was sent home in a chauffered car to save me 30 minutes over the train time, across Italy and Switzerland. The chauffeur had instructions to stop off and buy a magnificent basket of wine and cheeses and salami and fress vegetables at a market outside Turin.

Two years later I was asked by another publication, not a household name, to write about Fiat. The same PR person who had made me feel like royalty didn't remember my name. The publication was one he couldn't be bothered about. He wasn't rude, but he came very close. I was given a 15-minute phone interview with one of his underlings.

So, Christopher, not only am I happy to have your comments here, and to visit your blog, but I don't know everything, especially not about blogs, and your kind advice and suggestions are well received! And Scott, although I doubt you'll see this, I appreciate being reminded by you that if I throw out the name of a big publication right next to my own name I should never assume people will know I have done my homework.

An opinion without evidence to back it is not acceptable from any of us. We are equally free, all of us, to make that mistake, and to correct it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Tom Friedman should do his homework

I've just ranted a bit on Bruno Giussani's blog after he wrote about a column that Tom Friedman (of The World is Flat fame) published on immigration April 5. Friedman is the New York Times' foreign affairs columnist. He argues that America needs strong borders and more immigrants. As a U.S. citizen, frequent traveler and visitor to a large part of the world, I agree absolutely about the immigrants. Let's hang out that welcome sign!

I think the point about borders is dubious and will never be enforceable, or at least not at an acceptable price. We should not risk further alienating the rest of the world, whose post-911 understanding has been pushed to its limits by recent changes that have made entering the U.S. as a tourist far too difficult.

My rant was not about U.S. policy, though, it was about sloppy reporting.

Tom Friedman, do your homework, please!

As Bruno points out, Friedman just plain gets it wrong in a couple places.

People love to give journalists a hard time about inaccurate or inadequate reporting, and it's tough to be on the receiving end of that stick if you are in fact a conscientious journalist. I am one of those. I don't have the fame and editorial clout of Friedman and his paper. When a colleague lets down the reporting forces, he makes the rest of us pay for months, if not years. I'm unhappy about that. There's some interesting food for though in Naked Conversations about this problem, and where blogging fits into it.

Okay, I am annoyed by, but can live with, yet another U.S.-based reporter perpetuating the Swiss cuckoo clock myth. Friedman does this when he writes about immigration (and I'm not including a link here because the New York Times doesn't offer yesterday's news for free online). I can't live with this: he implies strongly that it's hard to become a Swiss citizen, and from there we are to understand that Switzerland is not competitive because it doesn't welcome immigrants.

Tom Friedman, you shouldn't have let us down!

Whoa, just a minute. Who did you talk to, Tom? Where are the facts? Isn't that information just a little out of date, let's say by 20 years or so? Responsible reporting, please. A good starting point would be a country profile article published in Migration Information Source, by three authors from the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies in Neuchatel.

A few facts about Swiss immigration in 2006

I'm about to become a Swiss citizen (and will remain an American one). I know firsthand that Switzerland now welcomes immigrants, the process is easy and straightforward, and it costs a minimal amount of money. Moreover, the evidence is all around me that the country has benefited enormously from its approach to immigration in recent years. Accepting dual citizenship after 1992 in particular prompted a sharp increase in applications for citizenship.

Taking a tough line on facts

I worked for several years for Time Magazine, in Paris and in Switzerland, and I had tough bosses who insisted that we back up every statement we made. Fact checkers would come back to me at midnight my time on Friday night, asking what often seemed like irritating and tedious questions. The weekly news magazine was closing in New York but I was having dinner at La Coupole in Paris. The other journalists from Time and I would grumble about that fleet of people sitting in cubbyholes high above Avenue of the Americas in New York, trying to find the loose threads that would make our stories unravel. We swapped tales about the dumbest fact checker questions ever.

If they caught a thread, I could figure on an urgent call from an unhappy bureau chief, suggesting I hustle pretty fast to get the problem sorted out.

We didn't like those checkers, or the bureau chief's calls, but they kept us on our toes, kept us honest, and taught us the value of doublechecking everything, even the things we thought we knew. They saved our skins on occasion, when it had been too easy to take someone's word at face value, or to fill the space with odd facts we had stored in our mental cupboards.

I know a lot of journalists who work like this, rushing to the net to meet deadlines while nevertheless taking time to check and check again that they got it right. It's a bit like playing fast tennis while trying with the other hand to hold up your trousers.

I never, never let down these journalists. And I expect them to do the same for me.

Tom, you just shouldn't have been sloppy. :(

Dear blog reader

Dear whistlestopcaboose blog reader,

Some of you read few if any other blogs, and the technology side of them is a mystery; some of you work in technology businesses and you're far more advanced than I am.

This blog connects you and you and you

It's time to introduce you to each other and to get you thinking about the other visitors here. This blog is read by a very mixed group of people, from friends and family to my professional contacts and Flickr photo friends. We also have random visitors or those who've found their way via search engines.

You dip into "the view from the rear" and then you run off again - but you now have the option of running off to visit each other. Look at the menu on the left, below "archives", and you'll see why. I've started building a blogroll, so you can see some of the other people and places I visit regularly. Now you can head their way, from here.

I will be adding to the list over the next few days, as I find time. I will run a list of the books I read and other topics that interest me and might interest you. I will be reading more blogs and commenting on them more frequently here.

We will still love you even if you don't comment but -

All this is part of what makes blogs exciting: they connect us to each other. If you're one of my non-techie visitors, I would like to remind you that you can comment, which is part of the fun. You can continue or start a conversation about a topic easily by clicking on "comment" at the end of each post.

I enabled comments on this blog when I started it, and I check them before they are posted, to avoid spam. Like many blogs where the writer rambles freely on a wide variety of topics, few readers post comments, but it's more fun for everyone if you do.

Blogs are essentially a great way to put people together: they are pinpoints of thoughts and ideas on a very large map called the Internet. Blogs are not free-standing diaries unless writers choose to make them that.

I see my job now as starting to connect the dots and see what picture we come up with.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Alpine weekend sunshine to tide us over

Saturday was almost warm and sunny and the views of the mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps were clear. We took a walk through a narrow street in Venthone and suddenly saw this through a gap.

Later that day we spotted our first cat shadows of the season. At the end of the Val d'Anniviers is a cat that visits the glacier and peaks every summer, always on its side, sometimes tall and sitting, as he is here. We think he likes to observe the people in the valley, a bit warily.

Later in the summer, and at a certain point in the evening he becomes quite round, sitting down more comfortably after a day of chasing mice across the peaks, we presume.

The week has begun and it is raining everywhere, but the memory of Saturday's sun stays with us.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

pansies' shadows

pansies' shadows
pansies' shadows,
originally uploaded by ellengwallace.
This is for my mother, age 94, who can no longer see well at all. I'm hoping that the staff in her nursing home in Kansas City will be able to open this and show it to her on a large screen. She has always loved Spring, and in particular the way this simple little flower announced Spring.

This was taken late in the day in Saint-Prex, when a storm was expected, and a late sunray suddenly burst through the clouds to backlight the flowers. This is a small and very simple flower and yet it suddenly looked more magnificent than the best of them.

Thank you to Florence Wallace for showing us that it is always important to notice the details in life and the small and seemingly ordinary things.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Duck tales

There were things to do and kilometers to drive this evening, but the light over Lake Geneva was so magical that the chores and work had to be left undone while I photographed ducks, swans and other birds
encouraging spring. Saint-Prex is a beautiful village, most of it built 300 years ago, that juts out into the lake. Some people would say it's a quiet place, but they clearly don't go near the water, for a lot happens there, if you take the time to look.

Martialling Internet numbers, artfully

Okay, this will not come as a surprise to anyone under 20, maybe not even under 30, but for the rest of us, I think it takes a personal awakening to realize just how big the Internet is, and how it really does connect people for the first time, in a way nothing else has.

A martial arts awakening

My awakening came today, when I learned that a boy can flip his way around the world and get thousands to watch, almost effortlessly (well, learning to flip is an effort and so is travelling, sometimes). I've written about him before. We're related.

This week I have been reading Naked Conversations by Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, a well-written, interesting look at how blogging is changing the business world. I will review it here once I finish it, but so far one of the things that has made an impact is the numbers they use. We're not just talking about the number of bloggers in the world, somewhere so far into the millions that the last number I saw (48 million?) three months or so ago must be well out of date. Would anyone like to contribute their educated guess at the current blogging population?

Numbers this size are hard to absorb. When Scoble and Israel talk about numbers, though, gently pushing home their point about Internet interconnectivity, the digits start to register. Three high school kids who created a little software so they could chat with 40 friends - within two months there were 65,000 downloads and 26 months later they had racked up 25 million downloads (read the book to find out how much money they made selling it to AOL). A little later Skype comes along and collects 25 million users in 19 months for its online phone service. Then Firefox, a new browser, reaches 25 million downloads in 99 days.

But these are the big guys, I think, even if they started little. The rest of us still think in smaller terms, I console myself, as I try to work out the potential readership for an online news stream called GenevaLunch that goes live soon. Newspapers and magazines count readers in thousands and hundreds of thousands - over the million mark in big cities like New York, for a major newspaper. TV networks in the U.S. do better.

When the New York Times can't compete

Traditional media, including the big guys, start to look really small - something I've been reading about for years in Ad Age and Publishers Weekly, two industry bibles, but I had managed to ignore the news. Scoble and Israel were beginning to convince me, I realized earlier today.

And then Liam checked his reports, for the first time, from Google video: 66,000 views. And more on YouTube.


I finally got the message.

Bright chicks in Yunnan

Chinese chicks, dyed for fun

I was posting something about funkypancake's great bird photo when I suddenly remembered this photo, taken in July 2004 when I was in Yunnan, western China. I haven't looked at it since. The birds were chirping and scrambling around in this box, for sale at the bird market in Kunming, a bustling city. Children in particular loved them, and parents made a point of showing them to little people. Bringing an American-European sensitivity to treating animals well to the scene, I wondered and still wonder how they were dyed, if it harms them, if it is temporary or permanent. I have no answers, but it made me reflect not just on cultural differences, but on how quick we can be to judge - often wrongly - others who don't have the same sensibilities. In general, I would have to say I have seen as much love of birds in China as in many other places.

I still wonder how it was done. I don't suppose we can assume they were born like this?

Synchronized swimming birds

Funkypancake remains one of my favorite photographers, shooting "the mundane" in his world, which is usually in and around London. He makes me laugh often, and that is worthy of praise. Today he has a really superb photo of two birds in front of a little waterfall, and it is the most unusual shot of birds I have seen, I think. While you are checking it out, go to his main page and look under April 6 photos for "dear dear dear" which makes me wonder if we should set him a challenge: how to show four animals and then five.

Lively dead designs

Bruno Giussani woke me out of an Internet-induced stupor by flashing an amazing new award-winning coffin on his page. Just goes to show that the world will never run out of things to reinvent, or at least improve. I like it: I don't like the price. But it's sleek, biodegradable, and I like the idea that it's the last piece of furniture a person buys. On the other hand, most old people start trying to get rid of their furniture at some point.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Nebraska bulls in a day's work

Yesterday I phoned a friend who is a cowgirl in western Nebraska. I live in Switzerland. We wanted to talk about meeting up with old friends from Minnesota and New York, probably in Arizona.

We could only talk for a minute or so.
"I'm really sorry but we're expecting a call from a guy who's delivering a bull," said Judie.

Wide open spaces, plenty of room for the cattle: Nebraska Panhandle

Photo: Micah Laaker, who grew up in Nebraska, moved around and landed in California, working for Yahoo. He still loves Nebraska, and photographed this in December 2005. Great spread of Nebraska photos here: www.flickr.com/photos/mlaaker and more on Micah here: http://www.laaker.com/

I thought about my day, which involved taking my daughter to the hospital in Geneva for growth hormone tests because she lags far behind in size and weight. And then I checked on the progress of GenevaLunch, a news web site I'm working on that goes live soon. Bulls are not part of my daily routine.

Judie and I live on separate planets. She doesn't check her e-mail often because of the long ride into town for access to the Internet. When they tried setting up Internet connections a couple years ago on the ranch it didn't work well. The wide open prairies and grassy hills of the Nebraska panhandle are under-populated and not high on the priority lists for Internet coverage.

On the phone, we managed to agree to meet in September, a relatively quiet time for ranchers.

"Yeah, the calves are just dropping all around us right now," she said. "We're just so busy with the calving season, riding out to check on all those mothers and their little ones." By September they will be grazing, far from the ranch, and the winter jobs of delivering hay and digging them out of Nebraska's powerful snow drifts will still be in the future.

When I called Judie I had just gone to bed with the flu. I was staring at a photograph on the wall of one of my ancestors. I thought about how freeing and yet how final it must have been, 100 or 125 years ago, for women to move to another country with a new husband, knowing they would probably never see family or dear friends again. You could become a new person, create a new persona - and yet the price was very high. Women's diaries and exchanges of letters from those days occasionally show that when they managed a trip back home, after 15 or 20 years in a new country, everything and everyone had changed more than they could have imagined.

This is no longer true, I've realized in recent weeks as I watch my son prepare to move to Vancouver, a 15 hour flight from here. En route, he will spend a few weeks in China. He will never be far away or out of touch, though. There is e-mail, Skype for phoning, AIM and MSN for messaging and camera chats. Add to that: daily blog entries and web sites. There are the annual or semi-annual visits in person. In my family and my husband's, as well as most of our friends', traipsing around the globe and living in various countries is not unusual.

Nothing can replace seeing someone in person, but the ease with which we can continue to talk about the small daily things today is what makes it easier to keep relationships flowing.

Take my cowgirl buddy, Judie. We have an 8 hour time difference and when she's up at 5am it's to check on the cows. Not easy to find phone time that works for both of us. Evenings for me are busy with family and work. When Judie and I do reach each other, though, she can tell me a bull is arriving soon. I can picture her perched high on her horse, the way she used to perch on her brother's motorcycle when we were teenagers and we borrowed it to ride around in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

It's nice to be close and stay close to people whose daily lives are so different: it helps keep our own day's work in perspective.