Monday, April 23, 2012

Secret Service secrets

Eleven members of the Secret Service were sent back to the US from Colombia recently, where they were working in advance of a presidential visit. Apparently, before the President's arrival in Cartagena, there was a party at what ha been described as a "bordello". (Prostitution is legal in Colombia.) Those attending included military personnel as well as Secret Service agents. Following the party, which involved a considerable amount of alcohol, a number of the participants engaged in sexual activity with women "sex workers". The story allegedly came out because one participant initially refused to pay for "services rendered". We were told that the Secret Service group was not part of the special team that directly protects the President. This story has "legs": there have already been some firings, and at least one "early retirement". Investigation continues, and we shall probably learn more later. Meanwhile, I have some thoughts and questions. How many Secret Service agents are employed? If we can afford to send an advance party of 11, and replace all of them, none of whom is part of the protective team, it seems unlikely that there are less than 40 Secret Service agents: probably more. Was the affair in Colombia typical? I can hardly believe that this was an isolated example of behavior. Are the agents trained to understand that they represent their country, and are always on duty when deployed abroad? Are there any female agents? One columnist has suggested just what I had in mind: the presence of women agents would probably have lessened the likelihood of such wholesale lubricity. How much does each agent cost? Training, salary, benefits, pension obligation, guess would be well over $100k annually per agent. How are the agents recruited and selected? And by whom? Will the Cartagena affair change anything? Will we ever know?

Monday, April 16, 2012

House Concerts

As a small child, the word "chamber" was associated in my mind only with "chamber pots", those now seldom seen containers kept under a bed, or in a small cupboard at bedside.

Then I heard the word used for lawyers' offices. Also, of course, in the expression "chamber music". When I heard quartets or trios on the radio, I found it rather boring, frankly. I enjoyed jazz and swing music, and even some "top twenty" popular dance band music. Next, I began to appreciate symphonic music: orchestral works by Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Vivaldi, in particular. But not that dull chamber music!

As time passed, I learned to appreciate folk and Bluegrass--I am after all, the stepfather of Grammy-winning star Laurie Lewis! For many years now, I have appreciated baroque music, and have enjoyed performances of the PBO (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), and other Early Music groups. The San Francisco Early Music Society soon joined PBO, and the Berkeley Symphony as groups to which we subscribe, as we also do to Voices of Music. We also love Mahler, so our tastes are quite eclectic now. But chamber music? It wasn't "my thing".

That is, until four musicians we knew from PBO started playing Haydn quartets, in a group they named the New Esterhazy Quartet (with the blessing of the founder of the original Esterhazy Quartet). The NEQ plays chamber music, of course--and we love it. Mostly they play in churches, as do many other musical groups. But the ideal place to hear chamber music is in a smaller space, a room or "chamber".

For several years now, we have hosted "house concerts" for family and friends, and on various occasions we have been guests at other homes. Listening to the NEQ playing in a pleasant home is a sublime experience. We are very grateful for the music, the company, and the friendship of the members of the NEQ.

I should add that, after playing all of Haydn's quartets over the first two seasons, our friends have introduced works of students and admirers of Haydn, etc. We recently heard the NEQ play a fine quartet by Anton Wranitzky, as well as a fascinating quartet by Beethoven, written when he was already very deaf.

So, now i enjoy chamber music--especially when played in a "chamber".

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


There was a time in history when paper money was mistrusted. Coins made of precious metal (gold and silver were the best); one could travel in a foreign land where one's coins were welcome, for their intrinsic worth.

When I was growing up in the U.K, we had farthings (becoming rare), ha'pennies, threepenny bits (tickeys, in South Africa), tanners (sixpenny coins), bobs (shillings), florins (two shillings), and half-crowns (two shillings and sixpence). Sovereigns and half-sovereigns were rare, because the gold was worth more than the face value.

The main paper money was the "quid" (one pound note, greenish in color) and the "ten bob note" (ten shillings.) These were the highest denominations in general use, and weer similar in size to US currency. There were higher denomination notes, but most people never saw one higher than the "fiver", a beautiful white banknote, larger than the "quid", that crackled when folded.

I still remember the occasion in the early 1940s when I lost a five-pound note, and really grieved over the loss. It felt much like losing a hundred dolllar bill would feel today.

As in most developed countries, we kept a supply of change in our pockets or coin purses. Paper money belonged in a wallet. In countries where sterling, the Euro, or the Canadian
"looney" rule, this logical pattern is followed: coins for small amounts, notes for larger amounts.

Not in the USA.

Within the memory of most of us, we have largely limited the metal dollar to casinos, and stashed away large amounts of 50 cent pieces, requiring us to keep quantities of quarters for meters. etc. Twice we have introduced dollar coins, which are not widely circulated, and are quite unpopular. Most of these are held by banks, So we continue to spend millions of dollars printing up one dollar bills, which have a much shorter life than the metal equivalents. The penny may be on its way out; many don't think it worthwhile to pick up a penny fallen on a sidewalk..The greenback is welcomed abroad, and many travelers like to carry wads around to use as tips.

And to think that paper money was once despised...

Monday, April 2, 2012


Toenails grow much more slowly, as we all know, than fingernails. They need far less attention. Nevertheless, from time to time they need to be trimmed. I imagine that my nanny took care of this when I was very young, and perhaps my mother took over when I began attending kindergarten. When I left for boarding school at age 8, the terms were never more than 14 weeks, so my mother may have continued to do the trimming. By the time I became a Naval Cadet at 13, I had probably learned to cut my own toenails "as needed".

As I entered my eighties, cutting my own toenails became more difficult. I don't think I ever tried to con Barbara into the job, because at that time I decided to try a pedicure instead. Since then, I have always patronized a nail salon,usually about once every three months. When I stretched out this interval, after my first pedicure, the assistant at the nail shop remonstrated with me, suggesting that I should go there more often. As my toenails had begun causing holes in my socks, I knew she was right.

I don't really require the full treatment--the foot washing, toe cleaning, etc., but that comes as part of the pedicure. The price I pay ($17) is quite reasonable. (I have recently been nudged by a friend into increasing the tip from $3 to $5. I'd happily pay five bucks just to have my nails clipped, but I go with the flow.)

In our part of Northern California, the operation of nail salons seems to be the monopoly of Vietnamese. I do wonder who did the work before these immigrants arrived in the US, and I also wonder if Vietnamese monopolize this work in areas far from the Left Coast, such as in the states of Kansas, Maine, and Alabama..

I can still cut my own fingernails, although I prefer it when my assistant (Jane) graciously undertakes this chore.

Some years ago, Dr. Iishi (my Kaiser podiatrist) offered to operate to remove my toenails. I set a date, but then chickened out. The idea, of being able to forget about trimming toenails, appealed to me, but the prospect of the initial discomfort and pain did not...