Sunday, May 29, 2011


I thought I would come up with a really good poem for the Poetry Jam this week, but somehow it just hasn't jelled yet. If the real poem makes itself known soon, I'll post again. In the meantime:

Out with the old! In with the new
Turnover in my head like changing to my summer wardrobe.
There's not unlimited space in there for endless archives
And sometimes it's just as well.
Let it go.
Move on.
Though sometimes, I admit, the bits jettisoned could have been useful.
My drivers' licence is still expired.
Mother's Day is not the same day here & where my mother lives.
Tax day must be coming up soon.
Mystery: what else did I forget that I haven't yet realized I forgot?
To join in the Jam, click here!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tuesday morning, Paris

Coming down the steps of the Daumesnil stop on metro line 6, I see there’s a rush hour crowd at the quay, and when the train pulls in, it’s pretty full already. No hope of me getting on that one, so I let the one crowd elbow its way off the train and through the other crowd waiting to get on without striving either way myself.
An asian woman fighting her way onto the train loses a shoe. She looks behind her, sad, and dejectedly steps off the train. Her place is snapped up before she’s left it.
Once the train leaves, she leans over and sees her shoe, pale pink, fallen between the rail and the wall. It’s about three feet down to go get it. Too far to reach. Have to jump down onto the tracks, which nobody will do. Next train in 3 minutes. She hobbles in a slow circle, not willing to touch her clean stockinged foot to the ground.
And who could blame her ? It’s filthy in here.
She’ll have to put it down eventually. She’s shoeless for the morning, whether she limps home for alternative footwear, or being a visitor like me has to wait for the shops to open to buy shoes.
The next train is here, and we all leave her behind, undecided.
The 6 is one of my favorite metro lines because it travels largely on an elevated railway (Daumesnil notwithstanding). I love being able to look into people’s windows as we go by. We pass the Bercy sports arena. This is a pyramid covered with lawn, with several terraces. The sides are at about 60°, nice and green. That’s apparently actual grass, not astroturf, neatly trimmed.
They must water it with some kind of mist or drip system, because there aren’t even any trenches eroded where water collects at random and runs downhill.
How do they mow it ??
Each section of lawn is 20-30 feet tall, and like I said closer to vertical than level.
Ah, here’s a guy on the middle terrace hanging a modified lawnmower over the side by a long cord. He walks back and forth, letting out a little more slack each time. Must have some arms ! He can’t even properly see what he’s doing, because leaning over far enough he’d fall over the edge. Maybe he has a partner I can’t see, signaling More here to the left! Too low !

I get to the Institut Curie with half an hour to relax over a good coffee (the stuff at the hotel was nasty), and then it’s a full-day meeting, which we don’t even finish before people have to run for their trains. Including me.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Monday evening in Paris

It must be 85°F out, and it's only mid-May. The lawn at the Jardin de Reuilly park (at least I think that's what it's called. The one at the end of the elevated Promenade Planté in the 12 arrondissment of Paris) is covered with people sunning. A green beach.
The blinding flesh!
We're not prepared for this.
They can't believe their good luck here in Paris. It's like being in the south, without having to battle all day on the freeway to get there. In Clermont as well, the city-dwellers are rejoicing, lingering with a coke or a mint-perrier at the sidewalk cafés.
Those with gardens, however, are noticing in a different way. The warm, dry weather means watering. Watering all the time. A mile further from town, and the farmers are clearly worried. Fine days, too many fine days when we should be only just coming out of the wet season. The grass isn't growing.
Aside from the exceptional weather, the subject of every headline and heard from every café table is DSK.
It must all be a setup
How could he be so stupid
Shock at the American police
(but haven't you all seen it on tv a thousand times? did you think it was all made up?)
Whatever will we do now to beat Sarko?
More incredulity
How could he have so little class?
and back to the beginning.
I'm embarrassed to go out to dinner.
I'd be more at ease with friends, but around the table, colleagues who, like me, came to Paris for the colon cancer meeting, and are staying for the breast cancer meeting tomorrow.
It's my left hand, mostly. I pitted kilos and kilos of cherries over the weekend, for jam and for freezing, and halved kilos more for drying. My fingertips are deeply stained with cherry juice. Wherever the cuticles are gnawed, every scratch, deep under the nails, is dark, dirty. I can't get it all off.

But whatever. At least in Paris there isn't ice in my kir.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Marseille part 2

People love Marseille. They think it's the greatest, liveliest, most sun-soaked city in France. Or the hate it. Filthy, crime-ridden, congested, just as expensive as Paris without the class.

This is my second time here, again in May, and so far I'm with the naysayers. Perhaps I've wandered around the wrong bits, but it is indeed filthy. And the traffic! I had to walk a few nasty blocks to get to the hotel where the training thing is being held, and I was moving much faster than the cars. Not faster than the kamikaze motorcyclists, but it's ok with me not to risk my life to be trained in doing audits.

Not a place to live, in my book.

You could live on the outskirts, as long as you didn't have to commute into the city. The coast is magnificent, and it's much like San Diego: beautiful vistas and perfect weather mean that everybody wants to move there. And so they do, by their teeming millions.

So I'm not prolonging my stay for the weekend. I'll be heading home Saturday morning to feed the kittybits and water the garden and collect cherries for the first jam of the season.
The Internal Audit workshop starts out slowly. Some of the participants have not much idea of what to expect from a Quality System at all, so at the first break we're still on defining terms and introducing the basics. The guy next to me is soon rolling his eyes and whispering comments. After lunch we do get going. It does become clearer what's involved in conducting an audit, and what tactics can help keep you on a useful and constructive path, rather than the auditees feeling they're on the hot-seat and you're looking to find fault.

Well, the auditor is looking for faults. Of the system. In order to fix them. It's not a witch-hunt.

Tomorrow we get to practice, at last.

Tonight: a walk around looking for a present for my mom, and then the thing that actually is great about Marseille - a seafood dinner.

See: when I travel it's:

1) trains

2) complaining

3) food.

Every time.

To start, a plate of coquillage. Shellfish. I expect a platter of fresh, raw shellfish, like that exquisite assortment I tasted once in Dieppe. What I get is entirely different. It's a hot dish of mussels and oysters in a glorious buttery garlic sauce. Fair enough - not the same coast, not the same season. Sublime all the same.

My fish soup has mussels, shrimp, and two filets of delicate fish, plus as much pink garlic mayonnaise as I wish to add. There's a basket of toasted bread for dipping, and dry white wine in delicious counterpoint..

Walking back to my hotel I chance upon a rugby bar. Common enough in Clermont and Toulouse, I hadn't hoped for one in football-mad Marseille. They're not showing any sport tonight, but the barman assures me that tomorrow the Top 14 quarterfinal between the ASM and Biarritz will indeed be on. Yea!! I won't miss it after all!

In the morning, we start late but finish on time. The mock audit they have us role-play is quite instructive, even if we have only the morning to examine the documents provided, decide on a plan, and come up with a list of questions to ask. The afternoon role-play of the audit visit itself could have been better if everyone had a chance to participate, but we have a lot of things pointed out that we didn't realize we were missing. It's only a 14-hour course, but I do leave feeling better about conducting an internal audit of my lab.

And I'd better have at least some idea. This training session makes me the first and only person of my team qualified to do an audit. Gotta start somewhere...

Now about that present. I've got a couple of shopping hours in the evening, and spend them walking all around the old port and its surrounding areas, looking for treasure. Nothing, alas, presents itself. Strangely, there seems to be no middle ground at the shops. There's cheap crap. There's hugely expensive. In the middle are the useless knicknacks nobody wants. Nothing local is both affordable and worthy. Strikeout for shopping.

There's an archeological dig right in the middle of the old port neighborhood. Closed to visitors for the moment. Tonight there are five cats visible, all clustered in one corner. Maybe they're waiting to be fed. One seagull. A bunch of pigeons.

The game is at 9, and when I wander by around 8, the barmaid says well, if people want to watch a match, we'll watch it. What game was that again? Huh?

This chick is obviously not a fan. It's a crappy little bar, so instead of hanging out there I wander off in search of a snack. I end up with a platter of finger-foods and a kir with ice. Ice? in kir? This is a mistake. Go ahead, put ice in sangria if you must, but leave it out of the kir. Chill the wine instead. No ice, ever.

Back at the rugby spot, the game is about to kick off, but the tv is still showing lame music videos to the barmaid. At a table, a family has soft drinks and pays no attention. At the bar, two middle aged guys nurse beers and pay no attention either. When I ask to see the game, it is explained to me that she can only put the game on if there's a consensus about watching it. Nobody but me wants to see rubgy tonight, and well, she has regulars here for the music. She can't deprive them of that just for me.

Yeah, right. Clearly, it's the barmaid who would rather not be bothered. I ask generally if anybody would mind if we had the game on. Nobody says yes, nobody says no. Nobody cares. Barbitch is clearly displeased at the prospect of bowing to a single rugby fan and insists she can't change channels for one person. There's no ambiance. You've got to have dozens of cheering fans for there to be sport. I'm obviously not going to make that much noise on my own.

I'm obviously not going to hang around in the face of such hostility.

So, no match. I'm not hungry enough now for dinner. Too late for a movie. I take a walk along the waterfront, enjoying the sight of the pleasure port in the evening lights. Some boats come in late. Couples are strolling. At one point a man with a north african face asks me if I'm out walking alone, as if it's a particularly strange thing to do. Maybe in his culture it's unthinkable, but not in mine. I dislike the idea that because I'm alone here I have to sequester myself in my hotel room.

In the morning the shops at the train station are open for my amusement, and I do purchase t-shirts and books. Done with Marseille. I don't think I'll be back here for vacation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The creature

Oh, here I am again, last-minuting for a Monday poem. I was delighted to know the theme as early as Tuesday, but then nothing much ever cooked itself up in my head for writing down over the weekend. I think Chris's theme of Father needs more than a couple of days to stew. In lieu of a good poem, here is a morning train poem.

On hands and knees in the living room
three offspring, riding
Dadhorse rules the range.

That's my dad playing with us kids when we were little enough to fit all three on his back. My mom took a nice photo of us, and I'm not at all sure it was the same event, but from my side I remember a dadhorse ride around the living room where (at four or thereabouts) I lost control and peed on him. Sorry, Dad!
For more takes on Father, click on over to the Poetry Jam!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


This week at the Poetry Jam our theme is Thunder and Lightning, by Mark. I've been away, but did manage to write this while waiting for the bus.

Thunder & Lightning
If it's only weather
why is the cat under the bed?
If it's only a passing pressure wrinkle
why is the dog cowering?
If somebody up there is sending a message
what does it say?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

First to Marseille.

Always starts with a train, doesn't it?
Travelling on business, I dare to take first class train tickets, figuring, hey, I could fly: so on the train even in first I'm saving the boss a bundle. And myself a lot of hassle (though not any time). I hopped on tonight's train just as the rain started, walked through the second class section with its yellow seats two on each side of the aisle, through the door to first. Well looky: two seats each side of the aisle. Same yellow seats. The two rows of seats are face to face, but -here might be the crucial difference- they appear to be slightly farther apart than the face-to-face rows I just passed. Like, 4 inches farther.

Now, 4 inches more room to arrange everybody's feet is not to be sniffed at, especially among strangers. But the narrow fold-out table between us isn't any wider. In fact, it's annoyingly far. To use the table, I'd rather be in second. I have, fortunately, no co-traveller to tangle feet with. I do have an outlet if I need to plug something in. Hairdryer, toaster oven, 384-well thermocycler, whatever needs plugging in. This ability to plug in used to be an argument for first - if Accounting ever objected I could say I needed to use those hours of train time working on my computer. Not that I ever did. And now the whole train has them.

So what's the difference?

Physically, not a thing.

What's different is in who's next to you. Fewer crying babies and restless small children. Fewer unwashed 20-somethings (not none, I attest, just fewer) playing their particular noise very loud in spite of the headphones. Fewer smokers, bringing with them a certain penetrating perfume. There's a seriousness in first, the zone of matriarchs and businesspeople. They've read their Sartre: they know that hell is other people. More, they're concious of being their neighbor's Other.

Tonight in first to Lyon, my only companions on this side of the transparent door are two train maintenance men, on their way home after a day's work. They fascinate me in their capacity to maintain a conversation about nothing the entire 150 minutes. Changing trains at Lyon Part-Dieu, I get all of this, and three seats across to boot.

Monday, May 9, 2011


This weekend was so beautifully sunny and warm, the cherries reddened unbelievably fast. Friday night there was just a hint of yellow on a few, here and there. Saturday several were definitely making their way through various shades of orange. Sunday afternoon was the official start of cherry season.
 There it is! the first cherry of the year!
Time to get ready.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Birthday Jam

Here's my contribution to the first-ever Poetry Jam. Click here for this week's linkywidget to all the formerly bus-riding poets.

The Phantom Birthday

She thinks of September
and which day it might have been
Her favorite pick changes
the fifth, that's a nice day.
or 22
twentytwo, like the sound of that.

She thinks of everything that would have been different
At every step of her life, how would he have fit in?
Or would life be so far from the one she knows as to be unimaginable?
College commencement, or a McJob and a first grader,
Late nights working, or late nights keeping a fever or cough company,
weekends at loose ends, or weekends of soccer and sleepovers and grocery carts piled high?

She misses a smiling face
not the arguments and the crises and constraints (imagined, all!)
She misses the birthday parties, the milestones, the firsts,
his graduation now, his college choice (how would she have paid for it all?), his wedding, his own children
   yes, already he's much older than she was.

They have a peaceful relationship
She imagines wonderful things
He doesn't reproach her, too much
A quiet what-if
With no birthday.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The End is Near!

At lunch today I opened a new jar of jam for my yogurt. There are only two jars left! TWO! And I promised jam to Vick. Jam crisis, looming large! Happily, out in the yard, the season is advancing. I think I'm gonna make it.

Friday, May 6, 2011


It's unfurling its infernal antenna!
Soon the seeds will be everywhere
They will land and sprout
and all will become rhubarb.

(this is not my real poem. just a test to make sure the Linky thingy works)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Just want to say - http://poetryjaam.blogspot.com/ is now functional.

Big enough

I missed posting an update of the rhubarb last week, but it's so large that incremental changes are hard to appreciate now. What's new is I can't include my shoe for scale without taking it off and stepping back!
The monster has reached the point of starting work on an antenna. Perhaps it isn't the mother ship after all, but is about to contact its even more gigantic brethren for a full-scale invasion of Earth.
So naturally, I took a knife to it and chopped a dozen stalks for pie.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Holes in the head

To continue the last post, I think this happens to everybody. If we don't incorporate an idea into our worldview, either because we don't understand the argument or because we reject it, the explanation just doesn't stick.
The case I meant to blog about, before various other issues came up, was the comedy between my boss and Senior Computing Guy. For almost two years now, the boss has asked why we didn't take advantage of the virtual computing grid at the university to calculate the mountains of data from our superneato new sequencer.
Every time, SCG would answer that to calculate on the grid, the data had to be in a certain form, which was incompatible with the actual data, and it would take so much effort to convert it we'd be better off just calculating here. Slowly. Every time, the boss would accept that we had nothing to gain from the grid. And every time, the explanation would slip away and the question would come back.
Well, knowing that the only way for us to stop getting this question from the boss, whose repetition made SCG roll his eyes and gnash his teeth, was to prove it; I told Newbie Computing Guy to look into it and give us some real hard numbers as to how much time and effort was indeed involved in this data conversion. Let the facts speak for themselves. That kind of information should be memorable.
So NCG gets together with the Grid Guys, and lo & behold, GG has noticed that nobody was using the grid. Their superneato thingy was just sitting there twiddling its virtual thumbs. And the reason for that was HAHA! the difficulty of getting data into the right form. So they've been working on the question. And the difficulty is scheduled to disappear. Everybody will soon be happy.