THUS QUOTH THE RAVENMASTER – By ELLIN CURLEY

In this work, there are some unusual professions. Many of them exist within the British Royal Household, like Keeper of the Queen’s Stamps, Grand Carver, and Royal Clock Winder. However, the one that caught my eye was written about on October 21, 2018, in the Washington Post: Ravenmaster.

The Ravenmaster cares for the seven ravens who reside at the Tower of London, the 11th-century fortress that is one of Britain’s most popular tourist sites. It was a prison and an execution site for many nobles — Anne Boleyn being a primary example.

The Tower holds numerous lurid stories throughout its long and brutal history, though it was originally built as a tower for the earliest royal family (post-Norman invasion).

Christopher Skaife in his regular Ravenmaster uniform

Ravens seem to have started living at the Tower in the Victorian era when the Gothic Revival was in full swing. Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet.

The Tower birds are now celebrities in their own right and they receive loving and meticulous care from the current Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife. He gives them treats of dog biscuits soaked in blood and he has had to climb parts of the Tower to retrieve rogue ravens.

Treats for the ravens

Mr. Skaife was a machine gunner in the British Army for 24 years and then became a Yeoman Warder, one of 37 élite guards who are keepers of tradition and tour guides. He now lives at the Tower with his family. It must be fun for his kids to bring friends ‘home’ for playdates!

The Tower ravens come from bird breeders. They are wild, though acclimated to humans. They roam free during the day. At night, Skaife has to round them up and put them in airy enclosures to protect them from foxes, who ate two ravens in 2013.

Night enclosures

In the morning, Skaife releases the birds in careful order, from least dominant to the most dominant. The birds apparently have a very strict hierarchy which the Ravenmaster must respect. They have also divided the tower into individual territories according to that hierarchy.

Ceremonial Ravenmaster uniform

The birds are scavengers and like to rummage through the trash cans. They are particularly fond of potato chips but they don’t like the flavored kind, like cheddar or onion. So they wash the flavored chips in puddles to get rid of the extra flavoring, which is very clever! Ravens are surprisingly bright compared to other birds, probably on par with parrots.

They are also known to steal sandwiches from children.

Ravens at Tower

Ravens can fly but not too far or too often. They can fly to the roof or the ramparts, but that’s about it. Previous caregivers would trim their feathers so they couldn’t fly at all. But one bird, on Skaife’s watch, climbed up some scaffolding and leaped off it. He died in Skaife’s arms so Skaife will no longer limit the ravens’ flight.

Once one raven did manage to escape the Tower and flew down the Thames River. She was captured by a local birdwatcher who recognized the bracelet on her leg as belonging to the Tower flock. The Good Samaritan put the raven in her gym bag and returned her to her home.

Raven at the Tower

I love all animals so this job caught my imagination. While not the cutest or friendliest of birds, it must be gratifying to preserve a long-held tradition at a historically famous site. Caring for a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘unkindness’ of ravens, the words for a group of ravens is clearly not a job for everyone.

After eleven years, Christopher Skaife is still going strong at his job. He’s even written an autobiography. Who knew that being a Ravenmaster could be the route to becoming a published author!

CANAL BOATING HOLIDAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’m planning an exciting trip with another couple for next fall. It’s a boating holiday unique to England and parts of Europe, called canal boating. Everything about the English branch of this subculture is different from what most Americans think of when they think about boating.

The boat used is called a narrowboat. It’s like a long, thin steel barge designed for use as a houseboat. It can be 45, 55 or 65 feet long but it is always only 7- feet wide. It has a small diesel engine that can go up to 5 miles an hour. You steer with a single rudder in the back of the boat. This would not work well on the ocean or a lake, but you are floating on a totally calm, 20-foot wide canal that gently winds its way through the countryside of England.

Tom and me on our first canal boat

The boats are usually painted with colors and designs specific to the canals. They are surprisingly spacious, with a living area and kitchen, full bathroom and sleeping areas. The boats sleep from 2-10 people. Some have a separate eating area, like a banquette but the smaller boats just have a table in the living room.

Interior of our canal boat

Tom and I have spent three weeks on the canals of England for two excursions. Both trips were just us, which is easily doable and enjoyable. Many retired couples in England buy a canal boat and choose to live on the canals during the open season from April through October.

However, this kind of traveling lends itself to traveling with other couples or groups because there are plenty of tasks for everyone. My first canal boat experience was in 1987 with four adults and four children ages two, seven, eight and nine.

We brought bikes so anyone could cycle to a nearby town or through the countryside. The advantage of having at least 3 adults is that there are many locks throughout the canal system, which take physical work to get through.

Tom on our second canal boat

One person has to drive the boat into the narrow lock and it goes a lot faster when you have two adults manning the lock-machinery. It can be done with one person on the ground but it’s slow and tiring for the lock operator.

The experience of just puttering down the canal is peaceful and relaxing. You can go through all kinds of scenery. There are suburban stretches with beautiful, manicured homes along the canal; there are areas of farmland with fields and cows, sheep and horses. There are woods and marshes as well as more urban areas. Each route is different. This is a vast canal system that wends its way through much of England and Wales.

Once you are on the water, you’re fully independent on the canal. You can do what you want when you want. You can pull over and stake the boat down whenever you choose to eat, relax, sleep, walk along the picturesque canal or enjoy the local sights. There are numerous pubs to stop at for a drink or a meal (the food is really good).

There are nearby towns to walk around or shop for food. There are also museums and other local curiosities that are worth a stop. We toured the Wedgewood china factory, which was fascinating. We also saw one of the rare underground ‘bomb shelters’ from the 1950s which was designed to house the local government in case of a nuclear war.

When you pull over to stop, you’ll usually find other boats and end up chatting with other boaters. There are also lots of dogs and cats on canal boats and they are also very friendly. We had a cat come into our boat and sleep with us one night.

Driving the boat and manning the locks are a form of constant activity for people who like to be doing something all the time. But there’s also plenty of downtime for those who prefer to put their feet up and relax with a good book or listen to the fabulous BBC4 radio station. It has all kinds of programming, much like our TV stations. News, talk shows, game shows, dramas, sitcoms, continuing series, all high quality.

For the nature lover, you’re usually in the middle of nowhere but for the homebody, you’re always ‘home’ in your boat.

Canal locks

If you are traveling with other folks, make sure you can spend 7-days together most of the time. You have to make lots of decisions as a group. You need to decide where to stop, for how long, where to eat or what to cook. Someone has to be the driver and the others need to manage the locks, and so on. On my first, family trip, the 2 dads were both alpha males and spent most of the time arguing over everything! One of the kids asked why the dads were acting so childishly.

This can be an amazing vacation, with something for everyone. I’m planning my fourth canal holiday because I just can’t get enough of this immersive, unique vacation.

STELLA, HE TALKING DOG – By ELLIN CURLEY

I’m sure you’ve heard about the studies in which chimps/apes are brought up from birth by humans and taught to ‘talk’ through sign language and other means. It’s not a big surprise that other primates close to us on the evolutionary scale can learn to communicate in a fairly sophisticated, ‘human’ way.

But I just read about a woman who trained her dog to do roughly the same thing! I am so excited! This dog, Stella, has learned to communicate in words AND sentences by touching buttons that signify specific words on a soundboard. To me, this is the coolest thing ever! I’ve always known that my dogs had complex thoughts running through their heads but just had no way to share them with me.

Stella next to her soundboard

Now, don’t get too excited – you won’t be able to teach your significant canine to do this. It’s not for amateurs. The lady who helped Stella master language is Christina Hunger and she is a speech-language pathologist who has vast experience working with children who have speech-language deficits. Many of these kids need ‘ linguistic technology’ to communicate, like modified computers, flashcards, soundboards, etc. So she’s an expert at creating and using these tools.

Christina got Stella, a Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix, at eight weeks old and started to train her immediately. She set up a soundboard with buttons for the words she wanted Stella to use. At eighteen months now, Stella knows 29 words and can tell her mom and dad her thoughts. She can even combine words into sentences of up to five words. Human babies usually can’t speak in phrases and sentences initially and have to master individual words first.

Stella using her board

Stella can ask for walks, playtime or a trip to the beach. She can communicate emotions, like anxiety, as well. One day, she heard a noise outside and pressed ‘look’ nine times and then ‘come outside’! Another time Stella was whining at the front door and Christina assumed that Stella wanted to go out. But Stella went to her board and tapped out ‘want’ ‘Jake’ (Christina’s fiancé who lives with them) and ‘come’. Stella then planted herself in front of the door until Jake came home. Then, to Christina’s amazement, Stella pressed ‘happy’ and assumed the position for a belly rub!

Stella and Christina

Stella recently started using both paws on the board and she appears to be developing the turn-taking skills of conversation, like answering questions. This also develops in children only after they are able to say words and phrases on their own. Here’s an example:

Stella: ‘Stella’, ‘bye’, ‘play’

Jake: ‘Where do you want to play? We’ll eat now then play’.

Stella: 15-20 second pause. Then, ‘eat’, ‘eat’, ‘park’. This indicates that she understood the sequence of eating first and then playing. Remarkable.

Another big advance in Stella’s communication skills is her mastery of time. She can now talk about something that just happened, not just what she wants now. After she eats, she’ll press ‘eat’ and after coming back from the park, she’ll press ‘park’ as if she’s trying to tell Jake where she just went. This implies a more sophisticated concept of language. To test this, Christina added an ‘all done’ button for Stella to signify something that happened in the past. And Stella used it after a walk!

In addition, Stella originally could use only single words, like a human infant. Then she started using short phrases once or twice a week. Now she uses as many word combinations each day as single words so her skills are improving along the lines of a human baby.

I’m sure that Christina devoted a huge amount of time to training Stella and that most average people couldn’t duplicate her experiment at home. But it’s still wonderful to know that our dogs are capable of understanding more human language than we thought and when given the opportunity, they can use it to talk back to us. I’m beyond thrilled that much of the anthropomorphism of my dogs is warranted and backed up by science!

Stella using two words.

You can follow Stella on Christina’s blog at HungerForWords.com.

OUR END OF SUMMER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Summer has a different meaning to Tom and me than it does to most people. We are boaters, so to us, summer simply means ‘boating season’ and it lasts for six months. We start getting our boat ready to go into the water in late March or early April. It’s still chilly and there are no leaves on the trees, but for us, ‘summer’ is starting and our mindset shifts from land to sea.

Similarly, our boat isn’t taken out of the water till November 15. So despite the falling of the leaves as well as the thermometer, and even after daylight savings makes it dark before 5 PM, we still cling to the concept of summer because our boat is still afloat. We often spend time on it when it is mild in October and November, which has been often the past few years.

Our boat, Serenity.

On November 5 this year, we emptied all the food off the boat and in a few days it will be ready for its shrink-wrapped hibernation in the parking lot of the marina. So our summer has finally ended and we’re prepared for our landlocked existence for the next half a year.

Our life is quite different when the boat is the focus of our life and when it’s not. Once the boat is in the water and ready for its close-up, all our social life takes place on the boat – rain or shine. We recently built a lovely patio outside our kitchen but no one ever gets to see it except Tom, because the grill is out there. We never have dinners or parties on our patio when the weather is conducive because we’re always on the boat during these warmer months.

The living room on our boat

We love taking guests on our boat for a ride but often the weather doesn’t cooperate and our friends just hang out with us at the dock (which is quite lovely). We have entertained on board through thunderstorms, pouring rain, gusting winds, and extreme heat and cold. We almost never move the party to the house because of the weather.

During boating season we only travel on the boat. We take short trips (under two hours) to other marinas nearby and stay one or two nights. We also take longer trips to the Connecticut River, Montauk, Block Island, and even Martha’s Vineyard, and live on the boat for a week or more with the dogs. We usually get on a plane only when there’s no boat to travel on. And then we go visit our daughter in LA, friends in Portland, Oregon, and Disneyworld in Florida. Next April we’ll be going to London for ten days. The exception is when we plan a big trip to Europe which only makes sense for us in spring or fall when the weather is great but it’s not prime tourist season so it’s not too crowded.

Dining area on the boat

Another difference in our lives when the boat is in or out of the water is how much ‘together’ time Tom and I spend. Whenever he can, Tom will spend the afternoon on the boat rather than at home. He has the same TV and video games set up in both places and the same Wifi service. So he’d rather be looking out at the water than the woods.

I usually choose to stay home during the week except when the weather is ideal, so Tom and I spend a lot of time apart for six months of the year. The rest of the year we’re in the same house most of the time. I think this bifurcated system works well for us since it dilutes the time we share in the same living space and makes us appreciate being together when we are.

Boat kitchen

So now we are finally transitioning into ‘winter’ mode. We’ll start lighting fires and having friends over to the house. Tom will immediately start pining for the next boating season. On the other hand, I’m a homebody and I don’t mind the cold (I have lots of sweaters) so I’m just as happy with my ‘winter’ existence as I am with my water-based life. Variety is the spice of life!

So welcome to winter and toasted marshmallows!

SPACE AND SUPERHEROES – ELLIN CURLEY

I’m usually not a big fan of space or superhero shows, but I really like the “Star Trek”-ish television show “The Orville” and the movie “Wonder Woman.”

I think the reason I like these two particular representatives of their genres is that they focus on the human (or not quite human) relationships. The shows are not primarily about the pyrotechnics, battle scenes, superpowers or twenty-third-century technology, although those are elements of both shows. In these two stories, the characters and their interactions don’t get lost in — or play second fiddle to — special effects.

In the first part of “Wonder Woman”, I became absorbed in Diana’s early life on a mystical island of Amazon women. Then I enjoyed watching her adjust to life in the early 1900s of WWI. I also loved the way her romance with Steve evolved. The movie is, at heart, a beautiful love story.

I’m a big fan of WWI and WWII movies. The major plotline here revolves around a ratty band of anti-heroes — plus Wonder Woman. They are trying to destroy the Germans’ new, extra lethal nerve gas before it can be used on the Allies. You could also almost call the movie a WWI drama with superheroes.

Talking about “Wonder Woman”, I have to mention the star, Gal Gadot. In addition to being breathtakingly gorgeous, she exudes intelligence, strength and compassion. She embodies the quintessential modern female superhero.

If you have any reservations about watching something like “Wonder Woman”, I recommend it as more than just a typical comic book-based movie.

“The Orville” has a “Star Trek” vibe. But again, it is much more than your average space travel adventure. Members of the crew have quirky and interesting personalities and there are many fun and intriguing relationships on the ship. For example, the Captain and the First Mate are ex-spouses who haven’t fully worked through their issues.

Seth McFarlane is the writer, producer and also plays the Captain. He is fantastic, as usual.

There’s lots of humor and lightness in the show as well as charming banter between the exes. In addition, there are serious and topical issues that are brought up and discussed in most episodes. There was one that dealt with the conundrum of whether or not to change the sex of a female baby who would face serious discrimination and banishment on an all-male planet.

The plots are good and I find it an engaging and entertaining hour of television. I have ADD and often can’t sit through a one hour show, so that says a lot for me!

Over the years, I’ve become an expert at glazing over during most of the comic or space ship-based shows I watch with my husband. These are two that actually got my attention and kept me engaged.

Kudos to the makers of “Wonder Woman” and “The Orville.” You can watch “The Orville” on Hulu and Wonder Woman is, I think, still available on Netflix. But if not there, it’s surely on one streaming channel or another.

DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

One of my friends, Rachel, is trying to get her 94-year-old mother, Blanche, to clean out the house she’s lived in for 45 years. She’ll be moving from a big house in Long Island, NY to a small apartment in an independent living facility in Portland, OR. That’s where Rachel, Rachel’s two daughters, and Rachel’s brand-new granddaughter live.

Blanche is a ‘collector’ to put it charitably. She doesn’t like to part with anything. She has literally hundreds of paintings, many by her late husband, on the walls and floors of every room as well as in storage in her large basement. She has almost as many photos and photomontages and old holiday cards crowded onto every wall and piled on every flat surface in the house. Then there are the piles of books and papers literally everywhere. Rachel found a file cabinet with tax returns from the 1960s.

An example of a cluttered room

The problem is that everything is precious to Blanche. She feels that the house and its contents represent her life and she has trouble getting rid of anything. To me, she seems overly attached to the physical objects, which only represent the memories of the past. I’m not sure how the move will go because Blanche has not yet accepted that her smaller accommodations will not hold everything she insists she needs.

Another example of ‘stuff’ on every surface

This got me thinking about what I would do if I had to downsize dramatically. What would be important to me to keep with me? A good portion of my memories are in my photo albums. These start with my grandparents and go through my mom’s life, my early years, and my life with my kids. But the albums stop in 2002 when I married Tom. My kids were 22 and 17. My phone has most of the recent photos and I have boxes of photos that have not yet been put into albums. I can be happy with my mish-mash of photographic memories.

Some of my photo albums

I’m also lucky in that I have written a lot of biographical material over the years and I’ve collected my writings into binders. For 40 years I’ve written humorous, rhyming poems commemorating birthdays, anniversaries and father’s and mother’s days. My early poems were ostensibly ‘from’ my young son, David, so they documented his early years and his relationships with his family and loved ones. Then I started doing poems about the birthday person and I branched out into major events like Bar Mitzvah’s and weddings.

But my major biographical opus is my collection of blogs for Serendipity that tell my family history starting with my grandparents’ early years. I documented stories from my parents’ lives, my childhood, and my kids’ childhoods into the present day. I also wrote blogs about relationships that shaped our lives and I arranged the blogs in a sort of chronological order. I ended up with a 370-page document that I am very proud of. I have given copies to both of my children so they will always have their family stories close at hand.

Because I have so many of my cherished memories saved in photographic or written form, I think that I could pack my ‘life’ into just a few boxes. I’m not really attached to my furniture – except for a beautiful, custom made kitchen table embedded with sea glass and a matching sea glass mobile. I do love some of my chatchkis, particularly my glass and paperweight collections and a few things from my mom and grandmother. But I could live with just a few of them, decoratively placed around my living space.

So I don’t think I’ll drive my kids crazy if I ever have to leave my home and move to a smaller place. I’ve already condensed my past into manageable form.

However, my jewelry is another story!

VISIT TO THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM, PART 3 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

This is the third installment of photos from my trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. We only covered the furniture and decorative arts section of the American Wing. Here are more photos, this time of miscellaneous things that caught my eye.

Ceramics from the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century

I loved this early 20th century piece

Very contemporary looking vase

An assortment of old clocks

Early American doll and doll accessories. I love the coach!

More doll furniture and an adorable toy horse for the dolls!

Painted wood chest from colonial times

Another example of a painted wood chest

Plates painted in the American style

Plates painted in a more typical Oriental Style

Ceiling from the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room

Door and wall lamp designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in the Frank Lloyd Wright room

Ornate street lamp just outside the American Wing of the Met

Silver vase with gemstones

Odd work desk with bag hanging underneath to store work materials, like for sewing.

Unique piece pairing wood and stained glass

Recreated room with wallpaper on all the walls with different views of a single scene

Another wall of wallpaper with no repeat patterns, just a continual scene going around the room

Wall over the fireplace continuing the rustic scene