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A Thank-You Note to Mr. Bowie

Stoop of Paris Bar: “Passerby be modern.”

By coincidence I spent most of the day before David Bowie died in a part of West Berlin whose identity is inextricably linked to him. It started with my arrival at Zoo station—a key location in the 1981 film Christiane F., which Bowie made the soundtrack for and also appeared in as himself—to take a walking tour that, unbeknownst to me, had been cancelled.

At loose ends once I realized the tour wasn’t going to happen, I ducked into the Helmut Newton Foundation across the street from the station and spent an hour or so refreshing my memory on Mr. Newton (Jewish Berliner who fled in the 1930s, killed in a car accident leaving Chateau Marmont in the noughties, fond of photographing naked ladies). At the museum gift shop I admired two of the more lewd postcards, but the prude in me settled on a Newton portrait of David Bowie in a bathrobe sitting on the edge of the bed at Berlin’s Kempinski Hotel. I would send it to my husband, I thought, who is still in California. Bowie is his hero.

Paris Bar

After the museum, I walked the couple blocks to Paris Bar, an establishment on Kanstrasse that’s infamous for hosting Bowie and Iggy Pop during their Berlin years—three years in the late 1970s when Bowie made three albums, including Heroes. It was mostly empty when I arrived, and the waiter didn’t seem to mind that I wandered around taking photographs—undoubtedly not the first person to do so—including of a an eight-person table hidden in an alcove in the back corner and watched over by an enormous portrait of a female British artist whose name I forgot (there’s also what I think is a very small portrait of Bowie over the bar, but on second glance it may have just been a young boy). It’s a spot that would be perfect for a debauched celebration, and I wished very much to have the occasion to book it. Instead I sat contentedly in a banquette at the front, ate a steak, half-read the International New York Times, and people-watched as couples rotated through the seats to either side of me.

My Sunday with the ghost of Bowie was not an uncannily timed homage to a personal hero. While I admire him, the truth is that I can’t legitimately call myself a fan. For that to happen I think you have to discover an artist on your own, most likely when you are young, and I didn’t discover Bowie until my late twenties or early thirties vis-à-vis my husband, for whom, as I mentioned, Bowie is a hero. THE hero.

Through a likely combination of being slightly too young and too suburban, Bowie didn’t come into my childhood consciousness until Let’s Dance, a song that even my husband finds unfortunate. With no other history of Bowie, I just assumed he was another 1980s pop star.

He was, of course, about the farthest thing you could get from that and, at the same time, that. Bowie bent and morphed and transformed a hundred times, shapeshifting to suit his artistry. And for this reason, even if I had been exposed to him, perhaps shepherded into the coolness by some older teen-aged sibling of a friend, I doubt I would have liked him as a kid. I grew up in a household terrified into submission by middle-class WASP norms. Gender bending raging talents weren’t something we knew what to do with. Bowie would have, in all likelihood, scared me.

An aside. When I was in middle school, like everyone else I knew I loved Prince’s Purple Rain. My friend, Michele M., and I used to crank it out of a ghetto blaster on her front lawn as we lathered ourselves with baby oil and laid out in the sun (my family was afraid of a lot of things in the eighties—Jimmy Carter comes to mind—but skin cancer was not yet one of them). Prince was nominated for multiple Grammys that year and I will never forget watching the telecast home alone with my mother because when Prince appeared (in a cape and heeled boots in my memory), she commented, to no one in particular, “what a flaming faggot.”

In fairness to my mother, she didn’t say these words with anything that resembled contempt (and, as it turns out, she has a gay daughter now, so life’s funny that way). It was more like she was trying out a new concept, something she had heard (which, hilariously, was wrong), turning the words over aloud as if trying on a new pair of shoes. After that night I never heard her use the word again, and I only mention it now to illustrate my family’s complete ineptness at absorbing anything that fell outside our normative boundaries.

This morning when I heard about Bowie’s death on Twitter, one of the sweetest tweets I read was from a gay writer, Steve Silberman: “Goodbye, David. You probably saved the lives of millions of gay/trans/odd/”extraterrestrial” kids. RIP”.

Without wanting to sound dramatic, I think my husband was probably one of those odd kids, the kind who, unlike me, wasn’t terrified by Bowie but deeply comforted by his otherness. My husband, exposed to some of the harsher realities of life at a young age, has always been comforted by things that make me uncomfortable—terribly sad movies, for example. These reflections of life as he knows it in art make him feel sane, he tells me. It’s a relief that others see the world like him. And for that, Mr. Bowie, I thank you.


Stumbling Forward

“Look where you’re walking” is the phrase you’re most likely to hear my husband mutter not-so-under his breath while out walking around a busy part of Berlin. The primary offenders are tourists, looking for something in one direction while their feet propel them forward in another; pedestrians preoccupied with their mobile phones; and, most fearsome of all, pedestrians preoccupied by their mobile phone in one hand while wielding a lit cigarette with the other. Abstract the phrase slightly to “look in the direction you’re headed,” and it works on both a literal and figurative level. My husband’s irritated admonishment is transformed into a piece of advice worthy of a commencement speech: deceptively simple, pithy, equally pragmatic and profound. Much of the canon of canned advice—dress for the job you want, aim high, aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time—are variations on the theme.

And yet in Berlin there’s an exception to this rule. To see the Stolpersteine—German for stumbling blocks or stones—you have to look down, which is what I happened to be doing last Saturday, undoubtedly staring at my phone, when the glint from a trio of brass plaques caught my eye. I had just read about the Stolpersteine in ExBerliner, an English-language magazine targeted at expats in the city, and so I stopped to examine what I now recognized as miniature monuments to victims of forced deportation in Europe between 1933 and 1945, a group that includes Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, dissidents, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are thousands of them around Berlin, and yet I had somehow never noticed them before. Inscribed on each of the stones in front of me now was the victim’s name, date of birth, year of deportation, and what happened. Irma, Karla, and Ellen Rosenthal lived here, were deported in 1943, and murdered in Auschwitz at ages 38, 14, and 10 respectively. It’s a fair amount to take in when you were just walking to a movie.

The Stolpersteine are the work of a German artist, Gunter Demnig, who, since 1992, has been creating the plaques based on carefully researched nominations and funding from private citizens. People sometimes apply for a plaque on behalf of a relative or, in other cases, simply to acknowledge someone who once shared the same address. The reasons are personal but the content of the inscriptions is regimented, particularly when it comes to describing what happened to the victim. I was struck by the commitment to speak plainly and truthfully in Demnig’s instructions on the official Stolpersteine website:

“TOT (dead) or ERMORDET (murdered); for a fate unknown three question marks are used: ???. Instead of suicide we put FLUCHT IN DEN TOD (flight into death). We do not use the term “verschollen” (“missing”), nor the term “TOD” (“Death”) since it suggests a natural death. Nor do we use the term “emigration”. Instead, the stone will state: FLIGHT + year + the country of destination.”

(It’s impossible not to notice the parallels between his insistence not to use the term “emigration” and the current debate over the term migrant versus refugee.)

The intimacy of these memorials—each one’s origin linked to a private citizen, modest in size, and placed in front of what is or once was a home—stands in contrast to the city’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The latter is very much in the public space, near the Brandenburg Gate and across from the Tiergarten, comprised of undulating terrain between 2,711 concrete slabs that convey an abstract sense of the magnitude of what occurred. Both, I think, provide a required perspective, but it is the Stolpersteine that have captured me most because they are intertwined with the minutiae of my daily life.

There are eight victims memorialized on my street, including Abraham Fuss, who lived in or near the building that now houses a shop where I bought the bike I use to commute to work each day. He was a tailor, and each time I pass the wedding dress atelier of Andreas Remhardt farther up the block, I think of him. Jeanette and Ruth Grünberg along with Charlie and Golda Wisen lived near the shop where we bought the chairs we sit in every day around our dining table.

Stolperstein for Jenny Theis, a singer who lived
around the corner from me, murdered on this day in 1942

Berlin is a city that’s always looking forward, as marked by the permanent presence of cranes in the landscape. And yet it also strikes me as a city that has taken pains to look backwards to remind itself of its past, not just in the Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe and the Stolpersteine, but on plaques that show up on buildings all over the city to tell the stories of victims of National Socialism and, later, the Stasi. Despite its constant reinvention—currently as a hotbed of hipster-ism in Europe—it is a city trying to keep itself alert to the possibility that, at any moment things, could go terribly wrong. The fact that aerial bombs left over from WWII are still discovered, often during construction, and defused on a regular basis is one very real manifestation of the threat. Berlin is a city that is literally sitting on bombs.

The city’s reminders to itself, whether deliberate monuments or unintended remnants of war, seem to show up in its current handling of the European refugee crisis. According to recent reports, approximately 1,000 refugees are arriving in the city each day. Germany is expected to receive upward of a million refugees this year, of which Berlin is obliged to accept 5%. It’s a challenge for which the city’s collective memory, held in part in the Stolpersteine, will need to be tapped.


The German Way of Death

A favorite monument in Friedhof II der Sophiengemeind

My favorite walking route on my morning commute takes me through a Protestant cemetery. Like much of Berlin the exterior walls of Friedhof II der Sophiengemeind are covered in graffiti, but just inside is a woodland oasis. There are flowers, but they are the flowers of a landscaped yard—rhododendrons and hydrangea—rather than the sanitized cut arrangements you often see in an American cemetery. There are some grand monuments, but mostly the landscape is unruly: full of rambling ivy, shrubs, and, in summer, leafy boughs bisecting your line of sight. Most striking is the contrast of the German predilection for chaos in death versus their stereotypical Teutonic rigidness in life. Perhaps in his final resting place, a German finally lets himself go.

A typical grave

As a non-German speaker, I look for clues about the culture of my host country outside of language: in the aisles of a grocery store (I’m not sure what condiments in a tube tells me, but I’m sure it’s something), the walls of a gallery, and even the paths of a cemetery. Still, the paths of the Friedhof II der Sophiengemeind remind me of one bit of language a co-worker taught me. It’s a Swabian saying, “schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue” that means “work, work, build a house.” According to my colleague, the saying captures not just the hard-working nature of Swabians, but also the more universally relatable ideal of a house in the country.

In Mitte, the central district of Berlin where the cemetery lies, there’s no such thing as a standalone house; the streets are lined with five-story apartment blocks. But here in Friedhof I like to think the residents have finally built their house. It’s a lovely, rambling affair and as far outside the city as you can get without leaving.

Watering cans near the cemetery entrance
Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2011: A Tale of Two Cities

This year’s Christmas letter is being written later than usual. I blame Facebook. After a year of prolific posting, I am frankly bored of myself. (I can only imagine how my Facebook friends feel.) Still, despite the never-ending status updates featuring snapshots of husband drinking Riesling, there are a few things left to say about our year.

River Spree, Berlin

2011 is a tale of two cities, one I will tell here in the type of revisionist history that befits a Christmas letter. In other words I will highlight all the best bits and skim over the seething underbelly of marital discontent I provoked by our move to the first of those two cities, Berlin. It was not exactly a life of hardship, what with the company-sponsored Mercedes and apartment, not to mention all that two-euro-a-glass Riesling. And yet while I revelled in nostalgia from my childhood time there in the eighties (courtesy of my father’s employment flying shuttles with Pan Am), husband felt like he had gone back in time to the grim environs of northwest England circa 1976.

To cheer him up we made frequent visits back to the Cotswolds, like the time we went back to celebrate a little local wedding. We watched from the wine bar — where else? — as Kate and Wills tied the knot, then celebrated our own tenth wedding anniversary a few months later in Paris. But returning to Berlin did not get any easier for husband, although it was lightened by a few welcome visits from friends and family. Late in the summer my personal best interest aligned with my professional best interest when I finagled a new job opportunity at my company into a move stateside, where husband was yearning to return. And so in October I bid my goodbyes to Berlin—her golden Lizzy, her Käsespätzle, her nudist Tiergarten sunbathers.

Elterwater, Lake District

We returned to England where we were treated to a special melodrama facilitated by the US embassy in
London. Husband went in for what should have been a routine visa interview, and yet somehow my plans for post-interview celebratory champagne at Claridge’s turned into manic taxi rides around London securing missing paperwork before degenerating into a week of obsessive waiting for his visa to arrive. When it did we finally felt secure enough to start saying our goodbyes to those places and people we had grown to love most over the past six and a half years, up in the Lakes then back down in the Cotswolds where our last stop before Heathrow was, naturally, the wine bar.

Boston Common

In November we arrived in the second city of our tale of two: Boston. We quickly felt at home — it’s not called New England for nothing. (Husband was, I daresay, a bit miffed to find that his collection of cravats, bow ties, and tweeds would fail to achieve the desired effect of standing out as English in this town.) After skirting our way around “hills” in Europe — the still-waiting-for-gentrification perimeter of Notting Hill, the ‘wolds, and atop an old rubble heap that comprises one of the few rises in Berlin — we have settled on Beacon Hill, complete with views of the Common and Public Garden. Sure being above one of the busiest crossroads in the city means it sometimes sound like we are sitting track-side at Nascar, but never mind for now. We are told that soon enough the snow will come, nature’s welcome muffler.

The year has ended on a sad note. My grandmother, Willie Pearl, passed away at the age of ninety-two. (I wrote a little about her here.) There is nothing nice about death, but the fact that this one happened so close to Christmas forced my family to let go of any expectation about the holiday. There are fewer presents under the tree and no turkey in the freezer. This is all fine with me. At the risk of having an expectation, I’d be happy with scrambled eggs for Christmas dinner.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, whatever your table holds!


The Last Supper

Barring being called back for any emergency meetings, I have now officially left Berlin. Wednesday was my last night, spent in the hotel where we first stayed back in December on our “decision” visit.  Earlier that day I had handed over the keys to the apartment to Francesco, our dashing Milanese landlord, who happily informed me a German movie star was moving in on Monday. I was not surprised.  It is a great apartment, and yet I hadn’t felt emotional when packing it up the previous week.

As I left the red front door of 52 Fehrbelliner Strasse for the last time, I considered if I should stop for a glass of wine at corner wine bar or dinner at one of our old neighborhood haunts. But with husband already back in the UK the idea had little appeal. I had done those things with him, many times, and it felt like just going through the motions to do them again on my own. Instead I took a cab back across Mitte to Rutz, a wine bar and restaurant just down the street from the hotel. Husband and I had drank a glass of wine there occasionally, but the food is fussy sounding and expensive and not his kind of thing. On my own, fueled by a feeling of glamour by association from the news of the German movie star, it seemed like a good choice for my last supper in Berlin.

Once seated, the waitress informed me the three-course set menu was what the chef cooked for the pope when he was in Berlin a few weeks ago. I am not Catholic, but I was tired from all the logistics of the move out of Berlin and the move-in-progress to Boston, and I figured what was good enough for the pope was good enough for me. Soon my glass of Riesling arrived, accompanied by a basket of bread and a small dish of what the waitress called schmalz. It was whipped lard sprinkled with bacon bits, and it was so delicious I didn’t even open the bottle of olive oil that had also be placed on the table. Next came a hunk of raw char sprinkled with ground almonds, followed by a plate of fork-tender beef, and rounded off with a chocolate souffle accompanied by a quenelle of sorrel ice cream on a bed of plum compote. I can confirm that like me, the pope had eaten well in Berlin.

The next evening as a taxi ferried me to Tegel, an amber full moon shone over the Spree.  This time the emotion came: nothing schmalzy mind you, just a pang of sadness leavened by the satisfaction of having reacquainted myself with Berlin.


Bye Bye Bertha

I am a bit ashamed of the last month of silence on the blog, but in my defense I am in the middle of planning another international move.  The company I worked for offered me a job in Boston, and I’ve accepted. The delights of September also included a week-long debacle with the US embassy in an eventually successful attempt to secure husband’s immigrant visa, the stress from which shaved several years off each of our lives. Oh and did I mention that despite the fact I have lived in Europe for more than six years, my mother decided last week was the right time to visit?

Having survived US Citizen and Immigration Services and my mother, I now find myself with a moment to reflect on my imminent departure from Berlin. There will be many farewells, but today I said goodbye to Bertha das Benz, who was my first and quite possibly last Mercedes. Our time together was brief but tumultuous, like the best kind of love affair. In her eight months under husband’s and my stewardship, Bertha received six speeding tickets (don’t let anyone tell you there’s no speed limit on the autobahn), two parking tickets, a three-inch key mark along her derrière, had her badge nicked twice, and, just once, was towed away. Nobody ever said we were easy to live with.

But the truth was this love affair was mostly with husband. I only drove Bertha three times (our final voyage was to take my mother to eat crepes at the KaDaWe last week). Husband said this was because I am a bad driver and my driving made him nervous. This is crap, but Bertha is big and a little stressful to maneuver around a city so I didn’t mind leaving what little driving was required in Berlin to husband.  I am not really a car person anyway, as proven by the fact that my last car was a Prius.

Bertha may not be making the journey across the Atlantic, but Poppy the Pashley will. (No, I don’t give all my modes of transportation names.  Poppy just happens to be the name of the model of my periwinkle blue Pashley bicycle.) She was made in Stratford-upon-Avon, about forty miles north of our home in the Cotswolds, but I bought her here in Berlin. And so by bringing Poppy to Boston, I take a little bit of both places with me. I’ve even put the keys to her bicycle lock on the mini-Mercedes badge key ring I kept as a souvenir of Bertha.


Exorcising Europe

This last year in Europe has been like a long embrace of a friend whom I don’t know when I will see again. Husband on the other hand has been distancing himself, yearning to return to America. And on Thursday night he officially exorcised Europe.

It happened at a sidewalk table at Bandol, a tiny, casual, and esteemed French restaurant here in Berlin. It had been on my Berlin bucket list for awhile, and husband was in an obliging mood what with prospect of a return to America looming. I figured it couldn’t go too badly; husband can always find a steak on a Paris menu, even if he does risk saliva-seasoning by asking for it bien cuit. But this menu was challenging even for me. The salads came with deer meat or veal tongue strewn amongst the radishes, the Burgundian snails with calves’ head. I had finally settled on a traditional fish soup and husband on—what else?—a steak when we hit a problem. The entrecôte was too fatty, the chump (veal) too cruel, and the braised beef suggested by the increasingly desperate waitress came topped with steak tartare. After demurely asking for the bill for our already ordered drinks, husband piped up with a declaration: “That’s it. I am officially over Europe.  I am buying a pickup truck when we move back.”

When we left Bandol I decided to let him pick where to eat dinner. He chose Gorki Park, a trusty standby in our neighborhood and, as the name implies, Russian. And not just any Russian: throwback to USSR, super-kitsch Russian decorated with murals of red-tied Young Pioneers undertaking earnest-faced athletic pursuits. So much for his Yankee yearnings. The only thing American about his dinner was the fact that his meat-filled pastry appetizer was exactly the same shape and size as a McDonalds apple pie.


In Der ‘Hood

My street in Berlin, Fehrbelliner Straße, runs for the best part of a kilometer between Anklamer Straße at the top and Schönhauser Allee at the bottom. It is pronounced Fairbulleener Straw-suh, as if it was the street of fair Berliners, but alas this is not an accurate literal translation. There are some fine buildings, their windows adorned with columns and the various plaster accoutrements of old Europe — curlicues, bearded or wreathed heads, flowers — but there are more plain facades, although often in cheery sherbert shades. A few of the dun-colored, pebble dash boxes that scream East Berlin also remain, as does graffiti. I love the doors the most, especially the enormous double ones that open onto interior courtyards and close with a solid thunk.

Every weekday I walk the length of it twice, from home on one end to work on the other and back again. I also eat, drink, and shop on it. It is a far cry from the Cotswolds, but Fehrbelliner Straße is a village in its own way.


At the top end, half a block from our apartment and the on part of the street we frequent least, there is always an armed policeman standing guard outside one of the buildings. When we first moved in I approached him and asked in my most polite inquisitive voice if this was a police station.

“No,” the policeman answered and looked away, making it clear that no explanation for his presence would be offered.

Later at work a German colleague who lives nearby explained to me that the building was a Jewish school. I was taken aback that a school would have an armed police presence, but he explained that this was standard practice for Jewish schools and synagogues. I asked if there were specific threats, to which he replied, “No, but given our history it would just be really bad if something happened.”


As far away from our flat as the Jewish school but in the opposite direction is Remshardt. It is the atelier of a wedding dressmaker, a man who sometimes sits at his desk drawing with his African Grey parrot perched on his shoulder. Each week he changes the dress featured in the window, lately favoring flowing Grecian things that remind me of Grace Kelly’s poolside cover-up in High Society. My favorite, though, was a bulbous heap of ivory taffeta adorned with an outsize beetle brooch.


On the corner, at the busy intersection with Veteranstraße, is Weinerei Forum, known around my house simply as Corner Wine Bar. (Due to husband’s limited memory, most things around our house have a different, generic sounding shorthand, like “Frenchie” for Café Fleury.) I’ve written about Corner Wine Bar before here; suffice to say it continues to be an extension of our living room, as does the pizzeria, La Foccaceria, across the street.


A little further down is ZweiTrad, a trio of bicycling boutiques that dominate the block. Berlin is a bicycle-crazy city, and this place is often as busy as a bustling bistro on a Saturday. This is where I bought my beloved Pashley from the elegant owner. He wears wire-rimmed specs and always has a scarf knotted around his throat, a Frenchman trapped in a German’s body. There is some small irony in my acquisition of the Pashley in Berlin given it was made in Stratford-upon-Avon, about forty miles north of our Cotswold town. But the Germans favor Dutch bikes with annoying pedal brakes, and so I reckon I had no choice but to go for the British-built beauty.


Just beyond the cycle shop is Schwarze Pumpe (the black pump). It is one of the first places we ate dinner in our neighborhood and we continue to be regular guests for the käsespätzle and lack of pretension.


This is our grocery store, Kaiser’s. I imagine I will leave Berlin without ever understanding why their logo looks like a genie’s lantern.


Beyond the playground, two of the best coffee shops in Berlin have clustered together. Kristiania Espressobar, owned by a Norwegian, and Antipodes, owned by a couple from Wellington. The inside of Kristiania looks a little like a mid-century doctor’s waiting room, but on balance I favor Antipodes because of the passion fruit yo yos, an Oreo for grown-ups.


Almost opposite the coffee cluster is the site of a former Jewish school. I’ve written about it before too, a reminder of a very sad chapter in Germany’s history. It is marked out by a subtle plexiglass plaque rather than a policeman; the only thing left to guard is the memory of the children and their teachers.


An Angel’s Gotta Eat

Golden Lizzie.  She overlooks a roundabout in the Tiergarten in Berlin and is possibly the only thing husband loves about this city.  She also features in the opening scene of Wings of Desire, an angel resting on her shoulder eavesdropping on the humans below.

Yesterday I was minding my own business, reading the paper and eating a chicken schwarma at a falafel joint on Torstraße when in walked an angel of sorts. He was young and looked tired, like an overworked angel might.  He was dressed in a leopard print Addidas jacket with what appeared to be three carefully hand-cut vertical vents in the back, a pair of gray, abstract patterned, mock-camoflauge trousers, and white leather high tops…with wings: big, chunky, leather wings protruding off his ankles.  I had just worked up the courage to ask him if I could take his photo when he slipped out the door, presumably to attend to his angelic duties.


Berlin ’82 in Pictures

Say cheese! This cheery Checkpoint Charlie family portrait was the crowning glory of my entry—a slideshow on the Berlin Wall—in the 1982 Lee County Media Show. Despite the unfair advantage of my on-location shots of the Wall, some kid who was actually talented and had created a claymation Super 8 film won.

The Checkpoint Charlie snap comes courtesy of a disk of images my dad just mailed me. They are all from our Berlin trip in the summer of ’82, and there are some interesting comparisons with how things look now. The Wall is of course gone—in fact it’s pretty hard to find any sign of it except for a few pieces still on display at Potsdamer Platz and the double-row of cobblestones that traces its route in some parts of the city (Berliners, understandably, wanted it this way).


The Reichstag looks shockingly drab pre-Norman Foster’s glass dome.

And the Wall and watchtower-lined Spree gives new meaning to Berliners’ current fondness for pop-up riverside beach clubs.  Then…

and now…

But if I’m honest, my favorite part of looking at these pictures is admiring the fashions my family was wearing at the time. My mom is rocking a pair of oversized transluscent-framed sunglasses, my dad has a whiff of Burt Reynolds about him, and my sister and I are perpetually dressed in Izod shirts with high-waisted jeans. My sister also favors a lavender satin bomber jacket with ice cream cone pin that I remember coveting. It was much cooler than the stupid cardigans my mother bought for me. Here are the best of those pics.