I've never actually liked the concept of 'comparing apples and apples'. I know what people mean when they say it -- you want to ensure that you're comparing compatible concepts -- but to me, its always made more sense to compare apples and oranges. The differences are obvious -- seeds in the middle, seeds in the fruit; on a tree, on a bush; apple pie, orange...um.
But I like it when you can make comparisons like that. I have to watch out for that, in fact, because I so much like that kind of comparison, I have to be sure that I'm not boiling things down too far. Occams razor cuts both ways.
Years ago, when my wife went to the Million Mom March (I surprised her with a sign in the front yard praising her actions; I liked that she was getting to do something she really wanted to do), I spent some time trying to understand why gun owners are as they are. I'm not a gun owner, and I didn't understand why gun owners were -- and still are, of course -- so vehement about their defense of having guns. When I would see what I thought were perfectly reasonable suggestions -- you have to have certified training before you can have a gun; you have to prove that you lock up the gun; trigger locks -- I would be amazed at the ferocity with which people would say Absolutely Not! Some of them, like Charlton Heston, I could ignore; I figured he's been crazy since Planet of The Apes. But others seemed like reasonable people, and I wanted to understand why they thought as they did.
So, when a group called The Second Amendment Sisters set up shop at the MMM rally, I took note of their web site, and I wrote to them. Got into a series of emails with a woman who strongly believed the the Second Amendment said, by god, exactly what it said -- shall not be abridged, I think the wording is. But she also felt strongly that gun owners have the responsibility to be safe with weapons. We differered on some things, but I got to understand that for some gun owners, at least, it came down to this: gun ownership meant independence and taking responsibility for your own actions. I couldn't agree with the conclusion, but I did agree with the statement, and I was glad I asked. I learned that gun owners can be reasonable, even when I don't agree with where that reason brings them.
Now today's Post says that the question between Bush and Kerry can be capsulized (is that a word?) in the fact that Bush feels vehemently that attacking Iraq meant attacking terrorism, and that you beat terrorism by attacking terrorism, whereas Kerry feels that attacking Iraq meant giving people who were predisposed to become terorists, but hadn't, the rationale to do so; by so doing, we made more terrorists than we stopped.
Black and white. Apples and oranges.
As it happens, I think they're both right.
By attacking Iraq, we did attack a place where terrorists lived and operated, and we made life difficult for them. But we also made life difficult for people who were not terrorists, and we made some of those people willing to cross that line. Attacking was not a good/bad thing; it was a bad thing done with good reason, and with both good and bad results. Bush was not wrong for attacking, but he was wrong for not stopping when it became obvious that the cause was not valid. Kerry is right for saying that we've boosted the likelihood of terrorism, but wrong for saying that this made the original attack wrong.
I just found out that when I send an email response to someone who's been kind enough to write to this blog (which then gets forwarded to my email box), my response goes to a 'no-response' box. Which I am guessing means it went into the bit bucket.
I'm really sorry. I just went out and posted responses to the ones I could find, and I'll look some more in a bit. I really do appreciate comments, and it appears that I've made it look like Yeah,yeah, who cares.
I'm not a great political theorist. My level of political sophistication is more Mayberry, RFD than Thomas Jefferson. Although I know that the Vice President of the United States did, in fact, suggest that a United States Senator should perform a sexual act upon himself, I tend to think of that as happening 'out there' -- not related to where I live. And I'm only faintly bemused by the idea that organizations dedicated to ensuring a fair election are coming here -- not to learn how to do it, but to do it.
That was then, this is now.
Yesterday coming back from grocery shopping, I was a little surprised to note that a home up the street from ours didn't have its Kerry yard sign any more. Gee, I thought, I wonder why. Then I came over the rise to our home - and stared.
There wasn't a Kerry sign there, either.
On the off chance that a large blue and white sign could have somehow become invisible, I got out, walked over, touched the slender post upon which the sign had resided. Post, yes. Sign, no.
I was furious. I wanted to race down the street and hammer at the door of every house with a Bush sign, asking which of them was the SOB that had done it.I didn't do that. I did go to the other house and ask, did you lose your sign? And when they said that they thought it had blown away in last night's storm, I pointed out what had happened to me. And that all of the Bush signs were still there. They were startled. They said it made them feel creepy, to know that people like that lived around here. Me, too, I said.
As it turned out, the woman works near the Kerry headquarters in a local city. She told me where it was. I drove down there, still fuming. Parked, walked into a hubbub of activity. Finding out that they were not equipped to take credit card donations, I darted out to an ATM, withdrew a sizeable amount of cash (sizeable for me, anyway), came back, gave it to them. The woman at the reception desk was -- well, she looked at the money and said 'How much money are you giving me, anyway?' Not as much as I'd like to, I replied. I took three Kerry signs, and left.
One for my neighbor, should she want to replace the stolen one. One for me, now taped to our lamp post, with the light on (it'll be on till the election is over), and one to sit in the front dashboard of the van, to be used if needed. In other words, if the SOBs take the sign from the lamp post.
I know. In the great scheme of things, this is nothing. Do a Google search on 'stolen yard signs', and you find out its happened in lots of places, on both sides of the fence. But this happened to me. Remember the defintion of a conservative? A liberal who's been mugged? My house had been mugged.
What kind of people can do this sort of thing?
One other thing.
It occurs to me that if reelected -- oh, god, I hope not -- Bush doesn't really have to worry about impeachment. Who would do that -- knowing it would make Cheney president?
...if it weren't for the people. (Which brings to mind an article I read several years ago wherein the author points out alternate uses of the word 'manage', as in, 'Oh, the house burned down, the crops died, and our Internet service is very slow...but we'll manage'. Given that, how could being a 'manager' mean anything other than dealing with failure on a routine basis?)
When I was younger and more idealistic, I used to read management articles pretty often. I liked the articles in the Sloan School of Business magazine the most, with the Harvard Business Review being a close second (they were more global in scope than Sloan, but Sloan felt more realistic, as if they were written by the actual people involved, and not dictated to a furiously penning scribe). When I discovered INC magazine, I thought that this was even better, because it was about people working (for the most part) in small businesses -- anything from the family drug store to a company that employed about a hundred people. These people didn't have much truck with elegant theory, however intellectually satisfying; they wanted facts and direct, clear statements.
One problem posed to one of INCs advisors still sticks with me. A person said that he and his wife had started a business, hired employees as it grew, and prospered to the point where they wanted to take some money out of the business to buy his and hers Mercedes (or similar; I don't recall exactly). The question was, should they? On one hand, the advisor said, it was their business, and they could do whatever they chose with the money from the business. On the other, the business presumably relied heavily on the good will and effort of the employees; if they saw the owners strutting their new toys, they might become restive.
I recall this one, I think, because several years ago I worked for a large computer company which was solely owned by one man. The company was publicly traded, but he held a controlling interest. One year he decided it would be a dandy thing for his son to learn to fly a helicopter (the son ended up flying around the world, hop-scotching from one military base to another, courtesy of his father's connections). He had a small heliport built next to the main office building. Every couple of days, we could see the helicopter arrive, and the son (and sometimes others) would go out and lift off.
The helicopter was owned by the company; the company was owned by the man. Did this make it right? I know that very few of us seemed upset by the sight of the helicopter (it was fun to watch, actually, when the professional pilot would land it, because, among other things, he would land exactly aligned with the helipad's long edge, and he would apply the rotor brake so that the blade stopped exactly aligned with the body of the helicopter. Classy. ) We tended to think that 'them as has, gets'. But every so often, we'd think about what we were paid (and we were paid well) versus the cost to the company of that helicopter....and we'd get just a bit glum. I specifically recall one day when the helicopter arrived and the passengers walked out in business suits; on disembarkation, they all wore bathing suits. None who saw that felt much like working, afterward. The sight had demotivated us, even though, objectively, nothing in our work environment had changed.
To me, motivation is the key responsibility of management. It's not just money, or power, either. Maslow said it well, decades ago, with his Hierarchy (I mentioned it once to a fellow manager, during my tenure in that job, and was surprised to learn that he'd never heard of it). And I developed for myself (not first, but I thought of it before I read it) the concept that people want attention in varying degrees; some want you to know everything they're doing, and others don't want you in their airspace at all, but everyone wants recognition and respect for what they do. You can go a long way simply assuring people that you do see their activities, and that you value them. It doesn't hurt to point out, gently, that you likely value them better than they do, themselves, because when you value them, you don't see the nagging little doubts that everyone has -- the ones that say 'oh, you're not so good' or 'oh, you could have done that piece of work better'. All you see is the output, and so you can value them without distraction. I'm amazed how often that doesn't occur to people. Though perhaps I shouldn't be: when I'm in the doldrums, it doesn't occur to me, either.
One of the many managerial tasks that I never mastered past that point, though, was how you motivate people. I knew intellectually how to do it; the problem was in figuring out which of the possible methods would work with a given person. I recall a manager of mine, during that period, saying to me that he had to call in one of his employees and 'get him excited about' a task he wanted him to perform. He wasn't being evilly manipulative; he simply wanted this person to accept this task and run with it; further, to be enthused about it. I wished that I could have listened to his conversation, because it worked, and I wanted to know how to do it.
It only occurred to me much later that he did the same thing to me, too.
To my amazement, I have actually gotten some comments on this blog. I did not expect that. And what's even more amazing, they were positive comments. They didn't tell me that I am not all that lucid, or that I write about things that are so boring as to make dust look captivating, or things that No One Cares About, Jack.
I am grateful to these people, because, truth to tell, I don't think that most people would find what I write all that interesting. I like to think about a lot of different things, but my thinking is pretty shallow, most of the time. Terrorism Bad. Chocolate Good. That sort of thing isn't deep, like you find in lots of other blogs. What's that saying about the Mississippi (and then there's the joke about the little kid who said he knew how to SPELL Mississippi, he just didn't know when to stop), that its a mile wide and an inch deep? I think sometimes that that's a good description of my range of interests. I like lots of things, but I don't tend to go very deep on them. Like the character said in Robert Parker's novels, I know more things that won't make you money....
Here's an obscure example. In my job, I deal with people who need to set up computing environments (man, does that sound stodgy), like setting up a new mainframe and all of the associated software. In the last go-round, one of the groups had a problem. They were trying to make software that used to run on one machine, and read from a database there, run on another machine but still read from that same database. To do this, they used a function called DDF, or Distributed Data Facility. Well, this jewel didn't work as advertised. It was way slow. So, with the calm, professional demeanor that we always exhibit, we went into panic mode alpha. Could it be this? Maybe its that? What about -- the soda machine? Could it be the soda machine?
No, it wasn't the soda machine.
As my little part, I started reading about how this communication is supposed to work, to see if I could figure out if we'd done something wrong in setting it up. This got me into reading about how you set it up, and what the pieces of software do, how they talk to each other, all of this. And I was really enjoying this -- to the point that when they came and said hey, we found the problem, you can stop now, I was disappointed. Because I was enjoying reading about this stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with me, or what I do for a living. It was just fun stuff.
That's what I like to do -- find something and learn something about it. But it has to be something that isn't relevant to what I do. Like Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, said, Its only fun if someone isn't making you do it. So I know what the M in M&Ms stands for. I know what a curtain wall is, and what the Bundle of His is. I know that in a Minuteman launch center, you don't 'press the red button', you turn the key. I know how a bar code works (well, kind of), and what Bernoulli's Principle has to do with airplanes. I know what an algorithm is. Stuff like that. And that's the kind of thing I like to write about, too.
Enough navel gazing. I was reading an article about the US Presidential election, the other day, and was startled to read that 'many undecided voters are going to wait until the day of voting to decide who they'll vote for. They'll use a heuristic to decide." Heuristic? I know what a heuristic is -- so do you; its a rule of thumb, more or less -- but to see the word in print in a newspaper was as flabbergasting as if they'd said 'They'll flip a coin, and of course the odds are not, exactly, fifty-fifty, though they are very, very close.' It was a literate, accurate phrase. I'm not used to seeing that in the newspaper. I did wonder what the heuristics used would be, though. Well, Laura Bush is a charming person, but Teresa Kerry seems a bit tough; I'll vote for Laura, I mean, George. Democrats are for the little guy, Republicans are for the big guy; I'm a little guy, so I'll support the Democrats, and vote for Kerry. Hmm... Somewhere, some probably has this stuff figured out, and uses the subliminal and not-so-subliminal images in their ads.
How many red ties, white shirts, and blue suits do these guys have, anyway?
1) Mars and Murray. The company was founded by Forrest Mars and Bruce Murray.
2) Window wall. Used in a building where the support comes mostly from the core, where the elevators and such are.
3) Heart muscle that transmits 'electrical' impulses between nodes.
4) One big key for the commander, one small key for the deputy. On my mark, three, two, one, turn, light on, light off, missile away.
5) Binary code, with white/black being 1/0. Position matters.
6) The shape of the wing, seen edge on, makes the air flow slower on the bottom, where it's flat, than on the top, where it's curved. The slower air has more pressure, which generates lift. Though I did once see an old Army Air Corps writeup of an accident which listed the crash cause as 'insufficient lift in the air'.
7) It's what you get when the former vice-president dances. (Sorry.)
A couple of articles I've seen lately have said that as things go, both political parties are convinced that terrible things will happen to the nation if the other party gets its man into the White House; further, that the other party will absolutely attempt to, if not outright steal, then certainly take advantage of every loophole, backdoor, and side entrance that they can in pursuit of grabbing victory. And I have to admit that while I cannot believe that my party would do that, I have only a little trouble in believing that the other guys most certainly would.
Its when I find myself thinking that, that I realize it's time for a deep breath. Should the wrong person win, the world will not end. If he does (the cowardly sneaking cur), I will take a deep breath and get on with my life (whats left of it, now that he and his crony are firmly in power). And I will try hard not to think 'By god, next time we will steal the damn thing.' I am better than that.
I do hope (in a minor way) that if my candidate wins, that we don't gloat too much. (Because you know that if they win, they'll treat it like a mandate from on high, and they'll be doing conga lina dances down Pennsylvania Avenue). But a little gloating, from the forces of truth and light...surely that would be okay?
An article in today's Sunday New York Times details at great length the proposals, plans, and actions that were taken by a select group of Bush Administration officials in preparation for what they expected would be the capture of a large number of terrorists, including senior members of Al Qaeda and related organizations.
It is not a surprising article, because both the plans and the attitudes of the people making the plans has been described before, but it is chilling nonetheless, because the underlying and driving conceit of the people making the plans was that regarding the nature of this nations legal response to terrorism, only they alone knew best; further, that adherence to standard, existing legal practices would not only severely limit their ability to respond to and limit terroristic activities, but would provide aid and comfort to the terrorists.
Like John Galt, they determined that swift action, of a type to be determined by them alone, was necessary, and the devil take the naysayers. They made their plans secretly, cutting out major portions of the government and its processes at both senior and junior levels, acting with only cursory regard to existing legal tradition and conventions, feeling no need for legal, let alone Constitutional, support, save only what they themselves had created and approved. They felt that whatever action they thought right, was right, de facto, and objections to their actions were pusillanimous, misguided, and possibly seditious.
They acted as a cabal within the United States government.
I've been doing a little bit of thinking about terrorists and terrorism lately.
Thinking about terrorism makes me feel queasy inside, like when I contemplate the idea that people who look perfectly normal -- people who look just like me -- are pedophiles, and could be in contact with my child every day. It turns my stomach, and I don't want to even acknowledge that such things exist. Yet I think that I have to think about it, because its part of my world and my child's world.
Terrorism is the same thing. I don't want to think about it, don't want to acknowledge that it exists, and not even just exists, but exists in a particularly vile way. Its almost as if I can accept it, distastefully, if it only touches people that I really don't care about, but when it starts to touch people that I do care about, people like Ken Bigley and the woman who was just kidnapped who is the directory of CARE in Iraq, then I have to start thinking about it, trying to grapple with the idea of terrorism. Because as long as it is this amorphous blob, it's the bogeyman inside my bedroom closet, and there is no way to defend against it, let alone defuse it.
Not that I think I can do anything about it -- I doubt that I can. But its part of me to think that if I at least understand it, or have the beginnings of an understanding about it, then I will be able to begin to deal with it, in my own small way. In a way, it makes terrorism less emotional and more susceptible to analysis and attack.
To that end, I picked up a small volume titled Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, by Charles Townshend, and published by Oxford Press.
It is not fun reading. Although written in dry, lucid prose, it is difficult for me to be relaxed when I am reading it. My reading speed goes way the hell down, and I find myself going back to earlier paragraphs again and again, trying to remember the key points, the structure that the author is building to understand the origin and structure of terrorism. But although I am only a little bit of the way through this thin book, I have to say that he is doing a good job in providing the history of the concept, and in providing a method of analysis and explanation for what is still -- at least to me -- a difficult and inexplicable phenomenon. It helps me understand why these people do what they do, much as reading about how a pedophile or a serial killer views the world.
I resent having to know this terrible kind of thing, but I believe that it's necessary.
When I see a roadsign for The Other Candidate, I think its a damn shame that people stick these things in public places, and I want to drive off the road and bump over it....but when I see a roadsign for My Candidate, I nod and smile.
When I hear that Nickelodeon held a mock vote, pointing out that they'd picked the winner in the last four elections, I scowl when I think they said that The Other Candidate won.... then smile when I realize that they said My Candidate won.
And when I hear polls saying that The Other Candidate is likely to win, I grimace and tell myself that these damn polls are all over the map and can't be right ....but when I hear polls saying that My Candidate is likely to win, I nod and think Yes, they've unquestionably got it right.
I'm sitting here in front of my Dell Dimension 8100, wondering when Mike Dell became a liar.
Clearly, he did -- or Bill Gates, or both -- because I've seen the ads showing the guy with the Dell just having his eyes blur, the ISP service and the XP switching between apps is so fast, and I'm lucky if it switches in less than five seconds.
Course, it could be Comcast that's lying through their teeth, too, as I got to watch the 'Comcast High Speed Internet' logo for, oh, two minutes while I tried to get into email.
Could just be that oh, they neglected to mention it has to be a completely empty 2.6Ghz machine with, oh, about two terabytes of RAM and, oh yes, absolutely no body else on the line between you and the ISP.
But me, I think its simpler. I think they're lying, singlely and collectively.
I just opened the bedroom window to get a little cool air, and I smelled a wood fire somewhere close. As I don't live in a forest, it's not alarming. Our neighbor has a wood stove, and I know of a couple of people in this development who do, too. It's a pleasant aroma.
For one (or two) I read the Sunday papers. I read the Washington Post, of course; if I’m going to get any Sunday paper at all, I’ll get the Post, because I like the light reading in the Style Section (and trying to see if this week the Style Invitational will be good; it is, about a third of the time) and in the section that I think of as ‘Style 2’ because I can’t remember what its called; I also like the comics, and then going slowly through the paper itself. I usually leave Section One until I’ve read the others, as it requires more of an intellectual commitment than I am always willing to make.
I just tried three times to spell Willing as Whilling; for some reason, that just looked right.
My style in leaving the first section till the end will bag me, though, if I’ve picked up the Sunday New York Times, because they split the first section into two physical sections; more than once, I've gone back to Section One only to find that the article is continued in the second physical section, thats now somewhere on the pile of stuff that I've read. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to get both the Post and the Times -- they’re not likely to have different news, though they have substantially different secondary articles, and their spins on the major articles are usually different. What I do is, I pick it up at the store and look at the article that’s on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine. If it is something I want to read, I’ll get the paper; otherwise, not. You can pretty much count on me getting the paper if it has something about politics, society, or technology, and pretty much not if it has something about someone bemoaning the state of affairs. I have no use for that.
The Times magazine was about food, this time. I got it. Most of the articles were okay, nothing great, but I did read an article about two restaurants in Martinsville, West Virginia. That was pretty interesting, especially since it didn’t occur to me till the end of the article that what he was really talking about was the political landscape -- people who like/want change versus people who don’t.
The Post Style2 section had a recipe for brownies that I’d like to try. It was part of a couple of articles on political get-togethers. I’m not much of a joiner but there are times I wish I could talk with people about politics. Seems like that’s fraught with peril, though. Its got to be people who are willing to listen as well as talk. Not even sure I can say I fit that definition. Sometimes I think my intellectualism doesn't go very far down. I did find myself mulling over the definition I'd heard about the difference between conservatives and liberals is that the latter like to include everyone -- well, most everyone -- and feel that it isn't legitimate political discourse unless they do, whereas the former like to include just those who think their way, and no further; whats the point? I'm a liberal but there are times I wonder if liberals are too inclusive for their own good.
So those are two things I read. Then I also read a couple of articles that I had saved from papers that I’d bought before we left for our trip, and I leafed through an issue of The Economist that had also come. (I was surprised not to see The Economist on display anywhere in London. Guess I just was not in the right place.) Then I started to read one of two small pocket guides that I had bought at Foyles Book Store -- one is an introductory guide to Saint Augustine, and one is an introductory guide to the concept of terrorism. I am reading the second one. It is not fun reading, and I’m not sure I’ll read the whole thing, short as it is, but it is oddly satisfying.
I know that programming is a word with lots of meaning, and one of the ones that I don't mean is when you create a marketing program that uses bright, glossy magazines. I don't like those, because they tend to act as if all they have to show is bright, smiling faces, and I'll think Gee, I'd sure like some-o-DAT! Gives glossy a bad name.
Which is why I am always surprised to find that I not only like the brand magazine that the Chrysler Corporation puts out -- though I think, based on the masthead (and how come its called the masthead? Sounds nautical...) that it's actually published by Meredith Publishing, with content supplied by Chrysler -- but that the magazine is effective at what it is trying to do -- ie, it predispoes me to think kindly of Chrysler, especially when it comes to buying a new vehicle. Its unquestionably a marketing tool, but its well done. I usually admire things that are well done, particularly hamburgers.
But that isn't what I was thinking about.
The programming that I was thinking about has to do with the art and science of making a computer do things for you so that you don't have to do them yourself. I call myself a programmer, but that's not true. It used to be, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and presidential candidates were always assumed to be upright, forthright, and truthful, but it hasn't been true for years. Decades.
This is what I want. I have to log on to multiple remote sites every couple of months, just to make sure that my password is up to date. By multiple, I mean something on the order of ninety or a hundred. The process is just about the same in each case. I make a connection to my company's network. I either select the system I want directly from a menu, or I select an entry from the menu that brings me to a logon screen, from whence I get another menu, and then I select the system. I give it logon information, which either delivers me into the system I want, or delivers me to yet another menu from whence.... and so on. If the password has to be changed, I change it, and I write it down on the special supersecret spreadsheet I keep with all of my ids and password. And then I sign off again.
This is incredibobbly tedious. Repetitive, done the same way each time. Prime meat for a computer.
Now, I will bet serious money that there is, somewhere, a programming language that is powerful enough to automate this... and simple enough that someone like me can use it. Kind of like what Visual Basic was like, when it first started. Something truly simple. Even Java, I regret to say, is beyond me.
If I could find a package like that -- and it wasn't too expensive -- I'd buy it, use it, and propagate the idea to the people I work with, who all have the same onerous problem.
Because I really do believe in the slogan that a company I used to work for used:
Unquestionably. No attention paid to the standard responses, the sort of thing that you say to teachers and school administrators so that they will purse their lips and stamp their forms and sigh and allow that perhaps, just this once, in view of the great educational benefit... no attention paid to that, it was unquestionably worth it.
We of course received different impressions, different delights, each of us, but there were common wonders as well. We all liked the London Eye. Benefiting from the low number of tourists at the time, our capsule was half full, allowing us to walk back and forth, looking at the other capsules, up and down river, and over into the City, watching Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from multiple levels and angles. My daughter delighted in simply sitting on the floor, up against the curved glass, watching as the skyline slid by.
And we were all taken by the Tower of London -- amazed that it wasn’t a single Tower, but a series of buildings and castles, complete with a moat (now dry, with a running track and tennis court), all sweeping up from the Thames, the Tower Bridge looming in the background. The grounds reeked of history to each of us, and we all listened with guilty fascination as the uniformed Beefeater (who said that they did not in fact know the origin of the name; all suggestions welcome) told us of the goings-on at the execution spot, and how one woman managed to get away almost to the end of the hill before being hauled back to be hacked to pieces. He told us too of the great Crown Jewel heist that almost made it, and would have had they turned right instead of left -- and that a little known fact was that the ER on his uniform stood, in his case, at least, for Extremely Romantic -- and this after his twenty-plus years of service to the Crown, culminating in recognition for honorable service -- or as he put it, ‘twenty years of undiscovered crime’.
Even the famous Tube had its charms, once we discovered how to manipulate it, taking the Bakerloo line down past Baker Street, sliding around on the Circle Line, navigating the Northern Line. It was hot, and crowded, at times, but it was still fun. And the Westminster Station was not to be believed.
But the single most amazing spot, one where we could have returned again and again, I think, was Westminster Abbey.
I’m not a religious person, and so the building did not fill me with any degree of religious awe. But that left lots of room for awe at the sheer history of the place -- the thought that the building had been there for almost a thousand years, that the names emblazoned on walls, and floors, were the living history of England. And even if it were not, the size and majesty of the building, the glass in the windows -- it damn near took my breath away.
When we were returning to London's Heathrow Airport this past Monday for our much awaited return home, we fell into conversation with our vehicle's driver about our trip -- what we'd seen (what? You didn't ride on a double-decker?) , what had taken our fancy (Westminster Abbey, certainly, and the Tower of London complex), what had surprised us (the multiple different accents of the native British, and the multiple foreign languages in use), what had charmed us (standing on Westminster Bridge, listening to Big Ben, feeling its tones resonate through us, thinking: This isn’t a recording, this isn’t a movie, this is the actual Big Ben, the one you heard in the audio clips from World War Two). And then we got onto the subject of the US Presidential elections (the driver thought that Bush would win despite Iraq). That led to a shallow detur into the concept of terrorism, when he told us a couple of things that surprised us.
For one, he insisted that the Al-Qaeda organization was unable to work effectively in Britain because that the British security organization, which he thought might still be called MI-5, had instituted a program to permeate public places with their own undercover personnel, who were alert to activities that were out of the norm. For example, he said, if you went to a shopping mall and simply sat and watched the people, you would see that there were some apparent shoppers who came and went repeatedly, carrying the same packages, going in the same direction as before, again and again. I thought it possible, but also possible that they were simply disorganized shoppers. The proof would be if you came back day after day and noted them -- by which time, if they truly were undercover policemen, they would have noticed you.
But the thing he said that really surprised us was that he thought that for all of the diversity of thought and opinion in Britain, there was a commonality of hope and support for the country as a whole. He thought that it would be inconceivable for most British people, no matter how they felt, politically, to foster or foment damage to the country, because it is their home, and they would simply not be able to harm it, or to help others to harm it. He was sure that terrorist organizations existed in Britain, but because of that basic core support for the country, he doubted it would be able to ever amount to anything.
This struck us as a remarkably naive view, but we hoped that he was right.
That’s surprising to me, because this trip was stretched to take every available day, and at nine days was only a brief part of the trip that it was standing in for, which was to have been a three week trip to Australia. Yet what we found was that after seven days, we began to grow irritable -- parents more than the child. A great deal of that was due to lack of what I’ll call ‘reliable’ food.
What we found there was that most of the food just didn’t suit us. It’s difficult to explain why -- it’s not as if the food was that of an alien race, and other visitors eat it happily -- but for whatever reason, we just couldn’t find food that we liked . Breakfast seemed oriented to people who liked small portions, delicately prepared. French toast, for example, was exquisitely made -- and each of the pieces of bread was about the size of two postage stamps. An excellent arrangement of berries, along with a large pot of creme fraiche, came along, so the presentation was artful -- but it was an appetizer. The ‘standard English breakfast’ sounded promising -- sausage, bacon, cereal, juice, muffins, coffee -- but the sausage was a massive, oily cylinder of meat (the casing; the inside was bland); the bacon was ham, in my terms; the cereal was effectively granola (from back when granola was just the province of Euell Gibbons), the coffee was industrial strength road tar, and the muffins were damn near cold. The juice was pretty good, though I found that if I hadn’t eaten anything, taking a gulp of it would knock my blood sugar down to my socks.
And lunch, and dinner, pretty much the same thing. About mid-week, we started looking for places that sold ‘real food’ that we might recognize -- Italian, for example -- and found some good stuff, but also surprises. Wonder exactly what kind on meat is in that ravioli? When the lasagna came, it had no sauce on it, and just a small decanter. By Friday, we had broken down to going to American places -- Mickey D’s, for example -- and even there, things weren’t quite right. My daughter’s McFlurry was smaller, the flavor was different, and the toppings were alien to her. My single hamburgers were lukewarm upon delivery. Dinner at Pizza Express was remarkable, because both times -- even though the meal was good -- I had to hustle downstairs to the john to barf. No idea what. And the pizza from Pizza Hut was disappointing -- smaller than expected.
Towards the end of the week, when we were both starting to feel a little nauseous routinely, we started to wonder if it could be the tap water. We weren’t experiencing the Trafalgar Two Step, but by that point we were eating so little, there weren’t many suspects left. So we just drank bottled or heated water. Did we have to? We have no idea -- but we were getting desperate. It was about day seven, and we felt the vacation slipping away. On Friday, we barely went out at all. We did what we could, not knowing what it was that was making us nauseous -- just knowing that it was something, and it was different than what we were used to.
At this point you might say well of COURSE its going to be different, and that what we saw was as close to being American and still be different as it was possible to be, and that’s true. And we didn’t make a Herculean effort to find good places to eat, so its possible that we passed dozens, hundreds every day. We just didn’t know how to find them, and having that question hanging over us each day -- are we going to find someplace decent today? -- got to be draining. It didn’t help that having this focus on food made us feel oh so American Tourist -- think pot bellied man with Hawaiian shirt and big camera. It wasn’t the way we wanted to be, but we didn’t know how to fix it.
We do now.
Next time, one suitcase will have soup, cheerios, and granola bars.
Not because of the city, which could captivate you for days, weeks, years.
But the food.
I should have known. I'm a picky eater, and the food is generally regarded as not the reason that people come to England.
Me, I think the food is why they won the Battle Of Britain.
If they can eat that food, that way, every day -- and like it -- they're way tougher than anything the Germans could throw at them.
By the last day, I was so tired (why do they give you just a heavy blanket (okay, a duvet ) for a room that with the AC running at full blast doesn't cool down past, oh, sixty degrees?) and so queasy (actually puked three times from lingering aftertastes), I would get out of breath walking twenty five feet. I was wasted. Pitiful.
I know that people from other counties look at what we cheerfully eat, and try not to gag. One Australian friend asked if we truly did eat something called 'peanut butter and jelly sandwiches'. Then again, she was the one who told me about Vegemite.
Don't get me wrong. London was great, and I'd go again.
But I'd bring Rice Krispies. Granola bars. And a portable fan.