Friday, September 28, 2007

London Journey: Part Six

Spaniards Inn

September 24, Hampstead Heath.

Bobbi and I traveled further afield than we have yet done…journeying to Hampstead Heath. The Heath is a giant tract of parkland overlooking the City of London from the North. Unfortunately, I was too silly to bring the camera, because it is truly an amazing place. Ringed by the hoary villages of Hampstead and Highgate (with its famous cemetery) the Heath is an amazing place…with huge panoramic views overlooking the sprawling London metropolis.The Heath

Dirk TurpinIt is also a bit scary. The famous highwayman Dirk Turpin haunted these hills, relieving travelers of jewelry- including sometimes, rings- finger and all. If I am not mistaken, it is here that Lucy’s Vampiric form stalked little children in Dracula (it’s been a while) and to this day, the guide books advise that it is best to stay off the Heath at night (more common criminals have replaced Highwaymen and Vampires, but the danger can still be real.)

Our walk around the west end of the heath was thus given a spicy bit of urgency as the Shadows began to lengthen.

Our goal was the Spaniards Inn…a 400 year old pub that stands near the edge of the Heath. One legend says that a Spanish Ambassador build this house far out of London to limit exposure to the Plague. In addition to playing host to the Villain Turpin, this inn has also played host to Shelly, Keats and Byron. Both Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker mention it in their novels.

We were there to meet Russell, who had arrived that morning on his own English adventure. He was traveling with the Ghost Tour and their guide had kindly allowed us to join them for dinner in the private upstairs dining room. The ghost hunters were a great group, and I hope that Bobbi and I can take Charles’ “Dracula Tour” to Romania at some point soon. Great dinner, good beer, and fine company…with a ghost story or two thrown in for good measure. Just what an English getaway should be.

London Journey: Part Five

September 23, 2007 Russell Square

Today, Bobbi’s school offered a tour of the city for foreign students. Our tour guide, Chris, did a terrific job showing us the ins and outs of the area surrounding the school. (All of the environs of the University of London- of which Bobbi’s school is a part- are actually owned by the Duke Of Bedford…still. Everyone, shopkeepers, solicitors, residents rent their property from him. Russell Square, the park Bobbi and I have used as a meeting place, is owned and named after the Duke as well…his family name is Russell.

Bedford square, above, is also named for, and is the property of, Mr. Russell, Duke of Bedford.

Of course, Bobbi fell instantly in love with the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene the moment she laid eyes on it. Not the least reason for this was the fact that the school adorned it's balconies with gold plated parasites...truly, Bobbi has come home!

I, on the other hand was unexpectedly overwhelmed with a sense of history when I noticed the inscription on the school's cornerstone.

We had a great time, and we even got a chance to introduce ourselves to some of Bobbi's fellow students. They were from Canada, South Africa, India, Asia, as well as the UK and the States. As we set out from the school, the tour guide issued a few words of wisdom: “London Drivers”, pronounced Chris, “are not known for their patience nor their kindness…so please be very careful when crossing the streets.”

I firmly believe this to be absolutely true, and it truly seems that Taxi drivers speed up if they see you step into the street. A couple of nights ago, we watched a Jamaican kid almost get clipped by a car on our street. He treated the retreating driver to some funny, filthy Caribbean curses.

Chris took us on a tour of London that included all the sites we expected to see…at long last, I knew that I was in LONDON and not just on some really long carefully preserved side-street in Philadelphia. We traveled though Trafalgar Square, and saw Nelson’s column, the old Admiralty Building and the Horse Guards Parade ground.

To me, as a student of history, this was breathtaking. In front of the Admiralty Building stood a statue of James Cook, the famous explorer of Hawaii, Australia, and the South Pacific. Lt. William Bligh was assigned command of the H.M.S. Bounty in this building. The effort to put down the American Rebellion at sea and the heroic struggle against Napoleon’s struggle for world domination were coordinated here. Winston Churchill, as first Lord of the Admiralty directed the war at sea against the Germans in two separate wars from here.

When we reached the Horse Guards Parade, tour-guide Chris issued us with a stern warning. “Now,” said Chris, “there will be guards on duty. Do me a favor. Don’t talk to ‘em, try to make ‘em smile, throw things at ‘em. I know what it’s like. You see, quite some time back, I was one of those guards, standing there with an 11 pound bearskin hat on my head. So just don’t do it. It’s not funny, it’s not big, and we’ve seen it all before, right?”

Another amazing moment was when we rounded a corner, and there, quite unexpectedly, was Westminster and the Giant Clock tower that houses Big Ben. Some people might think it’s hokey…but I’ve always completely understood that scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” where Jimmy Stewart is awestruck when he sees the capital dome for the first time. When you’ve read about something your entire life, to finally see it, real, tangible, and right in front of you is a breathtaking experience. When the object is as full of symbolism as the buildings which house the Mother of Parliaments and the wellspring from which began all that you hold dear about your own country, then it is truly electric.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

London Journey: Part Four

September 22- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Portobello Road

We found a store, much like IKEA, called Homebase, and bought a few necessities for the house- prices here are expensive. We have a washing machine in the flat, but no dryer (and no place outside to hang a line- besides, it’ll be winter soon anyway.) So we went looking for a simple wooden drying rack…nothing doing…the closest thing we could find was a metal one which ran us almost £20.00 (almost $40.00 American!) The rest of the trip was the same story…very expensive.

Today, we put in a call to Bobbi’s parents…Buffy has arrived safe, and sound, and is demanding affection. The “Little Princess” (as Bobbi’s mom calls Fluffy) seems to have figured out how to get the household running on a cat’s schedule…we’ll see how long that lasts- Bobbi’s mom is not one to be bullied for long!

It seemed like a weight had lifted from our shoulders and we finally felt free to go out and explore the world. We walked up to Notting Hill and then cut over to the Portobello Road Market. Wow. Everything in the world was on sale there from jewelry to women’s underwear with a Union Jack printed across the front.

We saw a t-shirt that had a picture of Hitler and a picture of Bush. The caption said: Same shit, different Asshole. Made me feel very proud to be an American.

There were fresh vegetables, and toys, kilts, leather, vintage clothing, and even a WOOLWORTHS…we were very glad to find this, as the prices were, by London standards, very reasonable…we were able to buy some knives for the kitchen as well as some pillows and a role of “sello-tape” (apparently, the British answer to “Scotch” tape back in the States--- now that I’ve seen “SelloTape” , the “SPELLO-tape” jokes in Harry Potter make more sense than they did before.)

London Journey: Part Three

September 21st, Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington

Well, we’ve settled in and visited our local Tesco (one of the country’s major supermarket chains). This was an interesting experience to be sure. About half the brand names in the store are recognizable (and so, I’m trying to stay away from them where possible- I have no desire to spend a year eating and drinking stuff I can get in the States.) But the other half of the inventory is…well…foreign.

There is also one very bitter fact which we can not find away around. Because of the popularity of Tea- the old world leaf- the habit of drinking coffee, so rich and robust at home, has atrophied here to almost nothing. Coffee in the United Kingdom would seem to have become a pale and shadowy reflection of it’s robust New World Self.

In fact, the only whole bean coffee you can buy in the store is from Starbucks and there is NO ground coffee ala Maxwell House or Chock Full o’ Nuts here whatsoever. All they have is Nescafe…unlike at home, where it comes in the glass jar suitable for emergences- something that you offer only with utmost embarrassment (“sorry, I’ve only got instant” you say. And your guest says, nine times out of ten, “oh…well, that’s okay…I don’t need coffee. Have you got a pistol so I can shoot myself?”) here, Nescafe Instant comes in every conceivable flavor and size container…no wonder the British don’t seem to like coffee…they haven’t been drinking it.

Also, Cream, or Half-and-Half, simply does not exist. At all. Period. Not even in the many Starbucks which proliferate here (coffee, like a springtime plant, is trying to push it’s poor little head above the soil), so, at least to my way of thinking, it is simply not possible to get a GOOD cup of coffee here. The best you can hope for is an adequate cup from Starbucks (thus forcing me to break my rule about products from home) flavored with … milk.

I have to admit, this absence of cream really surprised me. This is the land, after all, which gave us the names of most of our American Milk Cows- Jerseys and Herefords- they all come from here. So do many of our favorite cheeses, such as cheddar. James Harriet was always sticking his fist up a cow’s butt here in the All Creatures Great and Small series…so I guess I had just naturally sort of suspected this country to be a cream haven. After all, you have to put SOMETHING in your tea.

But it is all and only…milk.

In fact, when I asked the clerk for cream at Tesco, he lead me first to Carnation Sweetened Condensed, and then, when that didn’t serve, brought me to canned coconut milk. It just doesn’t exist here.

This morning, we negotiated the Tube for the first time…taking it from Sheppard’s Bush to Russell Square (which meant a change in lines- we truly are diving in with both feet!) which is the station nearest Bobbi’s school. As we waited for orientation to begin, we found ourselves setting in Russell park- a wonderful green space dominated by stately trees with plenty of benches and…wonder of wonder…trash cans! (Bobbi has decided that we will have to keep note of where all the trash cans are in the city, so that, like squirrels, we’ll always have an idea of where to go in an emergency.)

The parks here all full of pigeons, just like at home and huge stately trees that have had centuries to achieve their grace. Except for the age of a few of the buildings, this city has a similar to feel to some of the older parts of Boston or Philadelphia- so, unless you happen to be looking directly at something quintessentially British (like the lions outside of the British Museum) it doesn’t feel anywhere near as exotic as you’d expect.

Sitting on the benches and watching the world walk by, you begin to get the impression that the British Empire is now working in Reverse. Instead of English Families traveling out to India, Africa, the Caribbean or Hong Kong…those places and many, many more seem to be sending people streaming into the United Kingdom. In fact, I have to say the accent I seem to hear the least of in England is English. The whole world, it feels, is pouring into London.

Back in our own neighborhood, Bobbi and I have been pleased to find the open arms of our Local Pub, the Kensington. Because the bureaucracy of the British utility services is all but unbelievable…while at home, Verizon can take two interminable days to solve a simple problem, BT (British Telecom) can take two weeks…we are without ways to communicate with the outside world from our flat.

The Kensington solves the problem for us. Not only do they offer free wireless internet access (all you gotta do is buy a pint!) , but there are phone booths just down the corner. International calling cards are cheep here- I’ve called the States three or four times on mine and used £2.00. Meanwhile, our local calls to the London Animal Reception Centre, where Buffy is being held, run us about £1.00 per minute.

Buffy, by the way, seems to be doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances, and, as only Buffy can, is making fast friends under the most adverse of circumstances. When we called the Animal Reception Centre to check on him, the lady said: “Oh, you mean the little ginger fellow with all the extra toes? Oh, yes, he is absolutely darling.” Bobbi’s folks have come through, yet again, and will drive to Boston on Friday afternoon to pick up the little fellow, who, Lord Willing, will arrive safely. Both Bobbi and I are quite worried about him and really won’t be fully able to relax and take all of this in until we know he is safe and sound again.

The Kensington is a wonderfully warm place, nice big couches, cozy little tables, fireplaces (not lit), and of course, warm beer. It doesn’t seem as bad, however, when you are sitting in your local pub drinking a pint of London Pride while checking your email and trying to keep in touch with the world. The only thing that is missing are friends and family to share it.

We’ve also met our landlords. Tanya and Leoneid are Russians who left the Soviet Union as soon as possible after the walls came down, whereupon they moved to Australia and stayed for 17 years. This makes for a very interesting accent…mostly Aussie on top, but with a heavy bedrock of Slavic tones. Again…the only accent you don’t seem to hear here is an English one.

Leonied commiserated with us about the fact the BT couldn’t even seem to find our flat on the map, but was careful not to go too far into politics. “I don’t vant to ovened anyone, but I tink ve who lived in the kummunist kun-trees, ve tend to be more conservative dan most people here, I tink.”

I have to say that I expect to come back to the States with a better appreciation for the free market…but I’m not quite ready to join Alan Greenspan (who’s book I just bought in a British Bookshop) in completely chucking out Keynesian theory.

In most areas of the city we’ve been to, there seems to be an awful lot of urban renewal. The British have just been through their own real-estate boom, and the big story here is the collapse of Northern Rock and the moves by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, to begin instituting the kind of Bank regulation that FDR put in place back in the thirties. The British have just narrowly avoided what could have been a disastrous blow, a result of back room dealings between unregulated bankers. Meanwhile, at home, the Republicans continue to press for LESS government restriction. It seems insane until you reflect that British brokers in the know made billions of pounds off this recent disaster.

Journey to London: Part Two

September 20th, London

We awoke as the pilot turned the cabin lights on and the steward asked: “would you like tea or coffee?” God, what a terribly British question, I thought. Ground time in London was 6:30 am, but by our internal clocks, still set to Eastern Time, it was not quite 2:00 in the morning. “Tea” just wasn’t going to cut it, and you’d think any one with half a brain could see that.

Seated in the middle aisle of the plane, I got just the briefest glimpse of Wales over the wing before we began our final decent into Heathrow. Finally, we were down with a pretty substantial couple of bumps. Wonder how the cats took that, I thought.

Upon exiting the aircraft, we found ourselves walking through what seemed miles and miles of featureless concourses going nowhere. Finally, we arrived at the end of a very, very, very long line. We could hear the crisp British accents of a prerecorded announcement telling us to “please fill out your landing card. Please follow the appropriate signs. Please fill out the card in English.” Probably, the people who designed this area hadn’t thought that people would be cued up half as long as they were, because the same short message repeated over and over again until we thought we’d loose our minds.

Finally, after about an hour and a half of waiting in the long snake-like line, we arrived at the desk of the customs agent, a small blond girl about 20 years old. She took a quick look at our passports, stamped them, and we were officially in the United Kingdom. We proceeded to collect our luggage (many bags DO look alike, so chose something distinctive to mark yours with!) and then we tried to grab a quick cup of coffee. The lines however, were far too long.

Still, we had a few pieces of paper and wrappers we wanted to get rid of, and I went looking for the nearest trash bin. And that’s when I discovered something curious about the British that I’d never known from simply reading their history and watching their TV.

The British don’t seem to believe in trash.

I walked from one end of Heathrow to the other, and couldn’t seem to find a single, solitary rubbish container. Not even in the restroom. Very odd, I thought. I’d never really thought about it before, but in the States, we put trash cans about every fifty feet and shopping malls and airports are practically CRAWLING with them. Not here, however, it would seem.

Next we walked outside, and I knew for sure that we really were in England. For, at the taxi stand were not the traditional yellow autos of American fame, but instead the big black old fashioned looking cabs from the movies- wow! Now, we are really here.

Our driver threaded us through streets, alleys and access roads as we navigated an airport even larger than Logan. Finally, we arrived at a dull drab non-descript building called the “Animal Reception Centre” Little did we know then what a large and unpleasant role this place would play in our lives.

As we got out of the taxi, and tipped the driver 20% .When he saw the amount, he said: “are you sure?” Then after we started to walk away, he looked a bit sheepish, and called back to us: “Luk, uhm, you’ve joost given me a very generous tip, so I want ter give ya a bit of advice…you don’t need to tip so much here, and yu’ve got ter remember that our money is more expensive than yours. Here, 10% is good.” We thanked him for his advice, said goodbye and waved him off like an old friend. (When you are 3081 miles from home, everybody who is nice to you for five minutes starts to feel like family- it is important to remember that they don’t always feel the same way.)

As we walked up to the Animal Reception Centre, a very official lady in a uniform approached us. “Are you the Pr---‘s?” she asked.

“Yes, we have two cat’s we’re here to pick up.”

“Right. Uhm, I wanted to talk with you about that actually.” She must have seen the fear immediately rise in our faces, for she quickly continued: “They’re fine…they’re both fine…but uhm, Buffy, is it? Buffy’s paperwork doesn’t seem to be in order and I wonder if we could talk to you about it.”

Well, it seemed that, while Buffy had had all of the appropriate vaccinations and microchip implants, they had not been done in the correct order. Buffy had had an up to date Rabies shot, and it seems that, despite reading the paperwork, our friendly Vermont Vet didn’t feel that it was necessary for him to have another.

The British are quite strict about this. They have no rabies on their Island, and they are determined to keep it that way. The country has only recently ended the mandatory sixth month quarantine for all incoming pets.

It was decided that there was enough ambiguity about Buffy’s paper work that it was decided that we would wait until our Vet’s office opened at nine and see if they could sort the whole thing out. It was 8:30am in London which meant that it was 3:20am Eastern inside of our very tired and frightened heads and that we would be waiting in the Animal Reception Centre’s Reception Area until 2:00.

Despite a water fountain, some overstuffed couches, some outdated magazines and a very expansive view of a fuel dump across the road, the waiting room at the Animal Reception Centre is not quite as pleasant a place is it might sound. And signs warned us that it could be more unpleasant still: “The Animal Reception Centre has a ZERO tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and police will be summoned.”

My guess is that many overwrought Australians have pitched shit-hissy fits when they found they couldn’t import their dingoes that the City of London found it necessary to post the sign. Thank God we Americans have a better reputation for politeness and understanding.

And so, with out much hope, and worried sick about Buffy (the stress of the trip in the car had exhausted both Buff and Izzy- we could only imagine how much more the plane may have terrified- this was the reason we had decided not to risk Fluffy in travel- but at 12, Buffy is no spring chicken either and we were very worried. Bobbi doesn’t cry…ever…but I think she was close) we huddled up together on the couch and tried to get a little sleep.

As morning slowly turned into afternoon, people came and went…the average wait seemed to be about 2 to 3 hours. Most people avoided us like we had some bureaucratic plague for most of their stay…but often, just before they took their pets and left, they would come over, ask us a few questions and express sympathy.

At long last, 2pm came, and so did the lady from the quarantine center…bringing the worst possible news: Buffy would not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom. Our options were simple…we could send him back to Boston (where we had no family or close friends within 200 miles) or we could keep him locked up in quarantine for six months.

We were, of course, boiling with unanswered questions: how could we do this? Who could we ask for such a massive favor (please drive 4 to 5 hours to Boston, wait in customs, collect our cat, and, if he survived the trip, take him to Bobbi’s parents in Albany), and most importantly, would the little guy make it back across the Atlantic Ocean safely and, if not, how the hell would we live without Buffy in the world?

Virgin Airlines and the Animal Reception Centre lady told us that we could take the rest of the day to sort out the details and let them know. Animal Reception Centre was also quite kind about not being too strict on Buffy’s 48 hour stay- if it ran over by half a day because of the flight, we were not to worry.

The only answer possible to our dilemma slowly presented itself. We would have to ask Bobbi’s long suffering and kind hearted parents if they would take the day, drive to Boston, and pick up the cat for us.

We collected Izzy, who had buried herself beneath the shredded newspaper the airlines had placed in her cage, and waited for the “mini-cab” that Virgin had called for us. (There are two types of taxi in London, we learned. The licensed big Black ones, and then private taxis called mini-cabs. These are less expensive than the official ones, but can be a bit sketchy since just anyone can drive one. They are not “mini” in size, however, most being regular full sized sedans…they are, however much smaller than the massive Black cabs…the back seats of which are large enough to accommodate a wheelchair!)

Our trip through London was, for me, quite hair-raising. Although I’d been intellectually prepared for driving on the left, the idea of doing it at high speeds in heavy traffic was a bit like riding a roller coaster…not my favorite activity. Bobbi had an even more stimulating experience…she sat in the front of the cab in what would have been the drivers seat…doing nothing as she hurtled down the wrong side of the road into heavy traffic.

London is, of course, very old, and one of our guidebooks pointed out that, unlike many Continental cities, London never really tore itself down to rebuild with broad boulevards and avenues…thus, like Boston, there are no straight lines and very few wide streets…wherever a cow happened to look for a bite of grass in 1066, that is where they put the road. This resulted in amazingly tiny streets, which Londoners hurtle down with complete nonchalance. Although there is no room for two way traffic, it is permitted, and one car must give way to the other…it’s interesting to watch the organic way in which it all seems to happen.

We found our apartment and were pleasantly surprised. It is a wonderful neighborhood, clean streets, and big white rows of houses...inside, we found hardwood floors, nine foot windows, and a spacious kitchen and bedroom. The spare room, which we are using as an office, is a bit small…so when people come to visit us, they’ll have to be prepared.

We let poor little Izzy out of the cage, where she had been huddled like a miserable little black puddle of what had once been cat, and she immediately poured herself out of the cage and under the bed.

We were happy with the apartment, and excited to be in London, but the pall of having been separated from Buffy, not even being allowed to see him, and having no real idea how he would get home, or what shape he’d be in when he arrived, hung over us and kept us from being truly able to relax and enjoy.

Journey to London: Part One

September 19th. Boston

After driving to Boston, Bobbi and I spent the night at the airport Hampton Inn, where Izzy took the opportunity to take a last look at America. After several confusing days of being shoved into cages, dragged out of cages, and driven much further distances than they’d every been before, the hotel was a nice respite for the cats. Buffy found a sunbeam and Izzy curled up on Bobbi’s keyboard while she worked.

Check out was about three hours before the cats were due at the Cargo Depot, and so we had some time to kill. For years, I had seen the Bunker Hill monument peaking out from (what looks to be from the interstate) Boston’s drab urban landscape as I drove South on I-93. I decided that the appropriate thing to do, upon leaving the States for the Mother Country, was to visit the memorial of this first pitched battle of the American Revolution.

By coincidence, I’d picked up a copy of “Patriots” by A.J. Langguth. I highly recommend this book to any one who is looking for a relatively short, highly readable account of the American Revolution. What makes this book particularly useful is that Langguth starts his work in 1761 and spends the first 250 pages on the time and events that occur BEFORE the outbreak of fighting in 1775.

John Adams is often quoted as saying that the Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people (rather than simply something executed by the military) and this book does a great job of explaining how the people of Massachusetts spent the 15 years before the revolution gaining control of the colony’s legislature, town meeting and judgeships, so that they were able to be in constant conflict with the colony’s governors. I’ve heard scholars say that the American Revolution was actually completed before the Revolutionary War and I now have a greater understanding of what they mean.

At any rate, on the day of our departure, I just happened to have reached the chapter on the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was a bit more complicated than I’d always pictured it (I always just pictured the British charging up the hill to be shot in the white’s of their eyes, falling back, and regrouping to charge again) and I was curious to see what the battlefield looked like today.

Sadly, there is absolutely nothing left of the field itself…what was meadows and cow paths in 1775 is now covered by some of the densest urban growth in North America. The area has been build up right to the edge of the top of the hill, which alone has been kept clear.

Bobbi was glad she had come, however, because what had always looked so drab and dreary from the interstate proved to be a very charming collection of old buildings from past centuries and a very pleasant place to wonder around in for an hour or so, even if you didn’t particularly share your husband’s fascination with the war of independence.

We decided against climbing the Obelisk, because we knew that we’d have to do plenty of walking and standing in the next 48 hours and the first hundred steps were a doozy. We did, however, cross the street to the museum, where I found myself wishing that I had a lot more money and a lot more room in my luggage for both books and DVDs…I was short, however, on both. Still, there was a very detailed 3-D model of the battle which answered a lot of my questions.

I’ve also been inspired to ask more, however. The geography of Boston has changed so very much in the last 200 years- it seems that the amount of land that the city sits on has almost doubled since then, while great rivers and bays have shrunk to almost nothing. I’m sure that there have been several mighty reclamation projects…but I know nothing about them, and couldn’t find out much on a quick search through Wikipedia- so I’m looking forward to learning more when I get home.

After bidding farewell to Bunker Hill National Park, we turned around and headed for the Virgin Airlines Cargo Depot. This was quite an education in the “back stage” operations of an airport I thought I knew. Logan and it’s surrounding environs is huge…and Bobbi and I found ourselves driving through a maze of massive fuel tank farms, warehouses, and depots…because there was no need to impress customers with “brand” all were old and strictly functional, not a stitch of beauty to be seen. It was a somewhat foreboding place to be bringing two much loved pets.

Still, the folks at Virgin Cargo were very nice, and one man came over to introduce himself and say hello to the cats- he took a special shine to Buffy and opened his wallet to show us why. Inside, he carried a picture of another ginger colored cat with many toes. Apparently, this cat of his had passed on, and he missed it very much. “I’ll be taking care of these little guys until it’s time to go,” he said, “I’ll give them food and water and I’ll put them on the plane myself and make sure the captain knows they are there.”

And sure enough, when we boarded the plane, there he was, waiting for us in the entry way- “They’re all set,” he said, “they have had food and water and I’ve tied their crates in safely.” It was a really nice gesture and I think Virgin does a very good job at making people feel at ease.

The rest of the flight was uneventful…the young faces, sharp uniforms and British accents of the flight crew were just a little more upbeat than what I’ve become used to on domestic flights. While American flight crews have morphed from the “sirens of the skies” of the 60s and 70s into the rounder, older, more comfortable shape of the airborne diner waitress- this hip young crew retained a bit of the old glamour…but just a bit…it was not to be denied that we were still eating freeze-dried food with plastic forks, that the seats were only about 8 inches wide, and that our fellow passengers were dressed in pink sweat pants and grubby t-shirts. This flight was not going to be a scene from an old James Bond film- that was for sure.

The evening had one more bit of awakening for me…when presented with my beverage choices, I chose a “Stella”. Known in the States as a somewhat highfalutin, overpriced beer, which I’ve always heard referred to by it’s full name: “Stella Ar-twaw”, apparently this beer occupies a somewhat different place on the shelf in the UK where it, seems to be completely ubiquitous and is known with slightly more affection as “Stella.”

Of course, the damn thing was piss warm. Welcome to Britain, I thought.

After dinner, I got out the diary that Darcy had given me as a wedding present…among other things, I wrote: “I wish had some deep and profound thoughts on leaving my country (and my continent) for the first time…but I don’t. I’m glad I’m with Bobbi, and I’m a little nervous about how everything is going to work out, and I’ll be glad when I have my cats safe and sound again.”

Somewhere over the Atlantic, we fell asleep.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Man On the Street: Vermont Style

Last night, I wandered down to Club Metronome for the Obama 08 Rally. I arrived a little late, but got there in time to hear Jeb Spaulding, Vermont's State Treasurer and Vermont's Attorney General William Sorrell, fresh from victory in the Auto Emissions case explain why they were supporting Barack Obama for President.

Just a few days ago, Philip Baruth mentioned that either man would "[give] us easily twice as much Governor for our money as we currently get."

The reasons for supporting Barack Obama, according to Sorrell, included his high intelligence, an comprehensive understanding of America's place in the world, an acknowledgment of the grave threats to our environment, and his deep and abiding respect for the Constitution of the United States.

A president with those qualities, I thought. Wouldn't THAT be a refreshing change.

I also enjoyed watching Audio Dream Cohort and fellow Blogger Neil Jensen do himself proud in his role as Master of Ceremonies. He looked good up there. I also got a chance to plot further with Philip Baruth about what might be next for Audio Dream Theater...and how, exactly, we will overcome the challenges of producing it once I am in London.

But, I have to admit, deep within my hammy actor's heart, the best moment for me was when I felt someone tap my shoulder.

"Are you with the Campaign" asked the young lady standing next to the TV camera.

"No", I laughed, "But I learned along time ago that if you wear a white shirt and a blue blazer to these things, people THINK you are more important than you really are."

She laughed and nodded..."Well, do you mind if we interview you anyway?"


"Don't look directly into the light", said Kate Duffy of Channel Three. It was good advice, because the bar was dark and once the cameraman turned the light on...I felt like I was standing in the path of an on coming train.

The camera's ran. I babbled...and this morning, I went to the WCAX website...and there I am playing my latest role...Alex Ball- as "The Man On the Street"....

Nearly 100 people packed Burlington bar Metronome on Wednesday night -- not for a party, but a politician: Barack Obama, a Democrat for president.

"I didn't want to start paying attention to the campaign this early," said Alex Ball, an Obama supporter from Burlington. "I really didn't. But every time I turned around the guy was just grabbing my attention."

It was a lot of fun. You can read the rest of my moment in the sun at WCAX's website. The story is here:

Of course, it was also a bitter sweet moment. I think Vermont's Obama crowd is going to have a LOT of fun this year...and I think that Democrats are going really feel like celebrating on Election Night 2008. I'm really sorry that I won't be around for the party.

PS- Channel 3 has posted the video- there are also great shots of Bob Boylard (of the House of Lemay), Philip Baruth, and a few other familar faces, too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Signs of Peace on the Market Place

For many years to come, September 12th will be a day dedicated to reviewing what happened the day before. It will be strewn with artifacts from September 11th far into the foreseeable future.

Today, the Church Street Market Place is strewn with leftovers from yesterday's demonstrations marking 9-11.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the political climate in Burlington, the most prominent leftovers are peace signs, hurriedly scribbled on the brick street.

While I don't disagree with the underlying symbolism, I was very sad to see that people found it necessary to deface public property in order to make their point about George W. Bush's war.

I was sitting near the top of Church Street this morning, drinking my coffee, and I watched a Marketplace employee pull up his cleaning cart, pour some water over one of the poorly executed peace symbols and scrub hard with a bristle brush for a few moments. It quickly became clear that this piece of graffiti would not wipe away easily.

As he was driving away, presumably to collect a heavier arsenal of cleaning products, I asked him what he was going to have to do to remove the peace sign. "Well, probably, I'm going to have to use acid," he said. "The chalk ain't so bad, but when they use crayons or paints, it just soaks right into these old bricks."

Acid! I thought. And then I imagined the barefoot toddlers who would be running in and out of the fountain and across those acid covered bricks once the sun had climbed higher in the sky.

And how long, I asked, will it take to clean these up? "Oh, let's see, I've been at it since around seven this morning...it's almost 10 now, and I still haven't got too far...so, well, at least longer than three hours."

I suppose someone could look at these peace signs and think: "Cool. No matter how hard THE MAN scrubs, the truth won't rub out."

But I can't see it that way. All I could think of was the money we as a city were paying for this labor...we could have put it toward a band, or housing subsidies, or urban renovation.

But why not let the message stand? Of course the answer to that seems easy to me- but I'll be obvious...if you have the right to scribble peace signs, what would prevent someone else from scribbling swastikas?

"With great power comes great responsibility." Sure, it's a line from a Spiderman movie, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Being right is pretty powerful stuff...but with that, of course, comes responsibility. Attempting to spread a message of truth by putting graffiti on public property doesn't add to that power...it only detracts.

To put it another way...Adults take a stand and do something...very little children write on walls.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nature: Red in Tooth and Claw

When I'm bored, under worked, or as is the case today too overtired to work no matter how much stuff I have to do, I'm inclined to Google random images just to look at the pictures.

Today, I Googled "Jaws Movie" and came up with the image at right.

The article, in the Daily Mail, was about a BBC crew filming in South Africa.

But it was the comment string that made me think that I had stumbled on something worthy of a blog post.

A sampling:

I love wildlife but cant watch this programme its so bloodthirsty and sad. Why do they concentrate on the unpleasant aspects of nature?- Jm, surrey

Awsome, poor old seal, but hey thats nature. Swam with 11ft nurse sharks in Jamaica a few weeks ago, really swam, no cage, just snorkel and flippers. Would love to go to South Africa and go down in a cage with great whites.

- Sharon, Chelmsford

Well I for one have got fed up with wildlife programmes, however long it takes to film them. They always end up with something eating something else.

- Jennifer, Interlaken Switzerland

Quite what some people think animals should do for survival is beyond me! Perhaps the shark should have known better and picked up the phone to order a vegetarian take-away...?

- Cara, Surrey

People who are offended by nature have to understand that this is how the animal world is. Something is ALWAYS eating something else, and the animal world is an unpleasant place. Period. The law of the jungle dictates that everything gets eaten at some point.

- Steve, USA

Have we really lost touch of what life is? I mean seriously folks, like a previous post stated... it's nature. Raw and uncut. Oh, has the animal world rubbed your political correct world and sensibility the wrong way... poor sheeple. Why you get upset at what is an obviously natural thing is beyond me. Wildlife programs need to focus on human beings, show some of the dramatic victim/predator situations there, but no - some people can't even stand real animals, let alone there own kind.

Hah! Travel a little more and you'll see real life in all it's raw and uncut horrible beauty.

- ~Z~, Stow, USA

Wow... we have gotten so far away from Nature, and what it is. When I read some of the comments above, I finally am able to understand the rise of the radical right. A dynamic you can almost see playing itself out in this little coment string.

It underscores that those of us who are on the center and the left need to learn to keep a close grasp on reality at all times.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

McDonald's Coffee and the Tort Reform Case

I was just having a discussion with a conservative contact about if and why the American Middle Class is eroding.

My acquaintance fell back on the argument of "Tort Reform".
  1. "Liberal Judges, " wrote my friend, "now use their bench to rule against
    big corporations in stupid lawsuits to the tune of millions of dollars, and it's
    no wonder companies are going out of business or moving out of the country.

    When some dumbass woman gets awarded (it's been appealed) millions of
    dollars because she:

    a. voluntarily bought McDonald's coffee
    b. set
    it on her dashboard above the steering wheel
    c. engaged the transmission and
    sped off
    d. dumped hot coffee on her lap, through no fault of McDonalds

    ...then it's no wonder we're losing what you say is the middle class. I read
    an article that said Tort reform would do more to return good, high paying jobs
    to America than any other thing."

I have to admit that the McDonald's coffee case of 1992 had always stuck me as the best argument against "frivolous" lawsuits. And it's certainly hit home with many Americans...becoming a part of our ideological landscape (for example, I had forgotten that the case was almost 20 years old...it still feels fresh.)

But in discussing the issue with my contact, I decided to go to Wikipedia and bone up on the case (because this is not a scholarly forum, I didn't feel the need to seek a more authoritative source, but they can be found in the reference section of this wikipedia article.)

It is at:

Like my corrispondent, I had always assumed (for no good reason) certain facts about the case.

I'd always thought that:
1) The woman was young.
2) That the woman was actually driving
3) That the woman was doing something inherently stupid and unsafe (such as the detail that my conservative friend adds in his email about the coffee being on the dashboard...where did THAT come from?)

Here are the facts of the case as outlined by wikipedia:

Background of the case
On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-thru of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.[7]

Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin as she sat in the puddle of hot liquid for over 90 seconds, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.[8] Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.[9] She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. Two years of treatment followed.

Attempts to settle
Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for US$20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured." McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000.[4]

Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.[4]

McDonald's refused to settle perhaps because, though there had been numerous lawsuits alleging that hot coffee was "defectively manufactured," courts had consistently dismissed the cases before trial on the grounds that coffee burns were an open and obvious danger.

Upon closer reflection, it becomes kind of an eyeopener, huh?

Perhaps Republicans are really so set on "Tort Reform" because most tort lawyers tend to give money to the Democratic Party? Could that be it? Hmmmmm.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

What a Summer- Wow!

It has been an amazingly busy summer. I've gotten married, sold my house, moved my worldly goods and plotted how to best transfer my business from the corporeal world into cyberspace.

My fiancee has been away for the year, serving a fellowship with a major medical institution...somewhere around last Christmas, they offered her a job.

However, an MD and four years of residency was obviously not enough, and so they want to send her to the United Kingdom for a year to receive specialized training.

Since we've had MORE than enough time apart this last year, we decided that I would go with her. We also decided that we had waited long enough, and so, this summer we tied the knot. (Thanks to Heather at Gourmet Knitting Disaster for the photos.)

Now, with the move complete, we are awaiting our departure date.

While I'm excited to spend a year in the UK, the prospect of leaving my beloved Vermont for three years is not a welcome one.

After all, Vermont is truly unique...in addition to being the only state that George W. Bush has not visited, despite the fact that it has a proportionally high number of it's citizens serving in his Iraqi War; it is also one of the few places in the country where democracy really seems to work. One of the reasons for this, I believe, lies in the fact that those who hold office are never far from those who send them into office.

An example: A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on Church Street eating my lunch and reading the newspaper. The front page article (picked up from the AP, so, a national story) detailed the terrier-like efforts of the Senate Judiciary Committee to call all of the President's Men (and some of his women) to justice. This committee is, of course, lead by our own Senator Patrick Leahy.

As I put down my paper, I glanced over and saw a tall man with a shiny pate walking alongside his wife. "My god," I thought, "that's Pat Leahy."

The last time I met Pat Leahy was in my recording studio when he, his wife Marcelle, and the late and much missed Liz Jeffords recorded the audio for what Philip Baruth rightly calls "The Best Campaign ad of 2006" on behalf of Peter Welch.

It was a special occasion. Liz Jeffords and my grandparents struck up a friendship, over the years- partially because they were neighbors, and partially because they often met in the doctors office while both Liz and my grandma battled illness. This friendship is, in itself, a typically Vermont story: the wife of a US Senator on a first name basis with a retired factory supervisor and his wife, a retired school district secretary.

Senator Leahy took some photos of the occasion, and I was really hoping to get a copy to send to my grandparents. But, in the confusion of the election, and the shift of power to the Democrats, my little packet was forgotten.

But, as I sat there on Church Street, watching the United States Senator waiting for his wife outside of a clothing shop (just like any other married man), I thought to myself: "Alex, you'll never have a better chance."

So I went over and introduced myself. I complimented the Senator on his performance in Washington, and was treated to a gleeful analysis of the situation. (For a detailed conversation with the Senator, don't miss Baruth's interview.) I explained what I was hoping for and the Senator wrote some information down on the back of my business card.

The next morning, I received a message on my machine...not from an intern, or even a staffer, but a message from the Senator himself- explaining what happened to the photos and letting me know that he'd send me a copy when he returned to Washington.

This, then, is Vermont. I am a man with no great role to play in industry or commerce, with no piles of money to contribute to campaigns; I am, in fact, a man who is completely anonymous to all but his friends and family. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I can imagine no other state in the Union where a man like me rates a personal phone call from a United States Senator.

But I got it.

Am I going to miss Vermont? You Bet.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Newt Gingrich- A Video Worth Watching

A neo-conservative contact of mine, and a great fan of Newt Gingrich, sent out a link to the following video this morning. I think that it is worth watching.
Gingrich here, and in other places, states the case in a fairly rational way that those of us who are of a secular frame of mind cannot even fathom the depths to which a religious mind will go in the service of it's conviction.
He also makes the point that not many in the Islamic world (and no prominent figures) have spoken out against the kind of terrorist acts we have seen from the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The video is worth watching, because, in my opinion Gingrich is addressing an ugly reality that we on the left refuse to confront: that Islamic Terrorism is insanely real...and was, even before our disastrous detour into Iraq.
Set through the pre-role ad and watch the snippet of the speech here.
Gingrich also warns those of us who care about Civil Liberties. "Those of you who care about Civil Liberties had better be thinking through how we win this war, before the casualties get so great that the American People Voluntarily give up those liberties."
Gingrich makes a very true point- following the loss of an American city, he says, we will chuck our Freedoms aside so fast our heads will spin.
What frightens me about Gingrich, of course, is that this might be his "Mien Kampf" moment- given his remarks in New Hampshire in 2006, which I posted on back in June.
An excerpt from that post:

“This is a serious long term war, and it will inevitably lead us to want to
know what is said in every suspect place in the country, that will lead us to
learn how to close down every website that is dangerous, and it will lead us to
a very severe approach to people who advocate the killing of Americans and
advocate the use of nuclear of[sic] biological weapons.”

Newt Gingrich is seriously proposing that we: "adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break
up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill

In effect, Newt is saying, we are going to need to place Freedom of Speech in a sort of Blind Trust, until we win the war on Terror.

That Newt Gingrich faces truths that most of us liberals would like to ignore makes him worth listening to now and again. That Newt Gingrich may well find himself in a position to "protect" us from those truths he addresses makes in imperative that we guard against him.


Video: http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/08/08/gingrich/index.html#cnnSTCVideo

Gingrich Post: http://rip-and-read.blogspot.com/search?q=Gingrich