It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst of Times

I don’t remember that I’ve ever actually read this Dickens classic. Must get to it one day I guess.

I was trying to estimate how many times I’ve flown to Europe over the years. I basically estimated an average of 3 trips a year over a 20-year period so probably somewhere between 55 – 70 trips. A lot of hang time.

Pretty straightforward business trip on this go-round. As these things go. Our hotel was the posh but overly pricey Intercontinental. Presumably the Clinic’s travel negotiators have doctors in mind when they choose hotels we are allowed to stay at—so our band of raucous IT hired geeks were more than comfortable.

Oh, and I got out just before Trump was meant to arrive. Secret Service and some other pre-arrival staff were wandering all over our hotel, which was just across the street from Buckingham Palace.

Stegner continues to impress. I sat and read so long on the mornings of my flight, outside on the patio with coffee, that I nearly forgot to pack for the trip. And so I did a poor job of it. But I made it in one piece—and I forgot what I forgot and will deal with it.

Wallace recounted a cute Arabian proverb, or anecdote, not sure which, but went something like:

If you ask a mule who is his father is, he will say, “My mother was a horse”.

Since I have not written consistently, I will capture a summary from my notes from the week in London. The trade-off for my increased reading time is less writing.

Overall, the weather was excellent for UK. A little rain on Tuesday, but otherwise surprisingly gentle weather for this part of the world. I managed two very nice runs around Hype Park, including around 5.5 miles or so on Monday and a shorter run of around 4 miles on Thursday morning. I got in a few really nice long walks and reacquainted myself with a some parts of the city. Thursday night I took the crew to the top of the Hilton for a drink at the rooftop bar there. They did not seem overly impressed as far as I could tell. Nice group of folks but mostly we are all very different.

Our immediate team did a good job this week, but the expanded team simply is not adequately prepared for the work we are doing. It is a big departure from their business-as-usual jobs and they are not as committed to supporting the project work as will be necessary if we are to be successful. It is an intractable problem that I am not sure how to get addressed. It’s difficult to tell leaders that their children are not as talented as they are led to believe. We live in an era where pats on the back are far more common than honest feedback and telling someone that doing the minimum is not acceptable is apparently not allowed.

I had some nice meals including two lovely dinners at Theo Randall in the hotel. Both experiences were sublime and exceptional. Definitely the best Italian food I have had in years, including in Italy last year. But London is like that. The Indian food here is the best in the world, save perhaps the old mothers cooking in the villages in the old style with their generations of family formulas for curry and garam masala.

I also had a nice dinner at another Italian place near Harrod’s. It was a traditional setting and menu; there was an old man wandering around checking in on people and singing Italian songs for short bursts of 15 – 20 seconds. Pace of dinner was slow and satisfying. I was reading during dinner and after finishing my coffee, I sat for another 15 minutes or so. When asked, I declined on dessert but asked for the check and the waiter asked why I was in a rush–enjoy your book he said. Like I said, traditional Italian goodness.

I only had one pub meal, and that was the lunch I had with Jay. I had a mushroom and beef pie with French fries. It was terrific seeing Jay again and getting caught up. He is such a good guy. He got me caught up on his family and his adventures—he just returned from Everest base camp with his daughter and his wife.

I am a haphazard packer when traveling. I generally bring things I don’t need and forget things I do. In this case, I left Wallace Stegner at home, on the counter. I am deeply engrossed in ‘The Spectator Bird’, but I suppose it will be there when I return. Yesterday I went to Waterstones—one of the premier bookstores in London. Five floors of books—they claim it is the largest bookstore in Europe and I cannot prove otherwise.

Anyway, in Spectator Bird, Stegner describes meeting Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) in Denmark and discussing with her the writing of her classic book ‘Out of Africa’. I had never read it and since it was on my mind from Stegner, decided it would be good to see if I could find a copy. As soon as I walked in to the bookstore, there it was, on a table with some other old classics. So I am reading that now. I’ve read ‘West With the Night’ a few times, and there are some rumors that suggest Isak Dinesen actually wrote that tale for Beryl Markham, or at least suggestively edited it, but I don’t know if it is true or not. Maybe I will be able to have an opinion after reading this book and compare the styles.

In an early chapter there is a passage about Isak’s houseboy, Farah, who was a Somali; he had a friend who was visiting the house of a family from another Somali tribe and a competing tribe walked by the house and fired two shots indiscriminately into the household and broke the leg of Farah’s friend. This would have been early 1900’s, so I guess a form of drive-by shooting from rival gangs has been going on for longer than I imagined.

Dinesen also has a grand description of a coquettish little deer (Lulu) that she rescued from some local boys. But in her description of the young female deer’s personality, I found the characterization eerily similar to how my ex acted out on her motivations and frustrations. This passage comes just after a description of how delicate and beautiful Lulu is, which sets a tone for the paradox of her behavior against her physical characteristics.

‘But Lulu was not really gentle, she had the so-called devil in her. She had, to the highest degree, the feminine trait of appearing to be exclusively on the defensive, concentrated on guarding the integrity of her being, when she was really, with every force in her, bent upon the offensive. Against whom? Against the whole world. Her moods grew beyond control or computation, and she would go for my horse, if he displeased her.

What struck me so solidly here was the habit of appearing to always be the victim and always on the defensive, while so elegantly and diligently plotting on the offensive. In my case, it was an impeccably effective strategy for which I had no rebuttal. It’s simply not the way I think nor do I believe I could even learn to adapt to that sort of disagreeable behavior without giving away the essential part of who I am. I will simply move along through life a bit wiser, but with the understanding that if I encounter this type again I will attempt to steer clear or be prepared to accept the consequences again; but of course the knowing of this trait does not always mean we will recognize it when we see it.

I caught up with an old friend of mine in London for a couple of pints; he occasionally makes racist statements, normally preceded by the comment that ‘I am not a racist’. We differ on many things politically. Like me, he is not easily categorized in the political lexicon. He is hawkish in defense matters—a big fan of George Bush and a supporter of the US led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He continues to believe Saddam Hussein had W’s of MD in spite of this being debunked many times. He is acutely aware of the cost of this war, mostly to the US, in lives, reputation, and dollars. Tony Blair was a supporter of course, and the English sent some troops, but the invasion happened because of Bush and Cheney Dickishness and generally being foreign policy bullies. So we resurrected this old debate briefly—he refuses to accept the facts of the case which suggest the cost of this pretentious folly far outweighed the benefit of ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Anyway, this thought came to my mind today because I read an interesting article in NY Times about a WWII veteran who had left behind a diary that his family found after his death. The diary had a harrowing account of the man’s participation in D-Day invasion of Normandy. It was heartbreakingly detailed and, for those of us who are so far removed from that war, a reminder of the brutality and mass slaughter.

It is also a reminder that many of the people’s of Europe today, are still vocally supportive of the US continuing to send troops all over the world in what they perceive as necessary wars while they themselves sit the wars out. Including WWII when so many European nations simply opened their borders to Hitler rather than defend themselves. Of course the US does not need cajoling to get into wars as we are damned good at starting wars without the advice of European nations—but still it galls me. It is particularly difficult to accept from so many people who have never themselves joined a military force, but are always quick to support military interventions with other people’s children and other countries’ resources.

The week in London was been a blur overall. I did not sleep well and work was very busy. UAT was a battle as we simply are not able to generate the sense of urgency and commitment required for an event this critical in our development life cycle. This test event was 10X easier than our next, so we have many difficulties ahead if we are to prepare our team for coming weeks and months.

 

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