In the Land of Beefeaters and Burberry

Marge and Pete say hello to Beefeater BearWe spent last week in London and had a great time doing all the tourist things, such as posing for this picture with “Beefeater Bear” at the Tower of London. The exchange rate was murderous and, truth be told, nobody ever goes to England for the food. But we knew those things going in and didn’t let them bother us.

London is a city I could live in. I’m not sure I’ve ever said that about any other city. Perhaps it’s because so many people here in Maine are of British descent, but the faces on London streets seemed familiar to me. By the standards of mainstream America, the English, like most of us native to Maine, are plain in appearance. Walking around Phoenix a few years ago, I found myself in a world where it seemed that everyone except me had perfect hair, perfect white teeth, an unlined face, a perfect physique. And practically no history. Just about everyone I met in Phoenix had come from somewhere else. In London, just about everyone I met came from families that had lived in England forever.

The difference this makes is more than mere seniority. When you visit a place like Phoenix (or Tulsa, where I once lived for five years) you are frequently asked how you like the place. There is no verdict of history because there just isn’t enough history. Even the casual opinions of tourists carry some weight in defining the worth of the place.

In contrast, no one in London asked us how we liked the city. Instead they asked if we were enjoying our visit. The question was about us, not about the place. With more than 2,000 years of recorded history, London knows what it is. Now that I know a little about it, too, I can’t wait to visit again.

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder beat me to the title, of course, but the storyline is delivered year after year in these parts. Today’s storm was a real beauty – something like nine inches of new snow followed by about two inches of rain on top of it. We have had, fortunately, the luxury of not having to go anywhere today.

That wasn’t always the case for me.

Something about the particular unpleasantness of today’s weather reminded me of a Christmas night long ago. It was about 1970, I think, and I was in the Air Force, stationed at Pease AFB in New Hampshire. Halfway around the world, the Vietnam War raged endlessly on. Marge and I were practically newlyweds then, and we lived in a small off-base apartment. The whole arrangement was surreal. The Air Force was basically a crappy job I wasn’t allowed to quit. Every workday morning, I’d climb into my uniform (or “costume” – the lifers hated to hear us call it a “costume”) and drive to the base. From 7 to 4 I was in the military; the rest of the time I didn’t think about it.

Also surreal was the fact that in those days, Pease was the home of the 509th Bomb Wing. This was the successor to the 509th Composite Group, the Army Air Corps unit that flew the Enola Gay when it dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. In 1970, those of us in the 509th were still supposed to wear the Presidential Citation ribbon on our dress blues. For that reason, I was glad I had a grunt job where I wore fatigues.

But a grunt job is a grunt job, when you want it to be and when you don’t want it to be. So, on Christmas night I was on call. At about 11 pm the phone rang. It was a poor SOB on duty in the flight control tower. An emergency beacon had gone off inside a parachute in one of the KC-135 tankers on the flight line. The KC was a military version Boeing 707, a flying gas station, a big airplane.

BEEP BEEP BEEP. The guy in the tower couldn’t turn off his headphones. He had to keep listening. BEEP BEEP BEEP. He claimed to be going nuts from it. Would I please find the offending parachute and turn off the damn beacon.

Right. It was bitter cold, the wind was howling and the flight line was covered with ice. Nowadays, you could probably stare at a computer monitor for a minute or two and identify which plane the beacon signal was coming from–maybe even which parachute. It would then be a pretty simple matter to go to the plane and deal with the beacon. Hell, maybe in 2008 you could do the whole thing from the comfort of home.

But this was 1970. I climbed into my costume and drove to the base. Once I got there, the only thing I had to work with was a portable radio that picked up the beacon signal. I had to drive up and down the flight line until I came to a plane from which the signal seemed to be stronger. Checking the parachutes on board meant opening the nose hatch of the plane, reaching up for the ladder, locking the ladder in place, climbing into the plane (very cold, very dark) and by flashlight reaching into the pack of each of the 10 to 20 parachutes to try to decide which one had a beeping beacon.

On a good night, you might hit the right airplane on the first try. On a great night, you might follow that by finding the right parachute on the first or second try.

But this was not a good night. I drove up and down the flight line, but the beeps coming to my little radio never changed. I understood what the tower guy had been saying. The beeping was driving me crazy. Slowly, I began to get my mind around the hard truth that I was going to have to check every single airplane until I found the right one. There were about 20 planes on the ground that night. But at least I could turn off the radio. There might be 20 planes to check, but there would be no more beeping!

I started at the top of the flight line and I had reached the third or fourth plane when I lost my footing while try to set the nose hatch ladder in place. My feet went out from under me, and I found myself hanging from the ladder which was hanging crookedly out of the hatch door. The ladder had caught on something, but it wasn’t locked in place. My hat had blown off in the wind, and my gloveless fingers were numb with cold from gripping the metal ladder.

After a minute or two, I realized there was nothing to do but let go of the ladder. And I did. When I landed, the back of my head slammed down hard on the ice. The ladder, free from my grip, fell out of the nose hatch and crashed into my face and bent my glasses. I was cold. I had an egg on the back of my head, and I had about 16 more airplanes to check.

I got to my feet and went back to work. One by one, I checked every damned cold, dark airplane and found absolutely nothing. By this time it was about 1:30 in the morning and I was chilled to the bone. Out of ideas, I drove back to the shop and called the tower to report failure. I couldn’t find anything. Failure meant trouble, so I wasn’t prepared for what the tower guy had to say. “No problem. It was one of the big beacons from the rescue aircraft on the other side of the base. They shut it off an hour ago. So, no problem at all, sarge.”

No problem, sarge, indeed. I wasn’t a failure after all. I had simply been sent on a wild goose chase on a bitter cold Christmas night. Worst of all, I had been out there the last hour out of my own stupidity. If I had left my little radio turned on, after all, I would have known when the beeping stopped.

For some reason, I had a brief flash of that same emotion this morning as I cleared snow and slush out of my driveway in the pouring rain. Why do I live in this climate? Hell, why does anyone live in this climate? Tonight I just don’t know.

Ask me again in June, July or August.

Mea Maxima Culpa, and All That Rubbish…

You’d think that after 20+ years of computer use, I might be reasonably clear on the concept of “copy and paste.” To review: first you copy, then you paste.

A few handy keyboard equivalents and I'm good to go.Turns out that for AdSense to work, I had to copy and paste all of the code. Every last scrap of it. Deleting nothing. Adding nothing. Changing nothing. Who knew?

I knew, of course, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the origin of the code I found pasted into my page.

Now AdSense seems to be working, sometimes at least. I love the way it picks up the word “maxima” in this headline and pumps out car ads. I’ve driven a Nissan Maxima since 1999. It’s getting old and is as much of a gas hog as ever, but I’m attached to it.

Getting attached to a car is as dumb as screwing up copy and paste, but what can be done?

Waiting for Google. And Waiting Some More.

OK, Google, here I am. A brand spanking new URL all set for you. But you never call, you never write. My Lijit search over there on the right doesn’t work without you, Google. And my AdSense? That is you, Google! Dammit, don’t get me started. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Play Elaine to your Lancelot and waste away waiting for you? I’m not feeling it, Google. I’m just not feeling it. So why don’t you crawl your robot ass over here right now and index my damn blog?

And while we’re on the subject of crawling, I know you guys at Yahoo! are up to here in alligators trying to fend off the barbarian hoards of Redmond. But still. You are in the search business, aren’t you? So search me, already!

As for you, Ask, it just hasn’t been the same since you dumped Jeeves. And you, MSN, what’s up with the butterfly? Maybe you guys have already stopped by. No offense, but how would I know? So it’s up to you, Google.

I’m waiting, Google. Don’t make me come over there…

As I Was Saying…As I Was Saying…As I Was Saying

The unavailability of the subdomain on should have been a clue. The way the phrase came to me all at once might have tipped me off. The deeply ingrained habit I have of adopting phrases I like and then, after God knows how many years have passed, forgetting where they came from could have motivated to search a little harder for a name.But nooooo. (Thank you, John Belushi.)

I had to go ahead and name this blog “As I Was Saying…” I like the name. It turns out a lot of people have liked the name for a long time.Jack Paar

There are dozens of blogs that use the phrase as all or part of their names. It’s a phrase the television pioneer Jack Paar used a lot. He even used it as the title of a book.

I was a huge Paar fan. He hosted The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962 and actually had cameras in Havana at the time of the Cuban Revolution. You couldn’t really see much of what was going on in Cuba, but I was transfixed with the thought that I was witnessing the overthrow of a government as it happened.”

As I was saying…” is also a family joke that I use as an easy way of admitting I’ve made a mistake about something. Sample dialog:

Me: Let’s eat at Margarita’s tonight. We haven’t been there for a long time.
Marge (my wife): We ate there last weekend!
Me: As I was saying, I’m sick to death of Margarita’s.

In our family at least it’s the sort of thing that gets funnier with fairly frequent repetition. Please understand that I’m not talking about murderous, sanity-shredding, “Wazzzzzzzzzzuuuuuppppppp?” style repetition here. What I mean is that using the phrase once a week (once a month?) has become my own little family tradition.

I had a professor years ago who spoke of “doughy lumps” in writing. He used the term to refer to a phrase or sentence (sometimes a whole paragraph) that comes to you easily and all at once when you’re writing. It comes to you all at once, he said, because it seems familiar. It seems familiar, he said, because you have heard it before. A doughy lump, therefore, most likely represents plagiarism, cliché, or received wisdom. As I was saying…

Perhaps Oscar Wilde had a point when he said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Anyway, as I was saying, I might have been happy with a different name for this blog.

Super Bore XLII

Men, I want you just thinking of one word all season. One word and one word only: Super Bowl.

—Bill Peterson, football coach giving pep talk

When I was a kid I must have been absent the day they explained why boys were supposed to be so enthusiastic about sports, particularly football. Particularly professional football. As a week of pre-Super Bowl media hype draws to a close, I’m left wondering what I’m missing.

I suppose I’m just a product of my upbringing. My father wasn’t a sports fan. The game was never on at our house. As far as I know, the old man and I never played catch, even once. In that sense, my childhood was downright un-American. People certainly thought so in Oklahoma, where I lived for five years back in the 70’s.

To this day, I don’t even know the rules to football. I don’t think I have ever sat through an entire football game a single time in my life. My friend Mark, now deceased, dammit, used to turn to me any time any sports team was mentioned and deadpan, “FYI, that’s the name of an athletic organization, Pete.” “Thanks,” I would answer.

If Mark were alive tonight, he’d be listening to the game (he was blind) but he wouldn’t be trying to force it on me.

O God Thy Internet Is So Great and My Blog is So Small

…jazz must first of all tell a story that anyone can understand.
-Thelonious Monk

In the fall of 1963, my senior year of high school, I was enrolled in a world history class. It was a disaster from the first moment, and I didn’t stay in the class more than a week or so. I loathed the teacher and was probably looking for reasons to leave. At this remote date I don’t even remember what he said to me, but it made my cheeks burn. I know that I got out of my seat and announced I was dropping the class.

The teacher looked at me over his glasses. “You can’t drop this class,” he said.

“Watch me,” I answered.”You’d rather fool around in the band room than actually learn something,” he said.

Somehow I managed to hold his gaze. I mumbled something like, “If you say so,” and I was out the door.

Dropping the class took all of two minutes in the guidance office, but I didn’t bother to go back to the history class to gloat. I was left with a schedule that consisted of English, advanced math and French. The rest of the day I was in the music room. There was one period of band and another of chorus. That left two periods every day for me to practice. I was an alto sax player, and I wanted to be a jazz musician. Specifically, I wanted to be Paul Desmond. Paul Desmond in 1975I don’t know what it would have taken for me to succeed in this. Frankly, I had the talent. Knowledgeable people whom I trusted told me so, repeatedly. I got to the point where I sounded quite a lot like Paul Desmond when I played, but by the time I was 22 or 23, the horn was in its case permanently. I had moved on.

I hadn’t thought about this for years and years until I found that quotation from Thelonius Monk (thank you, Stumbleupon). Jazz does tell a story, but I had no story of my own to bring to becoming a jazz player-particularly a player like Desmond.

When I listen to him now, I am struck every time with the things I refused to hear in his music back then. Yes, it’s lyrical and melodic. I knew that. Yes, his sound is sweet as a kiss. I knew that, too. But I couldn’t hear the melancholy and the weariness in that sound because I thought those things were coming from my own teenage angst.

And there it is. The story I wanted to tell as a musician had already been told. Brilliantly. There was no need for me to practice six hours a day to hear that story. All I had to do was put on a record.

There’s a lot of that skinny 17-year-old still alive inside me. Maybe that’s why I chose to tell this story first. As for world history, I’ve begun to find a small spark of interest in it only in the last few years. Even a bad teacher can’t shut down a reasonably curious mind forever.

And now my little blog is launched.