Monday, December 31, 2012

Driving Across the Great Plain (not on a Train) of the UK

It is still dark outside as I lay, half asleep, on my sofabed.  I turn over and click the button on my cell phone.  Its green glow gives off just enough light to see the time (zero six hundred) but not enough to disturb the sightless silence in which I am surrounded.  The deep cold and rain from the northern Scotland winter presses hard against my window and my blankets.  It feels like it is three in the morning.  Everyone else in the house is asleep, unaware.  I lay there, quiet, with nothing but my thoughts.  Today I will put my family in harm's way.  We will take on a great and dangerous adventure, doing something few Brits have the courage to even consider trying.  And it is this fear, given the Brits incredibly pragmatic nature, that raises my anxiety level.

In less than a half hour we are going to get into our rented car, fill it with a full tank of diesel gas, pack it with all of our luggage, along with plenty of snacks and supplies, and drive from northern Scotland to London.  My brother, John, stayed up half the night, memorizing the complicated route we will take, worrying that one wrong turn could land us in the sea or, worse, forever trapped in the black hole of a turnabout.

In fact, so worried were we about our trip, that, in the days leading up to our adventure, we discussed our trip with locals.  They looked at us with a strange sense of fear and dread.  A few did not know what to even say.  One even laughed in complete disbelief.  "You are," he ranted, "just pulling my leg; as no civilized person, who values their life or limb, would do such a thing.... No, tis just that, nothing but a joke.  You Americans are very funny people."  But we were not joking.

As the above map of our treacherous route shows, we were going to get in our car and do something Americans do every day.  In fact, some of them do it just to get back and forth to work.  We were going to drive a full seven hours--five people, all together--in a car. 

Back on my bed I thought to myself, "I have one last chance to call off this whole thing.  I could simply pretend the alarm on my phone never worked and let us all sleep-in.  We could get up, still safe and alive, turn in our rental car, and take a train."  Ah, but the rain over the past two days had been exceptionally heavy--and, I mean, heavy.  Flooding throughout the UK was being reported.  And that meant one thing: train delays.  I had heard from a few Brits that during this past Autumn they had delayed trains for days because tree leaves had covered some of the tracks.  "No," I thought to myself, "the trains could not be trusted.  We will need to drive."  And so I proceeded to wake everyone up.  Turns out, however, that everyone else was already up, dressed, packed, fed and ready to go--short of my daughter, that is, who only seems to wake up early when you want to sleep in.

And so, we got in the car and were out the door by 6:30am.  The roads were empty of cars, the rain heavy, and the morning fog dense, our headlights giving us only a few feet of vision.  And yet we pushed forward, on into the morning sunrise, passing village after village, city after city, highway after highway, until, seven hours later, we somehow made it London, mission complete.

Rest Stop.  Oh, yes, you have driven too long, please stop and rest

One thing you need to know about my family is that we are a pragmatic bunch.  We like to plan ahead and, at minimum, have a Plan B.  So, being no more than an hour into our drive through the hinterland of Scotland, Jay saw a gas station sign.  "I think we should stop guys.  We may not see another gas station for a while."  If you have ever driven across the desert in Nevada or through the great national forests of the states, you always see signs saying, "Hey, dumb ass, you had better get gas now, cause the next station isn't for another freaking 5,000 miles."  So, Jay had a good point. 

Or, did he?  For example, our drive from Cleveland Ohio, where we live, to my brother's house in New York City, which we drive every couple of months, on only one tank of gas, in my old 2001 Volvo station wagon, is about 450 miles.  Our total drive, today, in a brand new diesel station wagon, which gets about 45 miles to the gallon, was 550 miles.  So, did we really need to stop?  No!  But, the Brits had us so worried, we decided to stop.  Besides, who doesn't want to stop for a cup of tea in such miserable weather?  Even my 11 year old daughter started drinking tea

But, here's the funny thing.  No more than 25 miles down the road we came to another MSA (motor service area, which is British for rest stop), followed by another MSA 25 miles after that, and so on ad infinitum.  It seems the Brits really worry about you making it safely to your destination.  And, there we signs everywhere, telling you to take a resttake a breakwatch your frustration because it killskeep two chevrons between you and the next carwatch for old people crossing the road (I am not kidding, it was a picture of an old woman pushing an old man with a cane across the street).  And, for those parts of the highway where they did not have overhead street lights, the roads were absolutely covered with reflectors: greens, reds, blues, yellows, oranges.  In fact, at times it was so ridiculous that my brother, John, who did half the driving, laughed, saying he felt like he was landing a plane.  Too much.  Speaking of signs...

Margaret, Margaret, for Fuuuke Sake, What Does that Sign Say?

Like enough reflectors on the road to land a plane, what also melts the mind about driving in the UK are their road signs.  It is a bureaucratic nirvana!  Click here so see a complete list.

First, all their signs are entirely visual.  No words or explanations go with them all.  I am not kidding.  What, for example, do you think the second sign, top row, means?  See it?  The one with the red X and blue background?  If you find out, let me know, cause I still haven't a clue.

Second, and here is the irony, despite all their signs, they almost never tell you what the speed limit it, even as you fly through a speed trap.  I could go on, but I will stop.

No Speeding, Please, As it Just Upsets Everyone

Finally, no discussion of driving in the UK would be complete without mentioning their infamous speed traps.  Every few miles you see signs like the one below.  My brother Warren, during his visit to the UK, was so blown away by the sheer number of these signs that he thought they were polite suggestions by the Brits about where one might stop to take a nice picture--too funny!  No, Warren, they are speed trap signs!!!  

See, by law the Brits have to tell you that a speed trap is coming, whether or not the actual machine is on to catch you.  And, when you get onto a major highway, like the ones on which we drove, the machines look like the one to the left--much like the turnpike bridges in the states, under which you drive to pay your toll automatically.  So, you do not see much speeding anywhere. 

Few people in our, wild, wild west America would tolerate such restraint.   But, the Brits, being the polite people they are, do.  The result? During our entire ride, across this island, nobody flew by us at breathtaking speed, giving us the finger.  No major jams.  And road construction?  Everyone just moves over.  No idiots speeding past everyone else just to "get ahead."  This is the UK; people actually have manners, even in their cars.

Overall, I have to say, I very much liked driving across the UK.  Short of the punishing rain, that just would not stop, and the fog, and the dark clouds, and the endless speed traps, I enjoyed taking a bit of a break here and there, having a cup of tea and a scone, singing to 80s music, and filling up on gas that I really did not need.  Most of all, though, I enjoyed stopping at each pullover and telling the Brits of our journey; and watching react.  For a few short hours I was an Indie 500 race car god, competing in one of those car races across the outback of Australia.  Move over Ricky Bobby; you ain't got nothing on us!


Monday, December 17, 2012

Scotland--lower Borders, Edinburgh, Dunkeld and Loch Ness

Other than Durham, my blog has been less about the specific places I have visited, and more about life in Europe and the UK, primarily in comparison to the states.

Being in Scotland, however, has changed that a bit.  What a country!  My first trip to Scotland was with my friend and colleague, David Byrne, into the lower borders.  As some may recall from an earlier post, on this trip I got to hike with the famous Ramblers.  It was also, by coincidence, the same weekend the notorious Naked Rambler was moving through our "neck of the wood," as they say.  In terms of geography, the lower borders sit just around and above Hadrian's Wall--which my brother Warren and I visited in November.

This post is about the three places in Scotland I have been over the past two weeks--starting with last week, when my wife and daughter and I made our way up to Edinburgh.  I made this same trip back in November, as well, with my brother Warren.

Why Vacation in Scotland?


I don't know if many of you are fans of or know about the comedy show Little Britain.  If you are not, you absolutely have to start watching it.  All three seasons are on Netflix, and some of the bits can be seen on YouTube.  It is some of the freshest and funniest humor I have seen in a while.  What also makes it great fun is that it is British humor, which is not drenched in the level of irony that post-Seinfeld, American humor is--which I also love, but do enjoy a break from.  The Little Britain stuff is good old fashioned, plain, stupid funny.  In fact, my life, as most know, and as many of you have seen reading this blog, is one big ironic joke--ouch!--so a break from that as well, which doesn't come often, is appreciated.

Anyway, on Little Britain they do a few bits on Scotland that are hilarious.  Every time the narrator begins one of the Scotland bits, he always says something like, "Scotland, Scotland, Scotland.  Oh, how I love Scotland,... where at least ten people a year visit for holiday."  ha ha ha.

So, why mention this bit of humor?  Well, because of the truth behind it; or, rather, the false sense of the reality to which it points.  When we told friends, family and colleagues we were going to Scotland for Christmas holiday, people just sort of shook their heads.  Why would we want to spend such precious time and money in such a cold place, up in the moors and lochs and mist and rain and snow?  Exactly. Why wouldn't anybody want to spend time in the land of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and Beatrix Potter and the Hobbit and Macbeth and Dungeons and Dragons and elves and dwarfs and myth and legend?  Right?  What a crazy waste of time.  Case in point: Edinburgh


Edinburgh Castle from the south east.JPGEdinburgh is one of the most haunting and yet beautiful cities in which I have ever been. There is something about the place that is so moving.

I have been here twice, now, and I still struggle to describe it.  It has something to do with the brooding weather and the turbulent sea and the spiked hills and the Gothic architecture and the Scottish people that makes it so rich in culture and history and mystery.  It has hints of Vienna and Paris, and yet is edgy with Scottish ghosts, an incredible castle (shown to the right), haunting cemeteries and a dungeons and dragons past--all of which makes it more wild and more older European than the rest of the UK.  And then there is the city's new town (one of the first modern cities) and the University.  The city is, after all, also the home to such great moderns as David Hume and Adam Smith.  Wow! 


From Edinburgh we moved onward, now with my brother John and a few more friends and family, to Dunkeld.  Here is what Wikipedia says:

"Dunkeld is a small town in Strathtay, Perth and Kinross, Scotland. It is about 15 miles north of Perth on the eastern side of the A9 road into the Scottish Highlands and on the opposite (north) side of the Tay river from the Victorian village of Birnam.  It is also about 45 minutes from Edinburgh."

Situated in the heart of Scotland, Dunkeld feels like some sort of fairytale world.  In fact, I am sometimes so overwhelmed with emotion from this place that I do not know what to do other than freak out.  There are forests so thick with trees and pines that they are pitch black in the middle of the day; then there are trees with all sorts of fungus on and hanging from them, making them look as if they are Tree Ents in disguise.  Here, for example, is a panorama I made of the Tay National Forest.  I think it says it all.


Inverness and the Loch Ness

Finally, yesterday, we made our way up into northern Scotland to travel along its major lochs and glacial valleys, all the way up to the small sea town of Inverness.  It is at moments such as these I wish I was a poet or a great painter or photographer, in hopes of somehow catching hold, if only for a fleeting moment, the beauty I saw yesterday.  Here is my best shot.

Imagine driving through the million year old remains of a receding glacier, with jagged mountains beaten down into large rolling hills.  The sun is shining, but through a dense fog that sits about a couple hundred feet above the ground, never really ever leaving, with mist coming up from the ground.  Everything is green, really deep green, with gnarled trees along the mountain edges, covered with moss; and dense dark woods and lochs, deep and cold.  The temperature fluctuates between freezing and the low 40s; the air is damp, leaving you bone cold, always wanting a cup of hot tea with some scotch in it, perhaps, and you can always see your breath.  And all around you is the sea, which you catch glimpses of, here and there, and the ocean air, a smell that is almost too difficult to describe, mixed with the burning of coal to heat homes.  And, it just keeps going and going 360 degrees in any direction, as you move along winding roads around which you can barely see.  Then, as if that is not enough, through all the fog, the sun is somehow shining, but in the oddest ways, producing the wildest colors: bright blues at ground level, as if the sky was perpendicular to the ground; wild oranges and yellows; and rainbows everywhere.  I have never seen so many rainbows!  To top it all off, there are the snow peaked mountains and hills, with clouds dropping snow on them, unable to get lose, just hanging there snowing.  And, finally, there are the little towns through which you pass, lost in time, somewhere between a hundred and a thousand years ago.  No wonder they believe their major loch, the Ness, has a monster.  Actually, the better question is, why wouldn't it.

    So, that was the experience I had.  My family in the car, however, found my response a focal point for their humor.  See, every few minutes or so, as we drove, I would yell out:

"Wow, look at that!"
"Did you guys see that?"
"Have you ever seen a tree that beautiful?"
"Damn, look at those colors!"
"Look at the sky."
"Look at that mountain top and the snow, dang."

After a while, I guess, this started to get on everyone's nerves--which is understandable.  So, everyone started teasing me, saying, "Hey, Brian, look at the air; have you ever seen such beautiful air?"  Even my daughter teased me.  "Hey, Dad, have you ever seen snow that beautiful before?" Whatever.  As you can see to the right, Jay and I reenacted my hysteria for the camera.  My family is cruel.

Anyway, you get my point.  Scotland is a beautiful place.

The British Invastion: British and American Music Part 2

In a previous post, I talked about how influential British music has been in the states and, more specifically, my life. As an example, my family is here with me now, in Scotland, in a little town called Dunkeld.  My brother John, Maggie (my wife) and I went for a drive, today, out near the lochs, listening to Wind and Wuthering by Genesis.  I remember, in the early 1980s, back at university, the three of us would listen to Genesis and talk about taking such an adventure in the UK.  And here we are, now, almost 30 years later. Some influences are strong, even if things take time to happen.  Brilliant.

Anyway, as we talked about British music, my brother John and I suddenly started laughing and telling everyone about our experience in Budapest last year---which takes us to the topic of this blog: Europe's obsession with cheeky 1980s music.   But first Budapest.

The setting: Budapest, Hungary, 2011.  My brother John and I are sitting in a rathskeller drinking beer and eating authentic Hungarian food--in case you do not know, this means an 'all meat' menu, with not a shred of lettuce anywhere.  Nobody in this establishment speaks more than a few words of English.  We communicate with the waiters almost entirely by gesture and through our embarassing attempt to speak Hungarian.  And yet, the entire time we are there, the waiter and chefs are playing 1980s music.  And, this is the coolest part of it, they (along with this American woman sitting in the corner by herself) are all singing along to it.  (Mind, you, there is only the staff and we three Americans in the place.)  John and I begin to play 'name that tune,' seeing who can identify the song they are playing first, the loser forced to drink.  The woman in the corner, looking over at us every now and then, seems to be quietly playing our game, laughing to herself, as she almost always seems to get the name before either of us do.

Second setting: Oslo, Norway, 2009.  My family and I are walking through the City of the Noble Prize; a grand old city.  It took us two very long days of travel to get here, including planes, trains and bus.  One would say, in short, a bit of travel.  However, we are no sooner walking down the main boulevard when we are assaulted by Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer.  What? 

Final setting: Durham, England, 2012, about two weeks ago.  The City of Durham is having its Christmas lights celebration. Several hundred people are gathered in our little market square, as the countdown to turning on the lights begins.  The MC on stage is getting everyone all excited and shouting and having lots of fun by turning on the music.  First, a sort of "Disney World like" orchestral piece comes on and people are getting all worked up.  Then, the MC, who is a singer, yells to everyone, "Common folks, sing along."  And what was their first song?  Journey's Don't Stop Believing.  What?  I traveled all the way to northern England to experience my first British Christmas and this is their first song, out of the gate, Journey?  Oh well, nothing to do but start singing baby, cause i'm a believer!

Okay, I know there are a lot of "1980s music" haters out there.  In fact, one of my favorite bands--which is, admittedly, known to be cranky and a bit uppity--is Steely Dan.  I saw an interview with them once and they nastily quipped that they almost stopped playing music because of the wretchedness of 1980s music.  Whatever, get over yourselves.  I am not listening.  I have my fingers in my ears. 

So, here it is.  I am here to proclaim to the world that, along with the rest of Europe, I love 80s music.  I can sit down and watch hours of VH1 Classics with the old VJs from MTV.

And, me and the Europeans are not alone in our love.  My family is the same.  Jay, John and Maggie, upon hearing about this posting, sat down last night and generated the list below.  They all got out their computers, ipads and iphones and lots of wine, scotch and vodka, and started shouting out names and singing the songs.  In fact, we even started arguing about 80s music authenticity and could one-hit wonders be listed?  (To the haters out there, there are worse things to do on a rainy, cold evening in Scotland, after it goes dark at 4:00pm and you have had enough of British food TV.)

Here is our short list: Micheal Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, Bow Wow Wow (I want Candy), The Clash, INXS, Cindy Lauper, Aha (Take on Me), The Bangles, Pet Shop Boys, Police, Sting, Journey, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Lover Boy, Night Ranger, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Psychedelic Furs, 1980s Van Halen, U2, Elvis Costello, The Cure, Talking Heads, The Eurythmics, Pat Benatar, John Cougar Mellencamp (he still had the middle name at the time), Guns n Roses, REM, Human League, New Order, The Smiths, Violent Femmes, Wham, Go Gos, Bananarama, 1980s AC/DC, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, B52s, Katrina and the Waves (I'm walking on Sunshine baby), Paul Abdul, Blondie, Cutting Crew (I just died in your arms tonight), Naked Eyes (Always something there to remind me), Simple Minds, 1980s Tina Turner, Crowded House, J Geils Band, and, last but not by any means least, Tom Petty.       

Long live 80s music and long live Europe's love of it!  Nothing better than walking into some small town in eastern Europe only to hear "A little Ditty about Jack and Diane; two American kids doing the best they can.  guitar, mmmmmmmm.  mmmmmm, mmmm, mmm, mmn.  ddnt.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On British Weather; Or, Here Comes the Sun

Okay, so this would not be a proper blog on the U.K. if I did not, at some point, say something about the bloody weather here.

To begin, we need to understand that the British are, in a word, OBSESSED with the weather.  In fact, if the weather is not part of the conversation you are having with someone, it IS the conversation you are having with them.  In such conversations, one also runs into two quintessential and yet contradictory British attitudes.

The first is what some might call a form of learned helplessness; or what Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher, would probably re-frame as dogged realism.  A recent survey of Brits on the weather, for example, found roughly 70% of them saying, "Yes, the weather bloody sucks; there is nothing one can do; get on with it."  Here is the reframe: Tis the truth of all things weather; it simply is what it is; suck it up and deal with it; no whining allowed.  And that is the truth of it: the Brits may talk about weather, excessively, but there is no--I repeat no--whining at all.

The second attitude--which, at least initially, contradicts the first--is optimism.  Now, a more cynical observer might draw upon Karl Marx, the famous philosopher and economic historian, and call this optimism false consciousness: the inability of a group of people to see things for what they are.  But, I think such conclusions, given the first British attitude, would be wrong.

To make my case, however, first we need to talk about the weather itself.

Now, Bill Bryson, in Notes From a Small Island, concludes that the British obesession with the weather is entirely hystrionic, as there honestly is no weather about which to talk.  The same hystrionic attitude is found, for him, in the British obsessession with traveling short distances across their small island, as if they were sending you out into the Australian outback, worried you did not take enough gas and water with you to survive the drive from Darlington to Durham (about 15 minuted by train).

Kate Fox, in Watching the English, has a different take.  She concludes that Brits talk endlessly about the weather because they wish to avoid talking about themselves.  Her view, as a Brit herself, is that these small islanders fear discussing anything remotely close to emotions or true expressions, for fear that they may have to literally answer the question, "How do you do?"  Weather speak, she explains, is a way of engaging in British modesty.

I think both points have value.  However, I think there is another point staring them in the face that they both seem to miss.  I turn to my training as a scientist to explain.

In statistics we talk about what is comonly referred to as standard deviation (S.D.).  S.D. tells us how far something varies from a particular average.  S.D. generally comes in the form of a high and low.  For example, winter in Ohio, where I live, is, on average, near freezing (about 32 degrees farenheit), with a typical range between the low 20s and low 50s.  Summer, in turn, goes all the way up into the middle 70s, with a range between the high 60s and high 90s.  Right?  Get it? In short, some climates, like that found in Ohio, have a very wide standard deviation in weather: it can get very cold and it can get very hot; and it can also have major storms and tornados; etc.  In short, in Bryson's view, a climate like Ohio has real weather.

But, here is where I disagree.  To me, weather is not just a matter of S.D.; it is also a matter of fluctuation; dynamics, variation within an S.D.  In short, while the S.D. in the UK is not significant, the weather dynamics, fluctuations within with its narrowed S.D. are significant.  Case in point.  I have typically walked out of my flat in the morning, here during the autumn, to find that the sun is out and it is near freezing.  From this one might conclude, say living in Ohio, that an umbrella in not necessary.  Wrong!  By the time I get to my office--a mere fifteen minute walk--I notice that a storm is, as they say, rolling in.  I leave my office two hours later and it is now near 40 degrees and raining.  Umbrella and me wet, I finish lunch to find that the sun is out again.  Now, however, there is a damp, chilling bite in the air.  Later, after dinner and in time for my evening walk, it is raining again.

I tested my theory on several Brits over the course of the next few weeks and they all immediately agreed--as if I had somehow vindicated their weather obession; which made them like me even more as a Yankee.  In fact, one of my colleagues made of it a good summary, which I am sure someone more brilliant and famous that either of us had to have already said:  It is, as if, here in the UK, one can experience all the seasons in just one day.  I quite agree, which takes me back to British optimism.

One of the things I noticed in my weather speak with Brits is that all such conversations focus on what is presently happening--it is all about the weather right now.  Never do we speak, at least initially, about weather yet to come.

Here is a typical weather conversation, as I pass someone on campus.

"Ah, Brian, lovely weather we are having today!  Isn't it?"
"Yes," I say and laugh, "Just wonderful; I so thoroughly enjoy all of this rain pelting my face."

The wind hears us and tries to steal my umbrella away from me.  But, then, something wonderful happens in the conversation as we come to its end.  "Ah," the Brit will say, "I heard, however, that the sun might come out later."

There it is, right there, see it?  This is what makes the Brits so wonderful.  They see life as it is--dogged realism--and yet they remain optimistic: the sun may come out.  And, given my theory on the weather, the sun indeed does eventually come out.  The weather changes so quickly during the course of any given day that the odds are in one's favor that the sun will, indeed, stick out its lovely head.  And, when it happens I hear all the time, in the back of my head, George Harrison, from the Beatles, singing Here Comes the Sun.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

The British Invasion: British and American Music Part 1

Okay, this post is a bit self indulgent, but i think some of you, at least--particularly those of you from my generation--will find it fun.

My wife Maggie and my daughter Ruby are here, now, visiting me.  We were driving in the car today from Whitby--which I have others interesting things about which to say--and I started naming all of the musicians in my iTunes, cd, tapes, and record collection--yes, actual tapes used in a tape player and records with a turntable and the whole thing--who are British.

Wow!  I was amazed that, other than jazz and blues--which are obviously American--and French and classical music, most of the people to whom I listen are British.  Here is a quick list:

Pink Floyd
The Beatles
Led Zepplin
Rolling Stones
The Smiths
The Cure
Steve Crosby
Peter Gabriel
King Crimson
Nick Drake
Cat Stevens
Jeff Beck
Van Morrison
David Bowie
Iron Maiden
Eric Clapton
The Who
Elton John
Emerson Lake and Palmer
Roxy Music
Kate Bush
Phil Collins
Black Sabbath
Def Leppard
Paul Rogers and Bad Company
Duran Duran
Robert Palmer
The Clash
Sex Pistols
Elvis Costello
The Police
Adam and the Ants
Everything but the Girl
File:Morrissey-SXSW2006.jpgDire Straits
Wham--common, I like them, okay
Power Station
Cocteau Twins
Tears for Fears
Coldplay--but only the first two albums, ugh after that
David Grey
And, last but certainly not least, U2

That is the best I can do off the top of my head.  Try it yourself and see if you are similarly influenced.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

This train is headed for

I am traveling on the train in anywhere northern England when the announcer for the train comes on the loudspeaker.

"Ladies and gentlemen, This is the train to northern England with stops at:

Bishop Auckland
Tea Side
Cocks Wallow
The town of Pity Me
Apes Dale
Balls Cross
Barton in the Beans
Bummers Hill
Buttock Point
Clock Face
Cold Blow
Cuckoo's Nest
Four Forks
Gog Magog Hills
Golden Balls
Hole in the Wall
Land of Nod
Lickey End
Rotten Bottom
The Bastard
Titty Ho
and Ugley....

Very funny

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

News, News and More News

I am sitting at home in the states.  It is any old night.  I decide, against my better judgement, to turn on the television and see what is on the evening news.  All of the news stations, at least through my cable provider, are clumped together.  I pull up the menu.  There is fox news--okay, I am not watching that.  Then there is MSNBC--again, I am definitely not watching that.  Next down the line is CNN.  Okay, a bit of CNN is good.  But, a lot of it is starting to look more and more like the other two stations I mentioned.  CSPAN comes next: they were running 24 hours of real-time footage of an ant nest.  I was not interested in going into a coma, so I turned it off.  Next was the evening news with NBC or CBS.  ugh!  And then, to make matters worse, I arrived at the local news.

Local news, how should I describe it.  Here is one way.  I decided that night to watch the news, not realizing the post-traumatic stress disorder I would suffer for the next week.  For the next half hour they made my local town, Cleveland Ohio, sound like it was sin city, filled with the worst sort of political, economic, and moral depravity known to humanity.  And, on top of it, they kept telling me a snow storm was coming; but i had to wait 20 minutes to find out--in fact, that is how they went to everyone commercial.

"....So, that leaves ten dead and twenty more bodies to be found.  Back to you Jed." 
"Well, folks, what a weather storm we have headed your way.  Find out if you will you wake up dead tomorrow, in a snow drift, with half your leg eaten away by best friend.  THIS IS CHANNEL FIVE NEWS!"  

"Ohhhh my god," I started screaming.  I told my wife and daughter what might happen and phoned my family and friends; they all came over our house and we hid in the basement until the commercials were over, wondering what the weather folks would reveal.

Actually, my daughter was sitting next to me, streaming, in real-time, on her iphone, ipad and ipod touch both the weather and the latest news from all over the world, so I turned off the TV and decided to drink vodka instead.


Switch to Dusseldorf Germany.  Same sort of any old night.  I am in my hotel room and decide, against my better judgement, to turn on the television and see what is on the evening news.  All of the news stations, at least through my hotel's cable provider, are clumped together.  I pull up the menu.

I suddenly realize, I am not in Ohio anymore.  WOW!  On the television is BBC News, BBC Parliament, BBC World News,  Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera French, then there was Euronews and a handful of German news stations, then a handful of French news stations.  I could not believe it!

Of course, don't get me wrong.  In the UK, for example, they love tabloid news; and one of the widest circulating tabloids in Europe is the German newspaper, Bild.  But, Europeans have a much clearer sense of the difference between tabloid and real news.  Tabloid is for fun; news is for information.

In the states, however, the boundary line has all but disappeared.  As an example, tabloid news is actually called alternative news--what does that mean?--as if the purpose of these tabloids is to offer a discerning public genuine news alternatives.  I could go on.  you get my point.


Back in the states again...  This time, however, I do not even bother.  Instead, I turn off my television, turn on my computer, pour myself a vodka, and do something novel.  I decide to read a book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bill Bryson and I Agree: Durham is a Fantastic Place

Last night i got to listen to a lecture, here at Durham University, by one of my travel heroes, Bill Bryson.

Who is Bryson, some of you may say?  My god, you sad, sad people.  It is clear that you neither read travel literature nor consider yourself a worthy member of the human race; and clearly you are not at all, in any sense of the word, British--as you would know him--and so you are deserving of a right and proper flogging.

Well, truth be told, Bill Bryson is actually American (from Des Moines, Iowa).  But, in his defense, he has spent most of his adult life in the UK, in a small town called Wramplingham (population 110), which is about four hours southeast of Durham University.

Bill Bryson A Walk In The Woods.jpg Bryson is also, perhaps, one of the most famous human being alive to walk a good chunk of the Appalachian Trail--it, is, after all, really long and nobody in their right mind walks the whole thing.  Most important, Byrson completed his walk without being eaten by a bear and therefore lived to write A Walk in the Woods.

He is also famous for writing an additional list of incredibly humorous and wonderfully self-deprecating travel books, including In A Sun Burned Country (about Australia); I'm a Stranger Here Myself (about moving back to the states after living in the UK for twenty years); and, Notes From a Small Island, which is about his travels throughout England. 

Wdogart.jpgIn terms of his humor and insight into some of the wonderful absurdities of the human condition, I think that, for social scientists, Byrson is the equivalent of the natural science's humorist, Gary Larson.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonSpeaking of science, Byrson also wrote the very useful book, A Short History of Nearly Everything: a popular science review of what scientists have to say (circa 2003) about the universe, our planet, and how we, as humans, managed to not get eaten long enough to create late night television.  I have, in the past, recommend this book to my students as a good primer.  As a taste, click here to listen to an interview with Bryson about his book.       
Finally, and most relevant to my time here at Durham, Bryson was University Chancellor from 2005 to 2010.  In fact, that is why he was at Durham this past week.  They dedicated the new library in his name--click here to read a bit on his work at Durham.  I think this was just right.  As the Dutch philosopher, Kierkegaard pointed out, humor is one of the highest forms of communion we have with our fellow beings.

Anyway, for his evening lecture, Bryson decided to make a few comments and read a few stories on traveling, his time at Durham University, and life in general.  I want to share a few of the things that impressed me the most.  Also, I am sharing these insights for selfish reasons: Bryson said that, every time he says something nice about Durham, they bring him back.  So, hey, did I tell you all how much I really like it here?

First, as I have posted elsewhere, he reiterated something Americans really need to consider.  Europeans really know how to have fun.  I mean it, they really do.  As an example, remember that picture of the students at Durham passing me along to the Dining hall at Castle? (Look to your right.)

Now, mind you, when Bryson says Durham knows how to have fun, he is not talking about partying.  (Although, in all fairness, the recent edition of the Durham University Student Paper was depressed over its standings in the new British poll on per-capita drinking at UK universities.)  No, what Bryson was talking about is having fun.   The students here work hard, but they also play hard.  As an example, Durham has no theater program.  And yet, since I've been here, I have seen several plays, including Peter Schaffer’s Lettice and Lovage and Molière's Tartuffe--all performed at an incredibly high level.  And, I have seen some great music, including Mozart's Requiem, performed in the Cathedral.

Also, twice a week, here in castle, they have formals, where everyone gets together and has dinner and drinks (See upper right picture).  For my students in the states, who I am sure are wondering, yes the drinking age here is 18.  Damn, the students in Castle even have their own bar and karaoke machine.  In fact, I sang Loverboy's Turn Me Loose at the top of my lungs until the students kicked me out.  Common, they're a Canadian band!  To the right is what permanently happened to one student's face upon hearing me sing.

Second, the students at Durham University put a lot of time into social causes, charities, and so forth.  I cannot tell you how many times I have walked across the campus, or through the town market to find students raising money for this or that event.  In fact, some students even set themselves up on the street, wearing signs that say, "Give me Money to Go to Such and Such a Place to Help People."  I thought it was an interesting con at first, until I realized these kids were serious--or, at least I hope so, cause I gave them a considerable amount of my British coins.

Third, the students are thinking about the environment and our global future.  For example, I saw the world-famous sociologist, Anthony Giddens speak on the environment and our ecological future.  My students should be familiar with Giddens, as he wrote the Intro to Soc textbook you use.  I even asked Giddens a question, so that, upon returning to Ashtabula, Ohio, I can be a rock star.  See, they taped his lecture.  Click here and go to 52 minutes.  The only problem is that my question is a real "Debby Downer."  In fact, people moved away from me after I asked it.

Bryson has also been moved by the student's social consciousness.  During his lecture he read a very funny bit about flying in a twin-engine plane and running headlong into a major storm and almost dying.  His travels through Kenya were on behalf of the CARE organization, which students at Durham got him involved in.  It is a very cool place here.

Finally, Bryson, prompted by a student's question, ended with some lessons for life--seven, I think, in total.  Here is my best memory of them.  First, he said, be happy.  Life is too short and, particularly for those of us in the middle class, we live a pretty privileged life.  I forgot the second and third.  The fourth was buy all of his books in hardcover as soon as they come out.  The fifth was, do not come up behind people and scare them.  No matter what you think, it is not funny and you should be shot. Sixth was something about killing anyone who littered.  And seventh had something to do with making the world a better place; or maybe it was about drinking; I cannot remember, but you get the point.

What a great night and what a great place.  I cannot believe I only have two weeks left here.      



Saturday, November 24, 2012

Don't Stand So Close to Me-

You know that song by the British rock band, the Police?  Don't stand, don't stand so.  Don't stand so close to me.

Well, I find myself suddenly bursting into this melody in various crowd situations here in the U.K. and the rest of Europe.

"Why?," you say.  It's their sense of social space; it's just so much smaller and more condensed than ours is in the states.  And, it's funny, because you wouldn't think such a thing would be that big of a deal, right?  In fact, some of you are probably reading this thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah...  sure, Europeans are more comfortable walking around like sardines in a can.  So what?"

Well, let me just give you a recent example.  The above photo is a picture of me, as I attempted last week to make my way across the garden to the Dining Hall.  To be fair, it did end well, as a couple of really athletic students lifted me and another professor up so they could body-pass us across a few hundred students to the front of the line, simply because they like me so much and think professors should get their meals first.  In fact, as I passed over, I had quite a lovely chat with several people who were holding hands and singing "kumbaya my lord."

For the luv of whatever your god, stop standing so close to me....

Personal Space Deconstructed

Here is a typical walk in provincial Europe, particularly here in northern England:

1.  To begin, you've got single lane roads and pathways, which are treated as if there is plenty enough room for cars and pedestrians and wildlife.

2. Next, you've got garden-walls and town-corners and hedgerows everywhere, just high enough so that even me, a six foot American, cannot see over them.

3. Then, you've got these Brits, who thoroughly enjoy walking into each other.  They're like heat-seeking missiles: you do all you can to evade them, but it is to no avail---t minus 3 seconds to target---then, bam! suddenly a mob of college girls slam into you, looking at you like its your fault.

4.  And, don't forget the cars, all driving on the wrong side of the road, taking any angle possible to come as close to you, the pedestrian, as possible.  In fact, it's so dangerous crossing streets here that they have taken to writing on the sidewalks LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT.  And, let us not forget the advice of the nice young Brit at the car rental place, "If it looks like they are going to hit you, stop!  Because they will."

5.  Now, add to all of this an amazingly close sense of personal space and you've got a recipe for disaster for someone, like me, who is paranoid enough to be begin with.  Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the issue
Body contact and personal space in the United States shows considerable similarities to that in northern and central European regions, such as Germany, the Benelux, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. The main difference is, however, that Americans like to keep more open space in between themselves and their conversation partners (roughly 4 feet (1.2 m) compared to 2 to 3 feet (0.6–0.9 m) in Europe). Greeting rituals tend to be the same in these regions and in the United States, consisting of minimal body contact which often is confined to a simple handshake.

My Atlas Needs to Shrugged

I have to say, though, something significant is lost in the states, with our protected public sense of boundaries--particularly amongst professional and upper-class Americans, with our big lawns, lonely parking lots, drive-to-get-there culture, and our private sense of enjoying ourselves.

To me the loss is simple enough to summarize: we struggle to have and share fun in public and to have nothing to do but have fun.

In the states, the only time people have fun together in public is at a formal event--with a clear sense of when something begins and ends.  We consider someone really hip if their invitation to a party says something like, "7:00pm until whenever!"

"Really, do you think they mean that?,"  I often find myself thinking, "Should we take them up on it?  Well, probably not, because, after a few drinks one of us has to got to drive the rest of us home."  No fun.

It makes me think of Gogol Bordello, a largely eastern European, gypsy punk band from the lower east side of NYC in the States.  They have this song called American Wedding--click here to listen to it, as it absolutely rocks!  The lyrics go like this:

Have you ever been to American wedding?
Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring?
Where is the supply that gonna last three days?
Where is the band that like Fanfare.
Gonna keep it goin' 24 hours

In the song they go on about how all the proper couples need to be getting home and how the whole thing just winds down.  The lead singer is lost; he cannot understand why.  Then he realizes, in the end:

I understand the cultures
Of a different kind
But here word celebration
Just doesn't come to mind

Bottom line: The Brits and much of Europe are much, much better at having fun together in public: sitting around; having a few beers on the train; families picnicking and kids running around all over the place; all well ordered albeit highly nonlinear to the American eye; everyone laughing and talking and walking into each other and just having fun.

Here, for example, is a video and some pictures of people having an absolute blast in Dusseldorf.  It is a Sunday afternoon, not a single department or specialty store is open in the down-town--which, mind you, is lined with the top fashion stores one finds throughout the world--and yet the whole place is filled with people, for no good reason, eating and drinking and laughing and walking into each other like very, very happy sardines--check out, for example, the massive amount of wonderful meat I ate.

It is a hard pill for me, as a professional class, mid-western American, to swallow....

But,... I know what I am going to do when I get back to the states.

Yes, I know exactly what I am going to do.

I am going to start walking into everyone, and, when they get mad, which I know they will, I will start singing at the top of my lungs:

Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring?
Where is the supply that gonna last three days?
Where is the band that like Fanfare.
Gonna keep it goin' 24 hours.... 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

If Travel Is an Indicator; The East is Becoming a Major Global Player, While Parts of Europe Struggle

Well, if traveling is an indicator, it seems that Asia (particularly China) is becoming the major global player everyone is predicting it to be, while many parts of western and eastern Europe are, as they have been over the past couple years, struggling.

Here is my anecdotal evidence as a traveler.  Throughout the U.K. and in Germany, where I was last week--and, increasingly, in my other travels throughout Europe--the main tourists I see are German, French, British, American, and, at increasing levels, Asian, mostly Chinese.  Behind these countries is a much smaller group of Scandinavians and Italians.  In contrast, however, one does not see many Spaniards or Greeks or Eastern Europeans.  For example, I think I have heard one person speaking Russian in my seven weeks here.

Statistics at the macro-level seem to support my traveling experiences.

As the chart above shows, the increasing economic power of China is finally beginning to be realized in Europe.  For those of us in sociology and economics and political science--or just anyone who reads the darn world news and is paying attention--this is not a novel or sudden realization.  It is more a confirmation of what we have been saying, for example, in our classes, as professors.  "Hello folks!  The world economy is much more massive and dynamic and global and now eastern and southern than you think it is."

What has gotten people in Europe to suddenly taking notice and actually acknowledge the shifting dynamics of global economics was a report released on the 9th of November, by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  While Europe and the states struggle, the report basically shows that China, along with other developing economies, such as India, are fast rising to become the new economic super-powers in the world.

Here, for example, is an article in the Guardian, on the increasing number of Chinese tourists in Europe, where they like to go, and what appeals most to them, in their travels--Click Here.

Perhaps even more than the story, though, are the comments made by readers in the online chat room below it.  Here one sees how everyday people are thinking, and it is not very nice.  It is a combination of pride, prejudice and hate, with very provincial views being expressed by people who struggle to realize they live in a global world.  To be fair, some of the comments are by good minded people who are trying to think through the global economy in which they now live. 

To get a good, overall, sense of the OECD report and reaction to it, read this Guardian article--Click Here--and watch this video put out by the OECD, on YouTube--Click here.

Europe and the states face new challenges as the rest of the world seeks to live western-style middle-class lives.  With these changes come some very good things: increased political freedom, increased rights for women, improved health and economic well-being.  And, with these changes come some very troubling things: massive population growth, over-usage of resources, environmental challenges, cultural clash.  It is time we paid attention.

It's funny, as I sit here writing this, because I just realized that I got "Friedmanized." What is that, you say?  In a series of books, over the last decade or so--The World is Flat; Hot Flat and Crowded, and That Used to be Us--the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman has been making the case for what is currently happening globally.  In fact, my students know my point in this posting, as I teach Friedman's work in my Intro to Sociology and Global Social Problems courses.  Funny how things happen.

Anyway, if you are interested in more of this, read his books.