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Money for telling folks what to do

Some of you who follow my twitterings and facebookings will know that I have (fairly) recently made a move to North America. I spent a large portion of this past summer working at the New York branch of my company, and was offered a longer-term position, which, after a certain amount of deliberation, I decided to take. This will not be a permanent move — I welcome the opportunity, but cannot imagine completely uprooting myself from London. While the decision to take the change was not overly stressful, it lead me to spend time thinking about my work in a way that I haven’t done in many years, if ever.

This bout of introspection was partly instigated by an experience I had while still in New York earlier in the summer (please take note that by telling this story I make the post about people watching, and so appropriate for inclusion here on my blog). On one of the last weekends of my summer in the States, I spent time with some family friends. They are a wonderful couple with several small children. I have not seen the kids since the entire family spent a few weeks in Oxford several years ago when they (the children, not the entirely family) were quite literally babies, and so this was my first opportunity to properly meet them as individuals. They are delightfully behaved brats, um, I mean children, and we had a lovely afternoon and early dinner. The oldest child, a nine-year-old boy, was quite involved in the conversation, not speaking much, but obviously following the flow (this is not to say that the other children were not — I am simply focusing on this particular little ankle biter, uh, child). Not surprisingly, the topic of my possible transfer came up, and we discussed pros and cons for a while. The boy (I shall call him William, or Bill) listened for a time, and then asked me what it is that I do. This did not seem to be a particularly extraordinary question, and I replied that I am a consultant. This term did not mean much to him and so I explained in general terms what it is that I do. He nodded, thought for a moment, and then said: “So, people give you money to tell them what you do?” I must admit that this gave me pause. My first reaction was to correct him, wanting to say that there is far more to what I do than simply be bossy for pay, but realised that he had summed up exactly what I do. People give me money, and I tell them what to do — that’s just about it. Of course, I put a lot of thought into what I do, spending large amounts of time doing research, examining protocols, and analysing data, but in the end, it boils down to me telling people what I think they should do, and then collecting my fee. This was not a revelation to me — I am fully aware of what it is I do — I was just surprised by the way little William reacted to my description of my job, and by my own reaction to his response.

After commending him on his insight, I asked wee Bill if there was anything further he might like to know. After some consideration, he surprised me yet again, by asking: “Why are you a consultant?” I have been asked this question before, but typically by a job interviewer or prospective client, and so my usual response is full of vague statements regarding my desire to aid clients with my knowledge, training, and understanding etc. etc. etc. Something told me (what a strange turn of phrase that is!) that this spiel would not be particularly appropriate for this particular situation, and so I actually told the truth — something that would likely not be overly popular with the hiring staff at any typical consulting firm, and definitely not with any client. I told him that I love to be right. I have always felt that there has to be a best way to do everything, and very frequently know exactly what that is. I hate seeing inefficiency or waste, and at the same time am horrified by danger and so have never had to even consider the possibility of compromising safety for efficiency. This is all very well and good and normal for a consultant, but I have always gone one step farther — I not only adore telling people how to do things better, I simply can’t help myself. This trait is not particularly socially acceptable, tending in fact to annoy people rather, and so I was absolutely thrilled as a young person to discover that it was possible to actually make a career out of doing exactly what I love to do! Being paid to be a bossy know-it-all was a very seductive idea, I can tell you (note that I am not attempting a word-for-word transcription of what I told little William, but rather am trying to convey the gist of what I said). I studied a range of topics in school, university, and graduate study, and used this background to land me a position in a consulting firm. I now spend my time working with groups of people who bring me in to tell them just how they are doing their job, or running their company badly. I went on to tell some stories of my experience, and was struck by William’s clear interest in the topic. My description of my interests obviously resonated with him, and I told him that I would be glad to talk to him more in future. I won’t be surprised to see him studying economics 10 years from now when he gets to university.

After saying my goodbyes and returning to my apartment, I couldn’t help but continue to think about the question: “Why did I become a consultant?” I knew the answer — I had just spent 20 minutes discussing it with a nine-year-old — but still, the question bothered me. I knew that this was because I was in the process of deciding whether or not to accept the transfer to New York, but couldn’t come up with any way to set my mind at rest. Thus, I tidied up a bit, packed a few things, and went to bed. The next few days were completely taken up with preparations for my subsequent departure, and the constant activity kept all introspective thoughts buried beneath a mass of other, more pressing matters. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the terminal at JFK, waiting for my flight that I returned to the question of my chosen career. By this point, the question had evolved from “why did I become a consultant?”, to “what does being a consultant mean to me?” I have been working for many years, carried from day to day by my work, but haven’t really stepped out of it all to address why I do what I do — it is simply what I do. This may sound like a line from Doctor Seuss, but it is very true — when you fall into a routine, you tend to simply fallow it without too much question. It is very healthy to be reminded of why it is that you do what you do. This line of thought became very important to me, as I realised that I didn’t simply want to move on with my career because of stale momentum, I wanted to have a clear desire to continue.

Being a consultant really is a strange occupation. I get paid to be bossy, inquisitive, and manipulative. I think that what began to bother me in particular after speaking with wee William is that I so enjoy these traits that would be clearly undesirable in most situations. It forces me to wonder what this says about me? Am I really so unpleasant that I take pleasure in this sort of control? I do love manipulating people — this is not a trait I developed for my job, it is a part of me. I learned quite early that people are in many ways an open book. Every look, comment, gesture, and action means something about the person involved. Understanding these behavioural cues is really a matter of empathy — of feeling what it is that makes a person so act. Once you understand the motivation for an action you have an important piece of information about the person involved. With understanding comes power — if you know why a person does something you can very often use that knowledge to direct their behaviour.

Not everyone is easily readable. Some people are so very aware of the face they present to the world (for example, highly trained and talented actors) that you the observer can only see directly what they want you to see. These people are not necessarily unreadable — they are just not as easily read as others — the face that people decide to present to the world can actually tell you a lot about what a person thinks about him or herself. I do not claim mind reading abilities, just a definite and cultivated sense how people think and act.

Having consciously thought about all of this I come to the realisation that while the underlying ideas are perhaps not entirely pleasant or socially receptacle, I have channelled them into a constructive end, namely consulting. That is, I took what could be unpleasant character traits, and instead of trying to suppress or alter them, I used them and thereby made them positive traits. I do not claim that I am particularly special — I am not — I am simply pleased to note that my decision to further my consulting career can be seen as both something I want, and something that is good. I have managed to find what suits my particular personality, and that is a lovely thing. Now, as I start out on a slightly new path here in the US I will approach my work with more awareness, more gratefulness for what it means to me, and for the opportunities that have been, and are available to me.

Philosophy, it’s everywhere!

During my travels I find myself frequently falling into conversations with many sorts of people. While the topic can vary immensely, I have come to realise that almost every such conversation boils down to some sort of discussion of philosophy. Philosophy is so often viewed as something that dusty old men do with books and most likely quill pens, while sitting in stone towers lighted by dribbly candles. When I was younger, while I didn’t exactly think about philosophy in this manner, I did not really consider it to be something particularly relevant to my life. My interest in philosophy only really developed when I was completing a masters in neuroscience. Studying how the human brain functions is bound to make just about anybody crave some broad answers, and I got myself into several courses and a seminar on the topics of philosophy of perception and of mind. I rapidly discovered the everyday presence and relevance of philosophical thought. Much of what is called “Philosophy” is really just looking at the world and saying, “ok, what are you really?” This can entail deep, complex thought, or perhaps more often than one might think, it consists of simply opening one’s eyes (figuratively) and properly considering what is there. This is why I say that almost every conversation I have is in some way philosophical — no matter what the apparent topic is, we are really considering, and to a certain extent sharing notes on, the topic of the world and our place within it. I realise that this is somewhat clichéd of me, but I have found this discovery to be extremely valuable, and consider it to have made everyday conversation just that much more interesting.

Every once in a while, I have the lovely opportunity to have an actual purely philosophical discussion with some individual along the path of my travels. Recently, I made a short visit to Oxford to visit some friends. They introduced me to an acquaintance of them who was also in town for only a short visit. He is a professor of philosophy at a small American college (I was unfamiliar with the name) and we quickly fell into conversation. It turned out that he was just preparing a course for the fall term that would focus on the philosophy of mind and cognition. I asked him about the reading he was planning on assigning, and about some of the larger topics he hoped to cover. I was delighted to discover how much of the material I was familiar with, and we began debating several points. One topic of discussion has stayed with me, and after some thought, I decided to dash of a blog post about it, as I felt it an important point to consider. And so here follows a short meditation (to give a nod to the titles of the famous papers of Descartes) on a small aspect of the nature of the continuity of self — I hope you enjoy this slight variation in my usual sort of people watching ramblings. Although in fact, the concept of “people watching” is not in any way at a remove from the idea of philosophy as I have discussed it above, as the point of both is to observe our world and comment on what we see there. I hope that you my readers will enjoy thinking about these topics as much as I do. And keep in mind that the following thoughts are just that, thoughts, and not necessarily my absolute beliefs — I like to take a concept and explore it, seeing where it will take me, hoping to learn from the process, but not necessarily requiring that I hold fast by the views I express in the process.

Perhaps one of the greatest indications of the nature of the continuity of self is our obsession with “living in the present” — we are constantly telling each other to “slow down”, to “take things one step at a time”, or to “be in the moment”. Perhaps all of this could best be summed up by the simple mantra: “be here now”, which contains the basic essence of the above phrases. I bring up this human obsession with the present because I believe that it is a “symptom” as it were of the great difficulty we have in doing so. I personally find it exceptionally difficult to exist entirely “in the moment”, but rather find myself in a state of constant reference to the past and speculation about the future. For example, I am currently seated at my desk, observing the various objects thereupon as well as the other objects contained in the room about me. If I were to exist truly and completely “in the moment”, my thoughts and state of mind in general would pertain entirely and specifically to the sensory inputs that I am immediately experiencing. This is not at all a state of existence in which I find myself, currently or at any point in my past or future that can conceive of — for example, I am looking at my iPod, and rather than treating it simply as the immediate stimulus that it is (a small black rectangle with curved edges), I attribute to the stimulus (or rather collection of stimuli) my prior knowledge, understanding, and a memory of the object. That is to say, I do not simply see a black rectangle, I see my iPod, and in saying “my iPod”, I am referring to my overall experience of the object — I remember to some vague extent my purchasing of the iPod and my experiences in using it, I also to some degree predict the future of the object in recognizing its usefulness in listening to the new recording of Mozart’s 40th Symphony that I just acquired (a piece that then identifies itself in my mind with phrases of music, and the knowledge that it is one of my favourite works of music). All of these sorts of memories and predictions come in varying degrees of importance and specificity, some, such as my desire to listen to the Mozart symphony, are explicit thoughts that exist in my verbal stream of consciousness, while others, such as my memories of the device’s usefulness in the past, as well as its purchase, are far more vague, perhaps not even developing to the point of conscious consideration unless specifically called upon. In this same way, my entire experience at any one moment is guided to a large extent by my past experience, this holds true even for novel stimuli, as I am capable of drawing upon a wide library of prior experience that allows me to attempt speculation into the nature of a novel stimulus and possible prediction of its usefulness in the future.

Therefore, we must ask, “what is consciousness without prior experience (and by ‘prior experience’ I refer to memory of prior experiences)?” Or more importantly, “what is self without prior experience?” This question reminds me of Fitzgerald’s perhaps overly popularized but intriguing short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, for at the start of the story the character Benjamin Button is an adult individual with a newborn infant’s level of experience. Perhaps my greatest problem with the story lies in this fact, for Fitzgerald portrays the protagonist from the start as existing as a fully rational adult human being, which by necessity makes the claim that experience does not make the person. But in continuing my above question, how can there be a self without complex prior experience? I do not believe that an individual such as the utterly bizarre Mr. Benjamin Button would be able to interact with the environment to a level any higher than that of a newborn infant, no matter how complex his brain. This is because he would not have the library of experience mentioned above — he would not be able to look at an object and consider its nature in relation to extensive past experience; I would even claim that he could not have a true grasp of his own relation to the sensory information being received by his neural system. I make this last claim, because everything in our awareness of the physical world is perceived in the way I have described above — partly (or largely) through our prior experience with the surrounding physical world as represented by the sensory input we experience. Therefore, an individual without an extensive history of such experience could not conceivably “makes sense” of incoming sensory information.

Based on these ideas, I believe that we must accept the ultimate importance of memory in creating our mental experience, and from that basic understanding we can address several other important aspects of our mental existence, namely the continuity of self. As I have discussed above, we as humans are quite obsessed with the concept of living “in the moment” — we consider “living in the past” as a horrible waste of time, and living in a constant state of anticipation of the future as much the same evil, but as I have indicated, it is almost impossible to not, on some level, be in constant touch with memory of the past and prediction of the future. No matter what I look at, I cannot help drawing on my memories to identify the subject of my attention and relate its presence to my own existence. In fact, I would claim that the most constant part of my every experience is the presence of my memory of prior experience. From this I would claim that I am to a very large extent little more than an animated collection of experiences, and that all current and future experiences simply add to, modify, and enrich this collection of experiences. Therefore, I am not the same person from moment to moment, but rather, while I maintain a continuity of subjective experience through the continued presence of a stable core of past experience, that collection of experience changes with the addition of new experience and the forgetting of old, meaning that the person who called himself Taylor Andrews five years ago is not truly the same person as the one who calls himself Taylor Andrews today, or even subtly, the person who will call himself Taylor Andrews tomorrow. I believe that this is a logical conclusion, and while perhaps disconcerting, it does not seem hard to accept, at least to a certain degree. It is possible that there are other more stable portions of our psyche (most likely biologically based) that maintain a sense of who we are that transcends experience, but this could very well just be the fact that our prior experiences help shape our current and future experiences, thus creating a certain sense of stability of personality and self, and that our existence is really far more transient than we might like to believe.

So You Want to Write a Short Story

I love to write. While writing is not my current profession, I have had a certain amount of experience. I make a point of always writing well, even when the work in question is simply a report for a client. While visiting friends a while ago, the conversation turned to short fiction. I love reading and writing short stories. There is something particularly magical about a well-crafted story. While I do not claim the ability to write such a short story, I like to think that I can create something that is at least enjoyable to read. The friends I was with at the time are not writers, but share my love of short stories, and the conversation turned to the process of writing them. Joking, I claimed the ability to write an entire short story in one sitting. After dinner, my friends called my bluff, and the evening turned into a bit of a game, where I pretended to present a lecture on “How to write a short story”. These friends of mine have a rather posh entertainment room, complete with a large projection screen and hookups for a computer. I discussed the process, and typed the story before their eyes with much laughter, comments, and jokes on all sides. The entire process took maybe an hour. Our fooling about consumed a large amount of that time, and so the process took longer than it might have if I were working by myself. I have put the story into its own page at the top of this blog [link] so that you can read it if you so desire. Here I will attempt to briefly recreate some of the fake lecture I gave. Please keep in mind that this was done as a jest, and is not to be taken too seriously.

When writing a story it is often best to know the last line before you start. This helps keep you interested during the process. So, let’s pick a good one for this story, how about: “He stood, watching the flames lick at the new fuel for a moment longer, and then went back to his book.” This line includes lots of possibility, and provides us with something interesting to aim for. The next step is to take this last line and examine it for the presence of a good title. I always give my stories titles either at the beginning of the writing process, or while writing the first page. Coming up with a title early gives you something to fall back on if you are stuck. That is, if you don’t know what to write, just think about what would be in a story with the title you’ve already given it. Since the last line we have just come up with seems to hint at cold weather and a certain cozy feeling, let’s call this story “The Blizzard”.

So, we have a last line and a title. Next we must decide some of the particulars, for example what will the overall feel of the story be? This sort of thing doesn’t require any great thought, just jump in and start making decisions. Thus, let’s decide that the story will be a bit-dreamlike, and about a man’s evening at home during a blizzard. OK, We’re making great progress! Now for some deeper stuff — people really like it when there is some deeper meaning to literature. So, let’s include something along the lines of a man getting in touch with his inner child. That sort of cliché is bound to sell. What next? Well, at this point I like to jump in and let my fingers tell me how the story is going to start. Without giving it any thought at all, let’s see what sort of first paragraph I’ll come up with. “William turned his mind to the cold drifting snow outside his window. He had no way of knowing how long he had been dreaming, but had been roused by a pop from the fireplace and reminded of the pressing cold without. The sun had long since set, and the dark window returned his reflection, touched occasionally by a single lighted snowflake.

Gosh, I knew I could trust my fingers to come up with something fitting. I know that we’re heading in the right direction because there is a clear connection between this opening, and conclusion we already wrote. Lovely! Let’s keep going. There will have to be a bit about the chap thinking about the snow, and maybe we can fit in something about his emotional reaction — something slightly forbidding maybe. Good. Now for a bit of a childhood flashback — let’s have him make hot chocolate the way his mother used to. Oh! We haven’t decided on a country — let’s set it in New England. Ok, now that we’ve had a bit of a flashback, time for something from his currently life. Ok, things are flowing well — time for the dreamlike state to seep in. Enter mysterious young child with same name as protagonist! Very deep that — positively delightful. From here on out it’s just a matter of letting the story finish itself — letting it get more and more dreamlike, and build to some really deep, thought-provoking line. Hmmmm, how about we put them both at the window and see what happens: “It’s very beautiful” said the boy turning back to the window. The man agreed and turned back as well. “But it hides things” remarked the boy after a pause “What?” asked the man turning back to the boy. The boy looked back up at him and said, “It’s just like time — it can even hide you from yourself.”

Now isn’t that nice? And did you notice how the language changed slightly? I made overuse of “the boy” and “the man” — it creates a vague mistiness that adds to the dreaminess of everything. Now we just need to have the man wake up and we’ve made it to the final line that we came up with way back at the start: The fire popped and roused him from his dreams. He got up from his chair after carefully marking his place, and put another log on. He stood, watching the flames lick at the new fuel for a moment longer, and then went back to his book.

See how easy it is to write a short story? There’s really nothing to it. Of course, writing a good short story is an entirely different matter and not something that can be put together as quickly and mechanically as I have demonstrated (I assume — not having written many good short stories I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter). But for most everyday uses, this sort of rapidly assembled affair is perfectly usable, and good enough for most needs. As I like to think about it, since everything these days seems to be so rapidly, shoddily, and cheaply constructed, why not literature? It really would be foolish to expect last century’s quality and commitment to good work to continue to exist in this century’s throwaway culture. I mean seriously! Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed this brief demonstration of how to write a short story and will stay tuned for further lectures. Next time perhaps we will explore the complexities of writing modern poetry. Have a good night everybody.

New England Village Fête

I have been back in London for a little while now, and I must admit that I am already feeling a bit nostalgic for New England. Despite being very busy, my time in America was truly lovely, and I am seriously considering the offer of a transfer to the New York branch of my company. While I love England dearly, I feel that it would be nice to have a change, and while I have not decided definitely, I am discussing the possibility with my CEO.

One of my favourite places in America is without doubt the state of Vermont. As I previously posted, I have made multiple weekend visits to the “green mountain state” to visit friends there. Perhaps part of the draw is that the Vermont countryside reminds me of places in Scotland, and I can almost imagine hearing my Grandmother’s voice calling me in for tea, but I find much more than that to attract me to the little wedge-shaped state situated just under Canada. Vermont is quite unlike anything else I have seen in America. While there are urban areas, there is always a beauty, and a realness, if you can say that, about everything. It is difficult to describe the gentle peace that comes with wandering through the woods, or of spending a few hours on a farm fixing fences and moving cows between pastures (my idea of a mini break might be a bit different from yours). If I do move to the states for any period of time, I will try very hard to position myself as close to Vermont as possible.

During one of my final weekends in New England I made the trip to Vermont one last time. There is a tradition in the states to hold “County Fairs”. These (typically) one-weekend events are very similar to the more British phenomenon of the village fête, not that such comparisons are not particularly valuable. The important thing to know is that it is traditional for a county to put together an annual festival involving animal showing, large quantities of concession stand fried food, and a midway of rides seemingly designed to mark that food “return to sender”. I had attended at least one of these fairs every summer I spent in New England as a child, and was delighted by the opportunity to visit another after such a long time. I flew to Vermont on a Friday afternoon and met my friends at the airport in Burlington. We decided to make an evening of it, and I took them out to a very pleasant restaurant “L’Amante”. It is situated just off the main shopping area of the town. Burlington is a very small city, but charming, and I enjoy poking about when I am there. If anyone finds themselves in town and has a bit of time to kill, it is very easy to do so on “Church Street” — a pedestrian marketplace lined with shops, cafés and restaurants. If you are looking for L’Amante, it is just down a side street called College Street.

Anyway, the next morning we got ourselves together and made the short drive over to the fair. It wasn’t particularly busy, as we were on the early side, but we enjoyed ourselves as we wandered through the animal exhibits, petting goats and discussing breeds of cow. Farmers were busy fetching hay and water, and I saw several children braiding a Percheron’s mane. While I do enjoy spending time with animals, I must admit that events such as this provide an unparalleled people watching opportunity. At one point I bought a maple syrup flavoured ice cream and stationed myself at an outdoor table where I could observe the passing masses. After a while, a man sat at an adjacent place, and in the easy, comfortable way that works in the country, but would get you tasered in the city, struck up a conversation with me. He was perhaps in his 50s, not old, but starting to grey and run towards a paunch. It turned out that he was a local farmer and was actually going to have several horses entered into the horse pull that would be taking place later in the afternoon. The man, let’s call him Charlie, was witty and definitely enjoying his day. While we only spoke for a short time, he made a comment that made me think. It wasn’t a particularly nice or PC comment, but it was undeniably true. After a group of particularly large persons walked by, Charlie leaned over to me and said: “Have you noticed that many of the people who go to the fair haven’t made very many good life decisions?” My first inner reaction was to deny the statement, but just then, a woman walked past dragging a little girl by one hand, and holding a cigarette in the other. She had to have been one of the biggest women I have ever seen, and it seemed that almost every visible inch of her was covered by tattoos and piercings. I was reminded of the woman “Murgatroyd” I saw in a London Starbucks and blogged about a while back, except that while Murgatroyd was skeletally thin, this woman could probably be harpooned and boiled down to use for lamp oil. I couldn’t know anything about the woman’s condition, or how she had come to be who she was, but I was forced to admit that there had been some bad decisions made along the way.

I moved my gaze and saw a man buying a sausage. He wasn’t nearly as large as the woman had been, but he was clearly working on it. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and had a tattoo that I realised had to have been an entire dragon on his back, as tips of wings ran over his shoulders and down his arms, and a head rested on the back of his neck with flame down one side — all in muted strange colours, and distorted by rolls of flesh. Next, my ear was caught by a loud conversation being had nearby by two women who were discussing the merits of different brands of cigarettes, while their young children played definitely within earshot. I can hardly imagine the amount of second-hand smoke those children have already been exposed to, and there is no doubt that they will be smoking as well, as soon as they possible can.

While I take an incredibly open-minded view to most people, I found myself reluctantly agreeing with Charlie. I didn’t want to, I wanted everything to be as wonderful as the weather and the maple-flavoured cotton candy I could smell being spun in the next building. I wanted to think of everyone as mature and well-reasoning adults, but Charlie’s comment was painfully accurate and more far-reaching than maybe even he realised at the time. The world is full of people who haven’t made very good life decisions. Everyday people become addicted to drugs, eat themselves into heart failure and strokes, smoke cancer into their lungs, start wars, and squander money (the USA managed to loose about $9-billion recently [link]). And for every person who brings bad luck onto him or herself, think of the number who have no choice in the matter — the thought is so painful it gets blocked out far too much of the time. No matter how much I might have liked to argue with Charlie, I had no ammunition with which to fight, and instead had to nod my head and murmur agreement.

The Sweet Susurrations of Summer

There is something simply smashing about summer. It inspires foolish writers such as myself to partake of particularly dangerous amounts of alliteration (it is simply so strikingly difficult to stop once one has started!), and otherwise perfectly sensible persons to read works of “literature” with all the literary merit of a bank statement. Summer is a particularly varied season — there is early summer, when it is still unclear whether or not spring is truly over; there are those endless middle days, when the future stretches out seemingly without end; and there is late summer, when it is still hot, but yet the air is filled with a strange nostalgic melancholy and every day is even more precious simply because they are so much more clearly limited.

As a child I spent almost every summer on my aunt’s New England farm, and the slightest hint of summer weather sends me on a Proustian voyage to the lush fields and rolling mountains. This summer has been my first in many years that I have spent a significant portion of in America, and I am very glad of the opportunity (even with the highly unpleasant heat wave we have just recently suffered through). While I am very busy in the city during the week, I have been able to take several weekend trips into the countryside to stay with friends at their lovely house in the furthest reaches of the state of Vermont.

Although America’s ground transportation (buses, coaches, trains, etc.) infrastructure has seemingly been designed by children playing with model sets (and even this description might be unfair to the children), I have found it very easy (if not cheap) to travel almost entirely by air when going farther than an easy drive. I am very fortunate in that my company is willing to pay for this slight extravagance, and so trips to Vermont are as easy as a one-hour flight and hardly any extra fuss. This is of course when not bothered by baggage to check or strange security situations (fodder for a different post).

This particular weekend in question I had arrived at the gate somewhat early. I had a stack of papers I needed to go through, as well as several emails to proof before sending to clients, and so I had decided that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to simply go through security early and settle in with my work. I enjoy airports. I find them particularly calming — almost Zen-like. After passing through the fuss and bustle of check-in and security, you find yourself in a strange alternate universe where nothing is quite like it is elsewhere. I like to think that walking through security is my way of going through Alice’s looking glass — on the other side, wonders might be found. I know people who dislike airports. They claim them to be stressful and annoying. This is untrue. Airports are a magical world. The trick to seeing them as such is simply to constantly use the eyes of your childhood self, and give yourself over to the feelings of wonder.

It is possible to come across almost any sort of person while in an airport, and airports are unquestionably one of the greatest people watching locations of all time. At almost any moment there is something fascinating to watch or listen to. The couple gazing into each other’s eyes could very well be newlyweds, and just behind them is an older couple having an argument seemingly over who will be responsible for the hand baggage while the other takes a walk. There are always large numbers of people reading various materials. Once this was one of my favourite manners of determining something about a person, but now that electronic reading devices are becoming more prevalent, it is not so easy to tell what a person is reading. I find this sad, as I have entered more than one interesting conversation after an exchange of comments with someone nearby regarding reading materials, and starting a conversation with “I see you have the latest Kindle!” just isn’t the same as “So, I see you’re reading the latest Discworld novel! What do you think?” But still, while specifics change, the general aura of airport wonder remains. I have enough airport stories to fill a book (well, a short one at least), and intend to continue to share them with you.

A short while after I had settled down to sort through the work I had brought, a couple sat down not far from me. I was busy at the time and didn’t give them much thought. They sat in silence for a while, but eventually the woman spoke, and having just finished editing a report, I was more attentive to my surroundings, and so heard her words clearly: “Will we truly never be able to return?” As you might imagine, this statement instantly intrigued me, and while continuing to maintain a look of involvement in my computer, I focused my attention on the couple. During one of my restless glances about the terminal I managed to catch a good look at the couple. They were fairly young and decidedly well dressed. In fact, there was really nothing particular about them to catch anyone’s attention. After the woman spoke, there was a pause, and I wondered if she would get a response. Finally, the man said softly: “No, it is a simple impossibility”. The two continued to sit in silence. They didn’t have much in the way of hand baggage, and they were not reading. My imagination gained momentum and took off. The possibilities flew through my mind — were they spies? Illegal immigrants? Felons running from conviction? I could think of seemingly endless situations, and so I listened closely for further clues.

After several minutes, the man spoke again: “It would be foolish to ignore the truth”. This statement did not aid me in any way, and I waited to hear the woman’s response, which was only a short time in coming and was a bit more spirited: “George, how morbid we are! How stupid!” I could really make no sense of their conversation, but continued to listen because I hadn’t given up hope that they would say something enlightening before the flight began boarding.

Rather surprisingly to me, George laughed lightly and put his arm around the woman, upon which she laughed as well. I was completely confounded — my imagination had just about quit, and I really couldn’t come up with any plausible explanation for what I was hearing. Fortunately for my peace of mind, the mystery then resolved itself quickly and incredibly, almost foolishly simply. George leaned over and pulled a stapled stack of papers out of his bag. He flipped through a ways and then slapped his knee with the papers, saying: “damn it, not ‘It would be foolish to ignore the truth’! That’s not even in this scene! It’s ‘Perhaps it is all really for the better’! I give up on this scene, it needs a rewrite”.

Needless to say, I was completely thrilled! The truth turned out to be something that I really would never have though of: the two of them weren’t actually having a conversation — they were running lines from a play! I remember being slightly confused by a similar situation once on a Paris metro, but that group of people had been much more obviously running lines. This time, I had actually been taken in. Thinking back I realised that their words had been a bit stilted and strange, but in the moment I had simply considered that to be due to some stress that they were under.

Being moderately resourceful, I managed to queue up just behind the couple, and not being particularly shy with strangers (I take the view that at the worst I will never see them again) I mentioned that I heard them running lines from a play and that I was curious as to the nature of the piece. Apparently the name of the play is “The Sweet Susurrations of Summer”, and the two of them are part of a group that writes and shares pieces of theatre. The play I heard them going over had been chosen to be presented at some meeting or other in Canada, and they were on their way there (they were meeting friends in Vermont and driving from there). They told me that while the play (a collaborative effort on their part) was generally absurdist in nature, their main goal in writing it was to convey the beautiful timelessness and joy of a perfect late summer evening. They had chosen the alliterative title (which I commandeered and made fun of at the beginning of this post) simply as a working name — planning on changing it to something like “Summer’s End”, or (stealing a title from the American writer Ray Bradbury) “All Summer in a Day”, but have decided to keep it as “The Sweet Susurrations of Summer” for now as they have found it to be strangely effective.

I was struck by the power of the emotions behind what we were talking about. There is something so fantastic about summer — something so joyful. But I wondered if we would still consider it to be so if the seasons never changed but rather remained at all times the perfect late summer day? I don’t think we would find such an existence remarkable — there would never be the smell of the first lawn cutting, or the crisp feel of a day when summer is clearly drawing to a close, but yet still has not yet given up all of its warmth. I guess that the perfect endless summer day would not be so perfect after all. The more I have thought, the more I have come to appreciate that as surprising as it may seem, it actually is possible to have too much of a good thing. Saying it here I feel almost foolish, as it is so simple and so often stated, but I do not think that I actually ever truly believed it until just now.

I gave the couple my card and told them I would love to read their play if they were ever willing to send me a copy. I then boarded the airplane and flew off to meet my friends in beautiful Vermont, where I spent the rest of the weekend sitting in the shade, watching the mountains in the distance and blue herons eating fish from a pond. In fact, I had several days worth of perfect summer, and will admit that I felt I could have gone on that way forever.

The Elephant

While the art of people watching consists almost entirely of observation and listening (although eavesdropping can be an art in its own right), occasionally the field of play is broadened to encompass an actual conversation. I like to think of these interactions as impromptu interviews, and rather than become annoyed by the slightly batty old woman with the fluffy knitting wool sitting next to me on the bus and blathering on about her niece’s boyfriend’s cousin’s daughter, I take the opportunity to catch a glimpse into an actual story of human existence. This habit frequently presents me with periods of extreme boredom, but I consider this a reasonable price to pay for the rare joys of a really interesting encounter.

Those of you who follow my escapades as I recount them me here, on twitter, and on facebook, know that I am currently in America — during my recent transatlantic flight, I met a most singularly interesting character. People don’t always talk to their seatmates on flights, but seemingly more often than not, when trapped in an uncomfortable seat many thousands of miles above the ground, people become talkative. This gentleman was perhaps in his late 40s; not old, but aging, and with a gentlemanly air about him. He was wearing a light suit, with a loosely, but elegantly, tied day cravat at his neck. In my experience, these sorts of people do not engage in frivolous conversation, and so I was rather surprised when he commented on the book I was reading.

I am a big fan of Agatha Christie. I have read a large number of her books, and frequently take several with me when travelling. In fact, I am just as likely to grab one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels, but importantly this trip I had chosen to read one of Christie’s later novels, “Elephants Can Remember”. I had been delighted to discover that it was another of her novels including both Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot, and had already read several chapters while waiting to board the flight. I then read throughout taxiing and takeoff, as is my custom. Sometime into the flight, my seatmate turned to me and simply said “and I never forget”. “Sorry?” I replied, without much interest, for I was in the middle of a fun section concerned with Poirot and Mrs. Oliver’s attempts to puzzle out the oral histories Mrs. Oliver spends her time collecting. The man paused a second and then said: “Elephants remember, and I never forget.” At this point I was attempting to remember if he had accepted the steward’s offers of Champaign or not, and trying to decide whether or not I had been seated next to a recently released basket case. Choosing to give the man the benefit of the doubt (as I usually do), I asked him what it was that he remembers. His reply was as succinct as the previous two utterances: “Everything”. [NOTE: I have always felt strongly that the final full stop should go outside the quotes unless it is an actual part of a quoted complete sentence, so please do not get angry in regards to this]

I must admit that I was intrigued. This did not feel like a typical conversation opener, and I decided that no matter how crazy the man might be, he would have something interesting to say. It turned out that he is one of those rare individuals with unlimited recall. That is, he claimed the ability to remember absolutely everything he has ever experienced. While this might seem to be an impossibility, there have been documented cases of such individuals in the past (for example, the Russian journalist Solomon Shereshevsky). My inner neuroscientist perked up its ears, and pushed me to continue the conversation. My seatmate (I will call him Oliver) seemed to be almost desperate to talk, and I quickly found myself being treated to a detailed description of his abilities. I was puzzled by his need to discuss his memory, but I had a feeling that he would explain at some point if I let him talk long enough. I considered telling Oliver about the degree I have in neuroscience, but decided that that might inhibit him rather than draw him out, so I restrained myself to only making informed and interested comments.

Something Oliver said quite late in the conversation has stayed with me ever since: “It is not as simple as remembering, it is as difficult as not forgetting.” Upon being asked to explain, he said: “I remember everything — every single thing! I am completely and utterly unable to forget anything. If I read an advert in the newspaper, I remember it forever in perfect detail. If I hear a bit of conversation on the street, I am stuck with it forever. And the worst is, I remember every single thing that I have ever done, or that has ever been done to me. Have you ever lain awake at night, going over something you did that you regret, or perhaps even worse, something you haven’t done and regret even more powerfully? I remember every single thing! Can you imagine? I remember every harsh word I speak, and every harsh word spoken to me. I am faced forever with the sad eyes of every person I have ever hurt in any way. Can you possibly imagine!?”

I was struck by his emotion, but not surprised. I know that it is common for people with complete recall to loose touch with sanity. Humans are not designed to function with a perfect memory. Forgetfulness is a lubricant of society, and I find it horrifying to attempt to imagine what it must be like for someone who cannot forget. I know that I am not alone in my frequent complaints about my own forgetfulness — I have great difficulty remembering people’s names and more than once have found myself driving to the shops only to realise that I’ve forgotten what it was I had intended to buy — but now I understand more clearly what it means to forget. Being able to remember is not the same as being unable to forget, and for Oliver, the ability to forget is a hidden treasure, a superpower that he can only dream about.

Oliver and I continued our conversation for some time. He could be very witty, and we discussed a wide range of topics in addition to his memory. It turned out that he was flying to America to visit a distant cousin of his who lived in the rural Midwest. He had recently experienced a nervous breakdown and spent several weeks in some form of assisted care facility. He had recovered well, but realised that his only hope of being able to live comfortably would be to move to an environment without the overpowering and constant stimulation of the big city (he was from Liverpool). He was feeling a bit as though he had failed, and I could see what he meant. He had felt it should be possible to live a normal, or even heightened life with his powers of memory, but instead they had broken him, and he was being forced to run away in search of respite. As we landed, I wished him well, and he gave me his card in case I ever wanted to get in touch with him (he had worked in my area of expertise for many years prior to his breakdown).

Watching Oliver drag his bag down the terminal in the direction of his next connection, I decided that while I will always treasure the powers of memory I do have, I will treasure my ability to forget just as dearly.

To America, land of opportunity (for those with a sexy British RP)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man (or woman) in possession of an accent originating in the British Isles must be thoroughly fascinating to Americans. While this corruption of Austen’s great opening line is perhaps not as witty as I might like to think, it is decidedly, almost frighteningly true. I have spent quite a lot of time in North America; as I child I often stayed with relatives in New England (what I was raised to think of as “The Colonies”…), and now as an adult, I seem to find myself returning to the “New World” remarkably frequently. While I have become relatively familiar and comfortable with the various American twangs and bizarre turns of phrase, Americans seem forever surprised by my own vocal utterances. I remember as a very young child attempting to explain to one of my American cousins what it was I meant by a “Zebra Crossing”. I did not refer to them as such while in the states for the rest of my childhood, as not only do Americans find the term quaint, they also laugh at what they consider to be an entirely foolish pronunciation of “zebra”. What I learned from this experience was that not only did Americans sound different from British people, but also that they didn’t exactly speak the same language. It has since become a bit of a game for me to seek out these oddities of American English, and learn them so that I can either blend into, or stand out from American culture as I so desire.

When my intention is to blend in, I make use of my New England accent and attempt to avoid what Americans would refer to as “Briticisms” (or “Britishisms”, but try saying it three times fast). While I like to think that I am very successful in carrying off my disguise, I do find myself occasionally in a state of confusion upon discovering some new lack of clear translation between British and American English. For example, I thoroughly confused a friend by telling him not to leave his car “ticking over” — it turns out that the Americans call this “idling”, which upon further consideration appears to be perhaps the better descriptive term.

Although I do spend a large amount of my time in the States “blending in”, I have found that my Britishness, when used appropriately, can become essentially a super power. While at home, a clean, sophisticated Received Pronunciation tends to get me called a stuck up prig, in America, land of opportunity, it often has the effect of expediting service in most restaurants, coffee shops, and other places of business. A proper RP is not entirely necessary, but it is particularly effective if assumed at least moderately realistically, as Americans are exposed to this institutionally soulless accent most frequently, through their incessant watching of television and film (or through listening to the occasional radio broadcast).

Since RP exudes such an air of polish and priggish sophistication, it is not appropriate for all situations. Over the years I have developed a fairly wide spectrum of different accents and personas. It can be quite striking to observe the effects of a short phrase, peppered with highly idiomatic British slang such as for example, “Why don’t we have a quick butchers at that little shop where those bleeding smugglers were done by the police”. Americans don’t have the faintest idea what this sentence means, but they find it completely irresistible (for you American readers: butcher’s hook = look, bleeding=common expletive, and to be “done” by the police does not mean what you think it does, but rather means essentially, “to be caught”). Such phrases can be wonderful conversation starters, or enliveners. If I decide to make someone’s acquaintance, I find this sort of more proletarian manner of speech to be highly effective in developing peoples’ interest in me.

Despite the fact that I receive great enjoyment from of cultivating different accents and styles of speech, I must admit that Americans do not have a very good ear for variations in the British accent itself. In fact, I have discovered that Americans even have great difficulty noting the differences between an Australian accent and a British one. Therefore, it is not absolutely necessary for one to be too precise with the inflection and pronunciation of the words — but I take pride in doing things properly, even if the audience is ignorant.

No matter what the situation, I am repeatedly struck by the powerful impression my speech can have on the majority of the American population. This is not to say that Americans are in any way inferior to those of us from the UK (one need only consider the superiority of American plumbing to see how untrue such a belief would be — I mean honestly, are they the only country that truly understands plumbing!?), but to point out (in a not particularly original manner) the amazing appeal of a British accent for the American people. I would not be surprised if there have been studies done in this area. I suppose it has something to do with how very young the country is — they must still look to England as the older, wiser parent. They may have pushed aside the paternal hand, but still look up to the former protector.

Starbucks, orange hair, and a caution to the young

I must admit that I, like so many others, frequent the scourge of the small, friendly neighbourhood coffee shop — that devilishly charming and yet cancerously invasive blight on the face of humanity — Starbucks. I used to feel guilty about this fact, but at some point the guilt got washed away in the convenience. I also find a certain comfort to being able to walk into a Starbucks in almost any country and know exactly what to expect. Although I do continue the pretence of rejecting the organisation like so many others, by rebelling against the utter stupidity of the size names — I insist on calling them “the smallest”, “the middle size”, and “the bloody great big one”. But I digress.

Starbucks (and certain other similar brand coffee shops) is unlike other chain restaurants in that it draws a more varied and rapid-moving crowd; within the span of a single visit one day I saw a suited man with iPhone, a hassled-looking mother with two young obnoxious children, several men with that look that says “thank god for coffee breaks”, and the usual collection of random grey individuals that seem to fill out every place in London, like extras in a rather lightly-scripted television drama. This constant flow of varied and potentially interesting individuals makes for a really lovely people watching location. While it is true that a majority of said people watching is of the most mundane character, one occasionally has a most interesting encounter. I recently had one of those experiences; an experience that demonstrates exactly how marvellous a people watching location Starbucks can truly be.

I had already ordered (a “bloody great big skim milk latte”) and was waiting for my order to be filled, when a rather amazing character entered the shop. I heard the door open, and while I did not turn immediately, as that would be rather too obvious, my senses tracked the sound of the new possible people watching objective. Right off I knew that the sounds were not those of walking, but rather of a person in a powered conveyance. Still listening carefully, I turned my attention first to the CD display, then to a seemingly abstract poster, and finally, (feigning randomness) to the scene behind me. I was struck first by a burst of orange. Not since last watching an episode of “Are You Being Served” had I seen such amazingly orange hair — it was really most shocking. But I doubt if even Mollie Sugden would have approved, as this woman’s hair was not even arranged in a stylish coiffure, but rather hung limp and unattractively.

The woman was older, definitely past middle age, and wrinkled in a way that seemed to scream smoker. The prune effect was enhanced by her large number of piercings, which occupied multiple locations on her ears, nose, lip, and eyebrow. These pieces of metal dragged at her loose skin, and to say that the effect was disturbing would be a definite understatement. I had enough presence of mind not to stare fixedly in horror, but rather to keep my gaze moving, as though I were used to seeing such people everyday.

Through careful manoeuvring I managed to gain a better vantage point, and continued my observations slightly more discreetly. I couldn’t help wondering who this person could be; what sort of past lead to this woman’s present appearance? I noted with horror that she had multiple tattoos on her arms, which were all too visible thanks to her sleeveless shirt. These tattoos had obviously been created many years in the past, and now they had stretched and wrinkled and distorted until they had become nothing more than exceedingly bizarre-seeming birthmarks or strange scars; there was no way that the previous identities of the images could be determined from a distance, and I doubt anyone could have the stomach to make a detailed investigation.

While watching this woman, and wondering about her past, I was struck by a sudden realisation — this is what all of those young kids will look like someday! This woman was once one of those pale kids smoking on street corners. I was able to imagine her with her spiky hair, painted fingernails, and studded dog collar; this is what lies in wait for all of those punks (well, those who survive long enough anyway). I wonder if so many young people would get extra piercings and extensive tattoos if they knew that this is what they have to look forward to? I doubt it.

Finally my coffee was ready. As I was leaving, the old lady motored up to the counter, and just before I closed the door I heard the chap at the till say, “The usual Murgatroyd?” and the returning croak, “yep”.

Maybe I’ll go back tomorrow.

Celebrity Watching! Oh, wait. Never mind…

It happens to all of us at some point or another. Maybe at the airport, or perhaps at that fancy restaurant you’ve been saving up to bring your best girl to. You are positive that you have spotted a celebrity. The reaction is typically something along the lines of “Oh my god, that is…? Yes! Wow!” After the initial shock of seeing someone in the flesh whom you were perhaps unsure existed other than on book jackets or in major films, you find yourself running through a rather odd series of emotions associated with a somewhat strange decision making process. This experience will of course vary immensely, but typically runs a similar course (though with the possibility of halting at any step).

The first impulse is to run forwards, thrust out paper and pen, and beg for an autograph while fawning most sick-makingly. For some, the process ends here, but for others, this is just the beginning. For those continuing, the next step involves a sudden burst of self-glorifying, imagined maturity, involving the interested party deciding against the mad rush forward, as it wouldn’t do to look like one of those immature people who do such things. Here again is a possible end to the progression, as most such sightings are rapid affairs, taking only a short period of time, and thus not allowing for a continuation. But for others, the process has really only just got under way. The next step is a sort of weighing of the value of one’s own personal dignity against the value of a brief but close and personal encounter with a celebrity. This portion of the process can be quite unpleasant, especially for individuals with a perhaps inflated self-regard, who might rather not think of themselves as capable of stooping to such lows as rushing a celebrity and acting like a teenage girl with her head cut off (or do I mean chicken? Oh bother, I do seem to have mixed a metaphor with a quaint saying). In my experience, self-respect tends to loose the battle, and even distinguished businessmen find themselves patting their pockets for a pen.

Once the decision has been finalised, the approach must be made. This can happen in a large number of ways, but typically takes on one of four general forms. First we have the “Rush”. The “Rush” is the previously mentioned repressed schoolgirl approach — in other words, a rapid, noisy attack, likely involving such phrases as “Oh my god! I can’t believe it’s you! I love your movies/books/television adverts!” and “Please oh please oh please sign this scrap of paper! PLEASE! And do please let me have your children”. Second is the “I’m going to be smooth”. The “I’m going to be smooth” is a rather awkward approach, if not perhaps as remarkably so as the “Rush”. Individuals typically attempt this approach after signing a truce with their self-respect requiring them to endeavour to maintain it. This is the typical style of the aforementioned distinguished businessman. Third is the “Not for me, for my cousin’s best friend”. The “Not for me, for my cousin’s best friend” is for people who would like to think that their self-respect has won the battle, and that they have managed to develop a plan of attack guaranteed to leave their character untainted. This style of approach can of course be take by anyone, but is most typically associated with priggish schoolboys on holiday and older people who feel they should be above such behaviour. Finally, there is the “Why hallo there”, which is the approach of the entirely unselfconscious. This of course occurs almost infinitely rarely, as such an individual is quite uncommon and difficult to find.

As you can see, there is a lot involved in approaching a celebrity, and the process can be quite soul-searchingly difficult. There is the spotting, the deliberation, the approach, the asking for the autograph (part of the approach really), and then there is the awkward “wait, that was it!?” Amazingly, this progression only runs to completion in a very small number of cases. In many situations, the process take a course more along the lines of: the spotting, the deliberation, the approach, and the “oh bugger”. This is of course what happens when it turns out that the individual in question is not in fact the believed celebrity, but rather is so little like him or her that you are forced to question your own sanity.

This entire exercise can lead over repeated exposure, to instability and eventually institutionalisation, therefore forcing me to caution all those of you who feel a desire to add celebrity watching to their regular people watching activities. I highly recommend you leave such specialised work to the professionals — tabloid writers and paparazzi.

Leaving Paris

I left Paris yesterday. Before catching the train at Gare de Nord I said goodbye.

There are so many ways to say “goodbye”. Some people don’t believe in goodbyes; they simply walk away. It’s not that they don’t mind leaving, or that they do not care about what they are leaving behind, rather, they are simply moving on. These people fully understand that they may or may not return, and in knowing this, they see no value in the formality of saying “goodbye”. Other people hate to say goodbye. This sort of person clings to the past, refusing to let go, and distrusting the move forwards. This is the person you will see partaking of extended emotional departure scenes at airport gates and train stations. For them, every “goodbye” heralds a change, and change is to be feared. There are also those for whom saying goodbye is routine — for one reason or another their lives have given them cause to say goodbye so many times that the process has begun to lose its significance. Perhaps the best example of such an individual would be a business traveler who leaves on frequent trips, mobile to ear and briefcase in hand; no backward glances or thoughts.

If I fall into any of these categories I would be forced to admit that I belong to the second. Despite my constant movement, the constant change and motion that is my life, I have always clung to the past. I hate to say goodbye more than almost anything else I can imagine. So when it comes time to say goodbye to Paris I have a very specific ritual. Somehow in ritualizing my departure, I remind myself that this has happened before, and most certainly will occur again. The ritual itself becomes a link from past to present to future. So long as I continue the pattern, I know I will return.

I finished packing the night before I left. I had never truly unpacked, as I had been expecting to continue on to Italy yesterday rather than go to London. Therefore packing was a simple matter of folding and slipping things back into their rightful places. My ritual began yesterday morning. Despite my exhaustion I awoke early and got my traditional breakfast of hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat. I then walked to the Louvre. I am sure that there are many locations where one could say goodbye to Paris, but for me there is only one — the Louvre. For as clichéd as it may sound I believe Paris, or at least my experience of Paris, is embodied within the walls of that ancient palace.

Never knowing exactly when I might be staying in, or passing through Paris, I always keep a valid card of entry with me. I obtain this card from the history department at my old university, who arranges that I be credited as a student of art. This card allows me to avoid the long lines and incessant noise of tourists by providing entry to the small almost hidden rear student’s entry. After entering in this discreet manner, I begin my wandering. While I know the location of my desired destination, I attempt to re-create that first overpowering experience of stumbling upon Her. To attain this goal, I began walking in the direction I know to be correct, but without any reference to maps or to posted signs. On my way I pause and greet old friends, pieces of the collection I have seen so many times before. The Louvre holds many treasures, and during one month-long stay in Paris, I made it my business to visit every room of the great Museum. This experience created a somehow possessive feeling within me; this space belongs to me more than it does to the visitors who simply wander through on their audio-guided tours — I belong here.

As I wander, time slips away; my train is not until later — I do not worry.

Suddenly, there She is. This time I have arrived from a side gallery and find myself looking up at Her. Yes, there She is: La Victoire de Samothrace. Despite being headless, her expression is clear. She stands braced against the wind, wings spread, garments confused. She is Joy, Glory, Light, Beauty — She, is Paris.

I stand for a minute, eyes on her. My thoughts are not specific; I am simply watching her, contemplating her age, her antiquity. My mind touches on her history, both in the ancient world, and now, after rediscovery. After a timeless minute I look around me and see others — people who, like me, understand her. We catch each other’s eyes briefly, nod gently and return our eyes to the Beautiful One.

Goodbye. Au revoir. Until I see you again, dear Paris.