Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I remember the Alamo

Memories of another era cried out to me as I strolled through hallowed ruins of the Alamo today. But Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and company can rest in peace.

The Alamo is much more than a tourist destination or restored pile of adobe bricks to Texans. The small sign out front says it all in the subtitle: The Shrine to Texas Liberty.

Gentlemen are asked to remove their hats. Ungentlemen are watched like hawks by the guards. And hushed voices are the order of the day. Someone once told me that every Texan has two home towns, where they live and San Antonio. And every good Texan pays homage to the Alamo.

It doesn't matter that Bowie was a notorious slaver and some researchers think Crockett surrendered. It doesn't matter that the major battles of the Texas Revolution were fought elsewhere. And it certainly doesn't matter that the United Sates refused to let Texas into its club for years after the fight.

This is the Alamo. And folks in these parts Remember the Alamo.

But as I revisited the old Mission and bought a special trinket at the gift store, what I remembered was a very blond tyke. Back in 1989 he was my special little man who rode on my shoulders and looked at me with with piercing eyes that one minute shone blue and another seemed green.

I remember oh so well that summer when I had the chance to really be a dad. I had quit my newspaper job in Idaho that summer of 1988 and was waiting to enter graduate school at the University of Texas that fall. Cecile was putting in long hours in her new management job. And I got to spend each day, every day with Gillian and Garrett.

Gillian was always full of ideas for crafts or outings or movies or whatever. She was a typical active grade schooler. But Garrett was a preschooler with narrower ambitions. His favorite videatape by far was the story of Davey Crockett. And when I asked what he wanted to do for the day his reply was always the same: "Go to the Alamo."

I didn't mind. I loved walking on the stones of Alamo Plaza or soaking up the shade of the trees surrounding the shrine. But I couldn't put Garrett off long. We would reverently go inside the Alamo and walk up to the glass case holding Crockett's gun.

I once tried to tell him that that particular gun wasn't really "Old Betsy," and how unlikely it would be that even the Mexican Army would keep the gun of the defeated Texians.

Waste of breath. We were there to see Old Betsy. Again.

We made the pilgrimage many times that summer and each time I marveled as Garrett's eyes grew wide when he pulled his chin up to the glass case. It was a look of utter awe and admiration that any real hero -- or real father -- would give his life to receive.

So, yes. I remember the Alamo.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Conveniently inconvenient

Many of us who came of age in the 1970s practically lived by the famous "Don't Panic" mantra of "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:"

A recent trip to Ireland and England gave me no reason to doubt Douglas Adams' sage advice. But I realize another quote from protagonist Arthur Dent may be the real clue to the operation of our little world. Faced with an almost unfathomable alien bureaucracy, Dent becomes the hero by volunteering to negotiate the waiting line:

"I'm British. We know how to queue."

While that line was likely lost on American audiences, it is essential for understanding how the European Union is competing with the United States. We are more aggressive. But they are better at waiting in line.

The key to Europeans is their high tolerance for inconvenience.

This became very clear to me when we took a discount Ryan Airlines flight from Dublin to a suburban London airport so we could attend a family reunion. Ryan is one of those airlines that your read about in the U.S. and shake your head in disbelief. Sometimes flights between Ireland and Britain sell for under 10 euros and they allegedly let people board the plane free if their are empty seats. It wasn't quite that cheap for us, but it was still a bargain.

I think. For the price of the discount, you get a very different level of service. Instead of serving pretzels and soft drinks, the cabin crew comes down the aisle selling everything from sandwiches to watches and perfume. It's kind of like flying for an hour and a half on the Home Shopping Network.

But our seasoned fellow travelers took it in stride. What do you expect for those prices?

The real kicker, however, came when we arrived at London/Luden airport. The plane was short on overhead bins, so we had check our luggage. So we hurried to the carrousel after landing -- and waited. And waited. It took nearly an hour before our bags trundled down the conveyor.

The Americans waiting for their bags were livid. They -- we -- paced back and forth, muttered oaths and peered through the slot into the baggage room where we could see that a single small crew was casually handling all the luggage from one plane at a time. It was agonizing beyond belief.

But not for the passengers who get their paychecks in pounds or euros instead of dollars. They know how to queue.

The Europeans stepped out for a smoke, when to the cafe for tea or a beer or just leaned back and chatted with each other as if this was the highlight of their vacation. No one seemed the least anxious -- when the bags arrived I swear I heard one man say "That wasn't bad..."

Afterwards, I started paying attention to how non Americans cope with the little indecencies of life. Because it has a boom economy, Ireland is filled with workers from all over the European Union, so it is a good slice of life -- European life.

As everyone who has read a tour-guide knows, that European life is quaint and bucolic. Supermarkets exist, but they have to compete myriad tiny stores that sell just produce or just meat or just baked goods. That means a walk down the street rewards you with sights, sounds and especially smells you would never find in a U.S. mall. And then there is transportation. "Petrol" is God-awful expensive, so folks walk, take the bus or catch a train. It seems so civilized.

Civilized, yes. Convenient, no. Shopping for tonight's dinner can take an hour if you walk a quarter mile to the produce shop, then down the street to the butcher and pop over to the baker -- stopping each place for a friendly chat. And that double decker bus looks great, but slogging up the steep stairs to the top deck while it is dodging through a narrow street quickly loses its charm.

So how do they put up with it? By building inconvenience into their lives.

My son-in-law, Will, was incredibly frustrated by the pace of his new job at an Irish architectural firm in Dublin. He showed up at 7:30 the first day of work so he could get an early start. Then he had to wait outside the building until someone showed up at 9 with the key. Work starts at 9:30. Lunch is an hour and a half starting about 1. And you are ushered out at 6 p.m. even if you have a project to finish -- employees don't get keys.

But for Europeans, that schedule makes perfect sense. It means you can get your children off to school in the morning ("Schoolbus, what's a schoolbus?") and actually go home for lunch with your family. Or you can take that mid-day break to do your shopping, banking or other personal business without the stress of an American pace. The system provides extra time that we Americans might see as productivity-killing. But our friends Over There know they will make good use of that time. After all, you need to stand in line...

And Europeans know how to queue.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Dad, the miles and the memories

A year ago today, I was walking atop the Great Wall of China with my son, Garrett. And while we were marveling at this ancient feat of engineering, my father quietly passed away in California.

Today I am sitting in a holiday apartment in Dublin, Ireland – again many miles from home. But again, I am not far from family – or my father.

Ed Bentley was both a simple and a complex man. He was raised in a harsh and almost primitive environment in northern Idaho. The log house he shared with a huge gaggle of siblings had neither electricity nor running water and much of the technology the builders of that Great Wall used would have been familiar to him.

Perhaps that ever-present sense of necessity drove his lifelong love of history and the way things work.

Even though he was terminally ill, Dad insisted I go through with a planned trip to China last year. He marveled at photos we sent him through the Internet and my son, my wife and I all recalled his many stories of how amazing it must have been to watch a people with only horsepower, elbow grease and ingenuity construct the massive wall.

I thought of Dad again yesterday when we toured the Neolithic structures on The Burrens in western Ireland with our daughter Gillian. In many ways, the crude structures like the wedge tomb at Poulnabrone were even more amazing. In my mind’s ear, I could hear Dad extolling the wonder as his eyes traced the outlines of the huge stone slabs. “ And they didn’t even have metal tools! Can you imagine it?”

He could. And thanks to Dad, I can. His legacy is an appreciation for the ability of the human mind and agility of the human hand that I believe passed to my son and daughter and now to my grandson. Though not quite 3, Briton reflected my dad’s unabated sense of wonder as he pointed to a flower he found among the limestone rocks.

“Look! Look, Papa, look!”

Friday, July 22, 2005

A pint of of brilliance

Ireland is the stuff of poetry. There is life. There is love. And there is Guinness.

Guinness is more than a beer to Ireland. It is a cultural icon on par with the finest wines of Bordeaux or Burgandy. The Irish swear by it as a tonic, ascribe to it all sorts of powers and serve it with cult-like ritual.

And they are right.

I never really liked the Guinness I had in the United States. It seemed bitter, overly dark and rather flat. But my first sip at an Irish pub made me a convert.

A good pint is a wonder to behold. The bottom three quarters of the class is not black, but a deep, deep ruby. Tiny waves of bubbles course through it -- not simply rising, but dancing through it in winding streams. The pint is topped by a fine froth that puts quality whipped cream to shame. In the mouth, that foam has the texture of "crema," the delightful foam at the top of a real Italian expresso. And the first sip is not bitter, but a curious mixture of flavors ranging from sweet to nut.

It all seems rather magical.

But Paddy, Collin and Shannon at the Guinness factory set me straight. It's science -- and a little magic.

Beer tourism.JPG

The Guinesss Brewery is one of the top tourist destinations in Dublin. The actual beer making goes on in a modern, stainless steel plant next door, but the old collection of oak barrels, copper pots and great pipes has become a visitor center and convention facility. It explains the worldwide appeal of Guinness, the advertising prowess it has developed and the purity of the ingredients.

It also explains some of the Irish cult of Guinness. The company at one time provided 30% of the jobs in Dublin. It was the first to provide hospitalization, pension and paid holidays to its workers. And its pay averaged 10% above similar wages in Ireland. It was also the most noted export of Ireland and still ranks in the top tier. While there are a number of outlying plants around the world, Guiness for the eastern U.S. is stilled brewed in Dublin.

I couldn't quite understand it. If it is the same beer, why didn't I like it cold on tap in the U.S.? The tour offered precious little on why the beer was so different, so I asked a couple of the employees. Paddy grabbed the "talking sheets" given to employees and went off to photocopy them for me. When he returned, young Collin proudly explained how he wrote part of the talking sheet and waxed poetic about the quality of a good pint served not ice cold, but at a proper 6-degrees celsius. And then he handed us off to Shannon.

A masters degree student in language translation, Shannon held court at the "instruction bar." She gave Cecile and I small glasses of freshly poured stout and then made us wait the requisite two full minutes before drinking. Guiness is properly served in a "two pull pour." The first two thirds of the glass is filled and then the beer sits for two minutes. Then it is topped off with a flourish that raises the head.

Advertising hype? Not really. In the old days, Guinness was drawn from two barrels -- one flat and one bubbly. It was a trick to combine them to get a proper head. Now Guinness is injected with nitrogen as it is pumped (unlike the harsher carbon dioxide that puts the foam in U.S. lager). The nitrogen bubbles are small and produce a creamlike head. But they take time to gather and add their flavor to the brew. Hence the two-pull pour.

Drinking a pint is like sipping a fine wine. It takes time, patience and preparation.

And like a wine steward, Shannon also instructed us in the art of "retro-nasal breathing" that enhances any beer or wine. We sucked in a breath, took a sip, swirled the beer in our mouths and then exhaled as we swallowed.

The Guinness ads have a most appropriate term for the the resulting explosion of flavor.


Thursday, July 21, 2005

The downside of travel

I love to travel. I hate to be away.

My parents taught me the value of experiencing new sights at a very young age. It is of no surprise, then, that my wife and I made a concious decision to "collect memories, not things." We spend our money going places, meeting new people and experiencing new lives rather than investing in big cars or other suburban baubles.

But travel can be hard. Last year, my Dad died while I was in China. It pierced my heart not to be with him, even though it was Dad who insisted I take the trip.

Life continues to happen while you are away.

Right now, my son is going through a rough time. I don't want to go into his private life, but Garrett is at that agonizing age where I young man's life is tormented by the unholy trinity -- cars, school and girls.

With modern technology, I can hear his voice, read his typed words and offer my own across the miles. But it is not the same. I can't touch him gently on the shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. I can only feel inadequate as I do what father's are supposed to do -- let him grow up.

But Garrett, I love you. And no matter how many miles, no matter how many years I always will.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Family spelled with an "H"

I learned family relations by correspondence course.

My mother was English, wooed away to the exotic United States by a handsome American soldier. She left behind a working class family rich in shared history, exuberant in their love and wry in their humor.

My father, on the other hand, came from a back-woods Idaho family that went to some lengths to keep away from each other. So for many years the notion of "grandparent" was rather vague to me -- something about people like me who lived somewhere else.

I visited England with my mother and brother the summer between fourth and fifth grade. Life has never been the same. That great family -- Smiths and Gibbings with a Barratt here or there -- pulled me into their lives as if I had never left the old sod. Throughout the rest of my life, my contact with family was via letters, phone calls and later e-mail.

I've been especially close to two person, my Uncle Harry and my Cousin Les. And, typical of my family, neither of those names is entirely accurate. Harry was my mother's cousin but raised like a brother -- and he often went by George. Les is the son of one of my mother's other cousins and is actually Leslie.

Not to worry. Harry kept me in stitches as a young man and in awe as an aging Baby Boomer. Childless, he "adopted" me a as a favored nephew and became one of those magical uncles of which novels are made. He was a cameraman for the BBC and travelled the world. When he could, he would drop in on us -- something Cecile and I were later able to do with him. Our daughter, Gillian, visited him as a teen and still keeps in close contact.

Back during my first youthful visit to England, my brother and I were often shooed out of the house so Mom and her parents could visit. Our guide to English children's life was cousin Les. It was wonderful. Spectacular. I learned to play football -- the proper FA version -- and even a bit of cricket. We explored London parks and even learned how to swear ("Bloody hell") like a Brit. And I became addicted to Cadbury chocolate. And when Les, brother Mark and I ran even a bit short of mischief, Uncle Harry was there to kindly lead us all astray.

It all seems like ancient history now. The updates have become frequent with the advent of the Internet, but Les is as gray as I am now and managing a growing family in Milton Keynes. Yesterday he invited the whole clan over to mark the 85th birthday of Uncle Harry.

Maybe "Haitch" (as the family calls him) really is magic. He certainly doesn't seem just 15 years short of a century. His eyes gleam, his hearing is sharp and he can out-jokes the best of us.

He was in his element as Cecile and I joined his brother's grown sons and herd of offspring drank beer, ate more food than was good for.

The hugs and kisses were real -- not a series of Xes on the bottom of a letter. And when we said farewell, it was "until later," not "goodbye."

At one time I envied friends with "close family." Silly me. It took me nearly a lifetime to fully comprehend that "closeness" has little to do with physical distance.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Dead Zoo

It's amazing how much you can learn about life from the dead.

While that sounds like a promotion for "CSI" or one of the other coroner/detective TV shows, it was a thought that jumped into my mind today when we went to the "Dead Zoo."

Dublin has two zoos -- the normal kind with elephants and monkeys in cages, and the "Dead Zoo" downtown. It's actually called the National Museum of Natural History, but everyone seems to know it by its colorful nickname.

Inside are glass cases and open displays of stuffed animals, bones and specimins floating in jars of alcohol. While many American museums have moved away from the clinical look in favor of dioramas showing the stuff creatures in "natural" settings, the Dead Zoo is organized more like a library. All the apes are in one case, the deer in another, etc.

As cold as that seems, it is a great way to see how animals are related to each other and how they compare in size and color. (Well, kind of. Most of these animals were stuffed in the 1890s, so they have a similar gray-brown color no matter what they started out like.)

But it was interesting. Gillian said one of her Irish friends could not get the concept of a turkey clear. From the photos, she thought it was very much like a peacock, with the same giant fanned tail. Finally, she went to the Dead Zoo to see the case in which the turkey and peacock were displayed next to each other. The difference was obvious.

So the lesson? Beware of form over function. Dioramas are pretty, but they convey different information than do "catalog" displays. We need them both. I'm sure it is the same in much of life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My Irish ayes

Thank you, Ireland, for taking care of my child.

It's Wednesday evening here, but midweek afternoon in Missouri. Except for snatched naps in the car as we drove to Chicago, on the plane and in our holiday apartment here, we have been up for about 36 hours. Time to go to bed and start this vacation in earnest Thursday.

But first, a reflection of that joy. Seeing my daughter, Gillian, and grandson, Briton, awaiting us at the airport brought a special joy to my heart that I think only a parent can know. I am intensly proud of Gillian and Will for taking off on an adventure of there own, but I miss having the warmth of their love at my side.

Here in Ireland, I can only be thankful that this country that send so many of its children to the United States is so kind and generous to the Americans it lured back. I cannot imagine the pain of hundreds of thousands of fathers who saw their daughters and sons step off the docks but who, at the most, could only wish for an occasional letter to warm them. I have the Internet, video conferencing and telephone to bring a piece of my child back to me. They had only memories.

Today we made a quick tour of the neighborhood in which Gillian, Will and Briton live. We have rented a delightful holiday apartment over Roche's Chemists -- a pharmacy and convenience store. Gillian' smaller apartment is a few blocks away. Will rides his bike to his architectural office in a nearby converted Abby.

The neighborhood is beautiful -- mostly old town homes, some converted to apartments. Schools, parks and churches abound. The Irish also delight in painting their front doors bright colors -- allegedly a remnant from a protest when they were told to paint their doors black to honor a dead English monarch.

The weather is springlike cool and comfortable, as it is most of the summer here. The people provide the warmth and good humor.

Tomorrow we take off for our first adventure into the city.

Where is the civility?

Somehow, I think we have forgotten a level of civility.

This has been quite a year of travel for me. I just returned from Korea and now I am in Ireland. In the past three weeks, I have flown about three-fourths of the way around the world -- but in two legs going different directions,.

Yesterday's flight from Chicago to Dublin on American Airlines was a marked contrast from the flight two weeks ago from Seoul to San Francisco on Asiana Airline. Class, of course, counted. On Asiana I was pampered in business class and in American I flew coach. But I had considerable crossover in both -- wandering back to coach on Asiana and sitting just behind the business/first class seats on American.

It wasn't just the better food or the hot towels the cabin attendants chop-sticked to us on Asiana. The whole plane has an aura of civility that just wasn't there on American. The American Airlines crew did an adequate job -- but it was like driving a durable Chevy pickup instead of a sleek Lexus sedan.

I realized, part way across the Atlantic, that my whole American flight was designed for efficiency and minimum wear and tear on the crew. The Korean counterpart, however, was focused almost exclusively on the experience of the consumer. I also noticed that a few years ago when I flew on Singapore Air.

We likely have the same issue in most industries -- certainly in newspapers. In our business, we publish as much or more for ourselves as for the "readers." We seldom simply ask readers what would make them happy -- and even more seldom respond to their reply.

Perhaps we have simply forgotten the joy of civility. I don't think we teach students in any profession the skills to please. We focus instead on the skills to perform. Taken alone, neither will bring success. But the flaw of having one without the other is all too obvious.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Hello, world

It's hard not to be a blogger right now. Although journalists are trained to write well and often, we are not, by nature, diarists. We write for a specific purpose to a specific audience. But the age of weblogs is upon us, so it has become an obligation to share one's written life with the world.

So be it. Here is my blog, which I foresee as a rambling diary of my somewhat chaotic life and mind.