Monday, November 29, 2010

worst of

Yesterday I got a bit side-tracked. An excellent 2000 Saint Julien helped loosen my brain and lubricate my writing. I didn't stop much for fact-checking or to find ludicrous synonyms, and I certainly didn't bother to write with the subject in mind that I had earlier set myself. The bail-out of Ireland was only meant to provide the backdrop to a banking horror story that I've gone through recently. Instead of tagging this onto a post that looked, though the haze of a good red wine, as if it could stand on its own, I decided to dedicate another post to the topic of incompetent companies and their place in the modern economy. You will find that it connects smoothly with what I wrote yesterday.

The eponymous bad bank of the previous post is Santander. This originally Spanish bank had entered the British market quite a while ago, mostly unnoticed. About a year ago, they introduced their brand name to retail customers and have since been trying quite hard to increase their market share, aggressively advertising deals that often sound too good to be true.

I was caught in their close-meshed net at the beginning of this year when shopping for a suit. I was about to pay when the shop assistant offered me a store card, complete with MasterCard and Santander logos and twenty percent off my first purchase. As I said yes, thick smoke seeped in from womens' wear and a ear-piercing fire alarm went off. I should have taken this as a warning, but I came back half an hour later to sign the card application. The suit I left on the hanger; it had a hole in it.

The credit card was much worse. It came with a credit limit that wouldn't get me through a week if I had to spend all my salary on it. It has frequently failed me, sometimes on the sharp gravel of far-off lands, when one large transaction (like a flight) prevented another (like a car rental deposit). If the card were just useless, I could simply use another, but it has recently assaulted me with customer service that's so spectacularly poor that it amounts to abuse, and that's harder to stomach.

My credit card account is linked to my bank account, so that each month's balance is always paid in full. Last month, this didn't work. There was no explanation and no apology. In contrast, I had to call Santander twice to make the payment, and then again to get the late payment fees and interest charged canceled that the bank had quickly slapped onto my account to punish me for their blunders - all the while I was receiving threatening letters concerning my alleged non-payment.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Santander really is that bad. Surveys done by the consumer finance information and discussion website have repeated ranked Santander as the worst by far. In line with this, my letter of complaint has gone unanswered. Now I'm really glad I didn't sign up for their current account, a very poor deal indeed despite the £100 sign-up bonus and 5% interest on balances up to £2,500 for the first year.

In the same league as Santander plays Hertz, another unapologetic bottom feeder. I've written about this before, and there's not much to add. Hertz's rates are second to none in Europe, but the customer's experience couldn't be worse. It pays to pay a bit more. I will certainly not rent with Hertz again.

The third company that has shocked me with its incompetence and lacking focus on the customer is eBay. I hadn't used them in a while. With their fees going up every few months, there didn't seem to be a need. In London, gumtree does a decent job of matching sellers and potential buyers. But I was in the market for a little radio to complement my hifi stack and there's an unlimited supply on eBay. I made the single bid on a Technics that I could pick up halfway across town. All was good.

All stayed good until I noticed cheap Wee remotes and remembered the kind of tricks I've always wanted to play with my MacBook. Presentations in style, for example. I bought one now, but it never arrived. Worse, the transaction disappeared from my list of items won/purchased. Serious eBay flaw, I thought. I contacted them but never heard back. Luckily, I found a record of the transaction on my paypal account and could trace the seller. His recent feedback is horrible. My mistake for not checking but eBay's for not closing the account and protecting its members.

I'm not the only one to have opened a case against this seller, and yet his store is still accessible. It is quite obvious that eBay doesn't care. When I opened the case, I received an email stating that resolution of the problem couldn't be expected within another ten days and that, in effect, the guys at eBay were hard at work waiting for the issue to go away. Getting out of the way is great when things go well between seller and buyer, but when there are problems, there'd better be someone to contact. Try to contact eBay. All you can do is put one of a number of approved questions into a form. They say you can call them too, but they won't tell you the number. Stay away from eBay!

Santander, Hertz and eBay are the worst companies I had the misfortune of doing business with in the past year. If any of them went under, it would be a reason to celebrate. I would be happy, and the nation would be better off. Fingers crossed.

Astute readers of this blog (and I don't think I have any of another kind) will wonder why Ryanair doesn't feature in this worst-of list. They are, after all, Europe's most offensive airline, and I flew with them earlier this year. True enough, but at least Ryanair is honest about it. They don't pretend to like their customers. They hate them and screw them openly. They're in a different category altogether, having the same effect on a budget traveler as a whip does on a masochist. You know what you get with Ryanair and that it will hurt, but with Santander, Hertz and eBay, people might still have illusions. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

bad bank

Last week I bailed out Ireland. I forked over the promise of 300 pounds, to be taken from my paychecks in the form of increased taxes over the next few years. No one asked me if I wanted to help those portrayed in the media as our Irish brethren, our closest neighbors and most intimate economic connection.

Had I been consulted, I would have said no. It's not the Irish government or the Republic of Ireland as such that is in need of money that has suddenly stopped sprouting from trees, but the uninhibited consumer-citizens of that country and the profligate banks. The citizen, as always, are getting a properly raw deal in the proceedings. State employees of all sorts (including researchers at public universities) are seeing their salaries slashed. Values of houses, a sure-fire investment if there ever was one if you were to believe mortgage banks and lazy governments, have come down to sustainable levels. Unemployment has trebled and most Irish can't even afford a horse or two anymore. None of this came as a surprise to anyone looking at the numbers with sober eyes. Not many did, though, least of all the Irish banks.

Irish banks lent half the planet's money to finance spurious investments in a tiny republic. Their portfolios reached several times the entire GDP of the country. Yet no one saw anything wrong. On the contrary. Foreign banks were all to happy to collude in the construction of the mighty pyramid of Celtic prosperity. German banks are invested up to their ears and so are the British. But in contrast to Irish citizens, foreign banks have a strong lobby and have, for this reason only, avoided any sort of financial haircut.

If I understand the bail-out correctly, it makes sure that foreign investments in Ireland and in Irish banks are guaranteed. In other words, tax-payers' money is nearly directly transferred into the vaults of institutions that exhibited the most egregious kind of financial mismanagement and that managed risk more poorly than the winners of the annual Darwin awards. Why do I support this stunning ineptitude?

It is always systemic risk that is cited as a reason for ever-increasing financial sacrifices by governments and, ultimately, tax-payers. This poor excuse ignores the fact that systemic risk is only increased by concerted support for failing institutions. The only future-proof way would be to trim the losers and systematically cut them down to a size where they can be dismantled safely, with the same care but also the same determination you would use for disarming an unexploded World War II bomb.

What really riles me about this bail-out business is that it's done in the name of capitalism. I grew up in socialism, maybe communism depending on the particulars of your dictionary, and I can attest to the fact that the current economic system is better. And I want it to stay that way. In my book, one of the defining factors of capitalism is that failing enterprises make way for more successful competitors by withering and then going bust. This is not the case in many branches of industry and service.

Left and right, established names are being propped up in the name of, what? I don't want to know! If a company fails, it must go. If it's a big airline, there are ten new ones eager to take the place and provide better service to customers. If it's a Jurassic car company, there are plenty of competitors to put their vehicles in showrooms worldwide. And if a bank has invested poorly and wasted its business, it must go. Life will go on and, most importantly, capitalism will.

Friday, November 26, 2010


The third exercise heaped upon me at the Creative Writing workshop related to food, with specific emphasis on the cultural aspects of preparing food, the influences of hygiene, religion and ritual, and how my identity relates to this. What I came up with, incubating in my brain for a few day before being written down in a frantic twenty-minute effort right before the course, has nothing to do with this at all. It missed the point almost completely, but I think it's quite nice anyway.

Burton stepped out into the yard. It was about time: The sun was setting and Mrs. Burton was getting anxious. He surveyed the scene with the eyes of an expert. On the patch of sand towards the left, Tyler and Ben were fooling around. Heads slouched forward, they were engaged in a kind of friendly battle, an exercise of strength and skill. Thrusting back and forth and kicking their heels, they threw up clouds of dust into the wind.

There was no ball. It wasn't clear what their game was about. Burton laughed it off. They were young and having fun. Not a worry in the world.

He called to the older one but there was no reaction. As he approached, they retreated. The ensuing game of dodge took them to the farthest corner of the year where the hedge met the shed. It was there that Burton managed to grab Taylor and, furious batting of wings notwithstanding, twist the turkey's neck in one swift motion.

Inside the house, Mrs. Burton was shaking her head. She agreed that a new approach to food was necessary, but eating only those animals whose first name you know seemed a bit radical to her.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

lesson learned

Whenever I feel particularly angry at something stupid, and that's a situation I frequently find myself in when air-traveling, I slip my noise-canceling earphones deep into my auditory canal and crank up the funk. Let's get retarded is my tune of choice, a powerful palliative that mellows anger into ironic despair. As every rising anger eventually demands to be weaponized, it is much better to be desperate in an airport than angry.

For those who use their brains for the custom production of rational thoughts, it's very hard these days not to be angry, especially at airports. The nonsense that's being performed on the well-lit stage of the security theater is enough to make you cringe even when the Peas work their magic on the drums of your ear. But switching off is not an option. Your safety depends on sorting the useful from the useless, on cutting through endless announcements and procedures to follow those few ones that will actually help in an emergency.

What's the most important thing to do on a plane? Buckle up tightly? Fold the tray table upright? Know a flotation device from an oxygen mask? All nonsense. The only thing that matters is that you know where the emergency exits are. This is where you want to go when things go wrong, even if a developing panic pushes the other way or if thick smoke blocks your vision. Next time you fly, make a strong mental note of where you'd get off.

Another thing is important, on the plane and on the ground. This is alertness. Look around from time to time to see if anyone behaves suspiciously. Most unsuccessful airline terror plots were foiled by alert passengers. Remember flight 93, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber? Security played only a minor role. Don't trust your life on security. A few glances left and right go a long way towards a safe arrival.

The introduction of porno scanners and loving pat-downs across the US is an example to the contrary, another fold in the dense curtain of obfuscation that's drawn over airport security, another measure that is (quite literally) impressive to look at but quite ineffective. The response to it on the internet was intense; cyberspace is awash in blog posts, articles and news videos commenting on various ridiculous or hilarious aspects of the show being staged. Most are redundant (as is most of the web).

What I recommend you read is a piece of investigative journalism from The Atlantic. Take the quarter hour and read Jeff Goldberg's exposé. I promise that you won't believe your eyes. When you're done, buy a copy of Elephunk, have a safe flight, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


It is more than twelve years since I left Germany and I have given up hope of ever returning. That's not to say that I wouldn't like to, but if I found a job there and moved, it wouldn't really be returning. After such a long time, it would more realistically be another largely unknown country. But that's ok, that's been the story of my life so far, and I'm happy with it. I have no urge to buy a house and tie myself down. Life is a journey, after all. Like all journeys, life leaves imprints, memories, friends, experiences and treasured moments as it passes. The balance between going back to these memories and moving forward is the spice of life, the fire that drives and moves.

When I moved to the US in the summer of 1998, it was my first time on a plane, and I was absolutely clueless – in retrospect even more so than I realized at the time. When I got off the plane at Salt Lake (International) Airport, I had finished my third flight segment and felt seasoned and accomplished. My friend (another thing I didn't know at the time) Sean had come to pick me up but was outmaneuvered by my exuberance. While I was already at the luggage carousel, steeling myself for an epic tug-of-war with my 90-pound suitcase, Sean was still at the gate (those were innocent times), eying weary travelers and guessing who might be me. The one he finally approached because 'he looked German', had, coincidence of coincidences, my first name but wasn't me. I had won the battle with the blue monster by the time Sean ambled in from airside with a slight worry, and somehow we met.

The first person I met at work was Frank, then an experienced post-doc, who was an important scientific guiding light for me. He supervised my first rotation and quickly became a friend, though he occupied a strange place in the hierarchy that seniority builds. He was married with a little boy and too old to be a mate to hang out with but too young to be considered a father figure. I guess I saw him as my favorite uncle, my dad's much younger brother. He tended to pay for the coffees we shared at least two mornings a week, and set the drab hospital cafeteria ablaze with his stories full of adventure and exaggeration, excitement and outrage.

Yesterday, Frank came to London, with his wive and (now two) kids. They won't stay with me, but I'm excited to see them, spend time with them, and show them around. We visited the British Museum today and quickly split up. The family, mostly the kids, had an agenda, things to see, attractions to tick off. They grabbed a map and took off. Frank and I took a more leisurely pace. That wasn't owing to the attention with which we studied to exhibits – I don't recall one thing we saw beside the Lewis chessmen, one of my favorites in the collection – but because of all the catching up we had to do. It's been so many years!

Later, we went for lunch in a nondescript sandwich place just outside the museum, and it was there that Frank showered me with Mexican salsa, handcrafted honey extracted from hives placed on the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, and a bottle of the finest Utah Whiskey. It was this last gift that really took my breath away. I'll have to redefine the word unexpected. Utah has plenty of breweries – a T-shirt that I retired with a heavy heart the other day because it had become too threadbare to wear kept reminding me of Eddie McStiff's as Utah's oldest legal one – but I didn't know it had a distillery.

It does. High West Distillery opened shop in Salt Lake in 2007, a couple of years after I had left. Earlier this year, they finished refurbishing a garage on historic Main St in Park City and moved their operation there, giving the word upmarket a whole new meaning. The opened a little ski-in saloon in the process and started selling their products outside the state boundaries. One bottle sits on my table now, a 16-year-old Rocky Mountain Rye. The fact that it's 13 years older than the distillery itself show that age isn't always what it seems to be. Keep on rocking!

Friday, November 19, 2010


I found the email below in my inbox this morning.

from paypal-nz
subject Your account has expired

This is your official notification from PayPal. Your account has expired. If you want to continue using our services, you have to renew your account right away. If not, your account will be limited and deleted.
To continue, visit our website:
and complete the renew form with your current information.

PayPal Account Review Dept.

I mean, seriously! How foolish are some people that it would be worth sending out emails like this? Paypal-NZ? From And a link, in plain text, to Are you kidding me?

Especially since Firefox can clearly see through the nonsense:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

making strides

Today was the fifth session in the year-long Creative Writing course I'm taking, and the third that I attended. Just like the first two, this one seemed more about post-structuralist philosophy and contemplations on identity than about writing. The tricks of the trade are not ladled out steaming hot from the cauldron of creative incubation as I had hoped. Sometimes, I sit and stare at the teacher and wonder what the hell I'm doing there.

These moments feels endless but they are brief. The class is not half as bad as it seems from a distance. All these pseudo-philosophical musings help define characters in the context of modern society, and the open the floor wide to discussions. Today, towards the end, we were asked to react to a photo by Eve Arnold, showing a new-born baby's fragile hand hanging on to her mother's left index finger as if it were the only life buoy on the Titanic. The background was black and featureless. What do you see?

My partner in this exercise, a recent mom, saw loss. A mother is never closer to her child than right after birth. She has to help him grow and steer him towards independence, losing a little bit of the little one every day. The baby is fragile but also strong. He grabs the outstretched finger with surprising power and won't let go. In contrast to what one might think, it is the baby who calls the shots.

I saw an idea – tenuous, blurry and ill-defined. Sometimes, anywhere, a scientist realizes that the thought currently bouncing around in the emptiness of his brain has the potential to develop into something concrete, something substantial, something important. At this point, and perhaps for quite a while after that, it is not clear what's really going on. But the incipient idea has taken hold and won't let go. It will take elaboration and nurturing of the crazy thought to realize its full potential, to fill the blank canvas of its existence with meaning.

One simple image of two hands touching, two radically different visions – and neither terribly literal. We didn't mention that the baby was only born minutes before the picture was taken. Does that mean we're creative? This week's assignment is food as ingrained in one's culture. Talk about non-sequiturs.

Below are the two previous assignments (once I upload them).


The Creative Writing workshop's second exercise was supposed to be a literary self-portrait but I had forgotten that particular detail before I committed the first word to the screen. Instead, I'm writing about identity, which is what we were talking about in the course.

Look at me! Throw me a glance. What do you see? Look at my face. Look again! What do you see? My identity? Are you sure?

Project your ideas and your preconceptions, your expectations and prejudice onto my skin, and you'll see them roll off like water on Teflon, little balls of mercury on a clean tiled floor. Paint my skin white or brown, yellow or black and watch it stay the same. My skin is mine; it glows from inside.

I dress like a bum, like a fop, like a frat boy, like a girl. I'm a chameleon of fashion before your eyes. You watch and you judge, yet you don't comprehend.

You can call me names and shelve me by categories. You can put a label on the tidy box of what you perceive and satisfy your curiosity, but your associations are yours, and I am mine. I run through the grip of your understanding like water, leaving the phantom pain of a missed opportunity.

My identity exists in your imagination only.

surreal self

As the first assignment in the Creative Writing course, we had to write a surrealist I am poem. I am not Salvador Dalí. Here is what I wrote. Please take into account that in contrast to the blog, which a fictionalization of my realize, these creative pieces are a realization of fiction.

I am the pain in the morning, the pale sun that holds the moment, a reflection of the night that emerges from cerebral memories. Thick feathers drown visions and cushion the shadows in the mist. A dream blinks, swerves and disappears, noisily.

I am a fallen silence, a frowning song of separation, prolonged instances of unspoken sadness. My brain runs liquid over rocky thoughts, gushing rapidly towards the reservoir of conscious sanity. Leaves fall limpidly and coat the past.

I am a distant interaction, a melting contact of unproven heft, the rancid smell of yesterday's clouds. The brown steam of parental love shrivels and fades, breaking coldly in its own time. Dark hands dissolve, and the unspoiled warmth of childhood cracks. A damp hope settles and retracts to a bed of dismay.

Tomorrow fades. I am tired.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Yesterday, and I say this with only a few moments to spare, I went to Kings Place for the first time in ages. Astute readers of this post will remember that Kings Place is a concert and arts venue in the basement and atrium of the Guardian headquarters, and that it's great for intimate classical music events.

What you readers won't remember – simply because I haven't told you – is that Kinds Place does all sorts of other events as well. The Guardian, as well as Nature whose headquarters are just down the road, frequently delegate or invite speakers for political or scientific talks or panel discussions. Jazz is often on the musical menu, as is folk and world music.

Sometimes it seems as if Kings Place were trying too hard to broaden their appeal, to cover everything in a widely dispersed attempt to draw the cultured Londoner to their building that's shiny but nevertheless rather hidden in the morass behind King's Cross railway station. It's sometimes hard to tell where their focus lies.

But that can be a good thing. I like the concert hall with its coffered ceiling that seems to float on two dozen square posts of the lightest wood. The seats are comfortable, the wine selection at intermission is respectable, and the restaurant upstairs, slicing up happy cows from a farm in Northumberland, a special treat. With schedule as broad as it is, I can go to Kings Place no matter what musical mood I'm in.

Yesterday, and now that's two days ago already, I went to see Mali Latino, an effort by British Latin jazz pianist Alex Wilson. I didn't know the Latin jazz part of the equation when I bought the tickets. Mali Latino sounded reasonably close to Congo to Cuba, my reference for successful world music, and it would have a kora in it, played by Madou Sidiki Diabaté. (And how can you go wrong with a name like this?)

I was expecting a fusion of West African and Latin melodies and rhythms, the results swinging madly from gentle to riotous. However, the show, for most of its two hours, was nothing like what I had expected, and the fault lay with the jazz. On stage stood a jazz band garnished with Malian ornaments, playing loud Latin-influenced slow jazz with Malian accents.

As is bad tradition at Kings Place (and I had already forgotten about this), sound amplification was completely over the top. During the first song, getting increasingly frustrated, I was about to shout out that I couldn't hear the kora over the clamor of the damn drum kit when I realized that I could hear it loud and slightly distorted - from a speaker high above my right ear. However, this (sort of) relieve was only short-lived. When the piano kicked in, the kora was completely drowned out. And anyway, any mastery of instruments – and there was plenty – got drowned by a deluge of metallic drums.

It was a shame. The piano, the kora, the balafon, the congas, even the trombones were played with utmost virtuosity, but they didn't quite get the exposure they deserved. The singer, a colorful woman with a voice to wake up the dead, fought hardest to wrest the musical character from the drums. In the end, it felt as if she had succeeded. Encouraged by the wine consumed at intermission and maybe hungry for the experience they were promised, the audience rose from their seats and danced in the aisles. The singer, smiling broadly and swaying her body like an instrument, screamed her song with angry pleasure, relegating jazz to a dark corner of the stage. It was the best moment of the show, but it only came seconds before the curtain fell for good and it showed, once again, how an obvious opportunity for greatness can easily be missed.

Monday, November 08, 2010

creativity unlocked

The new semester stated a while back. I didn't care too much; I don't have to take classes or teach them. I see by the throngs of freshers crowding the hallways at Imperial and the sofas in the Library Café that the quiet of summer is over, but I could have guessed as much from the turning leaves, misty mornings and early nights.

For me, the new semester presented a dilemma. For nearly two years, I've attended evening classes teaching Arabic. I've made some progress, more than I would have considered possible, but precious little from a practical point of view. I know how to read and write, I recognize the odd cultural phrase, and I can surprise native speakers with a judiciously placed greeting or inquire of well-being, but I can't hold conversations, follow shows on the radio or read newspapers.

Would I waste more time on this and buy into another year of confusion and illumination in equal measure? My sister thought it would be a good idea. She told me she was very excited about our forthcoming trip to Syria, traveling the periphery of the country with possible excursion into Lebanon and, the epitome of off-the-beaten-path, Iraq, and that I should keep studying to help us get around safely. I didn't know anything of this trip – certainly I wasn't involved in any planning and in any case, knowledge of the language would probably be the least worry on it.

I signed up for creative writing instead, payed my dues and waited for the module to start. The overeager neophytes had already dispersed into confined lab spaces and coffee shops when the evening classes were kicked off, and I was starting my twelve-day residency in Colorado. I missed the first two sessions, but then, last week, the time had finally come. I stepped inside another unknown classroom for something that I couldn't explain or define. I didn't even know what to expect.

Creative writing. What does that mean? Is the emphasis on writing? Is it on creativity? Will the class teach technical aspects and skills, or will the focus be on exploring possibilities and discovering new horizons? Can creative writing be taught at all? Enough academic programs exist to give the impression that it's possible but skeptics remain unconvinced.

I walked in, late, rushed, and exhausted after a long day. I hadn't had lunch and hadn't even had time to grab a coffee and a muffin from the Library Café that sits halfway between Biochemistry and the Humanities, a precious location but the staff are slower than my usual progress through a blog post, and a line of prospective caffeinators, always coils through the atrium. I was fatigued and brainwarm when I took my seat.

The class was no workshop. There was a teacher and he was in control, flipping through the slides of his presentation with conviction and obsessively name-dropping literary terms, cultural movements and artistic icons of an earlier time. Do you know this? Does that ring a bell with you? Expressive, gesticulating, enthusiastic and slightly mad, his demeanor was a perfect match for his appearance: On his head, over a trimly cropped lawn of stubby hair, exploded a bewilderment of Rasta dreads. Later, when we got down to doing some work, he turned out to be pathologically positive and one-hundred-percent encouraging, and possibly a good teacher, though that's still too early to say.

The teacher is a self-proclaimed Surrealists, though that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Dalí once remarked that the only difference between him and the Surrealists was that he was a surrealist. I love Dalí and I take his word for unshakable truth on this subject. No one else was able to show the beauty in madness quite as stunningly.

Let's say the teacher uses surrealism as a tool (which is to ignore that he also write surrealist poetry) to remove us students from the reality that we tend to cling to when writing. Creative writing is often fiction, and to get a hang of fiction it's crucial to let go of our experiences, of what we see and read daily. Fiction starts in the head, and is always new. Surrealism might just be a good first steps towards fiction.

We were asked to just write without much thinking and certainly without breaks, shooting for strange juxtapositions, warped images and metaphors that don't gel, the things I tend to avoid when writing because I want my writing to make sense. I guess what I took home from that first class is that writing doesn't always have to make sense. If it sounds good, if it has rhythm and color, the reader is likely to accept it.

Nonsense might make sense to the reader who's exposed to it and who tends to interpret, give meaning and see depth in incongruities, all because if the writer wrote it, there must have been a reason. After the reader has taken the first step of starting to read, it's more difficult to abandon the piece and admit defeat than to continue and try to cut through the contradictions and clashes. By reading, the reader accepts a certain authority in the author and is likely, at least initially, to blame any lack of understanding or feeling of elusiveness on himself and not the writer. I know that I read like this. Now I just have to learn how to write like this, too.

Friday, November 05, 2010

leaving the West

After twelve days of nearly uninterrupted work, with twelve-hour days following ten-hour days and only one afternoon off, I finished what I had come to Colorado to achieve – forty-five minutes before the deadline I had set for heading out of town and towards the Denver airport. It was a mad scramble.

There's no reason to relive the suffering or get fired up again at the sensation of glory because it wouldn't make sense to anyone but me. But let me tell you that it was a great feeling to put down the pipetman, hand the chocolate of gratitude to my colleagues for a week and a bit and a bottle of Black Bush to my host, and close the door behind me one last time.

The last and most important of reactions was still going when I left the lab. It was to be stopped and frozen that night and then sent to London by Overnight Express. There was nothing more I could do, nothing for me to contribute and certainly nothing to break.

Earlier in the week, my thesis adviser had come over from Utah to give a talk at CSU. This was entirely unrelated to my visit but afforded me a nice evening out chatting with my old boss and sharing a beer and a burger. Stories were swapped and anecdotes brought back to life, much to the delight of my host who was also my former boss's host for his talk and had to introduce him the next day. He did that by elaborating my former boss's character with the help of four telling maxims.

Of the four, I know three. The fourth was new to me. I don't recall ever hearing it, though I had read it in the book the lab had put together to commemorate former boss's 50th birthday a year ago. Three people quoted it as their favorite bit of advice. My boss was apparently fond of saying "Don't fuck up!"

As I was nearing the end of my project in Colorado, doing experiments that continued and completed a sequence of half a dozen experiments done in the days before, whittling down precious material with each inefficient step of the epic synthesis, the crude epithet assumed the shine of eternal wisdom. Every time I was about to mix solutions or inject samples into purification instruments, the three words lit up in my head, slowed me down for a second, and focused my mind with the ferociousness of large pliers. I didn't fuck up, and I traveled back in elation, exalted that I had done it.

Rolling down Prospect in the red Focus I had rented, I slowly left Fort Collins behind me, picking up speed only on the interstate. Behind me was a small town that seemed full of promise, low in the sky to my left were hundreds of clouds bunched against the intense blue infinity of the Midwest. On my right, beyond a wide sea of aspen trees burning out their fall colors, rose the Rockies, their bright caps of fresh snow taunting me with spite.

I had seen them every day, in the distance but magnified by sunshine, and I had seen the first snow reported on TV. I hadn't come closer to driving up than on my last day, sitting in my car with my work done. Angry French-Canadians screamed abuse from the speakers and Howard Stern invited me to do my thing, but I couldn't leave the freeway. My departure was less than three hours away and the airport not in sight yet.