Monday, September 24, 2018

storm chasers

Today I flew to the wrong airport.  Back when I was still following pointless news, back in the days of The London Paper and then the Evening Standard, there were stories like these:  A woman takes Ryanair to Rodez, gets off, and asks for the beach.  There is none.  This is not Rhodos.  A man's request for a shuttle into London is met with incomprehension.  LGA is not London Gatwick.  Kids without tickets make it onto planes all the time.  My story isn't like these.

I needed to be in Regensburg for a chemistry conference.  Regensburg is a bit out of the way by Germany's standards.  The closest airports are Munich and Nuremberg, both more than an hour away.  The train from Switzerland is not an option.  In Munich, the annual binge and puke festival had just started.  Flights were correspondingly expensive.  I chose to fly to Nuremberg.

Buckled up for landing and with our seat backs in their upright position and our tray tables folded away, we were alerted by the captain to the meteorological situation on the ground and above.  A storm front was passing through Germany, bringing 70-knot winds and buckets of rain.  Right now it was centered just below us.  Nuremberg airport was temporarily closed.  There were no take-offs or landings.

Our plane, a shaky Dash 8, turned around and headed to Munich, 100 miles back.  Maybe I've been lucky in my years of flying, but these fifteen minutes turned out to be the worst ever.  The plane jerked like a derailing roller coaster train, rolling and pitching and bouncing up and down.  Only by focusing on stationary objects near the horizon did I keep my stomach inside.  We landed surprisingly smoothly and were then rudely dumped at Terminal 2.  There was no one there to help the stranded crowd.

Since Munich had been my first choice anyway, I knew how to proceed, and ten minutes later I sat in a van to Regensburg.  I was lucky that two bookings had been canceled because of a delayed arrival.  The driver headed into the night with the courage of an ancient warrior.  On the radio, talk was how the eye of the storm was moving from Nuremberg to Regensburg.  It started to rain.

On the road, nothing changed.  Traffic embodied the vain belief in the superiority of technology over nature and the knowledge that bad weather happens elsewhere.  In England, snowflakes close Heathrow for days and leaves close railways, but in central Europe, weather's no bother.

Up ahead, strobes of lightning flashed across the night sky.  The rain came down harder now.  Gusts of wind were buffeting the tall van.  Heading straight into this mess, our driver was just doing his job.  On the lane next to us, someone towed a wooden shed on a trailer.  The line between stoicism and idiocy is sometimes very fine.

Was I an idiot for disinterestedly observing the ride and the storm instead of seeing the risks and getting freaked out?  Fallen trees had closed the motorway parallel to ours.  What if an oak came down in front of us?  The road already looked like artisanal gin, infused with all sorts of botanicals.

And just like this, we were in Regensburg, almost on schedule.  The storm had moved on.  With just a drizzle remaining from the tempest, it was almost a pleasant evening, though my carry-on trolley got repeatedly stuck in the debris on the sidewalks.

"How was your trip?", the night manager asked when I arrived at the hotel.  "Indirect", I said, "but relatively uneventful."

Sunday, September 23, 2018

hands or feet

This afternoon I sent my daughter off into a dilemma unwittingly.  We were having tea out in the garden, one of the last days of summer if the forecast was to be believed.  The winds were already howling fall.

As a treat on a Sunday, the girl got a chocolate egg, a Kinder Surprise.  The surprise was less the egg itself than who had bought it.  I don't normally do this.  For decadence such as sweets and cartoons, I rely on Flucha.  Normally.

This time, I had bought the eggs.  A generous pack of four advertised a guaranteed two collectible figurines, two out of a total of ten urbanized smurfs (or is it smurves?) going about their business in town.  My days of collecting are long over (and weren't overly long to begin with), but one of the smurfs on the picture did X-rays, and I wanted this for my desk.

The girl unwrapped her egg eagerly and started eating the chocolate halves. "Open, please", she said, handing me the yellow ovoid container previously hidden inside.  I shook it.  It rattled.  Not a smurf.

Except it was.  It was a smurf in three parts, to be assembled like a sofa from IKEA and with similarly dubious resilience.  Back in the days, all Kinder figurines were monolithic and from much heavier material.  Plastic, sure, but solid.  People used to collect them because they were cute and exuded durability.  What I unpacked was utterly worthless.

The girl wasn't interested in it either.  She had finished her chocolate and took off to wash her hands.  "Shoes off before you go inside", I hollered after her.  Her head appeared from around the corner, then her body.  She pointed at her sandals, then held her hands up in the air.  What to do?

Her thinking was flawless.  To go inside, she had to take off her sandals, but to take off her sandals, she needed clean hands.  To wash her hands, she needed to go inside, and thus she was stuck – until, seconds later, I rescued her.

I undid her sandals and sent her in, mighty proud that she had seen the dilemma and acted accordingly.  That almost called for another egg.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

impressions of a return

Three days in Salt Lake reminded me of what I love about this place and why I was happy to leave. My first morning run was like time travel. I was experiencing the city as I had 20 years ago. The things that struck me when I first arrived struck me again. A lot has changed in these years, but a lot has also stayed the same. A place cannot shake off its character, no matter how many new buildings try to hide the old.

The Salt Lake Valley is a high desert. Arriving through canyons in the Wasatch Mountains, the first settlers declared it to be the place of their dreams. Little did they know, and the first years must have been a huge disappointment of constant toil, but they turned the place around and made it hospitable.

Life is dependent on water from snowmelt and meager streams, a scarce resource that is dispensed to abandon to keep parks and front lawns green and trees strong. Landscaping is as important as it is in the rest of the US. When I used to live here, anything but Kentucky Blue was frowned upon. Now creativity has noticeably increased, with native plants, dry yards, and wildly sprouting sunflowers.

There's an incredible sense of spaciousness. Mountains border the valley to the east and, almost invisible in the haze, to the west, but the north and south are wide open. Single-story homes and surface-level parking lots don't block the view. This is the wide west.

The streets are wide and there's no traffic. Very few cars are visible, whether moving or parked. This is true for most residential streets. In stark contrast, the big through-streets that pump commuters into town from the suburbs are avalanches of metal.

Despite the best efforts of UTA Rideshare, whose 2004 t-shirt I continue to wear, few ride bicycles, though it's more than when I lived here. The fault line with its brutal gradient and the unforgiving heat in summer and the snow in winter conspire to keep the numbers down. Only the most committed cyclists will commute by bike here. E-bikes would help, but I didn't see many. Instead, lime green electric scooters roost in unexpected corners, waiting to be picked up, ridden for a small fee and discarded. Their range is probably limited.

Fewer yet than cyclists are pedestrians. Salt Lake is not walkable. The blocks are large and people (living in single-family homes for the most part) sparse. There are a few bus lines, and light rail has been extended to the airport, but you still need a car to go almost anywhere.

Many streets and many more sidewalks are made from concrete. Water seeps into the gaps between the individual slaps, freezes in winter, and crumbles the material to dust. Roots of trees push from below. The result is an obstacle course of canted slabs. Few care because few walk.

Driving is relaxed. At four-way stops, no one forces their way. Sometimes, no one takes the initiative, either, and for a while four cars sit idly waiting for one other to make the first move.

The campus of the University of Utah is a thing of beauty. Sitting on the slopes above the valley, it offers stunning views into the haze. Imagine this after rain has cleared the air. Campus is the place that has most changed since I last saw it. A handful of big new buildings at the southern rim of campus have displaced the football fields where I used to play. The dorms where I spent me first year wanting to leave had to make way for an athletic center and softball stadium. Good riddance. Only the parking lot remains.

Return missionaries are enthusiastically welcomed at the airport, with balloons, cheers, extended families and "Welcome home, Elder Berry" signs. When I first arrived in the US, these celebrations took place at the gate. One would frequently have to jostle through crowds blinded by religious devotion. Now these parties take place in the arrivals hall, one of the few positive aspects of the security theatre.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

memories of a beginning

It was 20 years ago today, starts one of the Beatles' famous songs.  This catchy line has been playing in my head for a while now.  It was twenty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, but it was also twenty years ago, almost but not quite to the day, that I climbed aboard an aircraft for the first time and flew to Salt Lake City – to get a PhD and start what would become my life.  That's the short story.

The long story goes like this.  I had to climb aboard three aircraft, first in quick and then in not so quick succession, to make it to Salt Lake City via Frankfurt and Chicago.  In Chicago I stepped onto American soil for the first time.  I spent my first dollars on an ice tea straight from America for Dummies.  A plastic cup half gallon big was filled to the brim with ice cubes onto which a brown liquid was then dispensed.  This wouldn't be the last cliché I'd find true that day.

With seven hours to kill, I purchased a CTA ticket and hit the town.  I remember being distinctly unimpressed, but cannot recall anymore why.  Chicago has one of the most stunning skylines in the US.  Walking in canyons formed by buildings seemingly rising forever is quite extraordinary.  Maybe it was the 20-pound backpack that prevented me from enjoying this.

I made it all the way to the top of the world.  Sears Tower still carried its original name, the distinction of being the tallest and its original vertiginously vertical walls – with no glass alcoves to tempt the fearless.  What struck me most looking down was that most space was given to parking lots, roads and multistory parking garages.  Was this a city for people or for cars?

A few hours later in Salt Lake, my preparation had ended.  I had the vague hope I'd be met at the airport, but this wasn't certain.  Back then, communication wasn't it is today.  Some emails were exchanged and some assurances give, but very little detail, and not every email was answered.  There were people in the same situation as me, signing up for a few more years of education, and there were some who'd been there for a year already, but that was about as much as I knew.

I got off the plane, ran to the luggage carrousel in undue haste, picked up my suitcase and backpack, and was lost.  The backpack weighed a nick above 40 pounds.  The suitcase tipped the scales at slightly above 90.  This was already not legal back then, but somehow I got through without having to pay an extra penny.  Now heavy punishment loomed.  What was I to do with this stuff?

"Are you Andreas?"

Sean was the first American I met.  He had come to pick me up with as little information as I had.  Without knowing what to look for, he approached guys looking German to his eyes.  To find me on the second try was unlikely.  To talk to another Andreas before me, even more so.  But the most unlikely of all is how well we got along.

We went to class together, rode bikes up (my thing) and down (his thing) the canyons along the Wasatch Front, became friends and then roommates.  Our years in the Avenues eventually ended but our friendship remained.  We should hang out and go biking more much often, but what if that takes a twelve-hour flight?

This year's commemorative trip to Salt Lake takes only two flights.  The layover in New York is just long enough to finish this post.  Instead of ice tea, I had a cold brew.  With a job and family somewhere else, Sean won't pick me up at the airport.  When the sun rises tomorrow, I'll see what else has changed in the nearly 15 years of my absence.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

creativity relaunched

A few weeks ago I started a course called, gloriously, "Brand Journalism and Corporate Storytelling".  Any guesses what that might be?  I'm not a storyteller, but I've got to do with brands in the corporate world.  I work in a marketing department and communicate products, brand and company.  Telling stories is one way of generating interest, raising awareness, getting the word out; but it's more than that.  Storytelling is the latest attempt to rise above the noise of too many ads, too much obvious marketing and too many jaded consumers with ad-blockers and no mind for the 10001st message targeted at them.

The first module of three days focused exclusively on strategy.  What's your core story, what themes do you want to cover, what topics fit those themes, and how can they be illustrated with stories?  How to write these stories was covered in module 2, which ended today.

Storytelling is creative writing, something I've dabbled in before, without much success.  Back then, at Imperial, I was pushed to free expression in the spirit of the surrealists and to ponder my identity.  This time, the formal aspects of writing stood center stage.  It's been quite edifying.

I had not heard of the universality of the hero story, preserved in its structure across time and cultures.  I had not considered the story as simply being something that happens to someone, told with the purpose of enriching the reader.  Formulate this purpose (including something and someone) convincingly and a passable story will result, the teacher asserted.  A certain way with words is probably still required, but seeing building blocks, rules and patterns felt rather reassuring.  Maybe I can do that.

To assess the degree of formality in what I consider good non-fiction storytelling, I decided to look at last week's Economist.  How do the first sentences of articles set the scene?  How much of protagonist, place, action and scenery is in them?

  • As Italians trickled back to the cities from holidays on the coast and in the sun-baked countryside, the scene was set this week for what promises to be a difficult autumn.
  • Last year, Saudi Arabia's young and powerful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, pulverized Awamiyah, a rebellious Shia town near the eastern coast.
  • A row of health workers in blue gowns and face masks sit at tables outside the tin-roofed bungalow that was the home to Kambale Vincent, one of 75 people who have died from Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo this month.
  • A year ago, insurgents armed mostly with makeshift weapons attacked a series of police posts in Myanmar's Rakhine state, killing a dozens security personnel
  • Tucked away in a corner of Gerrard Street, in the heart of London's Chinatown, three middle-aged Chine women sit on the ground, their legs tightly crossed, in silent meditation.
  • When loudspeakers in Kouzi, a village in the eastern province of Shandong, blared out urgent warnings of floodwaters heading towards them, residents were anxious, but they did not panic.
  • Prosecutors are still investigating what caused Genoa's Morandi bridge to collapse on August 14th, killing 43 people.

This looks as if there were a common theme.  People, place and vivid detail – how hard can it be.  Turns out these are only seven beginnings out of maybe 100 article in the magazine.  The rest didn't follow the template.  There might be more to creativity than ticking boxes.  Good thing that there's also six more module to my course.