Walking down Babylone

The hotel door makes a soft swoosh behind me. Strolling up Rue Vaneau, with the Fran Prix at my back, passing magasin du vin, racks of those “rent-a-bike” stands, office supply stores, sensing a neighborhood that could be lived in. I reach Rue des Babylones. Turning right, I am nagged that life has been unfair, feeling abused, knowing that I will never live on a street called Babylone. But the regrets fade as I amble along looking at this and that.

I am afraid I’m not much of a purposeful walker when walking foreign.  Mostly looking up, I see construction dates, medallions of builders, little angels, finely wrought metal work, stone in fantastic shapes resembling lions and elephants and looming gargoyles.
Across the street is an old wall, a cobwebby carriage gate carved into it, a gate little used, unlike the pedestrian entrance a bit farther on.
It is the Jardin Catherine Laboure. Transported instantly to the moiling mass known as the seventh grade at St Helena’s Grade School, I stand before Sr. Catherine Laboure, a young, dour nun, severely taxed by 50 7th graders but later in the year, free with smiles, introducing me to the exotics of “Civics”, perhaps priming me for a lifetime interest in politics. As I stand soaking up the ancient stone wall, the pedestrian door swings open with a bang, a suited man strides out, almost colliding with me as I stare up. We quickly exchange “Pardons,” he strides off, my gaze returns up.
A busy street must be crossed so I wait for the Little White Man to appear and I start out. Crossing streets is particularly fun because you get to see long rows of apartments into the distance. Beautiful buildings, each more stylish than the last, built by people who care what things look like, different than me in my faded jeans, blue sweatshirt and Rippletech cap.
Reaching the curb, I avoid bumping into an old couple, she in a scarf, he in a beret. They are softly quarreling, a ritual that brings them closer at the end. He takes her arm and they shuffle down the sidewalk, happy to be together, happy to be alive.
The Metro stop of Sevres-Babylon swarms with shoppers and commuters. I jaywalk across the street to avoid the confusion. Serious men with briefcases, serious women with briefcases, young mothers with strollers, there is a painter hurrying along with a carpenter to an appointment in one of those beautiful buildings. I see the old couple disappear into the maw of the station.

The sun streams, warm and bright, no indication it is January. Shops with blazing “Soldes” signs are everywhere, “Quel beau matin!” echoes everywhere. Drawn to a boulangerie, I enter and am blessed with cheery “Bonjour”. With my barely adequate French and a generous portion of pointing, I manage to get one of the true delights of French cuisine.
On a previous trip, I had stayed behind due to an annoying cough while my family went down to Chartres to see the cathedral. The doctor seen, the ampicillin tucked in my pocket, I strolled down Avenue des Ternes. Rumblings led me to examine the boulangeries along the street. Seeing what appeared to be a filled baguette, I ran the gauntlet and emerged triumphant with an impossibly fresh baguette, split lengthwise, lined with fully ripe tomato slices, a mild cheese (Provolone?) and just enough mayo to bind it all together. A memorable experience I have attempted with some success to duplicate at home, the French have no trouble, and here I am with two (count’em) – food of the gods is a pale description.
The rush hour crowds diminish as I stroll towards the Luxembourg. Traffic is present but not overwhelming. Not overwhelming until a taxi, a Puegot, comes up the street at a rapid pace, swings into a space defined by two parking spaces and with a great roar and squealing of tires, spins a U and races back down the street.
The massive gates of the Gardens appear. I marvel at the design, the execution of the work and my view expands to green grass and strolling couples and more young mothers. I settle onto a bench, sunny and warm, the Luxembourg soothes and inspires.

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Stuck in the Middle

. . .clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you . . .

The words of the old Stealers Wheels song boomed as I walked into the grocery store. I was finishing up a seven mile walk, at the store to get something for lunch. As I sorted through the bargain meats, the words kept coming back to me – “stuck in the middle. . .” The words fit, they explained what I didn’t understand, they made concrete the problem I had been wrestling with for seven grueling miles – we are in the middle, average, neither small nor big. Let me explain.

A sometime student of quantum physics, I am fascinated by the Standard Model of Particle Physics. The Standard Model is a compendium of subatomic particles found by the use of particle accelerators – the state of the art being the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Particle accelerators, despite their cost, power consumption and complexity are quite simple in concept. Using a tunnel of massive magnets, they accelerate a stream of particles to dizzying speed and power and slam them into a target – and see what flies off.

What has “flown off” has been over a 61 different particles: quarks, leptons, photons, etc. Most of the particles are, as one writer put it, “astonishingly evanescent” but still able to be track and recorded. My question: Why do these particles exist? What purpose do they serve? When I was in a checked shirt and salt-and-pepper cords in Sr. Catherine Laboure’s 5th grade class – I was amazed at the atomic structure of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Subsequent study proved their utility on the Periodic Table. But the catalog of the Standard Model baffles me.

Rapidly shifting from the tunnels in the Swiss mountains to the twinkling skies that surround us. The heavens. As equally baffling as the crowded tininess of the quantum world is the crowded immensity of the universe. The number of galaxies, always a subject of debate among cosmologists, is thought to be at least 100 billion. Each galaxy, like our own Milky Way contains millions of stars. Lined up alongside these immense numbers are immense distances, distances measured in parsecs, a multiple of the common light year. This concept has been renewed recently by the discovery of Kepler 186-f, a planet that could possibly be inhabitable. But it is 151 parsecs, 490 light years from Earth’s watery blue. Putting that into perspective, a person would have to build a device capable of traveling at the speed of light and then travel at that speed for 490 years to reach this planet. Unlikely to be visited by anyone you know.

Why all this complexity at both ends of the spectrum? Tiny particles that exist for an instant, empty spaces between atomic particles with neutrinos zipping through. Vast distances between galaxies, so distant that we can only see what they were like millions of years ago, distances that preclude visits.

Quantum tininess on the left, interstellar immensity on the right.  .  .Trying to make some sense of it all.

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Out of town

Out of the country, it was a whirlwind of activity. I had been out on a call, arriving back at a huge hotel only to find I had to hurry home. I wasn’t scheduled to leave for a couple of days so this launched a frantic dash around the hotel. Up one corridor, down another.
At one point, a colleague offered to drive me to the airport. I gladly accepted. I then raced down a dingy hall, on my way to my room. I went up a broad flight of stairs, nothing up here. Down another dingy hall, I noticed an elevator. I remembered that my room was on the fifth floor, the elevator would take me there. Running over to the elevator, I noticed the elevator door was askew, the top pushed in. I managed to squeeze in, another man behind me. I punched at the buttons, nothing, no lights, no movement, nothing, the door still askew. I pushed past the other guy and was out in the hall again.
My colleague was waiting, we ran for his car. The streets were all muddy, broken up, the car stalled, up to its hubs in vibrant brown mud. My colleague yelled “Take a bus or a cab.” Leaping from his car, I ran down the street. I saw a cab – I reached for my wallet, nothing. Damn, the guy in the elevator must have picked my pocket. Pocket picked! – what a rookie traveler.
I woke from my dream, the hollow feeling still in my gut.

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Know the subject

If you can argue either side of an argument, and win, you know the subject.

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B & B

“Tea’s ready!”
Bonnie’s call woke me from my mid-afternoon torpor. My senses had shutdown under the relentless attack from the financial channels, the market down again, down in response to yet another manufactured crisis from Washington. My cough had abated somewhat but still tickled and burned, a cough that was an unwelcome souvenir from a recent trip. And the third member of my triumvirate of misery, the annoyance of an overcharge for a car rental poked and prodded. It was, all in all, a life I was not going to get used to I declared, but found myself doubting my own resolve
“I’m going to sit out on the patio. It’s just too nice a day!” the voice from the other room called out.
Too nice a day? My tri-partite burden pressed heavier, pushing me deeper into my old chair. Seems dusty I thought, something irritating my lungs.
The relentless barrage of bad news from the TV forced me to think  “Will I outlive my retirement savings?”, interrupted by the dulcet tones of some blonde, then an elderly but well-dressed man, both telling me about the saving qualities of gold, the ultimate investment, the ultimate port in a storm, neglecting the fact that gold had fallen 500 points in the last few months
As I congratulated myself not having fallen victim to the strange promises, I creaked upright and went out to the kitchen, noting the low-traveling, November sun pouring through the patio doors.

Afternoon tea, all very British, has become a feature at our house. We drink PG Tips, a brand that I became familiar with during frequent travels to the UK. Taken with milk and sugar, it refreshes and energizes without causing the shakes.

Walking past the patio doors. I noticed Bonnie locked onto her Kindle, consuming another volume for her book clubs, or perhaps fueling her meditation that she practices daily.
The pot was hot, nestled under the tea cozy. Milk and sugar in the cup, then the tea, I gave it a quick stir and headed to the patio.
This time Bonnie was different. She looked out into our crimson and gold backyard, a backyard glorying in fall and congratulations for a good year growing.  It was that magic time, between the hard frost and the drifts of leaves. Trees and bushes blazing, on a background of uncharacteristically green grass, grass that benefited from the flooding rains in September.
As I reached for the door to slide it open, I noticed that Bonnie was not looking at the yard. Her Kindle cocked at an odd angle, she leaned forward.  Then I saw it, a small cottontail rabbit looking back at Bonnie.
The unholy trinity of dollars, cough and broken contracts melted away. How many times, I thought, have I see this, Bonnie in communication with some small creature that has chosen to journey through our yard? Bonnie is an expert, lifetime birdwatcher.  But it is the small animals that catch her soul: squirrels, many with names like Robby; families of raccoons, in the corn and up behind the chimney; once a prairie dog; the ultimate prize, a pair of foxes that raised a litter under the patio.
She shifted slightly in her sunlit chair as I opened the door. Her hand gave a slight motion, she was alerting  me to the presence of the rabbit. The cottontail sat motionless except for the wrinkling of its nose. Bonnie was still, except for the caution of her hand. We stood this way for a few moments, then the spell broke, the rabbit down its bunny trail and Bonnie sat up, turned and looked at me with a smile.
One word, “Beatrix” and Bea entered the backyard pantheon.

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Facing threats

Out on a walk this morning, I was reminded of a lesson learned in the early days of Officer Training School in the USAF.
I was with a couple of guys and we were walking at night (it was January) on the right side of the road with traffic behind us. Suddenly there was a voice from across the street telling us we should be walking on the other side of the road, facing oncoming traffic.
Good advice – one should have potential threats ahead of them, not creeping up from behind. Threat awareness does not imply retaliation but it reduces surprises and makes it easier to move ahead in life.

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The garage door creaked up, the usual bangs and groans, coming to rest with a final pop. I was off on a short trip to who knows where, a trip the product of the availability of endless retired time, unrelieved boredom and suppressed Wanderlust.
Backing the car out of the garage, I glanced over my shoulder, on the lookout for kids. We live a block away from an elementary school and our street, curious for an old neighborhood, is flooded with children in mid-afternoon.
It was then I saw him, a young boy, 10ish, on a pumpkin-colored bike. He was stopped on the sidewalk in front of our house. He was motioning me to continue backing out. His hand waved, he had a serious expression, anyone who knew him would have seen his dad.
I waved, accepting his permission, continued backing out.
Suddenly, I heard a “Stop!”, the boy’s quiet “It’s OK to procede” motion turned frantic, a finger came out, wagging back and forth.  Looking at him, he pointed back up the street, at the black pickup coming down the street. My guardian angel had seen the pickup, alerting me, doing credit to his upbringing and his own intelligence.
As I backed out on the street, I looked at the boy. He didn’t look back, but I saw a small smile on his face. A man knows a job well done.

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Music and color

Bonnie had gone into Walgreen’s for something or other, I deciding to wait in the car. It was pleasant in the car, not hot, the day hadn’t been warm and the beginnings of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was playing. I looked across a narrow street and I could see a Good Times with a pickup in the drive through. Nestled into my view was a Midas sign, the next shop over. And rising above it, at the entrance to a mall was a Kohl’s sign,
The music soothed, the colors of the three signs blurred and I felt good for the first time in weeks.


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For heaven’s sake….

If the media would suddenly stop talking about the crappy systems development of Obamacare, the latest gee-whiz from Apple, gay marriage (both for and against), marijuana (both for and against) and how scared shitless we should be of the latest flavor of Armageddon, the resulting decrease of hot air would have a measurable effect on global weather.

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On my way back from a short walk, I had stopped by the local King Soopers. This is daily occurrence – most routes home lead past Kings. I usually stop for something for lunch.
Purchases in hand, I walked south on Madison, towards home. There is a big street that runs east from Madison and I noticed three people walking along the street: an older man (not as old as me but more than middle aged) and a middle-aged couple.
The thing that first caught my attention was that both men were carrying boxes, black boxes. As they drew nearer, I could see they were Budweiser boxes.
I then noticed their conversation, somewhat elevated but not feisty. Expecting Mexican, I realized that it wasn’t. My ears strained to listen in, a car drove by erasing the sound, then I was back to it. Sorting through my “this is what a language sounds like” list, I came up with Eastern European, Polish, Russian, Latvian, one of those languages.
Having sorted this out, my attention was drawn to their faces: Weary, ruddy, they showed signs of an allnighter. Their unsteady walk pointed to one of the legendary Polish Weddings that last a week.
I walked in front of them, they crossed Madison St. They were on the other side, then they weren’t, having turned down a side street.
Continuing home, I regretted not asking them where they were from, welcome them to the neighborhood, showing enthusiasm for the gradual diversification that grips the little section of houses where we live.

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