Category Archives: Personal Log

In Search of the Beast

Weather or Not

March 17, 2009 – St. Patrick’s Day

I love weather forecasts.  I love trying to forecast the weather.  As a sailor I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what winds and seas would be like in long trans-ocean races, or just for a weekend of sailing on the Chesapeake or Buzzards Bay.  In our graduate sailing programs at Daniels College I’m allowed to do the weather each day before the students go out to bash about on San Diego Bay.  As interesting as the subject is, I cannot explain why Sarah – the sailing director — always tells me to “keep it short.”  I do try to obey orders.

Of course the weather is not easy to predict.  That may be why so many people enjoy watching the weather channel in the States or the weather portion of the BBC 1 broadcasts here in the UK.  The reason the weather is hard to predict is because atmosphere and oceans are chaotic systems.  Sailing is done where the ocean of air meets the ocean of water, and that tangent is the most chaotic place imaginable, weather-wise. (Marriage is a whole different story, but there’s not time here for detailing that chaos.) I communicate such wisdom as this, in the limited time allowed by the sailing director.  At the end of my truncated forecast I always say, “So we’re going sailing . . .” and the students chime in, “weather or not!”  Can’t have more fun than that!

I religiously watch the BBC Weather Forecast at 0706 each morning of my sabbatical in Oxford.  Now I am aware that it is not politically correct to criticize cultural aspects of countries one is visiting in.  It’s, well, tacky.  So I have waited well over two months before making the following critical comments about weather forecasts in the UK.

First, the forecasts here are too damn vague.  “The weather today will be mostly dry with clear spells leading to patchy mist or fog and perhaps a touch of frost towards dawn.”  That was my forecast this morning, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.  Words like “spells” are abundant in the vocabulary of BBC weather persons.  There are sunny spells; wet spells; windy spells; cloudy spells; patchy spells of fog, etc.  My Aunt Jonce used to have spells – fainting spells; dizzy spells; spells of nausea; crying spells, etc.  She also had hot flashes and fits of temper.  But back home we didn’t use “spells” to describe the weather.

Here’s another thing, and St. Patrick’s day underlines the point, while the BBC shows viewers a satellite view of the British Isles, the weather people never give you the weather conditions for the southern portion of Ireland.  They discuss the spells that Northern Ireland is having; the temperature (in C), wind speeds (Beaufort Scale) and cloud conditions for Belfast, but for Dublin?  There’s not even an indication on the weather map that the wonderful city of James Joyce and Guinness Stout  even exists.  And Cork or Killarney or Limerick or Galway? Nil. 

I tried to discuss this matter with some British colleagues at lunch today in St. Antony’s.  I pointed out that, while I was aware of “The Troubles” it seemed to me that weather should be somehow devoid of politics.  Indeed that is one of my favorite things about the weather, it has nothing to do with either religion or politics, and certainly not with both together – that being more chaos than even God could imagine.  My college friends responded that The Republic of Ireland was not a part of the UK, and that the BBC was a UK institution and it only broadcast in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom.  So there was no need to carry the weather for the Irish Republic.  I said I understood the jurisdictional point, but what if I was planning on going over to Dublin for a few days of pub hopping (which I am) and wanted to know how the weather would be?  I mean is it too much trouble just to draw in Dublin, etc. and put a temperature and a wind indicator?  Would it be an act of disloyalty to Her Majesty?  After all, the President of the Republic of Ireland is a woman (Mary McAleese) and the Queen would understand.  There followed some inappropriate discussion about women, predictability, chaos and the weather that I won’t go into here.

There are a couple of things about weather reports here in the UK that I do like.  The temperature is given in degrees Celsius “C” as it is in the rest of the civilized world, excepting the US.  A key number for metrically challenged persons is 20 C which is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is the perfect inside and outside temperature, depending, of course, on the wind and humidity.  So if the wind is not blowing in your house, turn the thermostat down to 68.!  The other thing I like about the weather forecast in the UK is the use of Beaufort Scale for wind.  At first, I thought the wind was always light, i.e. 2 or 5 or 7 knots at the strongest.  Then I recalled that their weather maps here used Beaufort, meaning each number 1 to 12 represents a wind and sea condition, not the miles per hour or knots of wind-speed.  Zero is calm; four is the perfect sailing breeze (11 to 15 knots); twelve is a hurricane (over 64 knots and you don’t go sailing).  Some years back Beaufort forces up to 17 were added to the scale, mostly because of how much more violent tropical storms are becoming thanks to global warming.

Ok, ok, Sarah, I’m about to finish.  But you should know that the Beaufort Scale was invented by a British Admiral who was born in Ireland, Sir Francis Beaufort.  And if that isn’t reason enough to include The Irish Republic in the BBC weather forecast, I don’t know what is.  So happy St. Patrick’s Day . . . and I’m going to the library . . . weather or not.

Beaufort Force 12

Beaufort Force 12


Saturday, February 21, 2009



“. . . it is plain, that they shall conjecture best, that have most experience: because they have most signs to conjecture by; which is the reason that old men are more prudent, (emphasis added for the benefit of my 6 children and 13 grandchildren) that is, conjecture better, than young.  For, being older, they remember more; and experience is but remembrance.”

- Thomas Hobbes, Human Nature, Chapter IV.

In the ancient cemetery of The Church of Mary the Virgin, in Chipping Norton, on a day in the deep of winter, there are Snowdrops (Galanthus).  Where death is ubiquitous; lives planted and marked and forgotten across a millennium, arise flowers in February. Low, but brilliant, sunlight warms an ancient heart, and insolates a dimming memory.  She loved such flowers.  Her voice – so often strained and serious – would trill upon discovery of a snowdrop in our winter lawn in Denver or a bluebell high in the mountain reaches on a summer hike in the Rockies.  Alone in this churchyard I can hear her soft, explosive, “Oh, oh . . . look!”  I can recall the pleasure of being included in the radiance of her wonder. 

Got up and said hello to this Saturday of “unseasonable,” the weatherman’s word, sun and warmth, by grabbing my jacket, my cell phone and my bike helmet and heading north on Thames Street.  Up Walton Street through Jericho and out to Woodstock Road heading north again.  I had been dying to bike deep into the hills beyond Oxford to “the gem of the Cotswolds,” Chipping Norton.  I had read the damn tourist guide so often sitting in my study window watching the freezing rain and snow of a miserable British January, I knew it almost from memory.  Finally, I could get out on the road. And un-me like I had a plan!  I would go to Woodstock on what I knew to be a great bikeway, then ask about the road north from there, the 15 or 16 miles to CN.  I would arrive in time for lunch, look around the town, then put my bike on a bus and leisurely return.

I got to Woodstock so quickly that I skipped the part of my plan about asking for road conditions, and just headed down the way to Chipping Norton.  So did everybody else in the Queendom.   Lories, sports cars, caravans, garbage trucks, tour busses filled with the ancients, regularly scheduled busses filled with everybody else zoomed or chugged along the road to Chipping Norton.  It was the first truly nice weekend of 2009 and nobody was going to miss it.  When the bike path ran out – which it did a mile out of Woodstock — I wondered if nobody would miss me.  Damn that’s a narrow road!  And only this week I had been brushed by a delivery van that turned into the bike lane at Broad and Banbury in downtown Oxford sending me careening onto the sidewalk, shaken and stirred, but unhurt.  For the final hour of my trip I repeated a revised version of the 23rd Psalm, “Though I cycle through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for lo Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comforteth me . . .”

OK, I’m writing this, so you already know I made it.  The wind was in my face; the hills of the Cotswolds, while lovely, are really steep, and three times I had to steer out into the soggy grass road shoulder to avoid oncoming Armageddon (I was going to relate a stupid pun here, i.e. “arm a gettin’ out of the way” but I decided not to.)  And there was road kill: a beautiful red fox, a ring necked pheasant, and two hedge hogs.  I considered the meaning of the poker term straight flush, but prayed I would not be a part of that hand.

And finally there it was, ancient Norton.  Chipping means “market place” and, by god, everyone had chipped in and there were markets everywhere – the Saturday Farmers’ Market; a Tool Fair in the old town hall; a charity quilting and woolens bazaar, and peddlers of every description around the town center.  It had taken three grueling, death defying hours, but I was here!  And there across the square was The Fox Inn and Tavern.  “And thou preparest a table before me . . .”

Here’s how hungry I was.  I like almost everything there is to eat with only two exceptions, liver and green peas.  Justin, the inn keep, showed me to a nice table and asked what I wanted.  I said I’d have a pint of his Blonde Summer Ale and a Guinness, mushroom and steak pie with veggies.  In no time at all, Justin returned with the ale and right on his heels a lovely young girl with a plate of meat and veggies.  I dug in.  It was wonderful.  Only problem, both Justin and the young lovely returned immediately to tell me, I’d gotten the wrong lunch.  I had the “Liver, Bacon, Onions and Peas Lunch” ordered by the lady at the table next to mine. It was her favorite, and the Chef had specially cooked it for her.  She had been waiting on it for twenty minutes or so.  Her companion asked me what I had ordered.  He was a sorta big guy.  I said, “Uh . . . Guinness, mushroom and steak pie.” Fortunately his only overt act was to roll his eyes.  I kept my head down, but cleaned my plate.  Yummmm.

So then I headed out to find the bus stop.  Justin told me there was a bus every hour to Oxford “on the hour.”  It was exactly 1400.  Great Plan.  Unfortunately, the bus driver informed me that they didn’t allow bikes on the bus.  “But they do in Denver,” I said lamely.

 ”Don’t here,” was all he said to me.  And then he turned as he was closing the door and said something to the fellow in the first seat back.  I only caught the word “Yanks” and he was shaking his head.  I could have told him they did allow bikes on busses in London where I’d been just yesterday, but thought better of it.

And that is how I got to really enjoy a truly beautiful town.  Justin showed me to a really nice room in The Fox.  It was classically modern, blonde woods, chrome and exposed 350 year old beams of the original inn.  There was even an “en suite” shower, under which I stood for something like twenty minutes.  I had no tooth brush, no clean clothes, no earphones for my iPhone’s tunes.  But I had a soft bed and a whole evening I’d never counted on.

And so it was that I came to the snowdrops in the cemetery of the old church.  Memories buried forever, returned.  Warm feelings about how lucky a person I’ve been in this life – my children and my grandchildren, wiser by far than I and in such appropriate and   joyful ways taking on the business of living in this tortured time.  Each child my snowdrop in the declining years of life, hope this soul can feel long before the end of winter.

 My old friend Kenneth Bolding once told me that the whole glory of life in our later years was learning the joy of “declining gracefully.”  Going home from Chipping Norton and the Cotswolds was graciously down hill, and the wind was behind me all the way.

February 9: Point of View

February 9, 2009: Point of View

Today I have been in Oxford on sabbatical for exactly one month.  I have made a wonderful adjustment to my new environment, which includes the worst winter weather in modern history.  I take some pride in having achieved, in this short time, a renewed degree of focus and dedication to my work on the thought and writings of Thomas Hobbes.  But . . .


Across a small terrace outside my study window is an artist’s studio.  His window and my window are both one story above the small terraced garden below.  In the day time his curtains are open, and so are mine.  About 1000 each day students come to his studio to paint and draw under his watchful instruction.  I can see their easels and their canvasses.  I can see their intense focus and careful brushstrokes.  What I cannot see is what they are looking at, drawing, painting, enjoying.  The object of the students’ stares is within the studio beyond my angle of repose.  But whatever, it is tantalizingly near to my line of sight, but still just around the sill of his unshuttered window.

And so I must fantasize.  Well, anyway, I do fantasize.  I think it might be a bowl of lusciously ripe fruit – a Renaissance of opulence, Rubenesque in presentation — large yellow golden pears with drooping red purple grapes overhanging both them and an orange terracotta bowl.  There are also guavas intermeshed with passion fruit and green yellow Caribbean limes causing the students to lean forward, fixed in gaze, enraptured.  Their canvasses are at an oblique angle to me and I cannot see their renderings, but often they lick their lips and touch their salivating mouths.  Succulence.  It must be fruit.

Or maybe not. 

It could be a bicycle.  The art teacher has a marvelous silver blue racing bike that he never leaves outside where the rest of us lock and leave our bikes to the gentle mercies of the English winter.  Each day nice enough to ride, he pushes – God to be 30 something again and have back and leg muscles like that – his bike up our hill and soars off on the bike path toward Blenheim or beyond.  And, returning, effortlessly lifts his instrument of speed into his home and studio, vouched safe against snow, rain and thieves. So there beyond my craning neck his bicycle poses, a challenging objet d’art of glancing light and delicate hues.  I can see the teacher leaning over the subtle shoulder of a female student now, pointing out something, perhaps the smooth turning of the goose-neck or the chrome coolness of the crank.  It’s a bicycle.

Or maybe not.

Muscular, handsome art instructor person also has a Yellow Labrador Retriever that lives in his flat.  The dog’s name is Isis, I suspect for the branch of the River Thames that runs by the studio.  Isis is a young Lab and often sleeps in the sunshine – when there is any – of the window across the room from the window I can see into.  But Isis is not in her spot today, and I imagine her sleeping snugly just now on a powder blue cashmere cushion, an imposing still life for the students’ practice, just beyond my seeing round the corner of the window over there.

But then the students put down their brushes and their pencils and begin to applaud and smile, and walking in among them, into the line of my eager sight, a magnificent, tall woman with a sheet draped over appears.  The teacher hugs her ample torso, her head drops back cascading radiant strawberry tresses, and the applause continues, as ballerina like she pivots and then is gone from view.

I have made an important career decision.  Screw Hobbes, I’m going to learn to paint.

Along the Thames, February 1, 2009

Along the Thames, February 1, 2009 

A foot and bike path runs from the building I live in along the River Thames out to the hills and green fields of Oxfordshire north of the City.  This morning as I push my bike up to the entry of the path there are swans swimming in the cold winter currents of the river.  The sun, low in the southeast, cuts through the trees, glances off the water and touches a place of remembered warmth within my body – a child I held, a woman who held me.  Along this river royal yachts have coursed: oarsmen bringing Henry VIII to confront his Lord Chancellor for not granting his divorce; Elizabeth I traveling to Stratford, perhaps to visit Walter or William; James I and VI escaping the clamor of London, dreaming of his highland home he’d left in Scotland.  People of purpose.  Today it’s just me and my bike.

The wind behind me pushes my bike fast along beside the river.  On my right there are bridges crossing back to Oxford, and looking in their beckoning direction I see the spires of the churches and colleges of my beautiful, temporary city.  A crew – stroke, stroke, stroke – moves against the current going in my direction.  The mechanical sound of the coach’s bullhorn seems historically discordant to my sense of being in a 17th Century time warp.  I pedal hard, standing up over the pedals, to escape the present and course back in time.  And there are swans again, and ducks and birds in from the sea.  And me.

Have you had the feeling of returning to where you’ve never been before?  I hope the final transition is much like what I am feeling now.  There is sun!  And even an angler tempting trout to desert their winter hibernation and strike like it was May and hatches were swirling above the currents.  Have you been tempted like that?  To go for something that is so alluring, but totally out of sequence with your life?  I pedal harder and try to quit thinking of that.  I hope the fish stay in their dark, deep water places.  It’s not the season for getting caught.  

A couple with a jogging stroller approach from ahead on the path.  What a beautiful child they have!  Sparkling pink skin and blue eyes, covered in a sky blue blanket, he is the future waiting.  They have stopped along the river, and while their son sleeps, so tiny so fragile, they are kissing.  I look away.  Their joy!  Could it always last?  Couldn’t they forever feel what they are feeling now?  They have made a life, and it has made them, in this moment a Holy Trinity – three persons, one substance.  Christ, why did I ever study theology?  It is simply just human joy.  But I know as well that it is a sacrament.  In this moment, eternal, the body and blood of forever.

At the end of the bike path there is a small road leading to an old thatched roof tavern, The Perch. Smoke rises from a chimney.  Through the distortion of the ancient glass of the windows I can see people, young and old, dinning and drinking.  And I think of my Dad and the times we were so happy just sitting in a boat and waiting for a perch or a bass to strike, and being content in our time even if they never did.  It’s time to turn for home.  

January 25, 2009: Sunday and Robert Burns’ 250th Birthday


Got up this morning expecting heavy rain in and around Oxford.  But it wasn’t raining, and only a bit cool (7 C).  And so I got on me bike and headed north on Woodstock Road out of Oxford.  I cycled on an excellent bike path that runs along A 44 to the town (you guessed it) of Woodstock.  This part of England – called The Cotswolds — is gently beautiful.  Rolling hills, green fields, and limestone inns, houses and churches form the landscape.  This is where Chaucer hailed from, and the name places are of towns like Bath, Stratford upon Avon, Gloucester and Chipping Norton.

Woodstock is an ancient town, 15 miles from Oxford, where Henry I built a hunting lodge in the 12th Century and where old Geoffrey Chaucer lived for part of his life.  John Churchill was knighted (Duke of Marlboro) as well as given an estate here by the crown after his success against the French in the Battle of Blenheim (1704, The War of Spanish Succession).  He was also given the resources to build a palace that many believe is the most beautiful and grandest in all of the UK.  He named it for the battle, thus Blenheim Palace.  Sir Winston Churchill was born in a little room off of the grand ballroom, when his mother (dancing the night away) went unexpectedly into labor (Not the Labour Party, mind you.).  The Palace and gardens are closed until February 14, so I didn’t get inside (but had previously toured the place in 2005).

I turned home having taken only about an hour to reach Woodstock, and found, of course, the wind now against me.  Someday I’ll learn that if the cycling is really easy going out, it means the wind is likely behind you, and will be in your face returning!  It would seem that a sailor might know this instinctively.  About an hour and a half later I made it, exhausted, back to Folly Bridge.  The British are very skimpy in using hot water for baths and showers.  I was not.

Had lunch at the little “pan-Asian” (their word) restaurant that is just below my flat. Sitting in a window seat overlooking the Thames, I did an “all you can eat” meal of what appeared to be Indian cuisine.  Whatever it was, it was fine.  Returned to my flat and read more 17th Century British history.  With all the shit that went down in the mid 1600s (For instance, they killed that nice Scottish boy Charles I), it is no wonder that T. Hobbes was mostly in a foul mood as he wrote the Leviathan.

I walked to town late in the day to meet my friend Tom Tait at the Oxford Union for a pint.  We drank to wee Robbie; and the lassies; and the brave Scots who go into battle without underpants . . . and well, we drank too much.  Then I walked down High Street to the Quad Restaurant and had a Burns’ Night Meal: haggis, tatties, bread puddin’ and a glass of Drambuie.  The Drambuie was excellent.  And thus to home and to bed.  I should note that I didn’t look for the Beast very diligently today.  It was Sunday and Robbie Burns’s birthday.  But I did recall his wonderful poem about a lesser “beastie”: 

To a Mouse, by Robert Burns

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, 
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! 
Thou need na start awa sae hasty 
Wi bickering brattle! 
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, 
Wi’ murdering pattle. 

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion 
Has broken Nature’s social union, 
An’ justifies that ill opinion 
Which makes thee startle 
At me, thy poor, earth born companion 
An’ fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve; 
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! 
A daimen icker in a thrave 
‘S a sma’ request; 
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, 
An’ never miss’t.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin! 
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin! 
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane, 
O’ foggage green! 
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuin, 
Baith snell an’ keen! 

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste, 
An’ weary winter comin fast, 
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast, 
Thou thought to dwell, 
Till crash! the cruel coulter past 
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble, 
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! 
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble, 
But house or hald, 
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, 
An’ cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain: 
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men 
Gang aft agley, 
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, 
For promis’d joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! 
The present only toucheth thee: 
But och! I backward cast my e’e, 
On prospects drear! 
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, 
I guess an’ fear!


So with thoughts of mice and men, plans and schemes, hopes and dreams, I lay me down.

A Day in Search of the Beast

January 16, 2009.  Personal Log:

Fun Friday.  As a gift I gave Friday to me.  Enough of doing what I had to do . . . I spent the whole day doing some things I’d been dreaming of.

Went down to The Oxford Union and joined!  Ate lunch amid the Dons of Oxford, only to learn that both the food and the beer is half the cost of any public place!  And I’d been sweating the 100 pounds cost of joining. In beer alone, I’ll recover the 100 quid in a month! The debates begin next Thursday and are every Thursday after that.  The schedule is not out, but Gordon Brown is supposed to come this term.  Recall this is where Don Seawell says he debated Winston Churchill in the early 30s.  The reading room is replete with every magazine (periodical) on the planet, and around each corner I expected to run into Harry Potter or one of Philip Pullman’s characters, Liara or Sally Lockhart.  I will run into Pullman sooner or later, he frequents the place.

Then after lunch I walked the three blocks to the Bodleian Library (there is a big argument as to whether it, or our Library of Congress, is more famous/prestigous, but this one is older by centuries).  I subscribed to the following oath:

“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custory; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” 


Upon this undertaking I was admitted to the most impressive library on earth.  I walked through the endless reading rooms.  Asked about rules and such (Can I bring in my laptop?   Yes.  Can I leave it over night?  No.  Can I bring in food?  or drink?  No.)  The WC’s have this sign on their doors: “Women Readers” and “Men Readers” . . . I nearly peed in my pants looking for the Men’s room, until I realized these were not separate-by-gender reading areas, but restrooms!  I then went to the ancient documents and books section and asked if I could look at the original edition of T. Hobbes, The Leviathan.  And was told, “Certainly, Sir.  But first go to the request desk and fill in a form, and you can inspect The Leviathan at this desk.”  Feeling a little faint, I decided to wait until another day for that.

I walked home just now past Christ Church College  (from which no less than 13 Prime Ministers of England have graduated) where Lewis Carol was a student, fell in love with the Dean’s daughter (Alice) and was in Wonderland for the rest of his life.  And then I walked on along to my little flat above the River Thames, No. 2 Folly Bridge.  Turns out that where Folly Bridge stands was once the cattle and livestock ford for the Medieval town . . . and thus the name “Oxford.”

Hope all of you are well.  Much talk here of the plane crash in New York, and of the plain crash of every capital market on the planet.  But I had a lovely day . . . and I hope you did too.  

Cherrie Oh!