Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We are indeed

The Woods post on language brings up a point that several people made to me when I lived in London: Americans seem to live in a more physical world than the British do. (I don't see how that can be true of farmers or doctors or engineers, but it was part of the stereotype.) Since I lived and worked with Brits, I rarely had contact with Americans, but a frequent American visitor was my parents' friend Mr.B.

Mr.B was an MIT graduate, a chemical engineer, had the earliest MBA of anyone I'd met, and was in the OSS during WW2. He was a carbon factor, which means ... well, the way he put it, "Let's say you have some low-sulphur coal in Australia and I know someone in Italy who needs low-sulphur coal. I introduce the two of you and you both pay me."

Growing up around the steel industry, there were lots of engineers in the community. They were people of high intellect, a high level of inventiveness, and a lot of involvement in physical reality. I must have been 30 before I realized that those were not by definition characteristics of grownups in general. I thought everyone's dads were great at figuring stuff out! Mr.B was one such intelligent, inventive person -- great fun to be with, and I often traveled with him out of England.

My London friend Roland had taught Latin and Greek several years at two well-known public schools and was studying for the bar. He, his father, his sisters and his mother were all Cambridge-educated. His father was a prominent civil servant decorated by the queen. They lived in a town house with an embassy on each side. Anyway, I thought, Roland is smart and connected, Mr.B is smart and connected, I'll introduce them. So I took Roland along to Claridge's to pick up Mr.B and go to dinner.

Mr.B had just spent several weeks in Egypt and described the hotel he'd stayed in, a 19th-century palace. As a constant tourist, I was used to carrying a tape measure and sketch book, because you never know when you'll look around a bar in Delft and want to know what size those bricks are. Anyway, Mr.B launched into a discussion of the way the palace stairs sat in the hotel lobby, their location, configuration, and sweep. The height of each riser and the curvature of the lip (sketch book out). The color of the marble and the different marble of the railing, and the railing's bevel (sketching). The shape of the balusters (sketching). The design of the inlays and the colors of their stones (sketching, a look around the room to find a matching color). While he drew in my sketch book he was using his hands to trace designs in the air. It was delightful. This was the way he and I always interacted.

And Roland? His face was shining -- glowing with excitement -- as he listened. He watched me and Mr.B, his face radiant with discovery. "My God!" he burst out. "You Yanks are such artisans!"

Incidentally, on that trip Mr.B brought me a kilo of saffron, welded into a tin. For my artisanal cookery, I guess.

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