Christmas, Cathedrals and Miss World

I went to the UK for Christmas, and returned to Waterloo on New Year’s Eve. I don’t mind air travel, but the time change is tough, especially going to Europe, since effectively one ends up with a night of no sleep. It is however an opportunity to catch up on films. On the way to Amsterdam I watched “A Walk in the Woods”, which is based on Bill Bryson’s book of the same name. It tells the story of him and a boyhood friend attempting to walk the Appalachian Way. Perhaps the most impressive part of this is that they knew when they had had enough and agreed to stop. No false bravery in this tale. I saw half of the “The Little Prince”, the most famous work of the French aristocrat and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is a book I think is significant, and everyone ought to read it. I am going to develop a reading list of important books for students. This will be one of them. Other suggestions are welcome.

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Kudos to KLM

I really like KLM and am a steadfast customer. Their loyalty cards were introduced about the time I began major travelling. As a result I rapidly reached the highest level (Platinum Elite, in case you were wondering). In the 1990s when you had held this for five years you were given lifetime status. I have been an ‘elite’ flyer since 1996. It does make a difference. The access to the lounges gives private space to work, relax, drink and shower; there is automatic seating in the premium economy cabin; priority on boarding and shorter queues.

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Vignettes of spring and summer 2014

My Skype picture is of a swallow. I think it is appropriate because I too flit between the northern and the southern hemispheres. Of course I put much less effort into this traveling than the birds do. Having said that, all my recent trips have been in economy class on KLM. Admittedly premium economy, but still economy! I won’t dwell on this other than to say the flights I took recently were packed, a combination of the holiday season and KLM doing really well.

I hope to put up a guest posting on my website as my daughter, Rowan has spent a month in Southern Africa, mostly Durban. We shared a road trip. I have invited her to contribute and we will have to see when this happens. No pressure Rowan. She is embarking on the MA in creative writing at UEA this academic year. It is one of the best MAs in the world, with an illustrious list of alumni.

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Teeth are trauma

The idea that one should take good care of one’s teeth is drummed into us and we try to pass the message on. Boy, do I believe it now. The water in Kenya, where I was born and spent my early years, and Swaziland, where I grew up, did not have fluoride added. As a result I have more than the average number of fillings and crowns. It is likely the lack of brushing and eating sweets that were significant contributors, but I would prefer to think that fluoride was the issue.

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All the N’s: Norwich, Nairobi, Norwich, New York

I wrote this post after travelling to Kenya and concluded it was a rather depressing trip in some ways. The reason for the travel was a board meeting for AIDSpan a small NGO whose mandate is to watch and support the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. I went over from the UK on Wednesday and returned to Norwich on a late flight on Saturday evening arriving back on Sunday. The flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam is longer than the one from Toronto to Amsterdam. I don’t think I appreciated that Canada was so close, or maybe that Nairobi was so far.

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New Beginnings

The past month has been hectic but rather fun. I left Durban, as promised, on  19 December 2013. That was sad. The last days involved clearing out my office, deciding what needed to be shipped to Canada, stored in the flat, put in the suitcase, or given away. I know that to some extent, I keep my life in boxes. The University of KwaZulu-Natal box is now closed, and, hopefully, the important residual parts are in transit. There is a lot to reflect on, of course. How could there not be after 30 years?

I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I did, to connect with people, to build an organisation and support my team’s contribution to knowledge and science which, hopefully, makes a positive difference. I am proud of my own substantial publishing record.

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Taxis In Holland And Germany And Smiles At Airports

I begin with taxi cab experiences in Holland and Germany, destinations in late September. I spent two days in The Hague in Holland for a meeting of The AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative (ASCI) a research project convened by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and the US Social Science Research Council. The final report and other information are on the web athttp://asci.researchhub.ssrc.org/rdb/asci-hub.
The flight from Norwich to Amsterdam is about 35 minutes if KLM uses their Fokker F70 jet and 55 minutes if the aircraft is smaller, creaky, propeller driven Fokker F50. That is a name to the company probably regretted when they became an international brand, but as they went bankrupt in 1997 it not that relevant. Getting the train from the airport was not easy as it seems the Dutch railway system does not accept most major credit or debit cards and the machines need coins for most tickets.

The meeting was being held at a hotel in Scheveningen, an attractive seaside resort just north of The Hague so I took a cab to the hotel. It isn’t far and there are trams, but when one does not know a city it is easiest to be driven. The taxi drivers I had were all young, foreign men, (sample 3, 100% accurate.) The first driver told me he worked two jobs and wanted to complete his education. He spent the entire journey telling me how tough his life is; how many of his passengers are mentally disturbed (presumably when they get into the cab because I could well understand it if they got out feeling unsettled); and finally how dangerous it is to be a cab driver in Holland. He took the view that drivers should be in cages and have cameras in the cabs for additional security. A depressing experience!

The second cabby drove far too fast. As this was from the hotel to the station, I can only assume he thought, correctly, that I had a train to catch. But the trains leave every 15 minutes so it was quite unnecessary. He went through at least two red lights leaving in his wake, numbers of shocked and shaken cyclists. In the end, I asked him to slow down which rather surprised him, commenting on taxi drivers’ skills is a no-no.

By contrast, the drivers in Berlin were fast, did not speak English, and drove safely. There was a degree of precision and accuracy to their driving which was, well, Germanic. It was easy and cheap to use the U-Bahn and the bus in Berlin. I managed to negotiate both. On the Saturday I caught the airport bus from the romantically named boulevard, ‘Unter-den-Linden’, to Tegel airport, very simple and comfortable. Not being able to get on an earlier flight, I sat in the lounge and edited an article. That was boring but productive. Two loud Americans came in and talked about their Blackberries and families in that order!

On the journey from the Hague I also ended up spending a couple of hours at the airport, Schipol this time. The check-in was supposed to be self-service. The automatic passport reader did not like my passport so I was obliged to enter details manually. I managed this until it asked for the first three letters of the home country. So, what was it to be? ENG (for England) or GRE (for Great Britain) or indeed UNI , (United Kingdom) Naturally, it was the last of the three options. Before I solved it I turned to a KLM staff member and asked for help. She was talking to two other passenger and the following conversation ensued.

“Hang on” she said, “I can only do one thing at a time.”
“I thought women could multi task.” I teased her.
“No.” she responded, “Only knitting and talking!”

In the departure area, the microphones were not working, so the person on duty had to round up all the passengers by shouting across the hall. It was clearly a day of equipment failure. Still, the plane did take off on time and so was into Norwich 20 minutes early. It really was a beautiful day to be in the air: clear and sunny with the whole of Norfolk spread out below us at its best. I managed to spot Coltishall Airfield, an old Royal Air force base. I now recognise it as a useful landmark before coming into Norwich from the North when I am in the flying school plane. Really interesting! Now I have to start working at spotting it from the other side.

The trip to Berlin was to a talk to a sub-group of the German Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and also to GTZ on of the main German aid giving bodies. Berlin is such an interesting city. One of the striking things is how little of ‘The Wall’ is left, and what there is, is rotting, with concrete falling off and steel reinforcing rods exposed. My assigned seat was 6C and next to me was a German woman, Cordelia Marten, who is one of two or three people running an art book company owned by a friend of hers. What an interesting position, the idea is to take artists out more broadly into society and to the public. It is better than one person having a one picture on a wall or a gallery which depends on people coming in. It is also highly specialised. It fitted very neatly into my books read and reviewed category at the end of this news.

The company has a great website and the books are in both English and German. The one I found most interesting on the site was by Michael John Whelan, ‘RED SKY MORNING’, Berlin 2009, So often I feel extraordinarily privileged to travel and meet such a range of out-of-the-ordinary people that I learn from.

I have just three weeks of sabbatical left. It has been good to be in Norwich through a spring, summer and now an autumn. The garden has been magnificent although at the moment it is terribly dry. Despite the general view of England as a constantly damp isle we have not seen rain for at least six weeks.

As I prepare to leave my final reflections are flying and the range of wildlife that this patch of garden attracts. The weather has been perfect for spiders and there are webs in every location that will support one. It seems unlikely that there is enough insect life to keep them all going. Perhaps they become cannibals, although my experiments of introducing one spider to another’s web show the intruder scurries off as fast its eight legs will carry it. (Sample 2 confidence 100%).

The pond beside the shed has been home to a batch of fearsome mosquitoes. Mowing the lawn the other evening I was really bitten. I could actually feel each bite, and as the little beast got caught in the hair on my legs I was able to kill them, but that was cold comfort. The result of the bite, even interrupted by death, was great itchy wheals (sample 5, and two spider’s bites, the difference being a black spot at the centre of the spider bite and not as irritable). The pond has also been home to tadpoles. At the moment there are at least big frogs living in it, when I went round this morning there were three plops as they leapt in. Curiously if they are in the water they feel confident enough to sit with their head out and watch me, but if they are outside they want to get in as fast as they can.

More flying stories September 2009

It has been a frustrating few weeks as far as flying goes. I booked a lesson a couple of Sundays ago. I went to the Flying School (this sounds grand, but is just an office with a white board at the end of one on the runways) for my pre-flight briefing. My instructor warned me that it was rather windy and we might not be able to fly, but we went ahead. This lesson was to be about low flying, higher than 500 feet but less than 1000. (One of the rules of flying is that you should not go nearer than 500 feet of a person animal or vehicle).

After the briefing we went out to the plane and on to the next step which is the pre-flight check list. This takes me about 15 minutes, and includes opening the engine cowlings and checking for dead birds. This done we got into the plane, did the next checks, started the engine and taxied to the end of the runway. At the holding point the instructor called the tower to get the latest weather and clearance for take-off. The wind strength had increased and so he decided that we should not fly. The main reason is if anything went wrong the insurance would be invalid. Flying is about margins and making sure they are as wide as possible. On the whole I fully approve of this.

The school does not charge when this happens, so effectively I got an hour and half of time and 20 minutes taxiing. This was no bad thing because I have finally mastered that to a degree. The moment that made a difference was realizing how the plane is steered. There are two peddles on the floor that control the rudder (a bit on the tail which turns left and right). They also control the nose wheel which I had not understood! It made a huge difference to me to realize that what I was doing with my feet had an immediate effect just in front of me, rather than being transmitted to the tail and then effecting the angle of the plane – or something. Also, and I don’t know if this is only true of the Piper or if it is the case with most small planes, the controls require a lot of effort to make them work at low speed. If you think of a car without power steering, and how much exertion it takes to turn the steering wheel when it is stationary, you have a sense of what I have to do.

My sense of frustration was that I could not do what I wanted, for the instructor it meant no pay! The reason for becoming an instructor for younger men is to build up the hours of flying to allow them to get commercial licenses. If they don’t fly they don’t get paid and it is pretty minimum wages for them anyway. I think I am going to have to give this plane a name as it seems to becoming a part of my life. If you have moment, look at the picture and give me your nomination. It is a Piper Tomahawk, as they say ‘ideas on a postcard please’.

Books and things 

Chris Anderson ‘The Longer Long Tail‘ Business Books 2006, 267 pages

This is about the fact that there are a few hits and then many other products. The essence is niche interests have come together on a global scale and create a substantial market. The author (editor of ‘Wired’ begins with the effects of the internet. The simple version of his argument is if you lower the cost of production and distribution you can offer more variety and if this happens people will start to look for the product that most closely meets their needs. The best example at the moment are the media products available on the internet. One key point is this does not mean the end of hits, there will still be the big blockbuster films, but there may be fewer of them and not as big. The major issue that he does not address is around quality. There are some products that need investment otherwise quality suffers. In other words there is a level at which what is good cannot be left to the market.

A movie recommendation in this letter District 9 is a South African film that is full of dark humour and is really astutely observed. I took Douglas and a friend and we all enjoyed it. I wont say more- other than do go see it, and the website www.argobooks.de

Lions In Lusaka And Down In Durban

Mercifully planes usually leave on time, so I am feeling slightly hard done by at the moment. I travelled from Norwich to Amsterdam on Sunday 31st May. The check-in for the flight from Norwich is at 05h10 in the morning, a brutal time to have to be awake and functioning. The plane leaving Amsterdam was about an hour late, a pain because we only got to Joburg at 10pm. Although I was spending the night at the Intercontinental Hotel right next to the terminal,I had to be up again the next morning at 05h00, the Monday flight to Lusaka was at 06h30!

Then coming travelling back to Joburg and Durban two days later we had to leave the hotel at 06h45, so I had my share of early mornings.

All the other flights were on time, and so when I left Durban a few days ago on Sunday I felt quite good.  I need to keep my Gold frequent flyer card on South African Airways so decided I would travel with them, instead of the usual KLM flight to Amsterdam followed by the short hop to Norwich. It means taking a trains and tubes from Heathrow to Norwich.

The trip back did not start well. I worked at the University in the morning, up to about 11h30 and then went home to pack. I was booked on the 16h55 flight to Joburg. As I had arranged to meet the Principal of Waterford School for dinner, at 17h00, I knew I had to get an earlier flight – and decided the 15h40 would work. My planned steady, measured packing, with a shower at the end and a reasonably early arrival at the airport to change my ticket was thrown into complete disarray. I know, to deal with failing memory and the fact I travel so much, have a checklist of things I must take. Running through it I realised I had left my flash disk with all the documents I was working on, at the office. Under normal circumstances it is a 35 minute round trip. I did it in 22 minutes. I left the flat in a cab at 14h45. I made it, albeit drenched in sweat!

However things really deteriorated in Joburg. Laurence and I had our meeting, and very useful it was too. He drove from Swaziland just for this, although we also had a meal, which turned out, with hindsight, to be a good decision. I then wandered through to the departures lounge in our magnificent new airport.

For the past three years, or more, O. R. Tambo airport has been undergoing massive renovations and expansion. This is in part to cater for the 2010 soccer cup. It has been amazing, and impressive as the airport has continued to function without too many hitches, albeit a degree of dust, noise and inconvenience. It has been worth it, the new facilities are magnificent. The arrivals halls are huge, clean, airy, and efficient. This has had a knock on effect on the staff. They are friendly, helpful, smiling, and happy, so unlike any airport I have been to in the last few years. Normally the attitude is that you have done something wrong until proven otherwise.

“Why do you’, said with contempt, “want to come into our country. How are you going to exploit us and misuse us?”  We seem to have a virtuous circle developing in South Africa, long may it continue. There is still work to be done, in particular there is a temporary international Business Class lounge, which is crowded and has no toilets on site.

The boarding time for the London flight was scheduled for 19h35. I did some shopping and wandered to the gate. A great deal of nothing was happening. After half an hour I went up to the First Class lounge and asked the receptionist if she knew what was going on, explaining at the same time that the business lounge was not particularly pleasant.

“That is OK, sir “, she said understandingly, “We are not busy you can sit here”.

And that is where I was until we boarded at 23h00. The problem was a ‘relay’ controlling power to the business class cabin and it meant there was no in-flight entertainment, nor would the seats recline. It was finally fixed for almost all the seats but not 5D or 5E. I, of course, was in 5D!!

So what were the good things? Well I normally travel on KLM and I was cursing my decision to go on SAA, until looking at the screens, I saw that KLM’s flight had been cancelled. If I had been doing my normal route I would have had a 24 hour delay! I was in business class and that meant that I slept on a fully reclining seat. I was not travelling with babies or rug rats, although there was a small infestation at the front of the cabin. There are such swings and roundabouts in travel and most of it is not anything one can control.  One has to grab what pleasure you can, and the fact that my bag was among the first off the plane at both Joburg and Heathrow was a small victory!

The Swedish International Development Agency reference group meeting was held at Chimanuka lodge about  30 minutes drive from Lusaka http://www.chimanuka.com . It is a delightful spot. The owners have excellent rooms and conference facilities. They have farm land in the area, but the lodge is centred in a game farm. On the property there is also a cheese factory. It is possible to have a game drive and a tours of the cheese factory. They also have, in a separate, and one hopes, very secure enclosure.

I have to digress here and tell of an event that happened when I was about four years old. We lived on a cattle farm outside Nairobi in an areas close to game reserves. One of the lions developed a taste for, easy to catch cattle, and so the young British farmers decided that said lion had to be shot. The story goes that they sat in a hide near the carcase of the last kill all night. Just before dawn, at the time the first birds start clearing their throats, they gave up. Walking along the road they were swinging the torch and suddenly, caught in the light, was the lion, eyes and teeth gleaming. Somehow one of the chaps managed to get his rifle up, and with a lucky shot, killed the lion stone dead.

There was much excitement in the community. The staff of the little pre-primary school I was at, decided that it would be fun if we were taken to see the dead lion. Indeed I recall being placed on its back and having my photograph taken. I would like to think I was an unusually sensitive child, but that may not be the case, just my wistful thinking. This outing made a deep impression on me. When I have nightmares involving animals it is always lions that feature prominently.

So back to events in Zambia. After a day of meetings we decided to go for a walk. It was dusk, a beautiful African evening. We walked down toward the lion enclosure – and I could hear them roaring quietly in the distance. We got as far as the dam and watched the dying sun. It was idyllic, thorn trees and clouds reflected in the water, standing listening to the chirp and croak of the frogs and the various noise of the African night. Suddenly the lion roared about 20 metres away on the other side of the fence. I leapt two metres into the air and my pulse was racing. I managed to play cool, and we nonchalantly walked back, with me taking comfort from the knowledge that while I could not outrun a lion, I was pretty confident that I was faster than at least two of our party.

It was really good to be back in Southern Africa and I felt so comfortable, which is probably a bad sign I need a challenge and a change.

Humus Family And Ruins Turkey

I have just been on a family holiday. That meant Douglas, who will be 15 in May, Rowan, who is about to complete her first year at university, Ailsa, and I headed off for just over a week in Turkey. We decided to go there because my brother, Derek, who moved to Istanbul with his family about 18 months ago, has chucked in his – very unsatisfactory – job and will be leaving in early July. They are thinking of moving to Cape Town, where he intends to start a consultancy company.

This means that we are unlikely to see them much so we decided to go to Istanbul and spend a bit of time doing family bonding. My sister Gill also went over for Easter, so the entire family were there!

It was fascinating, the family dynamics alone made the visit worth it. Given the huge number of miles I had clocked up on KLM it was easy to book airmiles tickets, (in business class as well) and we flew over on Tuesday 7th and returned on Wednesday 15th April. Turkey was not at all what I had expected.

The flight over was uneventful, other than the fact we arrived at one am. However we whisked through getting visas and passport control. Our luggage was among the first pieces to be delivered. A quick journey and we were able to check-in to the hotel in the centre of Istanbul and fall into bed.

On our first day we arranged to meet Derek and Gill for lunch, a cruise on the Bosporus, a drive up the coast and then, horror of horrors, the school musical play in which my eldest niece had a starring role. I am a reluctant spectator of even my own children’s school plays. I end up going to Waterford School end of term events every time we have a governor’s meeting at the school. I say to the head, ‘Laurence I don’t want to sit through this play/performance/dance’. He responds, ‘You have to, you are a governor”. So not only do I see the performance but it is also from the front row. It was fun though and Emily performed well.

After the lunch and cruise we got in his monstrous SUV and headed out into the Istanbul traffic, which was a nightmare.  Derek explained the Zen of driving in Istanbul. According to him involves patience, being calm, allowing people to push in front of you because you will push in front of others. He was Zen-like. We drove up the coast, had a cup of Turkish coffee, think sweet black mud, and you will have the picture. I really like it and drank copious quantities over the holiday! After this we headed for the school, the play starting at 7 pm. And we hit traffic. The minutes ticked away. It was apparent we were not going anywhere fast. Zen began to disappear and the driving became more aggressive and intolerant.

The trip was in three parts, Istanbul for three nights, then down to Ephesus, (to be strictly accurate the village of Selcuk about three kilometres from the ruins of Ephesus) for three nights, and finally back to Istanbul for two nights. It was an astonishingly interesting trip and well worth it.

The themes were traffic, ruins and history, hospitality and family dynamics. The traffic in Istanbul was quite horrendous. Derek is an optimistic soul. On the Friday we were flying from Istanbul to Izmar the nearest airport to Ephesus. Derek kindly offered to take us to the airport. We had to leave by 2 pm. He said that this would not be a problem. He had to bring his family in to the city for an appointment with the police to sort out residence issues and all the family had to present themselves in person. He had set up an appointment for 11.15. His wife pointed out that the children had to go to school for maths tests which could not be missed therefore they were unlikely to get to the police in time. He was confident they would make the appointment, and he would then be able to deliver us to the airport in plenty of time. His family greeted us on the run to their appointment at 12.30. The Zen view had now been replaced by a Tom and Jerry like freneticism.

We took a taxi to the airport, which cost an arm a leg and some hip. I sat in the front seat watching with horror as the meter ticked up, and occasionally asking the driver to slow down. Not, of course expecting the fare to be any less, but just wanting to be alive to pay it. Coming back we were picked up by the hotel shuttle, a huge Mercedes bus, and spent nearly two hours travelling back to the city. There was a 10 kilometre tailback to get onto the bridge across the Bosporus, there are only two bridges joining Europe to Asia. By contrast in Selcuk it was possible to meander across the main road. When we hired a car Rowan felt confident enough to drive, and was very happy to do so, because she was legally allowed to!

In most countries one has to be over 21 to drive an hire car and I had thought it would be the case in Turkey. She went: ‘nyah nyah’.

The hospitality was superb. Every airport pick-up was there on time and the vehicles were clean and comfortable. The first hotel was just OK but the boutique hotels in Selcuk and Istanbul were comfortable and roomy and the staff friendly and helpful. At one café we had just a drink each and were given biscuits by the proprietor. He noted how much Rowan enjoyed them and gave her the rest of the packet. Of course her blue eyes and charming smile may have helped. Over the time we were there we only had one meal where the service was poor, and that was not the fault of the waiter but of the kitchen. The food was uniformly good.

We went to many shopping areas and while the shop owners and assistants were keen to sell they were polite and to the man were not overly pushy. And in that sentence is one clear downside of the country, I left feeling it is hugely chauvinist and possibly even misogynist. There were few women in the shops or the service industry anywhere we visited. The men were highly visible and clearly have enjoyable lives (outside the home at any rate), spending time in cafes and bars, which are male dominated.

Throughout the visit I had a sense of history and humanity. The ruins of Ephesus, a major city of Asia minor, and an important port until the harbour silted up was once home to 200 000 people. What remains is impressive, temples, houses, public areas and even a public latrine, seating up to 16 people. There was no evidence of privacy between the holes in the marble. Perhaps defecation was a communal, and even enjoyable, activity in those times, the guidebooks do not elucidate on this interesting issue. There were two stadia built into the side of the hills, in an economical design, making maximum use of local topography.  In one’s minds eye one can visualise the plays, performances and meetings that must have taken place there.

In Selcuk is an Ottoman castle; the ruins of a basilica built for St John the apostle, which would have been the sixth biggest cathedral in the world if it were standing; and the pagan temple of Artemis. Ephesus is just three kilometres outside the village and a little further away is the little church marking the site of the house reputed to be where Mary Magdalene ended her days. One has to feel sorry for Joseph, who fades out of the story completely – mind you with omnipotent in-laws who could blame him!

Ephesus apart from being home to St John, and the destination of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, was also the site of one of the early synods which defined Christianity and what was accepted in the bible. Istanbul, too, has many sites worth visiting and I shall have to return. The children do a museum at a fast trot and then complain of being bored.

So what do I conclude? I need to spend more time processing what we saw and did. I need to try writing some more word pictures. While away I finished reading the excellent book by Oliver James, Affluenza,  and began Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thought provoking, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Both books are about the human condition and where we are at the beginning of this century. Seeing the historical sites in this context was eye opening.

I am incredibly fortunate to be alive now, to have my opportunities to travel, and be with family and friends. In this unequal world we are extremely privileged and we need to be aware of this and try to give back in other settings if we possibly can. I know that I do not do all I could or indeed all I should but at least recognising privilege and having a sense of fun and pleasure at the experiences we have is a measure of humanity. At least I hope so. And so until I next sit down and write a plane letter let me sign off.