Friday, January 29, 2010

Shoot the Elephant!

"So this is a first for you?" my friend Larry asked me one day. He was famous for that line, his signature move in getting me to try new things, from changing the oil in my car to putting a new roof on a house to skiing. I played willing pigeon to his schemes so long as I kept him in front of me and my car keys in my pocket. Skiing for the first time, though, was definitely one I could neither back out of or turn down. I trusted the instigator to think enough of me to not get me killed or permanently disabled so off we went to Colorado.

A buddy of his joined us and the three of us set off from the Denver airport in to the "front range" of the Rockies to Breckenridge, there to spend a weekend watching me make a Green Hill fool of myself while they continued their lifelong friendly rivalry on the moguls, slaloms and intermediate courses. The real fun began simply in procuring our rented gear. Other than reasonably protective clothing I needed to be kitted out from top to bottom so the hootin' and hollerin' began while I patiently let the rental agents pick out the skis and poles that would best protect me, the environment and their equipment for any calamitous mishaps.

The main event was finding shoes that would fit; at Size 14s, the largest they had to offer was Size 12. Since I wasn't going to buy a pair for what might have been my only skiing experience ever, I knew that I was going to pay a price for tight shoes that I'd never worn before.
"How do ya walk in these things?" I asked, not at all being able to get the hang of the forward angle to induce a permanent knee bend while skiing.

"Just pretend you're walking in heels," the butch frat jock type replied, not at all disturbed or embarrassed by his wizened advice. The look on my face, though, said enough. I wanted to know how he knew that! Not even slightly perturbed, he gave me the next critical piece of advice which was at the end of the ski lift, kick off from the seat and ski down the very slight incline before stopping. The lifts were constantly moving and if I didn't time it right, I'd end up riding the thing right back down to the bottom of the hill!

That never happened but by the time Larry and I got to the top of the lift I stood straight up first instead of simply letting the lift give me the momentum needed to shush down the small hill. Still running behind me, the chair took the back of my knees out and then swung away from underneath me, leaving me flat on my back and looking up through the boards of the chair as it rolled overhead.

"Shoot the elephant!" came the immediate good-natured yet taunting outcry from the dangling passengers still on the lift and waiting their turn to alight as the attendants sighed, rolled their eyes and slammed the stop button to bring the entire apparatus to a halt. This sobriquet applied to one and all who couldn't handle the lift I later learned and actually ended up enjoying my day on the bunny hills. I was s-turning and slide stopping fairly well by mid-day but mixed in with my share of belly-flops in to the snow and watch-out-for-that-tree moments, to be sure.

When it was all over I had not torn any ligaments, broken any bones or suffered from frost-bitten digits or snow-glare to the amazement of one and all. Returning the shoes, however, brought everything back in to focus as I removed the left boot to reveal a double set of snowy white socks that was strangely bright red at the tip. With my feet being somewhat numb from the cold all day and myself having concentrated on surviving my first ski experience the price of tight shoes, snow heels, no less, was indeed paid: the left big toe nail had separated itself completely, sparking a race between the onset of the pain and the effects of the pain killers hastily bought at the onsite drug store to kick in. It wasn't even close.

I haven't been on a roof since that one and only time which was in a pouring rain but I do appreciate the lesson in advanced car care and Larry and I later followed up this adventure with another skiing adventure to Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe, but that's another story.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The 42 States

I’ve been to 42 of the 50 states, more than some, short of the mark set by others. The goal for me is not to set foot in all 50 just to say that I did; nor is it a requirement to see all 50 states prior to stepping beyond the borders of my country and seeing the rest of the world. With a few dozen countries under my belt it’s more than a bit late for that, having traveled to Germany with my military family at the ripe old age of 18 months.

Of the 42 that I have set foot in eight of those I have called home at one point or another: Maryland , Illinois , Massachusetts , Georgia , Indiana , California , Kansas where I was born and now Texas . The eight that I haven’t seen include Michigan , Maine , New Hampshire , Vermont , Montana , North Dakota , Alaska and Idaho .

As far as the New England states I was too poor and didn’t have my own car while living in Boston to venture north of the city. I’ve flown over Michigan countless times on approach to O’Hare airport while living in Chicago but the natural beauty and history of the state also remain unexplored. Ever since I was a child I’ve been intrigued by the Battle of Little Big Horn just outside of Billings , Montana so that is high on the list as well. Like Michigan , I’ve flown over Alaska more than a few times on my way to some destination in Asia; Anchorage from 35,000 feet, though, is just not the same.

That leaves Idaho and North Dakota . I’m not the biggest baseball fan in the world so I would need a bit more incentive to visit the great plains that paying my respects at Roger Maris’ grave in Fargo . If Montana is the land of the Big Sky I’m still trying to find the one compelling thing about North Dakota that no other place in the country has to offer other than the tallest free standing structure on the continent. Are there still vast herds of bison roaming the lands? Is there something to do other than the reservation casinos?

Idaho is a bit easier to consider as a destination. Skiing options abound while the Snake River Valley offers world class river rafting and Boise is supposed to be one of the more picturesque state capitals in the country. Whatever the compelling reason or even lack of one, though, one definitely needs to have either a lot of time on their hands or well-placed connections with the airlines to support all of this coming and going. I only have 50,000 miles in my AAdvantage account!

I could say I’ll go to North Dakota as part of a quest to visit every state capital in the country but I’m not about to retrace my steps to the other 42 states just to snap those photos. Maybe I’ll go just for the sake of going, how’s that? It’s still America , right?

They gotta know how to make a good apple pie!

Gotta go!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Goin' Home

I don’t get lost, per se, when I return home to Maryland for visits, which is where I am writing from now over the 2009 holidays. I learned to drive on these streets many moons ago when driver’s ed. was still a part of the offered high school curriculum. Some new roads have been added over the ages and a few have been redirected and modified (ol’ #32 used to be a two-lane country road and is now a multi-lane thruway) but not so much that I end up on the Eastern Shore when I’m trying instead to get to Frederick.

What I do find, unlike my friends who were born and raised in the same area and have lived there all of their lives is that while the roads will always be familiar to me the names do fade away. It is the classic “I know where I’m going but couldn’t tell ya how to get there” scenario. I remember the street we lived on but have forgotten most of the roads around it. I remember the main road leading to our neighborhood but only when I see the street sign do I remember the road number. On a trip to Europe I discovered the same thing.

Some years ago I was heading to Switzerland on business and had a unique opportunity to return to the army bases around Stuttgart where I grew up during the Cold War 70s in what was then West Germany. A friend of mine was in the military at the time and stationed in Germany. He agreed to meet me at the main train station and use his military access to take us both back down memory lane.

If GPS devices were available then we certainly didn’t have one. Everything was a fuzzy but certain memory from the station to the first stop on our tour, Robinson Barracks in the middle of town and situated on a massif overlooking the heart of the city. We knew that the main road leading to “Mach’s Nicht’s Corner,” the name all military personnal called the massive six-road intersection at the bottom of the hill, was to the north leading up and away from the valley where the Hauptbahnhof sits. After some dead reckoning and dusty memories from what was then 18 years of separation Robinson Barracks was quickly found, right where we left it.

The military presence in Stuttgart today is significant but not what it was during the days of Brezhnev and N.A.T.O. vs. the Warsaw Pact. “R.B.” is now a housing base only where it was once the unquestioned hub of life for the entire valley, including offices, schools and shopping. Enough of it remained to pull many wistful memories as did the other kasernes we visited that day, Kelly Barracks, Patch Barracks and Boeblingen Kaserne. Eight years of my life were spent in Stuttgart, off and on from 18 months of age to the seasoned veteran teenager of 15. Not having a license and relying on buses and parents to get me around back in the day I’d say served my friend and I pretty well that nostalgic afternoon.

Neither of us could remember a single street name but we knew where they were in relation to each other and got turned around only once because they had re-located a highway on ramp from where I remembered it had been. Today I not only have the memories and the photos but the benefits of Google Maps as well to bring it all back.

The road leading “up the hill” to R.B. as we used to say is not as steep as we remembered it to be. What road is? The name is the same though; it is Auerbachstrasse.

Gotta go.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Vacation Rhythm

In Japan there are three major domestic holiday periods that significantly set the rhythm of the nation: New Years', "Golden Week" in early May and the month of August.

Japanese culture reveres the first sunrise of the new year as an omen for prosperity so the entire country picks a favorite hilltop or other vantage point to park themselves before dawn to watch the (Land of the Rising) Sun come up. Unlike their European brethren who simply take August to bake on the beaches of Florida, Spain, Greece and Northern Africa, the Japanese celebrate "O-bon," the Buddhist festival of paying respects to the ancestors. All flights and trains are booked solid and the highways are bumper to bumper as the entire nation picks up as a single body and sorts itself out at familial places of birth across every inch of the island country.

"Golden Week" includes holidays on May 3rd, 4th and 5th as well as April 29th should any given year dial up that date in the same calendar week. This one week celebrates everything from Hirohito's birthday to the promulgation of their post-war constitution. Of the three, this one is "at your leisure" meaning they are not hide bound to climb a mountain or go "down home" to fix up the family graveyards; they're free to travel wherever their means and desires carry them.

These are the moments when all of Japan is "out of the office." I learned of this rhythm, which also includes skewing most national holidays to a "Happy Monday" schedule, while traveling there on business and it caused me to reflect on the rhythm of my own country and in particular when I personally like to be "out of the office."

The major holiday season for the United States is largely considered to begin in September over the Labor Day weekend, ironically right around the beginning of the school year. The kids are back in school and "Opening Weekend" for the National Football League is more on the minds of Americans than the reason behind the holiday, even among the workers it is intended to honor. After that each holiday is fairly evenly spaced from one to the next, including the non-official "holiday" of Halloween but all are merely opening acts to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Corporations start wrapping up next year's budget, major projects typically get tabled until January and people start to think towards travel, turkey and (snow) tires. This is the season that I like to schedule my own major vacations. Where some like to take time off early in the year in way that extends the holidays from the previous year, by January I'm ready mentally to get back to work and set up the bulk of the year for professional achievement and success. By the end of the year I like to look back, reflect on accomplishments, focus on missed opportunities and celebrate a lot of hard work with a good long paid leave of absence, preferably overseas.

Over my history I traveled to Greece in November and experienced Australia, Egypt, Israel and New Zealand in October. Not only did I spend all year looking forward to these wonderful opportunities but I learned to appreciate carefully planned shoulder- and low-season travel savings as well! The one major exception to that pattern was visiting Thailand in July (also low season) but that was entirely because I was a retail store manager; nobody in retail has a life of their own from October to January which was a Top Five reason for me quitting that industry.

I'll get a little bit more in to what I actually consider a vacation and the types of vacations I like to take a bit later. Let's just say that I enjoy good weather, limited crowds and a good bargain!
Now if only the U.S. would guarantee three-day weekends for its major holidays. Happy Friday, y'all!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

De-Ice in De-Winter

Christmas Eve and my flight ended up being an hour an a half late but hey, it wasn’t among the number of cancellations suffered at DFW because of snow. Yes, snow. Not the blizzard conditions of the East Coast or Upper Midwest mind you but the Texas kind of snow that means you can see it, it’s real but it’s really just enough to surprise some, annoy everyone else and disrupt air travel on the 2nd busiest holiday of the year.

My American Airlines flight wasn’t completely full and actually boarded on time; it was the “car wash” that held us up, something I was mentally prepared for. The “car wash” is the de-icing station, one of several set up at the far corners of the airport, to clean off any ice and snow from the airplane so it can take-off safely. “De-icing” is something of a misnomer in the technical sense of the procedure as it is really a two-part process involving both de-icing and anti-icing. De-icing first…

One thing that is obvious about snow is that it is heavy but it is not always obvious to most observers who see it piled up on to airplanes that the extra weight is not part of their take-off preparations. Every bit of snow has to come off the airplane so the pilots can see and the plane will weigh exactly as much as the planners expect it to for safe flight. Equally critical is to eliminate snow and ice build-up on the wings and “control surfaces,” the flaps and other moving parts of the wing and tail that affect movement. Not only the surfaces but also down in between the hinges and creases where frozen “precipitation” has been known to jam the controls in dangerous and deadly ways.

Extremely hot water is mixed with chemicals similar to industrial strength windshield fluid used in cars to “wash” the fuselage, wings, control surfaces and around the windows of the airplane. Workers are careful always to never spray directly in to air intake valves as the odor and smoke can cause discomfort to those inside the plane. Once the plane is considered “clean,” the second part of the treatment begins, the anti-icing.

More hot water is mixed with an even thicker solution of chemicals which some have likened to the consistency of a good Italian salad dressing. Either green or orange in color, this is applied typically only to the wings and tail control surfaces of the plane to prevent any snow or ice re-accumulation. It is also intended to remain on the plane just long enough to get to the runway and in to the air. As the plane builds up speed the solution is designed to simply peel off and leave a completely clean wing surface exposed to the air for normal flight.

In winter conditions airports and airlines know how long they have between the car wash and the runway before their application window of opportunity times out. In other words, if they send the flight to be de-iced too early, the chemicals only prevent snow and ice for so long; exceed that time window and the flight will have to go back for another wash. For this reason flights leave the gate only with a reasonable assurance of getting through the car wash and straight to the runway in as little time as possible.

Each wash, depending on the size of the plane can take from 15 to 30 minutes to complete. My flight was third in line for the procedure and then third in line again for the only runway being used for take-offs that evening from DFW, “31-Left” the northwest crosswind, a strip used 99% of the time for southbound inbound landings only. Once lined up the pilot set the brakes, opened up to full throttle and in only 22 seconds our MD-80 lifted off over the Southlake suburbs before tracking northeast and back home to Baltimore for Christmas.

We thought of the cancelled flights to Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and smaller cities in Texas and considered ourselves both lucky and thankful to be an hour and a half late but still home in time for the holidays.

Gotta go.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Everybody Eat the Dinosaur

"Where can I find the best wings in town," I asked the 20-something counter girl at the Rochester Airport rental car desk. I was completely geared up for tasting something close to the original even if that was still in Buffalo, some 75 miles to the west of where I happened to be standing.

My employer sent me on a serious whirlwind tour of the United States doing meet-and-greets and data gathering at our various offices and this particular whistle stop dropped me in the great Great Lake city of Rochester, New York. That was exciting in itself because my previous experience in "Upstate" New York ended at West Point. Aside from Kodak I knew little about Rochester but wasn't going to be in the area long enough to add on a trip to Buffalo. Still, I learned enough about the signature dish of Rochester before going to know that I wanted absolutely no part of a "Garbage Plate." I can barely fit in a coach seat as it is!

"Buffalo Wild Wings," came the gum-chewing response along with the keys to my rental. I shook my head in the sigh of the aged when faced with the ignorance of youth and drove off in to town. Now I do enjoy "The BWW" but this is Upstate New York for crying out loud! I was truly surprised that one would be there and still in operation instead of failing miserably and being run out of town, polished chicken bones and coleslaw fringed garbage plates being heaved in its wake. What to do for dinner? I was only in town for the one night before pressing on to the next stop of the tour and wanted a strong memory of a town I might seriously not see again soon.

"Try the Dinosaur," said the desk clerk at my hotel. BBQ? In Upstate New York? Come on, now, said my expression. This is a Texan yer a-talkin' to. "No, really," they implored. Well, if nothing else, I can at least say I toldja so when I got back from dinner.

Toldja so, nothing, I was absolutely flabbergasted from the moment I smelled the place a full block before I got to the restaurant. Ahh...a smoke pit, I thought. Good start so far. Situated along the river, the wood and brick building advertised authenticity, wood flooring, wagon wheel and all, but how was the food?

The Dinosaur would more than hold its own in Texas, that's the simplest way to put it. I enjoyed, almost couldn't finish, the Smoke Pit Combo Plate of ribs, brisket and sliced pork. The ribs were meaty, the brisket fork tender and the sliced pork equally out of this world, all drizzled with a sauce of perfection and washed down with sweet tea by the gallon. The service was fast, efficient and team oriented; any one passing my table either cleared plates or topped off beverages. The price was in line with my per diem and other bbq joints back home.

Two other restaurants operate in Syracuse, the original, and New York City near the Cotton Club in Harlem. I'm just still shaking my head at the irony of smoke pit barbecue THAT good being available that far up north. I hope they don't over reach or grow too fast: the other secret to good barbecue is that it's worth traveling for!

Gotta go!

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 7

In all of my professional life I job changes have kept me hovering around only two weeks of vacation. Only once had I finally earned enough tenure to enjoy three weeks but now, after nearly a lifetime of pinching time here and there to stretch my leave over an entire year I now have four and that's not counting holidays. I know what I would gladly do with at least one of those weeks if ever the opportunity arose.

Simply put, Item 7 on my Bucket List would be to spend a week on board a U.S. aircraft carrier while on patrol. I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where "Fleet Week" is a wonderful chance to see some of our tax dollars in port if not necessarily in action. Great PR but to me not nearly the same. I've seen the movies, from "Midway" and "Final Countdown" to the documentaries on The Learning Channel and Discovery about life at sea in the largest of floating cities of 5,000 or more and would love to know up close what that is truly like.

I've been fascinated with aircraft carriers since the first time I saw the film "Tora Tora Tora" as a child in the third grade, not too long after my initial infatuation with airplanes. Airplanes actually on ships far out at sea? Far out! How cool would it be to see how the different colored uniforms fill specific roles in the action or to be in CIC, the Command Information Center, to watch how the entire battle group patrols, interacts and manages threats and handles daily routine?

One conversation with the father of the friend of mine led him to compliment my general knowledge of the American carrier force, being able to rattle off the names of every ship then in active service. I also had the opportunity to see the USS Carl Vinson up close not too long after its commissioning when it called in to Alameda while I was living in the Bay Area. Although tours on board were not permitted, impressive doesn't begin to describe the vessel as it lay quietly at anchor, disgorging the ship's company for some good ol' fashioned shore leave.

This has nothing to do with fulfilling a warmonger's fantasy in wanting to see navy fighters blast and destroy targets or be on the front lines of an actual engagement. I understand that there are days of sheer boredom in crossing great tracts of ocean but a week at sea watching what others consider routine and boring would be nothing short of once-in-a-lifetime thrilling for a civilian like me. What could be more emotionally charged than to sail in to port at Pearl Harbor and salute the U.S.S. Arizona with the entire crew on its way past?

Wanna know what would make it even better? Sailing on an aircraft carrier in one direction and returning to base on a submarine. Boomer or attack class, take your pick!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Currency, Cash and Convenience

When it was safe to carry large amounts of cash while traveling I wasn't around, old or rich enough to enjoy the luxury. By the time I showed up on the traveling scene travelers' cheques were the thing to have an usually only from American Express. I always loved how different the texture of the paper was from just about anything else, but I digress: it's always been about the most convenient way to bring and have enough money to get through the vacation. Seemingly like never before, however, that convenience can cost the unsuspecting traveler a good chunk of money that wasn't in the budget to spend.

Cash can get stolen and travelers cheques lost, this we all know. Credit cards will charge interest loooong after the vacation is over and will find ways to get in to your wallet on the trip as well through currency conversion fees and transaction fees at the point of sale as the value passes through one system to another. God help you if you actually pull cash against your remaining balance, so what is a traveler to do that will preserve as much of the travel budget for the trip itself?

Travelers cheques are essentially the safest and least expensive way to go so long as you don't lose them, can find a branch office of the bank against which they're drawn and that branch happens to be both open and convenient to your plans. Smells pretty locked down to me unless I choose to cash and convert them at any random exchange store. Yea, and the wolves behind the plexiglass will roll out the blood soaked red carpet for the high fees I'm stupidly bringing to their dinner table. I'll fix 'em all, I thought to myself. I'll just use my debit card.

Nyah ha ha ha haaaaaaa, cackled my bank as it twisted its gnarled and veiny green hands in delight. Off I go in to the naive blue yonder, bank account stuffed with the cash I'd need and ready for me to use only as I paid for goods and services with the swipe of my card. Unbeknownst to me was the sleight of hand in the background as the snidely fees started to ring lasciviously over the horizon back home.
The strategy worked in that I rarely used cash for anything, only having to pull money out maybe four times over three weeks. Hotels, cars, gas, food, souvenirs and treats all went through the debit card for the exact amount of the transaction, no loose change to deal with - except that loose change was being tacked on at the end and pocketed by the bank. Sometimes less than 25 cents but everywhere in between up to $8.00 for the larger bills which were invariably the hotel stays. Even then, according to my banker, the amount of the fee really depended on the bank the merchant overseas used. It was a "convenience" fee that was largely out of their control. Bad, mean overseas banks.

I didn't come home completely skinned so there were no overdraft charges added on to the pennies-to-the-pound fees that "innocently" came a rapping, tapping at my door, thank heaven for that. Nothing is free anymore, not even my own money. Maybe next time I could take it out in trade?

Nah...I'd still owe money.

Gotta go!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Common Sense Driving

Speeding is a part of everyday life on the roads, there's just no getting around it or any other way to say it, one mile or a hundred miles over the posted limit, it's speeding. And I'm guilty like the rest of us, only this time I got caught while on vacation.

A driving tour in a foreign country is the main ingredient in a stew of common sense driving seasoned with strange roads, infused with weird rules and laced with all kinds of cameras, traps and livestock to slow you down, stop you cold or capture the moment for both posterity and payment. As an island nation of four million there is only so much room in New Zealand to dedicate to roads so most are two-lane affairs outside of the larger cities with alternating passing zones to get past long-haul truckers and Sunday drivers.

The fastest allowable speed is 100 kilometers per hour or about 60 MPH but that's not where I was caught. Very unique to most Commonwealth countries is the absolute right of way to all drivers making a right hand turn, even from the opposite direction and your line of travel is straight ahead. Should both of you arrive at the intersection at the same time, the car turning right goes first but that's not where I got caught either. Common sense and years of driving has given me a sense of where traditional speed traps might be set, like blind turns, right at or just below the crest of a hill, lengthy straight-aways and highway merges so I wasn't caught at any of those either.

State Highway #1 runs from the northern cape through the heart of the island to Wellington at the southern end, some 620 miles of rolling farmland, mountain switchbacks, lake districts, volcanoes and urban centers. It's a multi-lane motorway through Auckland and leading in to Wellington but is a two-lane road everywhere else, traffic signals and roundabouts included.

Somewhere in the charming hamlet of Wellsford, population 1700 and halfway from Whangarei on the way south to Auckland on my last day in the country I met up with my driving destiny.

While there are plenty of wide open spaces in New Zealand there really is only so much room for shoulders and other safe, convenient places for the police to set up a trap. There's also only so many police to go around so in come the speed cameras, sometimes with fair warning by way of signage announcing a camera area, sometimes not. In my case, not. The infraction: 64kph in a 50-zone or 40 MPH in a 30-zone. The location: somewhere along #1 as it rolled through the center of town where I admit I should have used a little more common sense. The fine? An astronomical NZ$80 or US$60 all told.

I made my flight to Australia with plenty of time to spare and enjoyed the rest of my vacation. At the end of the trip, back home and reconciling my expenses I felt pretty good about the trip, and still do. At this holiday time of year when I get a letter from overseas I immediately think it is from friends so imagine my joy when I received my seasons greeting from New Zealand's Finest!

At least - I hope - it was only the one.

Gotta go!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Teaching the Unexpected

I'm famously known as the "Bad Uncle." That means that I am the one who comes over to the house, flops in to the floor and winds the kids up to a fever pitch before tossing off a casual "good night" come bedtime. In my wake is a house upside down with small, revved up children squealing with delight and running or spinning in delirious circles trying desperately to both work off their adrenalin rush but still keep the buzz going! They're either dangling in mid-air from the rafters or their ankles by shell shocked parents who typically love and appreciate me but at that moment would rather see my chestnuts roasting over an open fire. The kids can't wait to see me again while the parents are either in therapy, cackling maliciously as they drop off their brood the next day with a bewildered day care attendant or off applying for N.R.A. licenses.

More and more I've discovered in the latest trends of positive parenting that I, along with other previously spontaneous experiences, am being "scheduled." I have to be doled out in manageable doses as part of an all-encompassing rhythm or set routine so as not to upset the delicate nature of sensitive youngsters or the carefully crafted balance of the family household. I've often held that it has little to do with "upsetting" the child so much as not completely destroying any chance of the parents' getting a decent night's rest!

I just returned from a business trip to Los Angeles where the weather was uncharacteristically wet and rainy over three of the four days in town. L.A. being an "outdoor" kinda city there wasn't much to do other than the Getty Museum which held little interest for myself or my colleague. Somehow or other on the way back to the airport we got to talking about adult routines and our individual comfort levels in deviating from the expected.

The project we had just wrapped up required a lot of fast thinking and flexibility which, for my part, I explained as coming from my background in operations but also from my upbringing in the military. Relocation was a given and a constant, learning to adapt quickly expected and accepting the unusual to be expected. Did we have a "rhythm" in the midst of all this? I'm fairly certain not a soul in my generation did unless they worked on farms.

My colleague doesn't describe his household as the strictest in the world but when I asked him how he teaches his two sons to deal with adversity he said "Oh, we schedule free time in to their routine." Right. That, I told him, sounded about as spontaneous and unexpected as a half-day city tour of Rome with "the rest of the day at leisure."

I was being light-hearted but serious. I couldn't help imagining in my mind an entire generation of children so ingrained in to a set order of events that when real adversity hits they become initially paralyzed, incapable of working through the problems on their own. Just as bad, they will become so programmed to only expect and appreciate everyday routine that it may inhibit any sense of adventure or willingness to experience the new, the undiscovered or the extraordinary.

Eventually all people learn to cope with issues on their own but I am left wondering how much of that coping skill set is being left out of child development and whether or not that is a good thing? Even more worrisome to a wanderer like me is whether or not this anti-septic upbringing is unintentionally dulling the reasonable desire to dream, explore and push beyond one's own boundaries?

My colleague hates traveling away from his comfortable life in the southwestern desert. I'm sure his two sons get in to more than their share of mischief as well. Still, for me though, if it's a choice between tennis or Paris...?

Gotta go!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Eatin' Argentinian

Typically it is always a good thing to give a marginal service at least a second chance to confirm a questionable first impression one way or the other. I say "marginal" because in that instance there was something definitely missing or not right the first time and I want to go back to find out if that is the norm or the exception. On this occasion the second chance was dining at the Gaucho Grille on Canoga Boulevard in Woodland Hills, north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley.

My first experience was back in late August as part of a nationwide business trip I was on at the time. My manager was with me on this leg of the trip and, having dined there the night before, recommended the restaurant to me as a good dining experience from one steak connoisseur to another. Just a short walk across the street from my hotel and offering a dining experience unique from The Cheesecake Factory I ambled in to the low lit, wood paneled establishment to be met with a California-ized version of gaucho-styled waiters in black pants, white shirts and red scarves.

The selection of the evening was the "Bife de Chorizo" which to Argentines loosely translates to the equivalent of a New York strip as opposed to the more familiar Mexican sausage. On a trip to Argentina many moons ago I discovered that not every country cuts its beef in the same style as the United States. A "T-Bone" is virtually unknown south of the border, for instance. I further discovered the different translations in Spanish for the various cuts as well: "chorizo" is a strip steak while "lomo" is more of a tenderloin.

Served a la carte, the steak was just a tad tougher than I prefer but strip steak tends to be leaner and meatier in most cases anyway. The service was professional and discrete but also on the robotic side of things as well: "What would you like, how would you like it cooked, bon app├ętit." Not much in the way of cultural immersion, explaining the beef tradition of the country or the nuances of each cut but I didn't know what to expect either. All in all, a good but not great experience.

Round Two was earlier this week in mid-December as part of a return visit to the project site I was working in August. A different colleague was with me on this occasion and I hosted the evening meal at the Gaucho Grille to get his reaction as well as give the place a second chance in my own eyes. His choice was the chorizo/strip while I went with the "traditional Argentine cut," the skirt steak or "entrana" served with steamed spinach and fresh broccoli.

My friend ended up cutting about a quarter of his away, describing it as "gristle" which I had not experienced the first time while mine was cooked to order but not nearly as flavorful as the Mexican style I'd come to expect for skirt steak. Again no real "presentation" of the food or the culture but we were able to enjoy a live broadcast of Thursday Night Football during our meal.
Having eaten steaks in Buenos Aires I was disappointed with this representation and my friend's reaction confirmed this as probably the last time I will dine at this chain. Too bad Argentina is so far away but the steaks they enjoy there are alone just about worth the 10 hour flight to get there.

Gotta go!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Smart Travel and National Geographic

Why is it so difficult to love the National Geographic Society? Most people would say that it is impossible NOT to love this global institution of journalism, nature, history and photography. They've been around a lot longer than me and certainly have done more for the world at large than I could ever accomplish. For me, though, the difficulty began with a growing sense that nearly every feature article in its flagship magazine comes with warnings about not going.

Uh..not going? How can a magazine noted for some of the most exquisite photography in the world warn travelers about the dangers of visiting a particular destination? What is the purpose of a magazine that routinely features the most exotic, long-forgotten and off-the-beaten-path locales on the planet if not to encourage willing tourists to see and experience the destination for themselves?

Three words jump out at the visitor to their website which sums up the society entirely: to explore, educate and conserve. Since its earliest inception in 1888 (!) the society has sought to understand our world, educate others about it and do its level best to ensure the treasures of nature and mankind are preserved for all to enjoy. The photography is award-winning, the journalism first-rate and the research impeccable, so what is my problem?

They don't seem to want me to go, that's the problem! Like so many around the world I rely on National Geographic to introduce me to forgotten history such as the empire of Timur the Lame or "Tamerlane" of Central Asia or the Etruscans of Italy. Pick any island or region in Greece and National Geographic will have a new article on some unique culture, empire or political movement based there. Yet with each find, with every discovery there is a caution not to tread on the precious soil.

Plants and animals have their own rhythm and are susceptible to life-threatening disruptions in foraging, mating, pollinating or recognizing threats if we disturb their daily routine. Over-fishing, poaching and land cultivation threaten stocks, ranges and the very existence of creatures the world over as wildlife competes with man for lebensraum. "Every new home, road or acre of arable land is one more defeat for Mother Nature from which she is less and less likely to recover" is the apparent message.

Civilizations old and new are not immune to the ravages of time and ignorance. Cleopatra's Needle, the obelisk at the center of Place de la Concorde in Paris is threatened by auto pollution as it stands in the middle of what has become nothing more than a traffic roundabout at the end of the Champs Elysees. Greece, Italy and Egypt are constantly unearthing ancient dwellings and artifacts and must decide how best to preserve them as they pave over their respective corners of the world in lock-step with the rest of the planet.

The ultimate for me was the amount of light pollution spoiling the night sky and blocking the view of the heavens from major urban centers. Light pollution!? What was Athens like 3000 years ago? Could a major city today take even one night out of the year burning nothing more than candles?

In the beginning world travel consisted of immigrants and conquerors. As recently as the 1950s tourism remained the playground of the rich and famous willing and able to spend days at sea, on trains and even flying to the far corners of Earth. Today few destinations on the planet cannot be reached in less than a day and for under $1000, making the work of the Society that much more critical for future generations.

There has to be a balance of some kind in preservation through smart tourism. It's not high on my list to visit the limestone canyons of Madagascar so the lemurs are fairly safe from me but I have wanted to see Samarkand and the rest of Uzbekistan since that article on Timur the Lame over 15 years ago. I'm sure the local economy would appreciate new tourism revenues as well.
I'm insatiably curious about the world around me and I'm also willing to learn how to visit a destination in as environmentally friendly a fashion as possible.

I further promise to try and leave no more than I have to behind.

Gotta go!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Rarefied AAir

Earlier I had written about making "Gold" status with American Airlines' "AAdvantage" frequent flyer program. I wasn't planning on joining a program at all since I didn't expect to travel much for either work or pleasure, then the miles started piling up from business trips to both coasts. I felt I'd "arrived" when I made "Gold" and actually pondered what I would do first with a free domestic ticket and then, oh wonder of wonders, maybe even a roundtrip ticket to Europe!

The miles are still piling up and this year, through actual flying and an "Elite Qualifying" plan American offered during the summer to boost business I made AAdvantage "Platinum," exceeding 50,000 miles of flying and will enjoy the perks and privileges for all of this year.
For someone who has only ever bought the cheap seats, grudgingly gotten used to paying for checked luggage and traveled both under the radar and out of harm's way from wrathful customer service agents, I'm looking forward to how any or all of these experiences might change. Being "Gold" used to mean something, about the same as having a college degree used to signal a rare and wondrous achievement. I don't have an MBA but I do have "Platinum" status so now the question is whether or not one is as equally everyday and run-of-the-mill as the other.

In a phone call to AAdvantage Customer Service I was quickly greeted and thanked for my business but equally swiftly alerted that each level of status must be earned with every calendar year. If I don't hit 50,000 miles this year I will lose "Platinum" but only drop back to "Gold." That's ok with me. I will still enjoy priority check-in at the airport, priority boarding at the gate and free baggage checking. I won't get to board with the "Platinum" folks but right behind them. Other than that the biggest loss will be in bonus mileage. "Gold" members enjoy a 25% bonus for every mile flown while "Platinum" members earn 100% or double miles for every flight.

All this means that I need to enjoy it while I can and bank as many "redeemable" miles in to my account as possible at the double credit level. I can fly 25,000 miles, get another 25,000 bonus miles, add that combined 50,000 to the 53,000 already in my account get the idea. If I lose "Platinum" for 2011, I'll still have over 100,000 miles in my account just itching to, as my mother likes to say, be put somewhere!

The "Executive Platinums" (100,000 miles each year) are all laughing at me, I know. I don't have that doctorate in frequent flying and don't expect to; the question for me and my run-of-the-mill Platinum status is where to put these precious miles and how many of them? TWO round-trip tickets to Europe in Coach, one round-trip to Asia or the South Pacific via one of the oneworld carriers, maybe?

Further scouring of the various options pulled the crown jewel in my mind. I've always wanted to go to South Africa, and for 100,000 miles I can fly round trip from London to Capetown in FIRST CLASS on British Airways!

Now if only they will put the A380 on the route at the right time.

Gotta go!