Friday, April 30, 2010

Magnum Soapus

"Soap is soap, as long as it's cheap and you're clean" say the masses and this is the very statement that has kept Ivory in business for 125 years. My family staple has always been Dial, the preferred brand of my mother but others have snuck in to the rotation from time to time. I don't recall resisting bath time too much growing up, any more than I gave Mom a hard time over dinner as long as she didn't serve lima beans or liver. It was a particular delight to soak in a tub of hot water and absorb the different fragrances in to my skin.

I love soap. Don't ask me why, I just do. My earliest fascination was reading about the legend of the Titanic and the level of service provided on this magnificent ship during her fateful maiden voyage. The article highlighted Vinolia Otto Toilet Soap as being exclusively offered to First Class passengers. I wasn't thinking whether or not soap of any kind was offered to Second or Third Class on the boat - I only knew that from the picture it bore a resemblance to the rounded oval I was using at the time by the makers of Vel. My left-brained imagination simply allowed that I was using the same product.

In my professional life I have worked as a day laborer moving furniture, fast food and field sales, jobs where the end of the day can't get there fast enough for the chance to unwind under some water and lather the day's troubles away. On those days when I was particularly grimy from dirt, grease, soot or had really stunk up the joint there was nothing I wanted more than a long, cleansing shower and a full bar of soap of which half would be used before I finally felt human again. During cold weather I'd come home with frozen feet, ice in my goatee, numb skin and tingling fingers, all wrapped in two to three layers clothing and socks that were equally soaked through. Oi, the sounds of ecstasy that came from my shower on those days....

While traveling around the world there came a natural curiosity with what kinds of toiletries were used in other countries. As a child growing up in Germany "Fa" was a sentimental old favorite and I also came to enjoy Yardley's Oatmeal and Almond. From Italy comes the Alchimia Soap line which features natural ingredients infused with essences of rich florals such as Hydrangea, Cornflower and Tuber Rose. I don't bathe with those so much as use them for air fresheners in clothing drawers and for the car.

Friends in New Zealand think I'm mental because I have been known to ship home boxes of Knight's Castille as a durable every day soap over the domestic brands. They remain equally as perplexed when I said that soap from a different country serves me like food in reminding me of good times from another corner of the world.

I felt that I had hit the jackpot when I discovered Roger & Gallet's Oat Milk from France but that was before I went to Japan and was introduced to Kao White. Kao is as every day in Japan as Dial is the United States but I have never come across another bar of soap that seemingly lathers at the mere suggestion of water. Thick, billowing clouds of the stuff all around me with a mild fragrance that lingers long in to the day. The fastidious Japanese are known for multiple soap and rinse cycles in their daily toilet and with Kao at their ready disposal I can easily understand why.

Imagine my delight when in Paris I discovered the high end toiletry counter where "triple French milled" really meant something. Oh my God. I didn't know where to begin but I knew where I would end up once I saw those prices; hey, clearance merchandise in Paris still beats off the shelf back home! I wonder what they use in Russia.

I'll spare you the discovery of liquid body wash but I've often wondered what happened to Vinolia Soap from the Titanic? It is still made and sold in the United Kingdom today. Hmmmmm....

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Death to Breakfast

There was a time when the power lunch was as much a part of the daily business routine as morning rush hour. A "per diem" or daily allowance pretty much meant whatever the traveling salesman or busy executive wanted so long as they got the job done and brought home the whale. The scene from the film "Pleasantville" comes to mind where the idealized world of the Nelsons, Cleavers and Andersons all sat down together for breakfast, a meal that would take all day to prepare and the rest of the night to sleep off: pancakes, ham, sausage, bacon, eggs, toast, butter, jam, milk, orange juice and coffee, don't forget the syrup. More than a bit over-exaggerated perhaps but the message was the good life in a land of plenty. Every meal featured meat and potatoes instead of granola and green tea.

The last holdout of this by-gone era seems to be the breakfast buffet at the larger business hotels around the country where even some of them have either eliminated the costly practice all together or, in the case of the Embassy Suites, offer a continental buffet with eggs cooked to order. Their thinking in the one price for all option is people will belly up to endless helpings of self-serve food but maybe make only one trip to the chef in the interest of time and self-discipline.

What is harder to find is a company willing to foot the bill for compulsive over-eating or the rates some hotels charge for that excess which with tip can equal the total daily allowance in just one meal. I once worked for a major company based out of Chicago that limited all meal expenses to $25 per day. We were "forgiven" for going over that amount up to $50 per day if we happened to be traveling overseas. For me in Japan on one occasion that meant the 900-Yen pancakes at the hotel for breakfast and the rest for dinner while hoping that our hosts would pick up the tab for lunch. They did, along with their counterparts on a subsequent trip to Paris later that year. I would have starved otherwise.

Part of today's office gossip around the water cooler amusingly includes interpretations on the meal expense policy of various companies around the country. Not only is there a question on how much is spent but also whether or not there are specific limits to each meal, if lunch is included or if there is simply a flat amount the employee can spend each day to cover all dining no matter which meal or how many.

To be sure, lunch, dinner and holiday buffets can be found from the smallest to the largest towns in America. Indian and Chinese buffets are not known for American-style breakfasts but must surely build their business model around the lunch rush where they go begging for business after 3PM. The bottom line is that in this day and age of rush and on-the-go, few of us have time for more than a McMuffin or a power bar in the morning. The full breakfast is losing its grip on our psyche as well as our stomachs.

But not completely for there will always be room for bacon!

Gotta go.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sister Who?

Dallas, where I live, has a "twin" city although most of the fine citizens of Ft. Worth might disagree. They may say that there is precious little between the two that could be described as even fraternal much less identical. In some cases twin cities are connected even within the airport code that serves the area, like DFW, MSP or BWI (Baltimore/Washington). I even know what Quad Cities are thanks to Moline, Davenport, Rock Island and Bettendorf clustered on either side of the Mississippi River dividing Iowa from Illinois.

What I haven't quite gotten my mind around is the concept of the "Sister City." Online I found a definition that says, in general, that it is a cooperative arrangement between two areas intended to foster cultural and commercial ties. In some cases there's also an aesthetic similarity between the two regions. Most developed nations have commercial interests in the San Francisco Bay Area, certainly far more than Wellington, New Zealand but the latter is nothing if not the spitting image of its larger American twin, this of course in addition to being the capital of a country.

So the question is, and there are really two, how are sister cities determined and do the people that live there, the ones that are the target of all this effort, actually know anything about the other town or towns on the list? Texas' European history is centered heavily around German and Czech immigrants, so is that part of the reason behind Brno in the Czech Republic being selected as a sister city to Dallas?

Sister Cities International is a website based in Washington, DC and used to promote economic and civic ties between cities all across the country. It's almost like an online dating service for urban centers, even including a page titled "Cities Seeking Cities." Hmmm..."Single Urban Town seeks Industrial Commercial City. Must like hard workers, have diverse cultural attractions and be willing to develop deep economic relationships."

And I'm going to stop there before it looks as if I've written way too many of those things! That London, England is a sister city to New York City is a no-brainer. One can also divine politics as well as economics in other sister cities to London such as Berlin, Moscow and Johannesburg or between Beijing and Washington, DC. If I were a citizen or a leader of Denver, though, would I have picked Brest, France, or Potenza, Italy and not Zurich, Switzerland instead? Brest is on the very western tip of France, a seaport looking out on the Atlantic Ocean and home to barely 150,000 people.

Zurich, on the other hand? About the same size, surrounded by gorgeous mountains, major economic engine of the region, on and on and oh, people in both cities have at least heard of the other. Ask someone in Denver about Brest and you might get an anatomy lesson.

Being a resident of Dallas/Ft. Worth, I wondered what some of the sister cities are. Try Mbabane, Swaziland, Saratov, Russia and Cairo, Egypt. Cairo?!

Gotta go!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Working the Graveyard

Call it an "acceptable" fascination as compared to a fetish or obsession but I have been curious about graveyards since I was eight years old. I'm not alone in this because a trip to Washington, D.C, for example, is not complete without visiting the "other" Kennedy Compound at Arlington National Cemetery. Likewise in London where, saving a coronation, Westminster Abbey is arguably of little real interest beyond the hundreds of notables interred in crypts and the very floor of the building.

A French friend of mine invited me over to visit his new place in Paris one year which, of course, I couldn't resist. While I was on vacation he would be working but offered a few tips outside of the normal attractions to occupy my time until we could meet up for dinner in the evenings.

Directions in hand and a quick rundown on how to change trains in the massive Paris metro system and I was off to Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise, the largest graveyard in the French capital. He rattled off a few names that I would know to peak my interest but the best advice he gave was merely to walk around and see how many names I could recognize as well as simply enjoying the designs and architecture of the various crypts.

"Findagrave.Com" lists 340 noteworthy individuals laid to rest at Pere Lachaise but failing to rest in peace. No less than three metro stations bring visitors to the various entrances of the sloped necropolis which can pose a decent challenge to some in getting around the various levels and small hills within. An entire day can be spent here assuming there is nothing better to do or new to discover in Paris but, like any museum, pre-planning or an expert tour guide can fill an enjoyable and reasonable couple of hours.

The architecture lives up to billing in the various markers, from wall plaques in the crematorium and simple markers all the way up to the over the top creations such as the lipstick covered memorial to Oscar Wilde, all in various states of maintenance and disrepair. The faithful are undeterred. Permanent foot traffic and impromptu testimonials have prompted varying attempts at security for the resting place of Jim Morrison. Likewise, pictured here, is the grave of an otherwise unremarkable man by the name of Victor Noir caught up in remarkable events and paying the ultimate price for his engagement.

The bronze was sculpted to depict Noir as if he had only just fallen from the gunshot wound that killed him. Whether or not gunplay caused arousal in the man is hard to say. The lifelike rendering of his image, however, and especially his prominent, well worn package, have gained him lasting fame for those who desire children, a spouse or just some good old fashioned prowess.

Only in Paris.... And no to the neophytes, Napoleon is not here. He has his own special corner of the city under the golden dome of the church at Les Invalides.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Oh No, Godzilla!

The great 747 lifted in to the air from Chicago O'Hare, pulled an S-turn over downtown as if in salute to the hometown before pointing its nose to the northwest on a direct track to Tokyo, Japan. There was no more excited passenger on that airplane than myself, guaranteed. The First Class cabin was virtually empty save for myself, my traveling companion and maybe two others but the reason for my barely contained delight was the fact that this was my first trip ever to Japan. Land of the Rising Sun, nothing - in 12 short hours I was about to set foot in the Land of the Monsters!

When I was coming up Godzilla was a camp superhero, a man in a lizard suit doing a Samurai Samba through a miniaturized recreation of Tokyo in a studio back lot. My ability to suspend all belief, however, was such that I could never figure out how they managed to rebuild Tokyo so darned fast only to have the great lizard wipe the floor all over again with Monster X, Rodan, King Ghidorah, Mothra and the rest of the gang.

How did Gamera the prehistoric turtle never get dizzy from flying in circles with the four leg openings serving as both propulsion units and exhaust ports? Didn't matter. Nothing thrilled me to the Nth degree like seeing Godzilla light up the landscape and night sky with a brilliant electric blue blast of nuclear halitosis.

I loved Godzilla. I was scared to death of Gargantua, a far more sinister creature from the deep, just as big, just as compelling but intent on human consumption instead of a playful, fire-breathing jig through the Ginza. Consumed in a fight with his more agreeable brother in the caldera of a (conveniently) new volcano, it would be years after this film before I could even look at a map of Japan and not instantly shiver and avert my eyes.

The coastline of Japan crept over the horizon announcing the end of our journey and the real beginning of my anticipation. A green patchwork of farms and golf courses spread beneath us as we crossed the beach on final approach in to Narita. The countryside looked exactly as I had remembered it from the films, a sense of compactness from the small, tightly packed houses and winding roads that enhanced both the scale of this first trip and the unimaginable size of the big guy himself.

As a full grown man I knew that monsters never existed, at least none like the contract players from Toho Studios. I was here to take care of the company's business and be sharp about it. The main gear bumped, the nose gear thudded and the reverse thrust of the engines roared our welcome to Japan. It was a beautiful Spring afternoon outside and I couldn't wait to make that all important first impression upon my Japanese hosts.

Just one last check out the window before deplaning to make sure there weren't any visible T-Rex tracks on the ground, though.

Gotta go.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pressed into Zurich

Our software developer was based in Zurich during the time I lived and worked in Chicago. I had joined a team under a "train the trainer" program where, having demonstrated my abilities to lead a classroom, I would take our new software product out to the masses and provide onsite instruction and support during the transition. Things got off to a rocking start from the very first day when we discovered the product was not even close to being "in the can" and ready to take out. They were still building it and we, none of whom had any developing background, were being pressed in to service to help out!

Part of that bargain was flying to Zurich to meet with our Java developers face to face to really test and scope out each line of code as it was being written. Following a quick flight to Paris and a change of planes we arrived in Zurich, one of the most interconnected cities for public transportation on Earth.

From the main train station we walked a short distance across the Bahnhof Bridge to our little boutique hotel, the Central Plaza. "Boutique" because, word to the wise, when the rooms are described as "cozy" it means they are on the tiny side. One of them was even round! The service was excellent, however, and we couldn't beat the location with the train station just across the river and several street car lines converging right outside our door.

Zurich is the cleanest city over 500,000 on record, bar none. We were amazed at the lack of trash on the streets, no visible graffiti in the central areas and most of all, the fact that Lake Zurich, this massive glacial lake that is the living heart of the city, is clean enough to swim in. Ferries shuttling commuters from one side to the other were dodging pleasure boats as well as bathers out for their daily constitutional and leaving we, the grizzled Americans dumbfounded at the spectacle. This from one in the group who had never seen a combination toilet (and bidet) and got a real cold jolt as a surprise one morning.

More surprises were in store during our stay as I discovered the Zurich Opera had mounted a production of Carmen with tickets available that weekend. The last opera I had gone to was a Stuttgart performance of "Hansel and Gretel" when I was about nine years old so I was fairly excited about the evening. Even my less than enthusiastic but "what the hey" co-workers perked up after I hummed a few bars of "La Habanera."

"Oh, I know that one," and off we went to enjoy George Bizet's comic masterpiece. Our seats weren't the best and the staging seemed skewed more to one side of the stage than the other but the true miracle of the evening was the mezzo-soprano singing the title role that night. Operas alternate the lead singers to allow their voices to rest; our Carmen had just sung the night before but when the scheduled diva for our performance called in sick our Carmen, the trooper, was pressed in to service. Flawed as the main character was, her voice was flawless.

As was Zurich itself.

Gotta go.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 10

I met my two friends at the airport on schedule but decided to play them up a bit about how the past three days went minding the kids while they were away. The plan was for them to take a few days for their anniversary and, unable to lock in the grandparents on short notice, I volunteered to keep their three young sons so they could have time alone. When they got off the plane I met them at the gate with open arms, crocodile tears and a nervous tick in my left eye and neck.

"So how did it go," they laughed as they saw right through my act, knowing that if I was there then the kids were safe and in school, no worse for the wear than I was pretending to be. The truth of the matter is those three kids and I had a ball that long weekend. While their parents were enjoying themselves we went on a long road-trip of discovery that included lake swimming, sleeping bats and, of course, plenty of good old fashioned dog-piling on their poor old "uncle."

The three of them and I fell in love with each other at first sight two years before and it has been hard to tell the adult apart from the child ever since even though all three are grown and on their own today. No blood relation of any kind we nonetheless are related by choice which is sometimes the best way of all. They want to be a part of my life even today as much as I am deeply moved in their wanting me to remain in theirs.

One is starting off well, joining the workforce right out of high school, is happily married and starting a family of his own. Another is about to enter the military to get a leg up on higher education once his enlistment is up. I've heard that so many times before from people who join up for "just one tour" only to spend the next couple of decades in service to the country. Either way I couldn't be more pleased or proud. For the third I have every prayer and belief that in his own time and way he will find the happiness and success that we all deserve. This is the 10th, last and greatest item on The Traveling Optimist Bucket List.

Each of the three have distinct personalities, one being on the stoic side with another being the cute playboy. The third one is the prankster, full of the devil but blessed with the blarney to make any Irish proud. It's impossible to hate or stay mad at him for long which probably has at least a little to do with his thus far unconcerned approach to his future. Everything will work out in the end.

As we all have to do he is learning the adult consequences of some of his more interesting choices. I've also noticed that the gleam in his eye is tempering just a bit with a few hard knocks though none so hard as to ever knock the gander out of him completely.

In my heart of hearts I have faith in each of the three of them who own solid places of their own in my soul.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Jacked in Jacksboro

Bad service is ugly and sad. Yet sometimes in the midst of unfortunate circumstance shines a moment of human hope and beauty. This is one of those stories.

Herd’s Hamburgers, family owned for three generations, has drawn the likes of NFL players and politicians alike. I was hungry and had heard about this hidden hamburger hamlet famed through-out North Texas in a side-of-the-road town of Jacksboro, Texas, roughly 65 miles northwest of Fort Worth. With no major plans one Saturday afternoon I burned a couple of CD mixes for the car and headed northwest under testy skies.
Along with the first 4-H Club Jacksboro offers the historic Fort Richardson, preserved just south of town. It anchored the middle of a line of frontier posts forming part of the historic Texas Forts Trail. At stake was western expansion into fiercely protected Comanche and Kiowa territory thru central and northern Texas and in to southern Oklahoma.

It is possible to drive right past Herd's on the north end of town. The sign out front is faded from age and a dirt parking lot pitted with water holes from a recent rain preceded a two-story building set back from the road with three weather beaten picnic tables out front. It was completely unassuming and filled with equally unaffected regulars who barely glanced up from their meal as I headed for the door and the sweetest Texas plains accent ever heard.

Inside two young fathers corralled four tow-headed boys to some of the seats to await their food while one thick-accented man ahead of me ordered a “Dubba-meet chaise-burger with evah-thang own it” from the handsome matriarch taking orders at the register.

“Hi, how’re yew today? Can I take yer order, please?”
“Hi, I’m doing fine thank you. I’d like a single cheeseburger with everything, please, no pickle.”
“With chips and a drank that’ll be fahve-twenny. Will you be eatin’ here?”
“Yes, I’ll eat outside. Thank you.”
“And 80 makes six, seven, ayte, nyne and tin is twenny dollars, thenk yew. I NEED ONE!”

Flo from "Alice" couldn't have done it any better; I truly love the sounds of Texas!

The order for the fathers and sons came out carried three to a bare hand and wrapped in straining white waxed paper. Right behind theirs came mine. I squeezed out of the schoolchair and headed outside to an empty picnic table where I opened my prize to find...

Nothing. There was no burger. Slack-jawed from hunger and amazement I gazed at loose crumblings of meat barely covering the bottom bun. Where was the ginormous monstrosity like the two fathers got? I couldn’t be staring at the “ONE!” shouted back to the kitchen when I placed my order? No, this broken down crumble struck me as either way over-hyped or the kind of snake-oil product one gives to unwelcome strangers.

Sadly, Herd's has heard the last of me. People will drive to the edge of civilization in search of the world's best hamburger; in that light there should be no question about a product 90 years in the making. I finished up and made to leave but not before the bravest of the four boys from inside came up to me as they were leaving and insisted on telling me about how “th’uther day mu’ deddy shot a skunk!”

“Good thing he didn’t spray you or you’d be three-days in th’ tub.” He pondered my words thoughtfully, nodded in their wisdom, smiled at me and then ran to join the rest of his troupe piling in to their Hummer. Smile fading, I followed them out and headed south towards home, disappointed in my experience and still hungry.

On the way out of town I saw again a sign I noticed in passing while heading for Herd's. It said Dairyland BBQ. "Self?" I said to myself, "Ya might wanna try that place one day!"

Gotta go!

Herd's Hamburgers

401 N. Main Street

Jacksboro, TX 76548

Monday, April 12, 2010

When, South Africa, When?

A few years ago my "Wingman" and I were wanting to go to South Africa. I call him my wingman because we are good friends who travel well together, having been to both Europe and the South Pacific with no trouble at all. Our elaborate plan for South Africa included trading in miles for First Class all the way on Emirates out of JFK on the new A380 and connect in Dubai for the flight to Capetown. Less than six months after the service began, however, Emirates pulled the A380 from New York which had been running twice a day and averaging maybe 150 people. That plus the falling economy scotched our plans for the trip but it wasn't the first time I had made plans for South Africa and cancelled them.

South Africa is simply not a place to "hit it and quit it" in some long weekend tour of highlights. It's too far for one thing, too big, too diverse in landscape and arguably the most complex western society on the planet. Kruger National Park, world famous for the "big five" rhino, hippo, lion, cape buffalo and elephant populations, is in the extreme northeast of the country, nearly 1000 miles away from the historic and volatile playground of Cape Town, home of Table Mountain, world class beaches, Robben Island and shark tours in False Bay. Durban and the KwaZulu Natal region lay nearly two hours by air along the coast to the east again, offering a heady mixture of Miami Beach climate and tribal war battlefields.

Then there is the rich music scene of which I've been a fan since Paul Simon came out with "Graceland." A pungent mixture of reggae, hip hop and tribal rhythms, South African music is on the world stage like never before thanks to acts such as Freshlyground, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Bongo Maffin, Thandiswa Mazwai, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Danny K (listen to this one) and the many iterations of Johnny Clegg with his Zulu based band Savuka. Previous generations will remember the late Miriam Makeba for "The Click Song" and "Pata Pata."

That is a lot of land and sound to cover and the reasons most people schedule close to a full month in the country to make it all worthwhile. Like most Americans, however, I don't have four weeks to dedicate to one vacation. Like most people in general I have concerns for my health in a land where one in five is HIV Positive to go along with "lesser" illnesses such as diphtheria, malaria and hepatitis A and B! Like most people in general again I have concerns for my physical safety where news reports constantly stream stories of desperate poverty and endemic crime- tour books even blame baboons by the side of the road who have learned that foolish foreigners that stop for photos with their windows rolled down are easy pickings for a good carjacking.

Where the United States is a rough half-century ahead of South Africa in true freedom and democracy for all citizens, and where some will argue there is still some ways to go, South Africa remains in the grip of significant social teething.

Over twenty years after Mandela was released the recent murder of an extremist has the world press up in arms to report how the entire country is all but on the verge of social collapse. White Afrikaners are concerned with mounting evidence of corruption and largesse within the single-party government under the African National Congress - poor blacks remain disenfranchised and poor while, in a theme stretching the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, those in power live in luxury behind gated communities. That is, if I am to believe everything I read coming out of a country some 9,000 miles away.

It has been, again, 15 years since the 1995 Rugby World Cup that outsiders are led to believe did so much in beginning the healing and coming together of a truly dynamic society.

I have traveled to every "civilized" corner and continent of this planet and never been concerned with or thought to ask how my race will affect my experience overseas. That is the gift and benefit of 50 years of social progress in my own country, the confidence to travel abroad in both physical and social security. Three times I have tried and failed to get to this incredible country; I don't have 50 years left to play with.

When, South Africa, when can I come and visit you?

Gotta go.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fly Emirates

Fly Emirates. For those with limited time who don't have the time to read any farther, take my word for it and fly this airline.
Based in the Persian Gulf at Dubai, one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, this airline has made a Hollywood splash, some might say spectacle, of itself ever since it started flying. It is the current record holder of the largest order for the largest airplane, the A380, in the world with at least 54 confirmed copies under contract. This for an airline serving a home population of less than 2.5 million.

The answer to the "What are they thinking" question is the strategy to position itself as a viable connecting point between Europe and India, southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand. Add on to that their pricing strategy of undercutting the established carriers by up to 20% and so far the plan seems to be working. The story goes they are out-carrying the Indian airlines despite being four hours flying time off shore!

On the occasion I experienced them I bought an $88 one-way ticket between Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia as part of a vacation tour of the region. I sacrificed any frequent flyer miles I might have earned on oneworld via Qantas but felt it was worth it to try both the airline and the airplane, the new A380 for the first and possibly only time. Uh..was it ever!

The entire main deck of the Emirates A380 is coach so I was able to sit in front of the wing just beside the staircase leading to First Class on the 2nd level. Mood lighting soothed passengers during boarding and changed during our short 2.5 hour flight to fit the position of the sun and whatever service was underway at the time. Hot towels were passed out and the crew even came around with a camera offering to snap commemorative photos of their journey, cruise-ship style but for free!

I lost count at the number of languages represented by the cabin crew, covering bases from Tagalog and Mandarin to Farsi, Portuguese, German, Korean, Japanese, English, Spanish, Arabic of course and French. The A380 at nearly 500 seats is far too large for the Tasman market - see if you can spot the guy at the back of the plane loading cargo containers - but was respectably booked at nearly 180 passengers. What Emirates has put IN to this airplane, though, defies all imagination, starting with ten inch monitors in each seat back, individual 110v lap top power for each passenger, individual telephone/game controller and even a USB port to charge up the iPod or view vacation pictures right from your camera before you even get home! Could it get any better?

Yup. A full meal was offered on the short leg which included complimentary wines and spirits but the showstopper was the entertainment system. A few hundred movie, TV and concert performances to choose from, several hundred COMPLETE CDs and, unbelievably, tons of video games to play that could even be networked with other seats on the plane! Since all this was in "steerage" I didn't see the stand-up bar or private showers upstairs for the First Class folks but at least my lavatory was trimmed in wood paneling so I wouldn't feel too left out.

The state of the Dubai economy is presently not what its visionary leaders envisioned. Whether or not Emirates itself ends up a modern day Braniff International because of it - too much, too quickly - remains to be seen. For now they offer the pinnacle of service and comfort to a degree neither seen or expected, for economy class, certainly, and at exactly the right combination one could wish for: luxury for less.

Shokran, Emirates!
Gotta go!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Our Laughing Lady

My Aunt Phyllis is a woman of boundless generosity and possessor of one of those infectious laughs that did not boom across the room but caught everyone in its mirthful wake just the same. It goes in perfect harmony with her laughing eyes, always bright and sparkling, ready for a quick zinger but even more ready to celebrate plain good living, good food and good times. In the years that I've known her, a single mother from Southern Illinois I've never known her to be cross.

She is the youngest of ten siblings on my father's side of the family and has been able to maintain that youthful effervescence in to the first years of her retirement. She did the East Coast thing in moving from the colder states to Southern Florida, in this case the Gulf Coast side. I was pleased with her choice because the central western coast of Florida is also my favorite part of that state, having traveled and toured along Alligator Alley from Miami on the east side all the way up to the Tampa Bay area. All that and retiring before reaching her 60th birthday, too? Nice!

Phyllis is an interesting contrast to me. She doesn't like to be the center of attention or the life of the party but is one of the first to offer her home to have the party in. My sister's rehearsal dinner was held there in suburban Baltimore and her own daughter's pre-wedding reception of course was held there as well. As someone who absolutely loves surprises Aunt Phyllis was front and center in planning a surprise birthday party for me one year, one that went off without a hitch. I'd even bought a gift for the person I was told the party was for! Want advice? Want to laugh? Want to just sit and visit? Call Phyllis; she's home.

The "Tamiami Trail" is not the ideal route from Ft. Myers to Ft. Lauderdale. Some family from Illinois had finally come to visit my aunt after years of unfulfilled plans and they were enjoying the long holiday weekend on the way to visit more family in the Pompano Beach area north Ft. Lauderdale. On the Monday afternoon following Easter Sunday, just before 4PM local time, my aunt Phyllis was traveling on US Highway 41, the Tamiami, well east of Naples and far to the south of her destination. Phyllis either chose the the road as a sightseeing opportunity for her guests or was forced on to that road because of an 18-wheeler fire that shut down the much faster I-75 interstate highway, "Alligator Alley" running parallel roughly 20 miles to the north. A young man traveling west on the two-lane Tamiami chose the wrong moment to pull in to the left lane.

My aunt Phyllis was killed instantly in the head-on collision that followed. To Southern Florida she became a two-minute lead story on the afternoon traffic report and received a few paragraphs in the Miami, Naples and Ft. Myers online editions. Her loved ones, however, a daughter, brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and other family and friends are left with questions, memories and a permanent link to a remote stretch of road in the Everglades where our Laughing Lady passed.

Good-bye, aunt Phyllis, I love you. Share a chuckle in Heaven.

Gotta go.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Man and His Mountain

April 4th was a Thursday that year in what is arguably the single most violent year in the domestic history of the United States after the Civil War. My mother watched the television news in stunned silence that evening, refusing to move or to receive friends in the house. Conventioneers screamed in horror as word was announced towards the close of the agenda. As if suffering from a massive cold of conscience the entire nation held its breath as a fever of riots broke out in more than a hundred cities across the land.

I wasn't even five years old at the time, as oblivious to the events of the outside world as any small child should be while simultaneously enjoying the early fruits of those very same struggles. My family had comfortable housing, there was always food on the table, my sisters and I fought and played with equal fervor and our friends in the neighborhood shared popsicles, frogs and the latest gossip from Romper Room as if nothing else mattered. The world I grew up in was made possible in large measure by the man who died that afternoon and I didn't know his name and surely wasn't too concerned about his passing.

On a road trip through the South that included parts of Florida and rural Georgia I stopped in Atlanta to visit a few days with a cousin of mine new to the area. While she made her home in Little Five Points to the east the major item on the agenda was the neighborhood of "Sweet Auburn" just across the interstate from the State Capitol Building and site of the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, now simply called "The King Center." My quest was to finally pay homage to the living man who didn't know my name any more than I knew his that dark day in 1968 but who literally gave his life for me just the same.

The complex is situated between the home where Dr. King was born to the east and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father both preached. This church would see dual tragedy for the King family as the site of Dr. King's funeral as well as the assassination of his mother while seated at the organ. Across the road and situated well back behind landscaped grounds and artwork is the new and larger facility which also houses a comprehensive Civil Rights Movement exhibit that includes artifacts, photographs, writings and clothing worn by Dr. King during the period.

A bookshop at the complex offered music, books speeches and video footage from the movement but I found it at the time to be somewhat light on its offerings. Offices on both ends complete the complex but clearly the centerpiece is the memorial pool and fountain complex fronting the Freedom Walkway colonnade. In the center of the pool is the small round island that now houses the remains of Mrs. Coretta Scott and Dr. King but for me then was only him. In a moment of sheer beauty as to not be able to look directly upon it and grief overwhelming such as not to look away I gazed upon the white stone crypt at the words uttered by the man in life that so strongly yet peacefully beatify us all in death.

Behind those words lay the man himself. Where an Honor Guard watches over the Unknown Soldier only the shallow water of the pool surrounds the resting place of this great American. A few signs point out the obvious request for respect but the air is so charged with the power of King's vision and presence that not even the most anti-social and unrepentant of haters would dare to wade across to disturb him.

Like so many others around me, I stood at the edge of the pool and bowed my head in prayerful thanks before backing away to the low wall at the edge of the area and.....sat. Personal reflection, atonement, grief, disbelief, joy and contentment washed over me as one might experience at an intense funeral or long-awaited reunion. It was not possible or safe to walk lest I collapse in stride for not allowing every feeling to completely consume and wash over me in its own good time.

Where I have only traveled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been to the mountaintop. I am truly a better man for it.

Gotta go.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ghosts of the Pecos

The first time I ever heard about the Pecos River I was watching Drip Along Daffy match wits with Nasty Canasta in the classic Warner Brothers cartoon. I've been laughing at that duck and curious about that river ever since. It was the demarcation line to the way west for those seeking a new life, hope and freedom. If the film wasn't set along the Rio Grande it most often was in the area around the Pecos River which separated "civilized" Texas from Native Americans who were not about to sit idly by or step aside quietly.

The John Wayne treatment of the way of the wild west had me envisioning a river as mighty as the Missouri, equally wild, untamed and full of rapids, high water and strong currents. On one side, the east side, stood the rancher's widow, alone on the prairie and at the mercy of crop-killing heat, thirst parching winds and warrior Comanches at her back. To the west was the Apache Nation, equally aggravated and uncompromising; surrounded on all sides with only the Duke and Tab Hunter to save her!

Six hours to the west of my home in Dallas/Ft. Worth on I-20 is the middle stretch of the Pecos River, traveling 900 miles start to finish from North Central New Mexico through the Permian Basin to the Rio Grande. The interstate does today what wagons, horses and trains did before, carry people and commerce to other places as fast as possible because no one in their right mind wanted to stay here long. The terrain is skillet flat with scrub bushes serving for vegetation and tumbleweeds the closest thing to a road hazard as they flit and roll across drunkenly across the pockmarked landscape. Small cotton ball clouds tease one and all with the rain they hold but rarely part with in this area where men fought and died for sovereignty but all seem to have abandoned since.

When I got to the river I surely felt as awestruck as any tourist with a Hollywood image of what it was supposed to look like. It was tiny! A good quarter horse could have easily jumped the thing where the only possible danger may have been any snakes or scorpions lurking along the banks. The view was clear for miles in every direction leading me to further surmise that even the Apaches back in the day cared little about this particular stretch of nothing going on.

No, this can't be the fabled Pecos that separated white and black men from the riches of California, I thought to myself. Where was the butte crowned by the frighteningly beautiful sight of a war band atop pawing palominos with war paint, buckskin and feathers accenting their majesty and deadly purpose? Where were the historical markers listing one major campaign after another or the site of a frontier fort trying in vain to anchor a sense of order to the lawlessness in the very air? Oh how Hollywood had a hold on me that this boring little brook very near to completely destroyed.

It was then that I looked at the sum of the whole around me. Here, at this stretch of the Pecos River, there was nothing to be seen, nothing to be done and nothing to work or fight for in any direction. The river was the final barrier to a long quest for something better and, if surrounded by nothing better and most likely worse than where you were before, what was the point in going on? Most certainly like some before me, I followed the river north in to New Mexico before turning back east to Dallas and home.

Anyone for tennis?

Gotta go.