Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The (Soccer) Battle of Britain

It was a modern major miracle for Germany and the world when the wall came down in 1989. A more recent modern miracle for Germany was the blown call in the Round of 16 at the World Cup in South Africa this Summer.

"Watch," I told friends during the Group Play. "Some way, somehow, someone will bring up 1966. Fights still break out over that World Cup Final between England and Germany; it's their clarion call to arms, I explained. In that famous game the Germans were defeated in part by a Geoff Hurst "Ghost Goal" that shouldn't have been because the ball never crossed the goal line. Instant replay didn't exist then but it does now and it is needed as much as it was then.

The purists within "FIFA," the international governing body of soccer/football, claim that although some calls may be considered questionable that all evens out in the end; that within the spirit of the game one blown call should not and often is not the deciding factor within a match. To their point, the final score between Germany and England oh so long ago was 4-2.
At the same time, however, with the entire sporting world up in arms over repeated and repeatedly bad calls during the 2010 World Cup FIFA chose to retreat within its bunker by declaring no re-broadcasts of controversial plays. Let the boos, whistles and vuvuzelas ring out in full, cheated cry! As if that will fix the problem or make it go away? Uh, can you say ESPN? YouTube?

Some say a key reason behind the refusal to introduce new technology to the sport is because of the American roots of instant replay. High-falutin' electronic interference from a brash and meddling nation that doesn't even really care about the game? I doubt it but they're still missing the point. Instant replay doesn't fix all the ills of a judgment call as most fans of American football will attest. It does rectify egregious errors, however, like the obvious-to-a-blind-man goal England scored to tie the game in the first half against Germany at two all.

A mentor I had once told me that no progress in a relationship will ever be made if unresolved issues remain festering on the table, be it between co-workers, customers, family or friends. How can a team play its heart and hardest if there is a lingering sense of being cheated, that the pitch is not a level playing field?

Germany's "Mannschaft" ultimately dismantled the English with surgical precision by a score of 4-1. One blown call didn't seem to matter much, or did it? Either way, forty-four years is an awfully long time to wait for things to come out even. In this current truculent refusal by FIFA to modernize the fans will never abandon the game they so dearly love but many have gone or will go to their graves waiting for spirit of the game to serve its own justice.

FIFA simply must find a way to instantly address the human error equation of the judge. As I write this the World Cup is still only in the Round of 16; and though Mexico, the United States and England, bad call victims all, are gone, I'm quite sure as the stakes get higher that the real squealing and screaming has only just begun.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tahitian Time

If there is one island in the entire world that comes to mind ahead of all the rest as an exotic, dream vacation in paradise it is Tahiti. A wide stretch of white powdered sand, the endless aquamarine ocean before you, a cabana, an umbrella and your loved one at your side there was simply no more powerful image of getting away from it all than two weeks in Tahiti. I didn't have two weeks or a loved one but I went anyway. A co-worker at the time had connections with the airlines and I was able to score tickets for a dream come true weekend in the South Pacific.

I was looking forward to the flight on Air France as much as the destination and they didn't disappoint. After take-off the flight attendants changed in to Polynesian outfits while serving a meal of beef in wine sauce that few other airlines have matched before or since. The flight was on time and smooth, circling in to land at Fa'aa International Airport sooner than we expected.

My resort, the Moorea Pearl, was on the neighboring island of Moorea, "The Apple" because of its shape which could be flown in ten minutes or sailed in about an hour from the main island of Tahiti. I had a "half-beach" cabana, one of three they offered for the low-rent tourist. The others were completely over the water and charged accordingly but not so far from land that you were left feeling adrift in the shoals. The landside of my cabana featured an outdoor shower with a privacy wall along with at least one curious lizard sharing a stare with me and wondering who was more out of place.

The patio featured steps down in to the lagoon for a relaxing morning swim but I chose instead to join a snorkeling expedition a few miles off shore. Now this was as close to swimming in the wild Pacific as I had come to that point and was both nervous about the experience and body shy over swimming with a boat load of strangers. I got over both phobias and jumped in to the sea to find the kinds of fish usually seen in nature specials, Pixar films and Dr. Seuss primers. "I saw a red fish and a blue fish and a yellow fish...!"

I used my pigeon French to buy postcards and sat at the bar filling those out while listening to three couples across from me talk about their experiences thus far. One of the guys actually said he'd already forgotten what life was like being single! "Whipped," I thought to myself as I smiled and enjoyed the waning hours of my weekend away from the world.

There are no clocks on Tahiti, or at least in the resorts since you're not supposed to worry about time. I cajoled the desk clerk in to a 6AM wake-up call as I had to get off one island and over to the main one to catch my flight back to Los Angeles in time for work Monday morning. They did and I did.

Tahiti is many things, beautiful foremost among them but one thing it is not is geared for the single tourist. Newlyweds are all over the place, infatuated with themselves and each other and even the locals seem at a loss how to make a person traveling alone feel welcome, always asking where my wife was but I didn't mind. I wouldn't necessarily go back but anyone who asks I just tell them how I saw it.

Gotta go.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pleasant Penang

It was finally the weekend. A long and grueling week of software upgrading, trouble shooting and staff training was in the books and I was faced with trying to decide what to do with myself until time to go back to work on Monday. I ran through the usual list of things to do and nothing really struck my fancy. If I stayed in then it would be nothing but cable all weekend which was absolutely out of the question. What to do?

"Have you ever been to Penang?" one of the office staff suggested politely. Intrigued and quickly informed I found myself on the way to the airport to catch Malaysia Airlines' evening nonstop service to Penang, a popular island resort off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and close to the southern Thailand border in the Strait of Malacca at the southern end of the Andaman Sea. I had never been to this corner of the world which includes the more well known Thai playground of Phuket a bit farther to the north.

It made no sense to fly me home to Chicago only to send me all the way back to Hong Kong where I was working so this was a rare opportunity to stay through the weekend. Still managing to stay within policy for hotels I cancelled my hotel in Hong Kong and picked up two nights in Penang at the same rate. And my new hotel, being a resort, automatically came with a beach. Sweet!

All kinds of thrills and jitters filled me as the 747 winged southwest over the South China Sea to break land over Vietnam and Cambodia, two mysterious countries whose images in my mind still smacked of nightly updates on the war followed by the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Over the Gulf of Thailand and across the peninsula, we landed in the evening at a quiet airport on the south end of the island which set up the hour long shuttle ride to the north end where the main resort areas were clustered.

The Shangri-La chain was an accepted set of hotels by the company and they did not disappoint. Not quite as loaded with features and fine touches as the signature Kowloon property back in Hong Kong, I had a large room, very comfortable bed and private balcony overlooking the pool are and the sea. The pool had an aquatic bar, there was a broad stretch of white sand in front of us and the setting was like something straight out of James Bond and Scaramanga's hide out, exotic, otherworldly and beautiful.

For a weekend away from the hustle of Hong Kong and the worries of work, I couldn't have had better luck and assistance in discovering this little hideaway. My one and only culture shock in this devout Muslim nation was turkey bacon for breakfast in the morning.

It was only a weekend but the food was good, especially the authentic satay as prepared by the culture that invented the dish. There wasn't a false note to be heard or found; everything else in Malaysia was served just as warm and always with a smile.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Day with Dinosaurs

In Texas there are more roads in this state than in some developed countries so with a little effort one Saturday in April I set my mind to simply pick one and see where a tank of gas would lead me. I'm one of the last holdouts to not own a GPS, too, so Google Maps was pressed in to service to scout a round trip that wouldn't take me farther than three or four hours in one direction and still leave a breadcrumb trail pointing the way home. It nearly passed my vision without so much as a backwards glance but these are the discoveries of memories to be made when I settled on Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose, Texas, maybe 90 minutes away at the most.

From Dallas US Highway 67 is a multi-lane feeder in to the heart of the city but it quickly collapses in to a one of those two-lane hi-speed roads "Deepinahearta" where local sheriffs lurk, just daring motorists to go one mile over the posted limit when it suddenly dips from 70-MPH to 55 and God help you if the schools are letting out. I was on my best behavior because I had no particular place to be other than a park that allegedly offered real dinosaur tracks preserved in limestone and the rest of daylight to get there.

It didn't take long to leave rural/industrial Texas behind and enter countryside that I was soon to discover was completely underwater over 100 million years ago as part of a larger shallow sea right up to the edge of the park I would soon be visiting. Where the Paluxy is now a tributary to the Brazos River dinosaurs roamed the waterfront feeding on Cretaceous vegetation and each other.

Just outside of Glen Rose is the turn on to F.M. #205 to the park but first one must past the absolutely hideous sideshow attraction of "Dinosaur World." Clearly built for kids it features 100 "life-sized" dinosaurs, exhibits and souvenirs, all of which I passed with little further thought. For only a $5/adult entry fee the park is an open green space featuring picnic areas and campsites tucked in to the curves and corners of the Paluxy, running at a comfortable spring runoff speed about 150 feet across. Brochures and signs point visitors to the main attractions which are the dinosaur tracks preserved in the bedrock both above and beneath the surface of the greenish but clear water.

Small rapids serve as crossing points over the river where the tracks, naturally, lie on the opposite bank. I wasn't planning to get my feet wet but I'd come all this way and managed to ford the river with only a slight stumble near the opposite bank. The trick was dealing with the combination of a noticeable current, flat rocks just slippery enough with a thin layer of algae to make me pay attention, the brisk temperature of the water itself and me being a complete and total tenderfoot!

The tracks were each 3-5 inches deep and simply massive compared to my own Size 14s. Beside a slower moving animal with prints closer together than I would have expected lie a set of three-toed carnivore tracks clearly indicating the larger animal was "sprinting" for its life while the predator was long-striding in hot pursuit right beside it. That scene from "King Kong" comes to mind where the raptors chased a herd of panicked brontosaurus along the river bottom; here it was before me in the petrified flesh. Above these were easily discernible rock strata marking the millions of years between me standing there, camera in hand and the circle of life preserved in the limestone.

All around me modern day raptors wheeled and circled in the sky hunting field rodents while young families frolicked in the freshwater stream, fathers holding squealing daughters out of the trickier stretches of water or teaching their sons how to skip rocks along the surface. Walking sticks in hand, still others explored the trails, bluffs and overlooks of the area, stopping with excited whispers whenever a deer ambled in to view nibbling at young shoots and new leaves.

Like this young at heart waif contemplating life at the waters edge I could have stood in the middle of that river all day.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Coliseum for Cowboys

The initial explorers upon first sighting the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean remarked how it appeared as an endless mass of steel rising from the soil and stretching beyond their ability to see or comprehend. I can't remember all of the numbers and superlatives rattled off by our tour guide but here are a few to start off with:

$1.4 billion cost to build over three years.
Each archway over a quarter of a mile long.
The enclosed ceiling reaches 305 feet above the field which itself is 50 feet below ground level.
Largest movable glass doors at each end zone complimenting a four-acre hole in the roof.
Largest Hi-Definition television in the world at over seven stories in height.
With "hi-density" seating capable of holding over 140,000 guests but right now comfortably built out at just 100,000 including the six-level end zone areas.
177 dedicated acres of parking before shared parking with the nearby Ballpark at Arlington.
Over 350 concession stands, 1500 flat panel televisions and 1600 toilets so no one has to spend valuable time away from the action for which they've most certainly paid good money to see.

Short, perhaps, of a railway system to bring servers and their order trays to various sections of the stadium or each seat having multi-media touch screens to order food or call security it is hard to imagine today anyone beating this expanse of excess called Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington, Texas. I won't bore you with the fact that, yes, I am a fan of the Dallas Cowboys but rather will simply say that any fan of professional football simply has to see this stadium to believe it. As much as my beloved team is hated by the rest of the league they may hate the team even more for this over the top edifice but few will come away completely unimpressed; most will, however grudgingly, wish for one just like it.

Various clubs, many featuring lighting in the shape of footballs, and club levels compliment both premium seating and luxury booths making it impossible to enjoy them all as each is dedicated to a particular area of the stadium. The Legends Club, Miller Lite Club, Absolut Club and Sony Club are just a few while Dr. Pepper has an "Experience" set-up for the steerage customers way up on the 6th level of the end zone where the $29 standing room only "Party Pass" crowd hangs out. They're way up high but they certainly weren't cheated out of a similar club-type experience. Wedding receptions and proms have been organized in some of these.

The corridors leading to the sky boxes are bland, lacking any decoration or embellishment of any kind but the boxes themselves are "cruise ship" caliber with thickly padded seats, catering facilities and private restrooms. Field level boxes, another first, offer an interesting view of the game but tend to be particularly good only if the action is right in front of them; otherwise they are nearly eye-level to the grass and staring through the ankles and shoes of players, photographers, officials, cheerleaders and hangers-on. Gotta use the monitors or hang out in the field level club to find out what's happening at the other end of the field.

The two-level Owner's Suite directly above the player's entrance is fitted with a glowing tray ceiling as befitting the Emperor of Rome himself while watching his trained gladiators annihilate hapless victims on the coliseum floor some 60 feet below. The visiting owner's booth is noted by a yellow sign with "VO" on it and situated on the same side of the field, five levels farther up and above "54 Chuck Howley" in the Ring of Honor.
The "field" was rolled up in a storage room this day leaving a bare concrete foundation exposed as the stadium had just hosted a "Non-Game Event." As a tradeoff that day tour groups were offered a sample of the $1000/hour, one million pound jumbo-tron suspended 90 feet above the field. We were also treated to a rare tour of the Cheerleaders locker room which, understandably, had way more in the manner of mirrors, storage lockers and make-up stands than the much larger players locker room did. Thanks to CMT's show "Making the Squad" about the audition and training process for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders some of the girls were nearly as well known by our tour group as the players.

Even the seats, based on level and price, offered something different from most other stadiums. Some are generously cushioned all leather affairs while above that are even more thickly padded leather arm chairs with drink holders in the arm rests while the sky box seats are even better. At the bottom of the scale in the highest sections are standard plastic seats but not without touches of their own. These are up to two inches wider than the ones at Texas Stadium and boast walkways between rows that are noticeably wider as well. Tradition is all well and good but it beats those cold metal benches at Lambeau Field in Green Bay by light years!

Grotesque or grand there is no escaping the outsized result that is the Cowboys Stadium. The biggest issue surrounding the stadium today is not the height of the center television but a small tussle with the heretofore cooperative City of Arlington. What look like two huge solar panels on the sides of the stadium are themselves massive monitors that are intended to show live action inside the stadium for the "Tailgate Only" fans who choose to stay in the parking lots with their grills, RVs and BYOB supplies. So far the city has not agreed to close the streets around the stadium during game time to safely allow the massive outdoor festival these screens were intended to serve.

Where Texas Stadium served for over 30 years I wonder how long this building will meet the needs of the organization. It has a beating heart, though, make no mistake about it, one that is worn on its sleeve for all the world to see: A small patch of turf from the old stadium lies in honor at the head of the players entrance to the field as they enter the stadium from the locker room.

Good memories for good luck.

Gotta go.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Living in Texas I figured there had to be a ton of these highly romanticized bergs dusted amongst the brambles and tumbleweeds, right? Cowboys, Indians, Randolph Scott and the Lone Ranger, man, the western half of this state has to be just crazy with ghost towns. And it is: "TexasEscapes" website lists over 600 sites across the state! The first one that I visited has a name you might find on the local school marm.

Orla, Texas is one horse livery away from being right out of Gunsmoke. It lies at the crossroads of US Highway 285 and "F.M." (Farm to Market) Road #652, roughly 55 miles to the north of a larger but still living fossil by the name of Pecos, Texas. The oil boom in the Permian Basin gave birth to Orla and other similar towns in the region, including a rail line at one point but whose tracks are long gone with the road bed itself barely discernible as a long winding snake mound off to the side of the road.

Getting to Orla required a six hour drive on I-20 west from Dallas/Ft. Worth and then, where most other people would keep going, actually turning off on one of those exits in the middle of nowhere those same people wonder what the exit was ever built for. That is just to get to Pecos which, at 10,000 people is arguably the largest city on the interstate after Midland before arriving at El Paso. Once the road to nowhere, US#285, has been accessed it is a simple matter of time, desire and courage to trek further north through town and in to the wilderness to find Orla.

When I saw the sign that said "Welcome to New Mexico" I realized that I had driven right through it. See, I was trying to do a lot in one weekend and in my own defense had not dedicated an entire day to a ghost town consisting of three hardscrabble buildings leaning at a crossroads in the flatlands. I'd driven from Dallas wanting to see Pecos, the Pecos River and Orla before stopping for the night in, wait for it, Roswell, New Mexico. As it was getting late in the afternoon, however, I needed to get back to Orla and sped south towards the town as quickly as possible.

I found it quickly enough, the three buildings sadly watching the world pass by just like Radiator Springs in the Pixar film "Cars." A gas station, a restaurant and a general store about sixty feet back from the main road; oh, and a couple of historical markers at the edge of the pavement nearly as an afterthought in case somebody needed to pee right then and were curious about the buildings. This is the visible legacy of a town "bursting at the seams" in its heyday, topping out at just under 60 people including the postmaster.

I was content with walking around the complex (sic) snapping photos and taking in the sheer vastness of the land and sky around it. There was a lot of debris on the floors that could be seen through the windows and I wasn't trying to see if anything lived underneath all that junk. The beauty of Orla lies in the statement it makes from the exterior, that someone was here and had tried to earn a living in the middle of endless opportunity but ultimately moved on to more promising challenges elsewhere.

As I drove in to the sunset towards Roswell I wondered if any of those pilgrims m made it past Pecos.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Seeing Berlin

Say "Berlin" in a crowded room and most people, depending on their age, will conjure images of the Berlin Airlift, JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, the Berlin Wall or the gutted devastation following the Soviet capture of the city in April of 1945. Today people might speak of a plastic metropolis completely rebuilt for at least the third time since the war to rid itself of Socialist and then Soviet architecture, a contemporary city refusing to age gracefully and desperately trying to expunge the pain of its past through one too many facelifts.

This was not the city that I saw one Summer Saturday. Starting on the western most edge of my "tour zone" I went first to the Charlottenburg Palace, a major residence for the Hohenzollern Family but I wasn't there to see them. At the time of my visit the Egyptian Museum at Charlottenburg was home to the most famous bust in the world, that of Queen Nefertiti. This is the kind of iconic beauty that keeps the cosmetics industry fat with profits and women the world over vainly engaged in any effort to come anything close to similar. The amazement for me was in discovering that the bust is incomplete. The left eye is missing while both ears have been damaged but it takes nothing away from a masterpiece of art that may have been used for little more than a clothing dummy.

Strolling through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate did give me a sense of the military history along the street that would become "Unter Den Linden" on the East side, helped along by the Soviet War Memorial off my left shoulder. The seat of government has returned to the Reich-, now "Bundestag" lovingly restored but again I was on to other things: the "Museum Island" in the middle of the Spree River. On this concentrated plot are housed the Old Museum, the New Museum where Nefertiti and the Egyptian collection are housed today, the National Gallery, the Bode and, target of the day, the Pergamon Museum, also known as the Museum of Islamic Art.

Most will call it cultural theft but with the state of things in Iraq and Iran today between the British Museum, the Louvre and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin much Persian culture, art and architecture is preserved and available to the Western world today. Pergamon itself is an ancient city on the western shores of Turkey but the signature attraction is the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. "Breathtaking" is only a cliché until the gate actually appears incomprehensibly beautiful before the eyes. Imagine the grandest doorway to the most imposing wall of the grandest city ever built in the fertile crescent, multiply that by a factor of ten and keep going. All that is left of that magnificent city is this gate, leaving one and all to wonder what Babylon itself must have been like, hanging gardens and all.

Checkpoint Charlie is almost not even worth the time to get there since the wall is gone. All one finds today are souvenir hawks selling bits of concrete with graffiti painted on one side making loud offers to buy a piece of the wall. I had one more compelling stop to make before catching my Lufthansa flight out of town and it was not Hitler's Bunker which today is nothing more than a historical marker at the edge of a parking lot.

The "KuDamm" is the massive boulevard through the heart of town that is the very life of the club and underground scene. Lined with shops, restaurants and clubs catering to every above and below the belt taste, this is the Champs Elysees of the city, ripe for people watching and rife with equally high prices and opportunists. There was a street band playing a tight set of instrumental R&B with several members playing drums in sync to set the entire block foot tapping away. Berlin was alive on the KuDamm with the joy of a cool Saturday in July.

Despite being at the center of a major traffic plaza, everything from bands and bars to birds went ghostly quiet upon sighting the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Memorial Church). Constructed from 1891 to 1895 and designed to hold over 2,000 people, British bombing raids in 1943 reduced it to ruins. When plans for a new building were announced shortly after the war the people of the city campaigned to keep the "Hole in the Tooth" as they called the gutted shell as a reminder, if you will, of when God abandoned the Fatherland.

Since the wall came down Berlin competes with Munich for the honor of being party central in Germany and with good reason. Since that wall came down it is clear the people of Berlin have yet to really stop celebrating.

Having grown up in divided Germany in the 70s my one regret is not having been there the day it fell.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Florewood Forever

It was June of 1994 and I had received a wedding invitation from a high school friend of mine to be a part of his nuptials. Of course I would attend and happily though I was a little concerned about the location. My friend of now 32 years is White, I am Black and the wedding was being held in Mississippi. Clarksdale, Mississippi, to be exact, where the blues were born maybe 90 minutes south of Memphis and twenty to thirty years behind the rest of the country in just about every other way possible.
This was the historic home of Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke. This was also an area known as the Golden Buckle of the Cotton Belt, surrounded by endless fields, relentless mosquitoes and numerous plantations. At the time the biggest thing going in town was the Piggly Wiggly supermarket and here I come fresh off the plane from Chicago having never met the bride or her family that lived in the area. I put a lot of faith in my own backbone and my friend's family that also attended whom I knew quite well. Everything would be fine.

Since the wedding was scheduled for late Saturday afternoon I had the morning to explore and acted upon a recommendation to go and see Florewood River Plantation, an hour farther south - nice, even deeper in to the social wilderness. I'd never been on a plantation before and plucked up the determination to see in person what they were like, try to understand what they must have been like and end the mythical pathos about these institutions of refined southern living and human oppression.

It was easy to find being on the southern end of US Highway 49 right out of Clarksville and the ride was smooth and peaceful. I won't say I was conscious of the dark history that seeped from every mile of soil as I drove along but the destination itself certainly invoked interest rumblings in the pit of my stomach every so often when a working cotton field hove in to view. Where #49 feeds in to US HIghway 82 and not even an hour east of Mississippi Valley State University (Jerry Rice, anyone?) I arrived at my destination, parked and paid the small entrance fee, as ironic a charge as ever there was one: to actually pay to preserve a plantation!

The "Big House" wasn't Tara, as we were informed by our guide that few of the plantation homes ever reached those proportions, but the landscaped grounds leading up to the house were definitely in keeping with the desire to impress and intimidate all who visited here. Then the realities of life even for the privileged family began to work their soul draining charms upon we the visitors.

Heat and humidity were the order of the day in a home with nothing in the way of contemporary air conditioning. To open the windows invited the mosquitoes as evidenced by the netting above the beds so one could try and catch a breeze at night without a malarial bite to go with it. Interesting, too, were the porcelain jugs, washbowls and chamber pots in each bedroom that today are considered quaint decorative pieces but were used - and emptied by someone - daily back in the day.

Behind the house was the cook shack which was separate from the main home for two practical reasons. Not only would cooking smells not permeate the main house as much but also it reduced the chance of fire gutting the home since everything was made of wood. If the kitchen went up in flames they only lost the kitchen and could always build another one. My mind just went "Hmmmm."

An exhibit in one of the lower floor rooms showed the layout and size of the plantation in its heyday, exponentially larger than the grounds we were touring we were again cheerfully informed by our tour guide. One of our fellow tourists, as backward as they come, remarked to his wife and pointing at the exhibit that the "N" shacks were down the hill and closer to the woods. For all I knew he could have been descended from the plantation overseer or some local paddy roller. It just kept getting better.

Off to the plantation store we went to see how this establishment played an integral part in supplying and subjugating the slaves who had to "buy" everything on tick and repaying the credit with that much more unpaid labor right up through the liberated era of share cropping. None of this stunned me nearly as much as seeing a husband and wife team manning the counter and sitting out front in period costume. A stocky woman and her ample husband, both coal black from the relentless sun, actually dressing in straw hat, overalls, no shoes and a polka dot head scarf, straight out of "Gone with the Wind." Right then and there I nearly cried.

No relation to me whatsoever but there they were, literally adding depth and color to the experience for the sake of the tourists, two "slaves" in the living flesh and not via the imaginings of books or the interpretations of film and television. The accents, the sun darkened skin and the deference to "betters," even if paid a modern wage, there for all to see? The slave quarters we saw only a few minutes later were nothing in comparison to these living, haunting ghosts.

I had a wedding to go to. Whatever I was feeling, rage, sadness, depression, even understanding why such things need to be preserved so as not to be repeated, all had to be flushed from my mind in three hours time. One of my oldest and closest friends was getting married that afternoon. He needed me to be a part of his big day.

In the Summer of 1994.

Gotta go.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Land and Love of Lincoln

There was a three week training seminar I had to attend in Chicago as part of my new position with my employer at the time. They offered to fly me up from my home in Dallas but I chose to drive instead so I would have transportation during my stay in the Windy City. There wouldn't, of course, be much time to play and explore but having never spent much time in the area before then I wanted to take advantage of any opportunity that came up. My plan was to take the weekend prior to training to drive through some parts of the country that I also had never had occasion to see, one of which was "Lincolnland" in and around Springfield, the capital of Illinois.

Images and memories of elementary school history and indoctrination came flooding in to my mind, the earliest recollections in hearing about this uber-President who would have been canonized by now if the United States had its own unique religion. Where Washington is the Father of the Country and Teddy Roosevelt the Personality of the Nation, Abraham Lincoln is the Savior of the Land. Some leaders may wish to preside over a war but most certainly never one on their own shores involving their own people. The drive to Chicago was a perfect time to see where the views and politics of this domestic hero were formed.

Except for state government, Springfield offers little to outsiders beyond the sights and attractions involving "#16," Mr. Lincoln. He was Kentucky-born but made his bones as a lawyer and aspiring statesman in Central Illinois at a time when news from around the world took days in getting to the hinterlands as the telegraph was still being tinkered with and even the Pony Express had yet to begin service. Within this national backdrop and smack in the center of town is the "Lincoln Neighborhood" wherein lie four blocks of preserved brick streets, wooden homes, boardwalks and offices of the kind that seem right out of Central Casting for any given Michael Landon television series.

Not far away is the Old State Capitol Building, known as "Lincoln's Capitol." It was the 5th built for the state and served during Lincoln's time in state government and the setting for his first confrontation with Stephen Douglas as well as the "House Divided" speech of 1858 over the course and cause of slavery in America.

After touring this building as well as viewing his law offices and private home it was time to head north for Chicago in time for my training seminar the next morning. On the way out of town, however, no visit to the area could be complete without a visit to President Lincoln's final resting place, a massive structure featuring a towering obelisk towards the center of Oak Ridge Cemetery. At the front is a massive copper bust of the slain president whose nose is rubbed to a shiny finish from those who visit the site and express their sentiments in this manner.

The crypt of the building is circular at the center of which is the large red marble marker under which Mr. Lincoln's remains are buried. In the walls surrounding him are three of his four sons and his wife, Mary Todd. Lincoln himself is roped off but I was not above standing at the cordon and lowering my head in several moments of silence, thanking a man I could not possibly have ever met for thinking far enough in to the future and ultimately giving his life over an issue and for a nation that today includes me.

Rest in hard earned but well deserved peace, Mr. President.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Going to Graceland

I have never spent more than 24 hours at any one stretch in Memphis, either for business in the area or as a rest stop on my way to somewhere else in the country. It escapes me, therefore, to recall why I was in Memphis on the occasion that included my first visit to Graceland, the former home of one Elvis Presley.

Right from the start, Elvis Presley Boulevard which leads to the mansion is a multilane thoroughfare that holds all the charm and subtlety of the main entrance to Disneyworld. For miles it is strung and festooned with roadside motels, fast food restaurants, licensed and barely legal souvenir shops right up to the most incongruous sight of all, the tail of the "Lisa Marie," Elvis' private jet towering above the traffic and tourists. Signaling to one and all that the heart of Elvis country has been reached, it doesn't take long to find the ticket kiosk for tours of the estate.

Now is a good time to confess that I can count on one hand the number of original Elvis recordings that I don't mind sitting all the way through. "Return to Sender" tops that short list but after "Don't Be Cruel," less than five minutes of historic music between the two ditties and I'm pretty well Elvised out. Still, how many times do I find myself in the area so I begin the process of selecting which tour would give me a decent overview in a reasonable amount of time.

The most popular tour, of course, the "General" which offers a tour of the mansion, the grounds, the trophy room and the Meditation Garden by the pool where Elvis is buried alongside his parents and grandmother. Other tours included his car collection across the street, the private planes and more extensive tours of the main house but none ever included the private quarters upstairs.

Graceland today is a living time capsule of a style, era and outsized personality the likes of which won't be seen again. In this age of jumbo-tron flat panel televisions for the private home it is amusingly quaint to see the "TV Wall" that contains several vacuum tube TVs aligned in such a way to allow Elvis to watch several shows and events at the same time, no remote controls and no more than five or six channels to choose from. Louis XIV the furnishings are not and it will be quite some time before 1970s Sears Catalog comes anywhere close to that level of classic collectability.

The furnishings, of course, are not the point so much as the aura of being in spaces where the King of Rock himself stood, sat, ate and socialized "in this very room" and "in that very chair," however tacky the decor may seem today. It was the trophy room that drew the first unanimous oohs and ahhs of wonderment from one and all in my tour group. Every accolade assigned to the man was manifested in the gold and bling stacked up to 20 feet high on the walls surrounding us. Here again, my personal tastes aren't the point: this man earned his mark in the world of music and the golden trail of breadcrumbs were assembled in this room to prove it.

The Wardrobe Display was where things started to head back to the garish and tacky. Yes, enthused the tour guide, he 1st wore that very same signature, high collar outfit for such and such a show at so and so location in this and that year. Why, some of the wrinkled noses wondered, and who told him it looked good? The faithful drooled and cried, touching the glass to try and feel his presence through the costume while the rest of us couldn't wait to move on from the rhinestones, diamonds and Size 12 white patent leather boots. Stage costumes are not meant to be seen up close. At six feet tall we at least learned that he was a good sized man and we all agreed that "Young Elvis" was far more appealing than the sadly deteriorated man at the time of his death.

The grounds at the back were well kept and peaceful, belying the noise and crassness of the main road. From here we ambled to the Meditation Garden on the south side of the house. It is hard to think of the place as having been simply a private swimming pool area but here lies the King, rarely if ever without flowers or offerings from grieving fans.

In the United States today only the White House receives more visitors than Graceland. Maybe for that reason the good people of Los Olivos, California, after taking one look at what happened in Memphis went home and "no way" to anything similar happening at Neverland.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 7, 2010

HRPC and the Big Easy

It's always interesting - I'll say it that way, "interesting" to go out with co-workers for happy hour. One learns a great many things whilst unwinding from the job, especially in the age of "HRPC," Human Resources' Political Correctness. Crown Royal, Shiner Bock and Vodka-Cranberries do a lot to encourage the types of conversations that dare not speak their names before the last bell.

On this occasion about seven of us had gathered at some Gaelic watering hole featuring a performance stage with different bands each night. A remark went around the table that every bar should feature a fireman's pole for the adventurous, the brave and the foolish alike to "take a spin" to amuse the assembled masses. No professionals unless the professionals themselves happened to be off duty and were merely out on the town like any other patron of said establishment. Outside of that, the pole would be just an attraction to draw a crowd.

Of course the obvious desire was enthusiastically supported by many at the table, the thought being the chance to see all manner of inebriated femininity doing their worst to the hapless pole. "You guys are obvious and boring," I said, to which they challenged me to come up with something far more interesting to watch. I told my story:

There was a tradition at a previous employer that called for taking the employee who was leaving the company on a bender to New Orleans. The lucky soul who was moving on with his life happened to be me on this occasion as we saddled up and flew down to the Big Easy. Not even for a weekend but an all-nighter in the middle of the work week, landing that early evening with plans to catch the first thing back to Dallas in the morning. To this day I still don't know why we bothered to take rooms at the Royal Sonesta in the heart of the French Quarter.

This fine August evening New Orleans was in good form as we wandered the back ways and by ways between Bourbon Street and Jackson Square. A jazz band with the standard heavyset songstress-on-a-stool turned in a tight rendition of Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason," while the Lady on the Swing scissor-kicked the early hours away like a metronome to the band across the street. We ate Cajun, of course, and washed it down with enough "Hurricanes" at Pat O'Briens to set off storm warnings in three of the Gulf states. All the beignets at Cafe du Monde did little to slow the gale of alcohol blowing through breath and body as we staggered back towards the hotel to find something in the way of rest before our early and extremely red-eyed flight back to Dallas.

Kevin, one of the guys in the group, happened to spot a cabaret on Bourbon Street still doing very late business and insisted we all go inside to see and assess the talent. Turns out we were the fresh meat as the scantily clad vultures swarmed the new table; there wasn't much else going on at the time as they offered us the usual menu of delights while the featured dancer took the stage to set the mood.

"You're not doing it right," whsp-hiccup-burp-shouted Kevin who proceeded most unabashedly to take the stage from the veteran vixen who was more annoyed than surprised. Her treatment of the fireman's pole wasn't up to Kevin's expectations who went on a tear and schooled the entire staff on what really needs to happen to take the shine off of your standard issue 3" fire pole. When his tips started to exceed those of the staff the duty manager bowed to convention and his whining wombats, inviting us to leave the establishment which between fits of laughter we were all more than happy to do.

Exactly one hour of alcohol-induced REM sleep at the hotel and we were off to the airport for our 6:30AM departure for home. Thanks for all the hard work, they said to me, and best of luck in the future.

Only now, eighteen years later, smiling sideways at each other and scratching at the sky with "air quotes," none of my present day and presently boozed-up co-workers believe that my friend "Kevin" really existed.

Gotta go.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Disney Daze and Wizard's Ways

OMG! The ticket to Orlando was only $168 round-trip from Dallas on American Airlines which was definitely a sale and a half. I thought that I might actually take that offer at first and started digging around in to various things around Orlando that I either had never done or simply hadn't done in a while. The last time I was in town was for a sales convention at Disneyworld and that one came with all the trimmings - air fare, accommodations at the Walt Disney World Dolphin, theme nights and all the swag I could carry in a plastic bag! This time, however, the dime was mine so staying just outside the resort might work just as well.

Not having any kids in tow and thinking it just a tad creepy to be a single adult/kid at heart alone in the Magic Kingdom I looked for other enticements and found it in the newly announced "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at Universal Studios. Now for a muggle like me that was interesting indeed, to walk around what amounts to an enchanted version of the Cotswolds capped off with a medieval castle. Here came the first dose of reality: since this attraction was part of Universal Studios it was not covered by the Disney Day Pass program.

Ahhh, say most of the naive tourists who travel to Central Florida's two premier playgrounds. A two day pass with unlimited entry to any of the Disney parks ran a cool $200 which I figured to use at the Hollywood Studios and either Epcot or the Animal Kingdom, all three being new to me. Hogwarts and Harry Potter was another $80 for one day.

Time to ponder: a rough three hundred smackers to walk around in the hot sun, gob-smacked by the prices and the humidity. What did Cliff Huxtable say to Theo in that episode about how to manage money? "You haven't EATEN yet!"

Eat nothing, I still had to book a car to get around for the week, $200, and the hotel right outside the resorts was suddenly turning in to some "cozy and convenient" job out near the airport. I have friends in Tampa but, if they agreed to put me up, that 90-minute haul each way was really turning this cheap plane ticket in to an adventure of the first order. Oh, and I get to trade the cost of the hotel for the price of gas at the pump, woo-hoo!

What started out as an exciting idea to spend a week in Florida relaxing and acting like a kid again came down to earth in the most adult kind of way. Looking at all the things I wanted to do which wasn't a lot by any means still turned a $170 plane ticket in to a weeklong vacation for one person heading north of $1200 all told. And I still hadn't eaten yet!

Ten miles south of me in suburban Dallas is Six Flags over Texas. Fifty bucks gets me in for the day. And I haven't been there in a while either.

Gotta go!