Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In Your Eyes

I’m an Army Brat, meaning I have been traveling to Europe since I was 18 months old. The first time I saw Paris I was nine. The first time I traveled to England I was ten. Weekend trips to Austria, Switzerland and around Germany were part of our normal routine. Later, as an adult for both work and pleasure I’ve added much of the rest of Western Europe to that list of places that are often dreamt about as once-in-a-lifetime. I and my family are going back in 2011 and while there I want to explore a different part of Europe never before seen by this pair of eyes.

Before “Braveheart” few people outside of Scotland had heard of or remembered William Wallace. Somehow his story was discovered and turned in to a major film release, for a while sparking international interest in travel to Stirling at the center of the land between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I’d like to discover something like that; something few outside the local village have heard about; something National Geographic might cover if even they have caught wind of the story. And I’d like you to tell me where to go!

In Europe, that is.

Here are the options:
Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania
Portugal Hungary Romania Bulgaria Moldova Croatia
Slovenia Slovakia Macedonia Albania Malta Serbia
Bosnia Herzegovina Montenegro Belarus Ukraine Luxembourg

Having been to Europe so many times including having lived there I believe in the power of wonder and discovery through a fresh set of eyes. I don't mind the major highlights, like the fjords of Norway but the little known (by American standards) is what I'm after. How many Americans have enjoyed a Finnish sauna above the Arctic Circle, reindeer steaks and all for after? Patton is buried in Luxembourg but most Americans, if they go at all, might stop in at Normandy instead. So far the most appealing thing I've found are the Plitvice Lakes in central Croatia, terraced reservoirs of blue water laced together by waterfalls and surrounded by mountains.

At this writing the trip will take place over two weeks in June, 2011 so please consider the following when helping me choose a destination. Essentially, it cannot take too long to get to or require a lot of red tape to pass through. I’m looking for something compelling in terms of the human or personal experience as well, from an ancestral birthplace to the location of the Yalta Conference.

Here are the conditions:
1. Does not require a visa for entry
2. Can be reasonably explored within one week
3. Offers reasonable travel logistics (easy to get to/from and around)
4. Offers compelling well-known as well as long-forgotten history
5. Includes unique art, architecture, geography and gastronomy (food!)
6. Is not under a travel advisory issued by the Department of State

The survey will run until April 30, 2011. That will allow time for planning (and saving) along with one other thing I’d like to propose.

Join me! In the meantime, starting with the next post spend a month with me in Greece.

Gotta go.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hello, Baltimore

I used to live in Baltimore. Heck, I used to live in a lot of places but those are other stories. Three times over the course of my life have I called this city and surrounding area "home." As a toddler in the late 60s I watched my older sister delight in frogging the stream that ran through our backyard. During high school I went through platform shoes, afros and silk shirts in the late 70s and early 80s. Finally, as a full grown adult in the aftermath of a major national crisis, I struggled to survive and redefine myself as a professional and human being in the early 2000s. Good or bad, Baltimore, affectionately off-kilter "Balmer," has always been there.

Founded in 1729 by Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore of the Irish House of Lords, for three months from 1776 to 1777 it was the capital of the United States! Most Americans will recall that the Star Spangled Banner were written here by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the failed British attack on Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. The city has seen a few facelifts since then, including the Great Fire of 1906 and some notable riots spanning 1861 during the Civil War to 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Though we lived just south of the city on Ft. Meade at the time my mother would not let her children out of the house for a few days that week. In almost lock step with blood and blight, however, there always seems to have been one savior after another coming over the horizon to reinvent the city, repaint the landscape and, most especially, revitalize the Inner Harbor.

Before moving to Chicago Oprah Winfrey anchored the evening news on WJZ-TV but the city's art scene has always been way left of center. Fells Point has long been a neighborhood of activism going back to Frederick Douglass. Tallulah Bankhead held court at select watering holes in town while Jada Pinkett-Smith ("The Nutty Professor"), John Waters ("Hairspray") and Barry Levinson ("Diner" and "Rainman") hail from the city. Hollywood got in to the act once via "Hot L Baltimore," a sitcom around a flophouse hotel starring James Cromwell, Conchata Ferrell, Richard Masur and Charlotte Rae.

Former Mayor William Donald Shaeffer is revered still as the contemporary equivalent of Lord Baltimore himself over 20 years after his last year in office.
Among too many achievements to list here, he presided over the creation of Harbor Place, which included the innovative National Aquarium and the new Ballpark at Camden Yards for the woebegone yet beloved Orioles. Most notably for the people of the city, he and City Commissioner Robert Embry offered what I call "The Dollar Deal" where anybody could buy any abandoned row house in select parts of the city for one dollar. The stipulation was to personally invest a minimum of $100,000 in renovations as a way to jumpstart the decayed inner city.

It reversed the population decline, beautified the city and gave a much needed boost to personal equity and city coffers in one fell swoop. Key note here: not a single city backed loan defaulted!

I am not from Baltimore but it is the closest thing to a family home that I have. Thanks to "The Wire" it doesn't always look its best and is indeed facing major challenges today but it is essentially the same city most people would recognize and that I remember from years ago. It is at once a little touchy in the underdog kind of way when mentioned in the same conversation as nearby Washington D.C. or Philadelphia; a little quirky in its love of Old Bay Seasoning on everything from its world famous blue crabs to ice cream and is justifiably proud of its place in American national and sports history - Pimlico hosts the Preakness the first Monday of every May, a part of the Triple Crown.

A lot of heavy industry is gone but the Bromo Tower, those famous marble steps and the people are still there, dancing to their own rhythm on the west side of the Chesapeake. Go for crabs, ballgames, fresh produce at one of six neighborhood markets or any of over 100 bars and pubs in Fells Point but don't expect to see too many beehive hair-dos!

Gotta go!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Globe Trotting Around the World

I had to go to Hong Kong on business one day and then from there on to India for an exploratory session with the new service team my company had installed at Delhi. Was I up for it, they asked? I kept telling them they didn't need to ask twice much less the first time. And I even sweetened the pot by offering to schedule a longish layover in London on the way back to do a drop-in on our offices there. I was going around the world, from Chicago to Chicago, for the first time in my life. This time the journey itself was the destination.

It would be 747s all the way as the first great bird lifted off the runway for Tokyo. Changing from there to Hong Kong we came down over southern Japan where I noticed a very large and active volcano softly belching white steam in to the atmosphere, a major city built up in every direction around it. The AirMap informed me that this was Kagoshima at the very southern tip of Kyushu Island and a "Sister City" to Miami. Mt. Sakurajima pops off with almost boring regularity, apparently, as evidenced by the densely packed villages all around the island on which it sits in the middle of the bay.

Leaving out of Hong Kong was disappointing in that the service operated in the evening with an arrival in to Delhi along the order of Midnight. Still, I hoped for a moonlit sky that might offer a unique view of Mt. Everest directly on our flight path in to the Indian capital city. No such luck. It fogged up around the mountains to the point that I was hoping the instruments would keep us well abeam the mountain and not heading directly for it. We landed safely in Delhi without further adieu.

Mosquitoes in baggage claim, mosquitoes at the check-in counter a few days later, mosquitoes in the boarding lounge and one or two brave ones actually on the plane sums up the experience at Indira Ghandi International Airport. We closed the door, the flight attendants hit the aisles with bug spray and we launched in to the night sky for London at around 3AM. The captain informed us of our flying route that would deliberately avoid Iraqi airspace, news we all accepted with relief. He went on to explain we would be flying over the heart of Iran instead.

I hoped to sleep all the way to London considering the hour of the night and the eight hours of flying time. I woke some three hours out right over downtown Tehran, noticed how brown absolutely everything was and dozed off for the hop over Turkey and across the Black Sea in to Bulgarian air space and central Europe on a beeline to London Heathrow.

Seven hours on the ground in London and back in the air again I was, now headed home for Chicago on the fifth 747 of the journey. This time there was something spectacular to capture the moment following the view of Mt. Sakurajima in southern Japan. I wish pilots would call out traffic in the area even if it is a competitor's airplane. If I hadn't been seated on the left side of my plane I would have missed this. We were bigger, higher and faster but that just made it perfect to capture the ice floes and bergs all around this magnificent moment in time.

Pan Am used to fly a Round the World Service offering the same flight number in each direction though sometimes there might have been a change of aircraft for scheduling reasons. After Pan Am folded United Airlines tried it a couple of times only to discontinue the service for the last time shortly after September 11, 2001. I was able to make the trip twice, once in each direction before it was all over.

I'd do it all over again tomorrow.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All That For a Bagel?

“I just want a bagel,” the British guy in front of me at Noah’s lamented one fine San Francisco day. After making his way to the front of the line the sad exchange began.

“I’d like a bagel, please.” Eye roll immediately followed.

“What kind?” Slightly befuddled expression right behind it.

“Regular.” And so on until, after being offered cinnamon raisin, egg, poppy seed, sourdough, potato, onion, blueberry, sun-dried tomato, whole grain, seven grain, garlic, pumpernickel and low-carb, the guy turned around, looked at me nearly in tears and pleaded for help. As they say in the UK, I helped get him happily “sorted out” with a plain bagel until the game started all over again.

“What flavor shmear?” (Cream cheese)

As tourists overseas and even in different parts of the United States we face such scenarios played out with amusing regularity. A Seattle resident in Charlotte on business might have heard of grits but that doesn’t stop the What-Am-I-Supposed-To-Do-With-Those look on the face when they’re served with a stick of butter melting in the middle. Likewise visitors to Texas from England are routinely amazed that we still wear Stetson hats and boots.

As a child of the military my life was one of constant adjustment, whether relocating to the Midwest, the South or back across the sea to Germany. After one such repatriation to the States my sisters and I insisted our first stop outside of customs was a 7-11 to knock off a three-year itch for a Slurpee. When we returned to Germany a few years later we made a beeline to the local candy store for Haribo Gummy Bears!

More than food, we had to learn social customs in different parts of the world, how to greet someone, when to use formal versus informal language and what acceptable hand gestures back home could open up a world of trouble somewhere else. Our own rhythms adjusted from Germany where walking and public transportation got most things done to life back home in the suburbs. Suddenly one family car wasn’t enough to support work schedules, after school activities or simply going to the movies.

We had an advantage. Military bases overseas are microcosms of the United States only with extremely blended neighborhoods. We never lost touch with our Americanisms but regularly enjoyed travel within, shopping, dining and socializing with our German hosts and other countries nearby.

For my family it was simply a part of life. Unlike foreign volunteer work which can last a month or a lifetime, the impact on our lives of routinely living overseas and in different parts of the country evolved over time. We learned that most Americans did not vacation in Europe and that most Europeans, whatever their nationality, when they consider the United States often only see a single largely homogenous culture like they enjoy themselves. My favorite question of all time is “What is it like to live in America?”

My poor British friend at the bagel shop nearly walked out when the equally exasperated counterman asked if he wanted his regular bagel toasted. I smiled wickedly over the thought of taking him shopping for shampoo or pasta sauce.

Gotta go!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Flexible Flying thru Philadelphia

I was coming from somewhere on United Airlines and changing planes at LAX trying to get back to Baltimore where I lived at the time. Like most other people at the end of vacation I was not necessarily looking forward to getting home other than perhaps sleeping in my own bed with my own pillow and enjoying my own shower. This shower had enough power to pressure blast cement and it felt particularly good right between the shoulder blades! It's one of the better ways, I find, to unwind from a long flight in coach.

United was running on time today so that wasn't the problem. The problem was the oversold flight back to Baltimore that started the old lessons in geography flooding back through the fog shrouding my brain. I had a couple of days before needing to be back at work but I was tired just the same and simply wanted to get home. Normally I would have jumped at the offer for an overnight hotel as this was the last nonstop of the day. The flight to Dulles was just as bad with every chance that I would not be high enough of the "confirmed standby" list to make that flight.

The ears perked up when the overworked gate agent clicked through a few more keystrokes and said "Philadelphia looks good." No, she stated, if I took that option I'd be on my own because it was not a "co-terminus" to Baltimore. I'd have to find my own way home after that as United would have considered the trip as "services rendered." No, she further stated, my bags were not retrievable and they would be waiting for me in Baltimore. Again, services rendered so no shot at home delivery either.

I didn't care. I wanted to be on the East Coast and boarded the flight to Philadelphia which for a Dallas Cowboys fan was surely akin to a journey to hell. The flight was uneventful and we landed on time shortly after 10PM. No luggage to check I was ahead of the crowd in getting down to ground level to figure out how I was going to travel the 100 miles south to Baltimore.

The rental cars were curling their mustaches and wringing gnarled hands, cackling in Simon Bar Sinister glee at my predicament as they dreamed of ridiculous one-way rental fees for a car. No airlines were flying between the two at that hour of the night and I wouldn't have lined up for that kind of financial molestation either. I knew I could get a car but prayed it would be a last resort as I looked at the train schedules, hoping for an Amtrak service at that hour of the night.
There was! The connector train rode in from the airport to the 30th Street Station where a departure shortly after Midnight would take me to Baltimore's Penn Station, not even two miles from my front door after a short stop in Wilmington.

It was a fairly quiet evening at the Philadelphia station. Services were limited at that hour of the night but everyone there was more concerned about getting home like me than they were any unusual activity one might believe happens at train stations in the middle of the night. The train arrived and departed with me in a quad of four seats to myself by the window watching Pennsylvania and Delaware sleep the night away. After a 10-minute cab ride from the Baltimore station I was safe at home by 2:30AM.

I'm not one who likes to wrap up trips by counting how many times I could say "At least such and such didn't happen." I was glad to be home and at least in this case, glad it was back to the densely packed East Coast. I could have been trying to get to Minneapolis.
No other major airport for 300 miles!

Gotta go.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Greek in Phoenix

Ah, Phoenix in the Summertime. I told Boss Lady emphatically that I wasn't gunning for a trip to Phoenix for the sake of air miles. It was July - the locals don't want to be in town at that time of the year so why would I want to go there on purpose? Duty called, however, so off to the desert I went where I found to my surprise that the stated temperature of 108 wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. What turned out to be sadly worse than expected unfortunately was the meal I experienced in neighboring Tempe.

The collegiate among you will know that Tempe is the home of Arizona State University, the Sundevils where all along Mill Avenue, "The Strip" running north/south along the western edge of the campus are bookstores, incense and candle shops, clothing stores and restaurants from greasy spoons to major chains. Co-workers one evening suggested "My Big Fat Greek Restaurant" in the heart of the strip and I figured it would be an interesting evening, Mediterranean food in the middle of the desert.

Two of us arrived well before the third so it was conversation in the well appointed patio area where it was sufficiently cool not to require the ubiquitous misters. These nifty devices that Dallas needs more of spray cooling mist on the patrons to encourage al fresco dining or help in the transition from the swelter of outside to the air-conditioned comfort of hotels and restaurants. We were seated quickly and the waiter was on his game throughout the evening.

There was no Greek band or music playing which actually was quite fine with me. I enjoy "atmosphere" but like Louisiana zydeco, unless it is in my blood it gets old pretty fast.
I started with a bowl of "avgolemono," or Greek chicken soup which was crisp and flavorful while my companion needed to eat early and run (although she ended up staying) and ordered the gyros. Maybe I'm spoiled but I generally refuse to eat gyros in the United States as it consists of "pressed" meat combining lamb and either beef or chicken. In Europe the meat slowly revolving on the vertical spit roaster is clearly carved from something that had hooves and is far more flavorful despite being a tougher chew. Our third companion finally arrived who also ordered gyros while I went with the 20 ounce bone in lamb shank.

What a disappointment. What meat there was to be had was rich, flavorful and fork tender. The majority of the cut in front of me, however, was bone and fat. I enjoy bone-in steaks and am the kind of diner who will strip the bone completely before cutting and tucking in to the meat itself; that way I don't have to wrestle with it all through the meal. By the time I finished de-boning the lamb in front of me I was amazed at how much of it was inedible. Further and final disappointment came when asking the waiter if the 20 ounces was the entire dish or the net weight of the meat itself. It was the whole thing.

Well, it was good for my prodigious waistline at least, and I might dine there again but most definitely on something other than this "new" house specialty!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ten To Do in Dallas

I love my city. I love the both, actually, Dallas and Fort Worth. The recent census ranked the area as the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago though I'm not exactly sure how they came up with that result. What I am very much aware of, however, is that short of a ton of highways I really had to sit down and think about what the area has to offer in the way of tourist attractions.

Oh sure, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau will hop up and down to point out the seemingly endless list of things to do but I looked a little closer. Once they rattle off all of the trendy shops and restaurants or the W Hotel what was left? Well, I'm just an ordinary citizen who chose this part of the country on purpose to spend the rest of my days so I cannot say that I am employed to promote the area or claim to know it as well as others. Then it hit me: my friends and family consider me to be a more than competent tour guide and I do have a list of things I like for people to see when they come to town. Here for your edification, then, is my list of ten things to do in Dallas.

1. Dealey Plaza

Sadly the plaza where JFK was shot and featuring the School Book Depository remains the singular most popular tourist attraction in the city. Flip-flopped tourists mingle with hawks selling cheap maps and homeless offering low-budget "help" in pointing out Oswald's Window and the spot on the road where Kennedy's car was when the shots rang out. Sometimes there is even a macabre entrepreneur offering pictures in the back seat of a replica limousine by the side of the Grassy Knoll. At the same time the area is almost eerily peaceful and quite beautifully landscape.

2. Trees

"Trees" is one of the last joints standing in Deep Ellum where the area was once lined with bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and counter-culture clothing stores. I had the pleasure of a live concert at "Trees" that offered four acts on the bill with the Lords of Acid as the headliners. Anyone who remembers that band yes, they are still touring and you now have an idea what kind of scene to expect just about any given night. Deep Ellum was never a scene for quiet jazz; "Trees" carries the torch for the loud, the electric and the indie vibe.

3. Oak Cliff

'Round these parts it's called "O-Cliff" and it used to be the part of town that people didn't go to after dark. Over in "Sowf Dellis" (South Dallas) across the Trinity River from downtown the area was an remains primarily Black American and farther down on the economic scale to the rest of the city. Long and loud were the fights in City Hall to figure out how to revitalize the area. The fights have paid off with the area slowly being gentrified and rebuilt one block and one neighborhood at a time with young families and affluent professionals "flipping" low-end properties then deciding to keep them once the renovations were in place.

4. Mia’s

One of the original Tex-Mex restaurants in town and still owned by the same family, the rule is first come first served at all times so timing at Mia's is everything. It is in a converted house with the walls stacked with photos of the rich and famous who have dined here. The food is good, the prices very reasonable and the service lightning fast only don't linger over dinner. It is cozy and intimate in some areas but others are waiting and the tables too close together for that kind of evening.

5. Sonny Bryan’s

Sonny Bryan's is to Dallas BBQ what Lou Malnadi's is to Chicago Pizza. Fights have broken out for all the same reasons - they ran out of food, somebody claimed a competitor was better or some fool from out of town said that he'd tasted better back home. This is Texas so there are a ton of choices; this is Dallas so almost all of them are quite good. Everybody bows, however, to Sonny's.

6. White Rock Lake

As close to the feeling of the Jackie O Reservoir in Central Park as one can get in the heart of Dallas, Texas. The views of downtown are breathtaking over the water while the lake itself is lined with tony neighborhoods and hole-in-the-wall restaurants the locals swear by. This is a quieter side of Dallas with trails, parks and play areas for one and all.

7. S4

The "S4" is nothing short of a multifaceted warehouse of a nightspot. A patio and balcony out back or a quiet lounge inside allow revelers to get away from the excitement without having to leave. Wallflowers can watch the action on the main dance floor from the upper balcony railings while live entertainment is in the Rose Room ranging from tongue-in-cheek to hilariously wrong from the word go. It is in the heart of Dallas' main "gayborhood" so go only if you don't mind mixed company.

8. The Majestic

This was Dallas' answer to the Palace during the heyday of vaudeville. Major touring productions, musicians, speakers and other artists keep the place busy and the memories alive. It is a very tall theater so while few seats are bad, the upper balcony is way up there.

9. Reunion Tower

Revolving bars and restaurants seem to have been a fad that never really caught on but Dallas has one of the good ones. The cocktail lounge and restaurant in "The Microphone" offer gorgeous views of downtown and the surrounding area some 500 feet up. While some will say the Dallas area is too flat for their liking absolutely no one comes away unimpressed after a sunset evening at the Tower. Locals come for special occasions, tourists are well advised to spend an evening here on their last night in town.

10. Greenville Avenue M-Streets

Arguably one of the more famous neighborhoods in Dallas for not having a long list of notable residents, the M-Streets are a section of cross streets centered on Greenville Avenue that simply defy logic in being there at all. Not the streets themselves but the houses. These small to medium sized bungalows are all brick, nearly all Tudor in style and unique to any other part of the city. These homes often feature original hardwood floors, detached garages and "cozy" rooms and common areas for those who appreciate intimacy in their domestic environments. Location fetches serious bidders only for the boutique homes along McCommas, Morningside, Mercedes, Merimac and Monticello but it's always free to pass by.

There is more to Dallas than malls, mansions and the Mavericks. This is just one man's list of things to do just within Dallas. Fort Worth has its own list of compelling attractions as do the surrounding communities of the area or the rural stretches from Tyler to the east to Abilene and Jacksboro to the west. The only thing left after all these choices for the visitor to consider is the weather. Is it cool yet?

Gotta go.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Texas Sized Wedding

Relatives and friends flew in from literally all over the world: Arizona, India, Singapore, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, Nebraska, Iowa, Pennsylvania, South America, Canada and England as well as around Texas. Several of the officiates commented that not only was this the closest they had come in their lives to a royal wedding but that it also appeared to have been the most photographed nuptials they had ever seen. I tried to work with the official photographer at least in not firing off my flash at the same time as his so the subjects wouldn't appear washed out and shiny. Didn't always work but hey, the happy couple will have over 600 shots from me alone to choose from free of charge. He's a cousin so don't get any ideas I do this for a living or just anybody!

Yes, this wedding to me compared quite closely to a state dinner or an inaugural ball. Attorneys, orthopedic surgeons, insurance agents, pharmaceutical movers and shakers along with city planners and other usual suspects in an extremely well connected gathering of Dallas high society packed the church with close to three hundred guests. At the reception the group photo of just the groom and his friends from high school was the size of any well attended class reunion, each as successful as the other and remarkably still in touch one and all.

Simply put, Dallas, Texas knows how to throw a damned good party. The Ewings would have been pleased. Accommodations ranged from the Embassy Suites to the Adolphus Hotel. Venues included the Adolphus' Grand Ballroom, the Park Club and the W Hotel after hours. There was a Bridal Tea right out of England with summer florals, hats and heels preceded by a family "kick-off" at Cyclone Anaya's earlier in the week. The Summer weather cooperated in dry roasting everybody evenly at 100 degrees for one solid week with no rain to ruin day tours of the area, shopping runs, hair appointments, shuttles to the airport or afternoons in the pool for the little ones in tow or a part of the bridal party. The big news was the earthquake in Washington DC that week, of all places.

Then there was the food: fudge, curries, potato roti, cake, catered BBQ from Dickey's on one occasion, enough soda and beer to fill the pool outback and all this before three nights out on the town including the rehearsal dinner featuring tortilla crusted red snapper, salad and fajitas with all the fixin's followed by the reception itself featuring four "filling stations" with hand-tossed spinach or marinara pasta, more salads, breads and cheeses, carved roast beef and turkey or baked salmon over shrimp fried rice with an open bar at every event.

The Hebrews didn't eat as much after 40 years in the desert. Oh, and this was only the groom's side of the family. Whatever the bride's family and friends plowed through outside of the organized events is not on official record! The dress was gorgeous and the bride flawless so nothing else mattered.

At the end of the reception Saturday evening I drove away thinking how happy I am to live in this city and how proud that the best of Dallas was on display for family and friends from all across the planet. We laughed, we ate, caught up or met for the first time, ate again, of course the men watched the British Open, talked trash over football or rough housed with the kids while the women rolled their eyes, cooked and we all ate some more.

After moving back to Dallas over two years ago friends and family saw and commented on how my outward demeanor had changed so much for the better in comparison to years before. It is true but this week wasn't about me or Dallas, Texas. I stayed respectfully in the background while my city served as the backdrop for the beginning of a beautiful new life together. I'm pretty sure they were the happiest people of all.

Congratulations, "KMR!"

Gotta go.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Beauty and the Beast - Travel and Unemployment

The beauty and wonder of a country the size of the United States is that there is so much to see and do across a nearly incomprehensible scale. The absolute curse and downfall of a living in a country this size is the distance and amount of time it takes to get to these natural and man-made wonders! Add in to this paradigm the demands of earning a living and there can precious little time left to see the types of things foreign and even out of state travelers specifically plan in to their lives. The old "Jeez, I've never been there," conversation.

Another irony is that of being in between jobs. In this case there is all the time in the world to finally explore lost highways and bi-ways but extreme feelings of personal guilt and societal pressure to find work as soon as possible. Being out of work is not the time, so they say, to go gallivanting around the wilderness on personal quests or to visit remote and forgotten landmarks.
There's time enough for that, so they also say, after you've found work, and the income to pay for it as well.

That's just it! There was never enough time to go to, say, Mt. Rushmore, while working for a host of reasons. Plane tickets weren't cheap and on two weeks of vacation those usually went towards family functions back home. There is truth in not spending severance money or savings on vacations without knowing when or where new income will be found to replace it, but....

In September of 2001 I was among the first wave of furloughs to suffer from the combined effects of an over-heated economy and the attacks on the World Trade Center. My employer at the time furloughed 20,000 staff within 60 days of September 11th; I was one of them. In that singular moment few in the country knew where their next job was going to come from. Severance packages and unemployment benefits flowed like manna from heaven which is not to say such resources were wasted or frivolously burned through like lottery winnings. There was simply no better time to take that adventure.

What better way to not only detox from a traumatizing moment in history but also purge lost employment from the mind, re-energize the soul and re-calibrate the brain towards new endeavors that by necessity were forced upon us all. "Lifers," like me dug deep to discover transferrable skills previously unknown or not fully considered. This particular job search was going to be a long and arduous one so why not take some time finally just for me.

Could I have used the time to search for work? Yes. Would I have found something quickly? Considering the state of shock across every industry immediately following September 11th, not likely.

What I did find, however, was worth far more than just another job. And I found a few other things along the way as well.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Riding Under the Radar

I was blessed with a good sense of direction thanks to my mother, one of the original backseat drivers. Between us we come from a background that includes navigating by landmarks such as mail boxes, trees with wonky branches, a leaning farm house and ol' man so-and-so's abandoned tractor to get across town or across the country.
Back in the day a long-distance drive was the equivalent of going to the moon. You were out of touch with loved ones for the anxious, mysterious hours of however long it took to get from here to there. No cell phones, never enough coins to satisfy the pay phones for long-distance calls and only if someone is hospitalized would anyone ever reverse the charges. At the same time, road maps remained current for years at a time given the lack of any major road development. With a background like that, seriously, who needs a GPS?
The road less traveled is exactly about wandering for the sake of finding out what's there without worrying about being lost. Getting lost is part of the fun! And as long as the road signs don't change to a completely foreign language there's a good chance that a major highway or interstate isn't too far away. Failing that simple good manners have helped me get directions whenever I finally got around to deeming them necessary.
In a strange city if I'm not with a local who knows the way then maybe, maybe, a GPS would be helpful. On the open road I simply refuse. That's where the good stories come from! With a GPS I also can't shake the feeling that knowing where I am at all times means the outside world can also find me. Ugh!
At one point in my professional life I was charged with selling the things by the barrel; they made great stocking stuffers and were saviors from on high for weary husbands tired of explaining to preoccupied wives how to get across town in a city they've lived in nigh on to 30 years or more (true story). Not knowing what he really needed one day, one such husband came in and simply asked for the most expensive GPS on the shelf, a Magellan at the time retailing for over $600. I talked him down to about $150 for a Garmin since his wife never left the city limits of Washington DC unless he himself was behind the wheel.
"Roads in DC haven't changed since LaFayette laid them out," I told the man, with the sole exception of I-395. A friend in Phoenix boasts having two of the things and regularly exchanges "coordinates" with friends as if on some Star Trek episode so they can find each other for drinks, golf or 4-wheeling. Even on his commute to work the thing is running "in case there's traffic or an accident."
Please! I just drove 1900 miles round trip from Texas to Illinois and back by way of Tennessee. They've ADDED a few interstates but the originals are all still there, right where Eisenhower commissioned them over 60 years ago. I made the entire trip from memory and dead reckoning with at least a dozen other such trips under me just like that.
Driving to me soothes the soul and quiets the mind while navigating from memory keeps what intellect I've got stimulated and fresh. And for once I also listened to Mother:
"All you need is Rand McNally and a good clean gas station!"
Gotta go.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Going Graving

Why is it a "must see" part of any tourist trip of Washington, D.C. to include time at Arlington National Cemetery yet any other part of the country or world visiting graveyards can be viewed as downright creepy? Same thing in Europe where one can hardly consider going without taking in the crypts of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, all manner of Parisian and Roman Catacombs or even the US National Cemetery at Normandy on the coast of France. Millions of people pay big money to come from all over the world, myself included, to visit the last resting place of the Kennedy Brothers and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier yet few of them wander or even know whom in their own area might be sleeping peacefully just across town.

Graveyards never creeped me out as a child because I never hung out with the kind of friends who wanted to tell ghost stories by the light of a flashlight held under the chin by the side of a tombstone. I was fascinated with them just the same for the simple fact that people were under the ground, as if in some eternal spa, stretched out in their finest clothes and undergoing some long term beauty treatment. Yea, that just got a little macabre, didn't it?

Anyway, the notion of visiting burial grounds in to adulthood stems from still wanting to pay my respects to notable people along with the fact that standing graveside is quite often as close as I'll ever get to some of them in real time. They can't go anywhere and in most cases the entourage of hangers-on and private security have long since died with them or latched on to some other living soul for their livelihood. Add in the fact that most cemeteries and mausoleums do not charge for admission and there's no such thing as a bad seat. Just don't expect them to perform while you're there.

One meaningful visit to a fallen personal hero was the chance to express my condolences and gratitude at the grave of Brian Piccolo who's story was so movingly told in the film "Brian's Song," still a Top 5 favorite movie of mine today.

Thanks to websites such as FindaGrave.Com a particularly enjoyable trip took me one bored Saturday from my then home in Chicago to visit James Dean in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. I put a tank of gas in the car and drove through the heart of die hard America, the kind of deep rural country where only people with relatives go. I learned some things along the way, including the fact that Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield is from the same area!

Luther Vandross in New Jersey, George and Martha Washington as well as Abraham Lincoln, Frank Sinatra and Sonny Bono (same small cemetery) in Palm Springs, Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles, even Buddy Holly in Lubbock, Texas, the list goes on. I never met Michael Jackson in person and he now lies in a restricted area of Forest Lawn in Glendale. Still mourning the loss nearly a year later I have to be thankful at least that I saw him once in concert.

Only, of course, in the middle of 73,000 people, he didn't see me.

Gotta go.

Friday, September 3, 2010

On Eating Organic

The die-hard "meat and potatoes" folks don't know much about wanting or trying to eat right but most other people will at least on occasion pick up an apple or a raw vegetable if for no other reason than they simply taste good. Then there is California where raw, organic and holistic are almost lyrics to the state theme song. After the Galleria arguably the next shrine to west coast living is Whole Foods Market where I decided to go one day for lunch while in Orange County on business.

I remember when "organic" produce was a small table filled with shrunken and shriveled goods still caked in farm dirt at nearly twice as much per pound as the shiny, glowing options on display all around the produce section. Whole Foods Market is a green grocer in virtually every sense of the word "green." Their prepared food section is legendary, offering everything from true vegan to London Broil and the finest locally grown produce around. Me being one who could easily lose a few pounds and trying not to spend every dollar of my per diem at the fast food drive through Whole Foods seemed a perfectly sensible choice to make. Let the shopping begin.

A small green salad with balsamic vinaigrette was an easy choice to begin though it was pure dee murder resisting all of the delectable hot entrees and soups on display, including several chicken dishes, vegetable medleys and rice casseroles. I do love fresh fruit, however, and went for some seedless grapes, a couple of oranges and two organic "Fuji" apples, my favorite type of apple, subtle in flavor and always crisp and crunchy. I wasn't trying to go for a power mix of antitoxins, minerals and vitamins, I just picked up what I like along with a single serve bottle of Odwalla Orange Juice to wash it all down with.

Anybody who has ever purchased that single serve bottle of fresh squeezed Valencia orange juice knows the price of it alone is about the same as any single sandwich at McDonald's. Some twenty dollars later I'm rushing back to the office to eat before my next meeting, cursing myself for the impulse purchases and all the while trying to justify the cost in saying at least the oranges, grapes and apples would last me more than just one meal. A third of that and I could have had some sort of combo meal at Mickey-Ds or Chick-Fil-A, maybe even super-sized.

All of the products were delicious and certainly did a body good but I must admit I didn't notice much difference in taste or texture between my organic apples and the ones laced with carcinogenic pesticides, fertilizers and growth hormones. If the taste is the same and I'm paying a premium merely for not introducing those chemicals in to my body then why not pay less instead of more? Eating healthy with commercially grown produce is costly enough over fast food so why are organic groceries even more expensive than that? Seems to me that if they really wanted to get people to eat better then they would sit between those two options, pricier than a hamburger but healthier and less expensive than "Frankenfood."

Natural, organic food, it seems, has come a long way up. Now if only the price would come down.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Target Destroyed

I had just gotten home from work, put away some clean clothes and whipped up a quick roasted tomato-garlic pasta dish. Another day near an end as I cast around on the web for something I can read or watch while munching. Sometimes I can indulge a taste of the grotesque or at least unusual during dinner but decided I'd rather not worry about my constitution or moral compass this evening. I'd seen just about every documentary there was on lions, orcas and boa constrictors along with homemade videos of laughing babies, howling beagles and Honey-I'm-Home-From-The-War or Pregnant family surprises Looking around for something, anything old but new, something I at least hadn't seen in a while.

I have to admit I can whip up a fairly quick and tasty plate of pasta so there wasn't much time before dinner started to get cold and I would need that mental cool down from the office. Then it hit me: I'd spool up something from YouTube on Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Back when South Korea had only one international airline, back when long-range flights had to stop in Alaska to make it across the Pacific, back when Reagan was in the White House and the Cold War in full swing, #007 was the regular service between New York City and Seoul with a fuel stop in Anchorage.

The short version is this: a Boeing 747 with 269 passengers and crew on board flew a beeline directly to Seoul from Alaska over Siberia instead of a longer hook-route well to the south over Central Japan to avoid Soviet air space. The beeline route flew first over the Kamchatka Peninsula and then over southern tip of Sakhalin Island, a place few westerners had ever heard of before, alerting the Soviet Air Command to each intrusion. He-said/she-said later, after the second unauthorized incursion missiles were fired that destroyed the airplane and all on board, including 22 children.

The Soviets denied it, then blamed the US for provoking the whole thing as a way to test their defenses. The U.S, of course, went off and the world held its breath, horrified at the loss of life yet far more alarmed that this might be the last straw to a winner-take-all (or what might be left of the world) war between the two superpowers. The investigations that followed pointed to navigational errors (duh), conflicts between Korean top-down societal hierarchy versus cockpit check and balance procedures (did anyone question the captain when clearly someone should have) and the then-standard Western cries of Soviet paranoia and over-reaction. Even today the whole incident may be largely resolved yet still hotly debated concerning the overriding contributing factor(s).

The biggest results from this aerial Titanic? Certain air routes through this part of Siberia are now authorized while Reagan himself ordered the release of then-classified GPS technology to the private sector specifically so mistakes like Korean Air-007 would not happen again. As for the incident itself it is, sadly, largely forgotten save for the families of the victims, aviation aficionados and government watchdogs.

And it all happened on September 1st, 27 years ago today. May they rest in peace.

Gotta go.