Friday, December 31, 2010

You Want MY Autograph?

By now those of us who have been blessed have had a chance to enjoy the holiday with our families and friends or enjoyed an opportunity to give back to the community in some way, shape or form. We've eaten enough to fast until February so it seems and we've decided which gifts to keep or re-gift later. Then we get tootsed up for some New Year's Eve party or just pack it all in and head to a warm bed leaving the cold and carrying on for others to deal with and recover from in the morning.

I tend to ask myself not only if I did or experienced anything special but also if there was anything particularly unique that happened, good or bad. In this case I like to think the experience was quite good indeed.

I met my first fan.

I've been a fan, many times, like me and Adam Brand pictured here. Since pre-school, though, our friends and family have supported our various pursuits, be they sports, theater, writing, musical instruments or singing and across the spectrum of talent. Some of us are now "A-Listed" at the most exclusive parties on both coasts while the rest of us indulge ourselves in pottery, painting, cooking, macramé, triathlons, fishing, bowling and golf. Some of us blog, for ourselves mostly but always with some kind of hope that it catches on, that someone out there finds us. The point is that our friends and family continue to both appreciate and encourage us be they as tone deaf or color blind as we are or truly objective and astute in critical mind and experienced eye.

I was back home on the East Coast visiting family earlier this year before the weather turned but far enough out to not seem like I had just moved home with the holidays coming up. During a casual tour around town of some of the places that meant a lot to me one way or the other I chose to stop by my old apartment building in the middle of town to visit with my former landlords who were very good and caring towards me during my six years there.
One of the two ladies is no longer at that location but the property manager, my mother and I enjoyed catching up on good times when we got around to the subject of my travels around the world. As I mentioned that I keep this blog about those experiences a new leasing agent at the property suddenly perked up.

"Oh, I've read that before!"

It was harder to determine who was more surprised, me or her. Having never met her before and thus encouraged or cajoled in to following the website, I listened with stunned excitement as she explained how she simply stumbled across my page. She was complimentary of the subject matter and the writing style and I still remained shocked in to complete slack-jawed silence. Those of you who know me are aware of how rare that is.

Out of the millions of websites, both professional and personal floating through space somebody that I did not know or target specifically found mine and enjoyed it. And I actually met one in person which is the point of this particularly unique story. To the others who have also found The Traveling Optimist I thank you for your curiosity and continued support. To my first random fan, you have re-gifted my goal in the most pleasant way possible.

Thank you and Happy New Year.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Remembering Reunions

We've all been to reunions of some kind or other, be it high school, college or the family variety. Family reunions, especially at a younger age, tend to be fun and exciting as they amount to little more than an endless feast with a lot of other kids to play with in attendance. There are often just too many kids running free under the generally watchful eye of the grown-ups who themselves are pre-occupied with eating and catching up. Some things that aren't tolerated at home are overlooked in the general spirit and chaos of getting together.

This year marked the 25th year of my graduation from college. I've lost and gained more weight than I can count and deliberately keep my hair closely cropped to the point of appearing bald to the chagrin of my parents. The life I've lived and the world I've seen, the friends I've lost and the mistakes I've made won't open a film or earn a book-signing but, like others, reunions bring all of those memories back in to focus...with a question: What, exactly, am I going back for?

I don't have fame and fortune so I can't lord it over the others and I'm fairly sure I wouldn't want to if I had. I've made the most or best of the decisions I've made and have some treasured experiences to go with many of them. I don't have pictures of pets and progeny to stuff the iPhone with or a trail of tears behind me from broken hearts and failed relationships. In many ways I feel as if my life is only just beginning, that I am still on the quest for that one ultimate goal, that defining fulfillment that others in my graduating class might have found by now.

At the end of the day I decided like at least a few others to just go and see what happened. If it turned into an evening of chest beating, drinking and backbiting I'd simply leave. By now, 25 years after college and almost 30 after high school we were all old enough now to know the trials and tribulations of living, some more successfully so than others. I wasn't up for an evening of score carding.

The barbecue on the veranda of the student center turned out to be fairly low key and relaxed to my pleasant surprise. I was out of town the night before on business and missed the goings on of that evening which, true to form, didn't end for some until three in the morning. We talked about the kids, of course, and shared favorite dorm life and party stories from back in the day along with how the campus itself had changed. We let our guards down as much as people once tied to campus life would nearly a generation later.
We were in school in the early 80s. Prince, the Police, Madonna and Michael Jackson were all at the height of their careers. Hair was huge, Reagan was in office and beer was a dollar a bottle. No cell phones, e-mail or internet, there were many a "Come Get Me" stories from around town, waking me up on more than one early Sunday to bring them back before their mothers called their "Sweet Biddykins" to find out how they were doing.

We stayed on neutral ground, appreciated quietly together that we'd made it this far, hadn't changed much in appearance and still knew how to make each other laugh. Whatever we did or didn't accomplish wasn't the point; we were still here, we still cared about each other and we were safe together again, if only for a few hours.

Gotta go.

Monday, December 27, 2010

From Which It Happened Well...

Nine seems to be turning in to a far more important year in my life than I had previously considered. I mean, what really happens at Age Nine that is so memorable or has such a lifelong impact on one's sense of the world? So far in this forum I've come up with some personally pivotal memories, including my first trip to Paris and the first time I ever heard about the ancient wonders of Greece. I'd gone to movies before in my life, certainly, but this was probably the first one that would stick with me like no other outside of the Disney classics. My fourth grade class was called to order and we marched out of the school building and down the street to the movie theater where an entirely new and unheard of world came to life before my eyes.

Charles Dickens' classic tale "A Christmas Carol" is the story of the rebirth of Ebenezer Scrooge from bitter, miserly skinflint to benefactor and loving patron following one traumatic evening involving the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. First published in 1843 the story has been adapted for film, stage and television in every format from short-reel to high art, musical, animation and Muppets. Actors as diverse as Patrick Stewart to George C. Scott, Jim Backus (as the voice of Mr. Magoo), Susan Lucci, James Earl Jones and Scrooge McDuck have added to or detracted from the role.

In 1970 the musical film was produced featuring Sir Alec Guiness in the role of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late business partner and Albert Finney in the title role. This film is the one of the first times in my life I ever sat happily through a movie without a bag of popcorn.
Holiday films are very personal things and usually handed down from one generation to the next. Not this one; "Scrooge" is all mine, right up there with "A Charlie Brown Christmas" as the only two I insist on every season. I've never seen "It's a Wonderful Life" all the way through and "Miracle on 34th Street" only once. None of the contemporary releases compare to me though I can well imagine they resonate just as strongly with the youngsters who watch them for the first time.

Why this version of the story? As mentioned it was the first telling of the story that I had ever seen but also because of the beautiful and yes, "cheeky," songs included in the narrative, most especially "Father Christmas," "Happiness," and "Thank You Very Much." I mean ask yourself, whoever heard a happier tune celebrating somebody doing them all the favor of dying? Critics pretty much dismissed the film all together but this nine year old boy ate up the over the top performance of Guiness, the seething anger of Finney's Scrooge and the completely foreign language and cadence that was Victorian English.
Name it and this version had it all: flying ghosts, kids my age, the deeply infectious optimist of Bob Cratchit in the face of insurmountable problems, the additional scene in Hell which I took to be part of the original story and always felt cheated if it was edited out or not included in other adaptations. Then there was the magic of Finney's old and young Scrooge. I refused to believe for the longest time that they simply didn't wait 30 - 40 years to film the 2nd half of the picture!

The London of Dickens' writings is gritty, crowded, wallowing in despair and poverty and yet filled with such an overwhelming joy of living and beauty in both speech and manner that I immediately wanted to see and feel this world for myself. The Victorian class structure resonates today, 160 years later. Most of the vestiges of the era are gone, the workhouses, the high collared clothes and top hats and certainly the manner of speaking but such is the power of great writing and imaginative film making. I didn't believe in ghosts but I wanted to go to London.

I got my wish the very next year.

Gotta go!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Split Decision in Bethlehem

Almost a lullaby, "Away in a Manger" rings in the ears of virtually every western ear on the planet. Sung or heard since early childhood, the song features on just about any Christmas album that wants to be taken seriously and continue to sell long after its first release. In October of 1994 while traveling in Israel with friends the little town of Bethlehem (remember that little tune, too?) was not restricted from travel and Manger Square in the heart of the city was our destination of the day.

The drive down was as close to an "extreme" experience as I had yet had in my young life to that point. We were never in any danger, the car performed solidly, there were no highwaymen waiting around blind corners to attack us or spontaneous gun battles ringing out from the surrounding hills. This was simply a matter of finding our way through the Occupied West Bank with a rental company road map and praying that the road signs would be in both English and Hebrew. GPS technology was not yet available to the masses and there remained a charged air throughout the land because of a sniper attack two days before in the capital.

Mary and Joseph were traveling and needed a place to rest. There was no room at the inn but space was provided in the manger out behind the building. Here the Son of God was born so the story goes. Before that, Bethlehem was the City of David and the last resting place of Rachel. Today the manger of Jesus is a popular tourist attraction as evidenced by all of the tour buses lined up in the square turned parking. After securing the car and paying our "nominal entry fee" in to the Church of the Nativity we headed pretty much on a beeline to the main attraction in the Grotto of the Nativity below.

One basilica becomes another very quickly when on a tour of holy attractions, either in Rome or around Israel. The nave, the apse, transept and rose windows are all in the usual places, designed to simultaneously uplift and intimidate. Yea, yea, nice, hurry up and take the picture, we need to get downstairs. Directly below the altar is the Grotto of the Nativity, legendary birthplace of Jesus Christ, the most powerful site we had thus far seen on our Israeli holiday.

We entered the grotto and were immediately faced with a dilemma as profound as any religious conflict in existence. There are two mangers. Facing each other at a slight angle and hardly ten feet apart, one is elaborately decorated, almost gaudy in its trappings of velvet, incense lanterns, a silver star marking the place of birth and the marble casing surrounding the whole affair. It could have been a fireplace in a previous life. The other is far plainer to look at and supposedly not the place of birth but merely where the Baby Jesus was laid in swaddling clothes to be presented to well wishers and the three wise men.

Please. There is (was) only one manger. It was in back of a roadside motel and served as the shelter for various and sundry livestock of the time. Joseph put his head here, Mary rested her weary body there, Jesus was born here and fresh hay was on the other side, already.

And none of it took place in the basement of a basilica!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Swimming in Salad Dressing

The Dead Sea is along the road to Jericho in the occupied West Bank of the River Jordan. It is the lowest point on earth below sea level and has one of the highest salt concentrations of any large body of water on the planet. Think of it as a mud puddle left over from the Great Flood of Noah although science will of course say that it's been around a lot longer than that. Biblical, metaphorical or seismological, we didn't care as the plan for the day was to drive our rented car down the hill to the Israel side of the Dead Sea for the sole purpose of swimming in it.

Floating, more like, as the famous salinity has been remarked upon as being the consistency of a good Italian salad dressing and able to keep even the heaviest of men above water with little to no effort at all. It was a relatively quiet period in the everlasting peace process and running count of ceasefires in the region, we were assured by tourist officials, with the one exception of Jericho itself. We and the car were on our own, they said, if we ventured there but otherwise we had free run of the country.

Down the hilly road to the lake we went, following the well marked signs to the nearest beach head from where our hotly anticipated once-in-a-lifetime dip in the dregs would begin. None of us expected the experience to be refreshing along the lines of a Caribbean swim or even a romp in some backyard pool. That wasn't the point. We wanted to float, plain and simple. Oh, and play in the mud, too, famous the world over for its skin revitalizing properties.

It was October, the Sun was up and the temperature on the warm side which helped us strip off in the changing areas in the blink of an eye.
The wife of a friend took a little longer, of course, because her shoulder length blonde hair had to be done up high enough to stay as far above the water line as possible. For the other two guys in the group it was like watching a seagull take to the air as they began an ungainly long-jumper's dash and skip down the runway for the greatest velocity to launch themselves headfirst in to the sea.

It would be untrue to say that the lightest one of the two of them bounced off the surface of the water but it was close. The larger one did manage to submerge completely but his head was up before his feet went under; skipping one big long-legged rock came to mind at the sound of the "sploosh" he made going in. No matter. They both "Ahhhh'd" themselves contentedly on to their backs, folded their arms over their chests and pointed their feet skyward, mugging for the camera likes kings of the world.

After the mud fight that ensued it was back in the car towards our hotel in Jerusalem following a quick side trip to the Cave of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was a hole in a hill. I bought a couple of bars of Mud Soap for souvenirs and we made it back to town in time for dinner at a Russian restaurant.

Our skin was back to normal - dry and peeling - in two days.

Gotta go.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mediterranean Sleeping

I was so tired I could hardly think but I had just landed in Tel Aviv, Israel and knew enough to stay in complete control of myself until at least I hit the curb outside of security. The flight in from Munich was on time and typical of Lufthansa standard but the problem was that I arrived a day later than expected. I was supposed to be coming in from Frankfurt but the delay out of Dallas caused a mad dash through Germany to get to the next available flight to the Holy Land. Instead of landing on Monday it was a Tuesday afternoon when I finally got there.

Thankfully my friends that had left earlier than I stayed abreast of my proceedings and met me with hugs and smiles all around. Welcome to Israel! Ben Gurion International Airport (and air force base) is interestingly placed almost halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The surrounding countryside and indeed throughout the whole of Israel that we would see resembled Southern California scrubland/desert in every way - mild climate, rocks, bush and stucco homes lining hills and overlooking the sea.

Somehow or other they had managed to score a beachfront hotel which was perfectly fine by me. The ocean front of Tel Aviv might as well be Miami Beach in reverse: instead of the open sea to the east it faces to the west. And then it hit me. This was THE Mediterranean Sea stretched out before me. Gibraltar lay in front of me towards the now setting sun some 2300 miles away, nearly the distance of a transcon flight in the United States. Across each of those miles lay over 5000 years of recorded human history, Egyptian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Ottoman, Venetian, Jew and Moor. Ships of reed and wood sailed from nearby Jaffa, the port being mentioned as a conquered city in ancient Egyptian scrolls along with honorable mentions in the Old Testament.

And I was standing on the sands of those shores, jet-lagged like no other but amazed still at finally being in this place, this incredible land of history, mystery and misery. We were like so many other tourists to Israel in not being on the lookout for much of anything in this largest city in the country. Some might sample the nightlife but in Israel there isn't a worldwide reputation for the types of goings on one is guaranteed to find in Rio, Sydney or Miami Beach. We were there for the religious history and had only a few days for the highlights.

Tel Aviv, like any other coastal city on a Tuesday evening, was going about its business, some heading out for the evening, others enjoying a quick bite before home, most already there and getting ready for bed. I chose on this first night to sleep out on the balcony. As someone who snores I didn't want to disturb my friends in their slumber plus the October air was perfect for sleeping al fresco. I don't know if my buzz sawing carried across the other balconies nearby but it truly was a blessed evening and a most welcome rest after a solid 30 hours of travel to get there.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing all the history I was history myself as I fell asleep under the winds and stars of the Eastern Med.

Gotta go.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Loser's Rejoinder

The Cowboys have been thumping the Redskins in some way or other since before their first season in the league. In 1959 Dallas bought the rights to “Hail to the Redskins” as a trump card over Redskins owner George Marshall to get him to vote the new franchise in to existence. All of the other numbers regularly trotted out in friendly and heated debate in the break rooms, tailgate lots and internet chat sites are legend so there is no need in repeating them here. In my opinion it is the catalyst reason behind this great rivalry that needs a bit more examination.

Legendary Coach George Allen came to Washington from San Diego to revive a moribund franchise and immediately set about installing a pervasive and raw hatred for the Cowboys in what I believe is the most damaging fashion of all – The Inferiority Complex. Coach Allen routinely motivated his players by serving up the schoolyard chestnut “They think they’re better than you!” and tossing off such sniffers as “They don’t want to get their precious white uniforms dirty,” or “They don’t play gritty, smash mouth football like we do!”

That kind of pep talk goes a long way in stirring up single-minded passions but it goes so much farther. If something is repeated often enough even though it is an untruth then it becomes the truth to the believer. In this case, the perception of “they THINK they are better” becomes the reality – “they ARE better.” Anywhere today on the streets of Washington , D.C. and Northern Virginia the sense of inferiority comes up at some point in the conversation. Sports journalists in the Washington area routinely decry the “overrated” Dallas Cowboys as a way to shore up confidence in the classic “drag them down to lift us up” strategy.

Ingrained in the hearts and minds of millions of Redkins faithful is the unshakeable, fundamental angst-ridden hatred that says no matter how many times the Redkins actually do beat the Cowboys, win the division, advance in the playoffs or even go to the Superbowl, the Redskins will simply never measure up. The George Allen Inferiority Complex lives on, perpetuating the idea that Dallas is still and will always be the better team.

So here is Coach Allen feeding second class citizen mind games to his own team and, of course, Dallas fans are going right along with it. “Hey, your own coach says you guys aren’t good enough! We won’t argue with him!” The absolute proof came the year after Cowboys beat the Dolphins in Superbowl VI by a score of 24-3 for their first Lombardi Trophy. With “We Want Dallas!” at fever pitch, the Redskins defeated the Cowboys in the next NFC Championship game and went on to face those same Dolphins in the Superbowl.

No one will ever know if the Cowboys might have gone to their third Superbowl in a row and beat Miami again. The Redskins lost and the Perfect Season of 1972 was born. If grudgingly, Dallas will respect a team that talks the talk and walks the walk. Washington spoiled Dallas ’ party then came up empty when it really mattered, 32 years before Philadelphia would go belly up against the Patriots. Hey, nice going!

At a family gathering this Summer an Eagles cousin and a Redskins cousin ganged up on me in a friendly yet still winner-take-all round of trash talking and chest beating. Said the Eagles cousin:

“When was the last time you went to a Superbowl?”
“Four years after him,” I answered calmly, pointing to the Redskins cousin. “And when was the last time you won one?”

Said the Redskins cousin:

“Oh yea," using the classic Loser's Rejoinder, "Well ... when was the last time you won a playoff game?”

“Last year, off of him!”

Gotta go.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

They Were Soldiers

It is over 700 miles from Japan and yet is still today considered a part of Tokyo. Surrounded by the deep Pacific Ocean, from the air it looks like a bone-in pork chop with one of the vertebrae still in at the southern end. That round vertebra is Mt. Suribachi, the extinct volcano that came to symbolize the ultimate sacrifice of thousands of men and women during the island hopping campaign of the Second World War. It was only the fourth day of the fighting in February of 1945 that one of the most iconic photographs of all time was taken, capturing a signature moment pride and entirely by accident.

There had already been one flag raising on the island much to the outrage of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers garrisoned to defend the island and support the airbases there protecting the southern air approaches to Japan. As with all things related to politics and propaganda the first raising was staged and the flag was smaller although certainly no less patriotic. To the men who were there it remains the only raising that really counts.

The second was to raise a larger flag to give to a government bureaucrat observing from the beaches that day so six guys at random were tapped to do the honors. A photographer named Joe Rosenthal who happened to be nearby turned around at the last possible second, saw what was happening and captured the image that almost literally saved the war in the Pacific. By then Americans were grown weary of death and telegrams and war budgets were getting precariously low. Washington brought three of the flag raisers home for a war bond tour - the other three were killed on the island - boosting morale and the national coffers to see the fighting through to the end later that year.

Nine years later the United States Marine Corps War Memorial, more popularly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, was dedicated outside of Washington, D.C. on a hill in Rosslyn, Virginia overlooking capital city. It is a particular favorite place of mine to go and relax, reflect, enjoy the views of the city and consider all things unique to this monument in the annals of American and world history. I simply love being there and took Mom this time as part of a visit to Arlington National Cemetery to pay our respects to Senator Ted Kennedy.

As we walked around the memorial several busloads of tourists arrived shortly after we did. These were not just any tourists. These were actual veterans of World War II, some from the Pacific Theater, and all participating in Honor Flight. This volunteer network is across the country and serves to honor and serve those who served our nation by taking them on tours to the capital to see how their efforts have been acknowledged through the various artworks around the city. Some in their nineties, some in wheelchairs, one guy from Tennessee as chatty as you please and all quite happy to be out and about on a glorious day in D.C. Mom made sure to thank as many as she could personally before they loaded up on the bus and we headed over to see Teddy. He's on the left in the picture below, Bobby on the right.

The country and the world have come a long way from that brutal and blustery day in 1945. For me it is always good to remember and for the veterans who just happened to be there it simply became priceless. No longer merely statues, names etched in marble or photos from other events; each and every one of them for the first time in my life were alive that day. They were soldiers.

Gotta go.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Paris - The Second Day

I'm nine years old one Summer weekend oh so long ago. We were living in Germany and Mom snatched on the idea to take us to Paris for the weekend. By the end of the first day, after not wanting to go at all, Paris was turning out to be pretty cool.

Our visit to the Louvre to see the "Mona Lisa" was unsuccessful but there were other treasures and treasured moments to be had, to be sure. Nine year olds get a delightedly embarrassed kick out of seeing naked statuary and I was no exception. The only problem I had was with the security matron at the top of the stairs.

"Excuse me, please. Where is the 'Winged Victory?'" I asked of her politely. The lady looked at me and answered. A confused look spread across my face. German and heavily accented English I'd heard before but this I was hearing was quite unintelligible to my young ears. I looked at Mom, she looked at me, caught the lady's smiling gaze, then looked back at me to explain.

"She only speaks French." Most times kids simply accept the word of their parents at face value, no questions asked. This was different.

"But she's Black!" Incredulous I was as all the Black people I'd ever met to that point were either friends or relatives.

"You're Black American, she's not. She's Black French and you are the foreigner in her country." My first lesson in world politics and cultural diversity. We found the Greek masterpiece, snapped off a photo and pressed on.

We loved the Metro with its quiet rubber tires and artwork at seemingly every other station. My sisters and I loaded up on "Malabar" bubble gum, then all the rage for its ability to hold its flavor and snapping resilience longer than "Bazooka" ever could. Mom liked the rose windows at Notre Dame. Even if we wanted to, which we didn't, it wasn't in the budget to try wine, champagne, snails or truffles either on purpose or by accident.

The last night in France found us out for an evening of French theater, known then and now for its edgy, more relaxed approach to the human body. All Mom knew was that we had tickets to a show, we kids of course knew even less than that. It was billed as an evening spectacle like no other in the finest of French tastes. Josephine Baker once played this particular venue, the Folies Bergere so that made it good enough.

As much as I didn't want to go to Paris I was sold even less on the thought of live theater. Mom had plenty of reserve persuasion left to keep me cooperative and in to our balcony seats we went, mine with a partially obstructed view. The music wasn't to the taste of pre-teen ears and, of course, what plot or commentary there may or may not have been was in French so for us the evening would be all about the visuals.

Nice visuals. Ball gowns, boas and breasts filled the stage at every turn, huge Ziegfield-like processions down ornate stairs, more buxom-ness hanging from chandeliers and me on the edge of my seat trying to peer around the support column in front of my seat for a better view of the entire stage.

Legend has it that Mom yanked us out of that theater before the show was over. That memory is unclear but I do recall catching no end of grief from my sisters who made much hay out reminding me how I didn't want to go to Paris in the first place, how I didn't want to go to the theater.....oh, shaddup, already!

Gotta go.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Paris - The First Time

"We're going to Paris this weekend," Mom announced one day after I'd gotten home from school. We were living in Germany at the time as a typical military family stationed overseas. To help pass the time and offer intriguing diversions for the wife and kids stuck at "home" far away from home, "AAFES," the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, organized short excursions and weekend getaways around Germany and the rest of Europe. Even for a career military family much that was on offer, while not extended vacations, allowed one and all to see parts of the world that would otherwise be way off the financial radar, especially for the families of the enlisted men and women.

Problem is, I cared precious little about any of that and didn't want to go! I had very important plans that weekend, like any good nine-year old would. I was going to hang out with my friends. Kickball games, hide-and-seek, marbles, one or two good bags of candy and maybe tormenting the younger sister if I could fit it in to the calendar. The argument I knew I would lose continued.

"I want you to see it," she argued. "Send me a post card," I fired back.

My protestations were met with the to be expected resolve of a strong willed mother not afraid to use an open palm to garner cooperation from willful children. Off to Paris we went, the overnight bus taking about 11 hours from Stuttgart to the heart of France. At least my friend Donald showed up on the same trip, he also persuaded by his mother and picked up at the next stop from our place before the long ride.

We loved our hotel room, though I cannot remember where it was. None of us had ever seen a bidet before and logically concluded it was simply a flat urinal while the toilet was only for #2. As compelling as the bathroom was we had only two and a half days to get in as much of the City of Lights as possible, part of a tour group with children in tow. This very trip is how I learned all about "power touring," up at dawn, run-and-click, run-and-click with the camera, eat at restaurants only when the sun went down and back at the hotel for a few hours of sleep no earlier than 11PM.

Into the streets we went where we learned quickly that traffic only watches the traffic lights, not any wayward tourist still trying to cross the road when the light turns green. We marveled at the number of public pay toilets for humans but how no one seemed to worry about the lack of any provisions for their pets. What were those men in lime green uniforms and plastic green brushes doing all day?

I won't say that Mom is afraid of heights but our budget no doubt played in to the decision to only ascend to the second level of the Eiffel Tower. "That's high enough," she would say, an eye on her purse and glad she had the upper hand over us kids. The view was no less spectacular and, we decided as compensation, more realistic because everything appeared its regular size instead of miniaturized from the greater height at the very peak. If we saw anyone kissing we were young enough to run for cover, scream "koodies" and keep going.

This Paris visit wasn't turning out to be that bad!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth

Human character is resilient. It is flexible, almost pliant in the many ways it will bend and stretch in order to accommodate the quirks of a volatile society in general, the demands of the workplace and the nature of friends and loved ones in particular. We as individuals accept bad manners, snubs, slights and all manner of indignities for the sake of keeping the peace or getting the job done. The best in us shines unfalteringly when dealing with human tragedy, from flipping a coin to a homeless person or saving wildlife caught in the crossfire of human progress.

Many are the tales of saving stranded and starving people all across the globe, ordinary citizens we, doing what we can to ease the suffering of others in some connected yet still existential way. Most of the times these events are elsewhere; they are not in our own backyard. More specifically, they do not typically affect us directly.

A friend of mine of some twenty years tried to kill himself two weeks before his next birthday. I have never lost a friend from AIDS. No one in my generation has died suddenly or tragically from an accident, natural disaster, act of war or a calamitous disease. We all are aging gradually and for the most part gracefully, the way things are supposed to happen. The problems of the world have remained outside my door. Had.

I love my friend dearly. This is a friend that fits the sentiment that I would willingly lay down my life to save his. I would take a bullet for him, jump in front of a car for him, face down a snake for him, etc. The problem is those unconditional sentiments are most often meant for circumstances where the friend is under attack or in imminent danger from something else, not his own hand.

The signs were all there and broadcast regularly which is both good and sad. Many challenges piled upon my friend over time to simply create the lowest feeling of despair and hopelessness. Many conversations about everything from the meaning of life to the all in question of why go on trying. Ad nauseum were the same topics discussed to the point of frustration on the part of his friends, myself included. He was telling us he was in great danger of harming himself loud and clear - we were powerless to do anything about it, unable to provide the answers he wanted or the professional care he needed.

Even lengthy professional care was were apparently not enough to prevent this act of abject fear and desperation either. They either had just started to break through to the deepest levels of woe or had hardly scratched the surface. In any event, the science of the human mind is far from perfect and no doubt his clinicians were caught off guard as much as his family and friends. One and all we are all relieved that the attempt failed.

His issues are his to deal with privately as is the method of his attempt. Neither issue is the point or open in this forum for public consumption or debate. My friend is the kind of friend anyone would truly want to have. He is loving, gentle, of faultless character and solid Middle American values. He is quick witted and blessed with mischievous eyes that light up a room already flooded by the infectious laughter of someone having a really good time.

I have traveled with my friend and he is a good companion on the road or overseas. We've been around America and to the ends of the earth, sharing new cultures and almighty belly-laughs together. It's time for me to go to the ends of the earth for my friend.

Gotta go.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ZigZagging The Jetways

Wouldn't it be nice if every the cabin floor of ever airplane was level with the boarding lounge of every airport around the world? You laugh but consider the myriad designs of air terminals across the planet and how each must be able to successfully mate with every aircraft type certified to operate there via stairs or environmentally controlled jetbridges. Now consider how flexible those jetbridges have to be in order to work with aircraft as tall as the upper deck of the A380 all the way down to the ramp scraping low-riders of the regional jets.

Flying back to Dallas on one of American Airlines ubiquitous MD-80s, I'd stayed in my seat for much of the three hour flight and like all others on the plane was relieved to land and pull immediately in to the gate. I needed a restroom and there was luggage to collect but first and most importantly I had to see about the arrival ritual of unfolding the body one limb and lumbar at a time. Like a moth emerging from its chrysalis at 6'4" I need to uncoil while others can simply hop up and grab their carry-on items in one swift motion. I make my way to the boarding door towards the front of the aircraft, say the customary thanks and good-byes to the assembled crew and then step on to the slanted ramp intended to smooth the transition between aircraft and jetbridge.

Fail. The guy in front of me immediately careened to his left as the ramp ended and his right foot hit the bridge rising up and in the opposite direction towards the terminal. It was several steps before he could correct his strides to match the angled ramp despite being cold sober. One after the other this same scenario plays out hundreds of thousands of times each day across the globe with the vast majority of travelers not the least bit intoxicated. After sitting and squirming for hours on end in one unnatural position after the other, to walk an 18-inch wide aisle on a flat surface and then negotiate a sharply angled jetbridge is simply too much for many of us.

And too funny! I haven't gone so far as to make enquiries about the angle degrees some bridges must achieve in order to join up with the attending aircraft. I have been witness to more than a few jetbridges frozen in place for being "out of limits" for one reason or another. The angle was too steep because the aircraft was too close or parked too far away for the bridge to telescope that great of a distance. Either scenario can guarantee at least 15-30 minutes before a local engineer can come and reset the device to be used properly; even then it doesn't save some passengers from teetering precariously as soon as they alight!

The longer the flight the more vulnerable to the phenomenon I am, I must admit. This was only a three hour flight from the East Coast to Dallas so I did fairly ok. Coming off of 15 hours from Australia, though? At least it wasn't on tape!

Gotta go.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Driving Oklahoma

I was heading home on I-44 through southwestern Missouri after an interesting mixture of both sadness and pleasure over the Memorial Day Weekend. The main purpose of the trip was the memorial service in Southern Illinois for my aunt who had been killed in a car accident. At the same time I took advantage of the holiday weekend to do some local touring and also to get reacquainted with that side of the family. Touring and memorial over, it was time to head home.

Long-distance driving and I are nearly synonymous with each other. When I am not actually flying somewhere I'm in my car heading down the road less traveled. Returning home on this day from the Midwest I recalled that US Highway 75 led directly from Tulsa, Oklahoma in to the heart of Dallas, Texas where it is more popularly known as Central Expressway, feeding traffic in to downtown from the northern areas of Plano, McKinney and Allen. Mapquest indicated that this would be the shorter drive versus continuing on the I-44 turnpike to Oklahoma City where I-35 would roll three hours south towards home.

Why not? I had two days off from work after the drive to recover so after one last fill-up in Tulsa, I quickly found the exit for US-75 and turned south towards Dallas. It is always interesting to me on road trips how picking up the last major highway towards the destination reinvigorates the mind and the body, as if signaling the approaching end of a long haul and the nearness of familiar things, family and friends. It also helped that the "Indian Nation Turnpike" stretch between Henryetta and McAlester posted 75 Mile Per Hour speed limits!

I may never take that particular route again.

One reason and two words: small towns. Once off the turnpike and on to US-69/75 it wasn't the small towns themselves that I had a problem with as I enjoy seeing all aspects of the country whenever I travel. It was the absolute set-up for failure represented in the fluctuating speed limits as each new town approached, announcing for all who know better than some of America's finest are out on patrol. One town after another, with the speed limit dropping from 70 to 60 to 50 to 40 before a stop light signaled the center of town, only for the speed limit to crawl back up to 70 barely a mile beyond the intersection.

The break in speed was aggravating but cops lined up on the side of the road as if they working lemonade stands was what did it for me. And I didn't get caught once. Not only did I know what to look for but actually saw it in all the cars around me with local tags towing the line to the tune of 3-5 miles below the posted limit. That said enough about how things are in these here parts. The drive was smooth and uneventful and the scenery, especially as I rolled through during sunset, was spectacular. Oklahoma is a beautiful state only I was ten hours in to a nearly 13-hour haul and, with daylight waning, I was wanting to get home.

Next time, unless I'm going to Henryetta, Oklahoma on purpose, I'm just gonna stick to the interstates.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Flying China Eastern

We were part of a global team charged with deploying newly developed software that would bring our accounting system out of the dark ages. My employer at the time had still been using SAS-based programming, touchy to use, stubborn to update and late to the tune of 30 days on a good day after the measuring period for any "realtime" results. We were sent out in to the world to convert and work with the local teams to help them with the change process and make sure we didn't lose our internal support reputations along with a single penny's worth of revenue in our hardscrabble industry.

My tour this time started in Shanghai and would include some time in Beijing before heading home with the summary of my exploratory visit. My visits to both of those world class cities will come in later stories. Living in Chicago I flew United Airlines in and out of China but the chariot of choice between the country's two largest cities would be China Eastern Airlines.

I'd flown domestic services on in Japan, long a customer of Western built aircraft but this would definitely be a first. This was a major Chinese carrier operating a service entirely within Mainland China and using the then relatively new Airbus A340 aircraft. The government remains Communist but the Soviet-built fleet was long gone by then in favor of the most cutting edge technology any frontline western airline would have.

Air China had been flying all over the world for years but as the state carrier, even with Boeing equipment, this outfit had never had a reputation for service that would make the likes of Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific nervous. A state run airline for a communist country? Was the manual written in Russian and then translated?

No, this was a brand new outfit, carved from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the old "CAAC" AT&T-style, told to go out and make its own way along with sibling airlines like China Southern, China Northern, China Northwest and China Southwest. Heck, where was "China Continental" or "China Braniff" in all of this? Big Brother might help buy some planes but the service model and business plan were straight out of Wall Street: "You're on your own."

The one way ticket came in at $135 for a service taking two and a half hours to complete. Check-in at the spanking new Pudong International Airport was smooth with plenty of smiles and, since it was a domestic flight, security screening was like anywhere else in the world before September 11th, swift but perfunctory.

In the United States where wide body aircraft are reserved for transcons and flights to Hawaii, Asian countries seemingly know only the heaviest and widest metal in the air. This aircraft normally flies long-haul flights averaging 10 hours in duration. For China Eastern today it was configured in three cabins for 287 people for a flight going no farther up the coast than Miami to Baltimore. Didn't bother me, though, as I had to stop grinning like a fool lest the authorities start to wonder what I was so giddy about.

Boarding in heavily accented English was announced and took very little time to complete, such is the nature of an orderly culture accustomed to taking directions en masse. I found my window seat ahead of the wing, noticed with pleasure the lace doily headrest on each seat and the fresh cut flowers lending fragrance and beauty to the surroundings.
The service was very nice, indeed. We lifted off on time, there was a visually attractive and tasty light meal offered, the flight attendants spoke sufficient English and served with a smile and a nod which doesn't take as much room as a full bow on an airplane. The plane was clean, well maintained, smooth and quiet in the air as most Airbus equipment tends to be. I don't remember the touchdown which means it wasn't sudden and rough. I never for a moment felt as if I had been playing with my life in choosing this airline.

Last I checked Air China still has a long way to go to match the onboard product of its younger siblings. China Southern and China Eastern proudly carry the national brand and, at least in economy, offer just as good an experience as the Cathays and Singapores of the world.

Would I fly them again? The next time I am in China, yes. Or as soon as they join the oneworld alliance, whichever comes first.

Gotta go.