Monday, February 28, 2011

Plane Spotting under Clear Skies in California

The most elusive commodity in the City of Angels is the very sunshine Los Angeles builds its reputation around. Smog, fog and haze generally rule the air above the city where landing at Los Angeles International Airport in a brown swirl is as routine as the traffic on The 405 just to the east of the field. I lived there in the mid-90s and well remember one day to the next when the sun seemed only to come out at dusk and then just in time to set on the Pacific horizon. The temperature was always as advertised, along with the weather itself, rarely ever a rainy day but the skies above were best viewed after take-off heading back to wherever the disappointed tourist came from.

One Sunday afternoon last December was a day right out of central casting. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the weather was a comfortable 75 degrees. This is the kind of day the travel brochures boast of and the realtors use to lure unsuspecting citizens in to god awfully pricey real estate. For me I couldn't have dialed up a better day for one of my favorite activities of all time, plane watching.
I'd already been to the beach and captured some glorious sunsets the Friday before, including this one. Saturday was the day for one of the ultimate music fan pilgrimages, a trip to Neverland Ranch to see what I could see of the former home of the late Michael Jackson. Today was a day, relatively speaking, to relax by the side of one of the greatest international airports in the world and watch airplanes from the four corners come and go under text book California sunshine.

"Funeral Hill" on the south side of the airport is in El Segundo just along the surface road that marks the beginning of The 105 freeway running east towards Norwalk. It got this colloquial name due to the Douglas Funeral Home that sits across the road at the top of the hill that offers unfettered views of the entire southern half of LAX. The skies were clear enough to see the "Hollywood" sign and all of downtown while laid out before me were the international gates as well as the terminals for American, Delta, Continental and United.

It was early afternoon and I had largely missed what is known as the "Asian Invasion" when the major Pacific Rim carriers launch for Korea, Japan and China. Air New Zealand and V-Australia were cooling their heels on the west side remote stands waiting to start the journey south long after dark and long after I will have left for the day. I did see China Airlines head in to the sun bound for Taiwan but the real show for me was to be the similar exhibition of European airlines headed east for all the usual places. British Airways and Lufthansa were in plain sight and would surely lift off before the sun set.

Ever since I was a child, so my parents tell me, I always wanted to know "where dat one going?" whenever they took me on an outing to the airport. I've been in love with airplanes ever since. Seeing a recognizable international flag carrier launching in to the sky lifts my spirit and imagination.

I know where dat one is going and I wish I was on it!

Gotta go!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Never to Neverland

In the United States there are five main houses that pretty much everyone knows by name and location: The White House, the Biltmore, Graceland, Southfork and the exquisite Hearst Castle. Then there is Neverland Ranch. It is not famous at all for the main house which was hardly more than a typical ranch home like others in the area and rarely seen. Neverland Ranch, the former home of the late Michael Jackson, was more about the collection of trains, rides, animals and other amusements strewn throughout the grounds to entertain Michael and the long list of famous and underprivileged visitors.

The infamous man-child entertainer had passed away some 18 months ago and hadn't lived on the property since 2005 after the fallout of the second child molestation case brought against him. The place was overrun immediately following the death of the superstar and there have been few serious efforts to sell the place since. It stood alone, quietly to itself among the other ranches and wineries in the area just north of Los Olivos one beautiful Saturday afternoon, the day I chose to finally go and see it for myself.

Leaving the hotel where I was staying on business in Woodland Hills the drive seemed no less shorter for starting in the San Fernando Valley. Heading west on US-101 I joined California #154 for the drive over the mountains in to the Santa Ynez valley about 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara. In this same area is the Dutch tourism village of Solvang but my radar was locked in on finding Figueroa Mountain Road leading to the mountain range on the north side of the valley. Five miles up and on the left was #5225, the former home of Michael Jackson, Neverland Ranch.

The gate was all anyone today can see. What must it have been like when Michael lived here, groupies at the gates hoping for a glimpse as the motorcade sailed past? The gilded lettering announcing "Neverland Ranch" is gone. All of the floral arrangements from mourners were gone but much of the small graffiti left on the low walls around the gate remained. I parked in a small bare patch on the opposite side of the road that clearly had seen much use and thankfully noted two other cars parked farther down - at least I wouldn't be the only fan making a pilgrimage. I shouldn't have worried. The seen-it-all guards at the security house on the other side of the gate never came outside to see what was going on.

I took pictures from every angle, through the bars, off to the side, up a slight hill and as deeply in to the grounds as my zoom lens would let me go as it followed the winding road about a mile in before the road disappeared to the left around a small hill towards the main areas. I read some of the graffiti from well wishers that had traveled from as far afield as Australia, Japan, and Italy to pay and leave their respects. In September Nancy from Germany wrote on this rock "You were the greatest entertainer of all time. I will always keep you in my heart. I will never forget you."

A young couple from Chicago drove up soon after I did and we took each other's picture by the gate. Most stunning of all, a family stopped by in a minivan and helped the elderly grandmother walk to the gate first, cane in one hand, determination on her face.

The security guards came out to talk to her but the gate remained closed. There is really nothing to see except, as if visiting some ancient ruin, where things used to be. The house is empty, the rides and animals long gone. All of it in fact, and Michael, too, is gone too soon.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Clearing My Mind at Carhenge

Nebraska is big. It's not quite the size of Montana, Texas or Alaska but it is certainly no slouch in the wide open spaces department. Most people not from the area tend to think of Omaha or the state capital, Lincoln where the Cornhusker Nation lives and breathes. I had never been to the state before and this day found myself in the far northwestern corner rolling south in my buggy on US Highway 385 through Chadron. The Black Hills of South Dakota were behind me as was my visit to both Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument near Keystone with my next destination a solid ten hours of driving in front of me, Lubbock, Texas. HIghway 385 would take me straight to Amarillo and from there the rest of the way in on I-27 to the home of Buddy Holly.

The four presidents of Mt. Rushmore gave me inspiration during this toughest period of my life, having recently been furloughed shortly after the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001. Crazy Horse showed me the truest face of resolve and personal sacrifice against impossible odds. Before that I found reason to look to the heavens for guidance after spending a day at the Devil's Tower National Monument. Well, truth be told I was looking more to see if the Mother Ship from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" had actually been there or might one day actually pay a visit. After all that existential and spiritual musing the great plains of Western Nebraska worked their own special magic in helping me clear my mind for the drive ahead as well as the next round of ethereal events.

Neither prairie dog or buffalo made an appearance but I honestly felt it would have spoiled the truly unspoiled landscape all around me. If I had seen buffalo I would have wanted to see Kevin Costner and a tribe of Lakota Sioux pounding over the hills, guns, bows and arrows blazing and zinging through the air. The sky was royal blue, the long grass 24 karat gold and the air scented just slightly with natural pixie dust. There wasn't a soul around in the middle of the United States of America, something both rare to experience and worth every minute of preserving. When it did come, civilization came back in to focus in probably the quirkiest manner I'd yet come across.

Alliance, Nebraska is like any farming town, a gathering place for locals to do business when not tending the hundreds of square miles of the immediate area. Others in the area are either pure-dee-lost or on their way somewhere else, most likely Mt. Rushmore where I'd just come from. One farmer in the area like any typical farmer had a lot of junk cars and trucks on his property with no real purpose other than to rust back in to the ground and re-enrich the soil. Unlike any other farmer in the country, though, he drew inspiration from a famous international landmark in England and decided to recreate it as closely as possible with his collection of clunkers.

"Carhenge," just like the original Stonehenge, this one sits on the side of a two-lane road with little in the way of facilities or parking except this one is free of charge. Since I was the only one there none of those issues were a problem. I didn't have a lot of time to explore the homemade exhibit and there was zilch in the way of informational plaques and markers. Still, it was there, I felt quite confident I wouldn't be back anytime soon and it helped break up the long drive to Texas.

Mind cleared, somewhat, it was time to move on.

Gotta go.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Yards and Gardens

I was having dinner with a friend of mine recently, the occasion being to introduce him to a special "person of interest" in my life. Yes, at the time we were at that Meeting-The-Friends stage but trying not to be too goopy in public. My friend travels regularly to Texas from his home in England and we were enjoying a beautiful al fresco meal and trading fun stories about how everyone met for the first time and most particularly my taking Mr. Brit around Northern Texas on various tours of the area.

One such story involved house-hunting which I am wickedly famous for doing to out-of-towners. I do admit to a devilish joy in seeing their faces at the amount of housing one can buy in this part of the country compared to just about anywhere else they happen to hail from, especially if they're coming from overseas. For the Englishman his tour began with a simple "3-2" starter home of about 1600 square feet. He immediately went "bonkers" over the amount of space for the price compared to his own digs back home to which I simply warned him that we hadn't even gotten good and warmed up. By the end of the day he went "spare" as they like to say over a 6,000 square foot wedding cake of a house a third larger than the Southfork home less than a mile away and featuring a marble entry and two arched stair cases to the upper floor.

We all laughed as we enjoyed the comparisons between "flats," terrace houses and the different terms for a "single-family" home here in the United States, known as a "Fully Detached" house over there.

"But why," he began the next linguistic challenge, "do you insist on calling a garden a yard?"

"Why do you insist on calling a yard a garden?" We went right back at him. Because, he explained, it has flowers and vegetables and grass. A-haaaaa! In the United States a garden is ONLY for flowers or vegetables. There's never any grass in the garden, the grass is out in the yard unless it's a formal garden which usually comes with a "lawn." We did go in to how some people will make the distinction between the front lawn and the back yard but we didn't get in to the jargon change between raking the yard and mowing the lawn no matter which side of the house it's on.

We learned that evening that in the UK a "yard" is a concrete or brick paved space surrounded by high walls, a courtyard perhaps. My soon to be significant other and I looked at each other and cringed an "Ew" together before we all laughed out loud again in accepting camaraderie. In the case of the New Scotland Yard the yard is actually the headquarters building of the London Metropolitan Police and even then legend has that it was named after the street it was on in Whitehall!

We weren't going to solve that distinction or dive in to the etymological history of how one became the other. That wasn't the point, really. Sir U of the K decided that he was pleased with my choice in potential mates and we went on to finish the evening over a rousing conversation of favorite places to travel.

Thoughts of a British vacation popped immediately in to mind.

Gotta go.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Where My Dead Lie Buried

The great history of America is shadowed by some seriously questionable ways in which the westward expansion took place. Land was bought at bargain prices from the French, Russians and Mexicans while the rest was acquired through wars with colonial and native powers, the latter of whom were moved off of prime ancestral real estate and cheated out of the rest through treaties seldom honored and thus hardly worth the paper they were written on. One of those instances is the Treaty of Ft. Laramie.

Actually there were two treaties by that name. The first one in 1851 identified certain lands as sovereign to the Native American nation tribes between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers that also provided safe passage for settlers on the Oregon Trail in exchange for both sovereignty and compensation. The feds never paid and never stopped settlers during the Gold Rush from staking claims in sovereign territory. The second treaty of 1868 was something different indeed.

This time the US Government was negotiating with the Lakota, Dakota and Arapaho Nations of the northern plains centered around Wyoming Territory. In order to end a two-year war in the area the second Treaty of Laramie was drawn up closing the Powder River Country to settlers and offer the locals financial and farming assistance. More claim jumping in Lakota territory by gold prospectors led to more and ever escalating fighting until the feds simply took all of the Black Hills in 1877.

Not long after this work began on Mt. Rushmore, still seen today by some as an insult to the Native Americans whose land this once was. The mountain itself was known as the "Six Grandfathers" until someone decided it should be named after a lawyer from New York. It didn't help matters upon discovery that the chief sculptor had been linked to the Ku Klux Klan. Four white presidents of the United States of America, two with military service and the other two managing wartime administrations carved in stone in the heart of "Indian" territory. Enter the Crazy Horse Monument, next stop on my post-furlough journey after Mt. Rushmore during the Fall of 2001.

Chief Standing Bear went to a sculptor that had worked on Mt. Rushmore and said "We have heroes, too." Crazy Horse was proactive in preserving the Lakota Sioux lifestyle, to put it mildly. He led a war party at the Battle of Little Bighorn among other notable skirmishes with both traditional Lakota enemies among the Plains Tribes and with US settlers and servicemen around Ft. Phil Kearny, Wyoming before dying mysteriously in US custody at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska in 1877. His legacy among Native Americans ranks with any powerful freedom fighter in US history.

Work started in 1948 and has been ongoing ever since, most notably in refusing each and every offer of federal and state assistance to complete the massive carving. The four heads of Mt. Rushmore will supposedly fit under the arm of Crazy Horse, such are the dimensions of this centerpiece to a cultural center aimed at educating all comers on the combined true story of the Native North Americans. At the tip of his finger is the chalked eye of the horse still to be blast-sculpted from the native rock. Although Native Americans of the time considered it rude to point, Crazy Horse is gesturing expansively across the Black Hills in answer to the question of where his lands were.

"Where my dead lie buried" was his response. His own grave remains a mystery to this day.

In a courtyard is a miniature of the completed sculpture. When looking past this statue to the real thing it is both easy and incomprehensible to get a true sense of scale, particularly since only the face is truly completed after 60+ years. Strangely, I felt a mix of awe and sadness in viewing the piece. Not only was there a countering cultural need for the work but also in the ironic sense that no matter the size and importance it would still be "the 2nd/other monument" in the area behind the four (white) presidents.

Is this "mission accomplished?" Mine wasn't.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Demigods of Democracy

There are few monuments in the world like Mt. Rushmore. Not simply because it is a clearly American monument but because it is three-dimensional, as if the four presidents depicted here were standing on as much as being a part of the mountain itself. Some will argue that the Crazy Horse monument less than 20 miles away is larger, more appropriate to the setting and other such arguments but Mt. Rushmore at least was a first of its kind, drawing some two million inspired visitors to almost the middle of nowhere each year.

It is truly in the middle of nowhere and not at all easy to get to considering the state of airport security along with minimal air service to the region served via Rapid City, South Dakota. Most people through here are caravanning along the I-80 corridor as part of a larger vacation to include Yellowstone most likely or the airy highlands of Montana and Idaho. Mt. Rushmore appears rarely to be a destination in itself and this was even true of me. I had just left Denver the day before, driven seven hours through Wyoming to see the Devil's Tower National Monument and a final two hours to Rapid City late that evening to set myself up for a half day at both Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. From there my goal was to reach Lubbock, Texas before Midnight so there was little time to spend wandering aimlessly in the area.

Heading south out of Rapid City on US Highway 16 I pretty much just followed the road signs to Keystone, South Dakota and the monument, finally reaching it about an hour later on State Road #244, approaching the sculpture from the northeast. Anticipation built with every foot of elevation gained as the monument came in to view. There were several stops on the road leading up to the major parking area in front of the sculpture. I did not have a camcorder at the time so still shots as I got closer and closer had to capture the moment. I couldn't take my own picture, either, so thus began the tradition of the "Buggy Cam" to indicate that I had indeed visited this centerpiece of national history.

Gutzon Borglum was commissioned to create the piece on a mountain previously known by the Lakota Sioux as the "Six Grandfathers" on land captured by the federal government following several military campaigns in the area ending with the still hot button Treaty of Fort Laramie. As part of the history of the time for some reason the mountain was later renamed after a prominent New York lawyer giving it the name recognized today. Borglum took inspiration from his work in helping to create the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia and began work in 1927.

The no-brainer choice, of course was Washington but Federal policy came in to play in choosing the four busts to be carved with President Coolidge insisting on an equal mix of Republicans and Democrats, all of whom played a major role in creating, preserving and expanding the country. In order of completion Washington was first, followed by Jefferson then Lincoln and lastly, in 1939, Teddy Roosevelt.

It was one of those moments from childhood when first learning of the monument but never consciously expecting to visit the place, I felt an incredible sense of peace, satisfaction and longing all at once. Few people are born infused with their destiny, it usually unfolds before them through divine inspiration or the happenstance - good or bad - of place. I had just been furloughed from a lifelong dream career; I had no idea what was coming next. In some small way these four national heroes, demigods of democracy looked down at me and seemed to say have faith in the self and the country. You each have served the other well and will do again.

Gotta go.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Future Over the Horizon

This was a cross-country journey of purging. Like the rest of the country that did not die on September 11th certainly had life as previously known destroyed or at least irrevocably altered. I knew when the 2nd tower fell that my career was over and was furloughed as expected along with 20,000 other employees a little over a month later. After almost 20 years in the business I knew it would not recover anytime soon. The ones left behind to pick up the pieces and move on would surely be a wounded and entrenched set of dog-eat-dog survivors, grizzled veterans suffering drastically reduced salaries and benefits, clawing at each other in a world of infighting to simply stay afloat much less get ahead.

I packed up my life, moved in with family and then set out across the country to clear my mind, to push "reset" and figure out what I wanted to do next with the rest of my life. I had no desire to return to my previous industry; I had in fact been wanting to leave for years but the money was finally good and the personal rewards meaningful. As sometimes happen the push it takes to cause significant change is more traumatic than if it had been deliberately planned. Nobody saw September 11th coming but it was definitely all the impetus I needed to break the inertia and move on in a different direction.

The only question was where? A tank of gas and a pocket full of severance money to sustain me and I simply headed west. I did have a plan, though, for this trip and that was to see friends in Oklahoma and Texas then head in to the Rockies to explore parts of the country I'd never seen before and likely would not have an open-ended opportunity to visit again. I truly believed there was little reason to begin an immediate search for work in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Vestiges of the hiring practices used ten years ago remain in place today where professional employment required virtually an exact match to garner even one interview so short of unskilled labor I felt I had some time to rediscover myself and America.

The early versions of internet chat circa late 2001 allowed me to keep in touch with friends around the country while I traveled and managed to set up some windows of time when I might be in there part of the country for a visit or particular event. On this trip in addition to the Southwest and the Rockies I would ultimately end up in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia before winding up back in Baltimore where the rebuilding would begin. On this journey the scenery would range from the Rockies and the Badlands through the Texas Panhandle to the Louisiana Bayous, Central and Coastal Florida to see a shuttle launch and up through Civil War Georgia, North Carolina and finally Appomattox, Virginia.

Old friends, new friends and family along the way helped keep me sane and social and the scenery was fantastic, too, but really, truly, I needed time to find out who I was, what I had to offer and where it might fit in the new United States, a country few had any idea what it would be or look like. I had a boatload of skills and experience that my old industry no longer wanted and I wasn't sure about anyone else at the time or if those skills were even transferrable.
The only thing I knew for sure was that the tank was full, the car running smoothly and both the horizon and the future lay in front of me. Time to see what was out there.

Gotta go.

Friday, February 11, 2011

To Declare or Not to Declare

I simply cannot be the first person to ever plan the coming year's vacation plans or major purchases around whatever refund is due from the IRS. Retailers all lie in wait between early February and late April for those unsuspecting souls wandering around with thousands of dollars in loose change just itching to be put towards a new car, television or cruise to Mexico. Those with more frugal goals in mind line up all that plastic aching for paying and cut huge debts piled up from the year or years before. The blessing in disguise is that many of us enjoy, nee rely upon these early year windfalls thanks to tax breaks and deductions.

I don't own my own business or home or have children so my deductions are not worth calculating. I have the single man's curse when it comes to tax filing but here comes the advice of some friends of mine who have what they call the "Sane Man's" strategy when it comes to taxes. Stop giving money to the government, they shout! What fool gives away money interest free in the hopes one day of getting at least some of it back?

Me. Once upon a time I filed having claimed three dependents in my household and paid dearly for it come April. My stomach fell through my shoes when I completed my return in January and saw how much money I had to come up with by mid-April. Then I changed my filing status to just one person, myself, and made it through fairly clean but still up and down from one year to the next depending on who was in the White House and who was rewriting the income tax code. Some years I owed, others I managed to get a refund of a few shillings. Tiring of this unpredictability I decided simply to file zero dependents and hope for the best.

Hope for the best?? Some of you are no doubt rolling your eyes but here is my thought process in a nutshell - I get a refund, and a respectable one at that. I overpay each pay period betting on the good odds of getting something back so long as the Feds don't do anything monumentally crazy. My friends still needed convincing so I ran them through a typical month of pay and suffering.

Let's say a refund for a single man like me comes in at $2400. That's exactly $200 per month over the 12 months of the tax filing year. Yes $200 more each month can be put to good use but the likelihood is very strong that that same $200 would have gone to something frivolous, forgotten nearly as quickly as it was spent on things like higher quality restaurants, movies, concert tickets, new clothes, the "comforts" of life that make things bearable from one pay period to the next. Come April that money is gone, there is no refund and quite possibly there is an amount due.

Maybe a few outstanding bills got paid with that $200 each month, maybe the car repair that was seriously threatening the ability to get to work was finally taken care of. Certainly not everyone tries to live the highest possible life on an extra $200 each month? Maybe, maybe not. Even in this economy most of us would simply have sighed with relief that we wouldn't have to go without Starbucks or that we'd be able to pay our smart phone bill.

The best single thing about my strategy is that it gives me something to look forward to, the possibility of a tax refund. I've done stupid things with my refund, same as anyone else. I've done smart things, too, like paying off bills. This year.....I won't tell!
Gotta go.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Something Unique - Paris

There is no such thing as a forgettable trip to Paris. From the novice overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the experience through to the jaded regular who probably maintains an apartment in the 7th arrondissement all have their reasons to love, hate or tolerate the city. All are in agreement that, rich or poor, cynical or optimistic, traveling to Paris is never anything less than a big deal.

I used to enjoy wrapping up a trip to Paris by shopping for one thing the French create like no other culture in the world: toiletries. Just like the endless selection of French wines, cognacs and champagnes there is an equally bottomless supply of authentic "French milled" soaps, cosmetics, perfumes and colognes. Shelves overloaded with exotic sounding names, brands and fragrances stretch through entire departments at major stores such as La Samaritaine just along the Seine and directly across the Pont Neuf Bridge from the island of Il St. Louis.

The current building has stood since 1933 although the company itself first opened in 1869. Not simply a retail department store with a killer location, Samaritaine is also famous for its the rooftop cafe that every local knew offered views of the city few tourists knew about. Through eleven floors was the kind of luxury merchandise taken for granted by Parisians and coveted by every once-in-a-lifetime tourist in town.

Another retailer that used to be elusive in the United States but is now seen just about everywhere is Sephora. The flagship store on the Champs Elysees when it first opened was simply a must stop of the kind that had to be seen to be believed. It was never a "big box" retailer in size. Sephora drew part of its fame from the number and variety of fragrances for men down one side actually matched the number and variety of fragrances for women on the other side of the store. The real treat was seeing all manner of new and established products not available back home.

The ultimate highlight of the store for me was the central area that held dozens upon dozens of bottles and vials of pure oils, elixirs and essences of everything on the planet that had a beautiful smell. The idea was, if it were possible to not find something you liked from one of the major brands then you could design your own fragrance from the selection of goodies on hand. Right alongside the essence of virtually every flower known to man was every fragrant wood, citrus fruit and aromatic grass you could think of; men were not overlooked in the effort to find something unique for the unique individual at Sephora.

It's been a while since I've been in Paris. Samaritaine is closed but supposed to reopen this year. I'm told that Sephora no longer offers the create your own fragrance station. Certainly their exclusive cache has become as common as a suburban mall, too, sadly, going so far as to partner up with JC Penney! One thing I found, though, that neither Samaritaine or Sephora ever carried is a very unique cologne indeed. A friend discovered it in Amsterdam but it is tied to a major jewel house in Paris by way of Russia. It is only available at their store in Paris that I have found along with one retailer in Hong Kong. I've seen ads for it on offer through Amazon but please. Seriously?

No store I have ever gone to has the slightest idea what I'm talking about and, though it is challenging to keep the cologne in stock, I like it a lot that few other people have the slightest idea how good it is and what they're missing! Find it if you can!

Gotta go.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Working the Line - An Airline Career's Meaning

My friend was so excited about the recent profitability of a prospective employer that he could hardly contain himself. His long and painful search for work was heading into its ninth month following a sudden furlough and here at last was a tiny glimmer of light at the end of the aviation tunnel. He worked in the travel industry and had for the past 25 or so years. Despite several conversations to steer him in to a more sustainable profession at least during this most recent ten years of turmoil he resolutely believes there is a future, his future, in the air.

Few industries or professions offer the rewards of the travel industry or the airlines in particular. Hotel workers get free nights but typically only the management staff can afford the airfare to get to the better properties around the country. I would not necessarily imagine too many front desk agents having the ability to take time off in Tahiti at the St. Regis. Airline employees, however, get the kind of perk the rest of the world can only dream of: free or significantly reduced air travel to just about any place on the planet with a runway.

Except places like Tahiti just about every destination on the planet has a full spread of hotels from no star to five star accommodations. That means that anyone from the chief executive to the guy driving the lavatory service vehicle can hop on a plane to Paris or Australia for little more than the cost of a weekend at home. On top of that, the hotels and cruise lines who depend on the airlines to bring customers to their properties and party ships offer attractive discounts as well.

That's a lot to no longer be a part of; more rewarding, however, is the work itself. To be a part of a larger thing that links people, places and products together all across the planet is to surely find great personal satisfaction in each day at the office, be that office a cube at headquarters, the cockpit of an airplane or operations control, the very nerve center of the whale. There is a realistic sense of connectivity to every flight, be it Chicago to Omaha or Los Angeles to London.

This type of work can be defining, even all consuming. Sadly, several hundred thousand employees have lost their jobs in this industry since September 11th. As glamorous as the airline game may be it suffers the boom and bust of every economic cycle like few other industries in existence. Where once it was unthinkable for major airlines to fold, Braniff went first in 1982 followed by Eastern in 1989 and Pan Am in 1991 with nearly every major carrier since then either in and out of bankruptcy or swallowed whole by one of its less wounded peers.

Airline workers in general have been held to flat or reduced incomes for nearly a decade in a business that collectively has lost money since the Wright brothers yet still they soldier on. There are few other jobs out there and certainly none like those related to air travel. Jet fuel runs in the veins, though, and my friend, like so many of his airline brothers and sisters, believes to his core that air travel is too essential to the world we live in and that good times - and hopefully good salaries - will return.

With flight benefits suddenly the niece's 8th birthday back home doesn't have to be missed, the sorority reunion an affordable given and a visit to the home country of the foreign exchange student a no-brainer! With all things being equal wouldn't you like to do the same job you have now, conference calls and all, only for a major airline with the chance at getting away anywhere in the world just about any time you wanted?

Gotta go!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Enigmatic Egypt

I remember the day Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. A complicated man to say the least, his nationalist fervor swung both east and west on the world stage in a lifelong effort to preserve Egypt for Egyptians. Reaching back as far as World War II he was arrested for collaborating with the Axis powers in an effort to rid Egypt from British occupation. In the early 1950s he participated in ousting the last "pharaoh" of Egypt, King Farouk I. As only the third president of Egypt, on October 6, 1973 he launched the Yom Kippur War against Israel in a failed attempt to reclaim the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, lost six years previously. Four years later he famously shook the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the White House Lawn with Jimmy Carter who helped broker what stands today as the only true peace accord within the Middle East.

Sadat paid with his life for his beliefs on October 6, 1981, in cold blood and in broad daylight while on the viewing stand marking the anniversary of taking the Suez Canal at the start of that last war. Fundamentalists in the military succeeded in killing Sadat and wounding his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, who was at his side and succeeded him that same day. It is almost exactly 30 years after that sad moment in world history and I am all the more saddened that Egypt appears to have come full circle in crisis.

From my earliest childhood I have been fascinated with the ancient civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. I made it to Greece in 1989 and followed in 1994 to both Israel and Egypt in what to me was nothing short of a spiritual and cultural homecoming. Those who have traveled to Egypt share that chill of awe and excitement even in the Egyptian heat upon seeing the Great Pyramid. There have been very few emotionally overwhelming moments in all of my travels as standing next to the gold funeral mask of King Tutankhamen at the Cairo Museum. Desperate poverty was on display throughout the dusty environs of Cairo but my companions and I traveled freely and unimpeded during our three days in the Egyptian capital. We were profitable marks for merchants instead of political adversaries of the people.

It is sad to witness the events unfolding in Egypt, an incalculably important cultural center for the world. It is not hard to understand the aversion to bored and spoiled holidaymakers bronzing on the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh putting everything in to their tans, little in to their manners or appreciation of the history and culture all around them even less in the way of money money in to the hands of the locals. At the same time I must consider the one trip to this remarkable land to possibly be once in a lifetime where there remains so much that has been discovered left for me to discover much less what remains buried in the sands for future generations to enjoy. I have waited my lifetime thus far to visit the wonders of the Assyrians (Syria), the palaces of the Persians (Iran) and all that lies within the Fertile Crescent through the heart of present-day Iraq. Will the current events of Egypt close this country to the world and add it to the list of "Maybe someday" destinations?

Tombs have been robbed since ancient times. The relics being destroyed today are robbing us all of what is good and glorious in the land of the Nile. For a soldier who fought the good fight, according to some, I wish Anwar Sadat could rest in peace. Sadly, I feel he would easily and eerily recognize his country as it stands now if he were alive today.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ice Ice Dallas

The last Sunday in January and I'm enjoying an afternoon in the pool with friends feeling very good about the "winters" in North Texas. I'd called to gently needle my family back in Maryland who were enduring yet another full white-out set of conditions. Some had temporarily lost power while the kids were enjoying the usual delayed openings at school. The Dallas area was enjoying a weekend with temperatures in the seventies and almost no winds.

How things change and quickly. It's Tuesday morning. All Monday night was the sound of gentle rain pattering against my window only with the soft click of tiny pieces of ice as if in a frozen sandstorm. Freezing rain and sleet purred and tinkled us to sleep across the area to wake up in the morning in a solid white wonderland coated in ice. The roads are covered, the medians full of spun out cars, the airports and schools are closed and I'm sitting at home with warnings from both local authorities and my employer not to venture out unless absolutely necessary.
Why move to or live in Dallas if Ol' Man Winter is only going to follow you down from up north?

The freaky thing about this storm is that it appears to have actually started here and stretched in a line over 2100 miles long in to New England. "Desert" states like Texas and Oklahoma are in various states of emergency with the real fun being that such states typically do not have the storm equipment or budget to deal with these so-called eventualities. Texas is infamous for using finely powdered sand to provide traction on the streets instead of salt. They say it preserves the roads where salt supposedly eats away at the asphalt. To me it has never been the salt but the snow removal trucks that routinely gouge canyons in the concrete; the roads in Dallas are about as bad as anywhere else in the country, sun or snow.

Highway architecture around here calls for soaring flyovers, some more than 150 feet above the ground at exchanges with names like "The High Five," the interchange between I-635 and US-75. There are several of these gorgeously elevated high-speed overpasses around Dallas and Ft. Worth and they are all closed. Motorists across the area that do manage or have to make it to work are left clogging surface arteries to find routes with the fewest bridges to get where they're going. Nobody wants to get stranded at the crest of a flyover but worse is the thought of crashing through one of the things - it is a very long way down.

The last time I looked out the window I went to clear some of the condensation for a better view and discovered that it was frozen - on the inside! I don't run the heat during the day when I'm at work - no kids, pets or plants to worry about so why pay the bill? I sit here in the cold now with a pair of sweats and thick socks with that same mindset...why pay the bill? My joints aren't stiff, I am not taking blood thinners and it is not completely uncomfortable yet so I should be able to stand it for a few hours out of one day in the winter season which, on the 1st day of February is pretty much almost over.

For Texas, anyway.

Gotta go!