Friday, April 29, 2011

Appomattox, Look Away

On the way to Appomattox General Lee's forces were engaged once again by Major General Philip Sheridan at Sayler's Creek who had deviled him previously at the Battle of Five Forks. Lee was racing to Appomattox to catch up with a supply train after abandoning Richmond and Petersburg a few days earlier. This action along with a delay at Amelia Court House hoping to be resupplied there gave the Union time enough to reach the supply train ahead of Lee and lie in wait for his arrival. It was April of 1865.

For me it was December of 2011 and I was winding up a lengthy tour of the United States immediately after the attacks on September 11th in an attempt to determine what the next phase of my life would be. I knew I would not go back to the industry that had just cast me aside but after over two decades in the field I needed to figure out what transferable skills I had and where they might fit in to the new United States labor market. And who knew what that market was going to look like? How fitting to wind up at Appomattox Court House where the United States may have been preserved but it was surely quite different from the nation it had been or set out to be.

General Lee was in the last desperate throws of trying to preserve the Confederate States of America, he of West Point vintage but Virginia birth and loyalty. After a ten month siege at Petersburg he had been forced to abandon his erstwhile capital at Richmond and decided to head west in an attempt to regroup with the Army of Tennessee. Union forces dogged his retreat and preceded him to Appomattox Court House where a supply train waiting for him had been captured. Seeing no way out, General Lee fought one of the last battles of the war in the vicinity on April 9, 1865. As an astonishing courtesy at the end of the battle, Grant allowed Lee to choose the location of his surrender, Appomattox Court House.

Specifically, the place chosen was brick home of Wilmer McLean who had moved to the area to get away from the war! Appomattox then was like any highway town one might find today, there mainly as a county seat but specifically to serve travelers on the road to somewhere else, in this case the trade between Richmond and Lynchburg. It is preserved virtually intact today as it was nearly 150 years ago, farm houses, cross fencing, the court house and a general store. In this building there is such and such, in that building over there one can find so on and so forth while in that field over there is where this, that and the other took place, etc.

It was too neatly preserved. Almost like an over-manicured battlefield Appomattox Court House was so well preserved as to almost be more of what to expect at a Disney resort. I did not expect to see field hospitals tending the wounded or the pall of cordite smoke and decay in the air, nor did I anticipate damaged buildings unsafe to enter. I was one of maybe six people not counting the national park staff there to run the place that day. No screaming kids, thank the heavens, but too quiet and ghostly for the significance of the event that took place here. The air was crisp, the skies above bright blue and the rest of the world nearby went blithely about its business, almost wanting to forget anything happened here at all.

Only Lee's army surrendered that day. Almost 200,000 Confederate men at arms remained in the field but the final campaigns soon played out, the last major battle occurring in May. At least, the last major battle of the killing fields.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Away to Appomattox

The last leg of the trip around America was at hand. Since being furloughed immediately following the attacks on September 11th I'd sought to find myself and my future through a journey across the country, literally and figuratively putting as much distance as possible between myself and my former life and career. Some said it was wasteful not to immediately look for work, I felt there was no real work to be had in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy; the layoffs had only just begun everywhere you looked.

After meaningful and significant stops in the Rockies, Texas, Florida and Georgia I found myself in Wilmington, North Carolina at the beginning of Interstate Highway "I-40" heading northwest towards Virginia by way of Goldsboro and Raleigh where old friends lived. There had been many opportunities to visit friends and family in Dallas, Oklahoma City, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta and Wilmington on this trip of rediscovery. My oldest friend from Junior High lives in the Raleigh area and has always been a rock of stability in the chaos of my own life. We all should have at least one friend of many years that keeps us grounded whenever there is an opportunity to spin out of control. His son, my godson, lives nearby in Goldsboro, allowing both to serve as a good, loving one-two gut check on the things that really matter.

The trip provided a not entirely planned but satisfyingly balanced cross section of American history and achievement. Pioneering the western frontier through Wyoming and South Dakota, musical history via Lubbock and space technology at Cape Canaveral in Florida. There was American Civil War history at Andersonville in Georgia so now, on the final leg towards home in Maryland, it was time for one more call to a Civil War landmark destination deep in the heart of Ol' Virginny.

By early April of 1865 the City of Richmond, capital of the Confederate States of America, was a lost cause. The Army of the Potomac under Ulysses S. Grant had crossed the James River the previous summer and finally broken through Robert E. Lee's lines after ten months at the Siege of Petersburg to force a Confederate retreat from the area. Lee headed west to regroup and resupply at Amelia Courthouse from where he planned to move farther west to reunite with the Army of Tennessee. At Amelia, however, there were no supplies and a full day's marching was lost in scouting the area. This delay gave the pursuing Union forces an opportunity to catch up and disrupt Lee's plans.

Even today if any American is asked about Appomattox Court House they might be able to say it was where Lee surrendered but they would know very little else about the place. Certainly I was one of those Americans as I moved north from the Carolinas in to southern Virginia towards a town that remains next to nothing in the middle of nowhere to this day. Lynchburg, home of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, is the closest major city at the junction of US Highways 29 and 460. Interesting.

I followed US #460 west from I-95 at Petersburg, probably the same route Lee had taken in at least a few places, past towns such as Farmville and Pamplin City towards history. A supply train waited for General Lee at Appomattox, his last hope to pull off his plan. Grant was there, too, by the time he arrived.

Gotta go.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What to Blue in Texas

Texas is not Washington, D.C. That in itself is not a fair comparison since one is a state and the other a city but it doesn't stop one from competing with the other across all kinds of issues, events and pursuits. D.C. usually gets the trump card in most debates simply because it is the nation's capital and one of, it not the most powerful city in the world but let's take it down a few notches and discuss something really simple, pretty and unique. Flowers. In Texas it is not cherry blossoms but blue bonnets that hold the same place in the hearts and minds of the citizenry and perform the same function as their erstwhile cousins back east. There is a big difference, however, in how each is enjoyed by those who travel up to great distances to see them. And there is some interesting ironies surrounding the ones down in Texas, too. "Bonnet" comes from the shape of the petals which reminded early discoverers of the shape of the sun bonnet pioneer women wore at the time. The flowers are more purplish than blue, anyway, but when seen in great numbers stretching across the horizon they do indeed have more of a bluish tint to them. Before the more popular name was adopted they were known as "buffalo clover." The blue bonnet is an "annual" flower which begins to bloom in late March and reaches its peak in mid-April before slowly fading out by mid- to late May. Texas does have winters and cold weather so the first sighting of blue bonnets growing wild in fields and along highways is something greatly anticipated by one and all in the area. Just as the National Cherry Blossom festival is in mid-March, the annual Bluebonnet Festival takes up the entire month of April in Ennis, Texas, hardly 30 minutes south of Dallas on I-45. Here at Ennis people from Dallas and Houston come together for a common ritual known all over the state: the annual Easter photo opportunity. Small children especially but full grown adults flock to the flowering fields to sit, squat and lie face down, propped up on their elbows to mark the passage of another year of memories and good living. Even the family pet gets in on the history in the making. The irony is that as the state flower it is illegal to pick them. Thousands of people tramp through them, smashing them flat for the sake of the family photo but they're not allowed to take any home which adds to the other trick of the season - finding that sweet spot in the season when the flowers are in full bloom but not totally trampled by others looking for the best patches with the most gorgeous backgrounds! Just like in D.C. when the flowers die off it signals the beginning of the Summer but for a few weeks in the Spring the weather is beautiful, the flowers warm and inviting. For those who don't know it's good, very good, to be in Texas in April. There is simply no better way to watch "Li'l Emma" grow up than from her first picture in the bluebonnet fields through Easter whites, adolescence, puberty through to her own family right up to one more with "Gramma Em" before moving on to the great beyond. Gotta go.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sayonara 747-San

I'd already written about the legacy of the Boeing 747 and what it means to me personally. This time however, a couple of things caught my eye that I found more than a little interesting. The first is the coverage given to the Air France A380 collision at JFK with a Comair (Delta) regional jet. Ground collisions happen all the time but this one marks the first official "accident" involving the massive plane at an airport re-jiggered specifically to make room for the great beast. Lots of investigating will take place regarding taxi clearance, which plane might have been out of position, whether or not the ground controller should have cleared the A380 and so on and so on.

When the 747 came on to the scene JFK and other major airports around the world were caught in a similar quandary and that was how to handle the monster on the ground given the current alignment of taxiways, runways and ramp space at the gates. It wasn't so much the width of the fuselage but the height of the access panels, cargo compartments and passenger doors to say nothing of the huge, nearly 200 foot wing span. Moving all of that on the ground gracefully meant considerable investment in upgraded infrastructure, money most airport and airline managers have long since forgotten about and considered worth every penny.

Here comes the A380 with the same issues all over again and the almost Tonka toy treatment it gave to the hapless commuter plane unfortunate enough to be in the way. Were the preparations and improvements sufficient or is more work needed especially around crunch time with more traffic on the ground than was originally planned? We'll find out soon enough. The other interesting tidbit I discovered, getting back to the 747 itself, is a recent small article announcing the last revenue operation of the 747 by Japan Airlines in February.

Not even the domestic "-SR" version remains in the JAL fleet, simply a flabbergasting revelation. Japan Airlines once owned the largest 747 fleet in the world, at one point operating more of this type than any other aircraft in their system. The great plane represented strength, stability, even status to the lay passenger who appreciated and expected the latest in technology along with maximum comfort. The rest of the world was amazed in the early days that a 747 custom built for short-haul sectors in Japan could regularly carry 500+ passengers on a flight so short as that between Tokyo/Haneda and Osaka/Itami, hardly an hour in the air from start to finish. Others still remember the tragic loss of one such 747 operating JAL #123 on that exact route in August of 1985.

The other great Japanese airline, All Nippon, has also pulled its international models but will retain the domestic 747 fleet for a few more years, until 2015 according to the article I read. My one experience with the 747 on a Japanese carrier was a roundtrip flight on All Nippon between Tokyo/Haneda and Okinawa. Coach service both ways, a light snack on board and nothing special other than simply being on the plane which flew smooth and true in both directions.

The 747 was built for heavy international lifting and specifically for extremely dense markets, plenty of which happened to be within Japan itself. There will be 747s over the skies of this island nation for a few more years but the fact that none will be in the home colors is nothing short of astounding.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mileage Milestones

What is it about our cars that cause us to take interest in the odometer reading? Whether the car is used or new I surely am not alone in being fascinated when the "clock" turns over every 1,000 miles. The paradox in seeing the range of numbers turn over, of course, is that each mile depreciates our prized possession that further while marking some minor sense of achievement in the distance personally traveled. Too bad much of that mileage is centered upon the commute to work and trips to the grocery store. Purchased or leased, a new car, new smells and all, represents virgin mileage. Nobody else has driven the vehicle and it almost encourages the new owner not to put too many "clicks" on the meter, this to try and preserve as much of the newness of the vehicle as possible. That first turnover, at 100 miles, usually eases the inevitable, that the car/truck/bike was bought to be driven - there was no turning back. Not legally, anyway. With a used car the thrill, if any, lies merely in the purchase for we all know this horse has been ridden before and whatever personality it contains it is ours to learn and adapt to. How many times has the car passed some milestone that you had previously marked in your mind to observe and then missed it by a mile? Here comes the next, "000" in the series and you want to watch the mileage turn over. Then, either forgotten or distracted, you look down and the odometer says "001." Argh! After retracing that mile back up the road in your mind you remember where you were when the event most likely occurred: either traveling at speed and unable to take your eyes off the road or just pulling out of the gas station and several blocks down the road before remembering. Or something to that effect. Oh but the worst ones are still to come. All kinds of numbers can come in to play: the birthday, a zip code or the miles that correspond to the month, day and year. There's nothing now to do except wait for the next occasion to pop up, in another 1,000 miles. Try something like when the odometer is only a few miles short of 333, 3333 or even 33,333. There is no next thousand miles for that number to come around again, it's gone. There is only another 11,111 miles to go until 44,444 pops up on the odometer and you are hopefully there to see it. A little over 11,000 miles? That's anywhere from nine months to at least a solid year of driving to get to and get through, but most definitely you will do your best to remember that next one. My car just went through 111,111 miles on the clock and I was there to see it. I was driving at high speed at the time, though, so I couldn't take a picture of the moment but I do remember it and where I was...on my way to work! I bought mine used so not all of those miles are mine but indeed I enjoyed being able to mark that milestone. I'm not entirely sure I will have that car when it reaches 222,222! Gotta go.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Applause, Applause!

The first time I ever flew wholly within Europe I was treated to a custom that at first frightened the hell out of me. The flight itself was perfectly fine, featuring an exhilarating take-off out of Paris, a long scenic flight across the Atlantic followed by a long and slow glide in to the then relatively new Washington/Dulles International Airport. The TWA 707 touched down with precision handling by the pilots, the engines screamed a little on reverse thrust and the brakes thrummed low as the aerial beast slowed to a smooth canter for the taxi in to the gate. As the deceleration continued so began the strange phenomenon: clapping. What? This was new. I wasn't the most seasoned traveler in the world at the tender age of 13 but I'd been on a few flights before and had never experienced anything like that. To clarify, all of the other flights were wholly within the United States or were military charters loaded with American servicemen and their families. We didn't clap in the United States at the end of any flight, short or long, and especially not in the military. What were these people doing? This was a commercial flight between Europe and the United States. Given the network of connectivity even then it stands to reason it was not crammed only with French and Americans. There had to be people from other European and probably a few Middle Eastern or North African countries on board as well. We had departed from the main hub of Air France, after all, serving the capital of the French Republic along with its attendant former colonies and overseas "departments." Whatever their origin or nationality the majority of the people on this flight were quite accustomed to clapping after landing but it escapes me to this day the exact beginnings of this custom or what specifically the applause was for. Relief? Were they all excited to be once again safely united with terra firma and not vaporized in the atmosphere from an explosive decompression or smoldering in the ruins of a disastrous crash in a field or shopping mall short of the runway or on the side of a mountain someone forgot to consider. The jet age by 1977 was still less than 20 years old with rapid developments in technology that had not all seamlessly come together with more than a few spectacular mishaps to show for it. Excitement? Were they all bursting with joy at being home, on vacation or one stop closer to wherever they were going? This kind of outburst I understood, being unable to contain the joy of being someplace or about to experience something hyper-charged with anticipation, like Christmas morning or a major rock concert. The very air is electric and the thought of finally being there, in that moment, can easily cause unchecked emotions to overflow. Applause would be a very polite and tame expression of sheer joy. Nah. I may have been the young one on this flight but the hardened road warriors who make this hop on a regular basis would hardly be the type to erupt in euphoria simply for landing in Washington, DC, epicenter of international cynicism. So if it wasn't relief at still being alive or excitement at being in the nation's capital, what was the reason behind this sudden outpouring of thanks and gratitude? Perhaps it was all merely to acknowledge the skill of the guy behind the door. Nice flight, nice landing. Thanks! Gotta go.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Climbing Mt. Baggage

You know it's down there but have you ever seen the cargo compartment of an airplane? Why you would want to or even care might be the better question to some, I'm sure. Quite frankly it is the underworld of the airline game that might enlighten you on what truly happens to your luggage once you've left it at the check-in counter.

A picture speaks a thousand words but I thought it might help a little to explain how this stack, which is actually a pretty good stack job, is created. Bags are typically sorted by line of travel and each airline has a unique methodology as to how those sortations are defined but all for the same purpose of getting the bag to the destination with the passenger at the same time. Bags only going to the next destination or "local" go in one section while bags connecting on the same airline go in another section and then bags connecting to other airlines are in a third location.

Once all that is figured out in the baggage room just below the ticket counter the bags are brought out to the flight for loading on to the plane. Here there are two general goals in mind: maintaining the sortation system so the flight will be "worked" quickly at the other end and loaded for weight and balance to burn less fuel during the flight itself. Bags are heavy things so the sortation that produces the most amount of bags for any one category almost always end up in the very back of the plane. The cargo compartments there tend to be the largest on board and allow for the best flying profile of the airplane while it is cruising along the skyways.

All of this is figured out ahead of time so once the actual loading begins it is typically a straightforward process: the biggest bags go on the bottom, the medium bags go on the top, the soft sided bags, fold over garment holders, kiddie bags and other light things that can't bear a lot of weight go on the very top. Voila. The good baggage handlers take extreme pride in creating the tightest possible stack with the most amount of bags in the least amount of space. The guy in the plane calls the shots on what order he (or she) wants the bags sent up the belt as the stacking job begins. Since they are the ones doing all the twisting and lifting in order to create this work of art they also control the pace and speed of delivery unless they're a rookie and don't know any better or some hot shot who needs to be tossed a lesson.

It is very much a team effort to get everything on board in the time allotted and in the best way possible. For the widebodies all of the packing is done in the bagroom but the stacking rules are the same. When the "cans" come out to be loaded it becomes a question of manhandling the things in to position, any one of which can easily weigh a ton or more fully loaded. The rollers in the floor pictured here help a lot but you can imagine in either scenario back problems are a major concern for airline and worker alike.

A tight stack means it won't tip over like some decaying wall of bricks. It also means using the very limited amount of space efficiently so as to fit all the bags on to the plane without wasting space - and affecting the balance of the plane - or worse, leaving bags behind. There's also bragging rights as far as who is the best stacker on duty or on the ramp in general with all kinds of fish stories to go with it. As for Bowser, the family pet? They always leave room inside the door with plenty of fresh air circulating just for him.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


For much of my life riding a bus meant either a road tour across some stretch of Europe or "goin' down Grandma's" to visit family in Virginia. It was a particular thrill as a child to ride on one of the biggest things on the road with those narrow but interestingly patterned seats and the scented interiors of the buses. The windows were huge and the scenery ever changing, from towns and cities, to hills and mountains with the occasional lake or river thrown in for good measure. It was exciting beyond measure to "race" a train that happened to be thundering alongside in the same direction. As a child there was no stigma attached to riding the bus. I was too young to worry about the collected mix of passengers on any given trip. As at least some of the trip was at night it was my job to sleep as best I could, anyway, and not worry about whoever else might be on board. Mom and Dad paid the fares so all I had to do was stay close by, stay on board and stay out of trouble. Easy enough. On a bus there was a whole aisle to wander if I got bored or annoyed with my younger sister as opposed to being trapped in the back seat of the car for hours on end. As best I can recall I was well-enough behaved to not be a nuisance to my fellow travelers and certainly no one to my recollection made any untoward advances in my direction. For many today the blue and silver silhouette of Greyhound is the only bus line they have ever known. There once was a time when the red liners of (Continental) Trailways competed for fares across the nation's expanding network of interstate and national highways. We typically rode with Greyhound as they had a stronger presence along the east coast but even at a young age I remember a distinct difference in their service. For some reason I felt the Greyhound's were faster but the Trailways coaches were larger, cleaner and more powerful thanks to many of them having manual transmissions as opposed to Greyhound's preference for automatics. Trailways is gone, having been absorbed by Greyhound who now faces a crazy quilt world of competitors from surviving Trailways franchises as well as the likes of Peter Pan and Coach USA for scheduled and chartered service across the country. I've been driving for thirty years now and enjoy the freedom of long drives up to 10 hours in any one direction. Going "down home" now is a three-hour flight back to the Maryland/Virginia area followed by up to a five hour drive in to the country to Gramma's. That in itself is a long day but put all of that in terms of a Greyhound schedule? One day, five hours and 10 minutes, according to their website with one transfer in Atlanta for a web fare of $167.56 up to the fully refundable fare of $208 one way. Oh, and that includes 16 stops between Dallas and Atlanta where the bus arrives at 3:30 in the morning before waiting an hour to catch the 2nd bus with nine more stops to my Grandmother's home town. Come on along! Gotta go.

Monday, April 11, 2011

15 for 15

Blogs were started so ordinary people could voice their opinions, share their stories or whatever without having to work for major media and be credentialed just to say what's on their mind. This is a good thing. It allows us to accept or reject the information presented to us in an equally powerful way. Take for example yet another interesting article on CNN.Com about the 15 places in the United States that young Americans should see before the age of 15.

Included in that list was a lot of colonial history, including Boston's Freedom Trail, Williamsburg, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and of course Washington, DC. It also came with strange things like Disneyworld. Really? A theme park? Some responders to the article decried popular favorites in their parts of the country while other, more altruistic replies included suggestions to visit any country in the Caribbean or Central America far less well off than our own. He did have a point....over-stimulated and under-motivated American teens loaded with cash and gadgets actually being told to discover America at Disneyworld!

The beauty of the blog is not necessarily having to submit to committee and then debate for hours the relevant content or, in this case, the list of things the idle youth should see before real cynicism sets in. In my list I have been to 11 of the 15, some as early as Age 5 and others as recently as last year. To keep things simple I will offer more on the reason for going than simply listing the obvious and/or endless attractions associated with the destination itself.

1. Grand Canyon - One of many ways the sheer power of nature and time combine in to something so spectacular. Want to be alone and experience something greater than the self? Go to the canyon.
2. Washington DC - Like Muslims to Mecca every American of means should see the nation's capitol. Not even so much for the museums. If we're talking about 15 year olds what teenager wouldn't love to toss a football on the Mall or just lay out and snooze the day away in the heart of the city.
3. New York City - Challenge any teenager in the one city that truly says if you can make it here then you can make it anywhere. Find out what they're made of from Harlem to Hell's Kitchen.
4. A Southern Plantation - CNN suggested Monticello but there the focus is more on Jefferson. Pick any plantation in the south to feel the brutal heat and the sting of mosquitoes while laboring six days a week over cotton, tobacco and other cash crops.
5. Pearl Harbor - Where a superpower was born thanks to impossible odds and unbelievable logistics. No teenager will turn down a day at the beach, either.
6. Mt Rushmore/Crazy Horse - This is a place of ultimate irony, where the teenager can begin to understand the pride of a nation while coming face to face with the death of another.
7. Buffalo/Niagara Falls - Wings, working folks and water, lots of water. But also another key station in human migration across the home of the free. The Underground Railroad went through here.
8. San Francisco - No city blends nature, brass and bohemia like San Francisco. Whatever community your teenager feels outcast from every cast-off and outcast in society has its own neighborhood, carved with fierce pride from the hills of the bay.
9. Cape Canaveral - Teen boys and girls can marvel and the wonders of space exploration and feel a chest-thumping pride at the sight of a major launch. What better place to reach for the stars than the hub of celestial activity?
10. Austin/San Antonio - The beating heart of one state among 50 that was once its own country and, according to legend and true believers retains the option to one day be a country again.
11. St. Louis - What teenager will believe the United States' western border was once this city in the center of the country? What better place to prove it than the Show-Me State under the Gateway Arch?
12. Denver/Colorado Springs - After the frontier town of St. Louis the teenager might truly begin to develop a sense of the resolve of his ancestors in climbing over the Rockies to continue westward towards the ocean. And some will really get a kick out of the Air Force Academy and the headquarters of the US Olympic Committee here as well.
13. Anchorage/Mt. McKinley/Denali - Nature at its frozen best with nowhere near the crowds of the Grand Canyon and just as majestic. A few good moose for good measure, too.
14. Boston - Boston politics is as rebellious and contrary today as it was when the original tea party took place. And the sports are as partisan as the politics. Any sharp-tongued teenager will feel right at home in Beantown and see more than a few good colleges to think about as well.
15. Any rural farming community - It is debatable if America's poor are still better off than those in Haiti or El Salvador but one good trip to the Gulf Coast will show any beating heart that charity can and does begin at home.

Gotta go.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Music for Motoring

Few things match the open road with the top down and the radio blasting in the front seat. The car and the AM radio is one of the most storied pairings of modern technology, forever immortalized in films such as "American Graffiti." If you didn't have a Thunderbird or at least even know Suzanne Summers you still wanted the experience of the wind in the hair and the Beach Boys singing the praises of California girls, right?

Not always. But the endless highways and ever changing scenery of America or any picturesque part of the world such as this pass in New Zealand pictured here have always been irresistible to millions of car and driving enthusiasts, myself included. I remember my first cross-country trip in a blue Pontiac my parents had given me during my sophomore year at college. I drove from Baltimore to Dallas by way of Atlanta which was two days of torture because the speed limit was still set at 55 MPH and this old Pontiac only had an AM radio. Between traffic, watching for cops and constantly fidgeting with the dial to find any listenable station I somehow survived the trip with an overnight stop in - wait for it - Meridian, Mississippi. Sigh.

Good music was not only a requirement to help pass the miles but that certain types of music had to match specific moods, the time of day and the surrounding scenery. Classical in the morning along the coast can be a good and relaxing thing but after dark in the desert following eight hours of driving, not so much. Still, the limited range of most stations required channel surfing roughly every two hours even for the more powerful signals. It was always amusing and frustrating to be tuned in to 103.7 and then without even changing the dial a country crooner would suddenly pop up, grieving the death of his dog over a longneck beer where Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had been lamenting their women not knowing them by now!

XM Radio went a long way in guaranteeing never ending streams of clear sounding music that would play all the way across the country, a huge step-up from local programming and without commercials. Even for the most die-hard "Office Lite" fan, though, there has to be a change in flavor every now and then. Moreover, as much as I wanted steady listening I wasn't about to pay a subscription for something I used to and still could get for free. I could always bring my own.

My cars over the years have featured 8-tracks to cassettes and then CDs. Through the 90s and the turn of the century I would have a box of my favorite CDs in the passenger seat next to me and boast of my skill at changing out discs by feel without taking my eyes off the road. Still, this practice was dangerous and cumbersome, exposing myself and other motorists to accidents and my collection of music to theft. Something, anything, needed to come along that would make driving easier.

Like others with a huge collection of CDs I resisted the iPod as long as I could. I'm rarely one to jump on a fad right from the beginning, not buying my first iPod until 2008. Sifting through the accessories I found what I was looking for...a cassette adaptor that would let me enjoy my playlists through the car stereo. At last! Personally crafted music exactly suited to my tastes from my own collection and in the listening order I desire. Skipping a song or changing an entire playlist meant simply thumbing the flywheel. The "Shuffle" feature makes it even easier. Today the only reason not to have good music is simply whether or not I want to hear any at all.

Now if only I could afford a late model car that comes with a docking station so I could get rid of that high pitched feedback whining through the adaptor thingy!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Shape of the Dream

I am semi-officially house hunting. I have recently reviewed my credit score and report and happily found it to be in better shape than I had anticipated: nothing there that I didn't expect with just a bit more work to do to get it to the land of "Excellent" interest rates. The only thing to do now was to seriously work on saving up for a down payment and then consider along with my other half and the dog where the best parts of town would be for our family. If only it were that easy.

As the son of a soldier I have lived all over the country and also in Europe through his career and now my own. I've seen popular home styles that run the gamut from Colonials, Cape Cods, Bow Houses, Spanish Colonial to Southwestern Ranch, Georgians, Craftsman, the classic A-Frame to the Midwestern 4-Square and the San Francisco Victorian. When I stumbled across custom built homes around Dallas/Ft. Worth I thought my head would explode! Which one to choose and for what reasons?

I've never owned a home in my life, having always lived in rented apartments, townhomes or condos. I've never had to pay property taxes or for my own maintenance either, surely worth something after decades of zero private equity? Still and all the American dream runs quite strongly through my veins, to own a piece of land and some property that was thoughtfully chosen and cared for over the years to build not only a home to enjoy but a nest egg towards retirement. Out of all the choices in a country of 50 states, 310 million people and 3000 contiguous miles of land to choose from in the Lower 48 alone, where to freakin' start!

My mother used to take us kids to watch new homes being built in the late 60s in Indiana when safety regulations were nothing like they are today and free entertainment was always desirable with three kids in tow. The diggers would come and excavate the basement level which instantly became an earthen playpen for us primary school age kids as we clambered down and marveled at how level the ground was, how deep the earth was and how fun all those perfectly packed dirt clods were! When the wooden frames were erected we would go "upstairs" to try and figure out which rooms were which and what bedrooms we preferred if this were our home. From this training as early as the First Grade I began to stockpile a list of features available in various houses around the world. Could I get them all in my one dream home?

I will call this an irregular series going forward until I finally find and my partner and I sign on the one home I have waited all my life to buy. By "irregular" I mean maybe once a month or so as new events unfold or I feel the desire to share some additional background. I'll share anecdotes of some of my favorite memories related to the apartments and homes I've lived in as well as my adventures in house hunting in the Dallas market, what I'm looking for and whether or not some of the things I've seen in other parts of the country are possible to find here in DFW.

Most of the pictures I post will more than likely come from official brochures as I don't have my own house to show (and wouldn't) nor would I want to invade someone else's privacy by showing their address. Hopefully you'll understand as well as get the idea of what I'm trying to accomplish.

Gotta go!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Back to the Bahamas, Mon!

I'm baaaaack! Well, going back to the Bahamas, that is. My first vacation there was also the occasion of my very first cruise, taken during the latter part of 2008. This April me and mine will be cruising the exact same cruise line, ship and itinerary on a five day sail from Miami and back. The reason? It will be our first vacation together that does not include holiday visits to the in-laws although about a half dozen friends will be sailing with us. We figure the ship is big enough for us to do our own thing and join them for the occasional shore excursion and meals whenever we want to be social.

It wasn't all that easy to decide on a first vacation together. Our relationship is new so we wanted to ensure both of us would have things to do that we found individually appealing while also being interested in what the other wanted to do. Who goes on a first vacation together only to spend most of the time pursuing private interests? You'd be surprised, actually, but that's not us. We ran the list of popular destinations, including Hawaii, Europe or time down in Mexico but cancelled those as being too elaborate for a first time outing.

The cruise wasn't our first idea but rather that of mutual friends who told us of their plans for this particular sailing so we gave it some thought and signed on. I enjoy the "freestyle" cruise experience on board Norwegian Cruise Lines and was familiar enough with their product and this particular cruise such that both of us would not be lost and bewildered by the newness and scale of it all. Our ship, the Norwegian Sky does nothing except four- and five-day cruises to the Bahamas and back. It is neither the largest or newest tub in the fleet but is ideal for what I like to call "Starter Cruises" to the simple serenity of places like the Bahamas.

Cruises sell themselves on giving their guests a "taste" of the place from which they can decide later if they want to return. Nobody in their right mind really wants to return to Freeport. It is the industrial harbor of the country with any resorts and shopping at least a 10 minute drive to the other side of the island. Maybe there are some hidden gems there that I don't know about but I'm also trying to think how any of them could compare to the hedonistic, over the top offering that is Paradise Island and the resident Atlantis Resort. Commercial, over the top and audacious, yes, but every luxury catered to and certain to be the one and only excursion I'm interested in once we land in Nassau on Day Three of the itinerary.

Day Three. Hmmmm. There is value in truth when advertising but certainly a lot to be desired when it comes to the actual length of the sailing. Ours is billed as a five-day sailing but in truth only operates over five calendar days. We do not sail until 5PM on Monday and are back in Miami before the sun rises on Friday. Two whole days pretty much bought and paid for with nothing to show for it except check-in at the Port of Miami on Monday and immigrations and customs again on Friday. Day Three? It should really only be Day Two if you're just counting the time away from home port.

So it's back to the Bahamas and I'm very very excited about it. This time I even plan to get off the boat!

Gotta go.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Airline Dining - Such As It Is

For being the first airline to offer inflight meals the dumbest thing I've seen recently from United Airlines was an attempt to charge for meals on overseas flights. At least they backed down after the expected public outcry. As maligned as airline food is, however, a lot of thought goes in to every airline meal even if they are only found on overseas flights these days. Whether you paid two days or two months in advance at least the meals are exactly the same in coach. I also discovered on some airlines that except perhaps for a few extra touches, portion size and the plating style on some airlines there isn't much difference between Business Class and First Class. I mean literally, it's the same cut of steak, maybe a little larger but on a real plate in First Class instead of that oval all-in-one dish you get in the middle cabin. Good thing is, if you're really hungry and the passenger count is light there should be plenty of food for seconds and classier airlines like Singapore and Cathay will deny you nothing, however classless it may be to ask in the first place.

It takes several assembly lines in "flight kitchens" serving major airports to put together tray upon tray of meals, pack them in those skinny service carts and then make each meal is in the right cart for the right cabin and in the right place to be picked up for the right airline and flight on which the meal is featured and rotated that day. Cold foods such as salads and desserts in one line, hot items such as meats and vegetables in another, soups and sauces somewhere else with cutlery and glassware in still another. Special meals have their own preparation areas while, depending on the size of the market, kosher and halal will have their own sections!

Beverages, spirits and enough ice packed in dry ice so it won't melt is the neatest trick to make sure there is enough to handle a 15-18 hour flight because there is no 7-11 at 41,000 feet! Finally, keeping all those logo embossed dishes with unique designs straight adds to the fun as well - soup dishes on Lufthansa or bento boxes on Japan Airlines?

Portion control is the key to "packing" an airline meal. It ensures consistent servings for every customer and absolutely determines the cost of each meal which can range from as little as $8.00 per person in coach to over $200 a piece at the front of the bus where caviar, champagne, steaks and Maine lobster dishes created by the hottest chefs on the planet are the order of the day.

Airlines will sometimes share on their websites what meals are being served on which month and in which direction. It might be apple-glazed chicken on every British Airways flight from London to New York with almond-roasted ahi in the other direction - each and every day for all of October. Most customers don't fly the route every day of the month but they definitely don't want the same meal in both directions. Come November that meal pairing might switch over to the Chicago or South Africa route and so on and so on but there's more. It also has to match the printed menus as well as the manifests printed out for the flight attendants who need to know what to expect and how to heat it all up. Among other things now you have an idea what all that banging around in the galley is for while you're boarding the plane and finding your seat: meals counted and correct!

Logistics and organization are critical at every kitchen but airports like Baltimore with hardly half a dozen international flights a day have it easier than operations like London where nearly every major flag on the planet stops in at least once a week. Airlines also regularly inspect the kitchens to ensure food quality, refrigeration and sanitation requirements are met. Individual travelers have their own opinions about the quantity and quality of the food but everyone agrees that it at least has to be fresh and from as clean a kitchen as possible.

Gotta go.