Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Cleaning out some old pictures

November 14, 2011

I’m told our home computer is getting too full, that it has memory problems. Since I can relate to both of these issues on a personal level, I told my wife and son — the two resident computer experts in my home — that I’d do what I can to help.

I haven’t noticed any performance concerns myself. I looked behind the monitor to see if any bits or gigs had overflowed out the back and, unless they look exactly like common household dust or small dead spiders, I didn’t see anything. I have noticed a slight bulging in the tower but attribute that to the Reuben sandwich I accidentally inserted into CD-writer slot when I got confused at lunch one day.

Response times still seem quick enough for the programs I use, even a little too fast sometimes: I barely have enough time to feel triumphant about laying down a “VULVA” in Scrabble before my computer opponent counters with a “QUIXOTIC”. Not only am I suddenly down 87 points, but I’m reminded of my own quixotic quest for the vulva.

As far as I can tell, the system’s memory is fine. I tell it to save a file in subfolder “STUFF” inside subfolder “BLOG” inside subfolder “DAVIS” inside subfolder “MY DOCUMENTS”, and it’s I who can’t remember where to find it, not the computer.

Beth said she needed to “de-frag” or “de-frog” or “de-something” the system to consolidate files and free up more storage capacity. I told her to go for it, as long as she wore one of those bomb suits like in The Hurt Locker in case shrapnel suddenly erupted from the keyboard. Or frogs.

What I could do to help, I was told, was to get rid of all the photos I’ve taken over the past two years for use in my blog. There were also some other pictures that might be worth saving that I could offload onto a “thumb drive,” though somebody’s going to have to tell me which slot I need to stick my thumb in to make this happen.

It was kind of fun going through all the pictures I’ve collected. Many can be easily deleted, as soon as I figure out what I was thinking when I took a picture of a featureless patch of grass. Others represent fond memories of family life: a wedding picture of me and my wife, my son’s graduation from elementary school, the time our cat thought it would be fun to go for a swim in the toilet. Still others are from my business trips overseas.

There were a few I felt deserved one more chance in the light of day before they were consigned to the trash bin icon of history. And so, I present those here.

Then I right-click and I select “delete.”
This is a bunch of garbage. You might immediately recognize the soiled mattress and the rolled-up carpet, but it takes a discerning eye to pick out the broken office chair in the back. Why I would take a picture of garbage, I don’t recall.
That’s me, enjoying a 2007 vacation to New York City. You can tell what a wonderful time I’m having by the crossed arms and the sidelong grimace. When the city workers to my left finishes painting the fire hydrant, he’ll begin work on my gigantic walking shorts.
This is the office where I worked in Sri Lanka training a team of outsource proofreaders. I still recall my first lesson with this group of eager young office workers: “DOITRIGHTTHE” is four separate words, not one.
This is a mountain bike my wife won in a drawing. We thought it was a regular bike, so we don’t use it, except to take up space in our sunroom. I’d like to donate it to some deserving youngster who lives in a mountainous region — perhaps in wartorn Afghanistan — but I have no idea how to do that. I suppose I could sell it on eBay, but I don’t know how to do that either.
During one trip to an Asian nation that will remain anonymous, I encountered this sign in the men’s room. Note the mortification on the face of the worker who peed himself, and the stern condemnation from the supervisor who points out his error. It’s management techniques like these that have catapulted the powerhouse economies of the East right past the U.S.
In Hong Kong, a street vendor of meats and meat byproducts proudly displays his inventory. “How are the pig colons today?” I ask. “Only average,” he replies. “The elk diaphragm, however, is most excellent.” In the end, I opted instead to vomit on a side street.
Speaking of disgusting masses of sagging flesh, enjoy this world’s worst self-portrait as I wade in the waters of Subic Bay, near Manila. Moments after this shot was taken, we were hit by a simultaneous volcano and civil insurrection.

Just trying to help the Greeks back on their feet

October 25, 2011

Americans everywhere have been transfixed in recent weeks by the European sovereign debt crisis.

The unemployed stop their job search to review updates on the latest austerity measures. The uninsured ill worry that German banks will grow weary of bailing out neighboring Eurozone economies. Twenty-somethings who’ve given up on the American Dream join fantasy leagues to make a game out of which nation is most likely to default.

Not really.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t give two drachmas about economic problems on the Continent when we’ve got so many of our own. About the only time it comes up is when someone on the Right uses the crisis as an example of where “creeping socialism” is leading the U.S., or when someone on the Left wants six weeks of vacation.

The problems of Europe are centered for now in hot-headed countries like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (the so-called “PIGS” nations). The swarthy peoples of the Mediterranean have been spending beyond their means for decades, borrowing against their children’s futures so they can eat olives, attend bullfights and long for their fascist past. Now, bondholders who subsidized this lavish lifestyle are demanding repayment, and they don’t want it in oregano.

The Greeks have come in for the most scrutiny. Every day, it seems, there’s yet another boring headline that nobody reads announcing “Resilient Euro Edges Lower Over EFSF Confusion,” accompanied by a photo of Athenians engaged in sun-splashed rioting. Austerity is painful and Zeus forbid the Greeks should be uncomfortable.

I wanted to learn more about the underlying causes of the crisis, so recently I ate lunch at a local diner run by Greek-Americans. Maybe this meat-and-three-vegetables eatery could give me some insight into why the inventors of democracy, geometry and men-wearing-white-skirts have screwed up their finances so badly.

I got my first clue from the sign outside Charlotte’s Steele Creek Cafe.

“Try Momma’s Meatloaf,” it read. “More Than 22 Vegetables.”

I don’t know a lot about Greek cooking, but it seems like including that many vegetables in a meat loaf recipe is destined to turn out poorly. It wasn’t until I got to the counter inside that this apparent example of profligacy and waste was clarified for me.

“It’s two separate things,” said the cashier taking orders. “That’s why it’s on two lines.”

“The line-break alone is not necessarily sufficient, even in signage,” I countered. “There should be a period, or at least a comma or semicolon.”

“Can I take your order?” she persisted.

Much like the people of Greece have shown through their street protests that they need adequate time to get their economic house in order, so too did I need a minute to decide on my lunch.

The sign behind the counter was filled with more lunch choices than I could readily digest. I stepped back to join several other would-be diners stroking their chins and pondering the selection. There was certainly a lot of what I think of as Greek food — souvlaki, a gyro plate, the eponymous Greek salad — but there was also Calabash shrimp and Philly cheesesteak and French fries.

And there were at least 22 vegetables, assuming you count stuff like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and rice and gravy as vegetables, which we here in the South very much do.

I asked to see a printed bill-of-fare to better study my options. I grew slightly more optimistic about the health of the world economy when I noticed that “default” and “currency devaluation” were not on the menu. I also saw that several prices had been whited out, with new prices handwritten over them. This seemed to indicate the Greeks were getting serious about real-world costs, at least when it came to the Ultimate 8 oz. Hamburger with Cheese.

Finally, I decided on the “hot dog (all-beef) combo,” a meal that would include my drink and choice of fries or onion rings, all for $4.80. I’m guessing the raw ingredients cost about half that, and was confident the difference would make a nice dent in the nation’s €216-billion debt.

“I’ll have the number 13,” I told cashier Tai’Shiquá. “Hopefully, the profits will help your people in their hour of need.”

“Say what?” Tai’Shiquá answered. She sounded a bit put-out, but I knew deep down in her proud Greek soul that she was grateful for my purchase.

While I waited for the order to be ready, I looked around the restaurant for a table. A working-class crowd was quickly filling the joint, giving the appearance that this really could be a profitable business if a bit of fiscal restraint were in place.

They could start, in my opinion, with the ketchup. Not only were there individual bottles sitting in every booth; there were several more available at the napkin and condiment station. Plus, there were additional packets included with to-go orders.

Another bit of excess could be seen at the fountain drink dispenser. Diners tapped their own selections, and could easily choose not to fill most of the cup with ice, cutting severely into a potentially high profit margin.

In two corners of the room, up near the ceiling, a pair of televisions played non-stop. There was no fee to watch.

A shelf near the door held the day’s newspapers. Their wrinkled appearance hinted that an earlier customer had purchased them at breakfast, then left them behind for others to read. This, despite the fact that all three publications were being sold from newsstands just outside.

Over in the corner were the restrooms. These were also free, despite the fact that many patrons would be willing to pay dearly for bathroom privileges after finishing off a plate of deep-fried perch.

I vaguely knew the owner from a previous visit, and decided to seek him out after I finished my lunch. I wanted to congratulate Pete Kakouras for the tentative starts he had made toward economizing, and offer my suggestions for what more he could do to move his restaurant and his homeland toward prosperity.

But Pete is gone. I’m told he sold out about two months ago. The new owner, an Asian gentleman named Jun Park, would be glad to speak with me, as long as I knew Korean.

So that’s the way it is: the Greeks are in danger of pulling the rest of Europe down the (free) toilet with them, and all because globalization made it necessary that they sell out to foreign interests. No wonder they’re fighting against tough austerity measures so violently. The cuts are being imposed by outsiders from the Orient. Next thing you know, we’ll see kim chi on the menu.

Whatever. You try to step up and help a foreign country get its house in order, and this is the thanks you get — a mythological tragedy of epic proportions, and an undercooked wiener on a soggy bun.

It’s all Greek to me.

A relaxing stroll around the office park

October 17, 2011

One area where I doubt I’ll meet expectations in my upcoming job performance review is break-taking.

I’m not taking all the lunch and coffee breaks I’m entitled to. Not only does this place me in danger — “breaks are in place for the safety of employees,” warned our official policy after a third-shifter plunged his nodding head into his keyboard, injuring his nose and adding the word “poijasdpfjiopasdij” to an initial public offering — but it creates major headaches for accounting.

It’s not because I’m dedicated that I work so hard. Nor is it because I’m especially busy. The reason I’ve not been taking all my breaks is that (a) there’s little in or near my office’s industrial park worth breaking away to, and (b) when you already spend 90% of your day doing crosswords while waiting for work, you frankly don’t get all that winded.

I’ve tried to make myself step away to the breakroom, where I can while away 15 minutes of relaxation staring at my choice of one of four walls. (One of the walls is filled with posters about worker’s rights, informing us that even though we work in North Carolina, we still have a few.) There’s also a television in one corner, running an endless loop of Headline News. But hearing all the ways Michael Jackson’s doctor tried to make him sleep will quickly get me drowsy.

With pleasant fall weather here, I’ve started taking a walk around the office park. This offers both clean air and exercise, and I can return to my work station feeling refreshed, even though my sweat-soaked underarms may beg to differ.

As a scenic attraction, the SilverLake office park offers little to the casual tourist. Most of the tenants are trucking firms, so unless you’re big into loitering 18-wheelers, there’s not much to see.

The landlord does a pretty good job of maintaining nice landscaping, so there’s that. There’s wildlife, if you count worms and fire ants and diarrhetic Canada geese. And there is, in fact, a lake; its silverness may not be apparent beneath the algae-coated surface, but just knowing it’s under there somewhere is soothing.

I’ve assembled a small collection of photos into a travelogue, so you can see for yourself the scenery I’m now able to enjoy on an almost-daily basis. Why not transport yourself away from your dreary Monday, and enjoy a bit of what the Great Outdoors have to offer.

The natural beauty begins right outside our back entrance, with a view of the loading dock at the building next door. Note how the natural wilderness is barely kept at bay in this pristine part of Charlotte.

A crooked sign stands guard against outsiders who might attempt to skate, bicycle, loiter or be a dog. The wide, tree-lined boulevard forming the main access into the office park reminds many of Paris's Champs Elysees.

Keep your eyes on the road, and you may find yourself a treasure! Here, a discarded mouth filter serves as mute testimony to the adventure faced by warehouse workers trying to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

A serene Silver Lake laps at its embankments, its scum-sheen bright in the sun of a warm October afternoon.

Earthworms also need a break, so many take to the sidewalks for their daily constitutional. Unfortunately, most dry up and die during their outings.

Discarded truck parts gather to compare notes about their fate. Like other industries, logistics and distribution have suffered considerably during the current downturn. Like illegal aliens waiting near a Home Depot, these three axles hope to latch onto some day work.

Driving myself to distraction

October 10, 2011

I’d have to characterize myself as a good driver, primarily because someone has to do it and it sure isn’t going to be anybody who’s ever watched me drive.

I learned to drive as a teenager growing up in Miami. The experience provided me with an appreciation for intense traffic, a familiarity with high-speed interstates, and a convenient excuse whenever anyone accused me of recklessness.

“Hey, I learned to drive in Miami,” I’d tell anybody who objected to my wheel-screeching turns and frequent lane changes. “Get over it.”

(I use an advanced sign language to communicate this to those in other vehicles who can’t hear me; my extended middle finger means “hey,” and the upward motion of my hand means the rest).

While defensive driving was stressed in most parts of the country, those of us living in South Florida learned offensive techniques as a means to safe motoring. The peculiar demographics of that area made anything like considerate driving habits a sign of weakness.

In the late 1960s, about a third of the Miami population was elderly, and chronically crept along the highway at 15 m.p.h. under the limit. They were careful to keep to the left passing lane in case they needed to pull into the median for the sudden urge to reminisce about their grandchildren.

Another third of the city was made up of Cuban refugees. These folks tended toward the middle lanes, looking for the safety in numbers that successfully got them across the Florida Straights piloting a raft made of tennis balls. They never used turn signals (because the rafts didn’t have them) and they ignored STOP signs (because they weren’t in Spanish).

The final third of the city was made up of narcotics dealers and other criminals. These drivers typically used the right lane, the break-down lane, the shoulder and the adjacent, grassy right-of-way to evade pursuing police cars. They created exit ramps as needed, or would simply launch themselves off a bridge and into the Intracoastal Waterway, especially if movie cameras were filming nearby.

To survive in this frightening mix of questionable skills, I learned a motoring style I consider both efficient and rarely fatal. I pay such acute attention to the traffic conditions around me that I block out all other stimuli as I maneuver my vehicle down the road. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t talk on my cell phone. I don’t rubber-neck at the accidents I leave in my wake. Instead, I’m focused like a laser on getting where I intend to go, bringing most of my passengers and their limbs safely with me.

The concentration this requires is sometimes lost on those who ride along with me. Just this weekend, for example, my wife and I took a trip uptown to a yarn shop she wanted to visit. She had the directions and I had the steering wheel. I had reluctantly agreed to listen to the podcast she brought along, at least until we had to start watching for signs directing us to the right neighborhood.

“Turn that off. I have to really concentrate now,” I told Beth as we approached our destination.

“You can’t look for the right exit with this on?” she asked incredulously.

“No,” I answered. “I can’t.”

“You realize, of course, that auditory signals entering your ear canal should have little or no impact on your ability to see,” she reasoned.

“Quiet,” I snapped. “You’ll kill us all.”

The podcast went silent, leaving only Beth’s directions to be heard above the hum of the engine. Bear left. Turn right. Merge quickly, then get into the left lane. Don’t run over that baby carriage. Look out. Look out! LOOK OUT!!!

I did indeed look out, and what I saw was the yarn shop that was our goal. I pulled through the parking lot and into a spot just outside the store’s entrance. Beth was a nervous wreck, but we had successfully arrived where we intended in record time, if records were kept for routine crosstown drives.

After the yarn shop, we wanted to visit a new bakery we recently found in the same area. I needed to make a left out of the lot, despite a bunch of traffic coming at us from both directions.

“At least get out into the center merge lane,” Beth advised. “That’ll make it easier to turn left.”

“No,” I answered. “What if someone wants to use it as a turn lane? We’ll collide.”

As I waited for just the right moment to take advantage of an opening, Beth launched into her much-rehearsed testimony about the advantages of using the “merge lane.”

Years ago, when she was a newspaper reporter, she rode with a highway patrolman for a feature she was writing. He told her that the proper way to make a left on a three-lane highway was to creep across to the middle of the road when you can, then merge and accelerate from there into the far lane.

I would counter that such a maneuver is just asking for a head-on collision.

Since I’m the driver, it’s my decision to execute this turn as I see fit. Her job is to get mad at my reluctance to recognize her long-ago patrolman as the ultimate authority for how I should make a left.

After our stop at the bakery, we drove home in silence, allowing me to concentrate to my heart’s delight. We arrived at our house about 45 minutes later, our marriage scratched and dented but my 2008 Civic completely unmarred.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a reckless driver. I’ve been involved in and caused numerous wrecks.

But I know what I’m doing, and I know how I want to do it. The elderly and Cubans and drug kingpins have taught me well. If you’ll be an offensive driver, people will notice and watch out for you. If instead you’re defensive, I’d advise that you prepare for impact.

If you're aware of your surroundings, you'll be a good driver.

Entertaining the Indians

September 26, 2011

I had the pleasure Friday of taking two Indian visitors from my company out to dinner. (These were not “woo-woo Indians,” as my friend Danny from college used to distinguish Native Americans from South Asians, but “dot Indians.”) My wife joined us for what turned out to be a fine evening of fellowship.

I wanted to be sensitive to the cultural difficulties likely faced by two foreigners on their first visit to the U.S. I wanted to do better than I had some seven years ago, when I hosted another pair of visitors from the subcontinent.

Those earlier two were unfortunate victims of my best intentions to show them all that American excess could offer. I had taken them to the Cheesecake Factory.

As you might imagine, this turned out to be quite overwhelming for natives of a land where a bit of rice was treasured sustenance, not an after-thought side dish next to a towering mound of chicken and cheese.

“You might enjoy the eggplant,” we had suggested at the time, knowing these Hindu men were probably vegetarians.

“No, no,” came the polite protest from Krishna. “No egg. Only veg.”

This time, I was determined to select a restaurant that didn’t intimidate diners with cake slices the size of your head. Beth and I discussed several options we knew were close to their hotel as we drove to meet them.

“I wish we could take them somewhere typical of the Carolinas,” I said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know any restaurants that serve Slim Jims and Mountain Dew.”

We finally agreed to give them two options to choose from: an upscale Indian restaurant named Saffron, and a more casual Italian place called Portofino’s.

I wanted to be accommodating of their tastes and limited familiarity with America, but I didn’t want to be patronizing. I felt that these folks were relatively sophisticated and might be put off if we treated them too gingerly. At the same time, I knew from first-hand experience how disorienting it can be to eat dinner in a foreign land. I didn’t want them to order angel hair pasta and be disappointed when they got slim pasta noodles instead of actual hair.

We met the Indians in front of their hotel. Both Akshay and Jenny greeted us warmly, and we all decided to walk the short couple of blocks toward the restaurants. They said they’d probably prefer the Italian place, since they ate Indian food “all the time.”

“Are you familiar with Italian food?” I asked. “You know, spaghetti, pizza, pasta dishes …”

“Yes, yes,” Akshay assured me. “We have Domino’s.”

I thought about explaining that Domino’s was to Italian food what McDonald’s was to Scottish food, then thought how much I’d prefer haggis to a Quarter-Pounder and let the analogy drop. We had arrived at Portofino’s by now, so all I could do was hope for the best.

The place wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night, and we were seated promptly. Menus were passed out by our server — she described herself as “Melanie,” though I had no plans to become acquainted on a first-name basis — and she started by collecting our drink orders.

I didn’t know my guests’ position on the propriety of consuming alcoholic beverages, and they probably didn’t know mine either (I’m in favor of it, as much and as frequently as possible). But when Beth broke the ice by ordering a glass of merlot, I was glad we took the lead. Turns out, they were quite familiar with wine, and sought to become even more familiar with it during dinner.

We alternated studying our menus with chit-chat. I tried to gauge how well they were interpreting what seemed like a pretty exotic bill-of-fare. All the pastas were listed on one page, with names like “puttanesca,” “arrabbiata” and “boscaiola,” while the protein dishes came under the headings “vitello” (veal), “pollo” (chicken) and “pesce” (seafood). Even I was struggling with what would be a good choice.

When the server returned, we placed our orders. Beth got the eggplant parmigiana and I got the fettuccini primavera. Jenny opted for the chef’s salad while Akshay ordered the “salmon mediterraneo”. We sipped our wine and conversations became gradually more casual as the alcohol took effect.

Akshay, who I knew from my business trips to the Sri Lanka office he heads, told us he’d spent the late afternoon trying to walk to the nearest Walmart. (I wondered whether he actually needed to buy something, or simply felt this was a requisite pilgrimage for anyone visiting North America). I said I too liked to walk, and we laughed about the time I wandered into a tear-gas-soaked demonstration on my way work during the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war.

“That was fun,” I laughed. “My visit, not the civil war.”

Before long, the food arrived. The plates were steaming hot, which gave me plenty of time to worry whether Akshay would know how to handle his dish. The salmon came festooned with open clamshells around the edge, and I was concerned he’d try to eat these whole. Should I say something? Or should I hope he was worldly enough to recognize that razor-sharp shells would cut his GI tract to ribbons?

While Akshay picked at the edible parts of his meal, Jenny was talking to Beth. I’d heard that the Indians are a naturally inquisitive people, and that Americans could expect unabashed questioning about topics we’re not used to discussing with relative strangers. Jenny wanted to know more about the everyday life of U.S. citizens. I was afraid she’d ask how often we invaded our next-door neighbors, or if we felt at all guilty about driving indigenous peoples from our subdivision. Instead, she asked simply “what is it that you do for fun?”

Beth and I looked uncomfortably at each other. We’re in our late 50’s, have a mortgage, worry about the soaring cost of healthcare, and wonder if our dreams of retirement have completely evaporated in the current recession.

Fun? Not really on our radar.

“Uh, well, we go out to the movies sometimes,” Beth said.

“I like to play Words With Friends,” I added.

I think Jenny got the hint and tactfully abandoned the topic of pleasure.

We returned to our food and finished up with little additional conversation. Both my guests seemed comfortable in their surroundings, and I was glad I had restrained myself from explaining the purposes of the fork, and how I was going to use the “magic” of a “credit card” to pay for our meal.

Beth and I asked for boxes to put our leftovers in, and suggested they do the same in case they wanted a snack later. Such a thing isn’t done in polite company in Asia but, we explained, this is America, and we really, really like our food.

“Do you have a microwave in your room?” I asked. “Do you know what a microwave is?”

“Ha, ha,” laughed Akshay. “Yes, we are familiar with the microwaves and yes, we have one in our room.”

I had made it through almost the entire evening without talking down to these wonderful people. Now, I had finally made my requisite faux pas and gotten it out of the way. I was relieved as we walked them back to the hotel.

The evening was still pleasantly warm. The neighborhood we passed through is one of those “new urbanism” developments, with old-fashioned storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second. Though built from scratch only a few short years ago, the architecture had the look of a much earlier time.

We arrived back at the brand-new Hilton where they were staying and prepared to say our good-byes. Akshay looked up at the Hilton sign, and saw the street address — 1920 — just beneath it.

“This building is well-kept for being almost a hundred years old,” he said.

I passed on the urge to finally be able to use my superior knowledge of the world.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

Don't eat the clamshells (it's considered rude in America)

What I did on my summer “vacation”

July 18, 2011

I’m back from the “vacation” that never was. I want to thank all my regular readers for tolerating the “revisited” posts of last week, and I want to assure you I’ll be posting new material for the foreseeable future.

I want to do these things, and I will.

I said last Monday that I’d be on vacation for the week because it was easier than explaining what I was really doing with my time. I was spending virtually all my eight hours at the office performing actual work, instead of killing time with internet browsing, playing Words With Friends, and writing my blog. And — I gotta tell you — all that productivity has me spent.

We brought in a “temp” worker and it was my job to train her how to proofread. Like many companies, mine is skeptical about the extent of this economic recovery and so prefers to augment its workforce without making a long-term commitment to someone who likes job security, benefits, respect, the occasional paid day off, decent pay, etc. So we call up the agency, and ask if they can send over someone who simulates humanity.

Actually, the person we got was quite good for being the lower form of life we call a “temp.” She was a recent college graduate, looking for her first real job. She was bright, quick, eager to learn and possessed excellent proofreading skills. She’d make a superior full-time addition to our staff, if only she had the patience to wait the several years it takes us to completely crush her spirit first and then hire her full time.

The five-day training agenda we planned had run out of steam by about Tuesday afternoon. I had failed to realize how pitifully simple my job had become, and how fast it could be taught to anyone with enough smarts to suppress a drool. I had enough exercises to get us through until mid-day Wednesday; then, it was either make her sit and read a 100-page prospectus cover to cover, or let her hang out like the rest of us.

“Let me get you internet access and show you the company intranet, and you can learn some more about what we do,” I suggested as I plopped her down in front of the terminal near where we keep the crossword puzzles.

She took the hint, and within moments was checking online coupon sites and trying to think of an eight-letter word for “impetuous.” As I said, she was a quick study.

Now freed of the obligation of molding a new knowledge worker to form the backbone of our burgeoning tech economy, I got to thinking about where I should’ve been in the middle of summer: on vacation, like I said I’d be.

For reasons I won’t go into now, I’ve had to suspend all vacation-going-on for the immediate future. I have a proud history of many exciting travel adventures over the years, despite the fact that my earliest trips took the form of an annual 22-hour drive each August from Miami to Pennsylvania, in an un-air-conditioned 1966 Mercury to visit un-air-conditioned relatives.

I’ve even kept a log over the years of the diverse destinations I’ve visited. 1982: The World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. 1985: a Caribbean cruise to Haiti (what was I thinking there?). 1988: Napa Valley and San Francisco. 1989: Biloxi, Mississippi (see Haiti comment). 1993: Disney World. 2004: Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 2005: Another cruise, up the Inside Passage to Alaska.

Now, halfway through 2011, I’m looking at three-and-a-half years where I haven’t left a circle that extends 25 miles around my South Carolina home.

With the training complete and this past weekend upon me, I was ready to at least take a “mini-vacay” from the drudgery and the obligations that my life has become. Saturday was spent mostly catching up on sleep, though I did venture out for a scenic excursion to the York County Convenience Center (formerly known as the dump) to recycle some boxes. When my wife woke up mid-afternoon following a night working third shift, she announced she was meeting a friend from her knitting group for dinner. I could come along if I wanted (not likely) or I could spend a Saturday night alone and feeling sorry for myself.

I chose martyrdom, a very under-rated state of being as long as it doesn’t involve death.

When Beth came home, I vowed that I would spend the next day doing something “fun.” She encouraged me to follow through with that pledge, and I woke up the next morning committed to making Sunday into a “Funday.”

But how does a 57-year-old man have “fun”? What kind of impetuous serendipity is socially acceptable for an old guy like me?

I mentally reviewed some of my life’s unfulfilled goals to see if I might be able to squeeze one of them into a random day in July.

I’ve always wanted to travel to Paris. I went to Google Maps to calculate the driving distance, and received the message “we could not calculate directions between 348 Brookshadow Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29732 and Paris, France”. Seems there’s the tricky matter of traversing the Atlantic Ocean in a Honda Civic.

Okay, perhaps I could catch a flight to New York in time to enter the Yankee lineup and crush a game-winning walk-off grand slam. Nope, the Pinstripers were in Toronto for a four-game set.

Maybe I could become addicted to heroin. I’ve always been tempted by the life of addiction and despair that is the lot of the junkie. I could bliss out on the couch and dream I was traveling somewhere, maybe even through another dimension. Impossible, according to the CVS pharmacist who refused to hook me up.

So, instead of fun, I was once again going to have to settle for its ugly step-cousin “satisfaction.” I did several loads of laundry. I cleaned floors. I tackled some yardwork. I did pause long enough to lie on the couch and watch the British Open for a time, but this proved less-than-a-barrel-of-monkeys.

Around mid-afternoon, I gave up altogether and went for a two-mile run through the neighborhood. Jogging along the highway just outside my subidivision, I spotted some guys roughly my age who appeared to be having a grand time. One was tooling along in his convertible roadster. Another was towing a boat in the direction of nearby Lake Wylie. A couple of forty-somethings went roaring down the road on their motorcycles.

It dawned on me that the most feasible way to be amused at my age was by extension. The middle-aged male body is not up to the task of frolicking barefoot through grassy meadows or splashing merrily in the ocean surf. We tend to step on bees and we tend to drown. We need a mechanical device, preferably one with a loud motor, to do our fun-having for us.

When I arrived back home, I found the answer to my dilemma sitting right across the street. Drenching rains last week had caused damage to the bank of the creek, so the city brought in some heavy equipment to repair the grounds. Being Sunday, the combination bulldozer/excavator/earth-mover sat abandoned in the grass.

Here was my chance for fun. I clamored into the operator’s seat, fired up the steely beast and steam-rolled at speeds up to two miles-per-hour around the subdivision. The wind whipped through my hair and a thrill shot up my spine. What a fine romp I had before being arrested for theft of a motor vehicle, trespassing, public endangerment and driving without a license!

And that’s what I did on my summer vacation.

Revisited Website Review:

July 13, 2011

Yesterday was Ascension Day, the occasion on which the world’s Christians note the ascent of  a back-from-the-dead Jesus Christ into Heaven. I thought it might be a good opportunity to look into the state of the modern jetpack, and where you might be able to get one.  

Though the Gospel according to Mark makes little mention of a mechanically aided lift (other than a vague reference to “a mighty whooshing sound and the blessed fragrance of diesel”), it only stands to reason that He may have needed some powered assistance. It wasn’t until the Nazis strapped the Fieseler Fi 103 flying bomb to the back of an unfortunate “himmelsturmer” during World War II that modern technology made use of escaping gases that allowed a single user to fly.  

Ever the practical race, the Germans weren’t really looking for a short-cut to the afterlife. They simply wanted a way their engineering units could cross minefields or barbed wire obstacles that didn’t involve training for the long jump. After the war, the technology fell into the hands of the U.S., where test pilots offered a gracious “thanks but no thanks” to the prospect of developing the concept further.  

Although we’ve since seen jetpack demonstrations at spectacles like the Olympics and the 2005 confirmation hearings of chief justice John Roberts, most sources say the only current practical use of the machine is for astronauts doing extravehicular activity in space. A Mexican company reportedly offers a tested rocket belt package, though most who’ve seen the equipment call it more of a “backpack helicopter” (wonder how you say DUCK! in Spanish).  

Jetpack deniers and their can’t-do attitude fortunately haven’t been heard in far-away New Zealand. There, a small firm called Martin Jetpack is currently taking orders for what it calls the world’s first practical personal aircraft. I’m visiting to learn more about this breakthrough for this week’s Website Review.  

The home page for this domain is as sleek and futuristic as the six-foot-by-five-foot 535-pound device it offers. In other words, it’s a bit clunky. Clicking on the “See It Fly” video doesn’t do a lot to counter that first impression, as the short film of a guy wearing what looks like the rooftop HVAC unit at your office confirms. He’s flying just above the ground around a warehouse until the whole website freezes up about 45 seconds in. I only hope the same thing didn’t happen to the jetpack, or the pilot might have skinned his knee in a 3-foot plummet to earth.  

The pulldowns across the top of the page focus more on the company itself than its product. We learn that this particular jetpack design was first developed in 1981 by company founder Glenn Martin, a pharmaceutical salesman who wanted to get even higher than his painkiller samples could take him. He and his family turned what was a garage-based obsession into their life’s work.  

“I was Glenn’s first test pilot,” says wife Vanessa. “I used to run out to the garage, get strapped into the jetpack, test it, then rush back into the house to feed our seven-week-old son.”  

That son is now 16-year-old Harrison, who also works with the family business. He tells how he was “never able to tell my friends what my father did,” supposedly because it was a secret project though more likely he was just embarrassed.  

“My friends work in McDonald’s during the school holidays,” Harrison says. “I have a slightly more interesting job as a jetpack test pilot.”  

What he probably neglects to note, however, is that instead of making $5.35 an hour, he’s paid in Band-Aids.  

You can tell the Martin firm has evolved from those early days into a real company, because it now boasts a chief executive officer and a chairman of the board and everything. It appears most of the top leadership comes from a venture capital firm that has invested heavily in Martin. These bankers can focus on guiding the company through its start-up phase and ultimately bankrupting themselves and all their investors, freeing managing director Glenn to devote his energy and creative force into crashing actual hardware.  

The company page also shows a number of consultants and advisors and designers who help with boring esoterica like avionics. Most of these men are bald, except for engineer Stuart Holdaway, whose missing photo hints that he may have been killed.  

It’s the section of the home page titled “How Do I Buy One?” that draws most of my interest. Martin is “currently accepting enquiries (New Zealandish for inquiries) from commercial customers” and these can be placed through the website. “It is expected that early orders for sales to private individuals will commence late 2010 … We will contact you when pre-orders are being taken.” In other words, don’t hold your breath, unless you plan on flying one of these things over water.  

A small “News and Press” page carries links to articles about test flights and demonstrations that have sort-of wowed the public. One reporter noted after his demo that it felt like “I was carrying a small sports car on my back,” perhaps not exactly the kind of press the firm might’ve hoped for but probably a realistic assessment.  

It’s through a list of pulldowns on the left side of the home page that we get most of our information about the machinery itself. There’s a defensive diatribe titled “What Is a Jetpack?” that aims to address those who contend that a jetpack should weigh less than a quarter-ton and contain actual jets. A carefully parsed analysis of the words “what,” “is,” “a” and “jetpack” claims that there’s a disconnect between science, engineering and common usage, and that if you have a “very narrow view of what is a true jetpack,” then basically that’s your problem.  

“In the end we found that 95% of people call it a jetpack when they see it, so why fight that?” they conclude.  

In “How Do I Learn to Fly?” we see that a required training program will be included with the cost of the machine. You don’t have to have an FAA-recognized pilot’s license, just a really big helmet and some assistants wearing industrial-strength hearing protection. The safety overview notes that all flying entails a degree of risk and that aviation users from airline passengers to parachute jumpers must decide on the degree of danger they find acceptable for themselves. In the end, Martin claims the jetpack is safer than light helicopters because it has a “minimal avoidance curve” which, if you have to have an avoidance curve, is the kind to have.  

Speaking of technical mumbo-jumbo, we see on a specifications page that the first model the company will sell has features like an engine, a fuel tank, a carbon fiber composite structure and, worrisomely, an energy-absorbing undercarriage. It has a range of just over 31 miles at a maximum speed of 63 m.p.h. You have to weigh less than 240 pounds to actually get off the ground, though the morbidly obese still might consider purchasing one to help them off the couch.  

Finally, there’s a Frequently Asked Questions section. Doubts about stability of the aircraft seem to dominate, hinting again at its lack of authentic jetpackiness. There’s the kind of small but observable wobble you might expect from what are basically two really, really, really powerful fans, though with practice pilots can correct this. Asked “is it safe?” the responder notes the presence on the machine of a parachute, not exactly adequate for what would basically be like falling off a ladder. “How easy is it to fly?” Well, you have to know that “yaw” is more than a Southern greeting. “How do I buy one?” You’ll need to make a 10% deposit. “How much will they cost?” Probably about the same as a high-end car. 

“Are we all going to be flying to work on these?” seems like the most obvious question. Martin officials say modestly “some people will use these for work” and I’m imagining how well they might perform for the landscapers at my office park who current use leafblowers and instead could be hovering above the ground. Martin admits that most people will still prefer “the comfort of a car” and that current air traffic control systems don’t lend themselves well to commuting. A “highways in the sky” GPS-based system of 3D roads is at least ten years away, more if scientists can’t figure out how to create potholes in them. 

It’s really not that bad of a website; it’s just that the product it sells seems highly questionable. Since the people of New Zealand are often nicknamed “kiwis” after the chicken-sized flightless bird native to the islands, you’d think a company based there would take the hint, both about flightlessness and about the chicken part. But I guess the entrepreneurial spirit and long-held dreams about human flight make up for the difference. 

Admittedly, it’s a major inconvenience to fly halfway around the world to train for and pick up your jetpack in early 2011, and I wouldn’t want to begin contemplating getting it through airport security and onto a plane for your return trip home. However, if you can find a string of atolls across the south Pacific that are less than 31 miles apart, and you don’t mind having the great whites and other large sharks of the region nipping at your heels as you fly just above the waves, perhaps you could just fly the Martin jetpack back to your home. 

Jetpack pioneer Glenn Martin, apparently hauling a couple of garbage cans

Yay! It’s naptime!

June 22, 2011

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

Huh? Whuh? No, no … I’m awake, I’m awake.

Just catching a quick “desk nap” here at work. If I put a couple of number-filled pages on the proofreading easel in front of me, no one even notices if I doze off for a few minutes. In fact, I challenge anyone — even the most alert, meth-addled reader out there — to stay awake while perusing column after column of financial numbers.

It’s a technique that anesthesiologists and executioners could learn a lot from.

At this stage in my life, I’ve pretty much mastered the art of the power nap. I’ve discovered over the years that even as little as five minutes of unconsciousness can prove to be quite refreshing. Somehow, I always manage to catch myself almost as soon as the sleep has done its rejuvenating job, and snap awake before my head flops back and my mouth starts leaking.

I first developed this useful practice back when I was in college. Several times a semester, I’d make the 480-mile drive from Tallahassee, Fla., to Miami to visit my parents. Anyone who’s ever driven on the Florida Turnpike for almost 250 miles of that journey can testify how dull it is. You almost wish giant, fire-breathing alligators would emerge from the Everglades and start consuming motorists whole, just to provide enough stimulation to keep you awake.

Since most of these mega-gators have become threatened due to encroachment on their habitats, I started refreshing myself with mini-naps while barreling down the highway at 70 m.p.h. Sounds dangerous, I know, but I was always able to catch myself in time to avoid a side-trip into the canal.

Those were good times.

Today, I’m in the same boat as most other hard-working Americans, and it’s a boat that’s likely going to run aground soon because everyone is so drowsy. We’ve packed so many activities into our busy schedules that, in order to make room for it all, we steal from the time we should be sleeping.

Stories of the consequences of this trend are all over the news. A bus driver heading from North Carolina to New York tries to catch 40 winks, and around the 35th one — oops — his motorcoach goes off a bridge, killing four. Airline pilots headed for Minneapolis end up halfway to the North Pole before realizing their passenger jet was on autopilot while they snoozed.

Even Vice President Biden was caught napping during a presidential address to Congress. Had al-Qaeda chosen to attack the U.S. during that vulnerable moment, Biden’s slumber would likely have been disturbed, rendering him grouchy and out-of-sorts for the rest of the afternoon.

On a typical day, following what is a typical night of about five hours sleep, I’ll take two planned naps. First comes the one I take in my car during what is supposed to be my lunch break. I’ll turn on the air-conditioning, drive to the back of our office park, recline my seat and crank up the NPR. Within moments, the soothing voice of Terry Gross and her “Fresh Aire” guest (hopefully, a poet) have me nodding.

If I need to wake up by a predetermined time — say, to keep my job — I set my virtually fail-safe internal alarm clock and inevitably find myself jarred awake at that precise moment. Somehow, I’ve been blessed with what is arguably a super-human skill in this regard. I just have to figure out now how to use it for the good of all mankind.

The other planned nap occurs when I get home from work, about 3:30 p.m. I get to do this one in my own home, usually with two cats already snoozing in my wife’s half of the bed.

Taylor and Harriet can be a bit of a handful when they want to eat or poop or whatever else it is they contribute around the house. But at this point in my day, with the heat soaring outside and the AC going full blast inside, they provide a tremendous amount of inspiration for those who want to sleep. What a great role model the modern housecat can be! I lie down, pulling the covers tight up to my chin. I reach over and give Taylor a gentle stroke, a muttered “kitty, kitty” and — boom — I’m out like a light.

As skilled as I may claim to be in the art of the “fast sleep,” I still often have trouble embarking on longer ventures into dreamland. Never was this more apparent than during several intercontinental flights I took to Asia a few years back.

It is nighttime. My body clock doesn’t believe this, however. After making a sleepless overnight flight from Charlotte to Germany, killing most of a morning in Frankfurt before boarding another nine-hour slog toward India, it really could be any time at all, including the 23rd century. It’s dark outside the plane, though only a couple of window-seat passengers have their sliding shades open.

The incessant thrum of the jet engines speed us through the high altitudes above Iran. All around the cabin, fellow passengers are sleeping blissfully. Some have blankets pulled over their faces. Some heads are held in position by inflated neck pillows. A few have collapsed onto the shoulder of the person seated next to them, who might normally object if they so weren’t comatose.

Throughout the plane, Muslims are lying down with Hindus, Hindus are lying down with Christians, Asians are lying down with Europeans, and that young couple sitting on the bulkhead are sort of lying down, but on top of each other.

And me? I’m wide awake, trying to decide whether chapter 13 of a Sandy Koufax biography or an episode of “Who’s The Boss?” translated into Hindi will make my wakefulness less painful. Even with a double-dose of Ambien coursing through my veins, I remain wide awake.

Fortunately, within a few more hours, I’m comfortably tucked into my luxurious bed at Mumbai’s Leela Hotel, and the sleep comes easily. For days at a time.

Too bad I couldn’t have stepped outside that Airbus A320 for a power nap. I feel confident the lack of oxygen at 35,000 feet would’ve put me right out.

Palin is just on vacation — that’s all

June 1, 2011

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin continued her East Coast bus tour yesterday, insisting it didn’t represent an unofficial start of her campaign to become her party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

“Can’t a gal take her family on summer vacation?” Palin asked one inquiring reporter. “We’re just drivin’ around this great country, enjoyin’ its great scenery and great landmarks, meetin’ great people and droppin’ the letter ‘g’ every chance we get.”

Palin was asked why her bus was festooned with patriotic slogans if the trip was meant as a private one.

“Hey, that’s just the way we roll,” Palin responded. “Some people put those little family outlines on their back window, some have bumper stickers. We take the whole side of our bus to promote ‘We the People — One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for All.’ That’s how much we love America.”

Palin started her excursion Sunday in Washington, arriving at a motorcycle rally on the back of a Harley.

“I had never ridden a bike before. It just seemed like a fun thing to do on a vacation,” Palin reportedly told one supporter. “Later in the week, I hope to try parasailing, maybe onto the grounds of the White House.”

After stopping in the nation’s capital, Palin and her family headed to several other historic venues in the mid-Atlantic region.

At the military academy at West Point, she observed that the Army college “isn’t as pointy as I thought it would be.” At Gettysburg, she talked of how “not only is this hallowed ground, but the bushes and the trees and the sidewalks and the public restrooms are all equally hallowed.” In Philadelphia, she observed that “the Liberty Bell has a crack in it. Has anybody noticed that? Should I tell someone?”

On Tuesday, the Palin bus rolled into New York City where she had a luncheon meeting with real estate billionaire Donald Trump in a sign that the Apocalypse is nigh.

“He’s such a nice man,” Palin was overheard telling her husband Todd. “Why can’t you be more like him? We need more money.”

Some of Palin’s potential rivals for the nomination are also enjoying summertime excursions. Mitt Romney said his choices for an annual getaway had been narrowed down to the south of France and New Hampshire, and that he was leaning toward the Granite State. Newt Gingrich was planning an extended weekend trip into his wife’s pants. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty wanted to go to Disney World, but wasn’t sure his parents could afford it this year.

Palin’s fellow ultra-right elder-hottie, Rep. Michele Bachmann, will be leaving her Minnesota home next week, riding on a flower-bedecked float all the way to Iowa.

“She’s still in the exploratory phase of any potential campaign,” said advisor Tom Andrews. “It’s an expeditionary float. She’ll be sitting atop the vehicle and waving at the crowds as she makes the 350-mile journey. If anyone waves back, I think that means she’ll be in it to win it.”

One bus, under Todd, unmaneuverable, with liberty and sleeping space for 8

The Miami trip that didn’t quite happen

April 18, 2011

I just turned down an all-expense paid weekend trip to Miami. Will someone please commit me to a mental institution? (All I ask is that it not be one of those franchise chains like McCrazies’ or Batshit Barn, but instead have an idyllic name like The Heather On The Lakes at Woodcrest Home for the Disturbed.)

The free trip didn’t come without substantial strings attached. No, I wouldn’t have to hear a brief presentation on the glories of owning a time-share in the Everglades called Mosquito Cove. No, it wasn’t a transfer stop on my way to Guantanamo where I would stand trial for looking up al-Qaida on Wikipedia that time. And no, I wasn’t being presented to the press as the new quarterback of the hapless Miami Dolphins.

It was to be a business trip. I would be “helping out,” as we call it in the trade, on a session in which attorneys, accountants, bankers and assorted others would pull all-nighters to finalize the wording of some obscure financial document. My role would be as proofreader, assuring that the document retained the highest quality possible while the attorneys added a comma, then twenty minutes later the accountants took the comma out, then the bankers got into a drunken fistfight with the underwriters before everybody compromised on a semicolon.

I seriously considered taking the trip before telling my boss I’d have to decline for undisclosed reasons (I needed to do laundry and I didn’t want to miss elimination night on “American Idol”.) I honestly regretted not taking my proofreading talents to South Beach because I knew, from past experience, it held the potential of being very little work and a whole lot of waiting around in a 36th floor conference room with a view of Biscayne Bay. I’ve done this many times before and could guess that what was predicted to be an intense round-the-clock drafting session might easily devolve into me sitting by the pool all afternoon. This, despite the best efforts at financial regulatory reform.

About a decade ago, I’d jump at these opportunities all the time. Most trips then were to the Tampa/St. Pete region. I’d move in to a nearby Residence Inn for several weeks at a time, then show up for eight hours a day at a beautiful office park where I’d eat shrimp salad pitas and correct the occasional typo.

I got so good at this that other trips soon followed: to Atlanta, to Pennsylvania, to Miami, and to New York. The best business trip I ever took was to the Big Apple in 2000, when I spent two entire weeks in a lavish Hilton right across from the World Trade Center, working maybe five hours a night for a high-profile client who demanded a proofreader on-site, even though that reader read mostly The Village Voice with only occasional glimpses at the boring details of the ill-fated AOL-Time Warner union. (I tried to tell them “No! No! It’ll be a disaster!” but they’d just keep hissing “synergy” and ask me where else would people be going in the next ten years to hear “you’ve got mail”?)

I had the best time spending the day roaming lower Manhattan in those pre-9/11, pre-financial meltdown days. The weekend was even better. Saturday, the first warm day of spring, I hiked up through the Village, up Broadway, all the way to Central Park where I saw both the spot where John Lennon was shot and Cindy Crawford pushing a baby stroller. I tried to walk back downtown but got caught up in a Gay Pride Parade and nearly converted in the excitement until I hailed a cab for a return to the financial district and heterosexuality (thanks to free Spectravision). Sunday was also fun in an entirely different way; a cold front brought snow showers to the city, coating the lovely homeless people in a raiment of white.

After a three-year hiatus during which business travel was sharply reduced by my company, I returned to the road but this time for a different purpose. I was one of several people designated to act as an outsource trainer, bringing the civilizing influences of two-em paragraph indents and ragged right margins to the heathens of South Asia . Between 2003 and 2008, I made six trips to India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and can claim at least partial credit for creation of the Asian Tiger that ate up so many American jobs. (You’re welcome.)

The biggest difference between travelling to “help out” a drafting session and being a visiting trainer has to do with control. Under the former scenario, you pretty much have to do what your hosts tell you to do, which can vary from simple proofreading to collating some paperwork to taking the blame for the ill-conceived merger between Bed, Bath and Beyond and the American Nazi Party.

When you’re the trainer, it’s you who calls the shots. Especially when you’re the mighty American and everybody else is eager-but-dusky Asians. The local management team caters to your various training essentials — “I’ll need a case of Pepsi, three dozen dry-erase markers (the kind that you can ‘huff’) and a cadre of young boys to wash my feet,” I typically demand. “Chop chop!” — then pretty much leaves you alone with your class of trainees. As a conscientious employee, I’ve always tried to inject a fair amount of useful information into my presentations, but have few qualms about giving a connect-the-dots assignment for the afternoon I want to skip out and visit a volcano.

The temptation to be avoided in such a situation is to train them completely wrong as some kind of guerilla effort to halt the march of economic globalization. Rather than introducing them to the techniques of scanning through a converted word processor manuscript to watch for corrupted characters like ξ and ♥, I could tell them they want to be sure to insert the phrase “Death to U.S. imperialists” into little-noticed corners of proxy statements. A few well-placed errors like this could restore the U.S. to economic dominance and give me a hearty laugh at the same time.

Unfortunately, I always chickened out, especially in Sri Lanka where a civil war with the Tamil Tigers meant armed troops on every street corner who’d be more than happy to machine-gun me down for such whimsy.

So, instead of spending a balmy few days romping on the beach with LeBron James, Gloria Estafan and Don Shula, I opted for another boring weekend at home, dreaming of what might have been. I hope that Miami survived without me.