Silly 50%/50%/50% pie chart Travelogues
(Or, “A Blast from the Pest”)

WARNING: The following contains adult language and themes. Sentiments and harsh words expressed here are unrelated to the sentiments and harsh words of my past and present employers.

This is a series of travel reports I sent from the road to a few people at work, starting in mid-1993, during some trade shows, seminars, and training I attended or delivered. What you see here is a little different from the original batch: I’ve changed a few titles and taken out some of the names, blue language, and libelous remarks. If you’re offended by my impressions of you or the place you live, be aware that most of those impressions were gathered on trips between the airport and the hotel, and with an average of four hours’ sleep per night: I’m not laughing at you, I’m just laughing.

And if you have a copy of any of the travelogues I’ve misplaced (italicized below), let me know, since they’re worth a mint.

  1. Untitled proto-travelogue from first travel experience (Atlanta, Georgia) [1993]
  2. Educom, Here We Educome! (Cincinnati, Ohio) [1994]
  3. The Sweetheart of Flight 763 (New York, New York)
  4. SIAM, I Am (San Diego, California)
  5. Tukwila Sunrise (Tukwila, Washington)
  6. Baby, It’s Cold Inside (Pinawa, Manitoba)
  7. Hurricane Pops (Orlando, Florida)
  8. Mayday! (San Francisco, California)
  9. The Law of Diminishing Retorts (Houston, Texas) [1995]
  10. Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Me (Huntsville, Alabama)
  11. Twice in a Lifetime (Huntsville)
  12. Wichita Falls 70210 (Wichita Falls, Texas)
  13. I Can’t Believe I Hate the Whole Thing (Wichita Falls)
  14. Manic City USA (Nashville, Tennessee)
  15. Snap, Crackle, Pops (Elizabeth City, North Carolina)
  16. The Last Temptation of Pops (Boston, Massachusetts)
  17. First Will and Testament (Champaign, Illinois)
  18. Tachycardia Is Not for the Faint of Heart (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
  19. All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Buenos Aires
  20. LaBamba: The Forgotten Dunce (Santiago, Chile)
  21. Unhappy-Go-Lucky (São Paulo, Brazil)
  22. I Knew You Weren’t Waiting for Me (São Paulo)
  23. Closing Time (São Paulo)
  24. What We Have Here Is... (São Paulo)
  25. All I Want Is Out (São Paulo)
  26. Damn, I’m Awake (St. John’s, Newfoundland)
  27. The Pops Heard ’Round the World (Hampton, Virginia)
  28. The Road Worrier (New York, New York)
  29. All Gone (Landover, Maryland)
  30. Looking for Florida A&M in All the Wrong Places (Tallahassee, Florida)
  31. Going, Going, ... (Boston, Massachusetts)
  32. Hot Not to Trot (Charlotte, North Carolina)
  33. Charlotte, NC’s Web (Charlotte)
  34. Tuesday Is Ladies’ Boxing Nite (Young Harris, Georgia)
  35. Membership Has Its Drawbacks (Norwood, Massachusetts)
  36. “Pittsburgh, we have a problem.” (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
  37. The City That Never Sweeps (Orangeburg, South Carolina)
  38. 101 Damnations (Orlando, Florida) [1996]
  39. What’s Not to Hate? (Los Angeles, California)
  40. L.A. or Bust! (or Both) (Los Angeles)
  41. Drop Till You Stop (Rochester, New York)
  42. Whine Tasting (Get a Gripe!) (Washington, D.C.)
  43. The City of Blubbery Love (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
  44. Never Again, Again (Burbank and San Diego, California)
  45. Have Gnu, Will Travel (Johannesburg, South Africa)
  46. How Will It Play in Pretoria? (Pretoria, S.A.)
  47. Cape of No Hope (Cape Town, S.A.)
  48. Durban Cowboy (Durban, S.A.)
  49. The Boston Straggler (Boston, Massachusetts)
  50. It Was a Million Years Ago Today (Sacramento, California)
  51. I Broke, Even (Reno, Nevada)
  52. Heart of Dorkiness (San Francisco, California) [1997]
  53. Talkin’ ’bout My Degeneration (Schaumburg, Illinois)
  54. June, July, Augusta (Augusta, Maine)
  55. To Die From (North Canton, Ohio)
  56. Popsicle (Kingston, Ontario) [1998]
  57. Ruby Tuesday, Ash Wednesday (Columbia, South Carolina)
  58. From Eternity to Here (Sydney, Australia)
  59. Australian for Bored (Melbourne, Australia)
  60. One Hundred Hours of Solitude (Melbourne)
  61. Diplomatic Impunity (Melbourne)
  62. Neither Here Nor There (Melbourne)
  63. NC-17 (Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina)
  64. Got Vinegar? (Reading, England)
  65. Pound Foolish (Reading)
  66. Like Chocolate for Water (Dearborn, Michigan)
  67. Missing Inaction (Austin, Texas)
  68. All Abroad! (Melbourne and Sydney, Australia)
  69. In the Mood (Sydney)
  70. Fools Rush Out (Los Angeles, Calif., and Boston, Mass.) [1999]
  71. Kansas? City? (Kansas City, Missouri)
  72. Mixed Messages (Richmond, Virginia)
  73. What Price Glory? (Sunnyvale, California)
  74. Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (Austin, Texas)
  75. Driven (Torrance, California)
  76. Ft. Wroth (Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas)
  77. Mouths Wide Shut (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina)
  78. America’s Dirtyland (Appleton, Wisconsin)
  79. Congratulations, Cynthia and Roland (Sunnyvale, California)
  80. The Pursuit of Unhappiness (Woburn, Massachusetts)
  81. Not Enough “Hot Enough for You?” for Me (Austin, Texas, thrice)
  82. No Reston for the Wicked (Reston, Virginia)
  83. Unappreciated (Ottawa, Ontario)
  84. Vous Avez Oublié Quelque Chose? (Montreal, Quebec)
  85. Grumble in the Bronx (Hawthorne, New York)
  86. Every Given Sunday (Hillsboro, Oregon)
  87. The Man Who Flew Too Much (Woburn, Massachusetts) [2000]
  88. South Austin Will Rise Again (Austin, Texas)
  89. I’ve Got This Friend... (Rochester, New York)
  90. Good to the Last Raindrop (Bellevue, Washington)
  91. Mission: Viejo (Mission Viejo, California)
  92. No Day at the Beach (Long Beach, California)
  93. Deep in the Heat of Texas (Austin, Texas)
  94. Expect Delays (St. Paul, Minnesota)
  95. There’s No Carolina like No. Carolina (RTP, N.C.)
  96. Unmerry-Go-Round (Denver, Colorado)
  97. Alive and, Well, in Toronto (Toronto, Ontario)
  98. Try This at Home (Peoria, Illinois)
  99. Texgiving (Austin, Texas)
  100. Untrainable (Auburn, Washington)
  101. How Robert Didn’t Get His Groove Back (RTP, N.C.) [2001]
  102. Requiem for a Lightweight (San Jose, California)
  103. Philology (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
  104. The Fifth Sense (Austin, Texas)
  105. Question (home)
  106. Canadian Beauty (Toronto, Ontario)
  107. Artist Descending a Fire Escape (Dallas, Texas)
  108. Afterward (RTP, N.C.)
  109. Tri-State (Lexington, Massachusetts)
  110. Being Here, Doing This (Manhattan, New York)
  111. No Size Fits All (Denver, Colorado)
  112. Say Uncle! (Dallas, Texas)
  113. Resumption of Disbelief (San Jose, California)
  114. Motor Skills (Burlington, Massachusetts)
  115. Encore Une Fois (Toronto, Ontario)
  116. Here with the Wind (Baltimore, Maryland)
  117. Need Anything? (San Jose, Calif., and Austin, Texas) [2002]
  118. Trainerspotting (Montreal, Quebec)
  119. MDW (Denver, Colorado)
  120. Ne Pas Déranger (North York, Ontario)
  121. Signs (RTP, N.C.)
  122. The World Was Not Enough (Austin, Texas)
  123. The Next Big Nothing (Markham, Ontario) [2003]
  124. Flavor of the Decade (the end)

Epilogue: Starting What I Finished.

Messages I won’t paste in, but whose titles I liked:


1993


(Ur-travelogue, May 1993)

It’s 3:30 a.m., and I can’t sleep. Had a slow and frantic day: couldn’t do anything to fix everything that was broken at the booth, and it took forever not to do it. Found out that the one person who knows how to help isn’t coming out here, isn’t answering the telephone, and isn’t me.

The hotel building is huge: it takes up an entire city block, ten stories tall and with two hundred windows on each side of the building, but apparently only one corner of the building is used: 75% of the outer windows are boarded over or broken. Will have to explore the hallway tomorrow, and perhaps investigate the matter of the ten gallons of water that comes through the ceiling every hour.

Took the MARTA transit system a few times, where we were the noisiest people in the terminal. Took a long walk at 11:00 p.m. (against my better judgment, which was somewhere else at the time) and made a “contact” named Ron that offered to get me anything I need. I believe he could have, too. I should have told him that someone evidently broke into my room and stole my soap, although I doubt he’d be very sympathetic.

Had my first nosebleed in a decade on Sunday, for reasons unrelated to the soap. Also had a telephone message from someone named Dulka staying at the Ritz-Carlton. If it’s important, they’ll call back.

Got asked out today after a demo—“Are you going with someone?”—by a 20-year-old who looked like Little Orphan Annie. Today only one person fell asleep at the booth while I was talking, so I think I’m getting better at this. Favorite line of the day: “I guess I shouldn’t say hell in a demo.”


1994


SIAM, I Am

Hi, Gang,

I’m in San Diego for a show called SIAM, though “Solitary Confinement” might be a better name. During the first hour two people stopped by the booth, and things sort of tapered off after that. At least the hours are long and the food is lousy.

Speaking of food, you can eat your hearts out (your own or each other’s, as you like) about the weather, though. It’s 78° (Fahrenheit, David) and quite sunny; I sat out on the balcony for five minutes, and came inside burnt.

I’ve been hanging out with three Matlab people, each a third as bored as I am. Oh, and I think I have scurvy.

What I’m trying to say is, send stories. They don’t even have to be true.

— Robert “‘Things could be worse.’ ‘They are.’” Dickau


Baby, It’s Cold Inside

You can’t imagine the warm feeling Pinawa gives me, figuratively and literally. It’s been varying between −30° and −10° (F), with freezing fog, loose snow, and a funny smell.

Pinawa, Manitoba, is a great place to visit, if you don’t like good weather. The convenience store closes at 8:00 pm, which I think should disallow it from using the word ‘convenience’. There’s a gas station/hotel/restaurant/bar/pool hall/bureau of records/casino/opium den next to our hotel—which in turn squeaks by on a technicality (all the comforts of home, if you live at the YMCA)—where we’ve resigned ourselves to eating every meal. The other choice is the Pinawa Club, a members-only curling club. Our contact here recommended we go to a nearby (40 min. away) town to eat; we checked the telephone book, and the only restaurant there was Cap’n Ed’s Chicken Hat, or some such thing.

I was planning to complain about how rough the towels are, until I discovered I’d been drying myself with the bath mat.

The point is, wish you were here, or that I weren’t.

— Stinky Pete


Hurricane Pops

I’m just inspired to be more tired.

The problem with staying in Orlando—you know, apart from the 80-mph winds, the 100-foot-deep sinkholes, the tourists, and everything else—is that it’s too easy to make fun of.

I found out that “Orlando” is a Spanish word that means, “I drive as fast as I can”; and there’s a three-story-tall football attached to the side of our hotel building. Here at the Disney All-Star Resort (“Last Resort,” I like to call it), all the sprinkler heads are painted lavender. The Disney rent-a-cop told Dan and me to quit trespassing. We did.

Can you guess what cable-television station we get here? The Disney Channel! I can’t wait to see “That Darn Cat!” for the third time today. The televisions are closed-captioned; I wish the attendees at ICTCM were.

Enough rambling: you get the point. Do what you will with it. I’m lying when I say I miss you, and lying when I say I don’t.

Until next week,

— Pops


Mayday!

Or, to you francophiles and -phones out there, «M’Aidez!»

Just checking.

Not that there’s nothing to worry about. H— and I arrived here eleven hours late, or, it turned out, twenty-two hours too early. The winds during the Chicago–San Francisco flight—when we boarded it ten hours late—added an hour to the travel time, and a 6,000-foot variation in our cruising altitude. (“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re cruising at an altitude of 24,000 feet.” Wait five minutes. “We’re cruising at 18,000 feet.” Wait five minutes. “We’re now at 23,000 feet.” Etc., ad lib., and passim.)

What’s more, there was a bank robbery across the street from the hotel yesterday, where one of the busiest intersections in town was closed off for five hours while the police shot up, then mopped up, the suspect.

With all this, it’s hardly worth mentioning the earthquake.

I’m trying to keep H— entertained here, if you know what I mean. (That’s not what I mean.) I can tell she’s enjoying herself, because she’s smiling. She can tell I’m enjoying myself, because I’m awake. Do you see where this is going? In retrospect, trying to walk the eight miles to the Golden Gate Bridge (at night) wasn’t such a good idea.

Now, I’m basking in the finest in adult entertainment. That is, cheesy moon-landing movies. (Astronauts needing to be told that moon gravity is one-sixth of the Earth’s... space suits in fashion colors... “The glory that is the vastness of space, sir.”)

In any case, hello to all. Save me a pot of chili, and send mail, burning questions, and corrections to punctuation to the address above.


1995


The Law of Diminishing Retorts

If you really loved me, you would have said, “Yankee, come home!”

Messing with Texas is no day at the beach, Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding. It’s been in the 30s and 40s (degrees, not the decades), and rainy, which causes everyone to drive faster, and occasionally on the right side of the road. Or maybe it’s just me.

Seeing my brother was great. (Talking to him is like talking to me, only funny.) By the end of the weekend, we taught the dog how to say my name, and I learned how to say hers.

I like Houston, except the times when I’m awake. The show (Chemputers III: Whee!) lasts more than eight hours a day, and I don’t have anyone to play with except a malingerer who embarrasses me by being boring and having the least sincere sure-I’m-listening face in recent memory.

So you see, nothing very diverting is happening. What I’m trying to say is, send mail, and be my Valentine.

— Ceçi n’est pas un Pops.


Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Me

Oklahoma is OK, Indiana is IN, and Alabama is AL. How is everyone? Where is everyone?

My flight from Houston to Huntsville was okay; I left Texas from the Houston Hobby Airport, whose name should give you an idea of the service. (Sounds like an expensive hobby.)

The point is, hi. The most interesting thing here is the instruction label on my room’s coffee maker: it shows how to pour water in the top, put the coffee in the filter basket, push the on button, and, amazingly, how to pour the coffee into a cup. I can’t speak for everyone, but once I see the coffee in the carafe, I can take it from there.

Tomorrow the IEEE show runs from 9 to 7. Bonus points for the person who correctly guesses how many of those hours I’ll actually be at the booth.

Mars needs women, Elvis needs boats, and I need mail.

— Pippa


Twice in a Lifetime

Moms,

This show is vastly more entertaining than the chemical engineering show. That is to say, it isn’t entertaining at all. (I have a couple of friends out here, so I can have a little fun between involuntary naps.) Physically, the show is miserable: I had to stand for ten hours today, and our booth is almost entirely eclipsed by a wall of monitor boxes that belong to the hardware vendor next door; and when someone does find us, it’s an exterminator or plumber who thinks I’m with the hardware people and wants to know why the monitors cost so much.

The most enjoyable diversions so far were finding 25 typographical errors in a photocopier-maker’s brochure, and hearing someone explain, “I used to be an ex-Marine”, whatever that means.

Must... go... to... sleep.

— Pops


Wichita Falls 70210

Dear Diary,

I was lost, but now I’m lost.

I’m in Wichita Falls, Texas, today, home of the world’s smallest skyscraper (“littlest skyscraper”, they call it) and an artificial waterfall (apparently the real one washed away a century ago). Yesterday a young boy walked outside from the lobby to urinate on the sidewalk, then went back inside; and I overheard some people talking about the use of salt as an antiseptic. This was the life.

Moreover, there’s a couple two doors down who have been yelling at each other every time I’ve walked past their door, and I just met them when they were walking around almost naked in the hall. The phrase “hubba, hubba” doesn’t come to mind.

If that weren’t enough, the Texas Department of Public Safety is on Missile Road. There’s also a restaurant called Uncle Lynn’s down the highway. I recommend it highly.

I also recommend you send mail. Happy President’s Day (Observed).

— Señor Pops


I Can’t Believe I Hate the Whole Thing

Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Wichita Falls.”

Well, it’s official: No one in Wichita Falls finds me very amusing. Not much to say, and not much time to say it before our plane leaves in eight hours. Training went well, and we were regaled, as predicted, with stories of the twister of ’79. They’re pretty interesting, the first time. I suggested the town be called “Wichita Fell”, which didn’t go over well at all.

— Pops till you drop.


Manic City USA

Ma and Pa,

A hearty Howdy! from Nashville! The show we’re here for is ACM: the Assoc. for Computing Machinery, and not the Assoc. for Country Music, which is also having a show here in the Opryland Hotel.

The Opryland Hotel reminds me of Biosphere 2, only with cowboys. The center of the hotel is a big, enclosed garden, complete with waterfalls, bridges, and trees, and where you can see ashtrays and restaurants as they occur in nature. There’s a cheesy lighted fountain in there where dozens of tourists take pictures when the pink lights come on; and the atmosphere is like Illinois in the summer, only on purpose.

The television receives about 15 stations, more than half of which are incomprehensible: there’s a 24-hour radio-station-commercial network, five country music video networks, an incest interview channel, and so forth.

As you can guess, I need to get back to Champaign to pick up some more jokes. See you next week. You give me healthy teeth and a shiny coat.

Likewise,

— The Prodigal Son-in-Law


Snap, Crackle, Pops

What would God do at a time like this?

Welcome from North Carolina, where I haven’t felt so unwelcome since last week. Our contact here evidently gave us a fake telephone number, and seemed surprised and affronted when we showed up at the appointed location. Ask me about the burning tar, the giggles, the bread, and the lurker. It just goes to show, I either would have made a very good semioticist, or a very bad one. I have a pretty good idea which.

Less than meets the eye,

— Pops


The Last Temptation of Pops

My children,

An overwhelming sense of purposelessness impels me to write, with nothing to say except that I have nothing to say. Boston is fine, except for the parts that we’ve seen; the weather has been miserable from the time we flew in, upside down, to the one night we’ve been able to escape the Logan Airport Hilton. We received a crash course in Massachusetts driving etiquette, to which we’ll devote a special issue of the staff newsletter, editors willing. Ask about the worthless drunks at Apple, about the Question Man, about the swordfish and the Sam Adams shortage.

J’ai très fatigue, et très soif, malhereusement. (I’ve never told anyone this before, but «j’aime les guillemets.») El señor no es listo, pero esta loco. (Dulce est desipere in loco.) Ich bin ein Berlitzer.

Anyway, all the words in the world can’t hide that what I’m trying to say is, see you soon, feigning symptoms of dengue. It’ll be good practice.

Mars needs mail,

— Crispy and Me


First Will and Testament

Well, wish us luck, and try to send mail. If anyone cleans my desk, it’s curtains for you all.

Hey, it’s good box office.

Always leave them wanting less,

— Pops


Tachycardia Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Day one: We made it to Buenos Aires safely, despite being pulled off the plane to Lima, having my pronunciation of “Buenos Aires” ridiculed—

  A play in one act:

  Me:                “...I’m going to Buenos Aires.”

  Clerk:             “¿Á dondé?”

  Me, thinking surely she must have heard of it:
                     “Á Buenos Aires.” (repeat many times)

  Clerk, eventually: “Oh, Buenos Eye-rrrrrrrrrayssssssssss.”

  The end.

—running out of airplane fuel, making an unscheduled stop in Uruguay, and my carrying contraband duty-free items. The weather reminds me of Champaign in August, and the driving reminds me of nothing I’ve ever seen. All that keeps me going is the sound of those magic words, “¿Más café, Señor Dickau?”, and seeing “Scooby-Doo” and 2001: A Space Odyssey dubbed into Spanish.


All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Buenos Aires

And what I’ve learned is, it takes two to tango.

I now speak fluent Spanish, and forgot all the English I ever knew. My mantra is “Huelo a sudor” (“I have body odor”); right up there with “If only I had less time.”

Mañana we leave for Santiago, Chile, and have been warned about the frightening landing we can expect. The coffee is [deleted] delicious! It comes in miniature toy coffee cups, which you can fit in your mouth, if it’s a big mouth and you really want the cup in there.

The point is, I’m sunburned even though I haven’t been outdoors; remind me to show you my flesh wound and irreparable psychic scars. Still, I get to walk around kissing everybody, which makes everything all right. ¡Hola, señorita!

Thirstier than ever,

— Robert


LaBamba: the Forgotten Dunce

Or, “I Left My Heart in Santiago.”

(19 Abril 1995)

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, so I’ll tell you.

We’re now in Santiago, Chile, where our hostess just got la Señorita E— and me stinking drunk on Chilean wine, but don’t tell Stephen. She’s very funny, our hostess: she and her mother chain-smoke Viceroys, serve us potato chips and pisco-and-Coke, collect dolls and math books, and encourage us to have twins (separately—though how I would manage is unclear). And I thought I was in for a dull afternoon. They’re so charming I want to vomit, though perhaps it’s just the wine.

The flight was everything people said it would be, and more. We flew from Buenos Aires to Santiago on the airline Ladeco, on whose airplane we heard more funny noises than the FAA would allow, if they knew about it. (Part of the ceiling fell off the plane, for starters.) The descent took us into what I assume are the Andes, and quickly, noisily turned into an ascent and a 450-degree turn, nearly perpendicular to the ground and some sheep, and... well, you had to be there, or be glad you weren’t.

Believe me when I say to you, X-acto knives are not my friends. Don’t ask, won’t tell.

(20 Abril)

We have to do something about those damned Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas to you and me). Chileans aren’t as quick as the Argentines to offer coffee, water, or their daughter’s hand in marriage. No more wine! Why has my tongue turned black?

Ahora mi español es mejor que mi ingles.

Things are going from worst to worse. The power went out halfway through one of our demonstrations, and the words “No hablo español” don’t seem to mean a thing here. (I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t know what that means.) We were served instant coffee and sugar wafers, but it didn’t help. Nothing ever does. I fear I have bubonic plague, so be sure to wash your hands after handling me. The water has become smellier since this morning, and, given my aroma of late, this is saying a lot.

We went back to our hostess’ house after work, where she holds the distinction of being the first person ever to give me a can of clams (Consumir preferentemente antes de junio de 1998) as a gift. (Something to do with the twins, apparently.) There’s a last time for everything, non?

I don’t feel so hot, not that you asked.


Unhappy-Go-Lucky

(21 Abril 1995)

You think you have problems? Where is everybody?

Things turned ugly today. It seems no one had bothered to inspect any of the seminar rooms, or even determine where they are, or to learn what an overhead projector is. What a comb is, for that matter. It was nice to see someone who’d been objectionable to us dash in front of a speeding bus to hail a taxi, except that she lived.

How many times can we have clams and coffee for breakfast and live? Our contact’s first name is Maria, which is not saying very much: everybody’s first name is Maria.

Unhappy-go-lucky,

— The last of the great American somnambulists


I Knew You Weren’t Waiting for Me

(22 Abril)

We made it to Brazil. No one knows how. The airline threatened not to let us into the country—either that, or not let us out—owing to some squabble with Chile. It’s kind of odd coming from Chile where it wasn’t unusual to carry around 75,000 pesos, to Brazil where a dollar is worth less than a real (plural reias—pronounced “ray-eye-is”, unaccountably). I feel cheap.

Just when we thought the driving couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. In Buenos Aires, people drove merely unsensibly. In Chile, it was more crowded, with buses mixed in with everything. Here, the traffic is even worse, and we ride with someone who drives faster (140 kph) than anyone else around. Gwen and Pops are not long for this world.

Just can’t hate enough,

— Maria Roberto


Closing Time

(25 Abril)

We closed down São Paulo! I can’t remember the last time I had so much bad beer, apart from the last time I was in Champaign, which I can’t remember either.

There’s no getting away from it: we are the sweethearts of South America. We gave a talk to 120 people yesterday morning, then 350 people yesterday evening, then hundreds more today, and they ask if we’ve considered offering ourselves as the raffle prizes. Everyone takes pictures of us, and gives us nice mementoes of our “honorable” visit; when all we need is a good hangover cure, and a little less coffee.

I love the Tropic of Capricorn.

Su casa es mi casa,

— Pops


What We Have Here Is...

(27 Abril)

“HBO Olé!” is the only friend I have left. After my feeble efforts at acting like a local—a really pale one—speaking Portuguese, the clerk at the gift shop (where they keep all the postcards I never sent you) just asked me what language I was speaking. (“Are you speaking Spanish or English?”) Boa noite, e obrigato, my ass. If I never see a tilde again it’ll be too soon.

We’re getting exponentially less sleep as the trip goes on. We’re expected to work and have “fun” with Gwen’s reseller contacts for 15 hours a day, and are down to two and three hours’ sleep a night, or afternoon, or whenever. Anyway, we’ll be back soon. You can’t miss us: we’re the ones with dark circles where our eyes belong. Besides, what are we supposed to do with all these figs?

Burn all my letters,

— J.W. Etc. (Miss)


All I Want Is Out

(28 Abril)

We’re finished, in more ways than one, whatever that means. We were introduced to the national drink; and by the end of the evening it was talking to us. ((II’’mm sseeeeiinngg ddoouubbllee rriigghhtt nnooww..))

It’s close to 24 hours until our plane leaves, if it leaves.

Cleverer than everer,

— Old Brown Eyes


Damn, I’m Awake

I can’t believe I’m awake for this.

You want to hear about bored? Try going to St. John’s, Newfoundland, staying down the street from the Ministry of Fisheries, and up the street from the donut shop (motto: “Kind of good!”) that everyone there talks about to avoid talking about how boring St. John’s is. The most interesting thing by far about it is that it has a senseless time zone (2-1/2 hours later than Central Time), but once you reset your watch it’s hard to keep thinking about it.

I’m going back to sleep; I wonder if I’ll notice a difference.

— Pops


The Pops Heard ’Round the World

Or, “Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia.”

Hampton, Virginia, is a ghost town. (There’s a restaurant nearby named “Sorry Sara’s”, which about says it all.) Even the ambulances don’t have to turn on their sirens, since there’s no one on the roads to get in the way; I’m surprised they can even find anyone to be injured.

I’ll fill you in on a little secret you’ve known all along: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a rocket scientist; and if anyone ever offers to take you to the NASA cafeteria for lunch, politely decline. I’ve attached some chicken and dumplings to this message so you can see for yourself.

Sense of humor not necessary here. Regardez:

Them: “...blah blah and we can’t get the network to work right.”

Me: “So you can put a man on the Moon, but can’t get the network up.”

Them: [Nothing.]

Me: “Uh, okay. Well, the DSolve command is...”

Them: “Ha ha ha!”

Where did I go wrong? The point is: If you want to see what nowhere looks like, take a peek at Hampton, Virginia.

Send mail and burritos,

— Patroj


The Road Worrier

(Alternatively, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Wanting To.”)

My children,

I think I’m going about this all wrong. (I’m diving for gold and digging for pearls, if you see what I mean.) Chicago is very striking from the air, especially when hurtling toward it in a small aeroplane (as they used to say) that’s apparently out of control. The only thing I thought—during the couple of seconds yesterday morning when things looked really serious—was “Oh”. Robbing Peter to pay Peter, and all that.

New York City is all right, if you’re used to living on the planet Mercury, only with snipers and prostitutes. The phrases “Hobo sapiens” and “Honey, I’m homeless!” come to mind.

It’s my own dumb fault,

— Pops


All Gone

(Or, Less Is Baltimore)

To Whom It May Concern,

We finally made it to Landover, Maryland, three hours after the plane landed; we were hindered by the fact that every street is named “13th Street”. Still, we did make it; if I were sending this from the airport, I certainly wouldn’t admit it, or even mention it. Exercise: Ask someone here for directions. Understand the directions. Follow them. Repeat.

The water tastes like chlorine (which is a colorless, odorless gas), and the soil tastes like fluorine, molybdenum, and cesium.

No stories yet, but I have to be awake (again) in six hours to train some people at the National Center of Health Statistics, so I should have some stories then (“As we say in the statistics game, ‘chances are’...”).

Send stories and food.

Burning Rome while Nero fiddles,

— Someone else


Going, Going, ...

The training in Boston today was a real eye-opener: [Name deleted] is the sweetheart of New England (though probably not of the old one). Today I was my usual self, cracking jokes and yukking it up with the students (“I’m trying not to get all mushy, but thanks for coming...”), with no reaction at all (unless you count the woman in the front row with Tourette’s Syndrome); but they’d all turn around and say in a sappy voice, “Oh, [not me], show us how to...”

Not that you’d want to be friends with any of them. Apart from Ms. Blurt, there was the man in the back with the hard-phlegm sniffles all day; the know-nothing high-school teacher from Michigan who signed up for all four courses but who doesn’t know how to use a computer and isn’t interested in learning; the grad student from MIT who attended the training course to decide if he should buy the student version, even though the training costs four times as much as the program; the smelly man with the intermittent German accent (10:00 a.m.: “So, I have to type a square bracket here?” 11:00 a.m.: “Zo, I haff to dype a curly brakkett heeeere?”); Mr. Lazy Face, who would talk and smile out of only half of his face, but a different half at different times; and the man who wrote down everything we said (“Good morning.” Scribble, scribble).

I’m not counting the man who signed up for the Boston course, but showed up in Washington, D.C., yesterday and took the course there (“Okay, you want to go north 35,000 blocks, then turn right...”).

So, how’s trucks? I mean, tricks? I’m in New York (though probably not of the old one—just checking) now to teach course number 3, trying to figure out why a voice just came out of the hotel-room fire alarm, saying “testing, 1, 2, 3”. Any ideas?

I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 2,

— Pops


Hot Not to Trot

Or, “Thank God I’m Not a Country Boy”.

(In spite of what they say, John Denver did not touch an entire generation.)

Charlotte, N.C., could be worse, but I can’t imagine how. I’m here for the SIAM show (I’ll suggest they call it THAILAND next year) again, which we seem to attend for no other reason than someone at work wants me out of the office.

Actually, the show doesn’t start until tomorrow morning, but rumor has it that this year will be even slower than last year, when the rush consisted of two people who stopped by in one hour on the first day, when they were looking for something else.

What really kills me, though, is that one of our developer contacts recognized me at the airport, bummed a ride to the hotel, and told me about his plans to get lucky at the conference. (1. Fat chance. 2. Yuck.)

This all means that it’s up to you to save me. You have your orders.

Unhappy to be here,

— Dr. Pops


Charlotte, NC’s Web

SIAM at a glance:

Only two people wrote back today, so that’s all you get. I’m not doing this for my health, you know.


Tuesday Is Ladies’ Boxing Nite

Or, “Get Your Kicks on Route 76”.

Or even, “What Part of ‘No. Carolina’ Don’t You Understand?”

I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a sorghum festival here this week, complete with spitting contest. Ask me for the brochure.

Forget what I said about SIAM: this is the slowest show ever. At least at SIAM I was sure I was in the right building—this little setup is at Young Harris College (in Young Harris, Georgia, a town of 400 people), and evidently the show management forgot to tell us that the show was canceled. All 400 of the townspeople didn’t show up for the exhibits.

Oh, it’s too horrible to speak of, so I won’t.

Back in town after midnight tomorrow; bonus points to the person who guesses when I’ll be back in the office.

Why do I bother?

— Robert (not funny any more)


Membership Has Its Drawbacks

Or, “Driving Me Crazy”.

I don’t know why they bother to paint lines between the lanes on the freeway here, or why they bother putting up speed-limit signs. Someone should just pave over all of Massachusetts, and let everyone drive in a straight line wherever they want to go. It’s not uncommon to see huge trucks make U-turns (and W-turns, and the controversial Q-turn) on the freeway: what sort of trucking school teaches that? (“You too can learn how to drive the big rigs, just not very well.”)

Does anybody read these any more?

The buffet lunch here is great, if you’re fasting, painting a still life, or doing anything but eating. There must be a special school to get food that bad; all I know is, next time I’m filling my suitcase with burritos.

Ask for it by name,

— Pippi Longstocking


“Pittsburgh, we have a problem.”

After two of the scariest flights ever, one of the first things I saw here was a freeway exit sign that read, “Moon, 1/2 mile”. I know the airplane was all over the place, but I still find that shocking. I also know I’m not the smartest person ever, but that also explains to me why 60 South becomes 279 North. Hm.

I almost made it to the hotel by 10:30 pm, but I missed the exit and got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (“Next exit, 5,000 miles”) by mistake, which added 45 minutes to the trip. Even the cutesy town names (Squirrel Hill, Sandcastle) didn’t bring me out of my blue funk.

Just outside one of the two automobile tunnels into town are signs that say “no flammable liquids”; I imagine they don’t count gasoline. Or hair fixative.

Have to be up in a few hours, so that’s that. Write back, or I abort the mission.

Love,

— Apollo 14


1996


101 Damnations

Or, “Florida Welcomes Drunk Drivers!”

Anyone who wants the rest of my dolphin sandwich is welcome to it. A diner in Fort Lauderdale serves dolphin prepared seven ways, which is probably illegal, immoral, and tasty.

Now I’m in Orlando, where the maps they provide are fanciful, provided more for the amusement of children than for aid in getting from one place to another. (Exercise: From I-95, find exit 28A.) (Hint: It’s not between exit 0 and exit infinity.) The weather is fabulous, relative to the rest of the country (this being the Blizzard of 1996): with the wind chill, it was 70 degrees outside, and there are zero inches of snow on the ground.

We’re here for the Joint Math Meetings, in the same exhibit hall as the Surf Expo. (A surfing show? In Florida?) My mantra here is, “I don’t know”. The place is full of fashion don’ts and didn’ts, and once again I wish there were mints distributed with the attendee registration packets. Either that, or clothespins with the exhibitor registration packets.

If I don’t get to a Waffle House soon I’m going to blow up. I could really go for a dolphin omelette.

Everybody’s fool,

— Robert


What’s Not to Hate?

Or, “L.A.-de-dah”. (Sorry.)

If you were me, you’d enjoy all the driving here, at least between accidents. (And if I were you, you’d be sitting in a dingy motel room (where somebody stole my deodorant and threw my soap into the toilet) typing and watching your faith in humanity fly out the window, but that’s another story.) There are no posted speed limits on the freeways, and hilarious ones posted on the city streets. Champaign people, imagine a posted speed limit of 55 mph on Green Street; the rest of you, imagine limits of 55 mph on Guadalupe, Delmar, and Madison Ave., or 140 mph on Hereford Highway. It was almost 90 out this afternoon, making a 130-degree difference from Thursday night in Champaign. Of course, all I packed were clothes that I wore for the -40 temperatures. Is it any wonder I’m always so tense?

If that weren’t bad enough, I had only one measly 6-oz. cup of coffee for the first 60 hours I was here; you can’t imagine what that did to my psyche. But you don’t read these to hear about me...

I stopped by the Richard Nixon birthplace and library in Yorba Linda today. I’ll show you (and let you drink from) my RMN coffee mug, if you like. Don’t be bashful.

— Pep


Drop Till You Stop

Or, “Run for the Boredom”.

Space aliens left me an incomplete message in five-foot-tall letters in the snow on the hotel lawn: the letters spell out “WE COME”, which is short either for “WELCOME” or “WE COME IN PEACE”. Either way, I’m a better person for it.

Apart from that, I can’t say much for Rochester. The businesses’ names are full of exaggerations: GT Rocks Restaurant doesn’t, Pastimes and Pleasures doesn’t carry either, and Freddy’s Rx doesn’t have any medicine for my ennui. I’m doing training for Kodak out here, and no one can figure out how to focus the overhead projector. Then again, it’s not like they should be expected to know anything about lenses.

My lunch bill came to $6.66. Is this another sign?

Do you read me?

— Introbert


Whine Tasting (Get a Gripe!)

(Or, “Your Tax Dollars at Work”.)

My fellow Americans,

The motto of Washington, D.C., is apparently “Beep!” I was almost run over by an ambulance Wednesday evening, which would have been a stroke of luck, under the circumstances. We were treated to some of the city’s famous gridlock, which I thought odd, considering we were pedestrians.

FOSE (Federal Office Supply Exposition) is a huge circus of a show, mostly for government workers, and from the looks of things it’s surprising more public servants don’t go nuts and shoot everyone they work with.

(“Things to do today:

  1. Buy stamps.
  2. Kill co-workers.
  3. Pick up kids...”

I don’t think there’s a court in the land that would convict these people.) Many of the exhibitors here sell programs designed to fill out government paperwork, and it seems that if we can put the forms on a computer, perhaps we don’t need the actual paperwork. Perhaps we don’t need the actual employees, either, for that matter. Then again, Uncle Sam didn’t ask me. The government needs me about as much as I need it.

Filmed before a lively studio audience,

— Pope


The City of Blubbery Love

W. C. Fields was wrong: On the whole, I’d rather not be in Philadelphia.

The trip there should have been a tip-off. It took two hours of sitting in the airplane in Champaign for the weather to clear up enough to fly to Chicago; then took another hour of sitting on the runway before we could drive the plane to gate G-3; we had fifteen minutes to walk the three miles to gate K-13, and it was good that we hurried because we sat on the runway another 150 minutes before we could take off again for Philadelphia. It would have been faster to hitchhike. Safer, too.

Once we got there we learned that driving in Philadelphia is exciting: in most cities, if you get lost it’s just a matter of not knowing what street you’re on, or what part of town you’re in; here, you don’t know what state you’re in. Todd and I wound up in Prospect Park, Delaware, by mistake—the streets were eerily deserted, evidently all the prospects having been used up.

Flying back made all those other worries pale in comparison, though: we were flying over another huge storm that was blowing from west to east, and as far as the pilots were concerned, not even the sky was the limit: during the flight we cruised at several altitudes, gradually working our way to 41,000 feet... the idea apparently being that we can’t be affected by the weather if we fly over the atmosphere. It’s good that this was a relatively short flight, or else we would have floated into orbit. Good for me anyway, though perhaps not for you.

Close your eyes and count to zero,

— Robert

(Update: The airline sent me a long letter apologizing for the weather.)


Never Again, Again

I thought my number had come up. The flight to Los Angeles goes straight to the top of the scary airplane experience list (does anyone notice a pattern forming?): it was a 767 with about 50 people on board, and an hour after takeoff it started alternating between the controversial Plummet-like-a-Rock maneuver and the Shoot-the-Moon effect. To my dying day I’ll never never again confuse pitch, roll, and yaw; and I wonder if my frequent-flier miles include all that extra vertical travel.

Once we got there I realized that I had forgotten to pack neckties (either that, or the turbulence knocked them out of my suitcase—I’m looking into it), so I had to buy one at the hotel gift shop, where they were all shiny. At first I considered this bad luck, but once I got outside in the heat my white shirt turned transparent, so it ended up coordinating just fine.

We were there to give a talk to some of the kindest and loudest people I’ve ever addressed, and it went off without a hitch, unless you count the parking situation, the insufficiently dark yet insufficiently light room, my inability to find water, and my bad attitude. The drive to San Diego was also worry-free, despite our having only a copy of a faxed map of North America.

Note to travelers to San Diego: I feel it only fair to point out that Harbor Island isn’t an island. Note to my next-door neighbors in the hotel: you don’t have to turn the sound all the way up when you’re watching the television show “Jeopardy!” just because of the exclamation point.

We were in San Diego for NCTM, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (a good grammar teacher could probably get rid of one of those “of”s), which should more accurately be called the National Council of Teachers Looking for Free Stuff. The hours were miserably long; we weren’t there to have fun, and the weather removed any temptation by hiding the sun for the entire week. I didn’t go anywhere besides the hotel, convention center, and a couple of restaurants, so all I brought back to Illinois with me is a disinclination to wake up before 10:00 a.m. Stop by my office at 9:00 and you’ll see it.


Have Gnu, Will Travel

Or, “Fish and Chimps”.

Woensdag:

No sleep in 48 hours? No problem, unless you count the hallucinations. We flew the seven hours to London, visited the UK office, then flew another eleven hours to Johannesburg, where we arrived 8:15 this “morning”. The area of Johannesburg we’re in—Bruma—reminds me of Pomona, California, circa 1975. The hotel is really pleasant, with a lakeside terrace, fully stocked kitchen, and a flock of loud pigeons nesting in the atrium outside my room. So far it’s all what I expected; our contact here says we’re just what he expected, except six inches shorter.

The computer is being powered by a coffee-pot cord (while I’m being powered by nothing at all), and we have to be awake at 5:45 tomorrow (10:45 p.m. at home) for the first of our three presentations; my prediction is that we’ll disprove the saying “There’s no such thing as bad p.r.”

That’s all for now, except that the Coriolis effect is a huge disappointment.

— Rabble


How Will It Play in Pretoria?

Donderdag:

From looking at the telephone book, it looks like we might be fined or thrown in jail for connecting the computer (an “unauthorised device”) to the telephone line, but that’s a chance we’ll have to live with. I have my duty to all of you, after all.

The money here is adorable: the cent is a copper coin smaller than the nail on my little finger, so I live in terror of accidentally swallowing or inhaling one. Maybe I already have, which would explain why I’m feeling so sluggish.

It was a two-hour drive from Johannesburg to our first talk in Potchefstroom (during which we passed some shantytowns, or “informal settlements”), and when we got there they made us feel at home by keeping the seminar room at 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I really liked the fantastic instant-coffee dispenser they had there, but they made me put it back.

After that it was a 150-minute drive to the Univ. of Witwatersland, where our second talk was scheduled (for much of the same time as our third talk, as it happens, which was a bit awkward). We did our little show, then sped to Rand Afrikaans University, where we were treated as rock stars. Unsuccessful, has-been rock stars, that is. The flesh was willing, but the spirit was weak, or something like that. Once more, the crowds were difficult to warm up; even my best ingratiating opening line (“I’m from the United States, so I don’t speak English very well”) barely got a chuckle. Still, I’m competing with four-year-old reruns of “Saved by the Bell”, so I probably don’t have a chance.

Vrydag:

The pigeons are getting angry, and I’m afraid to leave my room. What should I do? What would you do?

More driving. It was a 45-minute race to Pretoria this morning (I clocked our contact at 180 kph for part of it, while he was telling us about how fast everyone drives in South Africa) for a full day of training. It turns out that it’s impossible to crack up a roomful of Afrikaners, but easy to please one or two. Apparently they just loved us there, obvious faults notwithstanding; I’m considering never coming back. By the end, they were begging to bring me coffee.

And how was your day, dear?

— Robert “Mâitre” D’.

P.S. Remind me to tell you about the “action pub”, the “ladies’ bar”, the full-chicken-full-ribs-chips-salad-and-rolls-for-$20, the Cheez Wiz burger, the monkey burger and monkey gland sauce, and “Pub Scoff”.


Cape of No Hope

Eight days and counting, and I’d give just about anything for a Q-tip.

You think your job is boring? There’s a kid downstairs whose job is to open the front door of the hotel for people walking in or out, and he’s been there for going on 13 hours. You can fake him out just like an electric door, by acting like you’re going to walk outside but then veering off when you get within a few yards.

I’m going to stop by the Hyperama later for some groceries—anyone for a jar of Peck’s Anchovette? Appletiser? Bulletproof glass? We’ve been warned, again and again, about the rampant crime all around South Africa, and heard some awful friend-of-a-friend stories, so this probably isn’t the best time for me to be reading In Cold Blood.

The state of technology for editing out bad language in movies on television is woefully primitive: I watched one movie where there was a bleep about one second before every expletive.

I forgot to mention that the handle to my suitcase broke off somewhere between Champaign and Johannesburg. If anyone finds it, there’s a healthy reward.

Send sleep,

— Dr. Lethargy


Durban Cowboy

Cast of thousands,

I’ve become my own worst enemy. We made it back last night, after eating six airplane meals in 36 hours and staying awake for 48, and I woke up on the floor at home this morning about 4:30 a.m. I didn’t have to wait until morning to hate myself.

There are plenty of problems in South Africa to keep you awake nights, if you’re a person so inclined: there were unattended brush fires all along the highways, people riding bicycles on the onramps, wandering donkeys refusing to move out of traffic, armed guards at the shopping centers, malaria and yellow fever scares, and one of the worst crime rates in the world. It’s a wonder there are any people left.

Oh, the memories... I stuck my hand into the Indian Ocean on Saturday (its restorative properties are grossly exaggerated), and we went on a game drive Sunday, where we pestered some zebras, nyalas, gnus, a rhino, a family of baboons, an owl, some wild horses, and a dozen other tourists. We were menaced by some warthogs, but time heals all wounds, I hope. Details and scars available upon request.

Now I’m recuperating, enjoying being bitten by good old American non-malaria-infected mosquitos. Looking back upon the past two weeks, my one regret is that I didn’t change all those “To let” signs in South Africa to read “Toilet”.

— Phileas


The Boston Straggler

Or “Queens for a Day”, or “How I Spent My Sumner Vacation”, or just about anything else.

Boy oh boy, what a night. Actually, the press tour was four days and nights, but since I slept a total of eight hours the whole week, I’m counting it as only one.

I made it to Manhassett, New York (I was warned not to pick up a Manhassett accent, which turned out to be the most sensible advice I heard the whole trip), at 3:30 a.m., after five hours in an airplane on the ground in Chicago, with all the problems that arise from having a bunch of Chicagoans and New Yorkers in the same confined space; I was finally dropped off at the hotel by a cabdriver from Trinidad who enumerated the benefits of picking up prostitutes during business travel. (He insisted he wasn’t getting kickbacks.) Just my luck, it was too late at night for me to verify this.

After working for seven hours, we drove the three hours to our hotel in Manhattan, where I worked another seven hours, slept a couple, then worked another seven; so it was a relief to get lost in Queens on the way to La Guardia Airport: we demonstrated the slingshot effect using the rental car, something that NASA pays millions of dollars to do. Hell, I’d have done it for almost nothing. Come to think of it, I did.

Next we landed in Boston, where we would have been at the hotel (in Nashua, New Hampshire) by 10:30 p.m., except that the six lanes of traffic pointing at the Sumner Tunnel were narrowed to one lane. (The delays caused by having to cross a picket line at the rental-car agency were negligible.) Of course, room service was closed by the time we got in, so I had to make do with the thought of a rubbery breakfast the next morning. As it happens, and as with most things, the thought of it was much better than the execution.

I’m starting to become a pretty good p.r. flack: if I play my cards right, one of these days I’ll be an “unnamed source”. I know only what I read in the papers, so this makes things a lot easier for me.

Everywhere but here,

— Roentgen


It Was a Million Years Ago Today

A tip from Sacramento, California: If you drive down Capitol Avenue at 27 mph, you can run about 20 yellow lights without stopping. That’s assuming traffic lights concern you, of course. If not, you can drive down Capitol Avenue at any speed you like without stopping.

Like many cities, it’s turning into nothing but coffee shops and microbreweries (for a little pick-me-up and knock-me-down); the formerly quaint and dumpy downtown plaza turned into a huge, covered, climate-controlled hangout for teenagers. (I’d never seen so many Wonderbras in one building before.) I find that there’s still a warm spot in my heart for Java City (over Starbucks and the like), which I hope our insurance plan will cover.

Some highlights of my jaunt included a drive through Lucerne, California (“Switzerland in America”) (minus the Alps, the 99% literacy rate, and the Swiss); Arbuckle, a town inhabited solely by people whose cars permanently broke down on the way through; and the Drive-Through Tree. Have we sunk that low?

So helped me God,

— Regress


I Broke, Even

(Or, “At least it’s a dry hate.”)

I knew it was going to be trouble from the moment we didn’t leave for Reno.

We left for Chicago about two hours late (or twenty hours too early, depending), and we missed the last flight to Nevada; and the airline cheerfully refused to put us up for the evening at the airport. (When pressed, however, one of the clerks gave me a yogurt-covered pretzel he couldn’t finish.)

The place we wound up in near the Chicago airport was the filthiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, bar one. (As one person remarked, you know you’re in for a bad time if you pass a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and a strip club on your way to a hotel.) Each of us had something drastically wrong with the room: we split among ourselves the door that wouldn’t close, the fire alarm that beeped every ten minutes, the lack of hot water, the lack of cold water, and the cockroaches. It was the first time I’ve been glad to have to wake up at 5:00 a.m.

There’s nothing in Reno that could surprise today’s jaded readers, from the pornographic airport shuttle to the children playing the slot machines in the airline terminal; personally, I was surprised to find that Rich Little is still alive there, doing impressions of people who aren’t.

I was sick and miserable the whole time I was there, so I don’t remember anything; I didn’t gamble at all (not even at the $4 buffet dinner), so you could say I broke even.

Learn from my mistakes,

— Prob.


1997


Heart of Dorkiness

I spent the week in San Francisco for MacWorld, which was about zero times as fun as it sounds.

Oh, I suppose it wasn’t THAT bad. The flight got in late, probably due to my sneaking two extra bags onto the plane; the cabdriver told plenty of jokes, although he got so excited by the time the punchlines came around that I couldn’t understand any of them; and my hotel room smelled like cat pee—I stopped noticing it after the first day, which leads me to suspect that by that time I smelled like cat pee.

Outside, it was a whole different story. I was particularly impressed by the postmodern graffiti: someone wrote “Someone” on an electrical junction box on Seventh Street. I felt like a conspicuous target for mutterers—dozens of people muttered “spare change” and solicitations for drug sales at me, apparently unaware that that’s no way to talk to a Senior Trade Media Liaison.

[Written five years after the fact:] I’m trying, but I can’t remember one thing about the booth that wasn’t broken. The booth was assembled backwards, the corner of the NeXT machine’s monitor broke off during shipping and handling (covered with a Band-Aid), and, given all the problems, there was no way I’d even try to inflate that ten-foot-tall Mathematica box. My co-worker was delayed during his flight from England; standing alone in the wreckage of our booth, I imagine I looked like those pictures you see in the news of someone whose house has been knocked over by a tornado.


[...hiatus...]


To Die From

North Canton, Ohio, is a nice place spend a day, for two hours of work. The invisible hand at work: the local Friendly’s restaurant tried to charge us $45 for two sandwiches and two small dishes of ice cream, but the local bookstore charged me $8 for a $45 book.

We stopped by the Football Hall of Fame, at Diane’s request, but I had the last laugh by almost killing her on the drive back to the airport.

— Rarebit


1998


Popsicle

I’m the luckiest unlucky person I know. The bad news is, I’m trapped in Kingston, Ontario, during what’s being called the worst ice storm of the century; the good news is, I’m in the only building in town that still has electricity. The hotel is now completely full, naturally (and the hotel is charging outrageous “emergency” prices, naturally), and I can’t simply leave town to make space for natives who deserve it more: the airport (a big metal shed with Kingston stenciled on the outside), train system, freeways, waterways, bicycle paths, etc., have all been damaged in some way, and no one knows when the ice will stop or how long it will take to clear it away.

I pass the time by sightseeing (if that’s the word); it’s as if the entire town has been laminated. (Technically, I suppose it has.) The ice covering everything is about an inch thick: younger trees are bent over into arches that span the sidewalks, and the older trees just collapsed so we could all get a better look. I also discovered that the strange noises I kept hearing in my room were caused by giant sheets of ice sliding down the outer walls of the hotel building.

What I’m trying to say is, send me a huge block of salt, COD, and I’ll pay you back when I get out.*

— Brrrrrobert

* I got out after five days or so, and flew straight into El Niño-caused flooding in Santa Clara.


Ruby Tuesday, Ash Wednesday

The new Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, burned down half an hour after Jennifer and I drove by it. I know what you’re thinking, but you can’t prove it.

O, for the life of a small town... The fact that a local high-school principal cancelled a free Indigo Girls concert (apparently for fear of corrupting the otherwise untainted moral fiber of the student body) dominated news reports for the entire week. (The Indigo Girls were reported to have been “disappointed”.) I seem to remember that the school caught fire late in the week, but no connection was implied.

At 79 cents per gallon, the gasoline there was cheaper than coffee. Tastier, too.

We stayed across the street from a Waffle House (visible from the hotel-room window), and the distraction proved irresistable. If there’s anything more comforting in life than having a stomach full of coffee, cheese omelette, and grits in 90-degree weather, I haven’t found it.

— Riboflavin


From Eternity to Here

Or, “What ever happened to June 8, 1998?”

We must stay awake. We will stay awake. All we have to do is ignore the fifteen-hour time difference, our deteriorating mental and physical coordination, and the impossible memory of 14 hours and 37 minutes of flight (from Los Angeles to Sydney) in total darkness.

At the time, however, it seemed unlikely that we were going to get here at all. The flight from Chicago to Los Angeles ran an hour late, for unknown reasons; and when we landed in Los Angeles, no one could figure out how to attach the jetway to our airplane, so we couldn’t get out. (My insinuation that the emergency exits were provided for just such an occurrence was underappreciated, in my opinion.) Once we did get out, after a quick run, we got to the other airplane just in time to sit on the runway for 90 minutes—it turned out the airplane was too heavy to lift off from our original runway, so we had to drive to the other end of the airport to find a longer one, or an empty freeway, or some similar thing. How it could have been too heavy is anyone’s guess, since the plane was filled to about one third of its capacity, but the fact remains.

After we took off, the pilot had quite a bit of difficulty figuring out the time difference between here and there; after five tries, he might have got it right, but I don’t think anyone was listening. You can’t argue with success, though, or at least consistency: every one of the four meals on the flight contained pork sausage, and every one of the four movies on the flight stank.

Landing in Sydney is a lot like landing in Boston: you can see land, but it doesn’t look like the airplane is headed for it. After landing (unlike in Boston), employees of the Department of Agriculture sprayed us and all our belongings for pests (which had no effect on the man sitting next to me); and in Customs, tiny dogs wearing vests sniffed our luggage for contraband. I know it sounds like a dream, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.

After arriving at the hotel just before 7:00 a.m. (around 4:00 p.m. to most of you, and to our internals), we walked around Darling Harbour for several hours, praying for the dying of the light. Fish and chips for lunch at 11:00 a.m. is ineffective as a stimulant; even in our deadened state, though, we knew our waitress was lying when she said it was a 12-hour flight from one end of Australia to the other. (It might be true, for a seagull.)

To stay awake for just four more hours, I’m guzzling instant coffee, and watching Australian television; on now is a program called “Catch Phrase”, which I gather is something like “Pictionary” without the wit and subtle humor.

I have seen your future,

— Robert


Australian for Bored

Two days ago, I woke up at 4:00 a.m.; last night, I went to sleep at 4:00 a.m. My body is rejecting this time zone.

Made it from Sydney to Melbourne in good health, but confused and misinformed. The cabdriver told us that Melbourne plans to build what will be the world’s tallest building, which sounds fine; what doesn’t sound fine is his claim that the building will be eight miles tall. I’ve never been in an airplane eight miles above the ground! Actually, the way he put it was, “If the building were built on its side, it would be eight miles long”, suggesting the length would be different from the height. He also said he plans to move to San Diego before long; so if I were you I’d avoid taking taxis in Southern California for the next decade or so, just to be safe.

The Australian 50-cent piece is the largest coin I’ve ever seen (unless you count pennies flattened on a railroad track): a thick, silver, twelve-sided coin with Queen Elizabeth II’s profile on one side and a picture of Captain James Cook, looking tired, on the other; and I think I see why. The Australian dollar, on the other hand, is currently at an all-time low, making it an advantageous time for us to make any large purchases we need to arrange; if any of you would like me to pick up a car, boat, or house for you while I’m here, please let me know as soon as possible.

Too many stories to type in now; in the last 24 hours, we ate a five-hour dinner on the 35th floor of a hotel, saw an upside-down car, learned of an attempt to steal an Australian flag, were attacked by giant pelicans, and searched for hours in vain for a Thai restaurant that opens before 6:00 p.m. What do you suppose the next 15 days will bring?

Crocodile wrestling is for sissies,

— Robert


One Hundred Hours of Solitude

I wish our winters were like this. Hell, I wish our summers were like this. It’s a sunny and breezy 60 degrees (F) here, and I might have been the only person walking around without a heavy coat. I spent most of yesterday walking around downtown Melbourne, crisscrossing the trapezoid bounded by King, Spring, Flinders, and Victoria Streets. (I was worried because my skin was turning an unusual color, until I realized that it was probably the effect of my getting some sunshine and exercise for the first time in several years.) The most surprising building around is a large one called the Library of International Telephone Directories; evidently no one’s thought of putting them all on a CD-ROM, which would earn them about 250,000 cubic feet. (This country appreciates me about as much as the U.S. does.)

Australia is more advanced than the U.S. in many ways: the different denominations of bills are different colors (sorry, colours) and sizes; instead of parking meters there are machines that sell parking passes; and it’s illegal to drive and talk on a cellular telephone at the same time. A driver even gave me the right of way at a crosswalk! On the other hand, the comic strips in the newspapers are two months old, and the scheme for ordering coffee in a cafe is too difficult for me to figure out. I don’t know what part of “plain coffee, please” is hard to understand; I’m supposed to order a “filtered tall white”, or some such thing, but I don’t know what it means. It’s much easier to guzzle packets of Mocopan Premium—a division of Cerebos (Australia) Limited, 257 Plenty Road, Preston, VIC 3072—in my room, and that’s what I do.

Almost everyone tells me that Australia is the world’s largest country and its smallest continent, so I’m passing the information along to save you a trip.

Howard and Jim are gone now, so I’m on my own for the next two weeks. I hinted to my training students today that I might run for Prime Minister, and they said I had a pretty good chance. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Weighing in at 11 stone,

— Roo


Diplomatic Impunity

You can’t take the “Oz” out of “Ozone Layer”, but you can sure take the ozone layer out of Oz. Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year down here, though, so perhaps I can minimise further sun damage: I’ve aged about ten years since I got here.

We Australians have plenty to worry about these days: Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party won the election in Queensland, despite the party’s idiotic plan to keep interest rates down: “Print more money!” (Actually, here in Victoria the polls weren’t so favourable; I’m surprised O.N.’s reaction wasn’t “Print more ballots!”) There are also troubles with workplace bullying, the GST, immigration, 8% unemployment, pornographic post-midnight television ad-ver′-tise-ments (not ad-ver-tise′-ments), Jeff Kennett’s hair, income tax, speeding, misbehaving football fans, education policies, and health care. So why is everyone in such a good mood?

Having spent a while here, I’m beginning to miss the little things, like not being run over by cars driving on the left side of the street. Words I hope I never hear again: uni, footy, cuppa. (Words I hope I do hear again: shocker, “thanks for that”, whingeing.) I just realised I’m penniless, in a good way: Australia wisely phased out one- and two-cent coins about five years ago, rounding all cash purchases to the nearest nickel.

Meet me at Club X? Liberated Bookshop (someone spray-painted “RMD” in the alley across the street, so I wouldn’t have to)? For some Anzac biscuits and UHT milk? Get here in the next hour, and it’ll be my treat.

“Aussie rules” football doesn’t,

— Rover


Neither Here Nor There

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ready to leave, so I’ll just say that I wasn’t ready to leave.

The Melbourne time zone was rejecting me, and it was time to go home. I couldn’t help laughing at brand names like Sanitarium (health foods) and Telstra STD, was more alarmed than anyone around at seeing things like mayonnaise, cheese, and salmon under a heat lamp in open-air markets, and didn’t understand the nonchalant attitude toward Minties wrappers. I had a burrito there (for research purposes), and the salsa tasted like strawberry jam and I suspect the tortilla had been boiled.

The trip back was as painful as expected, and it didn’t help that the movie screens in the airplane blinked messages like “12 hours, 34 minutes remaining travel time”, or that the sun went down at 3:30 p.m.

Anyway, there’s a whole world to ignore out there, and I’d better get back to it.

When in roam,

— Vitamin R


NC-17

The sign outside the IBM training center in Research Triangle Park reads, “No concealed handguns”. What businesses do allow you to carry a concealed handgun? (Answer: Any business, if you conceal it well enough.)

Best business name and oxymoron, if you’re keeping track: “Triangle Square” (shopping center). Best wasted opportunity: I’d hoped that the road leading around it would be called “Triangle Square Circle”, but I guess I should know better than that.

It’s too hot to type.

— R. Diculous


Got Vinegar?

Once we got going, the flight from Chicago to London wasn’t too bad, as far as these things go. I kept myself occupied by watching the man sitting next to me continually adjusting the blanket around his legs for seven hours, after the flight attendant told him there were no free socks on the flight (well, he asked). I’m beginning to get the feeling that airplanes are the only places you hear sentences like “I’m sorry, we don’t have any free socks.”

Getting to Paddington Station from Heathrow by train was fine, but the train ride from London to Reading took twenty-five of the longest minutes of my life. Not content to sit next to me, about five minutes into the trip my seatmate tried to sit on me. How do you tell a stranger not to sit on you? (For that matter, how do you tell someone you know not to sit on you?) “Sir, I wonder if you’d mind...” After that, I finished the trip with a short, scary taxi ride to the hotel, in beautiful downtown Reading.

The Discomfort Inn, as I like to call it, is a hundred-year-old building with twenty-five-year-old wallpaper and a thousand-year-old shower. I find it difficult to keep clean here, even more so than at home: the “shower” is essentially a hose in a bathtub, right in front of a window with no shade, facing the parking lot. It’s hard to get any rest here, too—an hour after I arrived, the desk attendant tried to come in and show some people the room, while I was napping. (I haven’t slept more than four hours in a row since.)

Walking around on Sunday morning was eerie (I woke up at 7:00 a.m. to the sound of a child in the hall repeatedly saying “There’s a newspaper at the door!”). At 10:30 a.m., there were no cars, no pedestrians, and no open stores or restaurants. Most demanding road name: Cross Street. Worst business names: Temporary Jelly’s Store (?), PMS Leasing, and Newt & Cucumber.

Vinegar is not a spice! Why is it, then, that vinegar seems to be the main ingredient in just about every food served here? Is there anything I can do?

Bob’s your uncle,

— Robt.


Pound Foolish

I knew it was going to be a long flight, and not just because part of my itinerary read, “Elapsed time: 10:50”.

Woke up at 5:00 a.m., barely, and walked the two miles to the train station (I ran out of cash—for some reason, nobody could change money on Friday evening, and all the pawnshops were closed—so I couldn’t afford a taxi) with my luggage; took the hour-long bus ride to London; and then sat around Heathrow for three hours waiting for the airplane to show up.

My seatmate on the long flight was a ten-year-old boy named Gavin, who was travelling alone from London to San Francisco to visit his grandparents; all the flight attendants made a point of stopping by to visit him, giving him coloring books, candy, and the like. (Despite his protests, however, they kept calling him “Kevin”.) Actually, Gavin/Kevin wasn’t the worst seatmate I’ve ever had. We got off on the wrong foot, though, when he woke me up just before takeoff to help him paste stickers into his activity book; and it looked even more grim when he woke me up again a while later to challenge me to a game of chess. (Lucky for me, lunch was served about four moves into the game, and we never picked it up again; it’s been so long since I’ve seen a chessboard, that in retrospect I think I thought we were playing checkers. “Check, Mate.”) Unaccountably, Gavin became very friendly, and ordered drinks and snacks for me for most of the flight. (A direct quote: “My friend would like a sparkling water.”) He also took a picture of me pointing out the window to some mountains; I don’t know what to make of it, but if in about twenty years you meet a guy in London who acts like me, you know why.

I took several more modes of transportation to get to the hotel in Sunnyvale. (Another way to tell how your day is going to go is to look for a line in your itinerary that reads, “Equipment: bus”.) Took a bus from San Francisco to the San Jose airport (passed the hotel on the way), rented a car, drove to the hotel, checked in, and headed directly for the shower. You’ll thank me for it later.

NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT,

— Robt., Esq.


Like Chocolate for Water

What does a guy have to do to get a decent glass of water in this hotel? The tap water here in Dearborn tastes and smells like the water in Santiago, but doesn’t have the same strange color. Everything looks clean from a distance, but when I first got into the room the coffee cups were dirty, the pen had tooth marks on it, and there was tissue in the wastebasket; I kept expecting to find a couple hiding somewhere.

It’s kind of all of you not to remind me every day that I’m an idiot: on Monday morning I drove around, found the freeway, eventually found the right exit, and in all it took about forty minutes to get from the hotel to work. I asked some people there if they knew a faster way to get back and forth, and they pointed out that the hotel was about four blocks away. On Tuesday, of course, it took three minutes to get there.

Overheard from the legal department of the place I was working: “You can’t intimidate me!”

Funniest business names, barely: “McFadden’s Bar and Grille” (they barbecue on the front of a car?) and “Kichen Supplies”.

Driving around, though, is exciting. There are some special left-turn-on-red lanes near major streets, and if you’re next to one you can find oncoming traffic on either side of you. Beep!

Rated R,

— Dickens


Missing Inaction

I don’t know how you all do it. How can you stay in one city for more than a few days at a time?

Austin is different from the place you live: across the street from a fine Mexican restaurant is a store called Just Guns, which is probably handy if the food isn’t as good as (or is better than) you’d hoped it would be.

The hotel was nothing to write home about (hence this message), but it had plenty of character. Its voice mail system was great: the first time I tried to listen to a message, the introductory recording gave a chirpy, detailed description of what voice mail is (“You will hear a caller’s message to you, in their own voice!”) and why the red light on the telephone was blinking—if I didn’t know that, how would I be listening to this?—and then offered to take me through what I feared would be a really long tutorial (“Locate and press the 7 button on your telephone... Good!”). The next time I checked in, after having declined to listen to the tutorial, the recorded voice sounded decidedly hurt.

There was a small exercise room between the lobby and the elevator (which didn’t offer a tutorial), and the only time I saw someone in there was yesterday morning, when I saw a shirtless man leaning on a treadmill, watching two television sets.

Biggest mystery: owing to the strange arrangement of traffic signals and turn lanes, it took two minutes to get to work, and twenty minutes to get back.

Remember me,

— Reb


All Abroad!

Wednesday (Australian for “Tuesday”):

Uh-oh. It’s only 8:15 a.m., and I’ve already drank all four packets of instant coffee and all the caffeinated tea in the room; and I already know it’s not going to be enough.

After over 24 hours of travel, we made it back to Australia yesterday; Australia follows Daylight Savings Time, but we/they spring forward when we/you fall back, so the time difference is now 17 hours, instead of 15. Surprisingly, the trip over didn’t provide much (apart from the obvious) to complain about; the worst thing was either the child with a toy cellular telephone that “rang” every fifteen or twenty seconds for fourteen hours, or the man who repeatedly opened just about every overhead luggage compartment, looking for who-knows-what. (I’d hoped he was looking for something to strangle the child with, and was ready to offer him my shoelaces.)

Flimsiest excuse for a holiday: almost everything in Melbourne was closed for a public holiday celebrating the Melbourne Cup, during which everyone spends their day off at the horse races. (Jezabeel won.) I just celebrated the fact that the hotel has hot water again.

Thursday:

Woke up at 5:00 a.m., and made it to the hotel in Sydney four hours later, despite our travel agent having tried to put us on a flight leaving from the international terminal. (Lisa, please inform them that Sydney and Melbourne are in the same country.) The hotel didn’t let us check in (despite thinking Jim and I were four different people—an understandable mistake), so we hid our luggage for a few hours and got lost in Sydney twice.

There’s a building in Sydney that looks like Seattle’s Space Needle. Does anybody know if the Space Needle is missing?

I was once like you,

— RSL


In the Mood

I have it on good authority that the motto of South Australia is “Going All the Way”. In related news, there’s a department store on George Street called French Connection, with a sign along the sidewalk that reads, “outstanding fcuk”. Anything to bring people to the Olympics...

I barely giggle at Iced Vo-Vos and Tim Tams any more, order “flat whites” like a native, and even gave a tourist directions to Hyde Park. I’m getting used to being here, which means it’s time to come home. Ready?

For I’m a jolly good fellow,

— Romeo


1999


Fools Rush Out

Or, “How Sweat It Is”.

I left Los Angeles, where it was a sunny 80 degrees out, for Boston, where it’s been about 40. (Next I head back to Illinois, where it was about 20, if we were lucky, last time I was there.) The laws of physics and chemistry must have changed while I was out: even though it’s been above freezing here, there’s a thick sheet of ice covering all the sidewalks on the way to work. On the other hand, in my change from lunch, I received a penny whose obverse was melted off. Did I miss something?

I realized that the hotel shampoo smells like furniture polish (how I know what furniture polish smells like is left as an exercise to the reader), and I’ll let you know how my all-coffee-and-chicken parmesan sandwich diet works out.

Slow news day.

Too rich and too thin,

— Prince Rupert


Kansas? City?

I spent all of last week in Kansas City, during which I never set foot in Kansas and never saw anything that looked like a city.

Downtown KC was charming, in an abandoned sort of way. At 10th and Walnut Streets, there’s a wonderful old analog thermometer, stuck (alas) at 72 degrees (at least it broke on a pleasant day); and scattered about the area are big, silver tanks of liquid nitrogen chained to poles, apparently just in case anyone wants to whip up some nitric acid, fertilizer, or explosives (cf. nitrogen fixation). With its bewildering arrangement of one-way streets, driving around in downtown Kansas City is good practice for driving in Boston; unlike Boston, at least the streets are at right angles to one another.

I was working at the Federal Reserve Bank, and trying to get my face on the two-dollar bill; they told me I’d have to be dead first, but I’m still optimistic about our being able to come to some sort of compromise.

A personal message to my connections at the Fed, Steven, Yvette, David, Sean, Kevin, Dennis, Stephanie, and Cris: I made it to the airport safely and on time, despite your directions. (While driving on 29 North, I couldn’t help noticing all those orange “Construction Ahead” signs; as far as I could tell, the construction consisted of a bunch of orange “Construction Ahead” signs.) I’m also grateful for the bag of shredded money, but when I took it to the grocery store, they told me it wasn’t legal tender. Was that some kind of trick?

Laughing all the way from the bank,

— Romulus


Mixed Messages

Or, “Don’t Believe Anything You Read”.

I don’t know what Richmond is trying to tell me. On one freeway onramp (shortly before the cryptic sign “Exit 78: Boulevard”), there was one of those yellow no-merge-necessary signs directly across from a Yield sign. Yield to what? Here in my so-called suite, hot water comes out of both the H and C taps; and in my rental car, the button for locking the doors doesn’t lock the doors, but makes a couple of beeping noises. One more: after I drove back from the Waffle House this afternoon, I found I had run over a heart-shaped box labeled “To My Valentine”. So much for “Virginia is for lovers”.

It’s probably just my sheltered existence, but I can’t get used to left-arrow traffic lights turning green after the straight-ahead green light has been on for a while. Does anyone know how to turn those things off?

Rede me and be not wroth,

— Rousseau


What Price Glory?

Or, “Motion Sickness”.

If no news is good news, I have good news: I’m back in Sunnyvale, and I keep forgetting how little I miss this place.

Alongside the Gideon Bible, my hotel room has a copy of The Teaching [sic] of Buddha; inside it, I can’t find any enlightenment concerning the recent trend of padding take-out Chinese food with zucchini. (“A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it were real, so he escapes the suffering.” Ha.) Long-overdue best business name: “MMM Carpet”.

As of this week, I’ve had this job for two years. Motto for the new year: “I’m not getting older, I’m getting bitter.”

Slowly but surly,

— Rumpelstiltskin


Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

(Or, “Let’s We Forget”.)

Austin has the best series of religious billboards I’ve ever seen:

Keep using my name in vain, and
I’ll make rush hour longer.

and

What part of “Thou Shalt Not...”
didn’t you understand?

both signed “—God”. (Apparently a passage from the New and Improved Testament.) Doesn’t that seem like a fairly trivial plague? Keep using my name in vain, and I’ll make the pollen count higher.

I find myself choosing restaurants by the number of ambulances in front. At first, I’d chalked it up to the 95-degree temperatures, the absurdly short freeway onramps, and the permissive concealed-weapon laws, but you’d think we’d all be used to all that by now.

Drive friendly,

— Rbot


Driven

Or, “My Dinner with Andrea”.

I hope this is a mistake or a prank, but outside the big Mobil processing plant in Torrance there’s a sign that reads, “Days since last recordable injury: 1”. Similarly, the local news describes today’s high temperature, 62 degrees, as “very cold”.

On my way to meet Andrea I noticed that L.A. is tied for last place with Chicago, Boston, New York, etc., for rush-hour freeway speeds. On the other hand, my swerving skills have greatly improved.

Save room for flan,

— Relleno


Ft. Wroth

The weather all over the country is becoming unbearably hot, which means, as usual, that I’ll be in a bad mood for the next six months. My outlook brightened with the tornado warning (I thought the 3-inch hailstones might cool things off), but nothing much came of it.

This hotel, a mile or so from the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, is the loudest ever, and not only because I’m staying in it; the noise level, along with the humidity (yes, even indoors), goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve slept about eight hours in the last four days.

This is what the freeways in Hell must be like: onramps within onramps, merging with surface streets and back into freeways, unmarked major intersections. I choose to ignore the possibility that the average Texan is simply miles smarter than I am.

Muss es sein?

— Retread


Mouths Wide Shut

If you ever want a long, detailed description of North Carolina’s new seatbelt laws, take a ride on the Hertz rental-car shuttle.

For some reason, the Homewood Suites in RTP, North Carolina, put me up in the handicapped room, with extra-wide doorways, large-print television guide (the default volume on the giant television set was 150 decibels), and no bathtub, only a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor.

I’m doing pretty well with the driving: only one near-accident per day, down from my usual three.

The saddest thing is, my co-workers think I’m joking every time I suggest we stop by the Waffle House.

Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning (Isaiah 5:11),

— Rubidium


America’s Dirtyland

Greetings from Appleton, Wisconsin; I had intended to joke around about all the roadside fireworks, cheese, and pornography stores on the drive up here, but Howard beat me to it. Closer to home, I was alarmed by the street sign that read

<-- Sanders
    Saunders -->

and got off on the wrong foot (tire) when my soda can exploded in the car—now I know why they call it “pop”, har har. I didn’t stop at Exit 340, called Bong Recreation Area, but in the few miles following I noticed that the people just leaving the area seemed to be driving much faster.

Don’t let the name fool you: the Aid Association for Lutherans employs some of the kindest people you’re ever likely to meet. In my short time there, at least two dozen strangers warmly greeted me in the hallways, which is about two dozen more than have ever warmly greeted me at the place I work. Your homework is to ask AAL employees how aid recipients prove that they’re Lutheran. Hint: it has nothing to do with the Edict of Worms (1521).

I can’t keep up,

— Racine


Congratulations, Cynthia and Roland

(Or, “Temporary Inanity”.)

And I’m not just saying that: the Welcome sign outside the Ramada Inn in Sunnyvale said it for me. It’s not unusual to have a wedding reception in a hotel, of course, but a Ramada? I’m not trying to be a snob, but this Ramada seems like an especially un-picturesque setting for such a festive occasion. I imagine their looking back at all the photographs in a few months, and always seeing the Hertz car-rental sign in the background.

A new way to feel awkward: try having dinner with your parents, and having a belly dancer come out while you’re eating. I can’t explain it, but that seems to be the kind of thing that (like swearing—“Dang!”) you can’t really enjoy in view of your parents. I asked the server, “Are we allowed to look at the belly dancer?”, and her reply was, “Oh, yes—it’s for your entertainment!” I haven’t been so self-consciously unentertained since the time (a couple of decades ago) a stage magician apparently thought I looked too smart-alecky for his taste, and conspicuously excluded me from the group card trick.

Whatever you do, do not order the lobster burrito from Una Mas. (How do you say “one fewer” in Spanish?) I don’t know why I thought lobster, rice, lettuce, and sour cream, all wrapped in a cold tortilla, would be tasty, but I won’t make that mistake again. Even worse, they stopped accepting their frequent-burrito cards (buy seven, get one free); I was on my third card, with only three burritos to go.

On the way back, the pilot informed us that we were arriving too early for O’Hare to accept our plane, and that we would have to (quote) zig-zag the rest of the way home. The only thing that kept me from losing my mind was the memory of a slightly more irritating similar experience: on a flight to San Jose during all that El Niño flooding, the pilot purposely flew in a slow, steep figure-eight, so we could all get a look (from six miles up) at a huge area that was underwater. Is that legal?

— Retrospect


The Pursuit of Unhappiness

Why in the world does the Woburn hotel guide contain an advertisement for a locksmith?

I know you’re tired of hearing me gripe about driving (but if you’ve ever been my passenger, you understand), but the incompetent Woburn city planners are especially deserving of scorn. (It would be fitting for them to have the Illinois Dept. of Transportation’s acronym, IDOT, which is impossible not to read on road signs and newspaper headlines as IDIOT.) Many of the streets have no paint lines dividing the lanes, and so drivers simply form as many lanes as will nearly fit; and the streets that do have painted lines don’t match up from one side of an intersection to the other: from many stoplights, driving straight from the right lane puts you square in the left lane on the opposite side, forcing anyone on your left into oncoming traffic.

Inconvenience as a way of life: it turns out that the daily morning traffic jam right before the training center was caused by cars lining up for the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru window, a line that extended into a major street.

I’m probably just bitter because I was forced, during one of the breaks, to demonstrate to my training students that I don’t know how to operate a microwave oven.

I can run, but I can’t hide,

— Restive


No Reston for the Wicked

What idiot thought it would be cute for Reston to have Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills be parallel streets?

This is my first trip to the D.C. area in a few years, and I’m glad to report that the area hasn’t lost any of its hellishness. There’s been an unearthly heat rising all week, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence I passed the Rte. 666 exit on the way from Dulles Airport. Word has it that D.C. recently lost its title of Murder Capital of the U.S. (lost it to Gary, Indiana, I’m told), but it seems to be making great strides toward having more automobile accidents than any region of the country: every night when I went out for dinner, I saw at least one crash scene (in the same two-mile stretch), some pretty bad.

Need more proof? On my last night there, I was sure the huge thunderstorm we had was sent by the heavens to destroy the D.C. area once and for all. I’m still can’t decide if I’m glad that it didn’t finish the job.

Desperately seeking snoozin’,

— Rennet


Unappreciated

It is no accident that the airport code for Ottawa is YOW.

I wanted to like Ottawa. Heck, I was even prepared to like it. (Before I left, several people told me exactly the same thing: “It’s a pretty city.”) The flight there was short and smooth, the view of the countryside from the air was spectacular, and I was in an all-around great mood.

That was before I got to Immigration.

I didn’t even think much about it when the agent at the Immigration counter told me to stop by the little grey office; there were several of us in there, and everyone in front of me came out of the back room within a couple minutes, presumably to get on with their lives.

My interview, for reasons I still can’t explain, didn’t go very well. The agent was sympathetic enough, but she insisted that I couldn’t come into the country to deliver a training course without some “contracts”, the fundamental problem being that I never understood what sort of contracts she was referring to. (Me: “What kind of contracts?” Agent: “You know, contracts.”) This being Sunday evening, no one was in the office to fax me any contracts, so Immigration decided to let me go for the evening, to return when the Immigration office opened the following morning. To ensure I didn’t try anything foolish, they confiscated my passport—which makes sense—but then continued to look for other things to take. (My time apparently not being enough.) They wanted my airline ticket, but when I explained that it was an electronic ticket, they confiscated my training book, of all things. (I still have the receipt, if you want to see it.) Best of all, I had to sign a sheet of paper saying that if I didn’t show up the next morning, a warrant for my arrest would be issued, after which I would be tarred and feathered and removed from the country; but after that I was allowed to check into my hotel.

On Monday morning, I was scheduled to be back at the Immigration office at 8:30, which made me nervous because the training class was supposed to begin at 9:00. On the half-hour drive back to the airport, I was thinking, “Oh great, now I won’t make it to the training center until 9:15.” This is what is known as wishful thinking.

The Monday-morning agent clearly did not enjoy my company. In short, we spent the next 3-1/2 hours arguing about “contracts” and exchanging snide remarks. (I spent the non-arguing portions of the 3-1/2 hours watching plane after plane of new arrivals arrive, and listening to the Immigration agents at the counters complaining and swearing to each other when no “civilians” (besides me) were around. These agents don’t like you.) Anyway, I don’t know what did it, but after several people back home faxed this agent quite a few irrelevant pieces of paper, he decided to set me free. (I know he was just doing his job, and that the whole thing could have been much worse, so I don’t really wish the agent ill any more; his burning his tongue on some hot coffee would satisfy me.)

Fortunately, the training students were understanding about the whole matter. (One incredulous response: “I can’t believe you told them you were doing training!”) They offered several suggestions for things to say next time, but (other than, “You should have told them you were a Chinese refugee”: related to current events, not worth explaining) I won’t repeat the suggestions here in case I need to use them the next time through.

As for downtown Ottawa: to everyone who told me how pretty it is, my question is, “Are we talking about the same Ottawa?” The parts I saw, anyway, were like the dingier neighborhoods of every business district in every large city in the world. Sure, there were the stately Parliament and other government buildings, but those alone do not a pretty city make.

Everywhere you don’t want to be,

— Refugee

P.S. The day I came back was the day O’Hare was closed down because someone ran through a security checkpoint. I missed that whole bit of excitement by a couple of hours, but later I found I was wearing the same thing the suspect was described as wearing...


Vous Avez Oublié Quelque Chose?

Why does Canada despise me so? To be fair, I was stuck in the Dorval Airport (Montreal) Immigration office for only one hour this time, but—after I thought things were going really well—the officers charged me $150 (Canadian) for a three-day work permit. The most irritating part (at least initially) was that the driving directions the car-rental clerk gave me were evidently some sort of practical joke: from the airport it took just ten minutes to reach an intersection one block east of the hotel, and another forty minutes and nine left turns to park the car and walk into the hotel lobby.

Question to everyone driving on the service road just south of the Trans-Canada Highway: What the hell is wrong with you? It’s mass solipsism in motion, with everyone driving as if none of the other cars on the road really existed; these people make drivers in Boston look considerate.

The training went pretty well, considering. I’m not sure what to make of it, but on the last day the students told me they thought I really spoke French because I’d been blurting out all the Inspector Clouseau-like exclamations I’ve heard over the years (Zut alors!). One person even expressed surprise that I wasn’t a Quebec native. Given all the controversy about the use of English speech, business names, etc. (Proposition 101), I thought it would have taken more than that.

Happy Canada discovery: Coffee Crisp candy bars, where have you been all my life?

Je me souviens,

— Rien


Grumble in the Bronx

Or, “Let Me Count the Highways”.

Only an idiot would try driving from Brooklyn to Hawthorne without a map, so I guess I’m an idiot. I could have planned that part better, but I couldn’t have done anything about the $3.50 tolls, the 50 mph highway speed limits, and the drivers from New Jersey. To fit in, I tried changing lanes a few times without signaling, but I fail to see the attraction.

I don’t dare head back into the city (to visit the 7.5% of you who live there), so I’m wasting all my opportunities for fun here in the Elmsford Ramada, a typically filthy East Coast hotel. There are crumbs all over the place (I suspect the hotel staff is coming in here to eat sandwiches every time I leave the room), a big gouge in the ceiling, and what appears to be three gallons of milk splattered on the outside of the window (looking out onto an alley); and none of the doors close all the way. The coffeemaker carafe spout is missing a big chip, but that hasn’t stopped me from filling myself chock full o’ Chock Full o’ Nuts. What’s a chock?

I don’t get it,

— Rockefeller


Every Given Sunday

What a difference a day, four hours in two rental cars, and seven hours in the air make.

The Portland area would be beautiful if I could see any of it: it’s been raining fairly heavily since I got here. As expected, I almost didn’t make it here; I could barely see any of the other cars on the trip from the airport, and I’m positive they didn’t see my fog-gray rental car.

Strangely, though, the drive from the airport took less time than the 2-1/2 hours it took my room service dinner to be delivered. My hotel room looks out onto the parking lot, but doesn’t have any drapes on the window. If anyone wants to watch me put on my shoes and socks tomorrow morning, I’ll send you directions.

I seem to be destined to make the least out of life.

Just the same as everyone else,

— Redolent

P.S. Fates willing, this should be my last trip of the month, year, decade, century, millennium (I know, I know), etc. I hope you have happy holidays and a pleasant new year; I’m sure everything’s going to be all righ


2000


The Man Who Flew Too Much

Or, “Man Overbored!”

Whenever I visit New England, I get the feeling that this isn’t what the colonists had in mind. The area around Boston’s Logan Airport is under construction, making it harder than ever to get around; it took twice as long to get off the airport property than it took to drive to Woburn—and that includes “driving” through the Sumner Tunnel, the experience of which is probably not too far from what being buried alive must feel like. As for checking into the hotel, that’s the last time I hold the front door open for eight arriving German tourists with a half-ton of luggage.

The Woburn public-access television station just played an announcement that said that high levels of lead have been detected in “the tap water of some homes”. What next? (Howard, can I borrow the department Geiger counter?) Oh, and there was an announcement about the Woburn bowling team.

I’m halfway through this personal Boston Marathon, and we’re all learning a lot in the training courses this week. Among the things we’re learning is the fact that someone at the training center eats butter-scented microwave popcorn for breakfast every morning at 9:30 a.m. We’ve also learned that the training-center personnel keep us motivated with the promise of coffee, but no actual coffee. None of us ever notices when it happens, but the coffee pot periodically disappears, and then reappears with less coffee than before.

Why is it that no one here covers their mouth when they yawn? Is that a symptom of lead poisoning?

Nothing ever changes,

— Recluse


South Austin Will Rise Again

I think airplane pilots should not be allowed to joke about how unpleasant a flight is going to be. Sure, there was a raging storm covering half the country, forcing us to fly far enough north and west of Austin to add a little more than an hour to the bumpy flight, but he didn’t have to rub our faces in it. (“We’re in for a wild ride tonight!”)

Come to think of it, the midnight drive from the airport to the hotel was a wild ride, too. We’ve already discussed Austin’s criminally short freeway onramps, but navigating them in lightning and driving rain (so to speak) adds an interesting dimension to the experience. (As an aside, I’m pleased to report that the mystery plant at the corner of Mopac and Braker Lane seems to have recovered: it’s some sort of creeping plant growing several feet above the ground on a smooth metal lightpost, with no visible means of sustenance. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, I recommend you take a look.)

The instructions on the coffeemaker in my room contain this helpful tip: “Push OFF button to turn coffeemaker off.” (And while we’re on the subject: how come we can put a man on the Moon, but we can’t invent a hotel coffeemaker carafe that doesn’t spill coffee all over the place?)

For my money, the breakfast enchiladas at Miguel’s can’t be beat, and the weird yin-and-yang chicken dish at Peony most emphatically can.

It’s been 85 degrees and sunny, and an informal poll indicates that I’m the only one who thinks this is not necessarily a good thing. I know when I’m wrong and I know when I’m outnumbered, and I know they’re not the same thing.

Don’t remind me,

— Rapunzel


I’ve Got This Friend...

If you think that reading a book while eating dinner alone in a crowded restaurant in an unfamiliar town builds character, you’ve obviously never tried it.

Rochester wasn’t unpleasant, only deserted. Since I arrived on Easter Sunday, I wound up being the only customer at Fresno’s Southwestern restaurant (this wasn’t the crowded restaurant, supra), eating dinner with the bartender and wait staff. Talk about service!

Nothing much to report about the training class, except that one of the students thoughtfully computed my biorhythm on a handheld computer, which revealed that my prospects for the immediate future looked bleak. Well, duh. (And another student told me I sounded like a children’s television host who calls himself “The Nature Nut”.)

Historical note: Alexander the Great called it quits when he was the age I am now, but then again he was away from home for eleven years. I’ve been gone for less than eight, so I suppose my chances are still pretty good.

Not a people person,

— Rut


Good to the Last Raindrop

The Seattle area really does live up to its reputation: at the training center, there were six varieties of Coffee-mate non-dairy creamer available. (On the other hand, every student in the class evidently overslept at least one morning of the week.) And—to repeat an old joke—it rained twice the week I was there: once for four days, and then once for three.

I can’t tell if the people are as laid-back as I was led to expect. Pro: one student showed up barefoot, eating from a tin can of chopped pears. Con: your homework is to call (206)764-HERO to snitch on cheaters in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane.

I know what you’re thinking,

— Rainier

Epilogue: When I finally returned home, I found that I had missed spring! Was it nice?


Mission: Viejo

You know not to expect too much from a hotel behind two gas stations and a Carl’s Jr. fast-food restaurant, and this one lived up to expectations. It felt as if I was living at a truck stop for a week.

One thing I forgot about living in California was how many snails there are, especially after it rains. Which reminds me: if you ever get invited to lunch at the Unisys cafeteria, make sure you get there on pasta day. You won’t regret it.

Before we took off for home from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, the pilot said “We do things a little different here”, which was an understatement. What he meant was, they keep the brakes on until the airplane engines are running at top speed; when they release the brakes, the airplane shoots into the air after taxiing for only about ten feet. If you’ve ever watched a space-shuttle launch on television, you’ve seen the general procedure.

Older than springtime,

— Ravioli


No Day at the Beach

Look at all the blimps!

To get on or off the hotel property, one has to drive through a tunnel under a municipal-airport overpass, halfway through which is an unlit neon sign reading “Emergency Stop”; the nerve-racking part is, it isn’t clear what to do if the sign lights up.

(If you’re uninterested in stories involving driving and shame, stop reading now.)

A personal nadir: driving to the training center on Monday, I missed the freeway exit eight times. (I had written down some of those computerized driving directions, and I should have known I was in trouble when two consecutive lines read “R on ramp” and “L on ramp”—the same ramp?) Missing the exit once would have been bad enough; each time, I tried a different route to get back onto the freeway, each time a new adventure. I wound up lost in Compton, Calif., for a while; turned left on a red light in Downey, hoping no one saw me; and ended up calling the office from a pay phone in front of a burned-down gas station.

Despite my fears (brought on by a slight wobbling sensation and a strange sound—from the car, not from me), the left front tire of the rental car did not fall off while I was driving.

Was Southern California where metered freeway onramps originated? During the morning commute, there was a 20-second wait between green lights; a practical use for your grade-school arithmetic is calculating how many minutes you’re going to be late by counting the number of cars ahead of you and dividing by three.

And one student apparently quit his job halfway through the training course.

Of course, I never saw the beach.

Honor thy trainer,

— Robert Redux


Deep in the Heat of Texas

Robert’s advice for the lovelorn: don’t take a training job. I seem to have been in denial for years about the fact that I don’t like crowds, travel, or the sound of my own voice; what was I thinking?

On Sunday, I fell asleep at 5:30 a.m.; my body was probably confused by my not changing time zones. Lately, when I’ve been awake after not having slept enough, I find that every stupid song I’ve ever heard runs through my head, sometimes more than one at a time. It’s as if my whole life is passing before my ears.

I think my biggest problem with Austin is that I don’t like any temperature that’s higher than my I.Q. (my autobiography will be called, I Lost 50 I.Q. Points in Six Years—Ask Me How!, but that’s another story). I start getting uncomfortable around 85, and that was the temperature when I left on Saturday for the plane ride home, at 5:30 a.m.

It only hurts when I’m awake,

— Lonesome Dove Bar


Expect Delays

Populi,

The airline claimed that the five-hour delay in my getting to St. Paul was caused by a combination of the O’Hare runway configuration and wind. The question that comes to mind is, didn’t they know Chicago was windy when they built the airport?

I’m glad to report that downtown St. Paul is charming, if you grew up during the 1870s. Several residents independently told me that St. Paul was “dying”, which seems odd for a state capital. Surely someone has to stay behind to run the place.

San Francisco has its cable cars, New York has its subway, Chicago has the El, Sydney its monorail... St. Paul has the Skyway, a sort of Habitrail connecting a few downtown buildings. (“My God, it’s full of stairs!”) The creepiest thing about it, when I was walking around at 6:00 p.m., was that all the businesses were closed, and the only evidence of human activity was a radio playing at an empty information desk.

Why can’t I get used to the Central time zone? I moved to Illinois from California three weeks shy of ten years ago; you’d think I’d have adjusted by now.

— St. Robert*

(*Canonization pending)


There’s No Carolina like No. Carolina

No news, other than I finally made it back to the Waffle House in Raleigh. I spent $1 on a raffle ticket to win a 1995 (?) Buick, but I didn’t win.

Nothing ventured, nothing lost,

— Rosebud


Unmerry-Go-Round

The sign in front of my $59/night hotel in Denver reads “WELCOME CABARET”. Is that an order? (Like “Free Kittens”? “Pickup Trucks”? “Pound Cake”? “Miss America”?) Speaking of which, a pickup truck in the parking lot has the words “Chicks with Whips” written in soap on the side windows, which seems odd. (Especially if it’s related to the cabaret.) The previous guest here took every bit of printed material out of the room before leaving: the telephone instruction card, the checkout sign, and the Colorado hotel-law notice are all gone. And the refrigerator—which has more dents and scratches on it than my rental car does—sounds like someone’s on the inside, trying to get out.

My fortune cookie from lunch contained the message, “The world is always ready to receive talent with open arms”; facts being what they are, this means one of two things.

I’m told that Colorado thunderstorms—one of which is apparently on the way—are the best part of being here, but that’ll be the last thing on my mind tomorrow evening when I’m waiting for my flight home to depart.

Is this all there is?

— Rip


Alive and, Well, in Toronto

Another day, another Canadian dollar.

In the interest of fairness, I have to report that Canada treated me well, for once. On the flight out, Air Canada upgraded me to first class, even though I deserved it less than the dozens of people stranded by the cancelled previous flight. Getting through Immigration was similarly (relatively) pleasant, requiring only some lies and the purchase of another Canadian work permit.

My tiny hotel room (with a lovely view of Lake Ontario) contained more printed material than any other I’ve seen: almost every flat surface in the room held some sort of brochure, menu, placard, order form, sign, map, apology, postcard, instruction sheet, schedule, warning, or advertisement. (There was even an explanation for the rubber duck in the bathtub.) The hotel wasn’t far from the CN Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the world (whatever that means); close enough that if someone pushed it over, it would have landed on me.

I almost didn’t make it back; I left at 3:00 p.m. on the Friday before Labour Day, drove to the wrong airport terminal, barely fit on the shuttle bus to the correct terminal, and got stuck in the airport-tax line—that’s right: you have to pay to leave Canada—but since the flight was delayed, everything turned out okay. Until next time, anyway.

Zee, not zed,

— Train-o-Matic


Try This at Home

If this isn’t Peoria, it sure smells like Peoria.

The week went by in a blur (which was strange because it also seemed to go by so slowly), so I don’t remember it well enough to pass along any specific stories. It was pleasant to be able to walk to work, and most everyone I met was very friendly; unbelievably, though, no one I spoke to had heard of the expression, “How will it play in Peoria?” I also remember a little “walk of fame” in front of a building (a theater?) but don’t remember any of the names on it, so it must have been fairly esoteric fame.

A big hello to Isabella and Chloe, as soon as they learn to read.


Texgiving

The only thing we learned was, any food with Santa Fe in its name (like my “Burrito Santa Fe”) has a fried egg on top of it. The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever seeing that in Santa Fe.


Untrainable

When I checked in, the hotel gave me (as many others have) the wheelchair-accessible room. One of these days, I’ve got to double-check my travel profile.

I had to meet my training contact out in front of the building on Monday at 7:15 a.m., when it was still dark out, which seemed odd. It was a little brighter inside, but I would have traded that for having the computers in the training lab work. As it was, I wound up spending a good deal of the first day on the telephone to the one person remaining back at work, everyone else having gone or stayed home because of a blizzard in Chicago. (Here in the Seattle area, everyone in the class ran out to the lobby, later in the week, to watch one snowflake hit the ground.) We did get the machines working, eventually, but I never did get the people in the class working, which sort of diminished the usefulness of having a training course.

The break room provided a blood-pressure machine; it rated mine at the high end of normal, but then again I was drinking my sixth cup of vending-machine coffee at the time.

The phrase “way past tense” comes to mind.

Unmemorably,

— Ragnarök


2001


How Robert Didn’t Get His Groove Back

This is my third trip to Raleigh this year, and I have some questions.

First:

The airline canceled my flight the minute I stepped inside the airport, presumably because the weather was too pleasant. After I spent twenty minutes on hold, the ticket agent on the telephone told me there was a flight leaving from another terminal in fifteen minutes; I forget how it all worked out.

When I got back from work after my third consecutive dinner at the Ping Pong Cafe (third that week, not that night; it’s the only open restaurant I can get to without driving on the freeway), the alarm clock in my hotel room read “1E:4y”. Is that normal? I set the alarm for 1F:83 a.m. and it got me up on time, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Why does the ATM at the IBM training lab dispense only five-dollar bills? (None of the vending machines next to it accept five-dollar bills.) The coffee vending machine offers “whitener”, not even “non-dairy creamer”, as an option. Isn’t that something they put in toothpaste? Laundry detergent? Another vending machine offers cans of Dole carrot-pineapple juice (“Paradise Blend”), which really isn’t as bad as it sounds, if only because nothing could be as bad as that sounds. And isn’t it time for them to take down that “Vision for the 90s” poster?

And where’s my waffle? Twice the server forgot I ordered it, and after that she let it burn up.

Second:

That was the longest rental-car-counter line in history (this being Super Bowl Sunday, though I don’t really see the connection); the customer in front of me told the agent that he was from Iceland, and the agent asked him if he’d prefer a copy of the rental agreement translated into German (again, I don’t see the connection).

I tried to open the window in my hotel room, and it fell out of the frame, nearly landing on my head. Powerful, somewhat timely symbolism: a wastebasket in the hallway had one of those “I Voted” stickers stuck to it.

And now:

After yesterday’s landing, I know what a sock in a clothes dryer feels like.

When I got back to the hotel today, the cleaning staff had turned the heater in my room up to 100 degrees. Then again, the local news is describing the windy, 40-degree nights as “brutally cold”, so they probably thought they were doing me a favor.

My free copy of USA Today contains this little Q&A tidbit (see if you can guess the answer before reading it):

    Q: Where is the safest place in a trailer during a tornado?
    A: There is no safe place in a trailer in severe weather.

The television remote control has a sticker on it reading “This unit will not work at home”. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t work in here, either.

Non sum qualis eram (I am not what I used to be),

— Robert


Requiem for a Lightweight

I can’t be positive, but I would swear that I saw—on the cab ride to O’Hare—an airplane parked at the far end of the airport, engulfed in flames. Not the kind of thing one hopes to see at the beginning of a journey. The flight was comparatively pleasant (compared to having the plane catch fire, that is), despite having to change planes in Los Angeles; in fact, we got in a bit early, so I never found out how the movie “Nurse Betty” ended.

When I arrived in San Jose, by all reports, I missed a rolling blackout by just an hour or so, but then again the light switch in my hotel room didn’t work, so I feel I understand the general idea. (My itinerary contained the emphatic entry CAR: A/C YES, so I felt I always had that to fall back on.) The hotel was something of a disappointment, even for a Howard Johnson Express attached to an IHOP restaurant (“IJOP”?); I won’t bore you with the details, other than to say that I probably never recovered from their having only decaffeinated coffee in the room. The fire-emergency instructions were printed in six languages; for some reason, the thought of someone coming all the way from Japan/Germany/France/Thailand to stay there made me sad.

The training lab was fine, as far as these things go (it’s just around the corner from the Winchester Mystery House), though the air conditioning was out (it should have been labeled LAB: A/C NO somewhere). (And the elevator permit had expired, but why bring that up?) In the break room, among other things, there was a whole grapefruit in the snack bowl, which remained untouched (uneaten, actually; I think every one of us in the class touched it at some point to make a joke, which was usually to offer it to someone else) for the whole week.

The selection of restaurants that were close enough for our one-hour lunch break was also generally disappointing. The worst one, bad enough to mention specifically, was the Mandarin House: the lunch special was apparently hot-and-sour yuck, followed by kung pao vinegar; and for a receipt they gave me a Post-It note with only “$5.49” written on it. (In return, I left them a scrap of paper with “$1.25” written on it as a tip.) The best one was Flames, a charming, crowded diner; the food was miles better, and for entertainment another customer at the lunch counter said into his telephone, “Hi, Honey, how did your trial go?”

Someday, remind me to tell you how I got lost in the lab’s two-story parking garage.

To be fair (to whom, I’m not sure), I have to report how tickled I was with the trip back home (having had to wake up at 4:00 a.m., this is saying a lot). The man who cut in front of me in the line for the rental-car shuttle bus spilled the contents of his briefcase when the bus arrived and had to step aside to pick everything up, and the airline switched me to a direct flight back to Chicago, though we had to wait until 6:30 a.m. before taking off, to comply with local noise regulations. Imagine my surprise when the oxygen mask for the empty seat in front of me popped out (it made a funny “pop” noise); I fear the fact that we had just landed makes it a much less interesting story.

Are we there yet?

— Rogelio


The Fifth Sense

Every time I eat at the Burger King next to my usual hotel in Austin, there’s a notice for a new toy recall.

My rental car was a little souped-up Mustang, with a built-in can coozy. Once, when I stopped at a traffic light, someone with the same car drove up next to me; I was too busy trying to hide to see if the other driver was busy trying to hide.


Question

A short, but instructive, non-travel story:

On one way I drive home from work, there’s a junior high school at the corner of a sharp turn in the street. As you approach the turn, there’s a sign that reads “SPEED LIMIT 15 MPH”; and, just beyond it, another sign reading “SPEED LIMIT 20 MPH WHEN CHILDREN ARE PRESENT”.

Am I supposed to speed up?


Canadian Beauty

During what promises to become a bumpy flight, the last thing I want to see on the in-flight entertainment channel is a program about roller coasters. One of those episodes that makes life what it is: we were starting the windy descent into Toronto, dodging clouds, and flying too close to an especially nasty-looking gray one. Right after I thought, “I’m sure glad we’re not flying through that cloud”, the plane banked sharply and we flew through that cloud.

When I regained consciousness, I was being hassled in Immigration again, and had one of those robotic conversations (Agent: “Is that consistent with your understanding?” Me: “That is consistent with my understanding.”) that I always have with the agents, but afterward the agent let me into the country without having to buy a work permit, or slip him a bribe, or anything like that. I got really lost on the way from the airport to the hotel, of course, but by this point it hardly seems worth mentioning. How about if, in the future, I mention it only when I don’t get lost?

For some reason, whenever I walk around Toronto I think I recognize everyone on the street, and want to grab every person’s shoulder and say, “Wow, I haven’t seen you for years! How have you been?” Part of Toronto is a sprawling underground mall and walkway system, stretching (judging from my map) about 2 kilometres north–south, and 1.5 km east–west—you could live down there for months without seeing the light of day! Come to think of it, from the looks of things, a lot of people have already had this idea.

According to the Welcome channel on the hotel television, “It Happens at the Hilton”. What I was never able to figure out is, what happens? People wish they were somewhere else? The decor was a mixture of fancy art deco furniture and dingy carpeting and wallpaper, and I’d almost wished the furniture was dingy, too, since it only emphasized the grubbiness.

Man walking by in Toronto airport, talking in a loud voice, apparently to himself: “I have a problem, which you should be aware of...” (I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking, “No kidding.”) It turns out he had a headset telephone in his other ear, but it was pretty funny to see.

In my seat pocket, on the flight back, I found an old, unopened container of macaroni salad, and annoyed everyone around me by offering it to them.

Still with me?

— Rue


Artist Descending a Fire Escape

Or, “Hot Damn!” (And I do mean “hot”, and I do mean “damn!”)

According to the Texas hotel laws on the inside of my room door, it looks as if I could be fined $2,000 if I accidentally burn down the hotel. The way I feel, it almost sounds worth it.

After the hour-long limo ride to Midway airport, having to fly ATA (which, in my travels, was the closest approximation to a long bus ride that I can remember, which isn’t the airline’s fault: my too-close seatmate’s explanation of what “bonded” means in the construction business and what he thought of air safety would have spoiled my mood no matter what I was doing), and getting lost on my way out of DFW in 100-degree heat, I don’t think anything could have made me feel otherwise.

More than most people, it seems, I dislike surprises while I’m driving. Imagine, then, the feeling I had, driving along different frontage roads, when every few blocks there was a yield-to-freeway-traffic sign on the left whenever a freeway offramp came in at a sharp angle (both horizontally and vertically).

I finally figured out that the squeaking sound coming from my bathroom was a family of crickets living in the light fixture. And I have to say, I would have expected Dallas to have better quesadillas than the ones I got at the food court by the training center.

Descending back into Midway, we flew so close to some houses that I was sure we were going to land in someone’s driveway. When I opened my eyes, though, we were on a runway, so I’ll give the airline the benefit of the doubt.

— Sunny Jim


Tri-State

To people unfamiliar with New England, to say that I spent time in three states (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) this week sounds more impressive than it really was.

The training room (for the first couple days) was the tiniest and second-hottest yet; but the worst of it was that the building was on the flight path for a local municipal airport, so every few minutes the sky would darken and there would be a sudden, loud airplane-descent sound [keep in mind this was early October, 2001].

The company did treat us well, though. We were moved to a larger room (the executive presentation room, I believe it was) for the second half of the week, and they sent in lunch for us every day. (Arriving in the hot room on the morning of the second day, though, we were greeted by our now-surely-poisonous leftovers from the first day.) On the last day, one of the selections was pumpkin ravioli, which tastes about how it sounds like it would taste.

I had a nice reunion with ’Chell at Legal Seafood. It was a pleasant visit, but I accidentally ordered a huge bowl of littlenecks in brown water. In addition to the, uh, unexpected flavor, I had to wear a bib, for goodness’ sake. There’s a photograph, but you don’t get to see it.


Being Here, Doing This

(Or, “Specific Gravity”.)

Well, at least New York City smells the same.

I was living and working less than half a mile from a hole in the ground where a couple of tall buildings belong, and the oddest thing was how normal everything else seemed. Sure, there were a lot of police officers walking around, many streets were closed to automobile traffic, and I needed “transit papers” to get into the training center, but it was encouraging to see people going about their business. And “the site” is fenced off [this being mid-October, 2001, that platform hadn’t been built yet], so you can’t really see much of anything, but the biggest sensation you get is the smell: it’s hard to breathe there, with the smell of burnt plastic, but that didn’t keep a big crowd from standing around, taking pictures, and so on... (My pictures didn’t come out.)

As I walked past the NASDAQ building, I shouted, “Buy low, sell high!”, but it didn’t seem to help.

Moving on to personal news, don’t make the same mistake I did: eating two huge slices of “white pizza” for dinner is not the sensation (taste or otherwise) you might expect.

Raw data:

I saved my boarding pass, which is the only way I know it wasn’t a dream.

Pinch me,

— Roustabout


No Size Fits All

Even though I asked for a compact car, the Budget office at Denver Interplanetary Airport rented me a Ford Explorer, which felt a lot like driving around in my cubicle at work. (Except that the car seats eight, and my cubicle barely seats one.) For the first time, instead of feeling like I was going to get squashed, every time I changed lanes on the freeway I was afraid I’d squash someone else: whenever I got out of the car, I expected to find another car stuck to my tire.

I stayed about a mile from the training center, and had the pleasure (well, relative to driving that car for ten blocks, with four stoplights and three left turns) of walking to work every day. There are nice, wide sidewalks everywhere, and some great scenery, so it was surprising that I never saw anyone else walking anywhere. Then again, given the character of those three left turns, perhaps they’d all been run over.

Most of what Holly told me (during our reunion after five or six years, during which time only one of us has aged gracefully) is off the record, but what I can tell you is that it made me even more certain than ever that I haven’t really lived yet. Also, that anyone from Liberal Jackboot Fascist Boulder who hassles you deserves whatever sort of thrashing you can spare the time to give them.

Woke up at 5:00 a.m. to get to the airport the recommended three hours before my flight; dropped off the rental car, and made it to the gate two and a half hours before I was scheduled to leave. (Saw an Amish couple in the airport, which didn’t seem right. And how did a bird get inside the terminal?) I forgot how much riding the train that goes between terminals feels like being inside a video game.

I lost an hour going home from Mountain Time to Central Time, but with Daylight Saving Time I guess I broke even.

— Uncle Robert


Say Uncle!

Let’s just say that I sank to the occasion.

Without getting into details, I’ll just say that this training class was the pinnacle of shameful behavior of students, to say nothing of the disgraceful behavior of the trainer. A new record for tardiness (without explanation) was set by the student who, on the third day of class, arrived one hour and 48 minutes late. (By that point in the week, I should mention, the first student to arrive was 35 minutes late.)

If you like watching (and love listening to) airplanes landing, this is the place to stay. The hotel is on the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport property, across the street from an American Airlines hangar, and not too far from a runway. I should have noticed that something was amiss when I walked from the parking lot into the lobby to check in, and was told by the desk clerk that I needed to take the elevator down one floor to get to my room on the second floor. It turns out, of course, that the hotel was built into the side of a hill (if you ask me, it was built into the wrong side), so the ground floor was really the third floor. That is to say, the ground floor was actually—well, you get the picture.

Once again, I spent almost the entire work week underground: the opposite end of the hotel (from my room) was connected to the training site by a quarter mile of hallways, a surprising number of staircases, and a couple of doors with numeric-code locks. And since room service had only four dishes (only one of which I would eat)—well, again, you get the picture. Variety is the spice of other people’s lives.

On Saturday, though, I had big plans: I’d drive from Dallas to Austin to meet my new nephew! A bad omen: setting out, the vending machine outside my room was cursed. I was trying to buy a bottle of soda pop with caffeine (since there was no coffeemaker in the room), and first got a bottle of caffeine-free orange soda (undrinkable), then a half-empty bottle of cola that had somehow exploded inside the machine.

It was mostly an uneventful drive. (At one point, there was someone hang-gliding over the freeway, which is something I never like seeing.) Three hours into the drive, though, I blew out a tire by running over a piece of metal that fell off the truck in front of me. Now, I’ve said before that I’m the luckiest unlucky person I know. You know how it goes: the bad news was, the nearby rest stop telephone was broken; the good news was, a kid walking by helped me get the tiny spare tire on. After driving back to a gas station I saw (thanks, J.D.’s Texaco 282!), the bad news was that the repair center was closed for the weekend; the good news was, they had someone they kept on call. The bad news was, he wasn’t answering the telephone; the good news was, he called back after twenty minutes. And so forth. After another hour, I had a used Firestone tire, and was back on my way.

And I got to meet nephew Thomas! I guess I’d never noticed before how much babies look like little people.

After an hour or two of visiting, I headed back to Dallas. On the way back, just before getting on the last freeway to the hotel, a camper towing a pickup truck right in front of me had a blowout.

You had me at goodbye,

— Ritardando (“with a gradual slowing of tempo”)


Motor Skills

For too many reasons to list, I will do almost anything to avoid using Boston’s Logan Airport. In this case, “almost anything” includes driving to Burlington, Massachusetts, from the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, in the dark, on black ice. No matter when you read this, I’ll still be shuddering from that drive.

I can’t say enough good about the Burlington training-center staff, and I can’t say enough bad about some of the students and other trainers. In the next room over, there was a really loud instructor, so much so that all of his students were sitting in the back of the room. Many of mine were, too. In my room, there was a student clipping his fingernails during the lecture; clipping one’s nails only in private seems to be something of a lost art. On the other hand, the training center’s ice-cream buffet day made everything forgivable. If not forgettable.

In front of Burlington Mall was a marquee reading “Wonderful World of Women”. Well, quite.


Encore Une Fois

I take it back: part of that huge underground mall in Toronto was flooded one day this week, and we weren’t allowed to eat—much less live—down there.

Not much to report, this time. Had the longest wait ever in the security line at O’Hare (I’m not sure “line” is the correct word: it was a weird self-intersecting curve that we wouldn’t have called a line in math class—and this was the first time I’d spent more time in line than I did in the air), but the smoothest passage through Immigration ever; it’s still irritating, of course, that I don’t know what it is that makes some trips so much easier than others, since I answer the agents’ questions the same way every time. The rental car company rented me a minivan, and the travel agency accidentally set up my hotel reservation for one night, instead of seven, so I had to scramble for another place to stay. Since the first hotel didn’t have a parking lot, I had to drive around and park the van in an underground lot somewhere, and by the time I changed hotels the next day I forgot where the van was.

It was sort of surprising to see how much casual, PG-13–level profanity was allowed on television and in the newspapers, though Toronto, like most places, has plenty to swear about. The first hotel had advertisements in the elevator for their “Table for One” service, a special section in the hotel restaurant for people eating by themselves. I don’t know which is more depressing, having to spend weeks of my time with no normal human contact, or imagining thousands of other people doing the same thing.

The flight home from Toronto to Chicago takes about 90 minutes. Imagine my surprise, on this pleasant, freakishly warm and sunny day, when we pulled away from the gate and I fell asleep for an hour (I’d had to wake up before 5:00 a.m., you see), to find upon waking that we were still on the ground in Toronto.

If you find the van, let me know.

— Roturier (Fr. “commonplace, vulgar”)


Here with the Wind

The hotel building was covered with scaffolding, and it occurs to me that I could use some scaffolding to hold me up. At first, I wasn’t sure I’d found the right building; it seemed wrong that the travel agency would give me a reservation at a hotel that wasn’t finished yet. Just outside the elevator doors on the fourth floor was a bucket catching drops from a leak in the ceiling; and on at least two occasions I woke up at 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning because of the high winds rattling the scaffolding against the building, which resulted in a huge “clang” noise. Imagine the sound of an empty trash dumpster being dropped from a height of twenty feet, or being inside a giant grandfather clock when it strikes one o’clock, and you’ll have the general idea.

I was training at the Social Security Administration near Baltimore; try as I might to get them to introduce an “accounting irregularity” that would allow me to retire this year, nothing came of it. There were a lot of holiday parties going on that week, and I got to walk around searching for the sources of the different food aromas, pretend I was a new hire, introduce myself to a lot of people, and get a bunch of free lunches. You wouldn’t think it so easy to get lost in a building where each floor is essentially one gigantic room, but the fact remains.

What made the trip worthwhile for me was that I finally heard a good comeback to an overused, unfunny “joke”:

    “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
    “Well, then could you just tell my boss?”

I was flying back on what was described as the busiest flying day of the year. When I walked into the BWI security area from the rental-car drop-off lot, the line didn’t seem so long; but it turned out that was because it stretched outside, for a quarter of a mile, through a tunnel to another concourse.

And thank goodness, despite all the warnings to the contrary, nobody pronounced Baltimore as Balmer.

Ready to ramble,

— Rorschach


2002


Need Anything?

That’s the question posed by a sign in my hotel-room bathroom, and it occurs to me that I don’t know how to begin to answer that. For starters, I seem to be missing the gene responsible for keeping my shirt tucked in. Beyond that, we don’t really have the time to go into it.

Overlapping memories from the identical (almost overlapping) courses held at IBM labs in San Jose and Austin:

The coffee vending machine returns really old coins as change: I’ve received six quarters dated from 1965 to 1967, and that naturally raises the question of when they last changed the coffee inside.

Austin: On a mailbox in the hallway is a sign reminding people to use ZIP codes when addressing mail. San Jose: In the hallway is a big poster of a 15-cent postage stamp; and near the lobby is a big trophy case with nothing in it.

If my luck were worse, I’d have some pretty good stories: Running late one morning, I took a shortcut across the lawn in front of the lab, and the sprinklers came on just as I passed them. That night, I got out of the elevator one minute before the power went out for a half hour.

— Roget


Trainerspotting

I was the last one in the Immigration line at Montreal’s Dorval Airport, but for once I wasn’t sent to the gray room for interrogation: when asked his business in Canada, the man two spaces in front of me said, “I’m here to visit a customer”, and they sent him right through. When I got to the front of the line (which was also the back of the line) and was asked my business in Canada, I said, “I’m here to visit a customer”, and they sent me right through. (It turns out this doesn’t always work, as my next trip to Toronto proved.)

Just going through the motions (what’s the opposite of “labor of love”?): I was staying at the same hotel, and training for the same company that brought me here in 1999, but the experience was less unpleasant this time. (However, the computerized driving directions to the hotel from the airport contained the line “Exit UNNAMED STREET”.) From the hotel, I learned the secret back route to drive to work, which enabled me to avoid the insanity of the Trans-Canada Highway. And apparently the makers of Coffee Crisp candy bars introduced a new orange flavor, which I don’t hesitate to recommend, if you can get your hands on one.

Some interesting roadway innovations: the different colored lights on a traffic signal are also different shapes, and some crosswalks have countdown timers. Wasted effort: flipping channels on the television, there were some infomercials (for exercise equipment) that had been dubbed into French.

I’m always embarrassed to turn in my expense reports when I get back to the office, since the accounting department sees that I eat exactly the same thing every day. (What’s the opposite of “bon vivant”?)

Many years ago, on the few occasions I would fly home and back during a college vacation, I was always afraid to make arrangements to fly to Ontario, California, fearing I would get a flight to Ontario, Canada (as much as that makes no sense). (What’s the opposite of “finest hour”?) Well, for one of my students that fear was realized: he told a story of wanting to fly to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and ending up with a flight to St. John, New Brunswick, not discovering the mistake until he tried to check into what he thought was his hotel.

Not watching where I’m going,

— Rot


Ne Pas Déranger

Isn’t an airplane supposed to be facing forward when it lands?

Made it to North York (a suburb of Toronto—there is no South York) right on schedule, and was hassled for the usual amount of time in Immigration. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the crazy-looking man dressed in what looked like a shiny blue bathrobe was detained for less time than I was. Is there something you’re all not telling me?

True to form, I got lost on the way to the hotel: part of the blame goes to the computerized driving directions that told me to get off the freeway at a nonexistent exit, and part of it was seeing things like a street called Avenue Road. I did find a familiar major street, finally, which I knew led in the right direction (and also, of course, in the opposite direction, but I was lucky); I got within half a block of the hotel, but the left-turn traffic signal was broken, so I spent quite a while in the intersection trying to squeeze between oncoming cars and pedestrians. Eventually I did get to the hotel and was able to check in, after which I had to drive back the way I came to find the parking garage.

I can’t put my finger on what seemed so strange about the hotel. (It was near a tattoo parlor, which was a plus.) Looking down at the front entrance from the window in my room, it felt as if I was staying in a castle made out of Legos. The bad news (for my motivation) was that the hotel and the training center were in the same building, separated by an underground shopping mall and food court, so I think I went outside only twice the whole week. One evening, it was raining even though I couldn’t see any clouds, so it’s probably just as well. (A big tray of snacks for the day was brought into the training room every morning, so every morning I had three brownies and a quart of grapefruit juice for breakfast.)

One morning, the lights in the elevator were out, but the car was still in service (inside, you could still see the little light indicating what floor the elevator was on). On every floor on the way down (I was on the 17th), the people waiting would make the same I’m-not-sure-I’m-comfortable-with-this face before boarding. When the doors opened on the second floor, there was a hotel-maintenance worker waiting; as a voice from the darkness, I said, “We’d like to file a work order...”, and he ran away.

For the trip back on Saturday, I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m., but I wasn’t the only one up. When I went down to the lobby to check out, there was a terrific din coming from the bar, which turned out to be fans cheering near the end of a late World Cup game. (That’s soccer, right?) (What do they do if the game turns out to be a tie? Flip a coin? Which raises the question, does any country have coins that have the same thing printed on both sides?) The game must have ended just after I left the parking garage (5:20 or so), since portions of the streets suddenly filled with hooligans, jumping in front of my rental car and waving the Korean flag. I know what I’m doing here, but what are they doing here?

For the final indignity, I was pulled out of line as we were boarding the plane as part of the random security check, and got felt up before the flight back.

Extra ordinarily,

— A friend of a friend


Signs

A sign that others felt the same way about their flights that I did about my flight to Raleigh-Durham: during the hour I was waiting at the departure gate, there were three announcements over the P.A. system requesting “a janitor with a mop at American ticket counter n”, a different ticket counter each time.

Even though I hadn’t been there in seven months, the Homewood Suites desk clerk immediately recognized me when I entered the lobby to check in. (Being recognized by hotel staff is not a sign that your life is working out the way you’d planned.) It occurs to me that, as many years as I’ve been staying in this hotel, I’ve never been above the second floor (of six or eight floors). I was staying in the same room I had in February, with the same broken coat hanger in the closet.

One thing I like about that particular hotel and this particular training site is that I can spend the whole week without having to make a single left turn. Still, on many freeway onramps are “$250 Fine” signs—but for what? And at the training building, there’s a janitor who always recognizes me. (See note above re recognition.)

Rule of thumb: the louder and dirtier the Waffle House, the better the food.

Just after the return flight landed, on the runway was a sign reading “Check Compass: Extreme Magnetic Deviations Possible”. If that’s true, wouldn’t the compass be the last thing you should check?

Bemused*,

— R and D

* I’ve spent most of my life thinking that “bemused” meant “sarcastically amused”, but it turns out to mean something like “perplexed” or “bewildered”. Anyway, take your pick.


2003


The Next Big Nothing

(Or, “Canadian Idol”, which will have to do until I can think of something funny.)

To teach two consecutive identical courses, I had to spend nearly two weeks in Markham, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. This time, I did some research on the foreign-worker regulations before leaving for Canada. I learned, for example, that one doesn’t need a work permit if entering the country as part of a traveling circus.

On every other trip I’ve made to the Toronto area, I rented a car, and wound up not using it except to drive from and to the airport. This time, to save money and worry, I figured I’d forgo the car and walk everywhere I needed to go. As it turned out, there were only three things wrong with this plan: with the wind chill, it was −18 degrees Celsius out, making even the ten-minute walk to work very unpleasant; the hotel and training site were in an industrial neighborhood with very few sidewalks, and those few hadn’t been plowed or shoveled; and the other trips were all to downtown Toronto, but here there was almost nothing else around (making the sidewalk problem less of an issue, but still).

Over the course of the first few days, then, I became quite familiar with what the hotel had to offer, such as alarmingly dry room-service desserts. For an hour every day, starting around 5:00 p.m., the floor and windows would make sudden, loud creaking sounds, during which I thought my ninth-floor room was going to fall off the building. (There was also some minor trouble with the laundry room, not worth going into.) After four days, I’d exhausted the room-service menu items I was willing to try, as well as the entertainment possibilities offered by the hotel (strictly speaking, I’d exhausted those possibilities by the second day, but let’s ignore that for now), and needed another plan.

Since someone had torn the local map out of my room’s telephone directory, it took me longer than it would have taken anyone else to learn that a quarter mile from the front door of the hotel there was a small strip mall containing a couple of restaurants. But what a quarter mile! Because none of the sidewalks around the hotel had been cleared, I had to scale a small mountain of frozen snow to get to the nearest intersection, then rush across two busy streets (one of which was a highway, actually, according to the map) in order to sprint across the parking lot to get some fast food. (On the whole, there’s nothing especially objectionable about the way people drive around here, except in parking lots.) There was a pretty good Chinese restaurant there; its fortune-cookie fortunes were printed in both English and French, where at least the English translations seemed a bit off. Example: “Your emotional nature is strong and emotional.” [Follow-up: a month later, at home, I received the fortune “Your emotional nature is strong and sensitive.”]

The training center was satisfactory, for the most part. (The cafeteria sold Rice Krispies treats, the label of which boasted “with real marshmallow”. What would artificial marshmallow be?) Alas, the air conditioning broke on Thursday afternoon, remaining broken on Friday and Monday: by midday Friday, it was around 30 Celsius inside, making it the high point of the trip, if you go by temperature. During my stay, I saw a parade of neighboring classes and trainers come and go; one trainer demolished the record for having the loudest voice (and believe me, I’ve met some loud people over the years—incidentally, halfway through the trip marked my having had this job for six years), and another trainer wore an ascot to class, which was a first. A smaller session was the “Perfect Pronunciation” series; during one of our breaks, I saw the phrase “foul mood” being used as one of their exercises.

Some students had told me about another shopping mall, down the highway a bit, so I thought I’d kill some time over the weekend by walking over there. Now, the straight-line route still hadn’t defrosted, so I had to wind my way there using back streets, parking lots, slushy-muddy fields, and so forth, finally entering the mall property through a smelly alley in back. What a disappointment, even for a shopping mall: the main building contained nothing but Chinese grocery, book, and video stores, travel agencies, and so forth (and I’ve never seen a mall so crowded). Across the street were some unpromising office-supply and sporting-goods stores, and (whew!) a Chapters bookstore, where I spent three or four hours, reading $100 worth of books ($150 Canadian) without buying them. (Anyone needing more information about the phrase “foul mood” is invited to contact me.)

I won’t trouble you with the highs and lows of the voyage home (the six departure times, the false alarm, the “ground crew in San Francisco”, the aurora borealis), since you already know I made it back. To help me remember the journey, one of my ears still hasn’t popped.

Over and out,

— Robert


Flavor of the Decade

Or “The Forty Seasons”, or “The Merry Month of Dismay”, or “King Off the Road”, or “All’s Well That Ends”, or “Closing Arguments”, or... oh, never mind.

This month marks ten years—the tin anniversary—since I started traveling for work. Since I’m more or less retired (undefeated) from that phase of my career (if you want to call it that) I figured I’d try to recap.

I’ll miss Waffle Houses, room service, walking through downtown Toronto, free shampoo, Legal Seafood, small cities, eating burritos five times a week, Coffee Crisp candy bars, and getting to tell the same jokes every week. (My training style might best be described as “entertaining with an iron fist”.)

I won’t miss the middle seat, courtesy shuttle buses, turbulence, the Sumner Tunnel, five-hour flight delays, rental-car companies renting me a minivan, holding patterns, the Immigration line at Canadian airports, vending-machine coffee, the long drive to Denver International Airport, staying over a Saturday, Texas heat, or the O’Hare taxi stand. (That underground tunnel connecting the B and C United concourses at O’Hare puts me in the mind of a paint store from a nightmare.) I won’t miss plastic hotel-room keys, conversations that begin, “You know, I’ve led an interesting life...”, picking up or returning rental cars at LAX, eating alone in restaurants, 7:00 a.m. (or earlier) flights, driving in New England, dealing with our travel agency, having to figure out how to set all those different models of alarm clocks, or having to pronounce “Woburn” as “Wooburn”.

I’ve been to forty states, six provinces, five continents, two hemispheres; in or near my share of major and minor disasters (hurricanes, blizzards, floods, ice storms, rolling blackouts, earthquakes, and more). In the end, I’m the same person I was ten years ago, and I don’t mean that in a good way. (For example, I never did learn the difference between a state and a commonwealth.) Try it sometime, and see for yourself.

I guess that’s everything,

— Robert


Epilogue: Starting What I Finished.


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