An Admission

As the guy who wrote the book on travel as life, I am compelled to blog for the sake of truth:  life, travel or otherwise, is not always pretty.  But would we want it any other way?  Heaven on earth might not be worth living.  If Homeland Security, the airlines, rental car companies and hotel chains were not the disfunctional, homogeneous bureaucracies we love to hate, would we have to create some equally frustrating substitute?  


Arriving in San Francisco after midnight, anticipating an early start to Friday’s meetings, and three good hours remaining tonight to work the luggage and car rental maze, drive down the Peninsula, check in and get to bed, I lack the energy to fish out my Zen Nano MP3 player, carefully loaded though it may be with thoughtful and intellectually engaging files awaiting some spare time to get a listen.  I read last Sunday’s NY Times on the driver-less tram as it jerks through various terminals, that mysterious East Parking Lot (is there a West?) and the BART terminal.  No one ever seems to get on or off at these stops – we veterans of the business beat soldier on toward the car rental terminus.  Having produced the requisite credit card and driver’s license, I settle into my wheels for the next few days – a bright copper Chevy LHR with the most confusing radio since BMW’s i-drive.  I manage to find a late night AM talk show, and while the exits tick off my progress down the 101 Freeway, I am assaulted once again by the oft repeated, never verified theory that a frog sitting in a pot of slowly warming water will not jump out, and not realizing how hot it’s becoming, will eventually be boiled to death.


The chauvinism of this mythology strikes me since the implication is that a superior species – a human – would get out of the warming bath.  Whereas the idiotic (and hence soul-less and thus worthy not of protection, but rather only of being sauteed carefully in unsalted butter and garlic over a gas flame in the kitchen of a French restaurant), would be so easily unable to discern gradual change.  I wonder – will people save their environment before we ruin it?  Will we transition away from fossil fuel before we overheat the climate or create ever larger, and possibly less confinable, wars between great nations?  Will people ever admit that more people may not forever and always be  better than fewer before our planet can no longer support our tens of billions?  In my own little econiche, will my university be better when 20 students apply for each admissions slot?  30?  100?  Will people be smarter if standardized test classes become available for 9, 8, 6, 3 year olds?  If people travel back to the moon, to Mars, to Io, if we spend enough money on the pursuit of that illusive horizon, will we value our lives or our planet any more?  


Maybe the frog’s clock runs faster than ours, so a ten minute heating cycle from warm to boiling is to him, the way a century’s heating cycle of our planet is, to the overnight talk show, too long to raise any immediate concern.  


Gas prices – isn’t it our American Right to drive whatever car we want to afford?  And prices are down – to $3.99 here in the Bay Area.  So the difference between Man and Frog – a frog can’t extrapolate a line, we can’t filter a noisy signal and see that despite ups and down, gas on average doubles in price something like every 10 years.  Since sunny yesterday was warmer than rainy today, even though it’s April, winter must be coming on…  


These are the dark thoughts that haunt the sleep deprived travel addict.  We survive having learned the fundamental lesson of lousy hotel rooms – they all look better in the morning especially once the suitcase is dragged back out over the door jam, and you can leave that little prison forever.  And enter a new one tonight.  



As my 11th flight of this adventure’s itinerary landed at Providence today, I thought – home after how many days?  I asked the guy on my right “what day is this?”.  21st, he said and I thought, of what month?  I figured that out completely on my own – remembering that if it were September, I’d be leaving for a few weeks in Italy and UK, and that before I left, I told myself I had a full month between trips (unless the unexpected comes up, which it usually does) – ergo it must be August.   OK, when did I leave?  I remembered the Narragansett Bay Swim – that was in July, when the Ocean has warmed a little, but the Jellyfish haven’t yet made their debut.  So I probably left in July, and now it’s August   Summertime, but who could tell?  In the world of airlines and rental cars, air conditioned hotel rooms with windows welded shut, hushed conference rooms for anechoic telecons and enough niggling little time changes that the diurnal cycle becomes a tease – if not a mean joke – all one can really discern with certainty is the appearance and disappearance of snow, if north of about DC, since it’s pretty visible from an airport shuttle even at 1 AM.  Watch out for tree leaves, so unreliable in the West, high country, or piney forests.  And the proclivity of business men for short sleeves and college students for shorts year ‘round doesn’t help either.  Not to mention exhibition seasons which allow football to start in June, and baseball to start in March.  Of course I have only thermodynamicists to blame for Hockey running 11 months a year.  And even more worthy of our condemnation, that inane cliché “frozen floor”.


I left home in Rhode Island, after a month spent cleaning up and moving in after 9 months of construction work, for a week in my other home – in Virginia, itself in the midst of a small avalanche of transfiguration.  Not of its soul maybe, but of constitution.  Though laudably unselfish, sacrificing itself to cushion the fall of a couple of major league trees previously resident in my neighbor’s yard, during a storm – I think that would have been in May – that sign of solidarity among wood products triggered a new round of insurance and care giver calls – this time not in the medical realm, but in drywall, shingles, zoning approvals, plumbing, painting, cabinetry and cleaning.  Rebuilding a part of your house is like throwing out a disk in your back – your back hurts, but for some reason soon so does your arm, and your leg, and your neck.   And eventually your Visa card is begging for mercy.


Three days before my flight to Utah I gave the construction crew which had assembled on the main floor of my house a scaffolding that could have painted the ceilings of a dozen Sistine Chapels, a forced vacation.  Violating, I admit, my own rule never to grumble about work getting done, and definitely never to punctuate it.  I needed to find my stuff under all those tarps.  Which I did – though everything was the color of sheet rock filings But I did learn how to clean the filter of my Dust Buster™, itself busted by a surfeit of dust.  Hey, who’s the buster and who’s the busted around here anyway?  That last letter ‘R’ should be a ‘D’.


Maybe it’s the homogeneity of airports – the same geometric patterns of diet and regular Coke and non-diet Sprite and neat little whole juice mugs (what, exactly, is whole juice anyway?  My theory is now that we’re all old and think we can’t metabolize milk, we try to please our mental models of our mothers by drinking anything that has the prefix whole applied to it), plus the same brand of bottled water, gleaming from their exposed vertical coolers, the same brand and selections of nuts, bananas, apples, the same Starbucks franchises, that eventually makes your soul long for something that doesn’t come inside the safety of shrink wrap?  I used to think dressing and undressing four times a day to accommodate the wake up, AM bike ride, evening commute home and then swim routine was a little bothersome.  But my X/C ruggedized Adidas are worn out not from granite, not from long miles of road work early before the day’s first meetings, but from don and doff routines mandated by our Homeland Security bureaucracy.  Nike will soon bring out shoes with reinforced heel cups, not to prevent blisters, but to resist breakdown from sliding them on and off for x-ray scanning.  Hundreds of millions of passengers sentenced to a lifetime of de-shoing and re-shoeing.  Gotta be a market in there someplace.


  I am an inmate of the world’s largest prison system – the American Airport.  You can leave, but then you can’t travel – so you can’t leave unless you don’t leave, and then only if you go back through the line.  The Prisoner and Kafka’s Joseph K. have nothing on me.  I don’t even have a number, except my confirmation number du jour, which is only mine for one check in.  Then where does it go?  Every day I scramble to find a computer and printer to confirm to my airline that the ticket I paid for I’m definitely going to use – otherwise they’ll sell it again.  I type in that number – and it tells me I’m not recognized.  I take comfort in my anonymity.


 I have no right to complain.  In almost a month of taxis, trains, planes, rental cars, hotel rooms, conferences, meetings, dinners, breakfasts, lunches, in- and off-airport meetings, family reunions, and hotel room Wifi connections, everything planned to happen, did happen, more or less on time.  My computer didn’t crash, neither did any of my planes or taxis, and my luggage even arrived on the same flight as my body.  On time, every time.  I feel I’m being set up for a massive fall.  By email today in a concourse of Philadelphia airport (a city I have never been to excepting the Southwest Terminal and on I-95 when I missed the NJ Turnpike Exit), I learned that even my shipments to Matera, Italy, made in preparation for next month’s voyage had arrived on time in good shape.  


Lucky in travel, unlucky in?  Murphy, the 2nd Law and I know one thing – the universe is not symmetric.  Hey, my waist is no longer symmetric.  Like the earth, it has been deformed by a weak but constant force.  In the case of earth, it’s centripetal acceleration from its own rotation.  At least that deformation is to 2nd order symmetric.  My 3.4 oz cell phone isn’t.  My belts’ scars tell the tale.  As likely will my minutes for this month.


Home is where you don’t pay $9 and 11¢ for a bag of almonds and a roll of mints you don’t even like.  And then get handed 89 cents in change and a receipt, as if one day you’ll go to heaven and get a better berth if you carefully documented your completely over the top expenses.  


My best hotel room was an efficiency at a suites hotel – about 250 square feet of luxury that included a knife, fork and spoon in a drawer, a microwave, small refrig with ice maker and, wowie, a stove top and two pieces of cheap Revere-ware, one of which made a pretty decent top for the other one, as they  both lacked that element of the ensemble.  I paid $1600 for a little under a week there – which translates to the payment on a passable McMansion with a small pool.  Without the burden of tax deductions, appreciation, or the ability to leave your stuff there for the nights you have to be somewhere else.    Have you ever wanted to own a Maserati?  You could – for much less money per day than Hertz charged me to rent a Hyundai in Chicago and drop it in Columbus.


But my suites hotel did maintain, for my comfort and safety, plenty of under 6 year old kids to keep the pool lively, and all the coffee I want, 24 / 7, which in my case is… none.  Clearly I am not succeeding in exploiting all the bennies of travel.  In fact, I’m beginning to loathe them.  I have a couple hundred thousand frequent flier miles.  I refuse to think about them.  I can buy $6000 worth of new GM card thanks to my Visa affinity card (I don’t like to think about the concept of my having an affinity with GM either).  Unfortunately I like my old VW.  I have exec points at Hilton – if I knew which hotels were Hiltons (or cared) or what those points would buy me – probably admission to the club floor with a full compliment of foods which in real life I would never touch, proto-edibles accompanied by widescreen CNN and ESPN, which for some reason just remind me that I’d rather be anywhere than in front of any television, regardless of screen dimension or cable channel selection.


I traded Richard, the taxi driver, $100 for my suitcase and the last receipt of this trip, wheeled my mortally wounded $370 (not reimbursable) Swiss Army suitcase up my handicap ramp, and greeted Lulu, my hospice-trained cat.  Leaving everything in the middle of the living room, I rolled up my wetsuit into my backpack, traded khakis for a bathing suit, and walked to Charlestown Beach.  The guards were still on their perches – so it wasn’t yet 5 pm and the ocean thereby safe for human visitation, plus or minus the odd jellyfishes.


Having gotten sequentially very wet, somewhat dry and thoroughly sandy, I shuffled back toward my house, marveling at having my feet in contact with earth, sand and pebbles.  Asphalt, in the rare spots we have any, even felt great.  Say of Deepak Chopra what you will, the man understands the value of curling your feet in sand.  The seasons have changed – the air is clearer, crisper, cooler.  I can see Block Island, hidden in mid-summer, by the hazy heavy Atlantic summer humidity.  The license plates are different, they change with the vacation schedules of nearby states and come in waves – New Hampshire, Ontario, Connecticut. the Cicadas are singing, the sun is too low and farther South.  


It’s not that obvious what is a good trip and what is a bad one.  Is a good bike ride one with sunny warm weather and no breakdowns?  Or do we get a lot more style points riding 500 miles in the rain the last hundred minus two rear spokes and a front deraillieur?  In fact, the miles are no easier wet or dry – just the clothing changes.  And if it rains, the world thinks your really a tough dude.  If your luggage is lost 8 times, your flights leave you stranded in maybe Utica and Novosibirsk, and you survive a non-poisonous snake bite exiting a cab in Tegucigalpa, you may in fact have a much better trip, get away with giving a lecture in less than business formal attire but get a free pass, and earn a few attaboys back in the home office.  People find you much more entertaining opening your talk with tales of travel disasters – they are a shared experience of our species.


Frogs don’t take vacations – good or bad.  They learn change doesn’t exist.   Change is inbred to the traveler.  Every trip we return forced to relearn, to reexamine our surroundings.  We take its temperature, measure its light, scan its new population, stroke its complexion.  Because we’re smarter than frogs?  Or maybe we just get around more.  


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