Monthly Archives: December 2001

amtrak adventures

planes, trains, and automobiles…in order to complete the holy trinity of travel this year, i needed to take a train. i suppose if one were literal about these things, BART might count, but that’s not nearly as romantic as amtrak. a train in the wild-west sense of the word needs to move across great open spaces, connecting points in the great american frontier. with these notions in mind, i decided an amtrak to colorado for christmas would be the perfect way to end my year of travel.

i imagined myself carried by a sleek silver bullet, gliding across open plains and slicing through snowy mountain passes, the gentle mantra of the tracks providing a soothing backdrop for my journey. time to read, time to think, time to do nothing, if that’s what i chose to do. i would find camraderie in fellow passengers seeking similar comforts, and i would arrive at both my destination and my home rested and fulfilled.
at least, that’s how i remembered the train…

the reality of amtrak travel requires that you tilt your head slightly, look at it from the viewpoint of, say, David Lynch. there are some interesting factual wrinkles to add to this tapestry that traverses the continent.

fact 1: if you’re not in a sleeper car, you can forget about getting something passing for a good night’s sleep.

unfortunately, i haven’t completed my studies as a yogi yet, so my ability to fold myself into a small box has yet to be perfected. if i were cynical, i would say that a crack team of ergonomic engineers spent years designing seats that were just uncomfortable enough to prevent sleep, but i try to be positive. one other thing – always remember to bring a pillow; those postage-stamp sized pieces of foam they pass out are just to keep you from drooling on the seats.

fact 2: children, as much as they love the train, also love to scream. there will be at least one of these children in your car. corollary: if there is no screaming child in your proximity, there will be someone who snores with vigor.

this fact is pretty self-explanatory. it usually applies on long plane trips as well.

fact 3: people often combat boredom with alcohol or other controlled substances.

books are my chosen weapon against the specter of boredom, and they are in the arsenal of many other passengers. however, there will almost always be a vocal group of drinkers capable of drowning out any readers. observational or active boozing can make for an interesting trip, though, so i won’t count this as all bad.

fact 4: despite advertisements to the contrary, train food isn’t, really.

bring a bag of food – sandwiches, crackers, cookies, small peeled carrots, leftover barbecue. whatever you bring on the train will likely taste better and cost less than what is served in the dining car. as a side note, you can be guaranteed that whatever feast you choose to order in the dining car will arrive minus one key ingredient. the menu offering warm pancakes tells bald-faced lies. do not believe it.

but that’s enough cheerful cynicism…through bleary eyes, bad food, and occasionally loud neighbors, i enjoyed my trip a great deal. the landscapes were as the romantic vision had advertised, i met some really interesting people, and i got to enjoy some solitude while watching the world pass by my window.

the california zephyr leaves emeryville, passes up through Tahoe and the sierras, then crosses nevada and utah on its way to colorado. recent rains had left a white blanket across the sierras and much of the west, so the sights were spectacular. snow glistens and flickers with a million star-like grains when you pass by it at high speed; it’s completely hypnotic. the tracks move through areas unreachable by the highway, so you’re given a glimpse of the west that can’t be seen any other way, save trekking across large areas of land and possibly facing the fate of the donner party. ghost towns dot the landscape, and the conductor often provides color commentary about their origins and their fates (usually a steady decline into the junk heap of obscurity as the railroad lost its importance).

as we moved towards colorado and my destination, we passed near Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands. distant stone monoliths were visible, giving a hint of the majesty of the landscape of the southwest. we carved our way into canyons that were home to eagles, wild geese, herons, and the occasional duck or two. ice floes jostled for space in the cold blue colorado river; winter’s teeth were just beginning to bite. sun rose over the utah desert, moutains dusted with snow like powdered sugar, bathed in the red glow of the west waking to another day. the 25-hour ride and a few minor discomforts were small prices to pay.

i’ll write about my visit with mom in another entry, since this one has already passed my standard diarrhea-of-the-keyboard length.

maybe you’re wondering why i referred to ‘The String Cheese Incident’ in the title. if you’re not, you can skip the punch line, but if you are…on the return trip, the people satisfying fact 3 above were sitting right in front of me – a group of five, with newly made friends in other cars to add to the mix. a bunch of 17-year olds from glenwood springs, colorado, were on a mission to see a marathon concert featuring ‘The String Cheese Incident’ (TSCI) in SF. they had been saving for months, and this trip was the payoff. TSCI is a bluegrass band that inspires a following like the Dead or Phish (i had never heard of them – i couldn’t tell if this made me feel old or not). these kids fit the bill; tie-dyed t-shirts, backpacks, and a hearty party attitude were theirs in spades. budweiser for breakfast, mgd for lunch, an odwalla bar and a green herbal chaser for dinner…these kids were unstoppable. they were also a lot of fun. positive attitudes, plenty of laughter, and their ability to poke fun at themselves for being the loud party kids, made them a welcome addition to the trip.

i remembered those times when as a teenager and college student i did my own interpretation of their pilgrimage. i watched the landscape go by, and while i felt like those years were far behind me, i thought of the interesting and unknown years to come. it was a good trip, and it will continue to be.

holiday hostage

warning: the following message contains some holiday cynicism, and is probably way too long for the subject. Christmas devotees and people with more pressing last-minute shopping are duly advised.

it all started innocently enough in September, with a day to honor the cause of labor unions in America. Labor Day, the first post-summer holiday, was a welcome notion after months of toil without rest, although i was working too hard to actually observe it…nonetheless, it was the thought that counted. so i say to myself, first week of september…christmas madness is months away, a veritable eternity.

flash forward to November, and a day of Thanksgiving. this year was harder than most to find those things for which to give thanks, but we managed (wine helped). in the tryptophan haze that followed the usual turkey – mashed potato – broccoli – wine – bread – and – don’t – forget – the – (gallon of) cranberry – sauce extravaganza, we stoked up the fire and sat comfortable in the notion that we wouldn’t be caught dead shopping that weekend…still plenty of time to take care of all of those Christmas things.

and then suddenly it’s the week before Christmas and you haven’t bought your Mom anything (and we all know that Mom’s forgive these transgressions of ours, but some of us who shall remain nameless (me) still manage to feel like shit about it). the cards haven’t even been sent yet…my god, man, at least rouse yourself from that post-thanksgiving stupor and scribble some cards, you christmas-hating troglodyte!! how hard could it be after all? i don’t have that many friends; it will be a good way to connect with all those people who think i got kidnapped by aliens this year.

i bought the cards and was all ready to sit down and write, but then i took a small trip into the northwest. i took the cards with me, filled with the best of intentions, but somehow they just sat in my luggage, looking at me longingly every time i opened my bag. plenty of time to still write those cards…i’ll do it when i get back. and then i was back, and there was no avoiding it any more. it was at this moment that i really began to feel like each of us is held hostage by the holidays in our own special way. for me, christmas cards are one of the candy-cane bars in that prison of mirth and merriment that is the christmas-(you better be happy)-holiday season.

christmas cards come in several flavors. some people just sign their cards – no personal greeting, just generic best wishes, or perhaps love if you’re lucky. then there are those with children who send family photos (usually a variation on the generic theme, although without the thoroughly uncreative cards we often have to buy while pinching our noses). the bulk message is another popular trick; spend a little more time, write a note summarizing events of the year, print, insert, and then sign with perhaps a few words. finally, there is the holy grail of Christmas cards: the personal, hand-written message, crafted with care for everyone on our list; this is the ideal for those who eschew presents, who want to create something more meaningful, and who save enough time to pen messages that don’t sound like Christmas spam.

given that i’ve gotten progessively worse at keeping in touch, the personal message is usually the approach i take, since it’s the one time a year that i connect with the people who are or have been in my life. my desire to take this approach flies directly in the face of my laziness, and the fact that i usually wait until absolutely the last possible minute to get these messages out to people. this year, i chose a variation – create a small printed message that everyone gets (the spam), and then add a small note at the bottom (the personal touch, the icing on the spam, if you will). that way, i could get everything done in an evening, ready at dawn for delivery through sleet, snow, and rain to people across the globe.

and so the process begins. write the personal message – strike the chords you want to strike, hit the highlights, avoid overly sentimental schmaltz, and finish with best wishes couched in non-cliched terms (harder than it sounds; almost every word uttered this time of year is a time-worn cliche). ok…that wasn’t too bad. how many people do i need to write this year? hmmm…better get out the Handspring and scroll through the address list. you’ve bought 20 cards, so make it count…lets’ see…we’ve got relatives, friends, and family of friends. uh oh…there are at least 30 people on the list. scratch people from the list, or buy more cards tomorrow? buy more cards.
now that i’ve got the spam and the list, i can print and create that personal touch. contrary to manufacturer promises,
my printer is about as slow as tectonic plate movement, which meant that printing 15 color sheets took about an hour. so we’ll multitask…start printing, write on completed sheets while others print, repeat… and remember to think about buying another printer.

now on to the personal messages. i didn’t leave quite enough space at the bottom of my bulk insert for a long message (the subconscious at work). oh well…sentiments in heart, muji pen in hand, printer printing, i set myself to the task. at a paltry three minutes a message, for 30 cards, there’s another hour and a half. but it’s done. except i need to address the envelopes.

do i have everyone’s current addresses? will the excuse ring true if they get returned (‘i sent your card weeks ago…i must have an old address’)? it turns out that when i transferred my analog address book into the digital world, my analog brain left out a few people. so, i gather addresses from three places (Handspring, analog address book that i saved in case i made the mistake i knew i would, and email containing addresses that had changed but that i hadn’t updated in my Handspring). as i’m addressing cards, i run into the age-old dilemma – for friends that are married, did their wife take their name? if i’m not sure, will they be offended if i use the husband’s name? is it enough to write to the ‘Johnson Family’? should i include the cherished pet in the address?

addresses are done. now we’re in business…except i don’t have enough stamps. i will have to buy more tomorrow, along with the extra cards i have to buy because i couldn’t bear crossing people off my list. it’s time to sleep. (through all of this, the elves are laughing through the aforementioned candy-cane bars).

i overslept and missed the mailbox pickup in front of my building. it’s pouring rain, and i have to take my laundry to the cleaners. shit…ok. almost done. collect laundry, drive to post office and circle like a restless shark for 10 minutes looking for parking, mail batch one, buy more cards and stamps, go home to insert inserts, affix stamps, go back to post office and mail batch two (holy mother of god! a parking spot in front of the post office!!!).
total estimated time: 7 hours (for 30 cards, an average of fourteen minutes per card)

whoever said that christmas cards were an easy way to reach out to people was either (a) deluding themselves, or (b) not possessed of the same neuroses running amok in my mind like small, sinister wood elves. maybe it’s me that said it’s easy, but i only did it because i really do care about all of the people to whom i write my personal notes, complaints and cynicism aside. like a modern-day reindeer, i’ll hurdle any number of obstacles, elves, santas, and crazed holiday shoppers to complete those cards. it matters. and fourteen minutes is not a lot of time to give to the people who make your world a better place.

hot chocolate

as Jason and I sat at the cafe in the Marais, stuffing ourselves with bread, food and (real) hot chocolate, clouds of smoke billowing around us, we both commented that (a) the French know how to do hot chocolate right, and (b) we are lucky bastards. not only were we lucky enough to experience hot chocolate that doesn’t involve processed powdered mixes, but we were lucky enough to do it in Paris. it’s too easy to forget that few people get to have these kind of simple experiences, ones outside of their own cultural cubby holes.

we walked around the Marais for the afternoon, and then floated back to the apartment where i was staying. the fugue of jet lag had descended on us, and sleep was unavoidable. he went back to his hotel, i passed out where i was, incapable of moving. i woke up in the evening to the sounds of screaming. not good screaming – bad screaming. the kind of screaming that makes you think of calling the police. after listening for a few seconds, i realized it wasn’t murderous rage, ‘just’ a domestic disturbance. a father yelling at his wife and children, things being thrown and broken, children screaming in confused protest at the actions of the people who are supposed to love and protect them and their world. after a pleasant afternoon and a nap, this was not the best way to wake up. i imagined the absurd – myself walking downstairs, knocking on the door, and asking politely if everything was all right; city dwellers don’t do this. it made me remember the time a woman was murdered in a courtyard within full sight of her neighbors, screaming for help; no one did anything, even though it went on for something like 10 minutes. we don’t like to get involved, we don’t want to intrude on the messiness of other people’s lives. our own lives are messy enough.

there was no way i could go back to sleep to the soothing backdrop of domestic violence, so i took a walk through the Marais, down to the Ile St. Louis, over towards Notre Dame, and back up. the bone-chilling northern european winter air was seeping into my soul, but it still felt good to walk, to experience this place. the whole domestic disturbance had rattled my cage. i felt odd about the fact that so many of us lead lives of relative happiness, filled with cafes, friends, hot chocolate, and only a smattering of comparatively minor problems (where should i work? what will i do next in my life? do i like my shoes?); at the same time, in the apartments beneath us or the houses next door, people may be leading out desperate, angry, discontent lives. all of this goes on around us all the time; sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t.

if big cities are places where people go to be alone together, as T.S. Eliot thought, maybe they are also places we go to commune with the collective joy and sadness of others. even though the mix may not include hot chocolate all the time, it’s the way of things. life is full spectrum.