Friday, December 9, 2011

Mind and Bodily Functions

Tis the season to overindulge in large meals, holiday parties, and other social gatherings. OK, so maybe it’s not that much more over-the-top than the rest of the year (for some of us), but it usually ratchets up the conversations and worries about diets and exercise. Sadly, many people are in a perennial battle over their concerns about calories, healthy eating, and exercise. And although these are very real issues for a lot of people, I think we lose sight of the fact that a healthy mind is certainly a crucial factor in having a healthy body. I would suggest that we can better manage our self-control and our motivations by examining the different aspects of our life that shape our habits. Are you doing work that fulfills you or are you constantly stressed out at your job? Do you have warm, loving relationships with your family and friends or are there too many toxic relationships in your life? Are you pursuing your passions or are you too busy to make time to enjoy your favorite hobbies? I think people should examine the areas of their life that are unfulfilling or stifled and do something to make changes. If you put a good amount of focus on keeping your mind and emotions healthy, that’s a big step toward better physical health.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

France 2011

Sunday 9, Oct
We flew out of O’Hare on Saturday evening at 5 pm, and arrived in Paris at about 8 am on Sunday. We had to wait in a long line to go through customs at Charles de Gaulle airport, but surprisingly, we only had to show our passport – there was no customs form to turn in or any bag inspection. From there, it took us a while to buy our RER tickets to get into the city. We tried 2 different credit cards in 2 different ticket kiosks and had no luck. Then after waiting in a very slow line, we bought tickets from a ticket agent. The RER train ride took about 45 minutes to carry us to the Gare de Lyon, and then we had about 1 ½ hours to wait until our train from there departed. We bought sandwiches and relaxed for a bit. We traveled in luxury on the TGV to Lyon & felt a bit spoiled – we had purchased tickets to ride in 1st class, and there were only 2 other passengers in that section with us.

In Lyon, we knew that our hotel was next to the train station, but we hauled our luggage down a couple of streets and asked directions from 3 different people before finding the correct street / side of the tracks. It was so nice to check into the Hotel Central and finally put down our suitcases! The hotel was very nice, the staff was really friendly and helpful, and the rooms were quiet and somewhat large (larger than I was expecting). Our window looked out onto a little courtyard, and the only noise we heard over the next 2 days was some early morning garbage collecting. After a rejuvenating nap, we had an early dinner at Brasserie Georges down the street, a huge restaurant that’s over 100 years old! We learned that they often host large banquets there. Our first dinner in France was spectacular! I still remember the delicious handmade ravioli that I had for an entrée. Early bedtime tonight to get a handle on the jetlag.

Monday 10, Oct
Mom, Bernie, and I left the hotel at 8 am in search of a place to eat breakfast, which is not the same type of meal in France that we’re used to in the U.S. In France, they are not big breakfast eaters – they just have coffee or hot chocolate and maybe a pastry. So after a bit of walking around and finding no restaurants open, we stopped into a patisserie (pastry shop) that sold yummy quiches and pain au chocolat. We enjoyed our petit dejeuner on a park bench next to a huge square in central Lyon – Place Bellecour. We soon discovered that most restaurants and shops in Lyon are closed on Mondays…and some of them seemed to have very limited hours the rest of the week as well, so we didn’t get a chance to do much shopping.

When we finished eating breakfast, we walked across an old pedestrian bridge and explored the part of the city called Vieux Lyon (old Lyon). We toured the Museum of Miniatures where they have lots of displays of mini mock movie sets. Many of them are used for filming scenes in movies so that the same effect can be portrayed on a much smaller scale than spending the time and money to build a life-size version of a room, or building, or street scene. The curator/artist spoke with us for a little while, and we could tell that he’s very passionate about his art. Then we ate lunch in a small, busy, non-touristy restaurant that had wonderful service, aside from the bumbling waiter who dropped two different things near our table during the meal.

Later in the afternoon, we took a walk across the Rhone river to scope out where our cruise would be leaving from the next day. It was about a 15 minute walk from the hotel. We saw 2 boats docked there waiting to depart on cruises, and we walked along the river on a lovely, sunny evening watching bikers, walkers, and skateboarders go by on the path. We crossed the river near the Place Bellecour, took some photos, and then bought sandwiches, wine, and desserts from a café and went back to the hotel to eat our dinner in the lounge.

Tuesday 11, Oct
This morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel after learning that they serve a large “English” breakfast for 8 Euros per person. Afterwards, we took the metro and the funiculaire up the hill to the Basilique de Notre Dame Fourviere. It was a beautiful basilica with a gorgeous view of the city from the hilltop. Then we went back down to the central part of the city, walked around the shops, and packed up our suitcases for the next leg of our trip.

We ate lunch at an awesome restaurant called Le Dolmen, an authentic Bretonne creperie, where there was just one waiter serving all the tables. He told us that his wife is the chef. They seem to do a brisk business, and they keep up well with the customers coming and going. The food was wonderful, and the inside of the small restaurant looked just like a house in Brittany might look – there was a fireplace, chairs with lace coverings, exposed ceiling beams, and lots of blue and yellow patterns on everything.

In the afternoon we walked around, bought some Belgian chocolates and wine, then sat in a park people-watching until it was time to pick up our luggage from the hotel. We saw a lot of people in Lyon and in Paris using the city-sponsored bike rentals – “Velib”. Apparently they’re a very popular option for getting around, and the rental programs have been available in France for many years. It makes a lot of sense in large cities where the cost of owning a car is way too high for many people.

We walked over to the boat, and today there were 6 or 7 boats docked along the river and loading passengers for several different river cruises. We weren’t sure if we would be able to board ours early, but they were allowing people on board before 4:00, and we actually took off around 4:30 – a half an hour before the scheduled departure time! It was sunny and warm as we left Lyon, and it was so beautiful viewing the city from the water as we headed south. The crew warned us that we would pass under a few low bridges, and they weren’t exaggerating! Standing on the sundeck on top of the boat, I didn’t have to duck, but a couple of those low bridges were just a foot or two above my head!

For our meals onboard, they assigned us to a table with an older, British couple as our meal companions. They are retired and now live in Falaise, France. It was nice chatting and getting to know them throughout the cruise. All of the meals were outstanding, and we easily settled into a pattern of finishing 2 bottles of wine (and sometimes more) with each lunch and dinner amongst the 5 of us. Vive la France! I found it interesting that the cruise documents were very specific in spelling out what types of drinks and amounts were included in the cruise price at mealtimes (i.e., one 33cl beer, or one 25cl glass of wine, or one 33cl soda, etc.) I thought they would be really particular about it, but then they gave us bottle after bottle of wine as well as bottled water upon request, and they never offered other drink options…but of course you can live on wine and water easily enough in France.

At one point during the evening, they made an announcement that one of the locks on the river would be closed until midnight due to a strike – how very French! In their culture, strikes are VERY common – the post office, the electric company, museums, etc. The strikes don’t tend to accomplish much, other than shutting something down for a period of time to “make a statement”. So around 9 pm, we made it to that lock, and the captain docked the boat until we could pass through at midnight. Fortunately the strike actually did end at midnight rather than dragging on longer, and we didn’t encounter any other strikes along the river, but it was a little unsettling to think that there’s a possibility that you could book a cruise like that and not even get a chance to do the whole planned itinerary. I suppose that’s bound to happen at times. We had a couple of drinks after dinner, lounged around for a bit, and went to bed.

Wednesday 12, Oct
We went to breakfast at 8 am and enjoyed an array of meats, fruits, yogurt, bread, eggs, hot chocolate, etc. The day was sunny and warm, but very windy. The purser explained that the Mistral winds are common in the southern part of France. It’s a very strong wind that usually lasts for at least 3 days, and if it lasts longer than that, it’s usually 6 or 9 or 12 days – nearly always in some multiple of 3. We passed through a few more locks throughout the day and saw lots of power plants along the Rhone, including a couple of nuclear power plants as well as some windmills. We also passed by a few chateaux, and some small villages nestled into the hills. We ate lunch and then arrived in Avignon in the early afternoon. The captain pulled up near the famous Pont d’Avignon and gave us a chance to sing the traditional song as we took pictures of the bridge.

Bernie, Mom, and I departed on one of the optional excursions that took us on a 4 hour bus ride around the area, learning about the Camargue, the famous wild horses that live there, the bulls that are raised for bull fights, flamingos, fruit orchards, vineyards, and rice and salt harvesting. It included a short period of time to walk around in a small town on the Mediterranean and dip our feet in the water before heading back to meet up with the boat in Arles.

After dinner, a small group of us went on a guided walking tour of Arles. It’s a cute little town with a huge amphitheater that they are in the process of restoring back to its former glory. Interestingly, we learned that at one point in history, the city built a bunch of houses and businesses inside the amphitheater and then many years later, destroyed them and cleared out the arena again. We walked around in the town square, saw the city hall, and walked by Van Gogh’s Café de Nuit where he spent a lot of time and did his famous painting – Starry Night). We also saw a hotel where Picasso used to stay when he would come to Arles to paint.

Thursday 13, Oct
The boat docked in Avignon in the morning, some people left on excursions, and the 3 of us walked around the inner part of the city and looked at the Palais des Papes and wandered down lots of small, winding streets. Later in the day, the purser announced that we would be stopping in Chateauneuf du Pape for people to begin other bus excursions, and we assumed that we would be able to get out and walk around there, and maybe buy some wine…well, thankfully we didn’t get off the boat, because they announced that after folks boarded their buses, we would be continuing down the river. We laughed at the image of us getting off the boat and there we would be stranded on a dusty hillside outside of the town wondering how to catch up with the boat!

Later, we docked in a small town for a couple of hours. Bernie, Mom, and I had a really nice conversation in the lounge for a while, then Bernie and I took a stroll down the eerily deserted streets (although the main highway between the town and the river was filled with traffic almost the whole time. We got back on the boat, and the people from the excursions returned just before we settled in for dinner, and then we continued on upriver. The staff put on a show that evening that reminded me of our talent shows at camp…some of the acts were good, but most of them were pretty dorky with a setup to an obvious “punch line” at the end, and the occasional man appearing onstage in a dress. Yup, just like French camp.

Friday 14, Oct
We spent a leisurely morning on the boat, and then in the afternoon we went on an excursion through the Vercors region that included a wine tasting, a drive through the mountains enjoying the gorgeous views, and some time to walk around in a tiny village where we bought some cheese from a charcutier/fromagier (butcher/cheese monger) who had a cutting board that was worn way down from years of work. We also drove through a small village nestled into the foothills that had an ancient aquaduct running through the middle. The end of the excursion brought us into the small town of Tain l’Hermitage where we arrived in the thick of evening rush hour, drove past the headquarters of Valrhona Chocolates (and didn’t get time to visit!) and we boarded the boat next to a huge vineyard on a long, sloping hill. That evening, we were treated to the “Gala Dinner” – a delicious feast – as we sailed back toward Lyon.

Saturday 15, Oct
We packed up our bags, ate breakfast, and then disembarked around 9 am and walked to the train station to head back to Paris. Our train car on the return was much fuller than on our trip a week earlier, so we didn’t get to spread out quite as much. But we napped a little, watched the scenery go by, and arrived in the Gare de Lyon in Paris at 1 pm. We had a very short ride on the RER train to get to our apartment at the Chatelet stop, and then after a bit of walking back and forth in the underground tunnels trying to figure out which exit to take, we emerged onto the street and had managed to choose the exit that was just across the street from the place we would call home for the next week. Our instructions from the booking agency were to use the door code to enter from the street and then ring the concierge’s bell by the door at the end of the hallway. We weren’t sure what to do when we rang the bell and no one answered…and the sign said that office hours end at 1 pm on Saturdays. About the time I found the owner’s phone number and was about to dial him, the concierge came out of the office and was able to give us the keys and take us up to the apartment on the top floor. Since the elevator was so tiny and we had a bit of luggage, we had to go up in two separate trips. The concierge let me into the apartment, turned on the heat, gave me some quick information, and then when I asked about paying the final amount and the security deposit, she said to just bring it down to the office on Monday.

We unpacked our bags and looked around the apartment. It was a very nice little place with 2 bedrooms, a bathroom with a sink, shower, and washing machine, a “toilette” room, living room, kitchen, and 5 balconies with spectacular views of the area. We could even see Sacre Coeur basilica from our living room balcony. After settling in, we were eager to get some lunch and explore the neighborhood. We bought sandwiches at a small café on a very busy pedestrian street a couple blocks away, then we looked around to get a sense for what types of shops and restaurants were in our area. We were fortunate to have a small grocery store just outside the door of our building. We stopped in there at least once every day to buy everything from fruit to wine to toilet paper – the essentials.

We washed a small load of laundry, and I found it ironic that in a country where they have teensy washing machines to keep their water bills low, the coldest setting on the machine was 40°C (104°F) and it ran for over 3 hours! I don’t think it actually used a whole lot of water, but what a ridiculously long run time!

Later on, our friends from England, Nigel and Alan, who came to Paris to spend 3 days on vacation with us, came over to see our apartment. We drank a bottle of pre-dinner wine and then walked down the street and ate dinner at a creperie. The savory and sweet crepes and the wines there were all delicious! We finished dinner, walked Mom back to the apartment, and then Bernie, Nigel, Alan, and I went out to have a drink at a couple of bars in our neighborhood. Raidd was very full and noisy, and then we went to a smaller place that was a little quieter where we could actually carry on a conversation. Then from there, we walked to their hotel and talked some more.

Sunday 16, Oct
We relaxed in the apartment for most of the morning, and then Nigel and Alan came over at noon and we walked across the Ile de la Cite, one of the two islands in the middle of the Seine River. Our apartment really was in a great location – it was within easy walking distance of the islands, the Louvre, the Hotel de Ville (Paris’s huge City Hall building), the Forum des Halles shopping center, and the Centre Pompidou – a large modern art museum. We found a nice restaurant and thoroughly enjoyed our lunch – especially the wonderful Soupe a l’oignon! Then we headed down the street to the France Tourism office to go on an excursion to the Palace of Versailles. The tour guide explained a few of the sights on our drive out there, then when we arrived at the palace, we had about 2 hours to look around inside and outside. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, so there were LOTS of tourists there, and it was discouraging inside the palace, because it was extremely packed. But it was interesting to look around, and then walking around the gardens and fountains was a nice treat. Because of heavy traffic, our bus was about 35 minutes late coming back to pick us up, but we laughed at the girls across the street who were doing a non-professional “photo shoot”. What was our clue that it was non-professional? They had a garbage can in the background of most of their photos, and the girl who was posing for the cameras was over-the-top with all of her hair flips and undulations. Back at our drop-off point in Paris, we walked across the river back to our apartment and then met up a bit later with Nigel & Alan to enjoy dinner and drinks at a restaurant a few blocks from our place.

Monday 17, Oct
Today turned out to be the heavy-duty sightseeing day for our week in Paris, and it was wonderful! Before heading out for the day, I went downstairs to pay the concierge, and it was quite a bit simpler than I had expected – I took the money out of the envelope to hand to Maria, and she said she trusted that it was all there. So I put it back in the envelope, handed it to her, didn’t have to sign anything, and she smiled at me as if to say “Why are you still standing here?” So that was it! I’m not complaining, but I expected a little more of a “process” than that. Bernie, Mom, and I took the metro to Pont de l’Alma and walked a few blocks from there to meet Nigel & Alan at the Eiffel Tower. Buying our tickets online before the trip was a brilliant idea – we didn’t have to wait in the long line that was beginning to form for the 9:30 opening. In fact, we were directed to a different spot where we were the first to line up! We felt pretty darn special. We took the elevator to the top, looked around at the gorgeous city sights below, and then went down to the next level and looked out from there as well. We took a gazillion pictures and had a bunch of laughs in the process.

Back on the ground, we walked over to the river and had a snack of tea and gauffres (waffles with chocolate) and fed some birds that would land right on our fingers to take the crumbs. Then we went on a one hour Seine River cruise up to the islands and back. Afterwards we found a nice little restaurant around the corner from the Eiffel Tower and had a good lunch. From there, we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe so that we could enjoy the view from the top and walk on the Champs Elysees. As it turned out, the elevator was out of order, so we walked up the long spiral staircase to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There was also a drinking fountain and a historical display inside the arch that were both out of order…maybe because it was the end of the summer season? Mom counted the steps to keep her mind off of the long climb. The total was something like 280. I’ve always loved the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, because you can see the gobs of traffic circling below and the 12 beautiful streets that radiate out from it. You get a good view of the Eiffel Tower, the area to the west called “La Defense”, and a distant view of Sacre Coeur basilica.

We walked only 2 blocks down the Champs Elysees and decided we weren’t really in the mood to do any shopping that day (and the stores on that avenue are some of the most expensive in the city). So we decided to get back on the metro and continue on to the northeast part of the city to Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, the artists’ neighborhood. We walked past the rows of tacky tourist shops as we climbed the hill to Sacre Coeur and spent some time walking around inside the basilica. Every time I’ve visited Sacre Coeur, the whole hillside is crawling with tourists, and this time was no different. We explored Montmartre and looked for a place to have dinner. We ended up finding a great little place with wonderful service and delicious food and wine. We chatted with a pair of Americans at the table next to us, talked, laughed, and drank more wine.

We slowly made our way back down the hill to the metro stop again and rode back to our neighborhood. The 5 of us stopped in at a bar called the Banana Café, around the corner from our apartment, to have a drink. The service was really lacking. I guess I’m used to American bars where they check on you as your glass gets below the halfway point and work hard to earn their money. Not that this one bar was necessarily typical of Parisian bars, but when the guy came to our table and took our first round of orders, he asked if that was all. I said, “For now.” and then midway through our first round, he brought the bill and then ignored us after that. When we were ready for a second round, we had to walk up to the bar to order more drinks. It seemed particularly strange considering they had about 3 or 4 bartender/waiters, and there were only a few other people in the bar besides us. We walked Mom up to the apartment, and then Bernie, Nigel, Alan, and I walked about halfway to their hotel and stopped in at a deserted Moroccan bar for a drink. We had a fantastic conversation about relationships, connecting with people, intimacy, honesty, and openness. And then we had one last nightcap at their hotel to end a magnificent day!

Tuesday 18, Oct
Nigel and Alan came over in the morning, and we all walked down the street and popped into a café for a drink, then shopped a little bit, and ate lunch at a place where the waitress was so cute and fun. She seemed to really enjoy waiting on us. Then we walked back to the apartment in the rain and said goodbye to Nigel & Alan and they headed to the train station to return home.

A couple hours later, we took the metro to the Place de l’Opera. Bernie had a ticket to a German opera that evening, and we went early enough that we could find the right entrance of the massive Opera building and get some dinner beforehand. It’s a good thing we had that extra time, because when we went in and asked at the information desk, we discovered that the opera, “Lulu”, was being put on at the Opera Bastille instead! The woman gave us bus and metro directions to get there, we hopped on the metro and made our way over to the correct location. Fortunately, there were several restaurants near the opera house, and we still had plenty of time to eat dinner. Our worst customer service experience happened next…we walked into a restaurant, the waiter asked if we were there for dinner or drinks, and we said “dinner”. He pointed to a table and asked us to seat ourselves there. Then, he completely ignored us for the next 10 minutes, and no other waiters came by our table to give us menus or anything. So we walked out and went to a different restaurant. We had much better luck at the next one – the waitress was friendly and speedy, and the food was great! Then Bernie went to enjoy his evening at the opera, and Mom and I took the metro back to the apartment and had a restful evening in.

Wednesday 19, Oct
We slept in today, and it was wonderful! Our sightseeing began with a walk down the Rue de Rivoli to the Louvre. We had decided that we weren’t interested in actually going into the museum, and when we saw the very long line snaking through the courtyard around the pyramids, that definitely sealed our decision. We took some pictures by the pyramids, walked through the Jardin de Luxembourg, and then took the metro from Place de la Concorde to the area near the Eiffel Tower where we had planned to meet Cyril for lunch. He teaches at a school in the neighborhood, and we ate at one of his favorite spots. It was clearly a very popular restaurant, and the tables upstairs were really close together. Bernie and I often felt like giants in a dollhouse in France, because furniture and rooms tend to be so much smaller, elevators are tiny, and restaurant tables are often packed in with hardly any space to squeeze between them.

After lunch, Cyril walked us around the neighborhood, pointed out his school, and told us about the Musee du Quai Branly and the grounds around it. Then we said goodbye to Cyril, and the 3 of us walked over to the Champs Elysees to take a look at some of the stores again. Nothing really drew us in, so we decided to go back to the apartment and relax until dinner. My friend Jessica had made reservations for us that evening at a great little restaurant, Au Rendez Vous de la Marine, in the neighborhood where she and Stephane used to live. We walked along the Canal St. Martin and then had dinner and feasted like kings and queens! The starter plates alone were gigantic and all of the food was fantastic. It was nice having Jessica as our connection too, because the owner, Raymond, came over to our table several times to check on us and chat with us a little bit. After dinner, Bernie and I went out for a drink near our apartment at a bar called The Eagle. People-watching is a very popular activity in France, so we enjoyed sitting outside and watching the streams of people going by on the narrow pedestrian street. We noticed that cafés and restaurants are bustling all day long with hardly any lull in mid-afternoon (if they’re in a busy area). And the standard thinking is that dinner begins after 7pm, so sometimes restaurants don’t offer the dinner options until then. We also noticed that black is by far the most popular clothing color in Paris – sweaters, pants, coats, shoes – perhaps it’s because the apartments are small and storage space is so limited.

Thursday 20, Oct
The one museum that we all wanted to visit during our time in Paris just wasn’t in the cards for us. We took the metro to the Musee d’Orsay to see the impressionist paintings, and we arrived a few minutes after 9:30, the time that the museum usually opens. We happened to read an article a few days earlier stating that it had been closed for several weeks for renovations, and this was going to be the first day it would re-open. Well, we got in the long line outside and soon noticed that it wasn’t moving at all. We could see that there were no employees at the ticket counter inside, and we thought maybe the museum was going to open a little later than planned today. We waited about 30 to 40 minutes and actually moved up quite a ways in the line as people slowly left. And we noticed paper signs posted on the windows saying “The museum is not guaranteed to be open today”. And just as we decided that it wasn’t worth waiting around anymore, we stepped out of the line, started to walk away, and someone announced on the overhead speakers that the museum would be closed today “due to the strike”. That explains it! We could go back and try our luck again the next day, but we decided that we would just forgo our museum visit. So plan B: we took the metro back to the Ile de la Cite, walked around at Notre Dame Cathedral, bought some hot chocolate, and then did some shopping on the adorable little Ile St Louis, the smaller of the two islands. It has only a few streets and takes about 3 minutes to walk from one end to the other, but its main street down the middle is lined with unique shops and the city’s most famous ice cream – Glaces Berthillon. We skipped it today, but Bernie and I came back the next day for a taste. Yum!

We bought sandwiches and took them back to the apartment for lunch. Then afterwards, Bernie and I took a long walk to the Opera House, went shopping at H&M and Tiffany, and bought some candy in the most colorful candy store you can imagine. Then we relaxed at the apartment for a bit before going to Cyril and Fabrice’s place for dinner. We had a great time chatting with them as we ate our way through several delicious courses – appetizers, champagne, crab salad with avocado, porc au miel, rice, ratatouille, 3 kinds of cheese, tarte tatin (apple pie), chartreuse, and Calvados. We went home around midnight, very full and content.

Friday 21, Oct
We enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in again this morning, and then we walked over to the Pompidou Center a few blocks from our apartment. We strolled around the Beaubourg neighborhood, bought a few gifts, and then went out for lunch. Bernie and I walked over to Ile St. Louis again, bought a couple of treats, and then lounged around the apartment for the rest of the afternoon. Around 7:30 Bernie and I walked over to Rue des Archives to meet Cyril and Fabrice and a couple of their friends at “Open Café” for drinks. The bar was packed, as were many of the other bars on that street. There was a strong Thank-God-it’s-Friday vibe to the area. We ate dinner down the street at a place called Les Marronniers, and it was packed the entire time. We had a wonderful time and finished eating and socializing around midnight. Bernie and I walked back to the apartment wishing we didn’t have to go home the next day.

Saturday 22, Oct
We got up at 5 am (ouch), showered, packed, and ate breakfast. The concierge came upstairs and took a quick look around the apartment and then gave us the security deposit back. We left for CDG airport, had an easy ride on the RER, and then had to endure lots of clusters and lines at the airport. It took us about an hour and 45 minutes to check our bags, go through security, and go through the passport lines. We were starting to wonder if we might miss our flight, especially when one of the agents in the passport line suggested that Mom’s bag might be too large to fit in the overhead bin and we should go back and check it. We crammed a bunch of her stuff into my backpack and thankfully he didn’t make us go back and start all of the lines over again! When we finally got on the plane and sank into our seats, it didn’t take long to drift into the first nap of the flight. And we arrived safely back in Chicago that same afternoon to beautiful, sunny weather.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pssst...We're All in the Same League

You've heard the expression "She's out of my league", right? Think about when and why we say that or something similar. We perceive other people to be more or less attractive than ourselves, and we tend to measure all sorts of other qualities against our own. While it's true that someone might be judged as extremely attractive by a majority of people, and while it may be true that some people are more intelligent, more talented, more popular, or more XYZ than you, that doesn't have to diminish your worthiness. These "league" divisions are completely imaginary, made-up concepts that humans have created. Don't let yourself be fooled by the notion that someone is out of your league just because you think so. It's possible that the person you have your eye on is really hoping that you'll ask him/her out. It's also possible that this person thinks you are more attractive, engaging, smart, charming, or fill-in-the-blank than he/she is! Ignore those invented boundaries and realize that you can consider yourself on an even plane with anyone else. It's just a matter of perception!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Where are the good female presidential candidates hiding?

It sure seems like the United States could elect our first female president in the not-too-distant future. It would certainly be a momentous occasion that many Americans have been anticipating for a long time. 2008 was a landmark year when we had a female vice presidential candidate, for just the second time in our country's history, and Hillary Clinton came very close to winning the democratic nomination for president. Now, many people might argue that Hillary is a polarizing candidate and is disliked by too many people to win a presidential election. That may be true, but consider the types of women who are grabbing a lot of headlines these days with ambitions of running for president. So far we have heard from a few who stir up lots of strong feelings and controversy throughout the country. Here's what I'd like to know...Why don't we have a woman emerging and aspiring to the position who has the qualities that any great president should have: intelligence, charm, grace, diplomacy, and an open-minded attitude toward humanity. She should be a hard-working, problem-solving person, and wouldn't it be great if she were loved and admired by people from all sides of the political spectrum. Maybe I'm dreaming too big, but I'm really discouraged by the character of the women we've seen emerging on the scene the past few years who have been pleading for our attention. Let's make sure that when this huge moment in history is finally solidified that we've chosen an outstanding woman to lead our country.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters

You think about a catastrophe like an earthquake or tsunami in terms of overall destruction, total numbers of lost lives, dollar amounts to make repairs, etc. But think about how the lives of individual people are abruptly, drastically altered after such an event... Somebody had just driven a new car off the sales lot, and her car was washed out to sea. Somebody had just finished building a new house, and his house was reduced to a pile of sticks. Somebody had just finished paying off a mortgage, and the house is now gone. A family had just welcomed a new baby into the world that morning. A woman was in labor giving birth when the earthquake struck. People were lying sick or injured in hospital beds when their lives were suddenly ended. People were away from their homes on business or vacation and never had a chance to grab any of their belongings. Pets were crushed in the rubble and pets were drowned in the waves. Computer files, photo albums, and many keepsakes were washed away. People lost family members without even having a chance to say goodbye, and some of them won't even be afforded the closure of burying their loved ones in a proper grave. ....Please be thankful for every day that you are able to take another breath and live peacefully on this earth. It can all change in a moment.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Puerto Vallarta Vacation

Bernie and I spent a fun-filled week in Puerto Vallarta from February 26 to March 6 with a group of our friends. This will be part travelogue and part random observations from a week in Mexico. I realize that it’s not practical to generalize a whole country based on my experience as a tourist in just one city, but I imagine that some of the things I saw and experienced are fairly common throughout Mexico. For starters, the extreme poverty was evident almost everywhere we went. We didn’t stay at a huge, posh, all-inclusive resort…our guest house was certainly beautiful and very comfortable, but when we stepped outside the front door, we were on a typical street in old Puerto Vallarta. Most of the worn down apartment buildings in our neighborhood had rooftop decks with minimal furnishings, clotheslines heavy with the day’s laundry, no screens on the windows, and exposed power lines hanging close to the buildings, sometimes within several inches of the window or balcony.

The roads in the old part of the city are made of stones, and they don’t get a whole lot of upkeep. Off the few main streets, cars drive very slowly, sidestepping the uneven rocks and potholes. Plus, the city is built into the hills, so some of the streets are very steep and partly washed out from rainstorms. There are very few traffic lights or stop signs in the intersections, but drivers seem to do a good job of staying alert and avoiding fender benders. As a pedestrian, you really need to watch the traffic carefully and keep your eyes on the ground so you don’t twist your ankle on the stones, step off the sidewalk and drop anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet down to the adjacent street, or step into a random hole where street work is being done….and appears not to be wrapping up for quite a long time.

Building codes seem to be pretty relaxed in Mexico as well. We saw one very large hotel that we were told was damaged in a hurricane years ago and now sits open like a skeleton and will probably remain that way for a while. We saw other buildings that are in grave need of repairs, and they probably aren’t getting improvements anytime soon. In one hotel where we went to have drinks on the rooftop bar, we all got in the elevator, the doors closed, and the elevator didn’t move. The doors didn’t open. We pressed the emergency alarm until the building staff came to let us out of our hotbox/deathtrap about 20 minutes later. OK, I’m exaggerating, it felt like we were in there for a reeeeally long time, but I think it was about 3 or 4 minutes before we were rescued. But it was a very small elevator, and the lights went off a couple minutes into our entrapment. And we heard from some friends a couple days later that the same thing happened to them in that elevator. We happily opted to take the stairwell, but let me tell you, that has its safety flaws as well. It climbs along an outside wall of the building, and in places, there is a “safety” wall that’s only about 3 feet high….no railing, no windows, no cushy lawn to fall on down below. Remember, we took that staircase down from a rooftop bar, so thankfully we all stayed upright and made it back to ground level afterwards. :-)

Now, despite the poor quality of the streets themselves, I was impressed at the wavy stone pattern built into many of the sidewalks. I couldn’t help wondering why they would go to so much trouble to add such a nice, artistic pattern to each sidewalk, when they could simply do old fashioned sidewalk squares. Maybe there’s a story there that I don’t know about.

Many of the people we met were very nice and were grateful to have so many tourists shopping in their stores, eating in their restaurants, and relaxing in their bars. However, due to the tremendous poverty of so many citizens, tourists are met with a barrage of aggressive, relentless vendors. They are relatively polite, but you see shopkeepers standing outside stores and restaurants eagerly encouraging you to come in. There are taxi drivers everywhere, and often they will pull up next to you by the sidewalk and ask if you want a ride somewhere. This can happen 5 or 6 times in the span of a 5 block walk down the street. And the beach is prime real estate for vendors who are trying to sell everything from crafts to blankets to sunglasses to skewers of shrimp. A different vendor comes by your group on the beach about every minute or two. A simple “No, Gracias” or a shake of the head is enough to keep them moving along to the next group. I wonder how much money a person tends to make in a typical day like that. What really sticks in my mind is seeing very young children walking around selling things…sometimes at 10:00 at night. That has to be a difficult life for sure.

We enjoyed many delicious meals at the restaurants in town – Margarita Grill, Coexist Café, Gaby’s, Le Bistro Café. A lot of restaurants specialize in Mexican cuisine (of course) but generally offer other options as well. In the middle of our week, we did a day trip called “Diana’s Tour”. We boarded a catamaran and spent the day cruising along the coastline, stopped to do a little snorkeling, stopped for a drink on a secluded beach, and then spent a couple of hours on a resort beach where we had lunch before cruising back to Old Puerto Vallarta. The day was filled with music, drinks, food, and the sighting of a few whales lounging in the water just offshore. We remarked on the lack of regulations -- so different than what you would find in the United States. Before we boarded the catamaran, Captain Diana was handing out Dramamine to anyone who desired waiver to sign or anything. And later that morning, she was giving “Space Cookies” (it’s like a "special" brownie) to a small group of passengers. We also noticed that the passenger load was way over the posted capacity. Oh well…everyone had fun, no one got hurt, and we all made it back to port safely.

Speaking of easy-to-obtain drugs, we saw a Farmacia or a Super Farmacia on practically every street corner in Puerto Vallarta! I can’t get over the fact that anyone can just walk in off the street and purchase pretty much any drugs over the counter. Of course, when I went into a Farmacia, I bought an ice cream bar. :-)

Bernie and I, as well as our group of friends, all really enjoyed our vacation in Puerto Vallarta. The weather was consistently sunny and warm, the prices were reasonable, we felt relatively safe walking around the neighborhood, we didn’t get sick from any of the food or water, and the beach was quite nice. In fact, I was impressed by the fact that there were no shells, stones, or seaweed anywhere along the Blue Chairs / Green Chairs Beach by the hotels. Just soft, white sand. It was wonderful, and I’m excited to go back!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Merging as a Metaphor

On my morning drive to work, there is an entrance ramp onto the highway where lots of cars need to merge from three lanes down to one in a relatively short distance. It occurs to me that there are two main types of people merging, and I think it probably says a lot about how they conduct themselves in other areas of their life as well. The first type is someone who pays attention to the rest of the cars on the road and will gladly adjust speed to allow other people to merge. They realize that if we work together with care and coordination, then it can be a painless process so that we can all continue merrily on our way to our destination. The other type of people, however, are the ones who put their own needs first and don’t always let other people in. They want to be the first in line, or the fastest driver, or would like to force people to move aside for them, or think that everything is a competition, or spitefully close up a free space for someone else… What do you think? Is it merely a section of highway or is it indicative of how a person lives his life?