Tuesday, March 31, 2009

London Underground vs. The MBTA


Having spent all of the past few days taking mass transit - both the London Underground and the MBTA here in Boston - a comparison of the two is fresh on my mind.

Granted, London is a huge, sprawling metropolis with a metro population over twice that of our fair Hub. But both cities have legacy public transportation systems that are integral to the lives of millions. The London Underground is the world's oldest underground railway, and the Green Line of the T features the United States' first rapid transit subway system. The two systems deserve a head-to-head.

I purchased an Oyster Card (their version of our Charlie Card), loaded it with some pounds, and hopped on the Piccadilly line from Heathrow Airport to the Hyde Park stop, meeting my friends at their hotel.

Immediately, I noticed how clean the interior of the train was. After hopping onto and off of a number of trains at many different Underground stops, I realized that this was the norm for both the train interiors and the station platforms. The relative luxury of any London Underground waiting area made the nasty Arlington St. T stop look like a scene from the movie Hostel. Major points for London.

I am told that the London Underground's trains are not air conditioned, and that packed onto a stuffed interior during rush hour amidst some Londoners who don't fully embrace deodorant isn't exactly the most desirable place to be during a hot summer day. A couple points for the T, though being crammed onto the red line this morning, even for just two stops, totally sucked and stunk.

My friend informed me that Londoners seem to enjoy order and queuing, sometimes not even knowing why they line up. Order is evident on the Underground. Walk left, stand right on every single escalator - it's a given, just like breathing. They are very good at abiding by this.

Waiting for passengers to exit before cramming onto the train is also fully expected and embraced. The one time I saw people rush onto an Underground train before passengers disembarked was when about ten non-English speaking 12-15 year olds pushed onto a train with people trying to get off, only to have the departing Londoners throw them dirty looks, yell at them, and in one case, grab a kid by the shirt, get into his face, and scream "YOU WAIT....YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO WAIT FOR US TO GET OFF." Today at Downtown Crossing, I saw a full train pull up, people waiting on the platform give no room for people to depart, and remaining passengers on the train not move further into the train to allow for new passengers to board. Another check for the Underground.

Service notifications. In London, digital readouts not only clearly and accurately mention what three trains are arriving next, but how many minutes until each arrives. Service announcements are made over their clear overhead audio system in formal British English. Here in Boston, we don't know when the next train will arrive, let alone the next three. And in many stations, we're lucky to decipher a few words, sometimes delivered by people with thick local accents, over the scratchy loud speakers. More points for the Underground.

In both cases, sometimes it just takes forever to get somewhere, but it's still wiser to take mass transit. Driving in London is simply a mistake. It's far more manageable in parts of Boston (though headed downtown or to the financial district is still better served by T). But Tube stops in London just seem much closer than they actually are, and I never quite mastered getting anywhere in London on time.

Finally, pricing. The Underground institutes different pricing for rush hour vs. off-peak rides, but also institutes a daily maximum. For example, if using a debit version of the Oyster Card, the Tube will basically stop charging someone after the third ride in a day, instituting a daily cap. I don't believe the T features this for its declining balance Charlie Card users.

I will admit, overall, the Tube experience puts the T to shame. Clean, open with information, and efficient - I wish the T could learn a bit from our friends across the pond.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Cut to the Ending - Already Back Home

So, I'm back home in Boston.

I realize that there's an entire city that I never quite mentioned here.

That would be London.

Internet access was a bit choppy at my friend's flat. But more importantly...I was in London, and didn't have time to blog. Iceland was different - free reliable WiFi in the hotel, and time to post before bed.

For the sake of continuity, I'm going to treat this like a Quentin Tarantino film and disregard temporal logic. Cue Chuck Berry. More about London throughout the week.

Here's how the trip ends - I arrived home in one piece, albeit rather tired. Two full flights on Icelandair yesterday. Me carting a bagful of six Starbucks city mugs, 500 ml each of Brennivin and Apple Schnapps from Duty Free in Iceland, and assorted sweets, teas, and candies to be given as gifts.

I watched an amazing film on the flight back called Heima about the Icelandic band Sigur Rós.

I fully admit that I never understood why people liked Sigur Rós until now. To me, they simply sounded odd.

But this film documented their tour of free shows throughout Iceland held after a world tour - concerts performed to tens of thousands in Reykjavik, or shows to a few folks who trekked to the abandoned fishing village of Djúpavík.

Their music is moody, and the perfect audio soundtrack for the visuals of Iceland. While the film's cinematography was exquisite, having seen much of this landscape in person, it merely made me nostalgic for the prior week in Iceland.

I will throw it out here - to fully get Sigur Rós, one must adventure around Iceland.

Their sounds match the extremes of the Icelandic environment - the snow-capped glaciers and the arid valleys below...the months of darkness and the months of endless light...the jagged rocks...the geothermal energy...the rugged people.

I might try downloading a few Sigur Rós songs, but I think I'm going to need visuals of Iceland to fully enjoy listening to them. Good thing I have tons of photos and my memories.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Eating and Drinking in Iceland

With the currency exchange between the US Dollar and the Icelandic Kronur about $1 to 110 ISK, figuring out conversion was pretty simple and prices are competitive with what I expected to pay in the US. Dividing by 110, or, moving the decimal point over to the left by two and subtracting a little, usually gave me a close approximation to what I would be paying in USD. Most of the time, I viewed the price (i.e. 2,990 ISK) as simply missing the decimal point (I saw it as $29.90 minus a bit).

Eating out wasn’t as terrible as I had anticipated, price-wise. In early 2008, $1 was worth about 65 ISK, so a 2,990 entrée was almost $45 instead of the $27 I paid. It made me less concerned about eating on the cheap, and instead became a bit adventurous with what I tasted and how much it cost.

In most places, a 500 mL beer was about 650-750 ISK, or about $6-$7 for a 16 ounce beer. As tipping is not expected in Iceland, my $5-$6 price plus $1 tip for a 12 ounce pint in Boston suddenly became more expensive per ounce than that same beer in Reykjavik. Unfortunately, the beer selection wasn’t too extensive anywhere, with most places having just a few on tap (often just the local lager Viking), and a few more available in bottles.

Wine and spirits, however, were far pricier in Iceland. Most bottles of wine started at 4,500 ISK, and most cocktails were 1,200-1,400 ISK. We skipped wine and spirits and stuck with beer, often applying the savings to appetizers or additional rounds of beer.

Twice for lunch I had soups – one was a hearty soup with vegetables and reindeer meat. Rudolph…or perhaps it was Dasher or Dancer…tasted quite good. Another soup was a clear broth with potatoes, carrots, and lamb. I had fish a number of times – including halibut, a cod mash au gratin, and whale.

Yes, whale. As in Moby Dick. As in Fudgie the Whale. As in the Vineyard Vines mascot.

Whale.

The endangered off-the-menu-besides-in-places-like-Iceland-Japan-Norway-and The Faroe Islands-whale. I must say, it was delicious. We sampled whale sashimi and grilled whale, which tasted and looked like a thin, tender beef steak. I know there is a lot of controversy over commercial whaling and eating whale, so I’ll simply chalk it up to an experience.

I also tried a bird called puffin. Our guide book said that puffin are one of Iceland’s most beloved birds. Naturally, the Icelandic manner of showing such affection to a winged creature is by eating it. Puffin are black and white like penguins, but feature bright orange on their beaks and in their eyes. Apparently, they are known for clumsy, crash-landings and goofy in-air antics (we did not actually see any puffin that weren’t served to us on a plate with mustard sauce). Puffin taste tender and succulent, but not quite like duck and certainly not like chicken.

I managed to skip the hakarl (the putrid shark meat that smells of ammonia after decaying underground for months and being hung to dry for months longer). I did see some packages of it at the flea market, and we drove past Bjarnarhofn, the farm on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula where hakarl is proudly produced. But I did not sample it.

I did, however, try the apertif served with hakarl - Brennivin. It’s an Icelandic alcohol, which translates into “Black Death.” It sounds far worse than it is – actually, I kind of liked it. Brennivin reminded me of Greek Ouzo, much less sweet (and far less sweet than the Italian Sambuca). Brennivin is flavored with caraway seed, and it was fiery enough to have warmed my esophagus for a minute after having sipped it. I saw tons of brennivin at the Duty-Free shop in Keflavik airport, and plan to pick up a small bottle on my way back home from London (I have a two-hour layover in Reykjavik).

Perhaps I’ll host a Sunday Funday with my friends in Boston and feature Brennivin as the signature cocktail.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Photos from Reykjavik, Iceland

I haven't had the chance to post many pictures from the city of Reykjavik, probably because I hadn't taken many! Tuesday morning, we spent a few hours walking around the city. It was the perfect morning for pictures - no rain, overcast skies, and little traffic (well...there's always little traffic in Iceland!)

A few of these pics are with my 70mm-300mm zoom lens from atop Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest building in Reykjavik. The building is undergoing a major restoration and there's ugly scaffolding surrounding it. Fortunately, the pictures from the tower were unaffected. I love the brightly colored homes and rooftops, and the amazing panoramic views of the city amid the cold, Atlantic water, snow-capped mountains, and blue sky.

I have seen many photo journals of cities and countries around the Arctic Circle - everything from northern Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia to Iceland. The brightly colored homes and rooftops appear to be a constant among all of those places. It was great to finally see them up close and in person!


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Volcanic Rock and Mountains Everywhere!

It's simply amazing how much undeveloped land exists in Iceland. Granted much of the country is either volcanic rock or mountainous, and the wind gusts of the Northern Atlantic probably make all of this oceanfront property a bit less desirable, but it's still truly stunning.



Even in the suburbs of Reykjavik, there is a ton of space. It's strange being able to see entire cities from end to end while driving past them on the highway.



We spent much of the past two days driving. Monday was a trip 187 kilometers south of Reykjavik to a town called Vik, then a drive along gravel roads in the southwestern corner of Iceland through an uninhabited part of the Reykjanes Peninsula (a drive that admittedly, made me a bit nervous that we wouldn't find our way out). Today, we headed northwest to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, driving an approximately 175 kilometer loop through small coastal harbor towns separated by a whole lot of...nothing.



I swear much of today's scenery looked like the surface of Mars dotted with random horses and huge snow-covered mountains. Volcanic rock fields everywhere. It was totally surreal.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Grrrrl on the Icelandic 5000 Krona Note

The conversion rate for US Dollars-to-Icelandic Krona is far more simple now that the Icelandic economy has crashed and the US Dollar is worth more than it was just a few months ago. Today, $1 buys me about 110-115 ISK (Icelandic Krona). About a year ago, $1 would have bought be 65-70 ISK. The value of my currency is almost double what it would have been at this time last year.

As a result, I'm staying in a good hotel for about $100 per night total for the two of us. A beer, considered "very expensive" for Icelanders, is about $6-$7 for me including tip (as tipping is not customary here), so no big change to what I'm used to paying. That same beer last year was about $11.

Dinners are a bit on the high side, but were once incredibly expensive. It's the perfect time to have come to Iceland, and given the state of their economy, Iceland can use as much tourism as possible.
I am highly amused at the image on the largest denomination Icelandic bill - a lady named Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir. According to Wikipedia, Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir "was considered one of the finest marriagable women of her time and was an active seamstress." In the U.S., we have esteemed American Presidents and noteworthy statesmen on our currency. In Iceland, they have a kinda chunky lady with a huge hat on theirs.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Golden Circle - Tourist Sites and Desolate Roads

Today started out a bit late after the short redeye, full day of sightseeing, and then attempt to stay out as late as the Reykjavikians do on Saturday nights (we made it until about 2am, far short of the 5 or 6 am last call for locals).

We skipped breakfast and simply headed out to the Golden Circle - Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. Little did we know that we should have eaten.

Driving eastward from Reykjavik, we left the city behind and quickly saw the road conditions change from dry and A-OK to a slushy mess. Kudos to Ken for driving (we rented a manual transmission rear-wheel drive car, and I can't drive a stick and am, therefore, the navigator). We learned that not only were the roads unplowed and that our vehicle was entirely unsuitable for such conditions, but also there would be no service areas for a long time.

In fact, after we left Þingvellir National Park and tried to make it onward to Geyser, we encountered this "Impassable" sign.

Lovely, we thought.


So we turned around, headed South to another intersection with Rte. 35, which would then take us back toward the remaining sights. Reading further in the guidebook, it appears that the impassable road is always that way throughout the winter.


The driving was quite desolate. A car passed us from the opposite direction perhaps once every 5 minutes. There were few signs of life for miles, as the weather conditions on this side of the mountains were harsh - snow and jagged rock or empty fields everywhere. No power, no irrigation, no buildings. Nothing.

Once we made it to Geysir, a geothermally active valley, we found a number of tour buses and visitors speaking many different languages. Finally - people! There are two geysers there - Strokkur and Geysir. Strokkur spouts off once every six minutes, and Geysir hits about twice each day.

There were a few other gurgling holes and spouts, but these two were the main attraction. The authors of the travel guide said not to stand downwind, as the sulfur gas that's emitted from the ground is quite stinky. They were right.

A bit northeast of Geysir is Gullfoss, which translates to "golden falls." Gullfoss is an amazing double-waterfall, well worth the trip. We hiked down to a plateau right downriver from the first falls and about where the second falls dropped into the river below. Ken commented about the lack of park rangers and warning signs at Gullfoss, and for the slippery and icy conditions, I'm a bit surprised as well. Icelanders might be a hearty bunch, but we tourists aren't necessarily!

Also on the Golden Circle was Kerið, a 3,000 foot deep volcano crater with an amazingly beautiful caldera. It appears that Björk once played a concert on a platform in the middle of the lake below. Unfortunately, she was not there today. In fact, nobody else was.

The lack of snow at Kerið and during the final couple of hours of the drive made it far more bearable. It's remarkable how mountains create weather patterns, but just as I witnessed at Mount Rainier in Washington State, it is most certainly true. The dry conditions in the valley communities east of the mountains, (such as in this photo of Hveragerði) were far more pleasant for driving.

The plan was to complete the Golden Circle and then head onward to the Blue Lagoon. Unfortunately, we ran out of time (the Blue Lagoon closes at 8pm), so we decided to move the Blue Lagoon to the end of tomorrow's sightseeing along the southwestern coast of Iceland.


Thar She Blows! Strokkur Explosion.

This is Strokkur, one of the geysers in Geysir, Iceland. It goes off about every six minutes. My timing was off a little on this one, but she finally blows at 1:20.

First Visit to the Geothermal Pools

We made it through a pretty packed first full day here in Iceland, and overslept a bit. The time difference finally caught up.

The weather here seems to change by the minute. Throughout the day, we witnessed rain on multiple occasions, sunshowers, and snow featuring the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen - literally the size of U.S. half dollars. Through all of that, it hovered somewhere in the 30's. Perfect temperature to go swimming.

After hitting up a flea market that featured a selection of fish and meat products (including, apparently, Flicka), we drove to the Laugardalslaug geothermal pool just to see where it was an if anybody was there.

The parking lot was packed and the place was huge.

Without our swimsuits, we decided to head back to the hotel for more information and grab our trunks (the hotel was a short 10 minute drive). While speaking with the front desk attendant, he gave us two passes for a gym/spa called World Class, which shared the pool facilities but maintained a totally separate private-membership area.

Back to the pools we went. Upon registering at World Class, a woman took RETINAL SCANS of our eyes (?!) which were used for admission into the private areas. Very Minority Report of her. She showed us to the locker rooms and explained what was available to us - full gym with more cardio machines than I have ever seen in one room, aromatic steam baths, hot pots - their word for jacuzzis, saunas, showers, and paid massage.

We opted for the outdoor hot pots. I can't say I've ever walked barefoot across wet concrete in ambient temperatures of 2 and 3 degrees celcius before, but yesterday I did. We scrambled over to the hot pot, and enjoyed about an hour of simmering with the locals and some random tourists. While people are quite chatty in these hot pots, we kept to ourselves and took it all in.

Biggest Snowflakes Ever - Reykjavik, Iceland

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Day 1 - Reykjavik

After far too much time thinking and talking about this trip, we're finally here.

Iceland. Reykjavik. Small island in the Northern Atlantic, not too far from Greenland.

Just over 300,000 inhabitants, about 2/3 of them in the greater Reykjavik metro. 7.5 people per square mile. For perspective, I just looked up the population of the Greater Boston metro - 5.98 million inhabitants, about 12,300 per square mile.

This population density, or lack thereof, is evident while driving around. During the 45 minute ride from Keflavik International Airport to Reykjavik, we noticed an amazing lack of cars driving about. Granted, it was dawn on a Saturday morning, but I have a feeling rush hour here does not exist.

Since our vehicle is a standard transmission, Ken is this week's driver. I cannot drive a stick shift, and don't intend to learn right now. Therefore, it's my job to navigate.

Icelandic street names are rather difficult to remember. Every one appears to have 15 characters, the combination of which is unpronouncable for Americans like us. We are staying at Hotel Holt. Simple name. It's located on Bergstadastraeti, Yeah, not so much.

Somehow, we found the hotel rather smoothly (granted there's one way to Reykjavik from the airport, and signs are marked to the "Centrum," or city center...from there it was just a matter of matching street names with our map). We registered with a very nice front desk agent named Anne. She was deeply apologetic that they had our room as a single bed, even though our printed confirmation called for two beds. After a few minutes, she switched us into a two-room suite, complete with a bed and pull-out couch. Awesome!

She invited us to enjoy breakfast while the room was to be cleaned. European continental breakfasts are always interesting mixes of meats, cheeses, yogurt, granola, fruit, and a few other random items - far more intricate than the waffle bar at a Hilton Garden Inn. Somehow, my eye shot to a bottle of yellow liquid amidst shot glasses. I thought it might have been some hearty Icelandic morning cocktail, so I poured a small taste into the glass, and sipped it. Having just ingested some type of Icelandic fish oil (I think), I scrambled to find something sweeter to cancel the disgusting taste.

We left breakfast and drove around a bit before returning to the hotel for a well-needed nap. A 4 1/2 hour redeye does not leave much time for slumber. But now...it's time to grab the camera and tool around a bit.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Averting Glasses Disaster

Today is a very special day.

It's the day I picked up my updated glasses with the new prescription for the bionic eye. Just over $100 and I have practically a brand new pair of spectacles in the fancy Eyephorics frames that would have cost way too much to replace.

After finally picking up guidebooks for Iceland and London, I thought I'd grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks and check emails. This almost turned into a situation with disastrous consequences in regards to my glasses.

Starbucks has a deal going where if you register and use one of their declining balance cards, you can have 2 hours of free Wifi every day. I had a Starbucks card from Sydney, Australia that my friend Stuart gave me as a gift a few years ago. Unfortunately, attempting to register and use this card didn't work all that well here in a U.S. Starbucks.

Instead, after having secured a comfy chair, I fumbled around with my laptop, drink, and miscellaneous possessions in an effort to get comfortable and get online. Upon realizing that purchasing a new U.S. Starbucks card and loading it at the register was probably the best option, I quickly learned that my glasses were not hanging from my shirt, where I thought I had put them.

I was looking around on the floor and on the chair, when some guy looked at me and asked if I was looking for a pair of glasses.

"In fact, I was. Did you see them?"

"Actually, I was thisclose to stepping on them by accident. I gave them to the folks behind the counter," he replied.

I thanked him and quickly retrieved my new-old glasses that almost became new-old-shattered glasses and wondered how I managed to dodge that bullet.

Side note - this might be the safest Starbucks I have visited, as in the hour I have been sitting here in Starbucks, I have seen four separate pairs of police officers grab cups of joe, each pair with a different uniform from the others. One appeared to be in SWAT team garb, the two here now have bright blue shirtsleeves, and the other two had more traditional Boston police uniforms but were not identical. Lots of patrols in this neighborhood, it seems!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring is Here! St. Patrick's Day in Southie

What I love about St. Patrick's weekend here in Southie is that I feel like this marks the official start of springtime in Boston.

Why?

With the sun shining and temperatures forecast to hit the mid-50's, it should be a great day. While the weather doesn't always cooperate to help prove my point, today we are in the clear.

Each year, it's really the first time in months that the neighborhood comes alive with packs of smiling people walking about. Folks have emerged from their indoor caves and are celebrating the first of many days spent outdoors. The long stretch of the Boston doldrums - from after New Year's Day through all of January and February - is over.

It's also usually the final few days of parking chaos in Southie. I'm still wondering which is worse - snow parking or St. Patrick's weekend parking. It's debatable. While people expect snow parking madness, I feel that this weekend always catches folks off guard. Every year, the out-of-towners begin filling our resident spots by Friday evening. Either way, my car usually remains unmoved for days, as it has done for the past three days.

Street cleaning begins in a few short weeks, erasing much of the sand and grime that has accumulated since Thanksgiving, and the Solo cups and random remnants that will magically appear as a result of this weekend's drunkenness.

Others might declare the start of Spring as the official date (March 20th), others might wait until the night of baseball's first pitch or for the Sox home opener. Marathon Monday is another quasi-official start of Spring.

But for me, it's today!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shaws' Contribution to the Fattening of Boston

While I realize that one doesn't need to purchase the full quantity to receive the discounted price per unit, does anybody seriously need 10 boxes of Cheez-Its?



Thursday, March 12, 2009

(Lack of) Planning for Iceland

Geography fascinates me, as do unlikely vacation destinations and seeing to which locations I can get from various airports. For example, there's a direct flight from Boston to The Azores, so naturally I want to go there.

Whenever I find myself in major hubs - airports like Minneapolis-St. Paul and Houston - I love seeing what small communities have air service from those places. Knowing that cities like Del Rio, TX and Devil's Lake, ND are a short connection from where I'm presently sitting here in Boston is kinda cool.

I can't begin to count the amount of times I have been on Air Greenland's website, an airline which, at one point, had a direct flight to Baltimore.

I have booked mock itineraries from Anchorage to Vladivostok, Russia. There's a non-stop direct flight during the summer on Vladivostok Air.

Nunavut, Canada. I can get there on two flights. Why would I want to? Why not?

Habitually, I'm a planner. Yet at times when travel is involved, I am erratic - either notoriously diligent or terribly unready. It's bizarre, given the amount of trips I have taken for both work and pleasure, why I'm not buttoned-up 100% of the time.

Case in point - Iceland and London.

I have wanted to go to Iceland for years, probably ever since I realized that Icelandair had a direct flight from Boston. It seemed like such an exotic and random locale for a quick 5-hour flight. I booked fake itineraries on Icelandair.com many times until I actually pulled the trigger and did it for real.

So here I am, a few days from my departure, and I have finally decided to research things to do in Iceland. We're all set with hotel and rental car, and know that the Blue Lagoon will be part of our trip, but I know little else about what I'd like to do. As I'm an avid photographer, I know I'll be taking a ton of pictures. I hear the "Golden Circle" is good for sightseeing and that geothermal pools and a failed economy are part of present-day Iceland. But that's about all I know.

For my Great River Road trip a few years ago, I left the planned activities to Brian. He put together a detailed spreadsheet and sent it to me, estimating drive times and such. It was marvelous. I took care of hotels, which was simple.

But perhaps having a loosely planned itinerary isn't awful sometimes. I have been browsing some blogs and online travel guides about Iceland, and there appears to be many things to do at the spur of the moment.

Part of me, however, feels like I'll put together some frantic last-minute plans next week and have a rough sketch on my time abroad.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ann Coulter and Bill Maher - Speaker Series in Boston


Last night, I attended the Ann Coulter - Bill Maher program at the Wang Center. Debbie called me around 3pm with an extra ticket, and I'm always game for freebies. Oddly enough, I had just heard about this event a few days prior, and decided to pass after seeing the hefty ticket prices.

We walked into the beautiful theatre around 7:45. For some reason, I associate this venue with a Nine Inch Nails concert that I attended there in 1994, the only time I had ever seen attendees bleeding after a show. I believe Marilyn Manson opened that tour during a time when they were still "shocking."

I don't know the capacity of the theatre, but they certainly weren't sold out. A good crowd, nonetheless, probably about 70% liberal based on the event producer's informal survey of the crowd at the program's commencement. I must say I was surprised that it wasn't even more liberal.

(Side note - the producer established conservatives by applause, asking who "hoped to see Obama fail." It's a bit appalling that ANYONE would audibly clap that they HOPED our president would flat-out FAIL. Seriously? Even I didn't WANT Bush to fail. He just kind of did.)

Before departing the stage, the producer made it very clear that the audience should not catcall or disrupt the program.

Ann came on first. I find her fascinating and have even read one of her books. At times I see her as an attractive woman. At other times, she seems like a dude in drag. Tonight, she wore her typical pastel-colored knit top, super short-skirt, and teased her blond mane of hair throughout. She's undoubtedly a smart woman on two fronts - one, she does have intelligent comments and is a skilled orator; two - she is her own brand and knows how to market herself, whether or not she believes everything she says, she knows her audience and appeals to her fans perfectly.

After about 30 minutes, Bill took the stage and did his bit. That's where the trouble began.

He spent a significant percentage of his time either fighting back at inappropriate conservative hecklers in the balcony and in the orchestra, or watching a verbal fight break out between two idiots sitting a few rows from the stage. I haven't been to a WWE match in a few years, but this seemed just like one without the pyro.

The final hour was spent in casual debate format - Ann and Bill in comfy leather chairs with a moderator - some Boston professor, I believe - who was simply terrible, devoid of many basic qualities that a person in that role should have possessed (i.e. ability to facilitate conversation, good at making segues, speaking up, not stumbling over words, seeming confident, doing research on his guests, and even an iota of charisma).

Mired by audio problems, this second hour started poorly. I'm thinking "wow, people have spent $100-$200 per ticket for this event, and THIS is the quality they are receiving from the audio staff in the theatre?" It was complete amateur hour in regards to the audio glitches. No reason for any of it. Finally, someone solved the problem with Ann's mike by replacing her lavalier lapel microphone (a device I have always despised) with a handheld. During all of my larger focus groups held in hotel function rooms, I always insisted on a handheld mike, preferably wireless, to a lavalier.

They touched upon many hot topics - Bernie Madoff, stem cell research, religion and its grip on the Republican party, interpretation of the Bible, legalization of drugs, the economic crisis, Bush's inaction for seven minutes immediately upon hearing about the 9/11 attacks - basically anything that was divisive and created for entertainment.

I'm not sure that I left the evening thinking any differently about either person or either side. But then again, I'm not sure that was the point when you throw two comedians - one admittedly, and one unknowingly - in front of a Boston audience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Glasses Ordered, Finally

I went for my one-month follow up to the bionic eye surgery from February, and everything appears to be healing on schedule. It's still impossible for me to read small text through my left eye, and while that functionality may never return, the doctor definitely did not want to write a prescription for reading glasses, as my right eye is fine for reading and my left eye should only get better when put to the task.

So I departed with another appointment in six months and a revised prescription for my left eye, as I expected I would.

I drove to the optical shop that they recommended in Braintree, King Optical, and found a small storefront off of a main road, yet amidst residential properties. I walked in, and the smell of elderly overtook me - the same smell that I experienced at the location of the cataract surgery. Another place where time stood still. Clearly, I was not recommended to visit the hippest optical shop in the area.

Nonetheless, I presented them with my dilemma. I had a pair of Eyephorics frames that weren't exactly cheap. I also had a pair of Oakleys that were prescription, but had been repaired poorly by another optical shop. I hoped to purchase a new left lens for each pair.

As my super nice 77-year old front-desk clerk walked my glasses to the back, I sat in the waiting room enjoying Jay Leno as a guest on The View, which appears to be shooting on location somewhere sunny and tropical this week.

Shortly thereafter, another older gentleman walked me into a small office and told me that he had both good and bad news. He said the Oakleys wouldn't be a problem, and he could even repair the shabby repair work of whoever "fixed" them last time (an arm broke off, I delivered them to an optical shop on Beacon St. in Kenmore Square, and I was returned a pair of glasses obviously uneven and with lenses that did not properly fit into the frames, leaving much room around the lenses - I don't even know why I accepted them back). The total cost would be about $110 for two new lenses and squaring away the frames. Excellent! Whatever oldness permeates King Optical is fine by me - I'm chalking it up to wisdom and years of experience.

He would not be able to help with the Eyephorics, though, as they did not carry them and their construction made for a difficult repair - so much so that when I brought them to Lens Crafters about an hour later, the salesperson informed me that they repair all kinds of glasses...but not the Eyephorics I showed her. In fact, she told me that they would be impossible to repair altogether.

Grrr. Impossible, I thought. Impossible isn't always impossible.

I called the shop where I purchased them, Studio Optics on Berkeley St., probably something I should have done from the start. They said the repair was indeed possible and would run me $108.

Here I'm thinking I am going to need an entirely new pair of prescription Oakleys, and after leaving Lens Crafters, thought I would need a whole new pair of Eyephorics. I'm assuming if I bought those frames new and had two new prescription lenses put into each, I'd be about $650-$700 in the hole.

Instead, it looks like I'm skating by with just about $220 out of pocket. Whew.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Dreaded Trips to the Post Office

One of the biggest time sucks in the world is, hands down, the US Post Office.

It always has been, and until we no longer need to send letters and parcels, it always will be.

I used to absolutely DREAD having to visit the post office in downtown Princeton, NJ when I lived there in the 90's. Each visit, regardless of the time of day, was a guaranteed 20-30 minute ordeal. I remember their stamp vending machine was ALWAYS out of order, and the postal employees seemed to relish their power and ability to make time stand still. It even smelled musty in there. The building that progress bypassed repeatedly.

Lately, I have been selling some books on Amazon.com as a way to clean out the closet and recoup some cash. A few bucks here and there seems to add up, plus it allows me to rid myself of items no longer useful to me, but valuable to others.

I must say, even faced with a line of 8-10 people at the post office here in Southie, I'm never overly worried. The employees work efficiently, to my surprise and delight.

Unfortunately, the customers do not. It's almost sitcom worthy.

People no longer just need stamps. They are sending packages and buying money orders. They are using the wrong boxes and confused by the many shipping options presented to them. Insurance, delivery confirmation, customs declarations - the list goes on.

I walked inside this afternoon to find about 10 patrons ahead of me, including a few at the counter already being helped.

There was the short dude with the far-too-big suit who was at the counter when I walked in and still at the counter as I walked out. Lord knows what he needed or was sending, but his transaction wasn't complete during my entire 15 minute visit.

There's the guy claiming that his mail isn't being delivered after he moved, and the postal employees telling him that he's standing in the wrong post office branch to accomplish this change successfully.

There's the guy who insisted to speak with the Postmaster. I fully expected a gentleman who looked like C. Everett Coop to emerge - husky, grey hair and beard. Rather, a young guy in his mid-20's appears to hold the Postmaster title in the 02127.

There's the impatient lady in line who proceeded to mention that she had been working in Poland for two weeks and couldn't communicate well with folks over there. She stared at the short dude, dropped an F-bomb (or was it an S-bomb) while wondering aloud what he needed that was taking so long, then proceeded to apologize for cursing. "I don't normally curse like that," she insisted. Then she cursed again immediately.

There's the postal clerk who taught me a brand new word - "debbiddacredid." I love efficiency!

When it was my turn, after almost completing our transaction, rather than asking if I needed any stamps or "anything else for future mailing needs" like they courteously always do at that branch, the woman asked if I needed a passport photo.

Huh? Random.

I thanked her and told her that I was all set, but was indeed going to be using my passport in a few weeks. I thought better of telling her where I was going, as I figured the people behind me probably didn't care, seemed to want to be helped, and potentially could have returned home and blogged about some random guy in shorts and a Texas hat in the Southie post office talking about Iceland.

Which would, of course, have been me.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Most Selfish Residents of Southie

Today - March 6th, 2009 - I do declare it "Parking Liberation Day" in Southie.

Temps in the 50's and 60's this coming weekend, day 5 of the Nor'Easter-induced street parking stalemate, sun shining, FINALLY we're done saving the stamps of blacktop, formerly covered with snow that we simply drove over with our SUV's and marked with waterlogged cardboard boxes or mangled ironing boards.

Hamlin St. - nice to see parking options
East 8th St. - welcome back to open parking
Winfield St. - hey, a few parking selections
East 7th St. - join the party!
Marine / Columbia Rds. - sweet, places to park

But wait.

There's a hanger-on.

Douglas St.

Hereby declared:

The most selfish residents of Southie.

Whereby most streets featured ample unmarked parking on this beautiful Friday morning, residents of Douglas St., you take the cake. Besides the one unmarked parking spot in the foreground of this photo, every other spot farther up the block was marked. Don't be fooled - what appear to be other unmarked spots in this photo were either driveways or were marked with objects hidden from this vantage point.

Spots saved by the hangers-on - the majority of whom live on Douglas St., it appears.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Still On Diet, Still Losing Weight

It's 38 days into the diet, and I am down 14.2 pounds.  Another 4.8 pounds off will tie my highest recorded weight loss, and another 5.2 pounds beyond that will tie my lowest weight of the past six years.


My goal was about 30 pounds, so I am almost halfway there.  I figured that I had plenty of time between the start of the diet in late January and the overindulgence of St. Patrick's Day weekend and the Iceland/London trip at the end of the month, the combination of which I believe will set me back 6-8 pounds, thereby giving me another 5 or 6 weeks afterward to drop 15 more pounds before Kauai in May.

I know, sounds confusing.

All I know is that things fit much better.  Even I am noticing that I look thinner.  Overall, I feel great.  Losing weight is awesome for my self-esteem (which is almost always very positive anyways).  It also helps the wallet, as it makes me think twice about eating out 3-4 times each week and having unnecessary alcoholic drinks.

Usually, I carry my weight well.  Even at my heaviest, I would hit the gym and work out, so it wasn't all fat.  But lately, I have told a few people that I still have another 15-20 pounds to go, and their judging and confused looks tell me that they don't agree that I need to lose those pounds as well (although, I know I do).

I have done this with no pills or supplements, instead focusing on diet and exercise.  Mike introduced me to this calorie-shifting diet - choose various foods and a website manufactures an 11-day menu of 4 meals per day.  It's not all bacon either - some days are protein-heavy (eggs, milk, turkey, roast beef, nuts), while others include some carbs like oatmeal and baked beans.  One day is all fruit and another is all vegetables.  Both of those are very, um, cleansing.

I have been strict with exercise during the diet, going to the gym 4-5 times each week for a minimum of 45 minutes of cardio and 5-10 minutes of stretching during each visit.  I'll sprinkle in weights during every other visit.

My stomach appears to have shrunk a bit as well.  Last week at trivia night, I had 3 sections of a club sandwich and fries (I went off diet that night), along with a few pints of beer, and I felt incredibly full and gross.  In the past, I could have finished the plate and had room for dessert.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Canceled Trip to Providence

I was supposed to head to Providence this evening to speak with students at my old radio station WBRU.  They're reconnecting with alumni and attempting to tie the station's history and those who worked there with how it helped many in their post-Brown working careers.


I'm very fond of the radio station and how it did indeed help launch my career.  Many of the friends I made at WBRU remain friends and professional colleagues today.

My intent was to discuss the big picture.  Working at WBRU and still trying to make it through Brown's rigorous academics all while figuring out how you'd like to earn a living thereafter, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees (n.b. - that's a phrase I learned in 6th grade from my history teacher Mr. Monaghan, the one man ever to have given me a detention - for all things because I scored a 68 on a test and anyone with scores below 70 had to correct their tests in detention.  I'm still bitter to this day).

Years after leaving WBRU, I totally understand the moving parts of each department, and how, together, they comprise this amazing mostly student-run institution that is weaved into the fabric of Rhode Island and Southern New England.  But while there, I remember being so wrapped up in each on-air break, what songs we played, and more specific details that, while extremely relevant to the success of the product, weren't allowing me to absorb the greater purpose of WBRU and how it benefited me.

I involved myself with the station because I loved music, charts, and the radio.  Looking back, not only did I learn how to perform as an on-air personality, but I learned how to confidently speak in public, how to interview famous people, how to deal with different personality types, what it means to know an audience, and how to appeal to a certain demographic.  I learned how self-deprecating humor can be a virtue.

And after WBRU, upon finding work in the radio industry, I learned that, contrary to my belief, I did not know everything.  In fact, my work experience was viewed more as potential and interest than mastery.  Instead of being considered a seasoned veteran (at the ripe age of 20), I started once again from the bottom.  It was humbling, yet necessary.  It taught me how persistence can pay off, that humility is a virtue, and how whatever I think I know, there's always more to learn.

Nevertheless, we're getting a Nor'easter here tonight, and my fellow residents of Southie have already claimed their parking spots.  As the temperature is forecast for below freezing until Friday, any snow we get isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  I had to cancel my trip out of fear for having to park  the next week in Mattapan.  Perhaps another time.