Saturday, November 29, 2008

Technology Taken for Granted

It was during a visit with my mother’s family in St. Louis, probably in 1948 or ‘49, that I saw a televised baseball game for the first time. My grandfather took me up to the corner and down the main street about a block to the local appliance store.

In the display window was a television set facing out onto the street. Several wooden benches had been set up on the sidewalk and there were a half dozen people already there patiently waiting.

A few minutes later, the store owner appeared on the other side of the plate glass window. He smiled and waved at us, then turned the TV set on. The screen wasn’t much more than a foot or so wide, and the picture was in fuzzy black and white, but he had rigged it so the sound was piped out onto the street.

We sat there mesmerized for the next two-plus hours watching the St. Louis Browns playing the visiting Boston Red Sox. The signal was coming all the way from Sportsman’s Park in downtown St. Louis, at least a dozen miles away. It was altogether a technological miracle.

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll once again sign up for the Major League baseball package from DirecTV so I can watch every game played by the Boston Red Sox during the 162-game season.

Half of those games will come from Fenway Park in Boston, 5500 miles from here; the rest will originate in a dozen or so other ballparks around the country. The TV signal will be the wide screen format and in high definition, beamed from a satellite positioned somewhere in space to a three-foot dish on my roof.

But – doggone it – when we have heavy rainstorms here on Maui, the picture can get all weird and distorted, sometimes for several minutes. What’s wrong with those idiots at DirecTV anyway! I mean, how hard can it be?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Traveling and Dining in Style on VIA's # 1 Train

I've written several times about VIA Rail's premier train, the Canadian, appropriately designated as Train # 1 (westbound) and Train # 2 (eastbound). It runs three days a week between Toronto and Vancouver.

This is a marvelous trip, with scenery on the east-to-west trip that progresses from farmland to raw wilderness to the great plains to the Canadian Rockies to lush fertile valleys.

But the other part of the trip that's so enjoyable is the dining experience. Can you imagine a bettter setting than being comfortably seated at a table for four in the Canadian's dining car, meeting some interesting fellow pasengers, and enjoying an excellent meal prepared right there on board while Western Canada is passing by right outside? I sure can't!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Put Your Belt, Shoes, Nail Clippers and Any Questions Into the Bin

A recent study conducted for our friends at the Transportation Security Administration has discovered that there has been a decrease in passengers’ “unquestioning compliance with TSA rules.”

This disquieting news has prompted TSA to launch a $1.3 million advertising campaign intended to convince us that we should once again accept whatever hassles TSA decides to impose upon us without question, let alone objection. These rules are to protect us against terrorists, so we should all be good little passengers and keep our mouths shut.

All of which reminds me of the following:

Walking through the mall one afternoon, a fellow ran into a pal who was wearing a huge ivory amulet on a braded cord around his neck. Curious, he asked about the unusual object.

“I paid $1000 for this,” the guy said. “It will protect me from being attacked by rogue elephants.”

“But,” protested his friend, “there isn’t a rogue elephant within 10,000 miles of here!”

“A-ha!” said the guy. “See how great it works?”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Amtrak Gets A(nother) New President

Wasting no time, Amtrak’s board of directors today named Joseph Boardman as Amtrak’s new president. He replaces Alex Kummant, who quit a couple of weeks ago after being on the job for just two years. Kummant, we now learn, had had an increasing number of disagreements with board members and apparently decided to jump before he was pushed.

The word is, this guy Boardman knows his stuff. He was head of the Transportation Department in New York State and has been the top guy with the Federal Railroad Administration for the past three years. All of which means he can -- in the vogue phrase these days -- “hit the ground running.” And a good thing, too, because he was appointed today and takes over at Amtrak …tomorrow!

Boardman will serve for one year, during which time the Amtrak board will launch a search for a permanent president and CEO.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

If He Builds It, People Will Most Definitely Come

New Buffalo, Michigan, is one of eight small communities clustered along the shore of Lake Michigan where up-scale Chicago folks go to … well, to get away from Chicago.

For several years, developer Jimmy Gierczyk has been trying to get Amtrak to put a station in downtown New Buffalo and schedule a stop there, but without success.

So he’s doing it himself, spending a million-and-a-half bucks on a parking lot and a railroad platform smack alongside his new condos. If there was ever another privately-financed Amtrak station, no one can think of it.

The convenience of the new station will help Gierczyk sell his condos, of course, but the new location will also shave 10-15 minutes off the running time between New Buffalo and Chicago.

Once finished sometime in the next few months, Amtrak’s Blue Water (Chicago-Port Huron) and Wolverine (Chicago-Detroit), will each make one stop a day in each direction at Gierczyk’s station.

“The only way to get this done,” he says, “was for us to do it."

Jimmy does have the look of a guy who knows how to get things done.

Friday, November 21, 2008

DOT: Dealing With Amtrak's On-Time Problem

Back in September, the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation published a report listing the causes of delays to Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor (Washington-Boston).

1. Dispatchers for the freight railroads giving priority to their trains instead of Amtrak as the law requires.

2. Work on the tracks which means trains most proceed at restricted speeds. (Since Amtrak trains normally travel at higher speeds than freights, this has a disproportionate effect on passenger trains.

3. Not enough track capacity, which means some trains are held on sidings while other trains are allowed to proceed. (See Item No. 1.)

4. Other problems beyond the control of the host railroads. This would include grade crossing accidents, flooding, mudslides, etc.

Recommendations, in a nutshell, were more enforcement of the law giving priority to Amtrak trains, more oversight of the freight railroads by the Federal Railroad Administration, and more money to help expand the railroads’ capacity to handle both their own trains and passenger trains more efficiently.

Both the results and the recommendations were obvious to passenger rail advocates such as the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), but it’s good that this issue is getting some official attention. Furthermore, we'll soon have a new administration that is on the record in support of more and better passenger trains. Let us hope that things are looking up!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I have started another blog which includes personal comments and observations, leaving this site more specifically focused on travel in general and train travel in particular.

I do invite you to visit Smatter of Opinion. Your comments are welcome, as always.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Penny Here and a Dollar There = Millions Saved

The price of crude oil has come down dramatically in the past several weeks, but no one I know expects it to stay there. If we, as individual Americans, have any idea what’s good for us as a nation, we had better start to do some serious conservation.

The airlines are already doing that. For instance, reducing cruising speeds by 20 miles per hour will only add 8-10 minutes to a four hour flight, but will save serious money on jet fuel.

They’re washing their planes more often, because the accumulation of grit and grime can impede the flow of air over the exterior shell, requiring just a bit more push from the engines to move the plane through the air.

They’re carrying less water for the lavatories, and swapping old seating for newer, lighter models … anything to reduce weight, which means less fuel used.

American Airlines has a significant weight advantage over most of their competitors: a minimum amount of paint is used on their planes … and the paint needed to cover a jet’s entire fuselage is heavy! I learned that from the head of South Pacific Island Airways, a former client, who followed American's example and claimed it saved him thousands of dollars every month.

It takes about 7,000 gallons of jet fuel to fill up a twin-engine Boeing 737. If an airline can increase fuel efficiency for one plane on one flight, imagine the cost savings when projected over several flights every day for a whole fleet. American operates 1,000 aircraft, United has 590 planes, and Delta has about 450. Then there's Northwest and Continental and Jet Blue and US Airways and Southwest and Hawaiian and Alaska and all the regionals and all the commuters and ... well, you get the idea.

As Senator Everett Dirkson (R-Illinois) said back in the 60s, “A billion here, a billion there, and sooner or later it adds up to real money.”
By the way, Dirkson, who died in 1969, also said, “The oil can is mightier than the sword.” Smaht, dat buggah!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dining in One of Amtrak’s Rolling Restaurants

Almost invariably, the first question I’m asked when the subject turns to long-distance train travel is, “What’s the food like?”

My response is, “Quite good, most of the time.”

If you sense a little hedging there, you’re right. There are some inconsistencies. A flatiron steak will be tender, juicy and cooked to perfection on one occasion; another time, on another train, it can come out tough and overcooked. (This one was great!)

But, by and large, the Amtrak dining car crews do a very good job under difficult circumstances.

They start serving breakfast at 6:30 a.m., lunch begins around 11:30, and dinner starts around 5:30 and often the last customer leaves the diner as late as 8:00. That, friends, is a helluva long day … and, on the western trains, the same crew have to do it all over again the next day! Then they turn around and take a two-day trip back to where they started from.
Nevertheless, the food is quite good and passengers are almost always pleased with the quality and with the service. I always look forward to the dining car, especially because there is “community seating” at the tables-for-four. There’s nothing like enjoying a good meal and meeting new and often interesting people while the USA passes by outside your dining room window.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Train Travel: A Little of This, A Little of That

You have probably seen my earlier rants about how the US has fallen behind most of the rest of the world when it comes to train travel. In particular, the Europeans – specifically, the French, the Germans and the Spanish – have adopted high-speed trains as a way of life. Those trains are faster, cheaper and greener than going either by air or by car. The latest country to hop on the high-speed bandwagon is Poland. Gee … if the Poles get it, can we be far behind?

A new luxury train has begun operating in Europe. The Danube Express is offering a variety of exotic rail itineraries that will include cities such as Budapest, Prague, Vienna, and Krakow among others. Passengers will travel (and sleep and dine) in rail cars originally built in East Germany for use by the Hungarian State railroad, all restored at a cost of nearly $750,000 each. *sigh* Just one more train ride to be added to my must-do list.

And speaking of luxury train travel, starting next summer Canada’s VIA Rail will offer what they’re calling “Concierge Service” on their Train # 1, the Canadian. Amenities will feature at-your-beck-and-call room service, breakfast in bed, complimentary beverages, wine, toiletries and a gift basket. VIA’s news release says this new service will be available between Vancouver and Jasper, leaving open the question what happens during the Toronto-Jasper segment. I’ll try to find out and will report back.

A personal note: I’ve taken this train from Toronto to Vancouver three times now and they’ll really have to go some to improve the experience. Put it on your list.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Let Me Introduce a Real American Hero

If it’s possible to judge a man by his enemies, Morris Dees is way out in front of all the rest of the Good Guys. There’s a giant bulls-eye on his back. The FBI has broken up a couple of plots to kill him and he must sleep with one eye open every night.

Morris Dees is an attorney and the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

The SPLC uses the law to go after hate groups. They let the criminal courts take on the actual culprits – the Neanderthals who do the assaults or fire-bombings – and they go after the organizations that support and encourage the goons. They go for damages, asking for whopping settlements, and when they win the hate groups are wiped out financially.

That's the plan. And it works!

Several years ago, Dees and the SPLC won a $6 million judgment against the head of the Aryan Nations in Idaho and, to come up with the money, these pathetic morons had to sell their property and all their assets. Out of business!

Yesterday Dees scored again, winning a $2.5 million judgment against “Imperial Wizard” Ron Edwards of the Ku Klux Klan for being the mentor for the three low-lifes who beat the crap out of a teenager because he was a Latino.

I’ve followed this wonderful organization for a long time now and send them a contribution or two every year. Go here to find out more about the organization or to make a contribution ... and I would encourage it.

And while you’re at it, keep Morris Dees and the rest of his people in your thoughts and prayers, eh?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Amtrak CEO Resigns

Alex Kummant, who has been Amtrak's Chief Executive Officer for the past two years, abruptly resigned today. There have been some differences of opinion between Kummant and members of the Amtrak board, but none that have become public and apparently none that were serious enough to trigger his departure. On the other hand, who the hell knows?

Kummant's resignation comes at an interesting time, however. A new administration will be taking over in a couple of months and, unlike the Bushies, these guys are clearly pro-Amtrak. In fact, VP-elect Joe Biden's son is a member of the Amtrak board, so it's very possible that the Obama administration will have some influence over Kummant's successor.

Click here for the NewYork Times account.

People Should Go By Rail ... and Freight, Too.

There are many very practical reasons why this country should plow a lot of resources into expanding and improving our rail transportation systems, from streetcars to light rail on through long-distance trains.

The same reasons that apply to carrying passengers by rail are also valid for hauling freight. For instance …

* One intermodal train – meaning trains that haul containers – can carry the same amount of freight that would require 280 semi-trailer trucks. Take those trucks off the highways and you’ve created room for more than a thousand cars.

* Other freight trains, those that carry everything from cars to washing machines to fresh vegetables, can take as many as 500 trucks off our highways.

* Freight trains can move one ton of goods three times as far as trucks on one gallon of fuel.

* Compared to trucks, freight trains put out one-tenth the hydrocarbons and diesel particulates, and one-third the nitrogen oxides and carbon.

* If just a tenth of the stuff now being hauled over long distances by truck were to be shipped by rail, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by some 12 million tons every year.

Ah, but here’s the catch: Container traffic on the country’s railroads has almost doubled over the past ten years and is still going up. The resulting congestion is costing almost $80 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel.

Amtrak runs over track owned by the freight railroads in most of the country and their trains are also affected by this congestion. According to the last estimate I saw, passenger train delays cost Amtrak some $130 million a year … and don't forget about 40% of that comes from our tax dollars.

It’s going to cost a helluva lot of money to improve things. Railroads estimate that they will have to spend nearly $200 billion over the next 20 years just to handle freight traffic.

If the feds are going to plow a lot of money into the infrastructure as part of an economic stimulus effort, wouldn’t rail – freight as well as passenger systems – be a good place to put some of it?

By the way, this information was provided to me by CSX, the huge freight railroad operating all over the eastern portion of the country. That said, I have no reason to believe that any of these claims are not factual. In fact, I have seen corroborating data in material put out by the EPA.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Kawasaki Is Developing a New High Speed Train

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this only means the U.S. will have even more catching up to do! All that grumbling notwithstanding, the new train will be quite special.

The Kawasaki people are referring to it as the efSET, short for Environmentally Friendly Super Express Train, and they have high hopes for hitting the global market with this sleek beauty.

Kawasaki has a long history of creating and building high speed rail equipment, going all the way back to 1964 and the first of the so-called “bullet trains”. This one is expected to travel at a bit over 217 miles per hour and, according to the company, will be more comfortable for passengers and, with new unspecified technologies, more friendly to the environment.

So far, my only experience with high-speed trains has been in France. I rode the Eurostar from London to Paris and was really impressed with how smooth the ride was. Car attendants were passing up and down the aisles serving drinks and pouring hot coffee at 187 mph.

Let’s hope that the U.S. is on the verge of moving to high-speed rail! Certainly the voters of California have taken a hugely important first step by approving Proposition 1A, a $10 billion bond issue to build a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

That’s good news … but the hard truth is, we’re still several decades behind most of the rest of the world.

NOTE: I have begun another blog with posts of more general interest (some with a political view) which I invite you to check out. Click here. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Six Myths About Amtrak

First, a disclaimer: I can't remember who sent me this list. I once had the information, but either deleted it carelessly or it's misfiled somewhere in the bowels of my computer. If someone out there knows the original source, let me know and I'll gladly give credit. However, to the best of my knowledge, the information included in each of these myths is true and accurate.

Myth #1 - Amtrak can be profitable. No national rail passenger system in the world is profitable. Without public subsidy, there will be no passenger rail transportation systems in the United States.

Myth #2 - The private sector is ready to take over Amtrak routes. Remember why Amtrak was formed. Amtrak is what is left of a once privately run enterprise.

Myth #3 - Long-distance trains are the problem. This is perhaps the biggest myth. If you eliminate every long-distance train, avoidable costs would decrease about $70 million a year. On a fully allocated basis, after five years, annual savings might reach $300 million. This argument is a red herring.

Myth #4 - Amtrak is a featherbed for labor. Amtrak's wage rates are about 90% of the freight industry and are even lower when compared to transit. Wages are not the problem; generating a higher level of productivity is the challenge and Amtrak's management is working for such improvement.

Myth #5 - The Northeast Corridor is profitable. The NEC may cover most of its above-the-rail costs, but it is an extremely costly piece of railroad to maintain. The NEC is not profitable and never will be.

Myth #6 - There is a quick fix - reform. The word reform is like catnip to those interested in a quick fix for Amtrak. If the answer were quick and easy, the problem would have been solved long ago. What needs to be done is to tightly manage the company and its finances and begin to make incremental, but critical improvements to plant and equipment.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Keeping Trains and Travel More On Track

From time to time, I have received suggestions – well, OK, some have been criticisms – about posts that have deviated from “travel” or “trains” and spilled over into the political arena.

That, of course, was the reason for my including “Other Things” in the title of this blog, but I suppose that my ping-ponging back and forth may have been disconcerting for some and annoying for others, especially those who do not share my political views … eminently sensible though they may be.

And so I’ve created another blog which will allow me more latitude for delving into a wide variety of subjects. Fair warning: I have no doubt there will be an emphasis on politics and government and whatever else is happening that either interests me or delights me or pisses me off.

So, if you’ve a mind to, check out Smatter of Opinion. As always, your comments will be welcome.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Some Post-Election Observations and Comment

Journalistic priorities. Whereas most of the country and darn near the entire rest of the world has recognized the election of Barack Obama as one of the more signigicant events in our history, not everyone seems to share that view. The Terrell Tribune, the daily paper in the Texas town of 13,000 a half hour east of Dallas, made no mention whatsoever of Obama's election in their Wednesday edition, choosing to cover a local race instead.

"We covered the local commissioner's race," sniffed publisher Bill Jordan. "We thought that was more important."

You shore do got a classy act there, Bill.

The times they are a changin'. For a bunch of years now, the conventional wisdom about U.S. politics has been that the two coasts are liberal and everyplace else across the U.S. is conservative. That, in turn, has fostered the notion that relatively small areas have had a disproportionate influence on politics in this country.

Well, along with the belief that a black could never be elected president, the election last Tuesday has shot that theory all to hell. The fact is, Barack Obama could have lost both New York and California and still have won the election with a margin of 8 electoral votes. If there was ever an example of how much things have changed all across this country, that’s it.

Pop (maybe) goes the Weasel. Then there’s Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in 2000, but campaigned for Republican John McCain this time around. Understandably, some Senate Democrats want to boot him out of their caucus or, at the very least, strip him of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. According to one of Lieberman’s staff, Joe says that would be “unacceptable.” If you ever need a clear definition of chutzpah, this would sure as hell be it!

The Brits got it right. And, finally, my vote for the best Election Day headline goes to one of the British newspapers: "ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND". Gee ... I bet Ol' Bill Jordan whist he'da thunk a that!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Jolly Good Show, Chaps!

Jim O’Neil, a 65-year-old Brit, was piloting his Cessna (above) on a flight from Glasgow to Colchester in England yesterday when he apparently suffered a mild stroke and suddenly lost his sight. And there he was, at 5500 feet and literally flying blind.

He managed to notify air controllers of his predicament and an RAF plane was scrambled to assist. The RAF pilot, Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, flew alongside O’Neil’s plane and talked him into a bumpy-but-safe landing on his eighth try at a nearby military base. That's right, he made it on his eighth try!

Certainly brings to mind the pidgin expression common here in Hawaii: Cool head main thing!

At last report, O’Neil was in the hospital and on the road to recovery, with his eyesight apparently returning to normal.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Aboard the Southwest Chief and Headed to L.A.

Amtrak's train # 3, the Southwest Chief, leaves Chicago's Union Station daily in the mid-afternoon on its two-night journey to Los Angeles. These photos were taken during my early-October trip aboard this train.

I boarded the train in Galesburg, Illinois, a town about 200 miles southwest of Chicago and just a few miles from where the Chief crosses the Mississippi river at Fort Madison, Iowa.

The Rocky Mountains come into view (far background) around mid-morning the next day as the Chief crosses fertile farm and ranch lands in southeastern Colorado.

After passing over Raton Pass and through a long tunnel, the train descends into the town of Raton, New Mexico, where passengers are given an opportunity to step off the train and stretch their legs.

Continuing in a southwesterly direction across New Mexico, the train passes through vast areas of grazing land with mesas often providing an impressive backdrop.

The Chief winds slowly through rugged mountain passes before the stop at Lamy, New Mexico, which is where passengers bound for Santa Fe leave the train.

I really need a camera with a longer lens ... but these are pronghorn antelope, which are commonly seen along the route.

At the Chief's stop in Albuquerque, jewelry, blankets, western hats and other items are sold by native Americans on the station platform.

Albuquerque is also a refueling stop for the train. Scheduled departure from here is about 5:00 p.m. - a perfect time to head into the dining car for a relaxed early dinner. Arizona is crossed during the night and the Sunset Chief reaches Los Angeles the next morning, usually between 8:00 and 8:30.
I’ve taken this train in both directions several times and have always enjoyed the trip. I don’t think it’s quite as scenic as the California Zephyr or the Coast Starlight, but it’s right up there and passengers do get a chance to see very different parts of the country. As with all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, the trip is relaxing and very enjoyable. And it's absolutely the best way to see the country. Give it a try!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How’s This for a Big Moving Safety Message?

I’ve written before about collisions between trains and cars or trucks at grade crossings, and about individuals hit and almost invariably killed while walking on tracks. It’s still a very big problem.

For a variety of reasons – some understood, some not – a disproportionate number of these incidents occur on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner route, particularly the stretch between Los Angeles and San Diego. One retired engineer recalls hitting and killing a surfer years ago. The kid was walking down the middle of the track carrying a surfboard and listening to a walkman. He had his back to the oncoming train and never knew what hit him.

Just two months ago a young woman in a Seattle suburb was hit and killed while walking on the tracks. She was talking on a cell phone.

The sad fact is, these kinds of "accidents" are still happening ... almost on a daily basis. To create more awareness of the problem, one of the Surfliner locomotives has recently been decked out in a bright new paint job. Let’s hope it helps get the message out there.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Don’t call me, Linda. I’ll call you.

In the aftermath of the presidential election, people in Hawaii are naturally talking about the history-changing win for Barack Obama, someone people here, regardless of party, are proud to acknowledge as a native son.

But folks are also talking about the snotty comments made about Obama by our Republican governor, Linda Lingle.

She has spent a good deal of time over the past few months stumping around the country on behalf of John McCain. That is her right, of course, although she has received a good deal of criticism for being absent from the state at a time when our tourism-based economy has plunged us into very difficult times.

But while campaigning in Colorado, Governor Lingle said, "Senator Obama likes to say he's from Hawaii. But, the truth is, I've never met him in my life. He's never called me on the phone. Ninety-five percent of the people in my state had never heard of him before he ran for president.”

She also dismissively said Obama lived in Hawaii for only “a few high school years.” Well, the whole truth is, he was born here and Governor Lingle was not. Furthermore, Obama graduated from a very prestigious and nationally-ranked private secondary school, while she graduated from a public high school in California.

There is simply no doubt that Obama’s experience growing up in this amazing multi-ethnic, multi-cultural place has shaped his view of life and of the world. That is eminently clear in his first book, Dreams from my Father.

His wife, Michelle, has said “You can’t understand Barack until you understand Hawaii.”

Unfortunately, some people come to this extraordinary place, spend years here, and just never get it.

Do they, Linda?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Take a bow, America!

Every one of us can be proud today.

Either Way, It Will Be a Vast Improvement

In the final days of the Bush Administration -- there are 77 of them left, I’m afraid – W. and his people are rushing to push through new rules that supposedly will take the next administration years to undo.

At the top of the list is a recent directive by Bush’s secretary of the interior that will no longer require the government to get reviews by expert scientists before starting many new federal projects. To hell with the endangered species!

There is also reason to believe new rules will soon be issued that will weaken the Clean Air Act and allow mining companies more latitude to dump waste into streams.

The secretary of Health and Human Services is expected to issue new orders that will further restrict the rights of women to get information about abortion and birth control.

And last but hardly least, the Justice Department is apparently about to give law enforcement agencies broader rights to investigate private citizens.

George W. Bush has said he doesn’t worry about his place in history because “we’ll all be dead” by the time there’s any definitive judgment.




Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sarah Palin, John McCain ... and Post Turtles

A crusty old Texas rancher got his hand cut on some barbed wire while working cattle. While the doctor was sewing up the cut, he started chatting with the old man. Eventually they got around to the election and the possibility of Sarah Palin being a heartbeat away from becoming president.

The old rancher said, “Well, ya know, that there lady is a post turtle.”

The doctor, who wasn't originally from Texas, said he had no idea what a post turtle was.

The old rancher said, “When you’re driving down a country road and you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, that’s a post turtle.”

"But," said the doctor, "what's a post turtle got to do with Sarah Palin?"

“Well, son," said the old man, "you know it couldn't have got up there by itself, it don’t belong up there, it don’t know what to do while it’s up there, and you just gotta wonder what kind of damn fool put it up there to begin with.”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Best Part of Long-Distance Train Trips

Amtrak dining cars feature communal seating, which means you’ll be taking your meals with other passengers unless you’re in a party of four. And that, for my money, is one of the best things about traveling by train, especially long-distance trains. During my many train trips, I have met a host of interesting people, including …

· A Japanese doctor doing research on organ transplants in Boston and, like me, a Red Sox fan,

· A man from El Paso who is a railroad engineer for the Union Pacific,

· A Yale history professor, an expert in the very areas through which we were passing at the time,

· A high school physics teacher from England, who was seeing America by rail,

· A real estate agent from Los Angeles who told me the best part of her visit to Paris was touring the Bastille. (It was torn down in 1789.)

On one occasion, while crossing the Rocky Mountains on the California Zephyr, I was chatting with a very nice man for at least a half hour before we discovered that for some 20 years we had lived within a quarter-of-a-mile of each other in the town of Kailua on Oahu. (All together now: What a small world!)

I’m really not sure why it is, but those unique personal exchanges almost never happen when you travel by plane.

On a flight home to Maui after a recent trip to the mainland, I sat in silence for five hours next to a woman in an adjacent seat. I had made some tentative conversational overtures as we were leaving, but got almost nothing in response. As we were coming to a stop at the gate, she finally turned to me and said, “What hotel are you staying at?”

“I live here,” I replied.

“Well, have a nice day,” she said. And she headed for the exit.