Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Perils of Self-Medication … or How I Got My Shiner.

I am bothered periodically by something known as Restless Leg Syndrome. It occurs mostly at night when I’m in bed – an uncontrollable urge that can only be relieved by moving my leg. In my case, that compulsion comes every 30-40 seconds, so I’m constantly moving around in bed and, of course, sleep is impossible until it stops. Until recently, it has been just an occasional, minor annoyance.

But about six week ago, I had knee replacement surgery and my RLS has shifted into high gear. I’m told it’s a temporary consequence of the surgery, but it’s now occurring almost every night and often lasts for several hours.

When it happens, I slip out of bed, go into my little den and start doing laps around the room since walking supposedly makes it stop. It doesn't, so I turn on my computer to check news and sports web sites, play games or do crossword puzzles. After 2-3 hours, when it finally goes away, I shuffle off back to bed.

For one or two nights, it’s not a big deal. But after four of five weeks of that routine, it becomes a real problem. A few nights ago at about 3:00 o'clock, groggy from lack of sleep and desperate, I took one of the little Ambien pills given to me at the hospital immediately after the surgery … and went back to the solitaire game on my computer.

Ten minutes later, with no warning, the Ambien kicked in and I went face down into the keyboard … BAM!

The next morning there was a red bruise and obvious swelling on my forehead; after two days it had morphed into a magnificent purple eye. And yesterday I had to assure a concerned physical therapist that, no, there is no domestic violence occurring in my home. My wife was not amused.

So watch out for those pills way at the back on the top shelf. Especially the real little ones.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Amtrak has Big Plans ... for Washington’s Union Station and Beyond.

In a press conference yesterday held at Union Station in Washington, DC, Amtrak announced plans to renovate and expand the station’s capacity – more trains to serve a great many more people in much more attractive and efficient surroundings.

The estimated price tag would be $7 billion. Wow! And in addition, the long-range plan envisions a huge expansion of business and commercial development in the surrounding area.

I confess my first reaction was that the Amtrak brass must be smoking something. After all, it’s an annual catfight just to get an appropriation out of Congress to subsidize the existing bare bones service. And Mitt Romney has said he’ll shut that off if he’s elected.

But wait! It's reasonable to assume that at least some of the money would be coming from some kind of public-private partnership. Furthermore, and despite all the caterwauling from the conservative ideologues, Amtrak is a success. A big success. Ridership has been increasing steadily every year. Amtrak carried 30.2 million passengers last year and projections are for that to climb to more than 43 million over the next 25 years.

And rail service is expanding and improving elsewhere in the country. Amtrak will soon be running trains at more than 100 mph on the busy Chicago-St. Louis route, with similar upgrades on other routes to follow. Faster trains invariably means more passengers. And in California, Home of the Car Culture, there is now a passenger rail network, supplemented by connecting bus services, that covers most of that huge state ... and it has become immensely popular.

Public officials – present and future – had better get used to the simple, unavoidable fact: Americans want trains!

So kudos to the Amtrak leadership for responding to that … and for having the guts in the current political environment to stand up to the nay-sayers. Go for it, guys! It's the right thing to do!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Traveling ... And Forgiving Circumstances Beyond My Control.

I have a trip coming up in August which I have been planning for some time. It begins in Vancouver, includes two separate rail journeys through the Canadian Rockies, stops in Banff and Jasper, and ends up with a daylong ferry ride down an inland waterway to Vancouver Island.

I usually travel solo, but this time my dear wife will be joining me. She was born and raised here in Hawaii and is always reluctant to leave. She doesn’t like leaving her two horses. Or our granddaughter. Oh, yes… and she hates cold weather.

Many years back – our daughter was about seven at the time – the three of us took a trip to Europe. I had done the planning, which took weeks. We would be gone for most of May, starting with England and France, then overnight by train to Vienna, followed by Budapest and Prague. When I was finally satisfied with the details, I presented the itinerary to my wife.

She studied it carefully for several minutes. Finally she looked up and, fixing me with a penetrating stare, cut right to the chase: “But will it be cold?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll be there in May … balmy days … flowers in bloom … mothers strolling with their children in the parks… Paris in the Spring!”

Buried somewhere in the family archives is a 35 mm slide … a photo taken in the lobby of our Paris hotel on that trip. My wife and daughter are staring directly at the camera and holding up a copy of Le Figaro, one of the daily newspapers in Paris. The headline, in huge black type, is just one word:



The sub-head reads:

Record du Si├Ęcle!

(A record for the century!)

I have reassured my wife that we will not run into that kind of weather during our forthcoming trip. I mean, how cold can it possibly get?  In August?  In Canada?  In the Rocky Mountains?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

We’re Damn Proud of Our Not-So-Local Airline!

Hawaiian Airlines first started flying back-and-forth among these glorious islands in 1929. Its first airplane was an amphibian and carried a grand total of eight people.

That was then. Today’s Hawaiian Airlines has a fleet of more than 40 jet aircraft and literally flies all over the world. In addition to hundreds of flights a day among the Hawaiian islands, there are daily flights to almost a dozen cities up and down the west coast of the U.S. mainland.

But Hawaiian is also flying to Japan, China and Korea … to Australia and New Zealand ...  to the Philippines and Guam … and to Tahiti and Samoa in the South Pacific.

And, by the way, in my opinion Hawaiian jets are the most beautiful planes in the sky. Take a good look at this photo -- you can click on it to enlarge it -- and tell me that’s not so!

We’re damn proud of “our” airline. Most of us have friends or family who work for Hawaiian and that’s one of the reasons you can count on great service on board one of their planes. After all, every Hawaiian employee knows that if they get sassy with a passenger, she will probably turn out to be their best friend’s auntie!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Kind Gesture for Stranded Amtrak Passengers

As everyone knows, large parts of the country were hit by a series of bad storms around the end of last month. There was a great deal of damage to personal property and all the downed trees raised hell with the power grid. The result was almost unprecedented.

This extraordinary photo clearly shows the huge area in the northeast that was without power. Repair crews were mobilized from power companies hundreds of miles away, but in many areas the blackout lasted for days. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. A terrible heat wave over much of the country and the lack of power meant food spoiled from the lack of refrigeration and millions sweltered because of the loss of air conditioning. It was a real mess.

In West Virginia, hundreds of fallen trees brought rail traffic to a halt, including Amtrak’s Cardinal, which runs daily between New York and Chicago. With 232 passengers on board, one of the westbound trains was stopped at the station in Prince, West Virginia, and unable to proceed.

The dining car only had enough food remaining for one final breakfast, so a resourceful Amtrak employee headed to the Food Lion supermarket in the nearby town of Beckley to buy provisions for the stranded passengers. Charles “Chuck” Riecks, a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and also of NARP’s Council of Representatives, was on the scene to assist in any way he could and reports that the Food Lion store manager refused to accept any payment.

It was a wonderful gesture, especially since the entire area was struggling with all the unpleasant consequences of damage from the storm’s wind and rain, including the loss of electricity.

And there's an ironic aspect to this story: those 232 passengers were the only people for miles around able to keep cool in air conditioning which was provided to the Cardinal consist by the “head end power” from the locomotive!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Here's My Very Best Travel Advice: PACK LIGHT!

I recently had to hop over to Oahu for a day and just passing through Honolulu International Airport was enough to remind me that people over pack when traveling. Why in the world would a young honeymoon couple need four huge suitcases coming to a place like Hawaii for a week? After all, T-shirt and shorts are de rigueur here all year ‘round. And I see the same thing at every U.S. airport: too many people struggling with way too much luggage. 

Last summer I traveled for just over a month all across Europe and Asia with everything I needed packed in one suitcase that’s small enough to fit in the overhead bin on a plane.

In addition to the obvious toiletry kit, I pack underwear, socks, and a pair of light rubber slippers. There’s one pair of shoes and they’re on my feet. Shoes just take up too much room in the suitcase. I wear a pair of jeans, and pack one decent pair of slacks. I take only wrinkle-resistant shirts and every one has to go with both the jeans and slacks. I pack a lot of shirts … at least eight, and more if I can fit them in my suitcase. That’s the key to packing smart and light. You can skimp on everything else, but you can't have too many clean shirts.

Since I travel by train almost everywhere, I pack a soft pair of gym shorts, and a T-shirt. I sleep in them on the train because it can be chilly and I don’t have to fumble into my clothes in the middle of the night to use the lavatory down the corridor. (That’s what the rubber slippers are for, by the way.)

Oh … and I try to make sure there’s an extra day in my schedule along the way so I can get some laundry done if necessary.

Bottom line: You must be absolutely ruthless about what goes into your bag. If you are, you will rejoice at the absence of hassle every single day you’re away.
Travel writer/expert Rick Steves said it best, “There are only two kinds of travelers – those who are traveling light, and those who wish they were.”

Monday, July 9, 2012

Confession of an Unrepentant Yankee Hater.

Since I was a 12-year-old, I have hated the New York Yankees. Deeply. Passionately. Viscerally. This dark emotion was born in the last two days of the 1949 baseball season when the Boston Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium for the final two games of the season. They were leading the American League by one game, so just one victory in those last two games would send them to the World Series. Of course, the Sox lost both games. (Notice that I will not say the Yankees won those final two games.) I heard it all on the radio. And I wept.

I have detested everything about the Yankees ever since: their swagger; their extravagant, taxpayer supported stadium; their pinstripe uniforms; their arrogant monuments in center field; their strutting third baseman, Alex Rodriguez; everything.

To this day, I never hear the Yankees mentioned on radio or TV without snarling a curse … or, if my wife is in the room, thinking it. (She’s quite certain the general state of my mental health would benefit if I would only agree to “talk to someone” about this.)

I am not alone, of course. I have a friend who never uses the word “Yankees” in his emails. Instead, it’s the “Evil Empire” or, more commonly, “the MFY”, an abbreviation about which I will offer no further clarification.

I was talking about this years ago with the late Ferd Borsch, longtime sportswriter with the Honolulu Advertiser and an old friend of mine, and I thought he put it rather well. “If the New York Yankees won on Opening Day and lost their entire remaining schedule, 161 consecutive losses,” he said, “I would begrudge them that one victory.”

Exactly. Damn straight. !#!&*! the Yankees!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Wow! High-Speed Rail Gets Final OK in California!

 It really does appear that California will get its high-speed train! The California Assembly – first the House and now the Senate – has given final approval to the project in final do-or-die, put-up-or-shut-up votes. Mostly, with only a couple of exceptions, the votes were along party lines: Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed. Hardly a surprise.

More than we can possibly imagine was at stake with this final decision. Of course it means that California will be getting its high-speed rail link, initially between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even more important, this is going to lead to more high-speed rail projects in other parts of the country. Why? Because Californians are going to love their bullet train! Millions of them will ride it, and that’s going to lead to more high-speed rail lines being built in other areas of the country. Because success breeds success.

For example, a recent study has concluded that high-speed rail in the South could successfully connect Jacksonville with Atlanta and Memphis. There have been other proposals, too: among others, a bullet train in Texas linking Dallas-Fort Worth with Austin and San Antonio. (This is not a new idea, by the way. It was first proposed decades ago and was killed largely because of intense lobbying by Southwest Airlines.)

At any rate, here’s to the brave California legislators who stood up and did the right thing in spite of all the hysteria and deliberate misinformation. A decade or two from now, people will wonder how the vote could possibly have gone any other way.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Choosing Between Coach and Sleeping Car

I frequently get emails from people with questions about rail travel and I do my best to answer all of them in as much detail as possible. I haven’t kept track, but I think the most frequent question has to do with people trying to decide between traveling in coach or making the jump to sleeping car accommodations. Of course the sleeper will be more expensive, but let me offer a few reasons why I think it’s worth the extra expense most of the time.

Let’s face it: there is a huge difference between settling down, snug in your own private accommodations, as opposed to being one of some 70 passengers riding together in one coach car. Quiet and privacy are worth a lot … at least to me.

First, remember that every passenger pays a basic rail fare, but there is only one charge for the sleeping car room, even if two people occupy the space.

Remember, too, that all dining car meals are included in the fares for everyone in a sleeping car accommodation. That means if two people are sharing a roomette, each will pay a rail fare, they will split the one supplementary charge for the room, and meals in the dining car will be free for both passengers. Over a two-night trip, that really adds up.

Finally, remember that your rail journey is not just transportation; it's part of your entire vacation experience. So when you take a two-night long-distance train ride in an Amtrak sleeping car, that means two nights with no hotel bill and a total of a dozen meals you won't have to pay for.

And for all that time, the United States of America will be passing by right outside your living room window. You can't put a price tag on that!

Happy Fourth of July everyone!