November 19, 2015
A Toast to Silence Along the Jamaican Coast...
For the second night in a row, I hadn’t bolted the door. When I woke up, I had that dizzying feeling you get when you’ve passed through too many airports in a short period of time, wondering where you were and what day it was.
There wasn’t a sound to be heard except for a distant bird’s call that didn’t remotely sound familiar. I tried to put my attention on it so my mind didn’t race off into the land of thought, the ever land of thought that never seems to shut down. What hadn’t I done the day before that still needed my attention and all the things that so often steals precious time away from the serenity that this precious island had to offer.
I was on the very same Caribbean island that I read about for the first time when I was ten, and while I hadn’t heard of Reggae or the Blues yet, the novel painted such a rich picture that I knew the rhythm and beat by heart, so much so that I imagined drums on the ceiling of my bedroom and if anyone ever asked me, I would swear they were real, as if a helicopter dropped them by night and parachuted them away the moment daylight hit.
My imagination couldn’t have been more vivid at the time and dancing colors of multiple rainbows were part of the canvas of life I painted for myself each and every day; it was a beautiful innocent time where stormy grays and dark blacks didn’t exist, not even in my mind’s eye. It was the start of my exploration of music and I so wanted to be the character in that mystery novel I can’t recall the name of, just so I could dance all night and write music all day.
I wanted braids in my hair with bright purple ribbons and to see the sun set so far south of a coast I only knew as bitter and cold. I had finally gotten to Jamaica and while I was far away from that ten year old self, I couldn’t help but wonder where the character in the book had lived and what they were doing now. After all, the character must have been based on someone’s experience a long long time ago and to this day, I’m convinced of it.
The story shaped my musical path and the kinds of destinations I gravitated to for so many years and while part of me longed to dance the night away with purple ribbons woven through soft brunette braids, this journey was to experience a different side of Jamaica….the silent side.
The breeze began to move the wooden shutters in the French doors of my room which led out onto a stone patio which faced a windy Atlantic sea. As they moved, I could see the flickering light of early morning, the sun so much brighter and warmer than what greeted me at home.
Still fatigued by a long year of travel and transition, my groggy state stumbled towards the flickering light and slowly opened the door I forgot to bolt and as I did, the wind grabbed it away from me, blowing it wide open and with it, the other side.
I stood there in my black knickers and turquoise sleeveless top with the lace v-neck top that barely showed a tan line from the day before feeling the warmth on my face, completely aware of how healing it felt. Wiping my eyes, I heard the silence within the silence as I suddenly noticed a flock of tiny little yellowish white butterflies dancing in the sky, eye level between me and the bushes in front of my cottage.
I smiled as wide as a child does every minute of the day. No more racing, I thought. No more activities, I begged. No more to-do’s, asks, demands and bills I wished. Just butterflies, the here and now butterflies before me that were as precious as an unaware newborn.
Like a newborn would, I watched them buzz around the sky as if it were the most magical fairy tale ever seen. I breathed in the sun, gazing from left to right, taking in the lush green tree to my right, the crashing waves up against the rocks ahead of me and the bright pink bourgainvillea flowers that lay scattered around the gardens. They were everywhere in Jamaica and I never grew tired of seeing them.
The beach area to my right and left was known as Treasure Beach in the St. Elizabeth Parrish, one of 14 on the island. It is called the "Bread Basket" of Jamaica in that it is most known for its farming and fishing, and provides 80% of the agriculture in Jamaica. The grass and trees were lush and green for unlike the dry arid California that continued to face a drought, rain wasn’t a stranger to this land.
The rains often hit during the afternoons in the Fall and so mornings were typically glorious, loaded with sunshine, happy birds and dancing butterflies.
Not in the mood to open a laptop or cell phone, I looked around the room for something to bring with me to the Adirondack chair on the patio since I was oh so not ready to face other people’s voices just yet.
There were two fashion magazines on my bedside table and a Holy Bible underneath the night stand, something provided by the property. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t picked up a bible in at least a couple of decades and so with a curious but wry smile on my face, I grabbed it and slowly made my way outside.
While I do believe in God, I'm equally able to connect with atheists and agnostics for the simple reason that I believe that religion and religious dogma is the root of so much pain and destruction in the world, which has resulted in more division than unity. I probably subscribe to more of a Buddhist’s view of the world than anything else perhaps and within that context, I now see the bible as a fascinating book with poetic writing that can provide masterful insights into the mind of mankind and the instincts that drive his or her ego.
I read a few passages from Matthew and while beautifully written, I felt they didn’t provide as much guidance to someone lost or in need as Pema Chodron or Ken Wilbur does, at least for me. Lost in pure reflection, I closed my eyes as I felt the sun quickly heat up as early morning made its journey to mid-morning.
The sounds began to change, as simple as the pace of the wind and the waves which continued to crash upon the shore. Jamaica is the kind of place that makes it easy to believe in God or if you really can't go there, then a Universe that will provide exactly what you need when your heart is open to receive.
As I opened my eyes, fearful if I didn’t my mind would start racing on all the things that made me a slave to life rather than me creating one, I saw once again the dancing butterflies buzzing around, unaware of time and likely unaware of thought itself. I wanted to be that butterfly, full of so much energy and beauty, knowing that it brings the same pure smile to a baby as it would a 90 year old man, and even more importantly, for the same reason.
I wondered if butterflies knew that when they finally blossomed from their caterpillar state that they had such a short life to live and in that knowing, they focused on happiness and joy through the only ways they knew how…. by dancing lightly and freely through the air. Or, like the character in my Jamaican novel, did the butterfly not realize how short its life would be but simply decided to focus on painting a new canvas of life each and every day, one that would bring them and others around them pure joy?
For my Jamaican character, it was writing music and playing drums and for the Jamaican butterflies before my eyes on that beautiful morning, it was dancing through the sky as if thought didn’t exist and never would.
Perhaps my two Jamaican experiences would overlap after all, the fictional fairytale I had only known as a child and the real one that was as memorable and precious as the story, but rather than a life filled with music, it was also filled with silence. Both were equally perfect and both swept me away into a different land, where there was no time or space for thought, but only smiles, laughter and peace.
"The World Surrenders to a Silent Mind" -- Lao Tzu
That’s what life is like when you’re truly present I reminded myself, whether it’s a storybook character or a butterfly or you shedding your own wings, ready to fly away.
I nodded in gratitude to the Jamaica before me, the silent one, the one full of soft ocean breezes, dancing butterflies and Caribbean trees. I raised my hand to the sky, as if holding a glass of wine to make a toast.
“To Silence,” I said to the swarm of Jamaican-born butterflies, so unaware of the impact they had on me on one morning in their short lives. In return, they continued to dance before me as my smile got wider and wider. And then, I went back to that innocent and precious dream where butterflies, clouds, skies, fields of grass and music were all one.
Photo credit for butterfly dream image: www.photoshopcreative.co.uk.
September 17, 2015
The Magic of Mirror Lake's Reflections at Dawn
The loons are echoing in the background and I can hear their call much louder than I can on Caroga Lake’s waters for some reason, my old stomping ground.
I’m not sure if part of it is the fact that I’m a hundred feet higher than I normally am when the loons call to me or the fact that we’re further north in the Adirondacks – either way, as I sit here reflecting on Mirror Lake’s serenity and magic, the loons are part of it all and its a beautiful thing.
Small as it is, Mirror Lake is large enough to tire your arms as you paddle from one end to the other. The loons are in the middle and along the edge. Frogs too.
I never tire of lily pads and their slimy underpinnings that keep them connected to the lake’s murky black bottom. As I slide by them in my canoe, I hear nothing but the soft sound of the paddle jolting the still waters. I bring my paddle inside the canoe and then the real magic starts….I wait a moment or two and then....nothing but silence.
Silence gives more to humanity than almost anything else I know and yet so few of us have ever been shown the beauty that lies within its oh so solo echo chamber. Within that echo chamber is a kind of fearfulness; it’s about as tangible as it gets. When all the sound and clutter disappears, we are left with nothing but ourselves and that can be a frightening thing at times.
I bring my hand under the lily pad so I can scoop one up as I did as a child and in doing so, it brings a smile. It flops down onto the bottom of the canoe as I scoop up one more. As I do, I can’t help but notice that the sky is changing.
The sun isn't quite up yet but it is fighting to make its way through the mist, through the fog, through the clouds, through the murk of dusk before the sun finally breaks. As the minutes go by, the skylight changes, and as I look around, no one has yet joined me on this mysterious and blissful journey that brings in the tranquil Adirondack dawn.
Finally, the sun emerges as naturally as water flows down a river, falling into its rightful place at 6:25 am, and then to its new rightful place at 6:45 am, 7 am, 7:21 am and so on until the lake slowly but surely wakes up to a new day. Gratitude sweeps over my body for I realize there's simply nothing more perfect than this -- and, more importantly, no time and no other place I'd rather be.
On the other side of the lake, there's no color in the sky at all. Pure mist flows left to right evenly as I spot another couple on the lake paddling as quietly as I had been doing for the past hour. It's clear that morning has broken however and I think about what the afternoon will have in store.
Even when it's a clear day, the clouds are not as bouncy and fluffy as they are in America’s mid-west, the mountains are not as luminous as they are in the Rockies or as blue as they are in the Carolina's, but they are genuinely calm in that knowing sort of way that only natives truly appreciate and understand.
We all have a knowing of the soil that enriched our earliest days on this earth and for me, it was the Adirondacks. While my hood is further south than Mirror Lake and Lake Placid, which almost border each other, and were apparently even connected 5,000 years ago, I know them both as if there were my own native waters.
The lakes on the Adirondacks share so many of the same nuances, including the crunchiness of empty snail and clam shells below your feet as you walk in shallow waters, the endless lily pads, the glow that hits the lake as dusk approaches 7 pm on a late summer evening and of course, the magic of early morning dawn on the lake when you alone take her in and she you.
If you haven’t grown up on a lake or spent a significant amount of time on one, you may not realize that every voice echoes and you can hear conversations across the water. It was one of the ways we learned about our neighbor's lives and their neighbor's lives, just as we did on the Timberlane Blueberry Farm where our family picked cans of berries religiously every late August.
It is here where you learn not just about the community around you (your brethren) but nature’s wonders, which is what ultimately opens you up to life’s happiest moments. The key is to listen carefully and be present when the paddle is moving and more importantly to the silence when it’s not. And of course, the textures beneath that silence...
The dog’s fastidious bark.
The loon’s melodious call.
The eagle’s rustling nest.
The purring motor in the fisherman’s cove.
The child’s precious and innocent laugh.
The waves crashing upon shore after a boat passes.
The woman’s call to her loved ones as dinner is near.
The snore of the old woman who fell asleep in the chair across the way.
The hum in the background that becomes so familiar, we never question what is….
The little girl who asks ‘where’s Peter?’ curious about her brother’s whereabouts five minutes after he pokes fun of her for nothing at all.
The chatter of the boys at the fire with beers in their hands before the family arrives.
The sound of a soft splash as a small child jumps off a float nearby.
It’s the sound of pure Adirondacks but if you listen to what isn't being "played", you begin to experience the sound of silence for it is here where nature rules. Nature is honored. Nature is adorned. And, nature dictates the order of the day. It is a smooth order, like following the tune of a river and the direction it is naturally designed to flow. No fighting, no conflict, no friction…..just going. Just being. Just silence.
Then, a stirring. I was becoming aware that morning was emerging and faster than I wanted it to. The sky was beginning to grace us with her precious blues and the sun was shining upon the trees so their green could truly be seen as green.
Reflections on the lake remained as perfect as they were, but the mist had given way to a bright sun that would warm our bodies while we splashed and played on the lake for the day.
I turned the boat around, back to civilization, back to where camps, a couple of hotels and homes lie scattered around her edge.
Ducks, Adirondack chairs, canoes, the transition of trees, lily pads, loons echoing off in the distance and the soft sound of waves crashing upon the shore. Pure Adirondacks.
Dusk...another muted time of day worth observing - mist turns to a soft Victorian blue, but never luminous, always calming, at least to those who know these mountains and embrace these waters.
And, just when you think that the Adirondacks is all about pine trees and furs, you're blessed with the vibrancy of local summer flowers along the side of the road or in front of someone's camp and remember that nature is not just an integral part of her glory, it IS her glory!
Dear Mirror Lake, don't forget that you are an incredible part of an Adirondack treasure. In gratitude to the luscious days you gave us.
Be sure to read some of my other articles on the Adirondacks, including a loop we took last fall (Fall of 2014), a reflective piece on Caroga Lake, a trip to Lake George, the lure of an Adirondack summer, the heart of the Adirondacks (farmlands), the Adirondacks Trap Dike Hike, Timberlane Blueberry Farm, this year's Lake Placid to reference a few.
June 09, 2015
Soaring Fees & Declining Airline Service Do More Than Disempower Customers
While I’m not a 100,000 mile gal, I spend a lot of time on planes throughout the course of a year. When it comes to flying these days, I think we can all agree -- it's a far cry from fun. Barely tolerable is what comes to mind.
Photo credit: Outsidethebeltway.com.
The saddening reality is that airlines worldwide brought in $31.5 billion in non-ticket revenue in 2013 -- including passenger fees -- which is MORE than 11 times their non-ticket revenue six years prior, adjusted for inflation according to CNN Money. Unfortunately, there's little that we can do about it. There's no plea here and our voices go unnoticed....otherwise, the price increases wouldn't continue to soar year after year, not to mention new fees being added for incredulous things.
Photo credit: Dave Granlund.com.
Customer feedback no longer matters since it's become an industry that treats people more like helpless cattle in tow than worthful customers they care about "serving." Truth be told, I haven't had a memorable and rewarding experience flying coach in about 8 or 9 years and it's getting worse.
The smile comes on the video screen welcoming you prior to take off and if a video isn't enough to make the whole experience feel less personal, I saw a recent clip where an unnamed airline actually replaced people with avatars.
During that "happy" video, you're reminded that if you didn't bring your own headset, you can get one from them for a mere $5 and that's before you have to pay for the in-flight entertainment, no longer free. I'm old enough to remember when all of the "now" perks were just part of your normal travel experience -- the headsets, the meals, the movie, changing your flight date or time and hell, American used to give away pens and decks of cards.
Meals in coach used real napkins laid out on the side of your plate and silverware -- I'm not sure how I'm going to take a pilot down with a butter knife and silver fork, but hey, clearly they're still worried about it. If it’s domestic, I oscillate between my two favorite U.S. carriers – Delta and American and if it’s international, I try to use one of their partners for the mileage points although frankly, it's becoming less compelling by the day since it's a helluva lot of work to get "status" points and once you've killed yourself on god awful flights to get them, your perks and benefits get set back to zero before you have an opportunity to relish in boarding ten minutes early and that one bag free perk.
I avoid United as they remain as anti-customer as Comcast does on the corporate brand list....the two companies should do joint seminars on how to piss off a customer the most in a one hour period.
Photo credit: www.thefinancialbrand.com
If I don't have a choice to go with a preferred airline partner for international flights, I choose an airline that is known for its service and simplifies traveling for me at a minimum, or in the rare case, doesn't penny pinch me for everything. Virgin of course is the best known in this category stateside and they just came out with a credit card deal that allows you to change your flights for no fee. Remember those days? How bliss: "Customer-driven" decisions like that make me not want to ever fly another airline. When you purchase a car, design, color and safety matter a whole lot, but at the end of the day, the emotional reason for the purpose is how great you feel when you’re driving it.
Does it add to your experience and do you enjoy getting to your destination? The same applies to an airline experience. Too many airlines think they’re in the transportation business when they're in the hospitality, service and customer experience industry, even more than a 5 star resort is and frankly, I'd argue than any other business.
That might surprise you but in a 5 star resort, I’m not counting on service non-stop for anywhere from 3 to 24 hours like I am on a flight. From movies, wine, blankets, headsets, your bag, to a fee for the privilege of sitting in a middle seat towards the front of plane or boarding a few minutes early in a line that is now longer than the regular one. I've even heard rumors that American is going to charge extra if you want to sit next to someone else, even if there are plenty of empty seats available. WTF?
In 2012, airlines raked in around $6 billion according to USA Today, and airlines made over $20 BILLION with my least favorite airline leading the way - United ($5.4 Billion) according to CNN Money. Australia's Qantas Airways made $56.21 per customer -- the highest amount in that particular survey. Apparently the revenue came mostly through selling frequent flier points to partners such as hotel chains and car rental companies.
Airlines that made the most from baggage fees in order of milking you dry (from a 2014 Marketwatch article), include Delta, United, US Air, America and Spirit. Airline fees have risen from $2.8 BILLION in 2007 to over $30 BILLION in 2013 according to CNN Money. Below is a chart pulled from the same piece - original link below the image.
Photo credit: From CNNMoney.
Years later, I still hear arguments that they have to continue to rake us through the coals because of 9/11 and they'll also argue that gas prices have gone up so they need to compensate for that too.
While that may be true, gas has also oscillated and while it was extremely high a couple of years ago, we paid $1.77 a gallon in America's Midwest this past January. And, let's be honest, ticket prices have also gone up and flights are fuller than they've ever been before - it's very rare that I have an empty seat next to me and usually I'm sharing my paid seat with someone else when they can't fit that comfortably in their own. (this happens a lot btw)
It takes the fun and the pleasure out of traveling. Travelaholics or business travelers who hang their hat on airlines frequently will admit that if we could skip the airline process to get to their destination, they would. In other words, it's the worse part of the travel process -- getting from A to B is NOT about transportation, it's about the experience you have on the way.
This is why people smile when you mention the word Virgin -- it's because Richard Branson gets it. I also had the opportunity to meet Richard's CEO of Virgin Produced Jason Felts at Idea Festival last year and he is one of the most down-to-earth souls you'll meet sitting that high at the helm -- authentic and fun! His persona and energy gives you the feeling that he actually "cares" about their customers and I'll take it a step further, their experience of the world -- inside Virgin and out.
When I fly coach, it's such an uncomfortable experience that it's often difficult to imagine the joy I'll have when I finally get Italy, South Africa, Japan or wherever my journey might be taking me. Who doesn’t want to feel great on the journey there?
The problem is that most of us haven’t felt “great” on a journey to their destination in….well, years. We've all become accustomed to airline mediocrity, being treated as cattle (harsh, but true) and nickeling and diming every object we want to use and every move we want to make. As one woman put it who was standing in the security line before me at JFK recently, “now, it’s cattle in, cattle out, and no extra brownie points for being nice to the agent even when they were rude to you."
Most airlines have lost the essence of what matters to customers and forgotten what business they’re in. Virgin gets it right most of the time even though they were forced by competition to follow suit with with some of those ridiculous charges. That said, Richard Branson understands that he’s in the “travel experience” business -- my tagline, not theirs. It makes more sense for entrepreneurs who have successfully run high end theme parks or "high touch" resorts to run an airline since their approach to service and delivering an extraordinary experience are both so far beyond the mentality of most airlines, that their airline would likely very quickly stand out as the "Purple Cow".
Branson realized he had to build in “aha” moments into the Virgin flying experience, from check in to behind the doors of the Virgin lounge and ultimately the on-board service.
There are a few airlines who can get away with being in the transportation business like Ryan Air, where service and quality matters a whole lot less since you're paying so little for such a short flight. In a short flight scenario where the best deal is the order of the day, that free cushioned blanket and not paying for that tasteless processed meal isn't your top priority.
Travel is all about the emotions and memories you have during your journey, whether it's the journey of getting to a destination or an activity at a destination itself. Think about it. The Eiffel Tower is just a structure – a very large and beautiful structure, but a structure in the middle of a city nevertheless. People have come to associate romance with this structure and as a result, there have been hundreds of proposals in front of it. The emotion that is associated with this structure is significant for many. Paris exudes romance and restaurants and hotels embrace it - it's part of the French culture.
Exceptional service and including standards like a checked bag and more than just peanuts and pretzels on longer flights MUST BE the airline industry’s romance. Service and over the top customer care is to airlines what that memorable romantic experience is to Paris and why so many people flock to this popular European city.
While 9/11 was used as the primary reason airlines started tacking on additional charges, let's face it -- that was a long time ago and business & finance sites have reported how just how well the industry is doing. The additional charges have gone from annoying to ridiculous in some cases, outlandishly absurd in others. Rather than look for ways to innovate around customer service, they have looked for more ways to nickel and dime without creating more value and "high touch" moments for the customer.
Airline service used to be amazing however frequent flyers can attest that the "lack of caring” started before 9/11. And, it's not as if airlines have been at the forefront of innovation. The same inflight magazines and barf bags line the back of the seats together with the traditional safety cards we had so many moons ago. And let’s be honest, the tray tables are cheap and flimsy and really not suitable for drinks. I remember useful cup holders on the back of some airline seats but haven't seen those in years. There's no place to put that cuppa coffee while you’re working on your laptop or even reading a book.
Rather than provide a memorable experience, what I’m left with today is a series of inconveniences, thanks to a direction that some operations head at one of the airlines started and others followed. Let’s look at a series of pissy moments I didn’t have to endure two decades ago, most of which defy logic and are nothing short of infuriating for a customer. That said, they have become so common that outlandish fees have become the status quo and we now live in a world where each trip is more painful than the last.
Photo credit: FareCompare.com.
Booking a ticket: booking through an airline rep or agent on the phone now cost a fee - not the case 20 years ago. Since when did charging for a phone call to SPEND money with a company become okay? Imagine Macy’s charging you extra to make a purchase with a live person.
Booking a ticket online: while in theory, booking online has made things easier since you can jump online at 2 in the morning and purchase a ticket which I've done often, you incur fees and all sorts of cancellation policies that now get applied to the booking site as well as the airline.
Case in point is a ticket I booked through Expedia with Delta last year. When an emergency came up, I needed to change the ticket date and time from a flight from JFK to San Francisco. Expedia informed me that I needed to pay a fee to them as well as a fee to Delta for the change fee, on top of whatever the difference in fare was. After a whole lotta digging, I learned that the very same flight at the very same time 5 days later had many more seats than the original flight I was on, however the change fee for my $318 flight was slated to be $298.
When I looked at booking a new flight for that same route, there was only $14 difference in fare, and yet what I would be faced with was cost of a brand new ticket.
Blankets: Seriously? I once had a stewardess on United slip me a blanket saying she couldn’t bear to charge me because she found it so insidious. While I’m not a United fan, be assured that I have never forgotten that magic moment. Even though I still won’t choose to fly United because of so many previous bad experiences, she was a standout and her "out-of-the-box" attitude should be applauded, a rarity in the airline business today. Imagine a hotel charging for blanket and pillow use?
Headphone Charges: See above. Are you kidding? It is any wonder that there's hundreds of articles out there begging the question, “what’s next on the nickel and dime me menu? Toilet paper or the privilege to use the bathroom?” Oh yeah, lest not forget I can keep them, like I need 25 flimsy plastic headsets at home. At the very least, they don't charge you for using your own though it's probably on someone's list.
Change Fees: In the “we still care about customer service” days, we never had to pay for standby for same day flights if a seat was available in your class. Today, regardless of availability or the situation (see bullet 2 for an example of defying logic), you pay a change fee plus the difference in fare – same day, different day or anything in between. Bravo to Virgin for nuking that rule if you sign up for their latest credit card - oh so very smart! Doesn't it just warm your heart to hear that?
Additional Leg Room Charges: Remember the days when you could move to a better seat if space was available on the plane? Even if something is open in the emergency row or a preferred section (which it never is anymore), you can no longer sit there without incurring an additional $50 fee. Shouldn't seat leg room (and chair room) be ample to sit comfortably for a long haul?
Seats Are Getting Smaller And Yet: See above. It’s so politically incorrect to ask, but have the seats gotten smaller or are too many of us getting larger and larger? When I've raised this issue to other travelers and travel writers, they all agree that I shouldn't publicly bring this up because of the sensitivity around it.
Even if that's the case, if we don't discuss it openly, how can we come to a politically correct resolution? If someone is so large that I have to share part of my space with them in a way that is uncomfortable, then I no longer have a full seat even if I paid extra for that seat in Economy Plus. If I should be forced to pay more for a seat that is simply closer to the front of the plane, shouldn’t I pay less for less than a full seat? It may sound insensitive, but we need to figure out politically correct ways to handle this moving forward, sensitive or not.
More $$$ To Sit Closer to the Front: See above. Beyond absurd, they have created a "class" that applies to sitting closer to the front of the plane even if it's a middle seat – yes a middle seat with no additional leg room.
Paying More for a So Called Better Seat -- What About Paying Less For A Lousy One? If the airline thinks that sitting in a middle seat closer to the front should cost more, what about charging less for the aisle seat right next to the toilet or galley?
Let’s be honest - these are lousy seats, from dealing with the foul smell from the bathroom to the noise and chaos around the bathroom from the door constantly opening and closing. If they’re so hell bent on charging more for a middle seat closer to the front with no added leg space, why not charge less for a crappy seat where you can’t sleep or get any work done or if you get stuck in the back?
Wifi: Seriously, $30 for a flight? For those of you have used the various services know, wifi is rarely reliable for the entire flight. I have had so many touch and go issues with GoGo that I've been too frustrated to write about it yet. The codes either don't work or when they do work, I'm connected but then thrown off 15 minutes or an hour later.
Meals: The worse thing about meals on airlines today isn't even the extra charges even though we never paid for food 20 years ago either. Most of the food is processed or junk food (chips, nuts, processed meat and cheese and candy bars) and they charge a lot of money for the privilege of eating packaged food infused with sucralose, high fructose corn syrup, sugar and too many other unmentionables not worth naming.
For those who eat healthy and eating healthy is an important and integral part of your life, eating on airplanes today is a non-starter unless you're in First Class or bring your own meal on board. Europe still “gets it” and hasn’t dropped to American airline food “flight” standards, at least not yet….
Drinks: Most airlines now charge more for a beer or glass of wine than at a pub or bar, even from an expensive city. And, the prices for the cheap labels they serve keep going up.
Baggage Fees: Fees, fees and more fees. Now of course, you can often get your first bag for free if you gladly hand $100 or more a year for the privilege of spending money on their credit card.
Inflight Entertainment: Now, not only do we have to pay to see movies, but we often have to pay for each movie. The same applies to television. I was on a recent flight whose airline name I’ll omit, and on the TV menu, I had to pay $4-6 per episode.
TV used to be free for unlimited viewing and you never had to pay for a movie or the fee for a cheap plastic headset. In some cases, you can buy a bundle deal for a longer flight, but it's not cheap, especially if you have fidgety children at your side.
Arguing with Airline Staff About Why X is Wrong or Some Hidden Fee: while we may have add to endure a frustrating moment when our flight was cancelled, delayed or we were re-routed, airlines used to sort it out and even apologize profusely for the inconvenience.
Even when it wasn’t a technical issue, you were sent to a nearby hotel and given a meal voucher – in other words, you felt understood and cared for, and that they felt sorry for the situation, which can sometimes result in missing a family reunion, an important birthday gathering, wedding, business meeting or worse. I chatted with about a dozen people on a recent flight who were over 35 but under 60 (it was a long delay) and I was disheartened by their countless horror airline stories.
Perhaps there should be an "Airline Stress Tax" that gets reimbursed to the flyer? The toxic stress you often endure from flying is significant and has a price and yet airlines don’t seem to put a value on it. Trust me, frequent flyers do and, they are, but sadly there are few options today if any that make flyers feel empowered as a customer.
As extreme as you might think my bullets are, I’m simply trying to prove a point. These insidious add-ons have become so commonplace that we forget how emotional taxing each and every one is and how the combination of all of them has moved us out of an era of great service, something America was once notorious for, and into an era which focuses solely on increasing corporate profits over customer joy. A couple of exceptions are worth noting, something that would have been a normal airline customer experience in the past.
Sometime in the last six months, I ended a business meeting early in New York and wanted to get back to the west coast early. The thought of enduring the “fee” process or even calling to find out how ridiculous the additional charge would be, I decided not to make the call because of the stress involved in doing so, so simply headed to the airport instead. An odd thing happened. I was interjected in the queue by an overly friendly Delta representative who asked what flight I was waiting to check in for and when I explained that I had hoped to get on an earlier flight but wasn’t optimistic for all the reasons outlined above, he opened up a closed gate which led me immediately to a private area.
When I reached the service agent, I was checked into the earlier flight (4 hours before my original one) without getting out my wallet. A new boarding pass printed out with an aisle seat (my preferred choice) very close to the front on the 1 pm. No fee or some saga story about "it's our policy, I don't make the rules." What happened? I pinched myself not believing it was real and that I had somehow been transported back in time to a more formidable time.
Getting home earlier that day transformed my week given the grueling schedule I had gone through the previous ten days. I remember a time when it was simply a standard protocol for how an airline took care of their customers, an era where we weren’t nickeled and dimed for every transaction and every move, an era where we felt as if we mattered and our repeat business mattered.
A similar situation happened with American Airlines a week later when my baggage was 5 pounds overweight and the gleeful service agent let it slide. I was stressed about it for two days before my flight knowing that my bag for that trip would be heavier than most since I was heading to Vermont to review a ski resort and the temperatures were slated to be in the teens.
Most of the time, my bag weighs in at between 35 and 42 pounds, so why shouldn’t that one trip with a slightly heavier bag slide? In the above two cases, both service reps decided to let "policy" slide which resulted in memorable airline moments and a more loyal customer.
Maybe the Delta rep saw how exhausted I was and maybe the American Airline ticket counter agent liked my smile or saw that I had just taken an American flight three days prior, OR maybe they are just rare individuals who don’t think of their roles as airline employees but as vehicles for customer happiness. (Note my current frequent flyer status on Delta is significantly higher than American)
There is a huge value to be placed on a happy customer, a loyal one who will not just come back again and again but sing their praises when they're not flying. Most airlines have lost sight of who and what they represent as a business. When brands have been around for awhile, they can become complacent. Look at how god awful United’s brand was for years and while avid travelers still complain about them, their image has somewhat improved, but only marginally so.
Most people know the story of Canadian musician David Carroll whose guitar was broken by United -- on YouTube as of writing this, his protest song has received nearly 15 million views.
As for soaring fees and service going down the drain, it appears that customers are powerless at changing the current status quo. The first shot in the war over bag fees came in May of 2008, when American Airlines announced it would be the first legacy carrier to impose a “first checked-bag” fee (Spirit and Allegiant had such a fee at least as early as 2007 from the research I've dug up).
According to a useful article on airline fees from Christopher Elliott (link below under useful resources), the North American airline industry collected an estimated $8.2 billion last year for just fees for items such as checked baggage, premium seat assignments and early boarding privileges — a $700 million increase from 2013.
Isn't it time that these rules got reversed?
A question to the airlines heads making these “fee” decisions at home base: do you want to be seen as a transportation company that gets a customer painfully from A to B or would you like to be in the “ultimate experience” business, creating memorable moments for your customers in the way that Zappos has done so successfully over the years? The airline who truly figures this out will transform the travel experience forever.
Useful Articles on Airline Fees
- How Refundable Are Airline Fees from Elliot.org: http://elliott.org/the-navigator/refundable-airline-fees-not-much/#more-35966
- Airline Fees Are Out of Control But Who Can Stop Them: http://elliott.org/blog/airline-fees-are-out-of-control-but-who-can-stop-them/
- Are Airline Fees Being Properly Disclosed? http://elliott.org/blog/are-airline-fees-being-fairly-disclosed/
- Are Airline Fees Anti-Family? http://elliott.org/blog/are-new-airline-fees-anti-family/
- Maybe we should stop calling them Airline Tickets: http://elliott.org/is-this-a-scam/maybe-we-should-stop-calling-them-airline-tickets/
- 2010: Spirit Airlines breaks a new bag barrier by imposing a carry on bag fee (something Rick Seaney predicted one of the airlines might do, nearly a year before it happened)
- 2008: In August, JetBlue announces it will charge $7 for a pillow and blanket (but you can keep them, like I really want 25 of these at home after a year's tally of flights)
- 2008: US Airways begins a highly criticized practice: charging for all drinks (including water, coffee, and soda)
- 2009: US Airways stops charging for all drinks (mainly because no other airline dared join them)
- 2009: Airlines began adding surcharges to tickets for “peak travel days” in September of ’09; originally this surcharge was imposed on the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holiday periods.
- A great article on airline fees across most airlines from AirFareWatchDog: http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/blog/3801087/airline-fee-chart.html
- Airline Fees Ultimate Guide (another great resource from SMARTER TRAVEL -- you can even download as a PDF): http://www.smartertravel.com/blogs/today-in-travel/airline-fees-the-ultimate-guide.html?id=2623262
June 03, 2015
What Can You Find Out About Yourself on Ancestry.com?
I've always been fascinated by ancestry for as long as I can remember, but probably moreso because as a child, I knew very little about my blood mother, who we used to all refer to as my "real" mother. In fact, story has it that she simply disappeared when I was around 2 and that little was known about her except that she was living in Florida and from French descent. I always probed - what do you mean by French descent? The response was always the same -- "her mother spoke French, her father was French, they lived in Canada for awhile, dunno."
So I was left wondering whether they were French Canadian or French European, but always thought the latter and later learned that her parents and grandparents were more old school French that I originally imagined and that on my father's side, my great grandmother who I knew personally until my teenage years when she died a ripe old age, had an ancestral past with the French Huguenots. No wonder I was so taken by the French Huguenot history and culture when I roamed through Europe like a bohemian nomad in my early twenties.
Photo credit: Reddit.com
Sometimes I wish that they had blogging tools (and the Internet for that matter) when I was that bohemian nomad, so many of those stories could have been captured online. The truth is that my travel was so bohemian, it may not have worked for a blog -- I crashed with people and camped more often than not and often did swaps of sorts to make my way around the world, doing everything and anything you can imagine for my "keep", from washing dishes, waiting on tables and smashing olives to selling art, milking cows, packing foam in a factory and picking greengages.
Through that entire era, I came across French Huguenot references several times without actually knowing it was part of my heritage. I've always believed that we're creatures of knowing more than unknowing and that we naturally tap into the source of what makes us purr or light up when we listen to our own body rhythms.
Then, and only then, will we synergistically migrate towards what we crave and inherently know, and life will flow like a well moving river, processing only major obstacles, not absorbing the small ones, the kind that hinder our progress in the world.
They also tend to be the ones that get in the way of what could so easily be our best days otherwise. Being connected to the earth and letting the earth guide us while listening to our body along the way (which includes our breath btw), is as close to the perfect way to live as it gets and connects us to our ancestry in ways we don't even realize in real-time.
That brings me to something I've thought a lot about, which is whether our heritage and ancestral roots are connected to what we naturally crave, whether that be people and places, or food, which I wrote about a few years ago.
In that article, I refer to my grandfather's typical lunch diet, which consisted of cold meats, pickles and onions. He loved sauerkraut and we made it in one of those old fashioned wooden machines my Uncle Ed had several times over the years.
Pate was also commonplace as were stews, homemade soups, and plenty of cheese. Some of this perfectly ties into my so called French Huguenot past and my suspicion that some of my family came from East Germany or at least somewhere in the former Eastern Bloc.
It turns out that as Jewish as my father's grandmother looked at the time, if French Huguenot was indeed part of her ancestry, even if only 50%, it's no wonder that she was so adamant about keeping Protestant alive in our family, creating more than just a mild disturbance when I was sent off to catholic school for a few years.
Historically, Huguenots were French Protestants inspired by the writings of John Calvin in the 1530's and they were mostly concentrated in the southern and central parts of France. A series of religious conflicts followed, known as the Wars of Religion, which resulted in something referred to as the Edict of Nantes which granted Huguenots substantial religious, political and military autonomy.
The fugitives depicted above are French Huguenots - Photo from FineArtAmerica.com
So, in all the countries I've explored, which now exceeds 85 if I recall at last count, it's no wonder I feel so comfortable in France, but as all Americans know, we're muts of sorts and rarely is our ancestry from one or even two countries if we travel far enough back in time. So, where else have I felt like I "belonged" in a country you ask?
Truth be told, Ireland, Scotland, Italy and parts of Eastern European culture all resonate with me at a level I can't quite understand at the oddest of times. Having some Irish and English heritage always made sense to me since my grandmother's parents on my father's side hailed from England.
As far as I could tell from the laborious stories over the years, they were "oh so particular," according to my grandfather and he'd always add "oh so English," whatever that meant to a man with likely French Huguenot and Eastern European roots.
Alas, when I ran into the founder of Ancestry.com in Dublin Ireland late last year and we started chatting about the roots of his business (pun definitely intended), I realized I had to find out my ancestral background. What surprised me the most when I got the results was the fact that English roots were extremely far down on the list when for so long, I assumed I was only one generation removed from being all things British and whatever comes with that label. I did, after all, feel pretty comfortable when I lived in England for all those years after college, even though it seemed to take a minimum of a year before I truly understood their wit, banter and subtle candor.
So if English heritage was so far down the food chain so to speak, what was at the top? Nearly 60% fell into France and parts of Germany, something that didn't surprise me. What DID surprise me is that nearly 20% of my make-up is Italian! Bravo I say except that my skin is far more nordic than it is Mediterranean although I tend to crave Italian food often. And, my first encounter with a Brunello stopped me in my tracks.
Screen grab blown up from Ancestry.com results and shown in miniature here The rest of my genetic make up was scattered, from Northwest Russia and Finland to Greece, England to Ireland. What about the American Indian who bore children with one of my great uncles I thought? I'm not quite sure where that would fall, but let's see where Ancestry.com does the breakout across the globe.
Courtesy of Ancestry.com
How does Ancestry.com determine your ethnicity estimates? They get the percentages and breakdown for your genetic ethnicity by comparing your DNA to the DNA of other people who are native to a region. The AncestryDNA reference panel contains 3,000 DNA samples from people in 26 global regions (above).
They build a reference panel from a larger reference collection of 4,245 DNA samples collected from people whose genealogy suggests they are native to one region. Each panel member’s genealogy is documented to determine whether they are indeed representative of people with a long history (hundreds of years) in that region.
Then, each DNA sample from a given region is tested and compared to all others to construct the AncestryDNA reference panel. In the end, 3,000 of 4,245 individuals are chosen for the Ancestry DNA reference panel and then then compare your DNA to the DNA in the reference panel to see which regions your DNA is most like.
When they calculate your estimate for each ethnicity region, they run 40 separate analyses and your genetic ethnicity estimates and likely ranges for these estimates come from these 40 analyses.
Courtesy of Ancestry.com
The process shows the average estimate as the given percent for each region and the general spread of the 40 estimates is shown as the probable range. Ancestry.com's analysis suggests that your actual ethnicity for this region lies somewhere in this range.
Courtesy of Ancestry.com
Going through the process is easy. You simply spit into a tube, send it off and wait for your results which you'll receive by email.
Once they arrive, you have an activation code they match with your DNA and voila, you're given your genetic breakdown via an online account you create at Ancestry.com.
What's more interesting however, is what you can then do with Ancestry.com as it doesn't stop with your sample. You can create a family tree on their site and as soon as you begin a tree, they automatically look through billions of historical records, photos, and other Ancestry trees for information about your family.
When they find something, a green leaf appears on your family tree. Another cool thing about the site is the ability to dig deeper through advanced filters and downloadable research guides. Because their community is growing, you can also get tips from other members and even from fourth and fifth cousins you never knew you had. A few of my matches below....
As more members join, the likelihood of more matches increase over time. If U.S.-based, you can get a US Discovery membership, which allows you to search their 8 billion records, and build, grow and share your family tree online, attaching photos and documents.
You can find distant relatives, connect with the world's largest online family history community, record video and audio stories of your family directly from your family tree and share access to your family history so your own family and friends can join and add to the data.
It's a cool process and definitely worth doing. I still have a boat load to do on the search side, so discovery for me is just beginning. Over time, perhaps I'll do an update with even more exciting insights and finds. More information can be found at www.ancestry.com.
April 29, 2015
Melding of Minds on the Future of Humanity Over an Arc Fusion Jeffersonian Dinner
Ever heard of a Jeffersonian dinner? I've been invited to one or two over the last few years, one of which was being held in Washington DC, where it was birthed in the 1800's by none other than Thomas Jefferson himself. Because of those invitations, I had some vague idea of what they were, but never actually participated in one until the Arc Fusion folks hosted one recently in San Francisco.
Photo credit: www.smithsonianmag.com
Rewind the clock to 1819 and visualize yourself at a long and decadently adorned table with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, his elegant Virginia home. Around the table, you're seated with a group of people steeped deep in culture, philosophy, education, history, politics, art, literature, science and theology.
The idea behind a Jeffersonian Dinner is to bring people together from different disciplines, creating a new cause-centered community around a topic of importance or significance you might want to discuss for whatever reason. This can be done to tap into new resources, raise funds for a non profit or important issue, or simply to expand the group's thinking about a variety of topics.
It's important that it be somewhat intimate so 12-15 people at a table is a good size and I'd argue that while someone's home isn't a requirement, it makes it more personal -- a private dining room could also work.
The purpose of the Jeffersonian Dinner is to build a sense of community and partnership around a shared interest or theme. One of the rules is that everyone participates in a single conversation and are not encouraged to engage in one-on-one dialogues with their partners on either side.
Photo credit: blog.asana.com.
How fitting that the San Francisco Arc Dinner be held at the 1880's Payne Mansion on Sutter Street and also how intriguing that the topic at hand was not about the past, but about our fears and concerns for the future, say in 100 years.
David Ewing Duncan kicked off the event. A historian, author, journalist and also CEO of Arc Fusion, which celebrates the conversion of IT, healthcare and biotech, David decided to take us down memory lane before dinner.
Photo credit: Arc Fusion Website.
We went back to 1915 and recalled some of the provocative insights, inventions and historical moments of the time. Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis Complete Idiot's Guide to Beating Stress was out at the time (surprising I know), the first EKG was used in 1913 and OMG was first used in 1917 (yes really).
The industries David and his team at Arc are most interested in exploring are at the intersection of what is happening in health, IT and biotech. It's not hard to see why, with nearly $800 billion being spent on health and wellness and $1.1 trillion on IT services with $50 billion on Health IT alone.
He asked attendees before they came to the dinner whether they felt they'd be alive 100 years from now. 18% said yes whereas 82% voted no. In case you think that even 18% is insanely overly optimistic, remember that the audience is highly vested in technology and some are actually working on the most important research in the fields on longevity/aging, science, technology and medicine.
The same audience voted on what will be most important to humanity's fate in 100 years -- 40% voted for politics whereas it was no surprise to see technology lead that vote at 60%. As far as the impact on humans in the next 100 years, 36% felt it would be in gene editing and a whopping 70% went for stem cells. Pharma only came in at 11% which tied with health and wellness and bionics took last place at 9%.
Other things on people's minds included mood manipulation, synthetic biology, longevity tech, next generation deep learning and renewable energy.
James Canton asked the audience to imagine a future where embedded devices and technology automate the work, resolving issues that need to be addressed in our bodies. The truth is that nano and quantum technologies are expanding so rapidly that we are now in a game changing time for our health. Innovative ecosystems will start to do disease detection for us, hopefully before it turns into disease.
Drew Endy asserted that learning "how to" solve problems is the secret to sustaining life over the long haul. His deepest wishes include a future where biology will have distributed manufacturing and distributed systems and that humans will start to think of a world outside of themselves. Hear hear.
Casey Lynett addressed where we are going with Alzheimer's pointing to some important finds for this disheartening disease that seems to be soaring not reversing.
Artist and molecular biologist Una Ryan showed us her work, reminding us of the beauty inside our bodies through our cells, our protein and our blood. She refers to the image below as the Tree of Life since it contains everything that makes our bodies operate.
The food they served at the dinner was not surprisingly farm-to-table and organic. It was also very purposely selected based on a fascinating premise -- each ingredient was chosen to serve every vital organ of the body. Dishes ranged from salads and nori rolls to fresh fish and wine for the heart -- two thumbs up for the Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon that showed up on our table.
The most riveting part of the evening, at least for me since it touched on some of the most controversial conversations happening around healthcare today, was the fireside chat between venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur Vinod Khosla and renowned doctor Dean Ornish.
Both visionaries took the stage to share their take on the future of healthcare. Vinod formed Khosla Ventures to focus on both for-profit and social impact investments and as a big believer in the importance raw data can have the future of health, he invests in both healthcare and biotechnology.
Says Vinod, "almost nothing that is relevant in medicine today will be relevant in 20-30 years. Even though some of it may still be true, it will be too imprecise to be that useful so no one will use it." He asserts that medicine will be mostly science and data driven over the next 10-15 years.
He added, "we will have more research opportunities but we won't use them because we won't have the causality which is most important."
He also went on to say that we won't use doctors that much in the future to get a diagnosis and what we may pay more credence to is the doctor or (non-MD) who has the highest EQ not the highest IQ. Hear hear Vinod! I couldn't agree more. Bedside manner, using common sense and logic and listening between the lines to a patient is something that so many traditional doctors so sadly "don't get."
Dean takes a slightly different approach although they agreed more than disagreed. While he agrees that data gives us a lot of useful information we may not have had access to twenty years ago, if all we are is a set of algorithms, then humans can simply be replaced by an app. The reality says Dean is that we are so much more.
What I love about Dean's approach and always have ever since I first met him now over a decade ago, is that while he's far from a luddite, he tries to get people (and the industry) to look at the underlying cause of an issue. He believes that lifestyle and diet shifts are fundamental game changers, pivotal to reversing symptoms and in many cases, the disease itself.
He's interested in lifestyle medicine which is very low tech, but the power of low-tech interventions is very very real and something that techies sadly discount all too readily, focusing most of their time on connected devices, data and the Internet of Things.
Personally I lose sleep at night thinking about how so many brilliant scientific and medical minds can be so misguided, overlooking the raw fundamentals of what can keep us healthy and happy, holistically so.
Bottom line, we need to treat the underlying cause and also look at the mind, body and spirit, NOT just the body alone.
This integrated approach is what the techies and scientists keep missing and a sad reason why insurance companies put holistic care like acupuncture and body work, organic food, diet modifications and supplements last on the priority list.
It's the same broken record when it comes to addressing the disgusting impact that processed foods are having on Americans today. (Note: processed food ingestion is increasing globally of course, but the yanks still sadly take the cake when it comes to fast food and boxed processed ingredients as their go-to- diet). I digress but the whole thing sickens me so much that I can't help but vent at times like this.
Truth be told, as Dean took the provocative and controversial low-tech stance amidst so many tech-centered entrepreneurs in the room that night, I wanted to stand on my chair and boldly blurt out - "GO DEAN and oh btw, don't stop here!"
He is a big advocate of lifestyle and diet changes and given recent research findings, they're finding that the same lifestyle interventions that deter heart disease are the same ones that can keep prostrate and breast cancer at bay and even in some cases, Alzheimer's.
You can apparently see a positive and reversing effects to 500 genes over the course of 3 months through lifestyle changes. For most chronic diseases, which account for 86% of issues, we can reverse their onslaught through shifts in our lifestyle and diet.
Dean thinks that we'll see a future where the placebo effect will be more important not less. Why? Because, it works.
Vinod doesn't disagree with Dean although he wants to see data behind it, proving that it's real. In his view, the math is the math of networks, but agrees with Dean that diet is important and that symptoms are the wrong way to look at a disease.
Given that we live in an information age and are drowning in so much data we don't know what to do with it, I agree with Dean that while data may be important and there's no doubt having access to what our bodies are doing and why is useful, its only part of the equation. Plenty of people have data but even if you know that smoking cigarettes can kill you, if you're suffering from deep anxiety and depression, you're not going to quit smoking anytime soon.
Anxiety and depression are very real, particularly in the states. The stats are going up and pharma companies are making millions on drugs, some of which cover up the real issues that lay behind what is making them depressed in the first place.
Dean asserts that what is even more vital is the mantra I keep beating people over the head with every day: the more so called connected we are, the more disconnected we are....I mean physically and emotionally disconnected, not the fact that we can now communicate with people instantaneously on Facebook or Skype from our cell phones in real time.
What's really missing is the deeper sense of meaning you get from being physically and emotionally connected to others. There's no doubt that people need to rediscover inner peace, joy and purpose in their lives.
Bottom line, it's all about changing the raw materials we give to people and place as a priority. I'll end with this note and thought to reflect on: if we can take this "ground level" low-tech approach seriously by beginning with the things that provide deeper purpose and meaning, then we can really begin to accelerate healing. While data can continue to feed the bigger picture, if we don't get back to the fundamental basics of what feeds the soul, we'll remain a far cry from a truly sustainable solution to holistic health, happiness and well-being. A big high five to Dean Ornish!
For more information on Arc Fusion, check out their site at http://arcprograms.net/ where you'll also learn about their upcoming Arc Fusion Summit being held in southern California September 1-2, 2015. What David has created is a truly innovative, future thinking and leading-edge organization and he has managed to bring together some of the smartest minds to address what both plagues and interests us most today.
April 29, 2015 in America The Free, Conference Highlights, Events, Magic Sauce Media, On Health, On Innovation, On People & Life, On Science, On Technology, On the Future, Reflections, San Francisco, TravelingGeeks, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
March 20, 2015
Reflections on the East Coast West Coast Thing...
Preparing oneself mentally for leaving America's East Coast and its way of viewing the world is something I've done six times now, the first transition was to America's south, followed by Arizona and southern California and then, a few overseas stints where I lived in a variety of luxury, shacks and working class suburbs. In between, I hung my hat in villages, on a kibbutz, along the coast and amidst urban decay and sprawl.....I did it all.
Above, rural Virginia in all its glory, on a cold and brisk winter day.
Then, after many years doing what I was told in the Boston corporate world, I stored a three bedroom house in some warehouse in New Jersey and drove west in a silver Honda Accord named Hamilton with a kayak rack on its top. That was a decade ago. He's still with me btw and purring along.
Above, Boston's Charles River at dusk in the days when I lived there, not long before I moved west.
When you're born and bred in New England, East Coast roots are what you understand, what you know and connect to and the soil you want to touch when the tides are down, at least that's how it is for most people. I cried as I drove north on Route 128, for what I thought would be the last time, in a very long time. The car was packed, oozing with stuff I later would never need but couldn't part with at the time, and I looked like a young and modern version of a Beverly Hillbilly daughter, except with more miles under her belt.
I was bound for Canada since I was always one for choosing the path less taken and certainly zigzagging north and south over borders was one such way to do just that.
I could have taken Route 66 of course but I figured I had decades to tackle that one. Perhaps when I was old and gray and could whiz across in a slick purple aerodynamic RV just because I could?
En route, I was open to landing somewhere else other than San Francisco if another place spoke to me with more clarity, Portland and Seattle being on the top of my list, mainly for its access to some of the most beautiful mountains and scenery on America's west coast. My alternative route brought me into Canada, where I lost my radar detector during a police stop (who knew they were no no's in the Maple Leaf country?), before I then ventured south again through Wisconsin and Minnesota, both of which I loved.
It was summer, so fishing and camping were the order of the day, all of which I resonated with growing up in the Adirondack Mountains. (below a shot taken from this past fall of a trip through the Adirondacks - sunset at Caroga Lake).
I headed north again before making a central b-line through parts of Kansas, both Dakotas, Idaho and Montana. There I spent time in the land of the free where I discovered the solitude of America's western lands -- the nothingness of the plains where you could hear a pin drop and the air was quiet one minute and menacing the next. Ahhh yes, a decade ago.
I was younger then. I had visions of wearing a cowboy hat and boots with faded torn jean shorts and a stylish checked shirt that fit tightly but appropriately across my chest. Silver cuffs hung from my right wrist and a funky leather watch with an antiquated plate hung from my left. My visions included sitting at the counter of some $1 a coffee midwest diner with a girlfriend who was similarly dressed so we didn't look too out of place in a town we knew nothing about.
Later, we'd tackle some dive bar where Harley Davidson addicts would play pool around us while we drank $3 tequila shots and listened to Rock from our time on some worn out juke box. All of this, in a place where no one knew our names. Pure bliss.
I was alone for part of this trip and with random friends on other parts - they'd fly into a designated city and I'd pick them up until I dropped them off at an airport in a different state and continue on my journey. I learned oddball things about the country all the way across this big vast land.
I drank wine in Idaho by night and hiked by day, chowed down on hamburgers in small towns, tried local brew beer, picked blueberries, and wrote poetry with Craters of the Moon as my backdrop. I sat on haystacks in Wisconsin and laid my head among tall grass while one hung between my teeth as I looked up to a clear blue sky. I had a solo picnic behind a church steeple in a deserted ghost town that has barely changed a wink since it was first built in 1880.
I dreamed of a movie script I'd write one day as I laid my eyes on the magical never-ending Badlands for the first time.
I pissed on South Dakota soil, listened to youthful rock bands play in pubs till 2, tried karaoke against my better judgment, sampled whiskey during a bowling match in a place I can't remember the name of, and went bareback horseback riding in Washington State. I discovered Blodgett Oregon and sat in its library doing family research before landing in Portland where my first stop was the city's finest chocolate shop. Clearly, I had my priorities in tow on that trip.
This trip would surely be different. Not only was it winter this time around, but my perspective on life had changed after spending so many years on the untamed risk-taking west coast. That trip so many moons ago, felt more youthful somehow, but the fact that I was ten years younger was only part of the equation. The goal was to move states and to one about as far as I could go to from Massachusetts. As a crow flies, it was roughly 2,700 miles although I took so many detours, I probably added another 1,000 to the trip in the end.
Portland or Seattle didn't call loud enough and San Francisco was where I ultimately landed. Ahhh yes, a decade ago.
Over the past year and a half, I spent more time on the East Coast than not and my heritage and all of the memories that go with it, wrapped its way around me like a little girl's arms do to an adult leg during the shyest of moments. It wasn't a bad thing. It's not as if it called me back for good, but in all the most beautiful ways, my time there reminded me of the things I love about the Atlantic side of this Yankee land and just how different its people are from those I've been working and playing with for so many years of late.
Truth be told, I love the East Coast. I love the way people talk, their philosophical canter, their humor and wit, their directness, the way they look into your eyes rather than past them when they talk to you and their authentic honesty when you need it most. Some of you will disagree with the last one since New Englanders are known for being more discreet and conservative than West Coasters.
But, somehow I always managed to draw the truth out of my East Coast friends and when I needed raw honesty and perspective, I asked for it - hard and direct, the way we do in New York. And so, on a very cold but clear day in mid-January of this year, I set off on another drive across country to help another "life" move. We had a small apartment to clear out and despite its size, it still involved packing dozens of boxes and stacking a car full of more, not to mention loading up a large Yakima cargo box that sat on the top of a five year old gray Chevy Pontiac we named Vinny that was set to make the long journey.
Oddly enough, I felt somewhat melancholy about the departure, not unlike I did a decade ago even though my place was still on the west coast. There was something nostaglic about it and familiar - I had gone through this before and while last time, it was leaving a home behind, this time, it was leaving months of a different life behind, a life filled with diners who proudly served homemade chicken noodle and matzo ball soup, bagel and pizza shops on every corner and crisp cool evenings where we'd take late afternoon walks past the Long Island Sound.
The sunsets at times were even glorious. The below shot was taken in the Bronx, crossing the bridge to City Island at sunset this past fall.
Yet, it's a much harder life in New York, something I had forgotten since living in San Francisco for a myriad of reasons those who have left it behind, well know.
People tend to harder. There's always an edge. Traffic is busier. Prices are higher. The pace is faster. Houses are smaller. Jobs are more hectic. The demand is more intense. Schools are more crowded. Climate is harsher. Getting things done takes longer. And so on. But...it was a way of life I knew so well because it was part of my DNA - after all, I first learned how to walk on New York soil.
Nostalgic as it was, we were eager to drive towards warmer pastures, calmer waters, gentler voices....and skies where serenity is the order of the day. To a place where priorities are not about doing but about being. With that frame of mind, we made our way out of the Bronx after one final stop that had to be made -- Dunkin Donuts on Bruckner Boulevard. Sipping our piping hot coffees quietly, we made our way across the George Washington Bridge for the last time in our as unpretentious as they get Pontiac.
It was a bitter cold, but clear day. Snow, sleet or rain didn't get in our way and we missed a New York City blizzard by less than a week. 104.3 played on the radio in the background and we stirred gently as we made our way across the New Jersey border - moving in the car was a bit of a challenge given how packed it was and it wasn't until we hit Virginia that we were able to shuffle things around to make for more comfortable living quarters, for that is precisely what Vinny would become for the next month on the road.
We passed smokestacks in Newark, and made our way south to Pennsylvania taking in its like-winter skies along the way.
Covington Virginia too had smokestacks, a not-so-common sight in the industrial East Coast where manufacturing plants still thrive.
When we reached Maryland, we were greeted with yellow and soft peach skies set against bare winter trees.
West Virginia skies at dusk were similar, as were its trees and hills. Misty. Dreamy. Cold. Clear. Soft.
Through the car window en route.
The skies would get even more dramatic before night's end.
Our first stop was the Omni Homestead in Hot Springs Virginia and yes, it was rural and yes, it was surrounded by thermal hot springs, a perfect healing remedy after a long tiring drive from an urban sprawl. Read my extensive write-up on We Blog the World on the oh so traditional Omni property, the stunning wildlife and acreage surrounding it and the infamous Warm Springs Baths and Pools where Thomas Jefferson himself soaked to heal his aching body.
While still brisk in the evening, arriving in Virginia was a lovely reality check that the Bronx was no longer in our rear view mirror and the bitter cold New York winter was behind us. Alas, we hadn't seen a Dunkin Donuts since morning. Our drive from Virginia would mostly be rural. It was the first of many rural drives to come on our long journey through middle America.
The eastern part of the country with its wide open spaces and hills, would soon open up to glorious trees and peaks when we hit the edge of the renowned Shenandoah mountain range.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of greeting Virginia's stunning Shenandoah mountains, it spans 73 miles long across Virginia and West Virginia. The steep, narrow, sandstone-capped ridge extends from northern Bath County in Virginia to southern Hardy County in West Virginia.
The stretch serves as a haven for both family vacations and romantic getaways alike. There's plenty of hiking as you'd expect, but what you may not expect to find are vineyards, breweries and of course the nearby hot springs. The Blue Ridge Whiskey-Wine Loop is a self-guided tour of some of the loveliest vineyards in several counties in Virginia's central Valley. And, of course, the drive is breathtaking with plenty of views along Route 40 as well as numerous side roads you can take for a variation to the main road.
Reflections aside, we were well on our way to a month long journey that would forever transform our lives, as all trips of this nature tend to do. And, most importantly, we were ready. It was time and we couldn't wait to embrace the wide open road ahead of us.
This is the first post of many that covers our cross country trip -- while we crossed 15 states, our coverage can be found on the following We Blog the World state pages where we spent time: Virginia, Tennessee (Nashville, Memphis), Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico (Santa Fe) Arizona and California. The coverage will span from late March through June 2015. Also be sure to read our extensive write-up on Massachusetts from last summer which includes the North Coast, Boston and Cape Cod. Don't ask us for our favorite state because they were all truly magical and each place has its own known -- and unknown -- gems.
Photos: Renee Blodgett
November 23, 2014
The Paris That I Never Seem to Tire Of...
I'm in a taxi whizzing down Boulevard de Magenta, one of those wider than normal Parisian streets. There are cheap shops where you can buy mobile phones, bags and wedding dresses in the windows on both sides and you wonder what surprise will come around the next corner.
We pass a sign for a Bach concert at one of the music halls, somewhere around Place de Clichy. My driver hangs a right on Rue de Rocroy and the street gets narrower. Small shops, a coiffure Mixte, a few not so stellar looking 2 star hotels, a cafe brasserie and tabac on every corner, a nail salon and a few optique stores for glasses. In my rear view mirror, I see travel agent and pharmacy signs as we weave in and out of even more narrow alleys and roads.
The meter is escalating and I can't help but think of the sign that had prefix prices for certain districts of the city. He is miserable and not worth the fight despite his fabulous taste in classical music which he has blaring from some device in the front seat I can't see. Salt and pepper, a sharp nose, no smile. He refuses to smile in fact and he hates that I am paying by credit card.
It was the first Sunday of the month and the sky was hazy but the day was warm, a rarity on Paris visits. I originally had plans to get out of Paris for the day with a friend, take in some gardens and have a picnic in a park however after the plans fell through, I changed course and decided after a taxi towards a more remote spot on the Seine, I would begin to walk and keep walking until the sun set.
One of my favorite things to do is meander through Paris without a clear purpose and just see what shows up. I had started my morning in a funky part of the Marais, where art and graffiti were plastered across walls before jumping into the cab. As the desire to see more nature and less people increased, it was time to move towards the water. And so....I asked the driver to stop on the Seine where there were very few people.
A couple of hours go by and I'm swept with gratitude as I sat along the Seine on that warm afternoon. I received a message at 5 am that same morning from an acquaintance who had just finished a ten day meditation retreat and I couldn't help but wonder during those reflective hours if I could do something like that knowing how hard it is to shut my mind down. He had asked me how often I meditated and I began to reflect on what meditation meant to me.
A meditative state for me isn't necessarily a specific place and time I dedicate to silence and breath but more of a state of being, one which I find hard to do in Silicon Valley, yet can so easily be brought into the moment I leave.
With a SIM card in my phone that gives me the ability to text or call, I purposely put it away deep into the bottom of my purse. Instead of the rings, beeps and web page loading distracting me, I listen to the sounds of Paris amidst the haze of the sky.
Most shops are closed, yet locals and tourists alike buzz past me on roller blades and bikes while boats zip past them making their way under each bridge that crosses the Seine as far as my eye can see.
From there, I figured I would pop into the Pont Neuf metro stop on the 7 line and keep going until some visual or sound suggested I get off - I love days like that when you don't have to be anywhere else other than towards what moves you in a given moment.
Despite my miles of walking, it still felt like a blissfully lazy day. Paris has a way of making even the most unconscious present, for her sounds, textures, smells and historical colors have a way of weaving you into her storyboard, inviting you to share her glory with everyone you encounter after you leave her soil. While her spell is cast on you, you become conscious of all of 'her' grandeur, including the most intricate details. A family rides by on bikes, a bright yellow balloon fixated to the boy's handlebars, an elderly couple walks their Jack Russell, a blue-eyed blonde blades past me alone followed by a dark handsome 30 something year old with Caribbean features.
A gray haired man in his sixties with a professor-like beard sets up shop nearby and pulls out a mahogany hard bound leather book and while I can't make out the text, my guess is that he's reading some Eastern European dialect. My gut says he's Hungarian.
Yanks walk past me with day packs, a baggy t-shirt hangs loosely over the older man's overweight middle. A brunette with a fabulous brown leather sachet strolls by ever so pensively.
She stops and then...pauses. As she looks out over the river, she pulls out a notebook and writes something down. Then, she raises her face, glances over at me and gives me a smile before tucking her notebook in a side pocket and moving along on her journey to who knows where. I wonder where for quite awhile until that thought was interrupted by a falling chestnut which landed near my right leg. The fallen chestnut dangled off the lengthy stone stair I had been sitting up against for hours.
As I continue to watch a very eclectic world drift by, an out of breath man and his daughter get off their scooters and begin to walk them along the main path that runs along the river.
A Chinese couple and their children speed by on bikes, the nearly bald teenage son's hands are off the handlebars, as if a symbol of his new profound freedom half way across the world while on holiday with his obviously wealthy family. A well dressed Italian couple give me a warm smile as they walk up the stairs next to me; the man's face turns to curiosity as he sees me writing with such purpose and speed.
Of course I'm writing about you I wanted to say with the same curious look and warm smile he gave me, but instead I redirect my attention to the sounds of the scooters and motorbikes in the distance, the taxi cab horns and the oh so familiar sounds that rollerblade wheels make, especially when the bearings are loose. I spot my first graffiti -- Buble But glares back at me from across the river, plastered in red on the back of a metal book stall, one of the many set up along the Seine to entice tourists to buy.
Then, I see two lovers embrace and I can tell from their energy that they both chose to be here and that it wasn't one edging the other on for some redeemable lifetime romantic moment of sorts.
Romantic it was however and they brought me into their world for just a moment. Accents told me that he was European and she was an Aussie and I couldn't help but wonder if Paris was a meeting place to ignite these two lovers to the next level or if they had been together for years.
I decide to walk to Notre Dame since it is almost in my view. I have been to this remarkable church at least a dozen times and yet I always get a slight skip in my walk when I see her beauty emerge as I make my way around the corner and she stands sprawled before me. All the cafes that line up along the edge of her have become tourist haunts -- crepes and coffees are twice the price and it's more crowded than any of the surrounding streets. Yet, I'm called into sit down at one regardless.
I choose the one on the corner at the very end of the road, mainly because the man making the crepes is so obviously French, which isn't as common as you'd think in Paris anymore.
So many crepes from local stands are now crispy from being cooked for too long. While I typically go for a savory crepe (mushrooms, ham and onions is my favorite), I opted for an apple sauce and coconut crepe and the 40 something year old charming local who made it for me, nailed it - Yum!!
I left the cafe happily with my decaf cappuccino and my perfectly cooked crepe and proceeded to the bridge where I sat along its edge watching a street performer, three massage therapists taking clients on in small chairs in the middle of the street and a not so funny clown who was attempting to get kids to laugh by holding a bicycle upside down while circus music played in the background. Before I left this crowded part of Paris I know so well, I contributed to the lock bridge, which is always a favorite stop of mine....the romantic in me I guess.
Montreuil Market Heading to Montreuil Market was somewhat depressing after the peace and serenity of Paris' magical river, the same one that artists have painted to and been inspired by for centuries. I remember visiting the market over a decade ago and then again a decade before that and from my hazy recollection, it's changed significantly. I seem to remember more antiques, paintings and jewelry, knick knacks and appliances.
Now it appears to be more of an old fashioned flea market, the kind you might find in America's midwest where trucks come for the day and try to sell cheap clothes and shoes for the widest margin they can get. There were aisles with tires, oil, toothpaste, soap detergent, tea kettles and even Middle Eastern traditional shawls, but for the most part, it was a collection of clothes heaped in piles for those with enough patience to sift through for hours on end.
If you haven't been however, I suppose its worth stopping by for the mishmash experience. Hours are 7 am to 7:30 pm at night and the market is open two days a week on Sundays and Monday's. The official address is Avenue du Professeur André Lemierre 75020 Paris. Télephone: 01 48 85 93 30.
The best way to get there is on the Metro Line 9 and the stop is Porte de Montreuil. The market is a short walk up the main drag from the exit to the station.
I come across fun jewelry with semi precious stones that an adorable Peruvian is selling. He is standing across from La Boulangerie de Papa, a quaint cute blue salon that also has an outside creperie stand on the corner. It's a mere block away from the Greek eaterie I had so much fun in four or five years ago on a cold winter's night. Gyros by the dozen....Moroccans nearby calling me to eat at their restaurant, offering deals and sweet nothings I can't make sense of.
Onion soup or fish soup, egg, salad and beef, chicken or fish followed by chocolate mousse, ice cream, cheese or fruit for E12 to 17 a head all inclusive and every variation in between although they all sound like the same offer after awhile.
Restaurant after restaurant on Rue de la Huchette, one of the main drags, I find that there are too many offerings to choose one, something I often feel when I'm walking through the Latin Quarter. Then, Le Lac de L'ouest for Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food across from the creperie but I'm not in the mood for Asian food, so I keep walking through her narrow streets.
A sweet creperie stands calls out to me with far too many sugar rich toppings to say yes to, such as chestnut, caramel, chocolate, strawberry, lemon, sugar, butter, honey, Nutella, apricot, banana and coconut, all ranging from 3.50 to around 8 euros.
Then a warm smile outside a restaurant on Rue de Huchette stops me in my tracks and so I indulge. Aperitifs start with Kir Cassis ou Peche, Kir Breton, martinis, tequila, cognac, Calvados, Cointreau, Grand Marnier and Rum. I have a small Kir Cassis although he tops up my glass before I can say no thanks to another. For E9.90, you can get Provencale or Cocagne or Complete or Bistrot or Basquaise or Kermaria AND a sweet crepe (various choices) with either cider, coke or apple juice.
Boulevard St. Germaine to Boulevard Des Italiens via Avenue de L'Opera Food stalls outside on the street on Boulevard St. Germaine sprawl in both directions. Viva Espana Bodaga grabs my attention with scrumptious looking Spanish food cooking away in large pots.
I sample some ham and then more Spanish food at Monceau Gardens.
I walk into Neo Cafe on 126 Boulevard St. Germaine to make sure my directions are in sync as I begin to realize I'm much further away from my hotel than I had thought.
Florian directs me in a deep dark and sexy voice, one that suggests there's a wink along with it even when there's not. Within a block or so from this quaint little cafe, I stumble upon another one called Tennessee Cafe, which isn't quite as quaint and it seems like it caters to yanks with its burgers and English menus. What is adjacent to Tennessee Cafe however grabs my eye.
There's a little passage called Passage de St. Andre, which is a narrow pedestrian cobblestone street that runs alongside the cafe. It looks historical and authentic in every way but it's hard to tell in Paris where everything is ten times older than even the oldest American city.
Cafes, bars and restaurants are strung along the left as you make your way down the cute pedestrian passage. I decide to have a drink at one of the cafes but need to move around a homeless person on his cell phone in the glass entryway to Thomas Travel to do so.
There's another homeless person along Boulevard Des Italiens who has a giant stuffed tan colored Snoopy sitting near him as he lay tucked up in his sleeping bag. I spot the elderly man perched up against a giant iron box on the same boulevard.
He had set up a fishing pole that dangled a cup from some fast food chain and while it slowly moved to the wind, he occasionally yelped into the dark streets. Then the giant life-sized chocolate lion in one of the windows along Boulevard St. Germaine and a giant pink elephant.
Then, a cafe calls my name. Here I stop and have a cappuccino while I watch people waltz by for the next hour or so.
In the spring, summer and fall, a great place to hang out is on the banks of Canal Saint-Martin. People lounge here, picnic here, play music here and hold hands. On Sundays, two streets running parallel to the canal, Quai de Valmy and Quai de Jemmapes, are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.
The Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood is nestled between Gare du Nord and Republique in Northeastern Paris, in the 10th arrondissement. The main streets around the canal include Quai de Valmy, Quai de Jemmapes, Rue Beaurepaire and Rue Bichat and I'd recommend walking down all of them. It's a charming part of Paris not to be missed.
Other areas I love to wander through and try to each and every trip I make to Paris, include the Marais near St. Paul, Bastille and Luxembourg Gardens.
Be sure to check out our Paris section for great shopping tips, restaurant finds, and other reflective pieces like this one. There's also lodging & top hotels in France, and top hotels in Paris as well as general content on France. (travel to France).
November 22, 2014
Nature From Your Roots Is The Best Serenity Source There Is...
It's no secret to anyone who has followed my posts for awhile, that I have a soft spot for the Adirondacks and that I spent my childhood hiking in her woods, climbing her peaks and swimming in her waters.
For those who haven't followed my travels and may not even know where the Adirondacks are, it refers to the Adirondack Mountains, a mountain range in upstate New York, roughly a 3-4 hour drive from New York City.
The Adirondacks are not that close to get to for urban travelers nor for those who only have a short window to see a few major highlights when they come to the states. If you have a car, it's a fairly easy shot up the New York Thruway but if not, you're stuck on a not so stellar Trailways bus which I had the misfortune of taking this past summer.
That said, if you give the Adirondacks your time, you'll experience a serene spirit and sense of peace you've never known before.
Does that serenity and peace come from the Mohawk Indians of yesteryear? The Hudson River with her long history and roots?
Or, does it come from the pine trees? Perhaps it's the loons who wake you up in the morning and sooth your weary soul as the sun sets? I'm sure it's a combination of all of them and more, or perhaps its merely the remoteness of the place combined with the fact that people are about as genuine as they get.
I rarely get back to the Adirondacks for a myriad of reasons. Family have passed or those who are still alive, feel as if they have.
The place brings me as much sadness as it does joy for many of the same reasons that Richard Russo writes about in Elsewhere, also his old stomping ground. A few friends and family felt that he was a bit "harsh" about the area, and yet I felt he spoke his truth, which is all there is really... Deep down, I recognize that his truth resonates with countless people I know in the area, even if they never dare say so. For as vocal as I am, I rarely ever dare say so either.
Why? Because doing so may come across as attacking your hood rather than supporting it as many point out of Russo's writings. As I get older, I'd rather take the approach I take with everything in my life even if it backfires: speak up about what matters in the most authentic way possible.
It goes a bit like this: if there's something positive you can take from a person, place, experience or thing, embrace what works and integrate it into your life. If it doesn't, learn what the blockage was or why there was a failure and even what caused it and either try to improve upon it or simply let it go. Letting go is so hard isn't it? Hard, but oh so necessary if we want to move forward in our lives and...heal.
Even those among us who tout no dysfunction in their family upbringing, need healing. While my views and memories are not quite as harsh as those of Richard Russo, there are haunting memories of redneck towns and boroughs, all of which are surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural beauty I have ever known.
When the industries that supported American small towns collapsed, (in the case of the Adirondacks, it was leather), so did people's hopes, dreams and aspirations. With that collapse came a sense of desolation, depression, anger and for those who supported the troops, post war traumatic stress.
This is the world I grew up with and knew. Some people's anger or perhaps a softer way of putting it is disappointment that they didn't get what they wanted or felt they deserved in life, turned to drugs, alcohol or the unemployment line. I saw it around me growing up.
For those who didn't end up any of those categories, they either thrived at their profession and generally remained happy or did okay at their profession -- enough to have a decent life -- and complained bitterly about things around them on a daily basis. Why should it be any surprise that old mill towns like Gloversville, Johnstown, Amsterdam, Fonda, which faced harsh economic and social times, wouldn't get hit with a sorrowful axe?
I try to go to a place of empathy or sympathy when the chips are down although truth be told, it's not always easy. In the work environment where I placed my cards now more than twenty years ago, negativity rarely sees the time of day.
There's no time for it. In Silicon Valley, they simply rise above it or they don't survive. But that doesn't work for everyone. And, I get it and understand it....I've been to both sides and back again. This isn't meant to be a rant, but rather a reflection on what is - you know, understanding and knowing what we can control and what we can't control.
I am sure that I resonate with thousands of Americans when I say this: you love your family and close friends even if there are a few who are not in alignment with the positive life choices you're now making as an adult. Yet, from time-to-time, their pull drags you through the ringer at times, even when it's not healthy for you to go there.
Perhaps that comment isn't addressing thousands, but everyone I know, for all of us have hidden fears, dark secrets and a portion of our past we'd rather keep hidden. All of us have people who have torn at our heart strings and done it so often that we can barely breathe if we think about embracing it one more time knowing we'll only get smacked if we do.
The Adirondacks is that place for me and yet I love her as much as I fear her, for the memories she serves me on every visit are mixed with the pure joy of an innocent childhood and a dysfunctional environment that kicked far too many families in the but.
So, while the authenticity of the people is as pure as the water that comes down from the mountains above the winding Benson Road, it's sometimes hard to hear the voices. It's not because we don't love those voices, but because we do. Richard Russo, I understand, painfully so and yet what you miss in your memoir is the sheer beauty of the nature that surrounds Adirondack State Park.
Is it because you never had an opportunity to sleep under her stars? If not, walk with me and I will show you her beauty. For those of us who were blessed enough to grow up inside her woods and among her lakes, rivers and ponds, perhaps we were saved from the misery that crippled so many others who didn't get her joy.
Like Thoreau who was healed by Walden Pond's waters, the nature we know best heals our deepest wounds if we only allow it. When I go back, despite the fact that I love people and anyone who knows me knows this to be true, all I want to do is spend time with HER, the Adirondack mountains. For within her natural beauty, there's no pain, resentment, pity, misunderstanding, frustration, jealousy or all the things I get hit with from external forces, like so many of us do.
She dishes me nothing but pure joy and frankly, we all need a place like that. We may all have someone -- a family member, a friend or a boss -- who make us feel as if "we're not good enough or simply enough". It's that other parallel universe and all the negative voices in it that we need less of in our lives, not more. Make positive choices that serve you in your life as you march on, not hurt you or hold you back from a purer destiny.... Nature doesn't have an ax to grind or something to settle.
The lake doesn't tell me I should have done something else, become someone else, lived somewhere else or married someone else. It simply is. And while I've been witness to some of the most stunning natural settings across four continents in the last couple of years, there's nothing like your childhood soil. And, this is mine.....
All the photos I took above are of East Caroga Lake. Be sure to read my latest blog post which includes more stunning photos of the region - The Adirondack Loop, which was done in mid-October of this year.
Thanks to my childhood friend Bob who opened his camp and heart this summer, where I had some time to reflect upon all the things that make Adirondack's lakes so great and in particular the one where we first learned how to fish -- Caroga Lake.
May 06, 2014
Reflecting on the 2014 Social Media Oscars!
It's been about a month since the Shorty Awards ceremony in New York, otherwise known as the Social Media Oscars! Now in its sixth year, it is an annual event which honors the best people and organizations on Twitter and social media.
This year, I was a finalist in the Business Influencer category, which is a great category to be in as a communicator of other people's magic, a talent that some simply toss in the generic publicist category.
Over the years, I have found that many executives don't think publicists understand business; they're merely there to communicate a CEO's vision.
As odd as that may sound, this mentality is what often leads to failed campaigns and when communications are not made a "strategic" priority of the company, it also leads to failed businesses. And so, business influencer is a great category as far as categories go yet the process had me on edge for days. Here's why!
Making it to finalist and staying in the top seven before the voting deadline required work, but not soulful work. It was a sales pitch, that kind of pushy ask that gave the used car salesman a bad name.
Once you've been nominated, you need to solicit people to vote for you just like you would if you were running for office. The ask wasn't a quick or easy one since it was confusing for many people to decipher what they had to do to cast a vote....some were miffed they had to give the awards site permission to access their Twitter account, while others were annoyed they couldn't vote from Facebook.
Supporters had to send a tweet from ShortyAwards.com or from Twitter that went something like this: I nominate @username for a Shorty Award in #category because...REASON!
While I realize that using social media is precisely the place you'd alert your community you're up for a "social media" award and ask for their support, bottom line, asking didn't feel good.
Here's what I learned in the process.
Social media for me is all about being social and the main reason it was that much easier for me to jump on board in the early days faster than some of my colleagues. I also dove into Twitter because I saw its inherent marketing value as well as it being a great source of news and insights from thought leaders and influencers I admired and respected. Social media also served as a platform to catch up with friends from around the world I rarely had a chance to see. It's clear that social media is a incredibly powerful tool for bridging cultural gaps and bringing the world closer together socially, politically and economically.
Third, I have always loved the engagement part of the social media experience. The thing I love most about social media was missing during the voting solitication process. That said, I understand and get the value of bringing community input to the table. After all, social media is all about community so the "ask" needs to be there in some way shape or form.
Having thousands of people from around the world cast votes through Twitter using the #ShortyAwards hashtag also does wonders for their brand, escalating the hype and perceived value of the honor. It's a brilliant marketing strategy -- let's not forget Will Farrell's hilarious acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Award where he talked about the obscurity of an award no one has ever heard of...
And yet, those who are prolific on social media are aware of the Shorty Awards and year after year for the past five, people participate across countless categories from countless countries.
The award categories are diverse and run the gammit, from acting, humor, directing, fansites, campaigns, food, TV shows, tech & innovation, gaming, podcasting, sports team, art, fashion and celebrities to quirky categories like best Kickstarter campaign, weird, science, gif of the year (yes really) best fake accounts and non-humans (yes really).
I sat next to Bulk Wolf (@wolfb) in the fourth row during the ceremony who won in the WEIRD category; it made my category name sound a little lame, at the very least conservative.
Previous Shorty Awards ceremonies have welcomed The Daily Show's Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, Ricky Gervais, Aasif Mandvi, Tiffani Thiessen, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Kiefer Sutherland, Jim Gaffigan, Amanda Palmer, Conan O'Brien, Cory Booker, Sesame Street's Grover, Ted Leo, Shaquille O'Neal, Stephen Fry, Suze Orman, Rachel Maddow, William Shatner, Carrie Keagan, Chris Hardwick, David Karp, Biz Stone, Coco Rocha, George Takei, Jimmy Kimmel and Felicia Day.
To give you an idea of how much traffic the Shorties generate, more than two million tweet-nominations were sent during last year's Shorty Awards nomination process. The Hollywood Reporter even covered the nominees.
From social causes and non-profit work to witty marketing campaigns, comedy and rare oddities, there was no shortage of great stories from Shorty finalists in other categories.
No surprise that Guy Kawasaki with over ten books under his belt and 1.4 million Twitter followers, took home the glass trophy in the Business Influencer category. I love Guy's sense of humor and the candid sarcasm he uses to drive his messages home. Hats off!
In addition to myself (@magicsaucemedia), other finalists in the Business Influencer category included Gemma Godfrey (@GCGodfrey), Marsha Collier (@MarshaCollier), Lolly Daskal (@LollyDaskal), Ted Coine (@tedcoine) and Scott Levy (@fuelonline). I have a lot of respect for their work and hopefully we can all drink a fabulous Bordeaux together in some foreign city at some juncture in the future.
Here's the upside to the solicitation process -- I learned a bit more about my business and myself as the tweets came pouring in and people asked me random questions about things I hadn't thought about in years.
Many people know that I wear two very active hats: Magic Sauce Media and We Blog the World -- two disparate worlds and yet I learned through the voting process that the audience overlaps much moreso than I thought.
I also reflected on personal branding alignment in the process. While I love identifying the "magic sauce" of companies, products and individuals, that Je ne sais quoi doesn't always hit me in the face when I first start working with a client.
As we all know, the hardest job is determining what your own magic is even if you're savvy on stage or in front of customers and have the most confidence in the world.
Time and time again, I talk to executives, celebrities, inventors and creators who think their greatest talent and gift to the world is something other than the recipients of that gift think it is. How we perceive ourselves is rarely how others perceive us, even for the most perceptive among us.
I'd encourage you to create your own submission process to solicit feedback, asking people to be as honest and raw as they can about your work and about you. I'm not talking about a testimonial, but perhaps a one or two liner that describes your magic sauce. Do you know what yours is?
I'd also ask you to pay attention to who shows up to the table. Who takes the time to give you their feedback? Sometimes you find that your supporters are those you may least expect and those you think will run miles for you, are suddenly too busy. It will help you distill down your community and focus on what and who matters!
Below are a some random shots from this year's Awards ceremony in the Big Apple on April 7, 2014 at The Times Center in Times Square.
In this group shot is Martin Jones of #Cox Business, who were the sponsors of our category, Business Influencer.
Learning from other category finalists.
Scott Beale from Laughing Squid on the left.
Below, Cox Media's Martin Jones, Renee Blodgett and Greg Galant (@gregory), CEO of Sawhorse Media, the producers of the Shorty Awards. Sawhorse also created and runs Muck Rack, a leading network to connect with journalists on social media.
Awards winner announcements from the main stage.
A somewhat blurry shot of on-stage entertainment in the main room.
Also, have a look at what England-based Dean Johnson aka Activ Right Brain wrote about his experience since the vote was centered around a specific campaign or product, so not the case with those in my category. He also flew across the Atlantic to be on the ground for the ceremony and in the end, sadly lost out to Digg.
Photo credits: tropies from blog.publicisna.com, Vote for Us from BakerStreetBabes.com, others taken on my Canon 7D and my iPhone.
February 05, 2014
To Matriarchs & Our Roots
I’ve always loved the word Roots. In English at least, the word always made so much sense to me since the word’s foundation is in fact, a foundation….Roots are the source of where things are formed and grow; they are the part of a plant which attaches to the ground and gives it support, just like a family does. It is also the basic cause and the source of origin of something, like our culture and “hood” provide us throughout our lives.
We are all born from a root, a strong thread of sorts that binds us to a known place, a known culture, a known color and a known value system and just like a maple tree knows its soil, we know our own. And, just like that tree grows and blossoms into something rich, pure and beautiful before it eventually withers and dies, we too go through a similar journey, passing through cycles just as nature does, calling on our “roots” to give us the support and strength we need to get to the next stage of our lives.
Somehow we have this notion as children that our parents and grandparents won’t ever die because they were the first source of strength, protection and support we ever knew; it doesn’t seem possible that the matriarch or patriarch everyone turned to for strength, would someday lose their own.
Having been raised by my grandparents, I’ve experienced the journey to death more often than most people my age and seen more people I care about and love slip away before I felt it was their time. We’ve all experienced death in some shape or form -- even as children, we have seen a family pet or bird we may have only nurtured for a week or two die before our eyes.
Amidst all of this tearing and pulling away from our strong albeit gnarly roots, a matriarch or patriarch was there to see us through. While we were fortunate to have a few in our extended family, it was hard to hold a candle to Aunt Jo, the feminine and graceful force behind so many functions and gatherings.
Above, she carries one of her five boys in the 1950s at a summer family outing. Below, four generations gather under one roof.
Traditionally a matriarch is a woman who rules or dominates a family, group, or state or a mother who is head and ruler of her family and descendants.
In some cultures, the matriarch holds more weight than it does in other societies. In the first half of this century, they often came from extended families in the states because the “extended family” was something we cared about and nurtured much more than we do today. The American culture if there is such a thing, was created from a mishmash of quirky customs, each generation struggling to extend the traditions they held most dear.
Aunt Jo who married into a family with customs stemming from Eastern Europe, Wales, England and French Huguenot culture, was one of those matriarch forces. Her roots came from Polish catholic descent and from those roots, I learned to polka, make a mean rice pudding, how to maintain dignity and grace under pressure (especially amidst a whole lotta male energy) and remain constant when things go south.
Together with my great grandmother and grandmother who raised me, these three matriarchs created a family thread for which our roots never strayed.
(The blurry photo below is made up of family members who were nearly all born in the 1800s, including my great grandmother who I lived with for awhile. Albeit short, she is the one who assertively stands in the front with the 'fake chicken' as if she's commander-in-chief...and oh btw, she always believed she was)
We always knew Aunt Jo would outlive every family member from her generation even as children, and so she did…I learned of her stroke not quite a week ago and this afternoon of her passing, the day after her 95th birthday.
Her passing is not just the passing of an amazing soulful woman but of an era, a time when extended family connections mattered, a time when we made time to cook homemade meals for our children and TV, PC and mobile screens didn’t preside over face-to-face talks. We partied together and also mourned together. We went to church together and fought when we got home. Passing the time pissing and moaning over martinis and gin and tonics were the order of the day and most of it was done through a thick cloud of smoke, something people did inside not out.
Adults swore but told us not to, boys would get whacked when they misbehaved and girls took piano and dance lessons. We washed our hair under the kitchen sink in the winter and used green Prell from floating plastic bottles in the lake during the summer. We had curfews but few followed them and if we missed a day of school to help our dad fix a car, it wasn’t considered truancy. We played poker and pitch with adults by the time we were ten and there was always plenty of music, dancing, vodka, sauerkraut, kabasi sausage on the grill and horseshoe matches on the lawn.
This was the small town New England working class America I knew. It was…and remains, my roots. Aunt Jo’s dignity, grace and strength were part of it, as was my grandfather’s “beat-the-system” attitude and my grandmother’s “don’t ever abandon your feminine self.”
Above is a group of women you should be equally scared and honored to know - a treasure, a joy, a lifetime of stories and an inner strength they wore so proudly. Had I not known them and seen life through their eyes, I would not be able to write these words today.
My three mentors sit in positions #2, 4 and 6 in the photo above -- very few women in my life since this miraculous generation I'm proud to call family have given me the courage and strength to move forward as I have, AND even more importantly, accepted me for who I was as a 'let's challenge the status quo child" and who I have now become, which merely extends that same child's dream and heart.
Like many Americans, I grew up learning to embrace four different ethnicities and three religions, even though there were fights between family members over more than one of them. The catholics in the family hung crosses in the dining rooms and bedrooms and the protestants went to boring Sunday morning services and raised their kids with a sense of honor and ethics, yet overdid it on weekends in rural Mad Men style.
At some point, we decide to leave our roots behind for awhile to explore and dabble. Along the way, we taste different kinds of candy, speak in different tongues, drape ourselves with different materials and shades, and discover that there are nearly 1,300 varieties of bananas and 17 species of penguins. Who knew?
Even though I’ve now lived in California for awhile, I still can’t call it home nor ever will. More than any other state, I consider California the most rootless state because its purpose historically hasn’t been to create roots but to sow them. Although immigrants first landed in the east, those with entrepreneurial spirits fled west when the Gold Rush hit in 1848 in hope of a better life.
Beyond the Gold Rush, the promise didn’t stop – from Hollywood and beach culture to America’s first sushi and award-winning wine, California led the way. Today, it’s technology and people now swarm to Silicon Valley for the promise of abundance or the opportunity to build their own thing.
California is a place of “roots” of things and inventions but not people; the melting pot of voices and ideas all stem from somewhere else. Skype was invented by Estonians, Google’s founders are from Russia and Yahoo’s founder is Taiwanese born.
These entrepreneur’s values and roots came from far away foreign lands and while mine came from a combination of five of them, they were all deeply planted in New England.
Some of us run from our roots forever and have good reasons to do so, whether it be a black cotton farmer who left the South in the 1950s because he had no choice, a Holocaust survivor who landed wherever a boat took them, the small town boy from a small European town whose dream was to produce Hollywood movies, or the Chinese girl who might have been killed in the early 1980’s had she not found a new country to call home.
As Ping Fu and Baratunde Thurston exemplify in their books “Bend Not Break” and “How to be Black”, our roots never escape us. In his book "Rescue America," Chris Salamone talks about his Italian roots as a first generation American and how today’s generation has abandoned the very thing that made this country the force it became.
Without our roots, America will look, sound and feel like a bland echo-chamber of brilliant minds without soul, without culture and without purpose. When we sleep most peacefully at night, it’s when our soul is aligned with our purpose and both are in alignment with our roots, even if we are not living on the soil which birthed us.
We’ve all been there.
Richard Russo who writes painfully at times about our shared hood, is so raw in his storytelling, I knew that if I were to meet him, we’d inherently understand each other without needing to exchange a word simply because we share the same roots.
After reading a few of his novels, I wondered if his Uncle Richard had ever sipped whiskey with my Uncle Alton or brought in the morning with a bad cuppa coffee at an old Main Street diner which no longer exists. Or, perhaps they labored in a leather mill together or one of his cousins had played cards with my Aunt Jo.
Nearly a decade into living in California, I don’t feel as if I truly “know” anyone or even worse, understand anyone. This is the truth. And yet, I have 5,120 blah blah whaaadevveerr friends on Facebook.
I write this on this longer than normal American Airlines flight from JFK to SFO, and to my right is a man from Turkey who moved to New York over twenty years ago and to my left is a woman whose mother was Syrian and father was British, yet she grew up in Canada. We talk about roots – their soil, their food, their religion.
When we stop talking and the movie is over, the plane is silent. I can’t stop thinking about my Aunt Jo, the glue who kept an otherwise dysfunctional family functional and strong. The wife of Ed, my grandfather’s closest brother who was blinded in the war, she raised five boys while maintaining elegance, fortitude, strong traditional family values, tradition and faith.
Fighting the tears knowing she could be gone by the time the plane landed, I thought about the countless family gatherings at their house and our summer camp, my grandparents singing at some alcohol-infused function and my Aunt Jo and Uncle Ed dancing in the driveway of their house where many a’ clam bake and barbecue took place.
Above, the early 1960's. Below, the mid-1990's.
When a family member we love dearly passes, we reflect on the beautiful memories of our childhood but in doing so, we also relive some of the painful ones too...the times when we weren’t understood or accepted by the family members we somehow felt we needed the most approval from -- sound familiar?
I’ve learned over the years that in order to fully embrace our roots in a healthy way, we need to absorb the stories and lessons learned from those who did accept and love us for who we were and are today, not those who didn’t and simply won’t. Secondly, roots isn’t just about the people, customs, religion and food, it’s also about the soil which nurtured us.
It’s important to embrace the nature and soil from our hood because what our hands and feet felt as a child is what our body knows and understands and even more importantly, “it” understands and knows us.
The Adirondack Mountains understand me and I them – there’s no judgment or need to be anyone or anything I am “not” around them. I walk among her trees and I swim in her lakes. And in doing so, it brings me more peace, serenity and acceptance than anything I’ve ever known.
Long walks in the snow, swims and canoe rides, red cardinals sitting on maple trees, lumpy mashed potatoes, corn on the cob at clam bakes, flower corsages on Easter Day, handpicked blueberries over French toast and parties with adults who drank more martinis and smoked more packs of cigarettes than days they went to school.
This is a Tribute to you my Dear Aunt Jo, one of the most precious women I have ever known and have had the honor and opportunity to love. Thank you for all that you were and the beautiful imprint you have left on all of us. It’s hard to imagine a life without you in it, so when you decide what bird you will present yourself to us in the months ahead, please let us know. I will look for you outside my kitchen window.
"Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Top photo credit: jtl.us. Red cardinal bird credit: quoteko.com. All other credits Renee Blodgett.