Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Super Powers

While sliding my credit card in and out of the self check-in kiosk at the Memphis airport, I look up and . . . Spider-man! Coincidentally, the scheduled intermittent "If-you-see-anything-suspicious..." recorded message begins broadcasting over the PA system.

"Okay," I say to myself, "it seems like a guy dressed in a Spider-man suit might qualify as suspicious--especially since his Spandex pants reveal too saggy of buns to be those of the Real Spidey." But a gun-toting policeman mingles among the band of onlookers, so I figure everything's under control. (At least I assume he's a Real Policeman and not just another guy impersonating a policeman, like the Spider-man guy is impersonating the Real Spidey.)

After passing through the checkpoint and grabbing a sandwich, I arrive at my gate and discover Spider-man is now there. (What are the odds?) He's been joined by Buzz Lightyear, sporting hefty backside buns and carrying a towel with which he occasionally swipes his face after raising the face guard on his space helmet. There is now a bigger crowd and a giant cake, its cut pieces circulating throughout the gate area along with free bottles of water. (Wouldn't you know THIS time I'd been smart enough to buy one!) A fabulous congratulatory sign hangs near the boarding area.

After a brief assessment and a little unintentional eavesdropping, it all comes into focus for me: a small child, who has become the center of attention, and his family are receiving this special sendoff through Make-A-Wish and the good nature of two airport maintenance men nabbed for the superhero jobs. I study the expressions on the boy's parents' faces, recall my friend's daughter who was long-ago granted a going-to-Disney wish and silently give thanks for her good health all these decades later. I pray the same fate for the boy, then can't help but add a prayer for the ongoing wellness of my sweet granddaughter.

While the bald boy shyly chats with Spider-man and Buzz, I notice a female security guard quickly sidestep out of their view to hide behind a nearby pillar. What on earth? But the angle at which I'm sitting reveals her purpose: to wipe away tears, so touched is she--so touched are all of us--by the possibilities we know lurk at the root of this celebration. I swallow as I catch her eye, then both of us quickly look away.

So as not to continue to stare (and to keep myself from snagging a second piece of cake) I decide to check my e-mail. Although Memphis is a Wi-Fi-for-pay airport, I don't want to fork over my credit card number until I find out if there is consistent reception in this area. (Hey, you know how it often goes in airports: good reception by the second barbecue place but none in front of the hot dog stand.) I ask the man sitting next to me--the lanky laid-back man with the well traveled briefcase--if he's by chance logged on yet.

"I don't travel with a laptop," he says. "I'm also antiquated in that I don't travel with a cell phone either."

"How often do you travel?" Briefcases usually don't lie and his looks like it's been through serious rigors.

"Three or four times a month."

"For business?" Surely not!

"Yes," he says, flashing a beatific glow of serenity my way. "I can always find a pay phone," he explains, obviously taking note of my raised eyebrows. "I have an 800 number in my office and I call in once or twice a day to pick up messages. I've learned that 99.9 percent of business issues can wait until tomorrow."

I stare for a moment, no doubt blinking like a wide-eyed South Park character. I look once again toward the boy, his parents, Spider-man and Buzz Lightyear (who suddenly appear remarkably more Real), the security guard who has now stepped back out from behind the beam, the laughing ladies cutting more cake. . . .

I slip my iPAQ back into my bag, sit back, take a deep breath, exhale and relax. I take a swig of refreshing water, noting the sweet remnant of frosting still bathing my pallet.

I realize I am surrounded by-- ZAP! KAPOWIE! BAM!-- everyday super heroes, each using his or her powers to infuse a tired family with a moment of joy and hope. Heroic, too, the small boy who has undoubtedly endured so much and yet who beams his bright and precious smile at everyone surrounding him. People who serve, those who slug on no matter what the nature of their hearts . . . and yes, a heroic and inspiring road warrior packing centering words of wisdom rather than ray guns or electronics.

As 2006 winds down and this, my twentieth Traveling Laugh, hits cyberspace, I take my hat off to all of you everyday heroes, each finding your way while at the same time lighting the way for others. Thank you for stepping up to don capes and smiles, or for sitting down to catch your breath so you can breathe relaxation and a good dose of perspective into those around you. There is always somebody watching, and on a grace-filled day in the Memphis airport, this time it was me.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What every good Scout knows

United Airlines out of O'Hare. I'm running late to the gate but think, "Oh, you should buy a bottle of water!" Then I check my watch again, swallow a couple times (okay, spit still goes down so I'm hydrated enough for now) and board. After all, the drink cart will be coming down the aisle before you know it. (You feel it coming, don't you? But still, there might be a surprise, so keep reading.)

The jam-packed plane (is there any other kind?) departs on time. Oh, happy days! We launch into the air, fly for a while, then a while longer, then a LONG while longer. My swallowing mechanism is starting to bog down. I keep turning my head hoping to see the aisle clogged by liquid refreshments heading my way. Nothing. Like a director on a movie set, I want to yell ACTION!

Eventually, a voice crackles over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, we were going to serve beverages, but it seems food service"--or whatever they call them--"didn't provide us with any cups. We only have four cups. If you are really in need of a drink, please ring your call button." I don't remember this being followed by an apology. After all, it wasn't their fault. Dumb food service.

I think to myself, oh, yea, fly the "friendly skies" where fists and briefcases fly as dehydrated people brawl over four thirst-quenching cups. But what followed stunned me: silence. Not a DING to be heard. Was I the only nincompoop without a water bottle? Were people too dehydrated and therefore too weak to lift their arms? Have business travelers gotten so used to today's travel oddities that we all now just shrug our shoulders and say, "First we lost the pillows, then the five pretzels, then blankets and now the water. Ho-hum. Whatever."

Then a sinister thought tries to take hold: Maybe the airlines are testing us to see if we CARE about beverages and the entire cart will be next on their list of take-aways if we don't rally. I almost leap to my feet to strike a kung-don't-mess-with-me stance.

Then another thought occurs to me. Perhaps people, OTHER people, were smart enough to say, "Hey, just give me the whole can." I actually lift myself out of my seat and cast my eyes about. Nope. The masses are simply reading, sleeping, chatting--sipping on their own water bottles. Those "safe" water bottles they were smart enough to purchase on their way to the gate. Those water bottles that need no cups and no cart service.

You know, for someone who was a short-lived Girl Scout and long-time 4-H gal (I made the switch when I realized there were no boys in Girl Scouts), you'd think I'd have learned by now to be prepared for . . . just about anything the airlines can throw at me. Back in the day when I could travel with my good old Tupperware container full of my own water (far left in the photo of what used to be my travel essentials), I was. But things have changed and so, therefore, must I. In fact, I'm going to stop typing right now and pack an extra seat belt and call button in my bag. Just in case.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Time Travels

Like millions of others, two days before Thanksgiving I was on the road. But rather than heading to Granny's house (since I AM the Granny), I was traveling home from yet another road trip. Home to no company for the holiday. Home to Black Friday sales I would not attend.

Home to blissful tranquility and a day of rest. Perfect.

But even so, yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was not without travel. At 10 A.M. I set out for the nearest White Castle to partake in a decade-old traditional Thanksgiving breakfast with a friend. Okay, MY traditional Thanksgiving breakfast of jalepeno burgers, cheese fries and a diet cola. This year my friend went for the sausage and egg sandwich on toast, which, in my personal opinion, is not even remotely related to Slyders [and I should know since I was a 1996 celebrity judge for White Castle Hamburger's Fifth Annual Cravetime Recipe Contest--HONEST] but which he nonetheless enjoyed.

Between beverage refills and memory lapses, for nearly ninety minutes we nibbled and chatted. It was like modern day Time Travel for the over sixty set: we transported ourselves back to the good old days by recounting a few stories (no seat belt required); some timelines were blurry; we couldn't explain how we "suddenly" got this old but it all turned out well in the end since we still recognized we each.

While I was Time Traveling (and later belching), my husband stayed home and traveled from his comfy bed to his cement driveway to retrieve the newspaper, onward to his coffee pot, then to his familiar lounge chair where he checked out the sale flyers. After I arrived home--and was happy to learn we still recognized each other, too--I cooked us a simple turkey dinner; he cleaned the kitchen afterward.

I fly all over the country for business; he holds the fort down while I'm gone. I drive to White Castle for breakfast and he remains sane. Two old married folks, each traveling to their own tune while freeing the other to do the same.

For all these things I give thanks, even the day after Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Happy Connecting

After the terribly tormenting tragedy I INDUCED the first day of my week-long, new-state-every-day leg of a book tour, things perked up--well, for the most part. Due to the immeasurable doofusness of my own self, it seemed I had nowhere to go but UP. Yes, my own fallible humanness set the mental bar for my expectations, point of view and attitude as it applies to traveling snafus.

Keeping all that in mind, I decided to focus on what went RIGHT during my traveling days (okay, traveling daze), so here ya go with a happy-happy spin on some not-so-happy moments.

*Since I was determined I would not check luggage (different airline and state every day), I loaded carry-ons to the max. With a backbreaking lack of speed, I drug, kicked, grunted and hip-checked my way down the ever narrowing (in part due to my ever widening) airplane aisles.

HAPPY SPIN: Without solicitation, kind and gallant gentlemen offered to help me with my overhead bags. Anything to get me out of the aisle and settled down, I'm sure, so they could relax, but nonetheless truly appreciated, no matter what their ulterior motives. They didn't have to offer but they did.

*Even though I was nestled in a soft luxury bed at a many-starred hotel the two mornings I could sleep in a bit, housekeeping had not seen fit to make sure unrequested radio alarms wouldn't go off before the crack of dawn. (These things are no doubt certified by James Bond against anyone's ability to figure out their secret codes) Thus, with no assistance from me (I swear I never TOUCHED those radios!) by 6:15 a.m. either a CD started playing, someone on a static radio channel suddenly blathered into the darkness or a LOUD buzzing sounded.

HAPPY SPIN: I was already awake due to a banging door, or elevator ding, or ship's blast (along the ol' Mississippi), or ambulance siren, or train whistle (or all of the aforementioned) and once by the 5:45 a.m. arrival of a bell hop knocking on my door to pick up luggage--at the wrong room. ("Sorry, ma'am," I heard through the door after my loud "WHAT?!?!?!")
HAPPY SPIN DISCLAIMER: Sadly, the HAPPY SPIN (okay, I stretched the happy-happy factor there) was also slightly tainted by the fact these morning alarms usually surprised me while I was on the toilet. I'm sure my neighbors hated the length of time my "alarms" were ringing/singing/talking/buzzing and in one case started out singing then relayed to buzzing, but some things just can't be rushed. Plus, maybe it was THEM who awakened me with their slamming door! (Payback, as it turns out, is often accidental.)
HAPPY GONE BAD: Then again, by default and through no fault of my own--aside from not being smart enough to UNPLUG the radio immediately after checking in--I became the perpetrator who awakened my neighbors causing someone else to likely be writing about their rude hotel neighbor.

*Brilliant planning found me traveling with no laptop, just my good old HP iPAQ (love that thing) with Wi-Fi and a portable keyboard. Too bad so many hotels offer Wi-Fi that doesn't work, employees who don't have a clue how to help you and maintain no business center. My e-mail stacked up for days at a time. (I'm due for my "New Every Two" and I'm seriously considering a Smart Phone after this trip! But honestly, do you think I'm smart enough to run it?)

HAPPY SPIN: Upon my arrival home I read a brilliant article that affirmed my wireless (aka connected-less) trials. Misery does love company, at least company that "gets" life on the road as well as life on the wild, bumpy, often frustrating Internet highway. THANKS, Will Allen III. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Turning Beet Red

Sunday past. O'Hare Airport. United Airlines terminal, concourse C.

I've purchased a sandwich and a side of beets (do you read an error there) from Berghoff's and I'm looking for a place to sit down to eat them because I dare not eat beets on my lap since there are about 20 of them with a circumference about the size of a fat quarter, all swimming in JUICE. The bar side, which is the only seating Berghoff's offers, is mobbed due to the Bears' game. People are standing 2 and 3 deep (plus out in the concourse) watching the the big-screen TV in the corner.

I ask a gentleman if I may share his table to eat my beets. He's not too thrilled, but he lets me. We're sitting under the television in good viewing range--not of the TV, but of the 50+ (I'm probably underestimating) people watching.

I decide the sandwich is too salty for my blood pressure so I only eat a few bites, then concentrate on the beets. A few beets goes a long way (see the windup?) so I decide to dump the rest of the remaining 15 or so in the garbage. I stack up my containers, grab the handle of my roller bag and make my way to the receptacle, which is also in viewing range of everyone because it is in the proximity of the TV. I'll be glad to get these things disposed of since, well, HELLO! BEETS and BEET JUICE. It was a dumb choice since I'm just heading out on a book tour with limited clothing because I don't want to check any luggage.

As I try to cram the stuff through the stiff swinging garbage door, the backlash
catches the plastic container of beets and beet juice and sends it flying. The red explosion lands on the floor -- on top of a man's cashmere coat (in hindsight, it could have been camel hair) rolled up on top of his briefcase. Since I am in viewing range of EVERYONE, there is a collective gasp, a nervous chuckle or two and it is then the man who owns the coat appears. He is wearing a pinstripe suit and an unhappy face. "I just BOUGHT this coat," he says, watching me pick beets from its beige beauty while trying to decide how to best be helpful. I'm afraid if I pick the coat up, the beets and juice will run even more places.

"I am so sorry. What can I do?" He doesn't speak for a moment while he watches me remove the remaining beets, then he picks the coat up. I mean beet juice is everywhere!

"Go to the bar and get a glass of soda water." I squeeze my way through the mob to get up to the bar. The room is LOUD and I'm yelling to get the bartender's attention, which she's ignoring since I'm YELLING! After a L-O-N-G while I get the goods and make my way back to the man who is now dabbing at his coat with paper napkins.

"How can I help?" He has me hold the coat while he carefully dips and dabs, wipes and assesses. I see the Brooks Brothers label. I think about this poor man on the road with THIS mess. I think about my savings account. I am mortified as this plays out in view of everyone.

The man--the handsome man with a tan and beets all over his expensive coat--smiles. SMILES. He tells me he bought the coat because it is "cold here in Chicago." I ask him for a business card so I can pay the dry cleaning bill, a process which I am sure won't work. So I can buy him a new coat, send him flowers for the smile. He HEAPS kindnesses on me while he tells me that just last night, two waiters collided and spilled lobster bisque on it.

Because of the man's kindness, and the fact he won't hand me a business card, I am overcome by the gift of his grace and I start crying. I KNOW THIS IS NOT PROFESSIONAL but I seem to have no control over my emotions. Equal parts of mortification and gratefulness squeeze a well of tears out of me. The nicer he is, the more I cry. He tries to distract me with small talk, asks me where I'm off to. Anything to stop the crying. All the while he keeps dipping and dabbing at the beet juice as quickly as I'm swiping tears off my face.

Eventually he says, "There." He looks at the coat as though it's as good as new, which it is not. One last time I ask him for a card, again he SMILES and refuses. He tells me he shouldn't have placed his coat there on the floor near the garbage in the first place, owns part of the blame. I'm all but SOBBING now.

It's time for us to part; I need to get to my gate. I cry as I walk. (Who knows, maybe the man cried happy tears too that I was finally out of his range and he was now safe!) I find a seat. Call my husband and tell him the story. The woman sitting next to me busts out laughing when I get to the "and all of it, beets, juice ... ends up on a man's cashmere coat." When I hang up, she apologizes for laughing, says she didn't mean to be listening but she couldn't help it.

You know, a few tiny things have gone wrong for me on this book tour since this incident, but I say to myself, "Charlene, remember the beets."

Next time when something goes wrong--REALLY wrong--on one of my sojourns, I hope I find the strength, courage and good humor to Remember The Beets and respond in the same kind and grace-filled way. My life feels remarkly better because of the kindness of a stranger.

Bless you, kind man. Bless you.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ripley's got nothin' on me!

The last leg of our driving trip from Chicago to a book engagement at the Woolly Worm Festival in Beattyville KY last week was breathtaking. Never in my sixty-one years on planet earth have I driven so many consecutive miles surrounded by a more glorious fall splendor. Spontaneously (and suddenly, according to Big George, which was perhaps my subconscious payback for his last veering - second paragraph) I couldn't help but dive off the four-lane into the colorful back roads for a slower and more intimate submersion into God’s splendor.

George, who was taking a turn at map reading, deftly eyeballed the map and charted our route back to the interstate. But for an hour or so we took our wind-y time to explore an unlined two-lane (yes, there is two-way traffic on the road in that picture, which is reminiscent of many scary places I drove in England back in 1995), stopping when something, anything, caught our attention. This time it was a flock (a word that sounds WAY too pretty) of buzzards or vultures or whatever they were, thickly perched on telephone poles, wires and tree branches off to the right of this scene. (They are not what I’m trying to show you.)

After noticing the mass of those ugly whatevers, I eked along until I came to this little pullover place where, since the car was visible from both directions, it felt safe to get out, rummage the car for the camera and then saunter a few paces closer to my subjects to snap a dozen pictures or so.

I exited the driver’s side and walked around the front of the SUV to the passenger-side back door, retrieved the digital camera, turned it on, stepped toward my subjects and . . . WHOOOSH! I suddenly looked like an airborne, backward-swimming cartoon character since, believe it or not, I slipped on a banana peel! Out there in the middle of NOWHERE! What, I ask you, are the odds?

You can see (well, the picture is kinda small) my slip-n-sliding trail on the ground just off to the right of the back door. I took more pictures of the smashed banana peel than I did of the whatevers! Never in my life have I slipped on a banana peel (nor do I know anyone who has) and I had to drive three states away, spontaneously veer off onto a back road, notice a gathering of ugly somethings, cruise to a “safe” spot in the remote location, walk around to my SUV's back door and take a few steps toward a flock of BUZZARDS (or whatevers) to do so.

Luckily I didn’t hurt anything since my backside didn’t touch the ground due to my stupendous aerodynamic flight pattern. But let me just say I went a long way for this Traveling Laugh, which is much more fun to write about than the incident felt while I was airborne.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Traveling with Mr. McNally (.com)

I write to you this morning from just outside Cincinnati, home of the Purple People Bridge. We’re (Big George and me) on our way to Beattyville KY where I’ll be mainstaging 2 PM Saturday at the Woolly Worm Festival. (You’re sure to receive a report on THAT!) Luckily we made it to our hotel last night since Mr. McNally, whom I often rely on, proved to me that yesterday I should NOT have done so—at least all the time.

My husband was behind the wheel and I rode shotgun reading to him from my printout of what Mr. McNally had to say about our upcoming junctures. The first time George needed a hint (we knew the way up until Indianapolis), McNally said to take I-465 E to I-465 S to get to I-74 E. George said why go E to end up going S when the sign at this split says S is right HERE? (Okay, he didn’t say any of that, he just veered.) Can you sing here we go loop-de-loop? George 0, McNally 1.

When we got closer to Cincinnati, I read McNally’s instructions to George again. This time he listened. Too bad. Can you say here we go loop-de-longer-and-longer-but-never-find-the-hotel? Tie game. (George, winning ugly like da Bears last Monday night!)

Before departing on this trip, I found a new dog boarding facility for Kornflake. The kennel’s website said we should NOT use any online instructions (read Mr. McNally and Mr. Mapquest) since they both seemed to think he was located about a mile West of where he really is. Then again, I’ve arrived plenty of times using printouts, and all went well, so I guess it’s a game of chance, ey?

Every once in awhile I consider getting a GPS system. Then again, if it’s always right (and is it?), ah, sweet mystery of life where art thou, and how much might I miss thee dueling with my honey for my traveling entertainment.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A spoonful of sugar (Oh, honey, honey)

In the Grand Scheme of Traveling Incidents, some events are soon forgotten. But sometimes, you don’t forget (a miracle for me) and you’re saddled with a need to document the episode—with the officials. Thus was the case after my 11.5 hour captivity in the Pittsburg Airport (scroll to return trip).

In order to share my thoughts with the powers that be, I tooled around American Airline’s website (or maybe it was my AAdvantage account—yes, we have already come to the end of my memory miracles) and found a place to submit feedback. One of the drop-down menus on the form presented two choices which I’ll sum up as Good News and Bad News.

First I submitted a Good News form which named the names of two gate agents who remained upbeat, kind, sensitive, TRUTHFUL, hopeful, polite and helpful throughout a very long day. Next I filled out the Bad News form regarding this same incident which entailed a brief summary of my numerous delays and a complaint about my luggage, or rather lack thereof. I quickly received auto e-mails confirming that my messages were received. I felt proud of me (doesn’t take much) that at least I spoke my mind to the airlines rather than mumbling only to myself, my spouse and a host of friends--again. (Okay, I did that, too.) I figured that was The End.

But alas, a week or so later I received an e-mail from AA containing the Good News that they were SORRY about my day and that for my trouble they’d credited my frequent flyer account with 5,000 miles. I was grateful and am still in shock since airline complaints often fall into the same black hole as political campaign promises. Why, I wondered, did this particular complaint produce an apology and a “thanks for your loyalty?”

I can’t help but think my spoonful of earnest verbal sugar regarding two congenial and attentive gate agents might have set the perspective stage for the receipt of my complaint. Perhaps someone noticed I wasn’t strictly a whiner. And that would of course be a Mega-miracle, both that they noticed, and that I’m not. Right, honey?


Oh, honey. Honey, honey, honey. Hows bouts you get yourself a drop-down menu so I know exactly where to file my … thoughts concerning this issue?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

On Bears and BBQ

A couple weeks ago a kind and astute reader e-mailed to inform me of a typo on my upcoming book tour website page. Although folks at That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas ("The natural state") are expecting me on November 9, a slip of the finger had me traveling to Alaska ("North to the future"). You physics experts will immediately recognize that AK does not equal AR.

I’m excited about my AR stop since it’s not only at a WONDERFUL book store complete with a potbelly stove (I've been there before), but it's in BBQ country. I can almost taste the dry rub seasonings as I type. Mm-mm-mm. However, I also have to admit I’m sorry I'm not going to AK this tour because AK is beautiful. Stunningly beautiful. And WILD. My only AK visit thus far found me traveling from Anchorage to Wasilla to the Homer Spit to Valdez and back again.

But it was during a stay at the scenic Motherload Lodge in Hatcher Pass that I experienced THE most unusual traveling episode : a dead bear behind the bar. A Real Dead Bear. Let me clarify that was in AK with BEAR, not AR with BBQ. (And do you have ANY idea how many times I’m checking the handiwork of my swiftly typing fingers here? And how I once again had the STATES’ INITIALS BACKWARDS the first go-around! GHEESH!)

But back to the dead bear in AK. We checked into the Motherload Lodge, left for the day and returned late that afternoon to find someone standing outside flagging traffic past the driveway breathlessly announcing, “Sorry! We’re CLOSED!”

“But we’re staying here. You have our luggage.”

“Oh. Then it's okay to come in. But so you know, I just shot a bear and he’s behind the bar.” And so it was so.

Here’s the glorious thing about those rough and tumble AK folks: nothing stops them. Not even a dead bear behind the bar. They straddled the bear's warm body in order to draw themselves beers around since there was no other way to reach the tap! I witnessed it with my own eyes. I even took pictures (hey, I’m an old farm girl) which I will NOT post here since, well, I’m sure they’d be a little TOO rough and tumble for some of you. In the strange aftermath it was all very exciting, not to mention surreal and sleep prohibiting.

Even if you're not a physics expert you may wonder what the bear was doing behind the AK bar. Simple: reeking havoc with the booze bottles--before he was shot. We were told that no matter how they tried to "let him out," he would not go. (Hey, bar snacks!) When the owners' dog appeared and started challenging the bear, things got out of control, thus leaving only one option.

But Charlene, how did the bear get behind the bar to begin with? I hear you asking. He climbed an outside staircase and came in through (as in slashing and clawing through) a window screen, then lumbered through the empty dining room, down the hall PAST OUR BEDROOM DOOR, then on down the interior staircase into the bar. Imagine their surprise!

You know, this whole slip-of-the-finger obviously set me to ruminating about BBQ and bears, but it also caused me to speculate about something else. I wonder if this is how our luggage ends up in the AL Luggageland Graveyard instead of say home with me in IL. Just one teensy typo can make a wild world of difference, ey?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Digital Decisions - UPDATE!

The kind and generous daughter of a friend of ours took pity on my pitiful self and procured me a FREE battery! (No askie, no tellie—although I’m assured it was a legal procurement.)

Ahhhhh, I feel all powerful again. At least until my New Every Two offer swings around and I finish my shopping, at which time I’ll momentarily be just another stupid who doesn’t know how to use her new equipment.

But in the blissful meantime, thanks to those of you who made suggestions. Misery does love company, especially cyber company with inquiring minds and a few fresh ideas for a fellow traveler's conundrum.

By the way, my husband is a subscriber to this blog, which I forgot. After reading my teensy comment about dropping my phone in the toilet, he kindly (HA!) reminded me (bless his steel-trap engineering brain) that I didn't drop my cell phone in the toilet but rather the dog's water dish.

For the record, I do not stand corrected as to the "where" I dropped the phone in the water, but the number of times--which officially stands at two. And George, since I told my blog readers not to ask about the toilet incident (even though one reader told me that was cruel), that includes YOU!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Digital Decisions

Wouldn't you know it: I'm not eligible for my New Every Two phone discount (including the two months of "early" grace they offer with this program) until five weeks from now, just enough time to have to live through one of my densest travel schedules without an upgrade.

The untimely re-up wouldn't be a big deal if my phone wasn't misbehaving and I wasn't so attached to the You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman ring song I long ago downloaded (read all about this humiliating experience in the TwinkleGram's 10/20/05 archived edition -- bottom of the page) and assigned to my husband's incoming calls. I don' t know if those Important Extras transfer to new phones, or when, in a dying last gasp, my current fading phone might simply go silent, never to affirm me again.

You might not consider the soulful belting out/ringing/singing of Natural Woman very businesslike, but it's only assigned to My Man (Mr. Retired) who doesn't call very often because he patiently waits to hear from me. I call to let him know I've arrived, or that I'm waiting for my food, I am well, I think I’m catching a cold, the plane is delayed, or on time, I feel crabby, I just noticed a sweet scene in the airport, the meeting was great or lacking, I'm back in my hotel room, made it through the security check point, waiting for my luggage, locked out of my car, wishing he were here, out at the curb, looking down the circular drive in front of the airport, waiting for my prince to arrive in his carriage to welcome and whisk me home again.

Hearing that song belt out of my handbag or pocket, knowing who's on the other end before I even look at the caller ID, is a great reminder that yes, I am a natural woman, even though when I'm on the road I often feel more like an unnatural disaster.

But back to my phone dilemma. One of my phone’s problems is that if I'm traveling in Verizon’s "extended networks," which I often am, the original-equipment battery will no longer hold a charge throughout an entire day. Why it uses more battery juice in extended networks I don’t know. Perhaps because it (whatever makes a cell phone work) has to . . . extend so far?

Too bad I recently lost my spendy backup battery, ey? And sure, I can replace the tired battery, but I'm only FIVE WEEKS away from not having to do that. But sadly, a good part of the time my "portable"--HA!--phone now forces me to leash myself to a wall or car socket. Not handy, especially when all of YOU are already hogging all the airport/coffee shop/anywhere sockets. (Feel free to explain yourselves in the comment section.)

Another "issue" with my phone: missing parts. It’s missing parts because I've dropped it so many times. Never on a soft carpet, of course, and once in a toilet (don’t ask) and several times during failed attempts to retrieve it I’ve had to kick it out from under here and there. But it's still basically WORKING, so do I really want to hurry up and get rid of a phone that keeps on calling after taking so many fallings?

I have to stop typing now because I have a decision to make. Do I invest in a tide-me-over-for-five-weeks battery? (Seems such a waste.) Do I ride out the five weeks to save the bucks (times are tough), keep my power cord in my pocket and the phone turned off when I'm not in a position to answer it anyway? (Some of you might be thinking my husband could use the peace and quiet, but keep that to yourselves, okay?) Or do I bite the financial bullet and get a new phone now, before the upcoming hectic travel schedule? And if that is my choice, which phone do I buy? Can I even make a decision AND get acquainted with a newbie in five short weeks?

Do I make the giant leap to a SMARTPHONE like travel tech guru Phil Baker suggests, one that could also replace my HP iPAQ, which I ADORE and that gets me on the internet (in Wi-Fi zones) during trips when I choose to leave my laptop behind? Would I dare attempt to use a new whiz-bang SMARTPHONE (perhaps one way smarter than me and thus not affirming but humiliating?) on a book tour when I’m too tired to tackle new technology?

When you're self employed, these decisions need to be made by you. "Corporate" isn't setting things up, paying the bills, making the tough decisions. In my case there's only me. A natural woman. A natural traveling woman traveling with a tired battery and a few missing parts.

Yup, that would be me.

I'll keep you posted as to my decision. Just don't expect me to CALL you with it, what with the battery situation and all. But if you should hear a SMARTPHONE (and are they really THIS smart?) singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” you’ll know I’m nearby and that my husband, Big George, has something important to tell me.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A cacophony of traveling companions

I was awakened early this morning by a LOUD Traveling Band of birds outside my bedroom window here in Minnesota where I come "hide" to write. Red-winged Blackbirds, to be exact. My favorite. If a celebrity (say Grover from Sesame Street) asked me what type of bird I'd like to be, there you have it.

I always admire these brave birds as they tenaciously cling to the very tops of wildly swaying roadside stalks, cheering me on, extending their happy trills as I zing past them in my SUV as though I'm a marathon runner in desperate need of their offerings. Which I am.

But today, rather than watching me pass by, they discovered me planted for a spell. I wrenched my groggy self out of bed, walked down the flight of old creaky farm house steps and went out on the front porch in my flannel PJs to get a look-see. Huddled into myself against the early morning chill, I stood staring at the towering pine trees come alive with hundreds of cheering cheerleaders. Three of them were perched like black and red morning stars at the very tops of the trees. They seemed to be leading their chorus of fellow travelers suspended in the branches below them, no doubt on their way south. Lucky things. "Thank you, my traveling companions," I whispered into the brisk breezes blowing their way. "Thank you for stopping to say hello, for stopping to say good-bye."

The damp cold finally chased me in and nature called (although perhaps not in that order), so I'm not sure how long they stayed in their green wayside, but I think of them now as I type, wish them well as they dart across the friendly skies while my fingers race across these familiar keys.

Yes, thank you, dear Red-winged Blackbirds, for showing me how to cling tightly to the edges of life on the road, how to cheerfully land for a rest now and again before moving on to the next place. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Middle Man Strikes Again

I experienced a Traveling Incident some time ago (one of about a billion) and it's funny how often I think about it. In fact, I've been thinking about it a lot today since I've had occasion to look at my index finger several times. Let me explain.

During the boarding process I arrived at my aisle seat (yes, women strive for them, too) near the center of the plane, nodded at the gentleman in the middle, dropped one bag on the floor and kicked it under the seat in front of me, loaded the other in the overhead, then plopped myself down. (Okay, gently lowered myself so as not to break my hip on the ever-closer-together arm rests.) I wasn't really in the mood to talk but Middle Man asked me if I was coming or going, then explained that he and Window Man were on their way to present . . . wherever. To tell the truth, I was only half listening since I was much in need of a relaxing nap. I smiled, leaned back, closed my eyes and didn't give either of them another thought. I lived happily in my own little content world.

After liftoff and considerable flight time, I heard (light sleeper) the drink cart closing in on me so I opened my eyes. Middle Man says, "Aren't you afraid you're going to lose that ring?" It's as though opening my eyes opened his mouth. Kinda creepy. How long, I wondered, has he been waiting to ask me that? Has he been staring at my face just waiting for my eyes to fly open?

I glance at my hands. I'm wearing several rings so I look at him to see if I can tell which one he's talking about. His eyes are locked on the index finger of my right hand where I'm wearing a ring between my first and second knuckles. Yes, the ring is a tad big for that "perched" location, but I occasionally get attached to things/behaviors (until I get attached to the next one) and I'm currently and emotionally attached to this oddity. The ring is an eighth-grade graduation gift from my now deceased parents and it makes me feel close to them. I miss them even more certain times of the year and this would be one of those seasons. I opened my jewelry box a few days ago, spotted it, realized that with effort I could cram it over my knuckle and so . . . here we are.

I decide to answer his security question since he seems genuinely worried for me. "No. It won't come off. Luckily," I continue, grabbing the ring and giving him a demo of my words, "I've grown old enough to inherit my grandmother's giant knuckles. The trick was getting in on!"

We receive our sips of liquid and a small bag of something (back in the good old days when you got, say like four peanuts for free, remember those good old days?). We artfully arrange them on our trays. We chat, I close my eyes and go back into my world, ready to resume my slumber.

But all the time I'm wondering, What is he thinking about me now, studying on me now? What, I wonder, should I be worrying about me NOW?!

I clasp my left hand around my right index finger, secure the ring in place--even though it would take a band of gypsies to remove it. And then I wonder, might Middle Man be one?


Eyes still closed (so as not to open his mouth) I unclasp my death grip from my ring. I blantantly open my hand on my knee, palm down, letting the ring dance right in front of his eyes.

Some people worry too much, I think as I doze off.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

You make me feel so . . .

I'd like to take a moment to thank the man in front of me, the one who recently went through the security checkpoint, left his laptop behind and was called back to retrieve it.

I'd like to thank the woman talking on her cell phone and scurrying to her gate who first dropped her cell phone, then her purse, then her cell phone.

Thank you to those who enter business meetings with food stains on your clothes, circles under your eyes and a prayer on your lips that nobody notices you haven't brushed your teeth since, well, there was no time to buy a new tube (airplane late, again) of toothpaste and of course you couldn't travel with such a dangerous ORANGE-ALERT! item.

Thanks to those of you who barely fit in bathroom stalls with your suitcases (and those GIANT rolls of toilet paper), who stand holding your hands in front of you under sink faucets that are NOT automatically activated and then act like you knew it, and who survive countless toilet flushes (feel the spray beneath you) before you're ready for them to flush.

Thank you everyone who buys a book in the airport because you forgot your reading material--again. (And if you buy MY books in airports, a special kudos. http://www.welcometopartonville.com)

Bless the hearts of those who snore on airplanes, bang your heads on the overhead bins (yet again), forget to turn your noise reduction headsets off after the "turn off all ..." announcement since you didn't hear it, what with your noise reduction headset and all.

WAHOO to those who make your own corporate, self-employeed decisions to buy the snack pack on the airplane (even though you swore you wouldn't), and find that entertaining yourself by counting the little wad of cashew nuts before chowing them down is not only the highlight of your day, but your best meal.

A nod to those who talk to strangers, e-mail in concourses, mutter to television news casters in an attempt to feel like SOMEBODY knows you're out there in another time zone doing your exhausting thing.

Thank you, one and all, for making me feel so normal, so One With The Travel Weary . . . so understood.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Wi-Fi and Wayport Neighborhood

I came to Omaha Thursday to present on a humor panel at the Omaha LitFest (if you are anywhere near here next year during LitFest and like to read or enjoy art, this is a MUST STOP! http://www.omahalitfest.com) and am now gearing up to pack up to fly home today. I am happily tired (stayed up three hours past my bedtime last night), creatively refreshed and still wallowing in the afterglow of this successful and eclectically ripe gathering. Yes, it was a business trip for me, but one which smacked of vacation since I got to rub shoulders with Those I Read, attend juicy, informative, brave, vulnerable and lively panels and hang out in Omaha’s Old Market area, which itself is worth the trip.

Packing up is no small chore for me since tidiness isn’t my mantra. When I arrive in a hotel/motel room I fling things here and there in an attempt to create a familiar nest of sorts. If I’m only in for a night or two, no housekeeping, please. Don’t make me pick up my stuff (cram my makeup back in a bag, “hide” -- HA! Like THAT is humanly possible in a hotel room! -- my valuables and undies) just so you can make my bed. I like things ruffled.

As I gather and pack this morning, I remember my newest and latest half-hour friend. We first met the day of my arrival (hers, too) in the internet café off the lobby of this Embassy Suites, she a tall lanky blonde, me a short fluffy salt-and-pepper head. We were looking to slam a good dose of caffeine while accessing the “free” Wi-Fi which we were errantly, as it turns out, told existed in the internet café.

By happenstance we two strangers parked our backsides and laptops in contingent work stations and discovered out loud and together that all internet roads led to payment. “You got anything?” “$9.95 for twenty four hours.” “Wait, I’m picking up another . . .” “No, not gonna work.” “They’ve got us.” It fries my hide to pay extra for Wi-Fi or Wayport in spendy hotels. Yes, there was free internet available in the internet café just off the lobby, but it's on one computer back in the corner, the one with a landline, the one with the human line. “Might as well pay the $9.95 for the Wayport in my room. Time is short today.” “Yes.” Ta-ta.

The next morning at breakfast (the one included with the price of all Embassy Suites stays and which seems much more difficult to supply every morning than a port), there was my new friend. “Well good MORNING!” We smiled, shared a breakfast table and pieces of our lives as though we’d known each other for decades. Turns out we have numerous things in common. We exchanged website info, promised to keep in touch and off we went, she to finish her work, check out and head home, me to move on with my next Big Literary Day. Life on the road is a strange beast. But sometimes, just sometimes, two temporary nests built in the same tree on the same night make for a friendly, albeit ever so temporary, neighborhood.

When I finally pick up my hotel bill , the one I’m looking at right now on the floor, the one they slid under the door in the wee hours like a stealth bird adding one more twig to my messy nest, I shall find thirty bucks tacked on to it for my internet services. I could grind my teeth over this again, but hey, I’m going home today and I’m working to leave these niggling nags behind. My husband’s been holding down the Family Nest and he’s dealt with his own issues.

Besides, I’ve already checked out my new friend’s website (Wow! I’m IMPRESSED!) and sent her a quick e-mail, and now I’m sending you this Traveling Laugh. If it hadn’t been for the unfulfilled promise of free Wi-Fi, none of this (new friend, writing in my PJs) would have happened. These memories and that attitude, my fellow traveler, are what I’m most hoping to pack up and take home with me. Life’s too short to lug a load of sour grapes around. My suitcases are already heavy enough.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

N0 (or nothin' but) Time to Spare

What’s this? A single blog post written in two days’ worth of consecutive order? Yes. But try it anyway. You might like it—or at least relate.

Sunday AM, September 10

I'm sitting in an airport, again. It turns out I have (well, had) ninety minutes to kill. In order to help the clock fly I just polished off a 9 AM “brunch” at Manchu Wok. Rice or noodles--and I pick noodles--plus two entrees (orange chicken and broccoli beef). I’m still swilling the lemonade. You know, one of those “banned” beverages the TSA believes I might use to . . . well, I’m not sure what they think I might do with it, but I must admit I’ve never tried to light a lemonade with a match before. Who knows!

I ended up with this pocket of time because I arrived early at O'Hare, checked my bags curbside (as usual) and felt very smug as I passed by the snaking terminal bag-check lines (now THAT’S got double meaning!) of people kicking and dragging their worldly goods along. Then the woman waiting to check my documents at the head of this odd and somewhat isolated little American Airlines security checkpoint stood yawning as I walked right up, then right on through the “don’t touch the sides” tunnel—zero waiting. I use this particular “secret passageway” when I'm flying American Eagle, which seems like always lately. I don't know where the Big Boy AA aircraft fly, but I'm assuming they still exist.


Oh, MY! I’m undoubtedly sitting here on the verge of countless perils since I just remembered MSG is an excitotoxin! I’m sure my brunch contained a billion milligrams of excitotoxins. If you have a moment, Google “effects of MSG” and read those first few links including http://www.msgmyth.com/brochure.pdf#search=%22effects%20of%20msg%22. Threat of terrorists? Stay alert. Excitotoxins? HELP!


Having thankfully survived my hearty blast of excitotoxins, I lived to sit in an another airport. Pittsburg, this time. Today I arrived nearly four hours early for my flight. Long story, but it had to do with hilly terrain, a rental car and the threat of fog (warning signs everywhere) and torrential rain. Let's just say none of the above slowed me down more than two miles per hour. Although I did not zip through security today (which, to the best of my observation and experience, is much more rigid here in Pittsburg than O'Hare), I still have All This Time. Enough time to STEER CLEAR OF EXCITOTOXINS while concurrently spending too many bucks buying smeary face products with which I cannot legally travel. Luckily, I’ve spent enough that they’ll ship them for free.


Seems I was optimistic about arriving 4 hours early. I now find I arrived 5.5 hours early. It occurs to me that “nonstop flights” are often “nongo,” or at their very best, “go-later.”


Seems 5.5 hours was optimistic since it turns out I arrived at least 6.5 hours early, which turned into 8, which. . . . After “mechanical delays” turned later-later-later-whoops “canceled,” a rerouting to another airline which then postponed (Okay, I am CRAVING a high dose of excitotoxins by now! Anything to break the tedium!), another rescheduled late-night flight out on the last flight out—which was late, I finally made it home in the nick of time to wait forty minutes before filling out my missing luggage (two-bags’ worth) report.

The good news is that after driving back to the airport this morning to personally look for my bags (that sweet and caring recorded voice told me she was so sorry to report SHE hadn’t located them yet), I found them hiding right there on the floor in front of the conveyor belt. No WONDER they couldn’t find them! Too obvious.

Thankfully I recovered them in just enough time to swirl their contents before tomorrow morning’s flight. I shall try to be early, although not too.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Accidental Tourist

Yesterday my husband and I took a one-hour architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. Our “guide” was extraordinary in terms of enthusiasm, knowledge and his ability to dispense so many specifics while we could still detect each building in his repertoire. He made everything clear and interesting.

I was surprised by the number of new structures along the river since my last visit and in awe of the artistic and brainiac talent that, decade after decade, steps forward. To build a towering building with meaning, purpose and style, now that is something.

I haven’t taken that tour for probably thirty years, perhaps more. After all, I live in the Chicago suburbs so why would I act like a tourist in my own back yard? Well, the notion floated in on a whim. (So poetic!) It happened like this.

I attended a business luncheon in Chicago; my retired husband served as my handsome “limo” driver (his vehicle looking suspiciously like a Buick LeSabre); it was a beautiful day; when he picked me up after my meeting I said, “Let’s DO something while we’re down here!” So off to Navy Pier he drove us since we were in that vicinity anyway.

We lucked into a great parking spot for which we paid $19 for two hours, but still, it was a GREAT parking spot! We eyeballed one of the kiosks selling boat tickets, and just like that we bought two. The tour started in fifteen minutes, so by the time we got to the boat and settled in, we were on our way. ‘Twas nothing short of serendipitous and perfect timing.

Afterwards we dined on fabulous shrimp at Bubba Gump’s while sitting outdoors watching passersby, one of my favorite forms of entertainment. Since I spend so much time in airport terminals, I guess I’m just lucky that way. We chatted, we laughed, we played Forrest Gump trivia with our waiter. We drove home talking about what a good time we had, wondering why we didn’t “do” Chicago more often.

You know, the odd part is that I simply did not have time to dink around for an afternoon, and yet I did. I am refreshed, refueled and ready to travel on. For that spontaneous touristy afternoon I stayed in my own “back yard,” I am thankful. I highly recommend you do the same.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Traveling Veils

I’m driving down the street yesterday one block from my permanent residence when I spot a green Volkswagen bug. “OH! There’s DAVID!” I say out loud to my empty car. I gun the gas pedal and start to pull up next to him at the light so I can wave. My hand hovers over the horn. What did he do with his long black curly hair? I wonder as I catch the back of the teensy round shape of the driver’s head.

But just before I give the horn a blast I am struck with a bolt of reality: David and his green Volkswagen bug aren’t in my hometown in Illinois, they’re in Minnesota in the town where I often go “hide” to write.

Later that day I see Nancy walking down the sidewalk. It’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to chat. I’ll catch her attention and maybe we can grab a cup of coffee.

WAIT! Charlene, you are in ILLINOIS, not Minnesota, sothat is not Nancy!

I’ve encountered this same phenomena on the “other end” too, this thinking I see people who are hundreds of miles away. It’s like I pass through a veil—but it sticks to me. One veil after another, they stack up until everything looks foggy. These time/space/place hiccups are the hitches in my constant git-along, git-alonging little darling traveling schedule. It’s the same reason I have to make sure I keep my hotel room number in my handbag since one number blurs into the next, and then I lock myself out, and then I can’t even remember which room I’m in to ask for another key.

As we ready to say good-bye to those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer (I WISH I’d had them!) I realize with a sigh that the blurry days of travel will stick with me. Oh, well, at least I see friends nearly everywhere I go--whether they're actually there or not.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Why I birthed Traveling Laughs, a travel humor blog

For a couple years I’ve been talking (and man, I can TALK!) about creating a travel blog to help we (yes, I include myself here since I find reading my own words fascinating) road warriors remember that a good laugh - especially at ourselves - can help to eradicate stress and therefore keep our heads from blowing off. Of course since I’m an author currently writing a book a year (read Constant Looming HUGE Deadlines – http://www.welcometopartonville.com/ ) punctuated by publicity stints and a month-long book tour schedule, a speaker who gypsies herself from here to there spreading words of Good Cheer (http://www.dontmissyourlife.com/ ), a one-woman office operation (read I do my own book work – blaaach) and a proud grandmother who simply MUST travel five hours to snag a hug from my sweet munchkin, I’m simply too busy to act on my words.

Until now.

Now, since the day my lipstick and giant Tupperware water bottle became illegal to carry on the airlines, although thank GOODNESS they’ve at least reneged on the lipstick. I find I simply MUST write this blog if for no other reason than to help keep myself laughing!

Thus, in a cosmic melding of my ongoing urge to develop a Traveling Laughs blog, my Real Life and writing a TwinkleGram (my monthly e-mail newsletter http://www.twinklegram.com/) about how I developed a criminal mind during my first flight the day after the above TSA ban, I realized I was also birthing Traveling Laughs.

I hope you enjoy the ongoing ride. I’m not sure how often I’ll drop you a word or 400, but when a Traveling Laugh hits me, I’ll be sure to wing it your way.

Peace and grins,

PS To glean a peek into the clandestine methods a parched-lip, creative type can dream up to beat the TSA’s ban on all things smeary and thirst quenching, visit http://www.twinklegram.com/ and look for the August 24, 2006 edition.