Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roadtrip Ruminations

The last few weeks the gift of a book tour offered me the opportunity to explore a bit o' the Midwest, up close and personal. When possible, I drove back roads. I traveled light (relatively speaking), enjoyed tossing random items in and out of my car, met friendly new people, wore my seatbelt like a good little citizen, and, when possible, sought out the local diner.

[POINT OF REFERENCE:  in my book, "local diner" includes Waffle House. File that where you will.]

Two days ago I boarded an airplane for vacation. Let me rephrase. Two days ago, I schlepped, bounced and careened my body and stuff down a narrow aisle until I reached my middle seat, whereupon I set about wedging all the aforementioned into my miniscule allocated areas. I wore my seatbelt like a good lttle citizen, and, when possble, tried to rearrange my arms without breaking a seatmate's ribs.

These combined recent adventures brought a few random traveling observations to my attention. I find myself talking about them, dwelling on them and wondering what on earth we will come up with next. (Somebody smack me.)

--A SURPRISE encounter that falls under the heading, SAY WHAT?!

I'll preface by saying (admitting, confessing?) that I don't drink coffee. Never have. Don't like the stuff. Sit next to me on an airplane with garlic breath and I won't mind. I like garlic. I will, in fact, suddenly crave spaghetti. But sit next to me with coffee breath and I shall spend the next several hours breathing through my mouth so I don't have to smell your blaaaachy coffee.
I drink tea. Hot, cold, spicy, loose-leaf, latted... No sugar. I drink iced tea all year round. Lots of it. So imagine my surprise (and annoyance) when a gal in a cute little coffee shop in Oconomowoc Wisconsin told me iced tea season was over. "Do you sell iced coffee all winter?" Yes, they did.

I tried to explain that tea is IN now and that tea shops are springing up all over the place, incuding this kiosk-y one at O'Hare airport.  Even tea accessories are on the rise. Tea is GOOD for you, I said. They didn't care, nor did they offer to steep hot tea and give me a glass of ice--which apparently is out of season there too.
Ya know, try telling a beer drinker that cold beer is out of season, especially in WISCONSIN! HEL-LO!
--This next observation arrived in a great little diner in Albuquerque New Mexico: two nongender (well, gender neutral--you know what I mean) bathrooms. It's not that I haven't seen gender neutral potties before, and when I have I always think SO SMART! But the sign on this particular door caught my attention. Check it out.

When I exited, a gentleman waiting on the waiting bench just outside the doors (handy) nearly knocked me over getting into my vacated room--even though the other restroom was available. And even though I knew better, my initial kneejerk and instinctive reaction was that I'd entered the wrong sex bathroom. We don't have gender neutral bathrooms in my hometown suburb, so this "we go both ways" thing is still new to me. But I rechecked both signs, and nope, I was good to go. (Actually, I'd already gone, but again, you know what I mean.) However, after studying the details, I discovered the other restroom did not proclaim the "urinal included" on its sign. Which made me wonder: was that guy a severe creature of habit too, i.e. "Where resideth the urinal, so I must goeth"?

--In a family restaurant in Woodstock Illinois, the bread basket set me to pondering. (I notice Panera's is doing this same quirky "thing" with the cookies and muffins.) When the waitress brought the bread basket to the table, rather than arriving wafting of yeast and yummy, a mound of individually prepackaged items showed up. Now, I get the sensibilities of such packaging, especially during flu season. But this is simply not inviting. It looks more like hospital food.

When I travel, there's a reason I seek out the good old diners, family-owned cafes and independent coffee shops. They radiate "Belly up, sojourner. Come sit a spell, wet your whistle and break bread with us." But seriously, when local fare boils down to "Come sit (or stand at the urinal if you choose the room on the left), wet your whistle on our terms only, and break open the cellophane on our bread," something is lost in translation.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bathroom Turbulence

Since the methodology of Accomplishing Your Business in public restrooms is ever changing, one never knows what to expect.

Back in the good old days, the obvious was.
  • Reach for your share of a small roll of toilet paper.
  • Flush toilet to flush it.
  • Turn faucet to start water.
  • Turn faucet to stop water.
  • Pull cotton roll or paper towels to dry hands.
  • Or, push button on hand dryer and spend next five minutes trying to dry hands.
  • If used paper, toss paper towel in giant and obvious waste paper basket.
  • Open bathroom door with (OH MY! We DIDN'T!) bare hands to exit, which, if you were forced to use the dryer, were still wet because the air dryer puffed (barely) cold air.
  • Done.
Then things, they fluxxed and changed in a hurry. Before we knew it, new (new, new!) procedures started going something like this:
  • Attempt to enter stall and turn around since toilet paper roll is as big as a small child, waste basket takes up space, door swings in (Duh!), suitcase can't fit between you and toilet and door you're trying to close ...
  • Toilet flushes.
  • Squat and toilet flushes.
  • Reach for toilet paper and toilet flushes.
  • Do your business—and toilet does not flush.
  • Engage in calisthenics in stall until toilet flushes or you hear your flight number boarding.
  • Put hands under spout to start water (or not).
  • Water turns off before you're done singing Happy Birthday five times.
  • Put hands under spout to start water again (or not).
  • Wildly wave hands in front of electronic "eye," which does not dispense paper towel.
  • Discern there is no "eye" in this towel dispenser so try to look casual as you push the button, like you knew it was there all along and were previously trying to flag a fly out of your face.
  • Open bathroom door with paper towel (H1N1!!!!!!!!!!!) and toss towel …
  • Stuff damp towel in your pocket because waste basket is not near enough.
  • Done. Sort of.
But just when I thought I had every option in the system down pat (well, you know what I mean), during a recent trip to Denver, things switched up again when I found myself in the nongender (wow!) restroom at the Rioja Restaurant! (A short review of yummy restaurant follows this post.)
When I got to the dry-your-hands part, I discovered the Dyson Airblade. (ACTION video link) With the Dyson Airblade (scary name, no?), one dips ones hands down into the BLASTING AIR, or "blade." (See Rioja directions in top photo.) Sha-ZAM! Your hands are dried.
I don't wear acrylic nails, but I'm wondering if they could endure such a swift and complete BLAST without taking flight! If you want to dry your hair, you're out of luck--unless your head is unusually small. And if you could fit your head down into the "blade," I'm guessing it would blow your eyes out of their sockets, and maybe an ear or two off your head.
The whole experience was so exciting and efficient that I returned to the table and told my tablemates they simply must check it out, which they did.
What next? A bidet (first two link definitions will crack you up, and I am, BTW, talking about #1-hahahaha!) that does it all? If Dyson takes to this idea, HANG ON TO YOUR PARTS!

Charlene short review of the Rioja: LOVED IT!
The Rioja Picnic appetizer (above) is worth the trip.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do (right?)

Yesterday I received an email from Hilton HHonors. The opening line: “We’ve missed you!”

"Aw, gee. I kinda miss you too," I said out loud, "don't I?"

They were writing to let me know that it’s been nine months since they noticed any activity on my account. (Okay, so they did not say they missed my cutesy-pie face, or my natural beauty mark on my right cheek, or the sound of my perky voice, but I’ll take it.) In fact, they were so personally and tenderly sad about my absence that they took time out of their busy day to remind me of our long history together. “Remember, to keep your account active, you must earn HHonors points at least once every 12 months. Otherwise, your membership may be cancelled and all of your points forfeited.”

So, if I am unable “to be one with them" some time during the next three months, our entire history together--including my previous decades of brand loyalty--will be erased. Gheesh. Kinda reminds me of a traumatic high school breakup.

But still, Hilton HHonors loves me more than United Airlines because at least Hilton HHonors took the time to warn me I’ll lose my points (not brownie points, but points I earned by spending money with them) if I don’t activate. United? When I got within a couple months of losing all my points, they gave me the silent treatment: they stopped sending me statements, which is even worse than a text message break up. Next thing I knew, my nearly 40,000 points were simply gone, as was my desire to ever “be one with them” again.

The truth is, even though Hilton HHonors is, at the very least, threatening to break up with me, I do still like and miss them. Comfortable beds. Reliably clean and consistent. Easy-to-use alarm clocks. In the case of Hampton Inns, cutesy pictures near the room doors and in the elevators to help me find my weary way back to where I belong.... In fact, I was recently so lonesome for them that while making travel arrangements, I instinctively clicked on the familiar face of their website. However, after checking a few prices, I discovered that brand loyalty would cost me twenty to forty bucks more per night over the Holiday Inn Express, so I two-timed and booked with them. I must say, the Holiday Inn Express' free breakfast made me think twice about bragging on the free breakfast at the Hampton Inn. Plus, I chalked up some Priority Club points with the Holiday Inn Express stay, including 1000 extra points for staying two nights and skipping full service for my room! (Call me a point hussy if you must.)

I’m gearing up to book two more stays for an upcoming trip. Of course I don’t wish to intentionally break up with Hilton HHonors, or to have them erase me from their memory. But seriously, if I have to spend more money to date them, to keep my relationship going with them, how am I ultimately coming out ahead just by racking up points—which can disappear due to my lack of travel plans?

Hilton HHonors did tell me this in their not-quite-dumping me email: one of the ways I can keep our relationship hot and steamy is to purchase a resort condo with Hilton Grand Vacations. Within the next three months.

You know, if I could afford to do that, I wouldn’t be writing about trying to save twenty bucks. I guess all relationships are relative to what matters most. Right now, it’s my pocketbook.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Don't Miss Your Life!

I'm taking a moment here to publicly celebrate the publication of my 13th book: Don't Miss Your Life!: An Uncommon Guide to Living with Freedom, Laughter and Grace. I am grateful, ecstatic, excited and hopeful the book will find its way into the hands of those who most need a boost, an encouragement and a laugh. Early reader feedback is FIVE STAR! (Click on above link to the Amazon site to see for yourself.)

An excerpt from the Publisher's Weekly review said readers are, "... treated to poignant essays on the power of imagination, the importance of questioning assumptions, awakening every sense, living in a balanced way or falling with a splat. Baumbich’s text is just what the doctor ordered for a time such as this; laughter is good medicine indeed and there are plenty of guffaws to be found on every page.

Yesterday I learned that Don't Miss Your Life! hit #5 on the Chicagoland Indie Bestseller list for trade paperback nonfiction for the week ending June 7--and it just released June 2!

So, if you're looking for the three Ls in a good travel book (light-weight [as in weighs little], laughter laden, lifting to the spirit) for your next trip, pick up a copy. Even though the cover features ladies legs and twirly skirts, Publisher's Weekly also pointed out, "
The author’s comic rehashing of life’s more ironic and bizarre happenings will be valued by readers of both genders."


To learn more about my writing and speaking, visit my website.

Expect the unexpected

This I know to be true about travel: one must expect the unexpected. To "celebrate" this truthism, I herewith submit my "favorite" list of things to unexpect when traveling:

  • sleep (how to "make" it happen?)
  • favorable conditions (both with your body and travel schedules)
  • no road work (is there a reason the roads can't be as indestructible as black boxes?)
  • removal of tolls (I live in Illinois. Hear my prayer.)
  • easy segues from one side of a security checkpoint to the next (honestly, if it's not the person in front of me causing the problem, it's me!)
  • weather that does not impede plans (why don't I just bang my had against the wall?)
  • short lines for anything (especially restrooms)
  • toilet paper holders in restrooms smaller than a grocery cart (can they put them higher up the wall so they're not causing us to sit sidesaddle?!)
  • flushing only when you want flushing (showers where you do not want showers)
  • pricing stability (for better or for worse)
  • short productive meetings (sometimes I'll take either)
  • favorable salt-in-the-food conditions (I hate it when I blow up like a puffer fish)
  • happy seatmates (I'm sure I've failed at being one)
  • sanity (defined as ... ???)

But sometimes, we do get what we hope for, but do not necessarily "expect." It's always the little things that mean the most:

  • a sympathetic, patient, determined ticket agent (YAY!)
  • a heart-warming and just right bowl of soup with warm bread (Mmmm)
  • toilet paper (thank goodness)
  • a magazine that lasts the whole flight (with publishing the way it is, this is a miracle!)
  • a roadside cafe where you are sincerely welcomed when you walk in the door (bless you)
  • a just right mattress (my heart beats for Goldilocks)
  • an air conditioner that doesn't bang when it turns on and off (HAL-LE-LU-JAH!)
  • a boiled egg in the midst of donuts (protein!)
  • finding the thing you fret you forgot to pack (celebration!)
  • fresh brewed iced tea (it's good to be awake when speaking in front of an audience)
  • an abundance of smiling faces (there is power in a smile)
  • the perfect hot dog or veggie sandwich (perfect, as in, tasty, available and fast)
  • a surprise encounter with someone you know (grace)
  • the determination to make the best of each circumstance (grit)
When I truthfully examine each item on any of my traveling lists, above all, the determination to make the best of each circumstance is The Most Important--which is why I travel with a wad of toilet paper in my handbag. Just in case.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Here We Go 'Round the Roaming Ring (or doesn't ring)

Old story, new twist. And it just keeps getting twistier: how to stay connected to the world when one travels, or one lives in a remote area? I'd appreciate it if you would weigh in with your opinions. A decision must be made.

--I am at The Farm where I come "hide" to write. We rent this place all year long, and I come and go.

--I've been a Verizon wireless cell phone user since they were Ameritech, which not even my spellcheck remembers. I stay with Verizon because their customer service rocks and I can always get and keep a connection, even when fellow travelers using other wireless companies cannot.

--I should have written that last item in past tense, as in, "used to could." The Verizon commercials showing all those kinda creepy stalking "network" folks currently sends me BALLISTIC! In my cannot-stay-connected state, I can only imagine that that severely nosy herd of people is standing on--and therefore compressing and ruining--whatever used to make my connection WORK!

--Lots of people, as in many, have told me, "Beware of Sprint!"

--The only options I have here for Internet are: dial-up (currently using HBCI); driving 6 miles to town to a free Wi-Fi zone; broadband card; satellite ($$$); or a private guy who charges spendy fees plus an expensive equipment buy-in, and who will not buy equipment back should we decide to stop renting here.

--Verizon said, "Pay us $30 extra/month and use your Blackberry Storm as a modem!" Interesting how well that worked at home in IL but not here, where my signal switches (hyperactively flips and flops) between EVDO and 1X and dropped and no service at all--same as with my voice usage.

--I am on Verizon "roaming" when here at The Farm (a-HAH!). Here, Verizon partners with Alltel, who earlier today told me to my face that they're currently using (as in switched over to) a Sprint tower (say what?) until Verizon takes them (Alltel) over within the next few months. Supposedly Verizon is "doing something." As of 9/1, this Alltel store will be a Verizon store (Alltel customers have been notified), but ... will the towers all hopefully be upgraded, or steadied, or redirected, or get over their menopause, or be on Ritalin by then?

--Over the past several months, I have put in three tickets with Verizon to have them figure out why I cannot stay connected via CELL PHONE here, to which they respond--and I am reading this directly from one of the three identical ticket responses they've sent me--"(Verizon) trouble ticket NRB etc. has come back as a marginal coverage area." When I say I cannot stay connected, I mean sometimes for hours at a time I have no service at all. Or one bar (never more than 2) and/or tons of dropped calls. Or supposedly 2 bars but my phone doesn't ring and 5 hours later I find out I have a message. Or, a good connection with no troubles.

--This "marginal coverage area" didn't used to be that, at least in terms of consistent service, so ... what happened? I assured Verizon that I did not move the house, so why did I used to (at least five years' worth) happily live without this misery? Alltel "roaming" issues? Sprint tower "roaming" troubles? A bad Verizon marriage with renegade roamers?

Since it is YOU I pay, Verizon, it is from you I expect intelligent answers. How did I recently and mysteriously become "marginalized" in a location you are soon taking over, which means I shall no longer be roaming? (Then, *228 will hopefully actually WORK, which your tech support has recommended to me several times, but which does not work in your ROAMING areas!) But does that mean that in the end, I will, or will not, still be marginalized?

--A couple weeks ago, Sprint offered a two-day deal: free broadband card, no activation fee, 30-day trial, pro-rated on a month-long fee ($60 per month). After which a 2-year contract locks in.

Can you say, desperate? Despite the warnings, why not try it?

--I spent nearly FOUR HOURS in the Sprint store while they worked to get my laptop operating with the software for their free high-speed broadband card. Which they never did figure out. So they gave me the upgraded card for free. (Do you SEE the good customer service in the free upgrade, and the irony in four hours for high-speed?) Nonetheless, the end result is that they prevailed (YAY!) and the USB card immediately finds and holds a "CDMA EVDO REV A" connection like nobody's business! It works best when I use the tether, as seen in the photo, rather than plugging it straight into the port. It has not operated at less than 40%, most often is 60%+ and sometimes 100% of that CDMA EVDO REV A. Compared to dial-up, it is greased lightening. I am ecstatic! So, I got that high-speed Internet connection going.

But what about my cell? And ...

-- Since my Sprint 30-day broadband card test period is winding down, I wonder:

  • once Verizon kicks in here, might they totally get their act together, and for $30/month rather than Sprint's $60, will my Blackberry Storm actually work well as a modem?
  • Or, might Verizon's presence change "something" about the towers that causes the Sprint card to not work as well, i.e. might the FCC ding Sprint or Verizon over those fair trade "issues?"
  • Verizon told me they don't have control over tower things (it's in the hands of the FCC, they say, so no promises), so assuredly, Sprint has no control either. But when will I know For Sure?

--Verizon is taking over Alltel here in "3rd quarter," (July?) but cannot (or won't?) guarantee anything will get better here due to that "marginalized" status, which Sprint did not use as an excuse since they've come in with new 3G service. However, Alltel store guys (soon to be Verizon employees) tell me the service will absolutely positively assuredly get better once they are Verizon.


  • Do I return the Sprint card in order to keep from locking in a 2-year contract, banking that Verizon does get their act together?
  • Do I keep the Sprint card anyway, and then have 2 options for calls: Verizon cell phone or Sprint broadband using Skype?
  • If I keep both, I could (and financially would have to) rid myself of the Qwest land line, Qwest, who has--YIKES!--partnered with Verizon Wireless! And obviously, no land line, no dial-up as back-up. If I don't need it, who cares? But I'm just sayin' ...
  • However, is it possible that the FCC could cause both Sprint and Verizon to let me down? I wouldn't think so, but then I never thought Verizon or their current roaming partner, which is either Alltel or Sprint or "marginal" inducing aliens, would annihilate my ability to stay connected either.

HELP! Opinions, please? I'd especially appreciate your opinion if you are one of those bazillion Verizon network guys supposedly following everybody around but me.

Readers, I'd appreciate if you'd use the COMMENTS section of this blog to weigh in rather than email me. That way, we can comment on each other's comments too. Hey, pretty soon, we, too, might create our OWN "network" of stalking people and therefore rule the world.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Still my dog.

Still my dog.
Originally uploaded by twinklechar
Some days, the best traveling companion is the one who doesn't complain, and who loves you just the way you are.

Kornflake is ready to hit the road at the drop of the word "ride?" He travels light, settles in well and occasionally sniffs my ear. He is kind, interested and loves the drive-through windows that hand him a treat too.

All hail the tail-wagging traveling doggies of the world!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Brain Trippin'

Since for a few weeks I've been sequestered in MN to write (and still a couple more weeks to come), the most traveling I've indulged is local. Still, in my mind, I am often "gone." Hanging out "over there," which is anywhere but at my keyboard.

Since I write fiction, the ability to mentally transition to "over there" is a good thing. But sometimes, my mind zings right through the back door of my fictional town and takes flight.

For instance, as I type, I sit in a coffee shop in this here college town, occasionally raising my head to look out the window. I watch in amazement as cars, pedestrians and bicyclists flash by. So many people on the move. So many real and muse driven stories whirring into the cosmos with each step and turn.

Curiosity begs I study the five women at the table across from me who just burst into laughter. I imagine the dreams tucked deep inside, their friendships (jealousies, betrayals, distortions, heartaches, secrets), adventures and travels.

When I log into my Facebook account (“Writer at work. Please interrupt.”), I take special notice of those who are packing, leaving, returning, sightseeing, working a trade show, vacationing or rendering a teary farewell to visiting friends and relatives. "Traveling mercies," I whisper, recalling tired hours in airports, frustrating seatmates, disturbing noises in the hotel room next to mine.

But just like that, I also long for the days when I deplaned in a far-away place and soon spotted an exotic new restaurant. Or thanked the bell hop who carried my bags to my room. Or chatted with the most interesting people sitting next to me on the trolley in Amsterdam.

Yes, so many stories whirring into the cosmos with each step and turn.

For now, 'tis mine to be happy where I'm planted. It's enough--and it's exciting--to be able to take that mind's ride to the foreign and familiar places my fictional characters lead me. And I shall do that, right after one more study of those five women. One more look out the window at all those people going all those places.

Right after one more evaluation of why the grass is always greener on the other side of my day-trippin' mind.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Traveling Vanities

After I wrote about my two Kipling bags, I merrily packed them, tossed them in my car and headed to The Farm for a long writing encampment. YAY! But once I got here, I had to carry my largest bag up 20 steps. That was up, in case you missed it.

The gasping incident got me to thinking about something I said (hear the happy chirp in my voice?), which was that I can always stuff one more thing into those bags. However, is that the Good News or the Bad News? Today, my back tells me it's the latter.

Let's consider the pros and cons of all expandable bags.

  • can accommodate vacation souvenirs
  • one more book fits down the edge
  • one more rolled pair of jeans tucks into a corner
  • one more anything, really, always fits
  • one more anything always fits
And still, for this trip, even though I continuously added one more item to my ab-fab bag, I forgot to bring a few necessary items with me. Yet, I also stuffed in several more items than I need. That's the way it is with me and packing and expandable bags. When I'm off my carry-on only style packing, I'm often off my good sense.

The Good News is that when we forget something, we can almost always buy what we forgot and pack it in the expandable bag. Then hope we don't have to carry it up any stairs, or that it now doesn't fit in the overhead bin. (How often have you witnessed that?) The Bad News is that we can also saddle ourselves with exhaustion--especially if it's a multi-legged trip.

Let's consider a new point of view: finite space. If, when packing for a business trip, (fill-in-the-blank) doesn't fit and we choose not to swap it out for something else, we can usually make do without it for a trip. No shopping. Packing multi-purpose items is smart. A lipstick serves as a blush. We can dress up jeans with the right top, sports jacket and/or accessories. Toothpaste cleans my jewelry and plugs nail holes in walls. (I'm just saying ...) Socks and underwear can be washed, or, if desperate enough, worn again. I realize we have the euwwww factor there, but I'm talking desperate and efficient, not Hygiene 101.

And let's face it, when I get on an airplane or climb behind the wheel, I am dressed in at least one of everything I need to proclaim decency. If I forgot to pack a second whatever, it's not the end of the world. In cash-strapped times such as these, I ask: is "having to shop" to maintain appearances for one trip really necessary, or is it a vanity? Unless, of course, you're the best man at a wedding and wearing Bermuda shorts. Then again, no matter what anyone is wearing, vows can still be taken, right? Lifelong commitments don't depend upon decorum, no matter what the wedding photographer says. And in the world of business, contracts can still be signed, deals negotiated and widgets sold. To show up and admit your clothes don't match because you are human and forgot to pack something might even tip the scales in your favor. Honesty and humor don't take up any space in a suitcase, and they might even help seal the deal.

If I take myself to my own bottom line, the only thing I truly can't live without on any given trip is my medications. (Even when I once ran out of meds on an extended trip, Walgreen's bailed me out.)

I can already hear you saying, "But Charlene, what about phones and laptops?" Come on, people! They're all around us. Do I want to travel without them? No. But I could. My speaking notes? Can I talk for an hour without them? You betcha! Would I be coherent? Maybe. My winter coat during January? Can I not layer enough other stuff? Don't I usually just scurry from the airport to the hotel room to the venue anyway? Hey! I used to live on a farm. I can tough it out for a day or two, can't I? Sunscreen? Bet I could borrow some, or pay somebody for a squirt of theirs. Money? Got my credit cards.

So I ask you, what could you absolutely not do without? Or better yet, what could you leave behind that you always lug along, yet almost never use? Seriously, I'm asking.

As for me and my bags, I'm thinking expandable can be abused, and finite space can be tricky. But given the choice, I'd pick traveling lighter--and with someone who brings a giant expandable bag.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bag Lady

My Class of '63 high school graduation gift from my parents was a set of luggage. My favorite piece: the cosmetic case--the item that, should I actually fly anywhere, stayed with me, making me feel utterly grown up. It was a beige, vinyl, hard-shell, double snap-lock rectangular case, complete with a "vanity mirror" built into the lid.

Although it hasn't traveled with me for nearly 40 years, it remains with me, serving as official Keeper of the G.I. Joe body parts (not a single soldier remains in tact, long ago blown to bits), hand gernades, and other miscellaneous weaponry and camo/combat clothing. My sons, now 44 and 38, occasionally take a look-see and relive an explosion or two.

Over time, I've worked my way through several more versions of what I imagined to be the perfect catch-all carry-on, until I used it/them. They've ranged the gambit of color (including polka dots), material, size and handiness--or not. I've tested wheels vs. no wheels. (For the record, one of my 2 carry-ons must have wheels. End of story.) The jumbo vs. how-small-can-you-live-with versions (the more regional jets we're forced to fly, the smaller the bag). Then there's the "pockets are a good thing"; why don't I ever look in the right pocket first?!

I never discard the older bags since one never knows which one might best serve an upcoming trip, or one day become a kind of morgue for sundry items. Sometimes I drag one out and think, "What was wrong with this?" By the time I'm home, I remember. Back in the corner it goes, waiting for the next time I forget.

But sometimes, that oldie bag serves just the right purpose for "such a trip as this." You know what I mean. While one journey requires three changes of clothing, the next only needs a clean pair of underwear. Some gigs need props, notebooks, laptop and an odd assortment of shoes, while the next works best with two pair of bluejeans and a bulky sweater. Different bags for different strokes.

But I have to admit that this red Kipling bag (comes in many colors) has been traveling with me for several years now, and it still looks like new. So far, I've had no desire to swap it out. I discovered Kipling bags in an airport during one of those loooong layovers. I bet I opened, closed, zipped, unzipped and pretended I was packing at least a dozen different sizes.

Some of my favorite things about this awesome Sherpa:

  • When empty, it weighs almost nothing.
  • When I'm not using it, it wads up for easy storage.
  • I can always manage to cram one more thing into it.
  • It's sort of waterproof.
  • The interior is beige, which makes it easy to explore. (I've sworn off black interiors, including in hand bags.)
  • The exterior pouch pockets hold just the right amount of stuff.
  • The long exterior zipper compartment offers all types of slots for all types of organizing of all types of little things.
  • The zippers and snaps are incredibly strong and easy to work.
  • It has both hand grips and a shoulder strap, the latter which I never use.
  • It easily rides on top of a wheeled bag, and in fact has a sleeve to slip over the handle of same--although the grip on the handle of my favorite Briggs and Riley wheelie (mine looks likes this, but doesn't have this type of handle, so I'm not sure ...) is too wide to fit through the sleeve, and that's the one I usually couple it with.
  • Thankfully, the thumb-sucking gorilla geegaw (for real) that comes with it is detachable.
  • Items can be rearranged within the bag so as to I'LL MAKE IT FIT! into some of the small stowaway compartments.

I own another of these Kipling bags, a big one. Again, I can always stuff one more thing into it, and it weighs nearly nothing when empty. When stuffed, I have to check it (although when not over packed, it can schmoosh into the overhead bin), but when I travel back and forth to The Farm, where I go hide to write (new website, so check it out), it's awesome! Socks in one end zipper compartment, undies on the other (easy to find), and everything else in either the exterior zipper compartment or the generous duffel.

I went a Googling so I could tell you exactly which model of that large bag I have. Although I couldn't find either on the actual Kipling site (could just be me), I did manage to locate the smaller one on Of course as with all things (wallets, bras, toilet paper ...), my favorites never seem to stick around long, so I was glad to find at least the Sherpa still going strong. (Check out the awful gorilla hanging on the left side in that photo.)

While I was toodling around, looking at other Kipling bags, I heard myself think, "Oh, that new bag looks even more perfect!"

Charlene, DO NOT FALL FOR IT! Reread your own post. You have the perfect bag!

What about you? What's your favorite carry-on, get-the-job-done bag? Or, do you, too, have a gem of a retired oldie you're using for special storage? Please, let us know about it by posting your comment here, under--duh--COMMENTS!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A First-Class View

In real time, I'm in Chicagoland, staring out the window above the top of my monitor at today's gray sky. But in my mind, I'm in Amsterdam enjoying the exquisite panoramic view through the bathroom window in room 343 of the Hotel Okura.

It's interesting, the way some things lodge in our memories and spring to life on the grayest of days. Last October's business trip to Amsterdam was a grand one. But among my most alive memories is the glorious moment I first witnessed that view from the bathroom. Never mind I had the same view from the bedroom, but from the bathroom? Through those giant windows surrounding the over-the-sink mirrors? And from the throne? WOWIE!

Lest you think I'm gearing up for potty talk, nay. I'm done with it and moving on to a few other fine Hotel Okura details. As described on their website, the Hotel Okura Amsterdam is "An island of tranquillity in a city full of surprises."


To set a baseline for my review particulars, I am a budget traveler. My typical self-booked itineraries are filled with the likes of Hampton Inns (predictably clean and worthy), coach-class airfare and casual dining. I love Waffle Houses, hot dog stands and a good old greasy spoon breakfast. Sure, during my Dearest Dorothy book tours I was treated to many lavish and wonderful hotels (thank you, Penguin Books), but were I to "credential" myself on my life-long qualifications to review facilities the caliber of Hotel Okura, my title might be something like The Lame Gourmet and Budget Broad. Nonetheless, I know elegance when I experience it.

Marcel P. van Aelst, general manager, and Tamara Tong Sang, PR manager of the hotel, graced our group with a personal behind-the-scenes tour of the Hotel Okura's facilities, including The Suite, which is 5390 square feet and includes a private cinema. Oh, baby. That was something! If you have to ask how much a night, you can't afford it. But if you're one who doesn't have to ask, book it. You will not be disappointed. Our tour also took us through the Ciel Bleu kitchen mid-afternoon (doors not open yet), when chefs were fast at work. Who wouldn't want to eat at that Chef's Table, when again, you have that view?!

A couple more personal favorite highlights of Hotel Okura Amsterdam:

--Ciel Bleu Restaurant on the 23rd floor, the only restaurant in Amsterdam awarded with two Michelin stars. (Honestly, I'd never heard of that starry award before. But now, having eaten there, I get why--and it has nothing to do with tires and all to do with first class.) My rich dinner dining experience lasted for hours. I've never seen so many shapes of dishes; the courses just kept on coming. If you think you go the extra mile to prepare for dinner guests, study that picture. Yes, she is ironing the tablecloth.

MY VERDICT: Every tasty crumb and sauce smear was worth every euro I paid for it.

--Cocktails in the Twenty Third bar. Great, warm atmosphere. Comfortable. Kitschy. Whatever all is in that crunchy blend snack they serve, it kicks popcorn petoot!

THE VERDICT: I went back the second night of my stay, so obviously I enjoyed it.

--The lovely location along one of Amsterdam's tranquil canals (picture from in front of the hotel, not at the hotel), and the easy access to transportation just about anywhere.

THE VERDICT: If I ever get back to Amsterdam, count me in at the Hotel Okura for at least a night. I'm already saving my money for another dinner at the Ciel Bleu and once again daydreaming about Amsterdam, its loveliness--from just about any view imaginable.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Flying High and Grateful

The moment I laid eyes on this photo, I emitted a happy, deep, belly laugh. After a quick study, I cried a bucket of happy tears.

Of course not everyone had the same reaction. Some folks playfully queried the subject, who posted this self-portrait on his Flickr page, as to whether or not the "matter" on his face came from his nose. He explained that what froze to his face came "mostly from deep within the lungs."


Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Hear the swoosh. Picture the snowboarder whisking downhill, cutting right, then left. Up. Airborne. Soft landing.

Inhale. Exhale.

Energy. Beauty surrounding energy. Twinkling eyes taking it all in as it looms ahead, rushes by. Warm streams of well-spent exhilarating breath vaporizing in the high-altitude air, collecting as ever increasing evidence that this man travels fast, unbridled, unaware of anything but the freeing rush of his rocky mountain high-speed decent.

If you can't relate to my laughing/crying response to the icy-faced picture, perhaps you didn't look closely enough. Stare deep into his eyes, then allow your eyes to blur a bit, as if allowing those dotted pictures to sort themselves into an emerging 3-D image of ... you. See the happy look in your eyes when you stand knee-deep in a glorious ocean, or slice your water skis through warm lake water, hook a lunker musky, sink a twenty-foot put, ring the bell at the county fair, ace your test, catch that first glimpse of your loved one deplaning--or recognize the muse tapping you on the shoulder with the most playful and uncommon story.


Now can you recognize the look in the eyes of the shining face in the above picture that caused this mother to first laugh, then cry?

The utter look of satisfaction in his familiar, warm, brown, 44-year-old eyes serves as a testimony to this magnificent news: "YOUR SON FLEW TODAY! Your son, your wild child--your born-to-fly child--flew alive and well in his soul. Fast. Downhill. Free. Gathering life, and memories, and a photo opportunity birthed from deep within his precious lungs."

Inhale. Exhale.

Laugh. Cry.

Fly, baby, fly.

With all the muck in the world, I hope this post serves as a reminder that unbridled joy still exists. I encourage you to find small pockets of it, capture it, and pass it on!

Photos used by permission of Bret Lee Haskins, the one and only.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Isn't this the way of All Things Cosmic? Shortly after I posted "Family Planning (no, not that kind)" I heard from Lisa Tawn Bergren, one of the founders of Due to the infiltration of some bad guys, their forms for submissions are presently out of commission. However, the site is fully operating and she's standing by, eager to hear from you, so ... I'll let Lisa tell you how you can submit.

"We'd love to hear about your family's travels! To submit a report and encourage others to travel in a multi-generational sort of way, just send a Word document to, along with a few pictures that document the trip (please note: our form to submit is currently disconnected, so please submit it this way). You might end up on our front page for March's update!"

--Lisa Tawn Bergren,

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Family Planning (no, not that kind)

Back when my youngest son was a toddler (he's now 38, so we're truly talking "back when"), our little family of four drove from Chicago to New Mexico to visit my parents and do a little skiing. Even after all these years, here's a few "highlights" I remember about that trip:

  • Our diaper-wearing toddler experiencing "stomach distress" on the drive out there, back before the days of "family changing tables" in every public restroom. As I recall, he--all of us, including the car--needed a bath by the time it was over, not just a diaper and clothing change.
  • How good it was to laugh and share with my folks; how glad they were to see us.
  • The pristine beauty of the ski slopes.
  • The hospital where they put the cast on my leg.
  • Watching my husband pack the car--ski equipment, suitcases and our oldest son--for the drive home without me. There was no way I could endure the trip.
  • Sitting in the bulkhead seat, battered leg extended in front of me, toddler trying to slide down my cast, PAIN, and the utter lack of help anyone (flight staff or seatmates) were willing to extend.
FACTOID: a toddler and a straight, casted leg do not both handily (or unhandily) fit in the lavatories in airplanes. Unless you've experienced this contortion, you can only imagine .... But don't. It will give you a headache.

My, how things have changed for family travelers. (Not including airline lavatories.) Sure, toddlers still get stomach distress in inconvenient places, and so do we. But these days, there are so many family-friendly resources--right down to those handy-dandy changing tables. Now, I marvel as I watch that same son disappear into the men's room with his daughter, who needs a diaper change, and think, HURRAY for PROGRESS! (Take that any way you like.)

If you travel with family (and even if you don't), check out this truly unique resource with an interesting concept: Not only do the seasoned traveler founders of the site (the Shonts and the Bergrens) offer superb and detailed first-person experience as it relates to their own family travels--complete with pictures, tips and a few warnings--but they also collect first-hand information from families who've ventured to all kinds of places (Petra, Nevis, Dracula's Castle to name a few), and from those who live in those places.

Opening words on their "About Us" page: "We’re the Bergrens and the Shonts's, friends who dared to venture to Italy together and returned home better friends than ever (a feat in itself!). Our trip in Fall 2005 from Rome to Venice was fabulous, and only whet our appetite to travel more—and show our kids what it means to be a global citizen."

WORTH A REWIND OF A REREAD: " our kids what it means to be a global citizen." Now that, dear reader, is a worthy goal in and of itself!

Examples of helpful family hints in the travellogs [sic] section:

HOW TO HELP GROW THE NEW SITE: The Trip Advice page accepts shorter input from readers such as, "Share Knowledge. Think: Recommendations ('Do this!') & Warnings ('Avoid this...') Post as many as you would like." There's even a place to tell out-of-town visitors what they might want to do when they visit your home turf. invites you to send "postcards" from the best day of your trip and, like I said, to upload full-fledged family travellogs [sic]. Those posted are always well thought out and interesting (hint-hint); I haven't yawned once during a read. The folks running the site then vet and organize them.

Real people helping real people. Seems especially important when traveling with your family, and much more reliable than some of the come-hither information contained in glitzy brochures and souped-up travel sites that make everything appear so remarkable. Yes, I know, I KNOW that brochures and websites can also be highly spot-on and helpful, but when you're taking your munchkins along, you want to make sure.

So, you submit, the site organizes and grows, and we all read and benefit. You read before you travel, and maybe not only find a few out-of-the-way and uncommon gems, but you save yourself some headaches.

As they say, it's all good.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Toot-Tooting Down Memory-laden Tracks

In the midst of a way too busy schedule, yesterday I decided to take time out for lunch with a friend. Sometimes I just need to air out the old brain so that I can return to the heavy work load in my office with a sense of refreshment. You know, change the scenery, think about something for an hour or so that doesn’t relate to my own “issues,” deadlines and why-is-everything-so-last-minute?! frustrations. I find when I don’t do this, I end up spinning my wheels and getting cranky. Very cranky.

My friend and I decided to meet at a nearby and relatively new restaurant, one that delivers the food to your table (or seat at the counter, where most of the eating takes place) via Lionel electric trains. Decades ago, there used to be a little independent café in a neighboring town with this same unique attraction. I remember going there as a kid, watching, waiting for that little train laden with my burger and fries to make it’s way out of the kitchen, down the counter, until it chugged to a stop right in front of me.

Upon entering the 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, I was happy to see the same type of setup. After I got seated, I couldn’t help but watch the anticipatory eyes of the little boy seated between his grandparents on the other side of the loop. It was like catching a glimpse at what my excitement must have looked like way back when.

Here’s how the food delivery works: the flat bed train car containing say your hand-pattied burger (their specialty), tuna salad, or egg salad sandwich, stops in front of you. (video here, but for the Downers Grove location, not the Glen Ellyn location which we frequented.) Then your waitress “unloads” your order (all meals come in a plastic basket, aside from my soup, which did not arrive via train) and asks if you’d like anything else. Occasionally someone blows what sounds like a train whistle mounted on the wall; occasionally one of the children orders the Train Whistle Cupcake that comes with a plastic train whistle on top, and of course the first thing they do is to toot-toot away too. If that isn’t enough ambiance, the theme restaurant in Glen Ellyn is located right next to real train tracks, and you can actually feel the building vibrate when a train goes by—total-package effects better than any 3-D movie.

Although the food and the company were good, what I especially enjoyed about my brain break was the trip down memory lane. For much of the lunch, we chatted about our own railroad recollections, including those of the restaurant from our past. But mostly we talked about real train rides. In fact, our dining adventure is still igniting memories, including annual childhood trips (then those with my own children) on the local Metra to “downtown Chicago” to ogle the Christmas windows in what used to be the grand old Marshall Fields, but which is now a Macy’s which, in my opinion, lost its lure during the switchover.

My husband, soon to turn 70, owns several train posters he sent away for as a youth. I keep telling him he should go to one of the monthly Great Midwest Train Show gatherings right here in our county (billed as “The World’s Largest Monthly Train Show”) and show them off, see who else might own them, swap a few yesteryear stories. One poster is from the Monon, a railroad both my grandfather and uncle worked for. I just Googled “Monon train” and wow, the memories those results evoked! I learned there’s even a book called Monon: The Hoosier Line. That’s the one my relatives, who lived in Lafayette, worked for! I am this close to clicking the “buy” button.

I remember my cousins riding the Monon from Lafayette. We’d pick them up in Chicago and go straight to Riverview. I recall taking what I believe (could be wrong here) was the California Zephyr--all the way to California to visit another cousin. I was in high school, and oh, the array of young service men riding the train on that particular Christmas break! Be still my beating heart!

George and I once traveled from Chicago to Albuquerque with our two young sons. During my very short college days at SIU, I can still remember the exhaustion I felt after taking what we referred to as the cattle run from here to Southern Illinois. I think it took 8 hours—when things went well—and stopped at at least a bazillion stations.

Then there was my brother’s Lionel; the train I rode from Thirsk to York to celebrate my 50th birthday trip to England; the entertaining and champagne swilling stream train ride on the Grand Canyon Railway wherein the bad guys rode up next to our steam engine powered train on horseback and “robbed” those of us who paid to experience the reenactment; that little train at Kiddieland I rode as a child, then later stood waving at my own children in it when they passed by…. I even learned about a brand new steam engine (who knew?!) while a-Googling, chasing first one rail trail, then the next, each memory launching me into a new one. Plus, check out this cool site that enables you to find all the surviving steam locomotives in the whole USA!

All this spawned by a lunch break to air out my brain.

I highly recommend you stop what you’re doing and schedule a brain break for yourself. Who knows what mind’s-ride journey you might embark upon.

If this post triggered a train-riding memory for you, rather than email me privately, please share it publically here under COMMENTS. A memory shared helps multiply memories for its readers, and the next thing you know, even in the midst of our otherwise overbooked schedules, we’ll all be traveling—chug-chug, toot-tooting along--to our happy places, even if we don’t have those cute little plastic whistles in our mouths.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Even in the midst ...

Even in the midst of reports of the ravages of winter--cars not starting, road salt shortages, warnings about frost bite, freezing pipes, airport hassles and canceled schools--beauty resides. By way of reminder, I bring you these quiet moments from The Farm in Minnesota. The temperature is dropping. I hear we're getting down to around 25 below zero tonight, with wind chills dipping toward 50 below. I could complain ...

And yet, without the cold, the following daybreak scenes would not exist. As you move from one view to the next, drinking of their beauty, allow yourself to listen for the mystic crunch of fresh snow beneath your boots. Behold, as evidence of your own sacred breath steams forth from your nostrils. Inhale the crisp, awakening air. Feel the coarseness of the winter coat God provides the critters. Smile at the pristine bunny prints, and give thanks that your computer is working so that in the midst of your busy-busy, you can stop for a spell and warmly--ever so warmly--allow yourself to enjoy.

There is beauty in winter. Even if you are stuck in an airport terminal, take a moment to send up a prayer for the warmth of your surroundings and the love of those who miss you while you're gone.

Remember, there is quiet beauty out there. When given the chance, don't forget to notice.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Since so many of my travel writing colleagues have been ticking off reviews about the latest in travel technology, I thought I'd begin the year with my own technbabble column.


Since I'm all technical-like today, to be exact, it's the Blackberry Storm, model 9530. Currently, it is tethered (technical word, I'm sure) to my sexy little Sony VAIO, waiting to be used as a modem. (SPECIFICATION INTERJECTION: the Storm came with the tethering cable, but I have to pay an extra thirty bucks per month--on top of the regular thirty Blackberry bucks per month--to make this modem thing happen.) Why would I want to do that when the Storm can browse and e-mail? Because sometimes you just need to do internet stuff on a big-boy machine.

Those of you who've been reading me for a while already know that this particular Minnesota location, where I come to write, only offers dial-up here at The Farm. Therefore, the modem option sounded appealing. The question is, will it be faster than dial-up? And if it is reliable, might I be able to cancel my landline and the dial-up service? We shall return to these "Big Ifs" later.

For now, let me review what I've thus-far learned about my Blackberry, my FIRST Blackberry EVER. (I'll pause here while you regroup.) Using yet more technical jargon, I shall heretofore refer to the Storm, which I felt like I was living in those first few days, as a smartphone. To be honest, sometimes it's the smarter-than-ME phone, although I'm gaining on it. Why, just day before yesterday, I figured out how to use the Blackberry Desktop software to transfer some of my favorite music into my smartphone. More remarkable, I even know where to FIND the music, and how to listen to it. I've taken pictures (nice!), transferred pictures, e-mailed pictures and often adored the family picture I set as the home screen on the wonderful Storm viewer (or whatever you call the front). I can send and receive e-mails, answer call waiting (this took some training--and my glasses), and receive countless happy-ding reminders about all the things that need doing on my task list, which I've synced with Microsoft Outlook (2003), and lived to tell about. (Talk about SCARY! Thank you, hand-holding technical support!)

My smartphone is SO smart that it turns itself off at the same time every day, and turns itself back on in the morning. It engages in said behavior exactly when I told it to do so, which means I had to at least be a little bit smart, too. (Neener-neener.)

The reason I decided to get a smartphone is simple: I cannot keep up with my e-mail. I don't know how anyone in business can. I just know that those who have smartphones claim they help.

In the world of publishing (perhaps all business?), everyone is overworked and running behind, which means that nearly every e-mail you receive is urgent. "Please get back to us in 2 hours." There is a general assumption that *YOU* are always tethered to your e-mail, and that as soon as the e-mail is sent, it is also read, and will hopefully be obliged. High-speed internet has made for high-speed assumptions. Unread time-lapsed e-mails can cost an author publicity opportunities. For instance, perhaps a radio station needs a guest fill-in, and the show is on in a couple hours, and the message gets relayed in an e-mail because it seems nobody wants to take the time to actually TALK to anybody anymore...

As an author, I receive wonderful e-mail notes of encouragement from my readers. I love personally responding to thank folks who share such remarkable (and often personal) stories with me. As a journalist, I receive press releases by the nanosecond, and as a woman blessed with many friends, all e-mail savvy, I like to keep in touch.

When you travel, there is an extra element of e-mail overwhelm. You finally get to your hotel room, exhausted, dehydrated and needing sleep. You are ready to collapse. But first, you have to rouse your brain enough to boot up and check e-mail. Next thing you know, two hours or more have passed, "that" e-mail utterly ticked you off, "these" get deleted, "those five" need answers--and now your second wind (not the good one) won't let you relax enough to go to sleep.

Here's the reason smartphone users claim they're smart to use one: small increments of time can help them keep up with e-mails.

But buyer beware, lest you become an addict whose smartphone is hermetically sealed to your palm. I've been with those types. The whole time they're talking to you, they're also acting like they're NOT palm-up scrolling through e-mails. However, due to their lack of maintained eye contact, and an extended arm under the tablecloth--and pauses between their words--it's obvious what's going on. They make you feel like everybody who sends them an e-mail is more important than the one they're with.

I SHALL NOT SUCCUMB! When I bought the phone, I promised myself that I would be kinder.

But the smarter I get about my smartphone, the more it lures me. I have to admit that I took it in the bathroom with me this morning. While I was still in bed, the smartphone turned itself on, then started happy-dinging away, beckoning me with the promise that it knew something(s) which I did not. So, I rolled out of bed, picked it up, and into the restroom I wandered. (If you sent me an email recently, pretend you did NOT read that!) Here's what I learned: by the time I got to my laptop to start writing this column, I was all caught up with e-mail! WONDERFUL! However, shall I ever hear that happy-ding when I'm with a friend or client, I will muster my strength and RESIST--until I hit the bathroom. (Just kidding. Maybe.)

Hey! How did I digress from the technology review straight into potty talk?

NO! You will not get me, smartphone! I'm going back to my review.

THINGS I'VE LEARNED ABOUT MY SMARTPHONE [this is a subliminal message written and delivered by me, the Blackberry Storm 9530: I am the smartest!]:

--TETHERING: Here in this remote area, on Verizon's extended network, I cannot receive EV Verizon service. I only get 1X. (I cannot TELL you how technical I feel to even discuss this, although I'm holding my breath, awaiting that happy-ding from Travelinglaughs readers telling me that I am still clueless.) That means the modem part works, but slowly--often not faster than dial-up, and sometimes slower and more glitchy. So, the verdict is out as to whether or not the extra thirty bucks is worth it, when extended network use is my only option. (For the record, it was way faster in Verizon's EV service. I checked back in IL.)

VERIZON ADVANTAGE: Since modem use is an add-on, I can move it on and off my services, therefore only having to pay for the time I'm actually here. However, whether I use it or not, landline and dial-up service charges soldier on.

However, until I make the decision, I'm paying for ALL the options, so it's a spendy month or two. But I have to be able to communicate, and I don't want to hamstring myself. In the end, even if I decide I don't like using the smartphone as a modem here in extended network 1X-land, the main Blackberry service is still a huge timesaver over having to dial up twenty times a day to check my e-mail. That part works great!

--KEYBOARD: Since this is my FIRST Blackberry, and since I've read so many terrible reviews of the Storm (along with some good ones), I have no point of reference with which to compare it to previous Blackberry models. But I can tell you this: I LOVE the Storm! [Subliminal message from Blackberry Storm: I knew you would ... so much so that you cannot live without me.] I'm now relatively accurate at typing with my thumbs, and find myself using the vertical keyboard more often than the full horizontal option. I've discovered that if you do not LOOK at what you're typing when you use the vertical method, it goes very well. If you look, and keep trying to correct what it hasn't figured out yet, you'll make yourself nuts. So don't look. But it's nice to have the horizontal option. [Subliminal message from Blackberry Storm: Plus, my blue touch light is sooooo bright and pretty, and I know how much you like it. Neener-neener.]

--TECHNICAL SUPPORT: Both Verizon and Blackberry technical support rock. I've been with Verizon since they were Ameritech, which is a long time. I have never received bad technical support. Period. My only complaint is that much of Wisconsin and Minnesota are still "extended network" for Verizon service (thus 1X), but I'm told that is changing. We'll see. I'm glad the e-mails push through on the Storm better than the modem service works.

--EASE OF USE: I admit that I almost never read manuals. I learn by poking around until I figure things out, which I have. I've only seriously referred to the manual once or twice, and that had to do with setting ring tones for different things. It's a bit of a convoluted path, but once learned, easy to follow.

--ACCESSORIES: A couple I really like: the Blackberry Storm swivel holster. (QUICK DRAW!) When you put the phone in the case, there is some magnetic something-or-other that makes the phone hibernate or something, which saves battery. (Technobabble, in case you missed it.) You can set all sounds to either SOUND or NOT SOUND when it's in the holster, which I clip to various things when traveling in the car. Even when you drag the holster around in your purse, the Storm's volume is magnificent. A girlfriend with an older BB used to complain about not being able to hear it ring when it was in her handbag.

I also like that rubbery skin [subliminal message from Blackberry Storm: But not as much as me], which keeps it from sliding around on my desk. I occasionally just use that, rather than the case. (I always use the case when it's in my purse. I'm rough on electronics.) Plus, I use the screen skins, which I'm told help protect the glass.

--FUN APPLICATIONS: Haven't had time to check any of them out. Perhaps some of you can chime in here, and let me know the gooders. In fact, please DO use the comment section to do so. All smartphone topics are welcome. Now that I'm a member of the smartphone club, I'm all ears--and e-mails and happy-dings. BRING IT ON!

As for YOU, Blackberry Storm, please keep your opinions to yourself. I'm wise to your ways.

WAIT! What's that ding?