Thursday, May 27, 2010

Travel, the Wild Hair Way

At 9:05 on the morning of Cinco de Mayo, I got a "wild hair" of an idea, as my grandma used to call them. I was suddenly crazy (authors are like this, you know—well, at least this one is) to see, IN PERSON, Luis Alberto Urrea, author, among other books, of Into the Beautiful North, which I'd just finished reading. LOVED IT! Moving, funny, insightful, enjoyable, heart breaking and educational. Hoo-za!

That very evening, Luis was to appear at my local book store in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, handily called The Bookstore. I knew this because I subscribe to The Bookstore's electronic newsletter and always check out their super duper blog. (Hey, they're hosting an upcoming Author Happy Hour with Shilpi Gowda, author of Secret Daughter. Check the super duper blog link.  Perhaps you should arrange a trip just to see her!  And/or, come to Glen Ellyn's first ever BookFest  June 19 featuring many authors, including Elizabeth Berg, Melanie Benjamin, and me!)

Sure, some time ago I'd marked the event on my calendar. But truthfully, even though the wild hair idea niggled and waved (Pick ME, pick ME!), I needed to be writing.  Why?  Because book and magazine deadlines niggled and waved: Pick ME if you want to get PAID!  Also, I was in MN, not home in Glen Ellyn. So I pretty much wrote off the opportunity to meet a Pulitzer Prize Finalist as a wild hair idea blown askew. Major pouting ensued.

But wild hairs can be wildly insistent. At 9:10 on said Cinco de Mayo, I reread the newsletter [using up minutes on the ticking clock], which informed me that in honor of Cinco de Mayo and the appearance of Mr. Urrea (@Urrealism on Twitter), the Bookstore would serve multitudes of snacks, provided by Chicks n Salsa, and … MARGARITAS!

An overwhelming thirst urge to Get Thee To The Bookstore consumed me. I knew one thing: the Amtrak train left daily from Winona some time around 10. (In case you haven't had your coffee yet, a refresher: the wild hair idea struck at 9:05.) Although I'd never ridden the train from Winona to Chicago, both my husband and our youngest son had. Different trips; both recounted as "enjoyable". My son said he even had power access for his laptop, right under his seat. (Whoa. Take that, American Airlines economy class!)  After days on end of intense hammering of fingers on the keyboard, a leisurely scenic train ride, just watching the beautiful world go by while I anticipated meeting The Luis Umberto Urrea, sounded dreamy.

Sure, I could have hopped in my car. Without road construction, it's a five-hour trip and the event didn't start until 7. But I was tired. And on my trip to MN, I had suffered through (exaggeration, but we're talking writerly WILD HAIRS here) three loooong delays of orange cones and one-lane-ahead stretches. Blaaach.

Briliant Bonus thought: my husband was driving to MN the very next day. So, I could one-way train it to Chicago, see Luis, enjoy refreshments (hear slurping sound), and ride back with George.

But what about Kornflake, my big red dog? I phoned our neighbor and asked if he could take him out a couple times. [Using ticking clock minutes, but worthy minutes.] Yes, he could. Thus, the wild hair became the plan, and the whirlwind began. (Found poem.)

Pack laptop in pink Life Is Good backpack. (HURRY!) Pack blood pressure pills in backpack. Don't forget cell phone. Do I need to take clothes? [Using precious ticking clock minutes thinking. I'm old, and sometimes thinking is the most difficult part.] No! After all, I will be in my own home for the night, and back to MN the next day.

WHOA! Pack cell phone charger!

Thinking: Wonder if tickets are even available for the train today?

Seriously, you think about this NOW, Charlene?! 

Thinking: always trouble.

However, already packed laptop. By the giant Men's Timex Indiglo watch on my wrist, I noted it was now 9:40. Not enough time to unpack, boot up and check. Not enough time to look up number and call. I'm moving so fast I'm dropping things, running into walls, and becoming one heartbeat short of hysterical.  I decide I'm not even taking my handbag.  I plop my wallet in my backpack.

When I'd called our neighbor to ask if he could watch Kornflake, he'd volunteered to take me to the station. "No!" I'd said. "I'm good. I'll just leave the car overnight in the station parking lot." So, I ran to my mid-size SUV, backpack in tow, only to find my car filled with items I would not want to leave visible all night at a train station. If I started thinking about what I needed to take out … Well, I'd be thinking, not getting to the train station

See me speed dialing. "Can you still take me after all?" I asked my kind neighbor.

"I'm on my way!" I hopped in his car at about 9:48. We were seven miles from the station. We flew down the hill.

"Don't leave yet!" I hollered as I jumped out of the car at the station. "I gotta see if they have a ticket!"

They did. It cost me about $68 bucks plus change. I asked if that was the senior rate. (Quick thinking!) The guy said yes. "But my husband only paid like $38 dollars!"

"Ma'am, your husband probably booked ahead."

Well, there was that.

I bought my ticket, told my landlord thanks and good-bye. As he pulled away, I heard the train whistle. Within minutes, I was Chicago bound on Amtrak, still catching my breath. I could hardly believe it.

SUMMATION: Although seating was not assigned, when I got on the train, a very happy Amtrak worker pointed to a seat and said, "Sit there.  After the next stop, when about 70 kids get on, the train will be full." It was an aisle seat. The woman near the window was wrapped up in a blanket and had the curtains closed. She awakened long enough to say she'd been on the train since 2 a.m.. Across the aisle from me (right), a giant wall of metal.  So, no scenic view, and no power under my seat. When I inquired, the kind woman working my car said they were still swapping some of the cars out. My son must have had a new setup.  She inquired if I needed to charge my phone.  I said no, otherwise she was going to somehow oblige the need.  Super nice.

I texted my son: whine, whine, poor me, no plug, no view …. He suggested I go to the club car, which I did. Try finding that kind of option in an airplane!

Club cars RULE! Nice! Upper deck. Sky. View. Comfy seat. Snacks available. Everyone working the train CHEERY!

They announced lunch would soon be served in the dining car. There would be limited seating. I waited till the last call. I was seated with three very nice folks. Great conversation, and my veggie burger was the best I've ever had! Burger and fries, under ten bucks. Waiter CHEERY TOO! I was impressed!

The train arrived in Chicago 13 minutes EARLY! I walked over to Ogilvie Transportation Station (one block), caught the Metra commuter train ("The way to really fly") to Glen Ellyn, and VOILA!

Luis was awesome, completely worth the trip. He told wonderful behind-the-scenes stories, shared his excitement about his new graphic novel, Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush, and refreshments were yum.  (Hear plentiful slurping sounds.) The next day, I enjoyed the ride back to MN, husband behind the wheel. I was still basking in the afterglow of the wonderful evening, feeling relaxed, refreshed, and amazed at the events of my last twenty-four hours.

All this to say, if and when a wild traveling hair strikes you (perhaps to BookFest in Glen Ellyn?), try it! You might just like it—especially if it involves a train with a club car AND a dining car, a book event with a superb author AND margaritas, and a free ride on the flip side.
(PS. Among my other duties/appearances at BookFest, I get to introduce Elizabeth Berg.  But I also shall be cohosting the "Get Lit" portion of the day at the Tap House Grill. Hm. I'm thinking--and you know how that goes for me-- there is a hidden theme in this message.  Slurp.)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Everything Old Is Repurposed Again

My last post, I wrote about how happy I am with my cell phone switch to Sprint. So far, still am. YAY! I also mentioned I talked a friend into giving Sprint a try.  For the sake of expediency, I'll call that friend Brad.  Brad even went with the same phone, an HTC Hero.

A surprise payoff for all that happy enthusiasm: Brad returned the favor by sharing with me his accidental discovery, which I'm now going to pass along to you, you lucky fellow sojourners. This grand discovery will work no matter who your wireless carrier*.  Prepare yourself for brilliance.

But first, let me say that for his 30-day Sprint test period, like me, my friend also made use of a Sprit temporary cell number. He previously used Verizon Wireless (as did I), which he kept during the Sprint 30-day trial. I highly recommend this method because that way, you can doubly annoy your friends by tag teaming them with calls.

"Can you hear me now?"


Ring. Ring …

"But can you hear me better now?"

After Brad ported his old number to Sprint, one day he called and asked the usual Can you hear me okay now? question. Yes, I could. (Cheers around! Still works!) He explained he was testing something else new, thus the call. He'd loaded music into his Hero and for the first time decided to give it a try in his vehicle. And then …

Here's how the discovery came about.

--He grabbed the car gadget (right) he long ago purchased to use with his portable CD player. (Remember portable CD players? This is why we can never ever throw anything away, right?)

--He slipped the "tape" into the tape deck and plugged the "headset" end into his phone. He did nothing with the power supply that goes in the cigarette lighter.

--He pushed the play button on his Hero, set the phone in the ash tray and voila! Hero music through the car stereo!

But wait for it ... here comes the good part!

--Suddenly the music stopped. But … the PHONE RANG! He pushed "answer" on his phone, and just like that, he heard the caller's voice through his car stereo system too. The Hero has a good enough microphone that the caller (then I, during his test call) could hear him fine, even though he left the phone in the ash tray.

HANDS-FREE, NO-COST cell phone system!

I said, "Wait a minute! I think *I* still have one of those around somewhere!" And indeed I did. I'd stored it away with the old Discman, the one I used to put in a fanny pack to walk on the prairie path. Of course I now use a Sansa clip-on MP3 player [Sandisk pink thing on top of Discman, now old too] for those walks and to listen to books on tape. (We've come a long way baby, eh?) But it never occurred to me to use that same old portable CD car gadget on my MP3 player, which I've now learned works way better than the "tune to one of these station" pieces of static-y junk I bought and tossed!

Although I'm weaning myself from driving and talking on the phone (I promise you, I am), it's still good to know I can listen to my own music on my own car stereo system and still take a call—so that I can tell them I'll call them back when I pull over. (In case the law is reading this.) Or quickly tell my agent that yes, I have decided to accept that measly bazillion dollar book advance. (A girl can dream, can't she?) Or tell my husband, "No, honey, I wasn't in that multi-car pile-up on I-90 that NBC is talking about." Or my lunch date, "No, I haven't forgotten. I'm just running late." Or my editor, "Of course I'm home working on the book!" (Not necessarily in that order. No. Never.)

*The trick here is that you have to have a vehicle old enough to take a cassette tape. (You remember those, right?) And you have to be a pack rat. And a techno geek, and … easily entertained.

If you've found handy new travel uses for other old stuff, please comment here. In this economy, every little bit helps.

And by the way, if Brad and I are the last people to know about this "wonderful old portable CD multi-purpose cassette cord discovery," please keep it to yourself. In my mind, I am about to be a bazillion dollars richer from that new book contract I'm going to accept through my stereo speakers, and he is a genius.