Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Skiplagged Saves Money on Air Travel

This year the airline industry is making record profits with some of the credit going to lower fuel prices and charging fees for almost everything, including luggage and inflight beverages like water and coffee. So it wasn't surprising to learn that United Airlines and Orbitz, one of the world's biggest online travel agencies, are suing an entrepreneur for developing a web system that helps flyers save money by taking advantage of a loophole in the pricing of flights with layovers. lets users find cheaper flight tickets. The website combs ticket prices and finds routes with layovers that stop in certain cities that end up being cheaper than simply flying directly to that city. For example, if a traveler wants to fly from New York City to Atlanta, a direct flight would cost a certain amount of money. However, because the way airlines price their tickets, a flight from New York to Miami that includes a layover in Atlanta might cost less than the shorter New York to Atlanta trip. Using Skiplagged, a flyer could book the cheaper flight to Miami knowing it passes through Atlanta, and then simply get off the plane and not complete the last leg. 

Last September, Skiplagged could have saved a traveller going from Toronto to Los Angeles almost 50 percent if the traveller had bought a ticket to another destination that involved L.A. as a layover. Of course, Skiplagged only works if you're travelling without any checked bags (because luggage would end up in your final destination). Also, you must be booking one-way ticket since if you fail to show up for a leg of the trip, the airline will cancel your return flight.

United and Orbitz are alleging that Skiplagged "intentionally and maliciously interferes" with their business and so they are seeking a legal end to Skiplagged. (What happened to free enterprise?)

In my opinion, United and Orbitz have a dubious legal claim, but that's inconsequential since they have millions to mount a legal challenge against the fledgling Skiplagged. United and Orbitz can simply outspend Skiplagged and force them into bankruptcy. Goliath beats David. End of story. 

You can help save Skiplagged by donating to their legal defense fund

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Pocket App for People on the Go!

If you're like me, you always have too much to read and not enough time to read it. Now there's help. It's the Pocket app, and it lets you save articles and videos to read and watch later.

One feature that I particularly like about the Pocket is its ability to save articles or videos in two ways. The first is a bookmarklet that you install in your web browser that automatically saves the item you're viewing when you click it; otherwise, you can simply email the URL to your private account for later reading or viewing. When you're ready to read a saved article or video, launch the app on your iPhone, iPad, computer, or android device, and you'll find a queue of all the articles and videos you've saved. It's quick, simple, and free!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Honest Are Online Reviews?

These days a lot of people, including myself, rely on online reviews to help make decisions about products to buy and business to patronise. Some of the reviews are very helpful, but often, I've felt suspicious of the ones that are just a little too enthusiastic or well-timed.

Recently, Italy's antitrust authority fined TripAdvisor €500,000 ($600,000) following complaints of improper business practices. The antitrust authority said that TripAdvisor had failed to adopt controls to prevent false reviews, while at the same time promoting the site's content as "authentic and genuine." I'm a regular contributor and follower of TripAdvisor, and the news that TripAdvisor had some authenticity problems begs the question: How honest are online reviews?

According to some studies, 89 percent of U.S. consumers read online reviews at least occasionally, and 39 percent do so regularly. In one famous incident back in 2004, Amazon's Canadian site accidentally revealed the true identities of thousands of its previously anonymous U.S. book reviewers. One insight the mistake revealed was that many authors were using fake names in order to give their own books favorable reviews.

Bing Liu, professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the New York Times in 2012 that about a third of all Internet reviews were fake, and in a Harvard Business School study of online reviews, it was estimated that 16 percent of Yelp's restaurant reviews were fraudulent! And they are considered one of the best online review sites according to a recent article in Communications of the ACM

The effects of review fraud can be seriously harmful for both consumers and businesses. Sometimes fake reviews are posted by business owners leaving positive reviews for their own businesses, or even negative reviews for their competitors. 

Some online review sites have automated algorithms that watch for likely-fake reviews. Algorithms look to see if one reviewer's opinion consistently runs counter to the majority of reviews, whether multiple reviews share many of the same phrases and typos supposedly from different people, and if reviews have the same IP address for multiple reviews of the same hotel or restaurant.

Another red flag, which an individual can use, is to see if the reviewer has reviewed anything else. A single review could be fake. On the other hand, it's certainly possible for someone to legitimately post just one review -- for example, if they join TripAdvisor specifically to rave or complain about someplace they recently visited. In short, consumers should take online reviews with a grain of salt before making any spending decision.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Real Message of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer"

Most people think that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a cute Christmas story about a little reindeer with a shiny nose that has a happy ending. Think again.

As a child, watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an annual TV event. It signaled the beginning of the Christmas season. It was one of my favorite Christmas movies, but watching it recently, I discovered that it's really a story about ostracism and exclusion. Weirdly, it doesn't seem to come down very forcefully against this type of behavior. 

The treatment that Rudolph receives from his parents, community, and even Santa Claus is tantamount to bullying and even child abuse. The movie sends a terrible message to children, and especially children who are different, by telling them that they won't be accepted unless they conform to society's norms or do something extraordinary. 

In the movie, we see that Rudolph's father is ashamed of his own son. It's seems that having a red nose will preclude Rudolph from being on Santa's sleigh team. Rudolph's dad even tries to cover up Rudolph's defect. When Rudolph tells his dad he doesn't want to cover up his nose because it's painful and uncomfortable, Rudolph's father grabs him and tells him coldly that "there are more important things than comfort - self respect," and then shoves the cover back on Rudolph's face. The implication is that Rudolph has let everybody down because of his oddity.

Later, when Rudolph is playing with the other reindeer kids and his nose cover falls off, the kids and even the coach make of fun of him. The coach informs Rudolph that he is now forbidden from interacting with the other reindeer or any member of his species. Moreover, all the other adult reindeer react in exactly the same way, including beloved Santa Claus

Throughout the show, Santa is portrayed as a rude and impolite grouch. For example, Santa's elves spend the whole year making toys for Christmas. In their precious spare time, they practice singing songs for Santa Claus. When they have the nerve to ask Santa if he would like to listen to a song they wrote for him. He replies that he's "busy, so they better make it quick." Granted, Santa is probably stressed out, especially so close to Christmas. After they have finished the song, the elves ask Santa: "How did you like it?" To which Santa brusquely responds, "Well, it needs work. I have to go," and then storms out of the room and slams the door. 

When Rudolph is lost, his father, mother and girlfriend go searching for him. When Rudolph return home months later, Santa tells him that his family has been gone all this time. Uh ho, Santa must have sent out a search party. There must be flying reindeer scouring the countryside to help find the missing trio. No? Apparently not. Santa merely whines about not having Rudolph's father to help pull his sleigh and then wanders off. It's left to Rudolph to try to find and save them. Selfish Santa!

The ending of Rudolph is not much better. When bad weather potentially forces the cancellation of Christmas, Santa reluctantly asks Rudolph to help. Rudolph agrees and saves Christmas. Everybody comes to accept Rudolph because he has saved Christmas; yet nobody's really sorry for how they treated him, or repentant for their harsh words. It's a given that Rudolph should be grateful he's on sleigh team despite the appalling treatment he has received. 

Christmas movies are supposed to be heartwarming, and above all, teach us the value of selflessness, kindness, and charity. Rudolph fails on all counts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ho Ho Ho and a Glühwein with Rum

Magical Nativity Tower 
Now that Advent has begun, the Berlin Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets) are in full swing. The weather in Berlin has been unseasonably cold the past few days. I don't remember a late November where the daytime highs have hovered around freezing with a wind chill making it seem more like 17 F ( -8 C). The weather has made the Christmas Markets uncomfortable. Even so, I did manage to visit a few of the Markets and sample the Glühwein. (This hot glowing elixir makes the cold bearable.) This year, I tried it with rum and amaretto. I think I like the amaretto better. Perhaps tomorrow, I'll go into the cold again and sample a Glühwein with Cointreau.

The highlight was seeing Santa and his reindeer fly over the Christmas market (absent Rudolf). Apparently the sleigh is suspended from a cable that runs the length of the market about 40 feet above the ground. Every and then, a real-life Santa ascends the heights and braves the bitterly cold wind as the sleigh zips along the cable, pausing for a few minutes in the middle so that he can wave to the crowd below as the announcer introduces him on the PA system telling us about Santa's annual journey (and also suggesting food, sweaters, and other retail items we can buy at the market stalls). Seen from below it creates a wonderful illusion of an actual flying sleigh. If I had seen this as child, it would have blown my mind. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bring Back The Berolina

Few people know that the Berolina, an allegorical female figure symbolizing Berlin, once graced Alexanderplatz. The Berolina was erected in 1895 and stood 7.55 m (24.77 ft). It depicted a woman dressed in a crown of oak leaves with an outstretched hand. It was one of the most famous landmarks in Berlin and used as a meeting point, a function now served by the famous Urania-Weltzeituhr (Worldtime Clock) erected in Alexanderplatz by the East Germans.

Even today, many elderly Berliners still remember the statue. Because of its popularity, the name "Berolina" is used by many companies throughout the city. There are even several songs, poems, and plays named "Berolina." Unfortunately, the Berolina was dismantled in 1944 and melted down for war purposes.

In 2000, the "Wiedererstellung und Pflege der Berolina e. V." (Recreation and Maintenance of Berolina e.V.) was created with the aim to rebuild the statue. If Berlin can spending millions to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloss (project of dubious merit), it seems worthwhile to bring back this grand old dame. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Visiting Riga

Riga Cathedral
At first glance, Riga, Latvia, seems more Scandinavian and less Soviet-influenced than Vilnius, its neighbor to the south. That's odd since over half of Riga's residents are Russian, and the remainder Latvian. The result is two communities appearing to lead completely separate lives: they read different newspapers, listen to radio and television stations broadcast in their own languages, and have discrete neighborhoods. Yet, these two distinct cultures harmoniously co-exist. As I was sitting in the hotel lobby, I couldn't help but notice how easily the person behind the front desk switched effortlessly between Latvian, Russian, and even English.
Cat House,
Old Town Riga

Me Standing in Front
of Riga Central Market
What makes Riga special is its architecture, from the Northern Gothic and Art Nouveau, to the utilitarian influences of Soviet-style design. In addition, Riga's picturesque cobblestone streets, well-preserved buildings, and abundance of cafes and restaurants makes it one of Europe's hot summer destinations. Riga has a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It has the architecture and feel of Prague, the style and sophistication of Paris, and the cosmopolitan flavor of Berlin. And even though it's pricier than Vilnius, it's still a real bargain compared to the rest of Europe.

Old Town Riga
Like Vilnius, visiting Riga in November has its shortcomings. The days are short, and the bracing cold wind from the Baltic Sea can make outdoors unpleasant. Yet, I'm not sure I would enjoy Riga as much if I had visited during the summer. There are fewer people now, and it's easier to see the beauty of the city without the crush of tourists.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Vilnius: A City Embracing the 21st Century

Modern Buildings Dot the Vilnius Skyline
Vilnius is a city in transition. It reminds me of East Berlin as it was fifteen or twenty years ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some run-down buildings, even ruins, standing side-by-side with beautifully restored buildings and new modern structures. Soviet style architecture still dominates the city and there's lots of gray; but here and there, you find bits of color as Vilnius and all of Lithuania embrace the 21st century.

Vilnius has a surprisingly good technology infrastructure, and unlike most of Western Europe and the USA getting connected to the Internet is fast and easy. Free WiFi is everywhere. Whether you're in a shopping mall, small cafe, or hotel, you're just a click away from the web. Moreover, prices aren't astronomical like London, Paris, or even Berlin, for that matter. It's an affordable city that won't bleed your pocketbook. 

Of course, visiting Lithuania during the winter has its drawbacks. Right now, the days are short (sunrise 8:00 AM and Sunset 4:00 PM), and the weather is wet and cold. Vilnius doesn't have a wide selection of restaurants either. What they have is fairly standard fare and not particularly noteworthy. However, I did find Radharane, a cozy Indian vegan/vegetarian restaurant in the heart of the city offering tasty dishes. 

Lithuanians also appear to drink a lot. I was at the supermarket, and noticed that I was the only person in the check-out line without a bottle of Vodka. Perhaps, that goes along with Lithuania's dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in the EU.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

London's Giant Cock

Katharina Fritsch's giant cock sculpture is hard to miss in London's famous Trafalgar Square. The Square commemorates the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar and is dominated by Nelson's Column at its center.

Trafalgar Square has a strongly male character, but Fritsch calls her large blue rooster a "feminist sculpture," and is intended to be a humorous comment on London's historically male culture. I liked it. Its deep blue color counterbalances all the gray in the area and adds a bit whimsy. The Blue Cock will be on display until the end of the year. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Mousetrap: "But What Stupendous Good Fortune!"

The Cast Members 2014
Agatha Christie Challenge:*

Kitschy? Definitely. Predictable? Without a doubt. Fun? Resoundingly, yes! That's how I would describe Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, the longest running play of all time. It's been running in London's West End since November 25, 1952. Today, the play is a cultural institution. 

When I lived in London in the early 1980s, I had plenty of opportunities to see The Mousetrap, but I took things too seriously back then, and sneered at people who bothered with such claptrap. Theater had to be profound -- full of meaning. Forgive me, but I was young and cocky.

On this visit to London, I hadn't planned on seeing the play, but just by chance, I was walking by the St. Martin's Theatre a half hour before a matinee performance. On impulse, I popped in, and I had a wonderful time. There are plenty of cliches, clever dialogue, and suspects to keep you guessing until the end of this fun murder mystery. (I did guess the murderer fairly early on, but then I've read Agatha Christie books and seen basically every TV adaptation.)

I won't spoil the play by saying anything about its content. I'll just say that seeing a live performance of an Agatha Christie work was thrilling. 

*As part of my Agatha Christie Challenge to read all of her works in publication order, The Mousetrap is out of sequence. While visiting London I took the opportunity to see The Mousetrap. It was first performed as a radio broadcast in 1947 and then as a play in 1952. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Two Lives" Asks the Question: Do You Really Know the One You Love?

It's difficult for non-Germans to fully appreciate the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall. November 9th marks the 25th anniversary of the Wall's demise; and in many ways, it signaled the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism. During the 20th century, Germany suffered through two world wars, Nazism, and Communism.

Two Lives (aka Zwei Leben) (2012) is a German/Norwegian production and is available on Netflix streaming. It's based on actual facts and captures the multi-faceted perplexities faced by Germany during the last century. Two Lives provides plenty of suspense, surprises, and history to keep you absorbed until its fateful and emotional conclusion. It blends two dark chapters in 20th-century German history. One chapter involving the Lebensborn program that paired SS officers and Aryan woman to produce "racially pure" babies for the Fatherland. The second, a more recent chapter, concerns East Germany's notorious Security Service (Stasi), and its exploitation of orphaned children. As this mystery slowly unravels, the movie takes on a personal and tragic dimension, where there are no evil people, just victims of a repressive society. 

Two Lives stars the superb Juliane Köhler and the iconic Liv Ullmann. It is far and away, the best movie I've seen this year, and a fitting movie to see on the anniversary of the Wall's collapse.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Helping Baby Bats

Bats generally conjure up images of vampires, Dracula, and scary Halloween monsters. People don't think of bats the way they do of cuddly kittens and puppies; and over the years, bats have gotten a bad reputation. Despite the myths, bats aren't vicious, blood thirsty creatures, but docile, shy animals that are essential to the ecosystem by controlling mosquitoes and pollinating plants. In many parts of the world, including the USA, bats are a threatened species due to loss of natural habitat, sport hunting, and disease

The Tolga Bat Hospital in Atherton, Australia, rescues and releases hundreds of bats each year. Last year, about 300 orphaned bat pups were cared for by Tolga and safely returned to the wild. A baby bat usually becomes orphaned when its mother becomes too sick to feed it or when it falls ill to tick paralysis. The care for these winged babies is very similar to that of human babies. They drink milk from a bottle, love to be swaddled in a blanket, and are bathed regularly. After a bath, baby bats also like have their fur combed. 

In addition to caring for babies, Tolga also rehabilitates injured adult bats. The hospital relies solely on volunteers and donations. It also offers tours, which cost $18 for adults and $10 for children.

In the USA, we can help bats by building or buying bat houses for our property. It's relatively inexpensive and easy to do!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Restaurant Revolution: Serving Discarded Food

Rub & Stub (Rub og Stub, which translates as 'lock, stock, and barrel') is a Copenhagen restaurant that has taken the phrase "waste not, want not" to a new level by serving dishes made entirely from food about to be thrown away.

The idea for Rub & Stub came from Denmark's freegan community, people who eat discarded but edible food. There's a tendency in the developed world to buy only the freshest, most beautiful produce in the supermarket, which forces vendors to throw away food that might not look flawless but still safe to eat. As much as 20 percent of all foodstuffs sold by retailers is discarded for purely aesthetic reasons (misshapen bananas, tomatoes not completely red, lumpy potatoes, imperfect apples, Christmas food after the holidays).

The creators of Rub & Stub thought that they could use the so-called 'waste food' for their restaurant, and so far it's been successful. The menu at Rub & Stub is planned on a day-by-day basis according to what surplus food has been donated that day. This non-profit restaurant has about 100 volunteers, and the restaurant's proceeds go to humanitarian development projects throughout the world. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Wir Wollen Spielen" Berlin Goes After the Olympics

Let's face it, hosting the Olympics Games is a big money loser. Just ask people in Atlanta, Barcelona, London, Vancouver, Montreal, or Athens. So when Berlin announced last summer its intention to seek the Olympic Games, Berliners were a little surprised, if not outraged. You see, Berlin is so cash-strapped that it's had cut city services, reduced education funding, and eliminate a number of major infrastructure projects just to keep afloat.

Public opinion polls are unanimous, a majority of Berliners don't want the Games. Berliners know the Olympics is all about prestige and has little to do with economics. In fact, the only real winners in the Olympic Games extravaganza are the real estate developers and city insiders.

Yet, that hasn't stopped city officials from going forward with its bid to host the Games. Today, Berlin unveiled its Pro-Olympic advertising campaign. With a motto, "Wir Wollen Spielen (We Want to Play)," Berlin hopes to convince the Olympic selection committee that it's the best choice to host the 2024 Summer Games. Good luck to them, and bad luck to Berlin if it's awarded the Games. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Spider in the Elevator! Die Spinne im Aufzug!

Boo! What would you do if confronted with a monster spider in an elevator? Here's an amusing video from Germany. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Employing "Setting" in Creative Writing: Emptying the House

Fiction is often based on personal experience. The following story is purely fictional even though I've drawn on some personal recollections to create the two major characters and setting for this story. The goal of this particular creative writing assignment was to employ setting as an integral part of the story. 

Emptying the House

His parents were dead. The place that he had once called home was also dead. The worn carpets and dated 1960s decor added to the sense of decay. As Ben scanned the tidy living room with its faded floral sofa and matching love seat, he noticed the sheet-metal sunflowers that he had made in high school shop class so many years before. They adorned the mantelpiece, a place of honor, his mother had once said. That's something to keep, he thought, as he took stock of what items to discard. 

Ben wandered into the dining room where the sunlight dappled through the bay windows, illuminating the old piano where the family had once gathered. The sheet music was still out. What had his mother been playing, he wondered, as his eyes caught sight of Edelweiss and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, two of his childhood favorites and both oddly wistful. Suddenly, an image of his mother playing the piano, while he and his sister sang along, flickered across his mind adding to his melancholy. He felt sad. 

The house seemed alien. The paramedics and police had left the downstairs relatively undisturbed. Of course, the forensic people had added to the chaos in the master bedroom where the events had taken place. But once the investigation was complete, Ben and his sister removed the yellow barricade tape, stripped the bed clean, and scoured the floors, removing any traces of death's aftermath.  

“It's a beautiful old house, and it's in a nice neighborhood. It does need work, and some buyers might want to tear it down. These days, a lot of people want modern and energy-efficient,” the real agent said as he surveyed the wrap-around porch and tree-lined street.

Yes, thought Ben. Houses, like people, also outlive their usefulness. 

“Unfortunately, murder-suicide does have an impact on the price. Naturally, the facts will need to be disclosed. State law requires it,” the agent said offhandedly. “But don't worry, you'll get near the asking price.”  

Real estate had taken off, reflected Ben. And when you considered the other investments, he and his sister would get a tidy sum.  

Ben felt relieved. A burden had been lifted. No more worrying. No more heated discussions with his mother about putting dad in a nursing home.

“I promised your father that I would never put him in one of those warehouses,” Ben's mother had repeated like a mantra whenever he broached the subject. Even when his father became abusive and lost all sense of propriety, his mother stuck to her guns. 

His mother's health wasn't good either. She had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's.

At first, his father's care had been minimal, but gradually, the burden increased as the disease progressed. His mother stopped going to her bridge club meetings, no longer met the girls for coffee, and stopped doing the shopping, a task left to Ben and his sister. 

Even when he and his sister had suggested a housekeeper, his mother steadfastly refused. “A stranger in my house. No sir, not for me,” she said. 

You could see the strain weaken her little by little. She'd lost weight and no longer took pride in her appearance. She'd had once said, half jokingly, that she'd never leave the house without her make-up. One night, 10 years ago, she'd actually applied her make-up before allowing herself to be transported to the emergency room. As dad's condition got worse, she'd hardly brushed her hair, let alone put on make-up.

It was his sister who had called it in, describing how she had found them. Both lying on the bed. Dad smothered by a pillow, and mom overdosed on sleeping pills and tranquilizers – that according to the autopsy report. There had been no letter. No indication of what had triggered the event.

The investigation had gone smoothly: statements from him and his sister, medical histories reviewed, and finally a pamphlet from the Hemlock Society found in mom's night table. A simple case of euthanasia and suicide. 

As Ben lifted a picture of his parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary from an end table, he reflected how easy it had all been. Only the causal attitude displayed by his sister had surprised him as she took the pillow and suffocated dad. Even as dad struggled, there was no hesitancy, no emotion.

When it was over, she merely said, “My part's done. Now, your turn to take care of the old lady.” 

Ben's part had been uncomplicated. A glass of wine with dinner, and then a cocktail of sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and Dramamine (to prevent vomiting) mixed into mom's hot chocolate. She drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Ben was shaking after he had placed the bodies into position. It had been his sister's idea. He had merely acquiesced. He felt remorse, even regret, and his sister saw it in his eyes.   

“It's over,” she said, gently, but perhaps coldly. “You know as well as I do that they could have gone on like this for years, making our lives miserable and spending all the money. Too late for worries.”

As Ben returned the photo to the end table, his reverie was broken. His sister, who had been upstairs, returned to the living room.

“Nothing worth taking upstairs. It's now up to the realtors,” she said brusquely, then adding, “All this work has made me hungry. I wonder if there's any pie in the fridge.” 

A chill ran down Ben's spine as he remembered his sister saying the exact same thing after removing the pillow from dad's lifeless face. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What Cats Think About People

Cats are interesting creatures, and recent research suggests they view their caregivers more like other cats than as parental figures. It also turns out that cats may be motivated by selfish desire instead of love when they snuggle next to you.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Little Things

This week's creative writing assignment was to use dialogue as a way to create characterization about a person who had an impact on your life, preferably not a family member.

The Little Things
I hesitated before handing Mr. Gatley my transfer slip. But I had to tell him. I was transferring from his Advanced Science class to Beginning Typing. 

“Typing and Advanced Science meet at the same time,” I said apologetically. “I wish I could take your class too.”

“I'll be sorry to see you go. You have a real talent for science,” he replied as he signed the transfer slip.

I had debated what to do. I really liked Mr. Gatley, and I had learned a lot in his 8th grade science class, but typing was a skill that seemed useful and so grown-up, especially to a kid of 14 getting ready for High School.

I would have liked some advice on the subject, but Mr. Gatley was obviously biased and my parents merely said, “It's your decision. You'll do the right thing.” I had even gone to my guidance counselor for help. After a moment's thought, he suggested, “Why don't you take Metal Shop? It only has 7 students.” So I went with my own theory. 

The typing teacher, Mrs. Walberg, radiated order and precision from her tasteful earth-toned business suits to her cutting-edge 1973 Shag hairdo. The classroom had 25 silver manual typewriters, and there was a big scroll-down poster of a keyboard perched at the front of the class for the students to see as they practiced their exercises.

Each day we focused on a particular keyboard key, and by the end of the first week, I had learned the rudiments of typing, though I could only type five letters. But in Mrs. Walberg's class learning the physical skill of typing was only the first step toward becoming a good typist. We also learned how to structure letters whether personal or business and how to correctly address correspondence. 

Each week we had a test to measure our typing speed and error rate. I sat next to Diana Leeper, a girl whose fingers just flew over the keys. By mid-term, she was typing 100 words a minute with only one or two errors. The best I could manage was 40 words a minute, not the best in the class, but certainly not the worst. That distinction went to Danny Mahood, a boy who gave new meaning the term all thumbs.

As the term progressed, I looked with awe at the students in Mr. Gatley's Advanced Science class. They were working on their science fair projects, taking field trips, and studying the ecology of the city's water shed preserve. I felt jealous as I struggled with my typical typing assignments, such as how to book a hotel reservation and how to make an inquiry to a tourist office. The typing class was certainly practical, but it definitely lacked the intellectual pizazz of Advanced Science. 

One day, as I contemplated the usefulness of the skill of typing a letter to request a theater program listing, Mrs. Walberg told us a story about the importance of detail and the niceties of proper correspondence. She said the story had nothing to do with typing but was worth mentioning.  

“When I was at college,” she began, “I worked as typist in the secretarial pool at the Allstate Insurance Company. I often worked late just to make sure my work was free of errors and obvious typing corrections.

“I can't tell you how many times I had to re-type an entire page just to correct a single mistake. These were the days before liquid paper and I was a perfectionist,” she said, shaking her head ruefully. 

“About a year in, my manager took notice of my conscientious work, and suggested that I apply for the company scholarship. At the time, I was barely making ends meet and a scholarship could make a big difference. Unfortunately, I had also heard from reliable people that the scholarship was normally reserved for men with corporate ambitions. Whereas, I was a woman who didn't want a career at Allstate. I wanted to be a teacher.

“With a nudge from my manager, I applied. Eventually, I had an interview with the scholarship committee. I was very frank and told them that I wanted to be a teacher and not a businesswoman.

 “After the interview, I sent a perfectly typed thank you note to each of the committee members, which I always did after a job interview,” she said as she scanned across the room to drive this point home. She then drifted back to her story. 

“I didn't think I had a chance at the scholarship. But then, a few weeks later, to my amazement, I was notified that I had won it! Why me? It was a complete mystery. You know, a lot of things happen that way. We never understand why things happen the way they do. 

“Several years later, while I was attending a local Rotary Club event, I happened to run into a member of the scholarship committee. I reminded him of the scholarship and told him how much it meant to me.

“He said he remember me quite clearly. I wasn't the typical candidate they normally awarded scholarships to. In fact, there were other candidates with more experience and stronger credentials than I had had. But when the committee members received my polished thank you note, they decided to award the scholarship to me. You see, no other candidate had taken the time to say thank you. That little courtesy and small attention to detail won me the scholarship and allowed me to finish college.”

Mrs. Walberg's story impressed, if not inspired, me. I had learned a valuable lesson on how the little things in life can sometimes have an enormous impact. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creative Writing: The Traveler

This week's creative writing assignment was to write about an event that changed the way you think. The Traveler is a story based on an experience I had in the early 1980s. 

The Traveler

It was Easter week and most of my friends had already left for Spain, Greece or North Africa. I was living in London, at the time, completing my Master's degree. I wondered if I could find a cheap last minute deal to somewhere exciting. I had an urgency to see the world while I was still young, before responsibility and comfort made me home-bound or limited me to packaged tours.  

A cheap air ticket obtained from a bucket shop near Piccadilly led me to Austria. I had just left Vienna, a lifeless city full of anonymity. I was now traveling alone on a river boat drifting down the not-so-blue Danube. Walking along the deck, I watched the people sunning themselves along the river banks and swimming in the murky water. They were having fun. I felt lonely. I'd been to a disco the night before with some other young travelers, but they were strangers.

It was warm, even hot, for the middle of April. As I looked at the bow, I noticed an old woman basking in the sun, enjoying the warmth. Then I realized how pleasant the sun felt on my skin.  

I glanced again at the old lady. She was looking across the river at the fields of wild flowers. The meadows were full of yellows, reds, oranges and violets. I hadn't realized that spring was in full swing. Occasionally, a faint breeze would catch her nose and she would inhale deeply filling her lungs with the smell of the freshly mowed grass and cultivated fields. I took a deep breath too.

I ambled inside the boat to get a coffee. It was true what they said, Viennese coffee was good. And not just in the cafes and the restaurants; good coffee could be found at train stations, youth hostels, and even sidewalk vending machines. Sitting near a window, I slowly drank the coffee thinking how few places there were in the world where one could get a first-rate cup of coffee. 

The woman I had noticed earlier now sat directly across from me. She appeared to be in her late 70s or early 80s. She was tall, matronly, and tanned. Her elegantly coiffured gray hair and single strand of pearls conveyed tasteful, quiet dignity. She wore a matching tweed skirt and jacket, sensible black shoes, and carried a practical brown day pack.

As she thumbed through the pages of an old book, I tried to inconspicuously see the title. She glanced up with a sly smile that said 'gotcha.'

“This is my old Baedeker Guide. Vienna hasn't changed much since I was a girl. The streets are all the same.”  

“How long has it been since you were in Vienna?” I asked.

“Well over 50 years. I was a governess here,” she said, switching smoothly to English, now that she had heard my German.

“I took care of three children. I was visiting one of them. He's a successful businessman like his father. I've managed to kept in touch with the children all these years, even though I live in Switzerland.”

An image of Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music flickered through my mind. 

“Are you going to Melk?” I asked.

“Yes, I want to see the Abbey again.”

“I want to see it too. I've heard it's something.” 

 “It is! This is just a day trip to Melk for me, and then I walk back to Krems and take a train to Vienna. It should take me 3-4 days.” 

“Wow, that's quite a walk,” I said, wondering if she could really walk all that way. It was nearly 40 miles. 

“Oh, it's not so bad this time of year. There are plenty of guest houses along the way, and I have plenty of water. I live on a farm, and I'm used to walking a lot.”

“How's the trip been so far?” I inquired.

“Wonderful, it brings back a lot of memories.”

She told me of her life in Vienna before the war, and how she'd returned to Switzerland to marry and raise a family. During her married life she rarely traveled. There was simply too much to do the farm. Yet, she never forgot Vienna and the joy of traveling. And now that her children were grown and her husband was gone, she had no responsibilities. She was free again.

“Last year, my children paid for a trip to Brazil. I saw the Amazon and the rainforest. That was exciting. And a few years before that, I went to the Grand Canyon and took a helicopter ride through it. Have you been there?”

“No, I haven't. I hope to go one day.”

“I can tell that will, and you'll see the world too. You have the wanderlust, just like me,” she asserted. 

We chatted for the next half hour or so. She told me stories of navigating the markets of Istanbul, getting lost in Cairo, and watching the sunsets over the Mediterranean. 

The lines on her face betrayed her age. Yet, she radiated an enthusiastic youthful spirit. A spirit, I was beginning to lose. 

“Do you travel alone?” I asked.

“Yes, but you know, I always meet interesting people like you. I'm never lonely.”

“I don't like traveling alone,” I said. “I miss the company of another person. Someone to share the experience.”

“Yes, sharing the experience adds a dimension. But whether you watch a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean by yourself or with another person, it's still the same sunset. It's not any different. It's still beautiful. In fact, you sometimes appreciate a thing more when you're alone. It involves all your senses.”

As we approached Melk, the famous yellow Abbey stood majestically on a hill, its reflection glistening atop the rippling Danube. I noticed the puffy white clouds set against the light blue sky and a flock of swans nestled in the tall reeds near the shore. The Danube really did look blue like in the song. We disembarked, and I said goodbye to the woman. She wished me luck and started on her long walk. I looked around and no longer felt alone. I realized that beauty could be appreciated on its own terms. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"The Pulps" A Look at Pulp Fiction Covers

The Portland Public Library is currently exhibiting a fascinating collection of original pulp art paintings and the magazine covers they became. "The Pulps" features paintings of Tarzan, the Shadow, Doc Savage, and many other famous pulp magazines characters.

During the 1920-30s, pulp fiction was at its peak, eventually expressing itself as film noir in the 1940s. It dealt with themes of adventure, crime, mystery, science fiction, and horror. It was often printed on rough, low quality paper made from cheap wood pulp. For a Depression-era public, this 'lowbrow' fiction was affordable, easy to read, and disposable. It was aimed at a white male audience who could dream of being just like the hunky heroes in the stories, men with bulging muscles and matinee idol looks. These daredevils saved the world from evil and were often rewarded with the love of a sensual woman. And because these covers often titillated with sexual innuendo, they were sometimes even banned.

Today, these 'racy' images are mild compared to the imagery on prime-time TV. What remains is the art, and the art is mesmerizing. In fact, these vivid paintings make me want to read the stories contained in the magazines, even though I know it's only pulp.   

"The Pulps" is free and runs through December 26, 2014. It's worth a visit if you are in downtown Portland. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Parking Lot

This fall, I'm taking a creative writing course at my local University. This week's assignment was to describe an event where stress is the central theme. Here's my story. I'm quite happy with the result.

The Parking Lot

Stepping out of the mall, the glare of the sun momentarily blinded her. She fumbled in her purse looking for the pair of old Ray-Ban's she habitually carried with her. “Damn,” she thought. They weren't in the purse. “I'll have to hunt those down again.”

As she squinted and surveyed the sea of glistening cars in the parking lot, she suddenly couldn't remember where she'd parked the car. Her mind was blank. Everything looked unfamiliar. 

It was only yesterday that she had talked with her son about her forgetfulness.” He'd reassured her that such things happened to everyone.  It's not unusual to forget to pay a utility bill or miss a doctor's appointment. She was worrying needlessly. Perhaps, he was right. She was a worrier—always had been. 

“Well, I guess I'll start looking down this aisle.” As she continued on the hot asphalt between the rows of cars, nothing sparked in her mind. No sign of her red Toyota. Turing the aisle, a hot gust of wind blew across her face, and the contrast with the cool of the air-conditioned mall sent a shiver down her spine. She paced down the row, scanning both sides. Nothing here. All the rows looked the same.

She began to wonder. Had she parked the car on this side of the mall or was it at the north end? 

She was getting nervous. She had a meeting at the Senior Center at 1:30, and it was already half past 12. She needed to be there. This was a special meeting set for Friday, not the usual Monday. Was today Friday? 

“Calm down. Be logical.” The car had to be near the Macy's entrance. Wasn't that where she always parked it. As she retraced her steps to the entrance, she glanced at her shopping bag. The label read Kohl's. “Kohl's!” She never shopped there. The quality wasn't good. She opened the bag and eyed a black pair of slacks. Had she really bought these?

Then she remembered the remote control. Her car keys had a fob with a red security button. All she had to do was press the button and the car horn would start to honk. She would walk up and down the aisles pressing the button until she heard her car. 

She glanced at her watch. 1:15. She felt thirsty, hot, and her feet started to hurt. Where was that damn car? Anxiety gave way to fear. What would she do? She didn't have a cell phone to call her son; and anyway, he was hundreds of miles away. What could he do? She could seek out mall security; maybe they could help. They must have plenty of experience with this sort thing. She wanted to cry or scream in frustration, but what would that accomplish. She started down the next row.  

There was her car. She got in and sat. She was flooded with relief, but cried a little too.

Her mind drifted to her friend Hazel. She'd visited Hazel in the nursing home, tied to her wheelchair, eyes fixed in a perpetual blank stare. Hazel was gone, only her body remained. She wanted the image to disappear. 

She drove to the Senior Center, only 20 minutes late.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Adventures in Growing Pears

 “There Are Only Ten Minutes in the Life of a Pear When it is Perfect to Eat.”                                                                                                                                                 Ralph Waldo Emerson

Growing and harvesting pears is trickier than I ever imagined. Last year, thanks to our neighborhood squirrels, who stripped our tree bare, we had a grand total of three (delicious!) pears. Learning from last year's disaster, we installed a dollar's worth of air duct pipe around the trunk of the tree, keeping our furry friends from climbing up and absconding with this year's bounty. This little device made all the difference in the world. Today, we harvested 36 pears! Our gain; the squirrels loss. 

But when to harvest? According to pear experts on the web, pears should be picked when slightly immature and still hard. To tell when a pear is ready for plucking, you should 'tilt' the pear to a horizontal position from their usual vertical hanging position. If the pear is ready to be picked, it will easily detach.

Following these directions, I climbed the ladder, gently took hold of a pear and rotated it as described. To my utter surprise and delight, the pear just snapped off! I did this with each pear. The three pears that did not detach, I left for another day. 

Now, that's not the end of the story. Unlike apples, which are ready to eat from the day they are picked, pears need to go through a series of changes before they are edible. According to my reading, once pears are picked, they need to be cooled to about 30 degrees F for about one to two weeks. (I'm hoping our refrigerator will work for this process.) Without a chilling process, a mature picked pear may never ripen. After chilling, pears will then ripen at room temperature in about 5 to 7 days.

You can also 'kick start' the ripening process by putting freshly harvested pears in a paper bag with an apple or ripe banana. The apple or banana will give off ethylene gas, which acts as a catalyst and speeds up the ripening process.

Well, that's a lot to take in!

We've divided our pears into several groups. We've put a few into a paper bag with an apple, a few others into a paper bag without an apple, some into the refrigerator, and a few others left to sit on the kitchen shelf. Now we wait! I promise to report back as we taste the results of our experiments over the next few weeks.