Monthly Archives: August 2009

Reconnecting with the “Preacher-Man”

Those who have read my quarterly updates during the past 11 years (posted at www.robbritton.net, but are likely to migrate here in the coming months) know that I really like to stay connected with people from the past — my 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Jensen, for example. I also like to try to reconnect. About I decade ago, I tracked down the fellow who married us in May 1978, the Rev. Neal Lloyd. It was not hard to find him, just a quick search on the Presbyterian Church USA website. Back then, I reached out to Neal to report that a) Linda and I were still married, and b) that some of my skepticism about Christianity had disappeared. Back in ’78, I told the Rev. that I wasn’t sure that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and he kindly accommodated my dithering my substituting “son of man.” Anyway, Neal and I had a nice e-mail exchange.

He saved those messages, and a few weeks ago, he sent me a nice note, “You once began a letter to me with these words: “On a stormy night in May 1978 . . .” I kept that letter and cherished it for your willingness to share your spiritual journey with the ‘preacher-man’ who officiated at your wedding. Now I have retired and returned to the home in which I grew up in Wisconsin. The only other wedding I ever officiated at, at the University Women’s Club (or whatever the name was), was our daughter’s wedding in 1994. As I was going through some old files and seeking for the umpteenth time to sort and codify the detritus of 40+ years I came across your letter and enjoyed it again.”

To my great delight Neal was attending a church conference in Fort Worth, and we met for a cup of coffee on August 13. We packed a lot into an hour of chatter — easier for him, I’m sure, because he is really articulate. We summarized our lives over the past 31 years, jobs, kids, spouses, with nice digressions to and fro — including a bit of theology and spiritual matters. He had to leave to get to his meeting, but we agreed to stay connected (he lives not far from Madison, Wisconsin, and I told him I’d drive over when I was teaching there in the fall). We met with a handshake, and left with a hug. What a wonderful fellow, and a reminder that connectedness is so important.

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Out of Sequence, But To Catch Up: Travels in July 2009

Note for readers: regulars know that I e-mail these updates at the end of each quarter, and post them to www.robbritton.net. As I convert from that personal website – which I have maintained for about five years – to this cool new online journal, I have not yet sorted out where to put updates from the past (back to 1999!).

I started this new site in early August, so the July entry below is a bit out of sequence. But now we’re caught up, at least back to the first day of the second half of the year. I will post July pictures when I have a moment. If you want ‘em now, they’re at http://www.robbritton.net/RecentPhotos-T&L/RecentP-Jul09/index.html

As I have done many times in these pages, to steal a bit from Will Rogers, I never met a vacation I didn’t like. The South Carolina sortie continued into the first days of the new quarter. It was (I checked) our first summer family vacation since June 2001. A long time.

Several weeks earlier, I received a very cool gift for Father’s Day, an Amazon Kindle 2 electronic reading device. No more trips to the bookstore – you just turn on the wireless signal, head to the Amazon bookstore, find one you like, click “Buy,” and in about 30 seconds the book is ready to read on the Kindle. How cool is that? Cool enough that in the first weeks I read more than a book a week. It was wonderful on the vacation.

The beach was one of the great things about Kiawah – ten miles long, fine sand, shallow water. There’s something elemental about the beach – there’s a reason it’s been a popular place and pastime for decades. In advance, Linda rented beach chairs and umbrellas, and there was no better place to be in the afternoon. On Thursday the 2nd, Linda, Jack and I headed back into Charleston. We took a minibus tour. I’m normally skeptical of those things, but it was a small operator, and the leader/owner, Alan, was as good a guide as I’ve met in more than 40 years in the travel business – the right mix of history, storytelling, and architecture. He even lobbed in a funny joke about South Carolina Gov. Sanford, lately in the news for massive stupidity and infidelity. After the tour, which included a swing through the 1825 Edmondston-Alston House, we headed to The Hominy Grill for Low Country cooking. I found the place on the Internet, and it was awesome, a little neighborhood joint with fresh food, local beer, and very friendly people (if you go to Charleston, don’t miss it). I tucked into a vegetable plate with collards, tomatoes and okra, and fried cheese grits, and chocolate puddin’ for dessert.

Friday morning, Jack, Brett and I were up before dawn, through Charleston and out to Isle of Palms, a lovely place northeast of the city, where Brett had booked four hours of ocean fishing with one Captain Fritz. We met Cap, in his late ‘20s, laid back almost to an extreme. The boat was surprisingly small. We climbed aboard, and before leaving the harbor I had developed almost instant respect for Fritz. He saw some little wiggles on the surface and said, “There’s our bait.” He cast a net, and in less than a minute brought up five or ten pounds of menhaden, a small, flat fish. He netted so much that he gave a bunch to two other boats before heading into the channel (also the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway) and flooring it. That little boat was soon tearing along at 50 mph and I was laughing. Fun.

As a heartlander, I find coastal environments fascinating, because they are just so exotic. Coastal South Carolina was especially interesting, because of the creeks and marshes between the barrier islands and the mainland. A rich and diverse environment, for sure. Fritz took us out to an area called “the jetties,” a breakwater built a century to protect the shipping channel into the harbor. Lines were baited, and in no time each of us had hauled in a redfish, snap a picture or two, and release. The second half of the trip saw us trailing a shrimp boat, along with birds, dolphins, and sand sharks. The three of us each reeled in one of those, but Brett was the only fisher skilled enough to land it. Fritz wanted us to get some snaps of the menacing looking beast, and while setting up a photo he dropped the critter. “Watch out,” were his unnecessary words as the shark flailed with enormous strength at the back of the boat. There’s a reason we accord them respect! It was my first ocean fishing trip, only third fishing outing since 1967 (the last year of regular angling up at Greenwood Lake in far northern Minnesota), and it was big fun.
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Dinner the last night was on the veranda at the clubhouse of the Ocean (golf) Course, at the east end of Kiawah. I had ridden my bike up there most mornings, and reckoned the view would be good, but it was better than good – it was absolutely stunning. They could have served gruel and we would have enjoyed ourselves. The night ended with an early (July 3) fireworks display adjacent to our house. Way fun.

Next morning, on the 233rd anniversary of our independence, I got up extra early, and pedaled 17 miles, admiring a deer, four gators, and a raccoon. Kiawah is quite a place. We were home in the Texas furnace by three.

At five, as I often do, I tuned in Garrison Keillor’s radio show. It was special that day – the 35th anniversary of “A Prairie Home Companion,” live from the little town of Avon, in central Minnesota. As happens when I tune in, I was taken back to my native state, for example, to the front porch of our bungalow on Goodrich Avenue in the mid-1980s, beer in one hand, Robin in the other. Garrison’s remarks during the show were memorable. Just one sample “Our time on stage is brief, and when we’re gone, people don’t miss us as much as we thought they would.” Amen to that.

Five days later, the Silver Bird pointed north to Minnesota, headed to the 40th reunion of the Edina High School Class of 1969. Wowie! Landed at 1:30 on the 9th, hopped in a new Ford Focus, and headed east. It was a weekend for memories, and one of my goals was to see every place where I lived in my three decades in the Twin Cities (though not in order!). So I first rolled past our little bungalow on Goodrich Avenue in St. Paul (1979-88), then a couple of blocks beyond, to the duplex on Linwood (for a year, just after we were married). I meandered around that neighborhood, Crocus Hill, then took Summit Avenue, the street of the wealthy, into downtown St. Paul. I had not been downtown for several years, and the place looked really good. Lots of investment, especially by governments and non-profits – Minnesota, as you know, is a place where non-private money is abundant, through state taxes and very generous corporate and individual giving. Hopped on I-94, crossed the broad St. Croix River into Wisconsin, and in ten minutes was walking into the Wintergreen nursing home.

I knocked on the door marked “Director of Nursing,” introduced myself, and asked about David and Katherine Kelly, friends since 1974, now in their 90s and afflicted with Alzheimer’s. “Sure,” she said, “do you want to see them?” I had not seen them for four years, knew they were fading, but was unsure of their condition. Mrs. Kelly, bless her heart, was sitting in the hall, head down. I kneeled down, told her my name, and kissed her. Maybe we see what we hope to see, but I am sure she recognized me. I tried to link back to the many summers in the 1970s when I would spend a week on their farm, learning just a little about the hard work of dairying. I told her I was now lecturing at their alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Madison. She has always been a proud alumna, and she declared that it was an honor to teach there. I agreed. A nurse wheeled Mr. Kelly into the scene, and I hugged him. He was less lucid, but looked physically healthy. A number of nursing staff stood above us, and I gave them some background on the heroic and wonderful couple in wheelchairs. They had no idea that they farmed the Hudson Prairie for decades, that their herd of Jerseys grazed less than three miles from where we were. The Kellys were pillars of the Hudson and St. Croix County community, and now they were reduced to anonymous elderly, just two more in need of care. I was glad I stopped. But it was hard.

I rolled east, snapped a picture of their old house, a splendid red-brick Italianate, nicely renovated and now surrounded by new houses, then motored north to Edward and Karel Moersfelder’s equally lovely new yellow farmhouse atop Windy Hill. Regular readers know I try to visit them at least yearly (Karel and Linda worked together years ago in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office). Karel was in a sling, recovering from rotator-cuff surgery, and when I met Ed, after a big hug he told me he had a heart attack two weeks earlier. Yow! But he said he was fine, and I said hooray.

Karel asked us to motor into nearby Amery to mail a box to their son in New York, and that gave Ed and me a chance to catch up – and to meet Palmer Sondreal, second-generation publisher of the Amery Free Press. I’ve long admired small-town newspaper people, and we had a nice chat. Back at Windy Hill, two more friends, Dana and Tom Tellijohn, arrived, and in no time we were on their front porch, beers in hand, yakking. We had a great dinner, lotsa laughs. The Tellijohns departed, Ed went to a meeting of the Garfield Township Planning & Zoning Committee, and Karel and I cleaned up. I hauled out my laptop, headed to the back deck, and worked my e-mail to zero in the waning light, aided by the splendid cry of a nearby loon. We all clocked out early.

Up the next morning, plenty of coffee and a good yak with Ed and Karel, including my “sales pitch” for the Amazon Kindle. I think I talked them into one. After a bowl of Cheerios, Ed and I headed out for a long walk around the property and a yak; high point was coming upon wild raspberries, with flavor unlike any domestic kind; low point were a few ticks discovered on the walk and hours later. We had a splendid plate of leftover salmon for lunch, got in the car, and headed to Minneapolis. I dropped Ed at their in-town condo, and motored back to the edge of downtown, to take a snap of the new I-35W bridge over the Mississippi, replacement for the one that tragically collapsed in September 2007. A few more pictures, then out to Chuck Wiser’s townhouse in Bloomington, again my digs. Changed clothes, washed my face, and headed to meet former AA co-worker and school classmate Steve Schlachter, his mom, and two sisters (who I had not seen in 42 years!). We had beer and snacks on mom’s back deck and a good visit. At six, Steve and I headed to Bunny’s Bar in St. Louis Park for the first reunion event, informal. It was just a blast – when I left four hours later, I tallied that I had met almost 40 of the estimate 80 people there (that latter number was 10% of a way-large class). Lost my voice, but worth it!

Was up at 6:45 on Saturday morning. The night brought a cold front, and low 60s, and a strong north wind, perfect for a ride on Chuck’s seldom-used Bianchi comfort bike. I brought my bike shorts and helmet. Set off. It felt great. Better than that. I was smiling broadly a lot of the ride, which ended up at 47 miles. Up past Southdale, past the house on France where we lived 1969-74, and the one on Brookview (1966-67), then into Stu’s Barber Shop for a haircut, then to the rambler on Xerxes (streets in southwest Minneapolis run through the alphabet, from Aldrich to Zenith) that was home my last two years of high school. To Wuollet’s, one of the world’s best bakeries, for a Danish, then Caribou Coffee for a large one, then a couple of yogurts from Lund’s supermarket. Fortified, I headed two blocks west to two houses opposite each other, 4920 Arden (1959-64), and 5000 Arden, twice home (1952-57, and 1964-66 – this was the house my parents had to sell to pay my Dad’s medical bills, the place that made me a believer in universal coverage). A young woman was coming out of 5000 with her Labrador, and I introduced myself. She and her husband had been there 18 months, and loved the place.

I headed around lakes Harriet and Calhoun, then picked up the Midtown Greenway, built on the former Milwaukee Road railway line, and headed east, all the way to the Mississippi River. I was aware that Twin Citians were building lots of pedestrian/bike ways, but had not been on one. Wow, it was cool. Up through my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, past the soon-to-open football stadium, zigging and zagging, then through downtown Minneapolis. Totally by chance, I picked up another Greenway, and rode it all the way out of the city, then south through Edina, back toward Chuck’s. Last stop was a Dairy Queen for an enormous chocolate malt.

Along the way, I saw plenty of signs that reminded me that this was a place with different politics: a bumper sticker that read “After Pearl Harbor was attacked, did FDR bomb New Zealand?”; a lawn sign that read “For Real Homeland Security: Jobs, Peace, and Equality”; and another bumper sticker that read “Republican Plan for Health Care: Don’t Get Sick.” Ya gotta love Minnesota.

Showered, changed clothes, and after two I headed back downtown, via Meadowbrook, the apartments where I lived from just after birth until 1952. Stopped at a White Castle hamburger stand on Lake Street for one of their famous sliders and a fish sandwich. Just past three I was in the very fancy condo of friends John and Linda Massopust on Third Avenue. John was another school classmate, and was also in my Linda’s law school class in the mid-1970s. He’s worked really hard and done well, and though he’s still a partner in a Minneapolis firm, they live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had not seen them in five years. They were hosting a reunion warm-up event, and several other pals (Tim McGlynn, Tom Terry, Jim Grotting) were there. More laughs and great memories.

The big event was at the Edina Country Club, and I was there five minutes early, at 6:25. Another blast, more yaks, hugs, and laughs. Some serious moments too, learning about serious illness among spouses or classmates. Halfway through, I was getting hoarse again, but quarts of water (and no more beer!) helped a lot. Two English teachers, Larry Stotts (11th grade) and my favorite Mr. Jensen (12th grade, a fellow I see once a year), were there. I met another couple dozen classmates, including a really good friend and long-time ski partner, Greg Paske, who I had not seen for 18 years. Greg scolded me about not skiing together since 1976; he was right of course. It was all just way fun, not to be missed. I gave friend-since-1960 Chris MacPhail a ride back to his Dad’s house, and was asleep after midnight.

Up the next morning, back out on the Bianchi, but only for ten miles around west Bloomington (my butt was sore!). Showered, locked the door, and motored to another Lund’s grocery for a cinnamon roll, yogurt, and coffee. I had an hour or so before I needed to be at the airport, and – slap my forehead – I had forgotten two places I lived: the rental house on Newton where we lived for eight months after we moved back from Cleveland, 1959, and the apartment where Linda and I lived during law school and graduate school. Only had time for the former (I did just drive by the latter in February), so off I went. Check and done. Took one of the splendid parkways across south Minneapolis and out to the airport. Fun, lots of it.

On Tuesday, July 21, I flew west to Portland, diagonally across the magnificent American West, over Crested Butte (I spotted the path of a long bike ride over a pass in 1991), the Wasatch Front of Utah, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and more. About a half-hour before landing, mounts Rainier and Adams poked into view, and on descent, to the left, the splendid Mt. Hood, as exciting to see then as it was the first time we glided past, in 1985.

Along the way, I discovered that I had inadvertently picked up Janice O’s identical HP laptop at the DFW security checkpoint. Oops. Fortunately, the help desk number for her company was on the PC, so I called after we landed. With a couple of hours, we had sorted out the exchange – she lived near us in Dallas, and would drop it with Linda, and worked with an old pal, our airport general manager at Portland to get a captain of a returning flight to carry it in the cockpit, then hand it off to an Admirals Club rep at DFW, for Janice’s retrieval the next day. Smooth!

I was headed to Medford, in southern Oregon, with a standby ticket, and I did not get on the first flight. When they called my name for the Horizon flight at 3:50, I yelped a bit and jumped up and down. People stared. “Why is that man so happy?” Fifty minutes later, standing on the curb in front of the terminal in Medford, I was again jumping up and down, as my brother Jim pulled up. I had not seen him for many years, too long, and it had been a decade since my last visit to see him and wife Pam in the Rogue Valley. We motored west to their house in the hills above the historic little town of Jacksonville. On the edge of town, we saw a black-tailed doe and three fawns. Nice.

In no time were laughing and recalling old stories. Pam had cooked up some burritos and salad, and Jim opened a bottle of Slagle Creek Merlot from nearby. It was good to be with kin. Life was good. After dinner, we sat outside, beneath a 100-foot Ponderosa pine. Like the trip to Kiawah a month earlier, it was fascinating to be in a new physical environment, a Mediterranean climate. Though it was 98º when Jim picked me up, in the dry West it cools off quickly, and we opened the windows at nine, and clocked out soon after.

We’re all early risers, and were up before 6:30. They’re cyclists and Tour de France fans (my brother had even posted the French flag in the shed he uses to repair their several two-wheelers), so for the first couple of hours of each of the next three days we tuned in the race on Versus, the sports cable channel, and drank some mighty good coffee (my brother is an aficionado; I couldn’t tell him about the Nescafe instant in my desk drawer at AA!). At ten we drove north to his current jobsite – Jim’s a trim carpenter, hugely skilled and very exacting – a huge house near Upper Table Rock, a mesa and local landmark. We needed to pick up a part for my borrowed bike, but it was great to see his work – it was one of the things on my visit list. We admired the craftwork, said hello to the general contractor and some workers, then drove a few miles to a parking lot and set off on an ambitious bike ride, 35 miles, with 1,400 feet of climb. Southern Oregon is magnificent, and like most places, it’s better to see it under your own power. The ride was just splendid – on my first visit in 1999, I must have been under a haze, because the landscape was far lovelier than I recalled. It was warm, but the very low humidity made for a nice ride, as did my brother’s spare bike, a way-fancy DeRosa from Milano. Selective about food and drink, Jim scoffed at my suggestion of a large malt at a Dairy Queen, so we headed to J’ville for gelato. Then a shower and nap. At five, we sat on the patio for a Twilight Ale from the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon (in addition to world-class wines, Oregonians also craft some awesome beer), in the shade of that big Ponderosa. Motored into Medford for dinner at Porter’s a nice place in the old Southern Pacific railway depot, then off to bed. A good day.

Next morning, Jim and I motored east to Medford, over to visit Pam’s parents, Bea and Captain Paul. I had only met them once before, nearly 20 years earlier, and Jim’s and Pam’s wedding in Bodega Bay, California, but felt like I knew them a bit better, because Bea reads these updates every quarter, and always sends me a nice “attaboy.” He’s Captain Paul because that’s how he retired, with four stripes on his Delta uniform (and four on a Western Airlines uniform before that). We had a nice visit.

Grabbed a sandwich at Subway, then back to Jacksonville. We passed the local lumber yard, and Jim described the owner, Dale O’Harra, 92, including a snippet about his service in World War II. “Turn around,” I said, “we gotta say hello to Dale.” Jim introduced me, and first thing, I shook his hand again and thanked him for what he did for all of us. Like most vets, he was modest, almost sheepish. Then he told us about the 50+ sorties he and his crew flew in a B-24 Liberator, from Southern Italy, north to bomb Germany. His voice was firm. Thanks, Dale.

We got in Jim’s Saturn and he said, “Well, you’re sure spreading cheer today.” I smiled and agreed. That’s one of my missions. One of my strengths, and thank God for it.

We took a pleasant afternoon ride into the Little Applegate Valley, to the ghost hamlet of Buncom, and back via the Valley View Winery, where we stopped for a tasting, sampling some wonderful Anna Maria Tempranillo, a merlot, and some dessert wine made from frozen pinot gris grapes. Our server was a cheerful and knowledgeable young woman, and Jim and I had a nice T-t-S moment (seldom are they in the presence of another) with a native Montanan. We told her about our roots in that state. It was a fun stop. We had dinner at home, a barbecue with some nice Oregon (what else?) wine.

Next morning, Jim drove me to Medford Airport in his 1992 Ford F-150 pickup, with 278,000 miles on the odometer. What a machine! Tears came when we said goodbye. It was a great visit, and surely I will be back sooner than a decade on. The flying-standby woes began 90 minutes later, but no sense in getting cranky about not getting on the 9:25 or noon flights back to Portland (270 miles), nor watching the 3:00 flight cancel. In between, I walked from the airport to morning coffee (where I had a nice T-t-S moment with stay-at-home dad helping his friend, who had just opened Hangar Espresso), and to lunch at a Fred Meyer Supermarket; the $1.18 for two yogurts, a banana, and a whole-wheat roll sounded so much better than fast food. I was ambling in what I’ve called (invoking a radical geographer) “machine space,” where cars do not accord much respect, and where people look at you, even if you’re well-dressed and rolling a suitcase, as an oddball (one woman in a parking lot grabbed her child’s hand when they saw me).

Back at the airport, a scene that made me smile and frown at the same time: a little girl was saying a tearful farewell to her grandma; I’m 25 years in the airline business, and still love to see what we do. It was a touching moment. Equally striking was the moment Brandon the Horizon gate agent paged me and handed me a boarding pass for seat 19E on the 5:30 Q400 to Portland. Whoopee! For the second time in three days, I made a happy ruckus at the gate, people staring, no matter.

An hour later, I dashed through the Portland airport, into a Hertz Kia, and in no time was crossing the Willamette River downtown, then west on U.S. 26, over two ridges of the Coast Range (they rise to about 2,000 feet, as they do where Jim and Pam live in the south of the state), then south on the legendary U.S. 101, which hugs the Pacific from Washington to Mexico. The weather had gone from summer to spring, with a damp fog clinging. By 8:30, I was in the living room of Tom and Jean Harvey, friends since the late 1970s, when Tom and I were geography Ph.D. students. I had not seen them in a decade. Like most engaged academics, they’re wonderful conversationalists, and we yakked for a few hours.

When they moved to Portland in 1990 (Tom took a job at Portland State University), they moved around a bit, then settled on a small (under 1000 sq. ft.) condo near downtown. They saved, bought a lot, and built a wonderful, New England-style shingled house in Manzanita, a pleasant coast town of just 700. Both are into design and architecture, and the place was really nice. It was so good to be with them.

Saturday morning the 25th, we ate breakfast, then took a walk at low tide along the beach at Smuggler Cove, in Oswald West State Park. It was yet another new environment, a tidepool in a cool climate. Wonderful stuff to see, starfish, sea anemones, birds. We had an early fish lunch at Mo’s in nearby Cannon Beach, full of daytrippers seeking to escape the heat inland, then a short tour of Manzanita. I spotted the Tsunami Evacuation Route signs, whoa.

We all took a nap, then a lot of yakking on their back deck, surrounded by big trees, dinner, and a movie, The 1994 Shawshank Redemption, which none of us had seen. Sleep, up at 5:50, bowl of cereal, hugs, and home. A swell trip to a wonderful part of the U.S.

On the last day of the month, I was up even earlier, out the door, and north to Chicago. My seatmate was an interesting fellow, an installer of radiation-detection systems at national borders. He had worked his way across our northern frontier, from Washington to Maine, and was now working on part of the Chinese border, across from Kazakhstan to North Korea. Global business.

Arrived at 10, hopped on the CTA train to the Loop, dropped my small bag at the hotel, and ambled over to lunch with a former AA colleague, Jeff Zidell, who now works at Hyatt. A pleasant catch-up, then west several blocks to the studios of Business First, a cable TV business-news program. It had been years since I had been interviewed, but the whole, slightly unpleasant, drill came back, especially the reductionist aspect of television. My hosts in the University of Illinois EMBA program, who I would meet later that day, had recommended me. The interview on the current mess in the business, which would have taken me 15 minutes to explain in a classroom, was over in 3. Sigh.

As luck would have it, Cousin Jim, a real-estate agent, was working near downtown, so we met for a nice chat before he peeled off for his suburban train and I headed back to the hotel, picked up my backpack, and walked two blocks to the U of I’s teaching center downtown. I met host Steve Michael, a crisply intellectual and really articulate finance prof. Dinner was in a very agreeable “pocket park” along the Chicago River. It was a lovely day, and nice to sit outside. The 40 or so EMBA students were enjoying beer and wine with their meal, and brought extra to my lecture, which was something of a first! The talk went well.

Called home, and ambled a block east to the Berghoff, the venerable German restaurant (and Chicago’s oldest, since 1898), that has been a fave of mine since my dad told me about it in the early 1970s. Sitting on a stool in the front window, I was three feet from where I put down my big blue backpack one afternoon in June 1974, enroute to Paris. I was enjoying a pint of weizen, and thinking “I am so lucky.”

On the way back to O’Hare Airport the next morning, a nice T-t-S moment: the CTA was working on Blue Line tracks, so I climbed onto a shuttle bus from the Loop out several miles to the Western Avenue stop. I struck up a conversation with a woman standing next to me. She turned out to be an American Airlines retiree just like me. Jan Valentine started as a stewardess, flying Convairs, in 1956 and retired in 1997. We had just a delightful ride to ORD, with lots of stories from her about flying, her family, life in Chicago, and plenty of laughs. Nice serendipity. I am so lucky.

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Hiking Boots

In ten days, I am heading to the North Shore of Lake Superior, in my native Minnesota, to do a quick hike on the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs 200 miles from Duluth nearly to the Canadian border. To get ready, on Sunday I started breaking in a new pair of boots I received as a Christmas present in 2007. I’ve taken three short walks with them, out with MacKenzie the dog, on a hot (95º F, 38 Cº) day.

Wearing the boots makes me smile, and reconnects me with a past identityP1090024, back to the 1970s, when youngsters wore hiking boots far from the hiking trail. I did that, but I also did quite a bit of hiking back in the day, and the short walks today conjured a flood of memories: in the Southern Alps of New Zealand near Mount Cook (1973); along a steep ridge near Grindelwald, Switzerland (1974); in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire with pal Chris MacPhail (1976); and many more.

More fundamentally, the boots reminded me of the blessing of shoes, something for which I thank God each day – I sometimes think of what life would be like without them, and recall seeing so many poor people without them in my travels in the Third World, most recently in India last year.

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Third Post: Report from Chile

flew to Santiago, landing on a sunny afternoon, hopped the Buz Azul to the Santiago Metro, then the #1 line across town, ambling some blocks to the Sheraton. On my six previous visits I stayed at a smaller all-suites hotel in the Las Condes neighborhood, and this new hotel was less convenient (and charged wildly for Internet access, something that makes me cranky). I did a bit of work, changed into sneakers (note to travelers: do NOT take brand-new shoes, even comfy ones, on a trip), and started walking, east along the Mapocho River, past a nice sculpture garden, and past the ugliest embassy on the planet (ours, sadly), into “my old ‘hood,” Las Condes.

In Las Condes, the old (foreground) low-rise buildings are being pulled down to make way for the new and shiny

In Las Condes, the old (foreground) low-rise buildings are being pulled down to make way for the new and shiny

Sculpture garden, looking toward Las Condes; in between is the increasingly clean Mapocho River

Sculpture garden, looking toward Las Condes; in between is the increasingly clean Mapocho River

It’s largely offices, and thus is dead on weekends, so I hopped on Metro to the by-now-familiar Universidad Catolica station, crossed the street, and headed into the old neighborhood (barrio historico) called Santa Lucia. It was still warm at 5:30, and the sidewalk tables of the Patagonia Restobar (Alma del Sur, soul of the south) looked inviting. It was time for a beer, a stout from the Chilean microbrewer Kross in Curacaví. Nice! Not so nice: every person at the six other tables around me was smoking. Caramba!

After two days of friends, I was feeling lonely, something I’m sure my dad felt in his nearly 40 years of travel. But I remember when he’d get impatient with some of our attitude, he’d bark “Snap out of it!” So I did. Geography field work is about observation, so I started to look around. Santa Lucia had a nice feel, friendly, bohemian. That sense was paid off when a young
kid street musician rode up, parked his green bike, and started playing with drum and cymbal behind his back. He was looking for eye contact, for engagement, for tips. And he got them. Then his father showed up, looking like a pimp. I wanted to bark at him, but decided not to create a scene: Gringo assails unemployed father, or something like that. But the old man’s exploitation really pissed me off.

It was getting dark, and cooling off, so I moved inside, to a rustic room, lots of wood, and orderly clutter. It felt familiar, and then it struck me, as a set of ratios – Patagonia : Chile = Up North : Minnesota. I order another beer, and for dinner, pulpo y cordero: a plate of grilled octopus to start, then wonderful grilled lamb in a fruity sauce, with cheese polenta. It was really yummy. Back to the hotel, and early to bed.

Nine hours later, refreshed, and off to the hotel gym to ride the bike, breakfast, and the Metro to the suburban San Joaquin campus of Universidad Católica. This was my seventh visit, and although I knew my way around, I was still awaiting a room number for my 11:30 lecture, and managed to explain the problem in broken Spanish to one of the assistants in the business-school office. In 20 or 30 minutes I was on the phone with my morning host, Prof. Palacios, who informed me that the lecture started at ten. We airline people are nothing if not flexible, so ten it was, 90 minutes of show on airline sales and distribution strategy to about 60 undergraduates. I, enjoyed the applause, and peeled off, back to the city.

Worked my e-mail in an Internet café, where I had a nice Talking-to-Strangers (abbreviated T-t-S in these pages) moment with a Chilean woman, a philosopher, who had been living in Berlin since the mid-1970s (I did not ask, but guessed that she did not like the dictators who overthrew the elected president in September 1973). She said it was strange to be back in her homeland after so many years away. We talked a bit about my teaching trips. The encounter made me smile.

I zipped into the city center for an amble around the presidential palace and ministries and a supermarket lunch. Passing the stock exchange, I spotted a shoe-repair shop. Wowie, that was providential, because the bunions on both my feet and a pair of new Florsheims were engaged in a pitched battle, and the shoes were winning (remarkably, I had been wearing almost identical Florsheim Comfortech oxfords for the last three years, and they were almost like sneakers; go figure).

Anyway, I was able to explain the problem to the kindly lady behind the counter, and a young guy in the mezzanine above set to work. Meanwhile, the lady’s husband engages me in conversation, and we yak about family, showing each other pictures of our new granddaughters. I talked a little about my teaching trips to South America, and said something about all the changes in Chile since my first visit almost 40 years ago. That launched him into a long monologue about politics and economics, me picking up about every fifth word. Less than 30 minutes later the young guy brought down the shoes, I laced them up, and breathed a sigh of relief. About $1.60 was a small price to pay for relief!

At six, I delivered a lecture on airline frequent-flyer programs to 27 Universidad Católica MBA alumni, good questions from an engaged, older audience. At 8:15, I walked across the Alameda and back to the Patagonia Restobar, where I dined the night before. Had a plate of one of my favorite Chilean seafoods, congrio, which is Conger eel, a big animal. It was grilled, with a cream sauce, on a bed of toasted barley. Yum. Caught the Metro back to my hotel. It was a long day.

Up at 6:30, packed, and out the door. Fortunately, the rush-hour trains I caught to the bus terminal were not too crowded. The central bus station had been enlarged and was quite vast. Found the Tur-Bus counter and bought a round-trip to Viña del Mar, a resort city on the Pacific adjacent to the port of Valparaíso, a cool place that I visited in 2005. It was a clear day, with lots to see; as in Oregon two weeks earlier, there were two ridges to cross, and a nice roll through the Casablanca Valley, which is a major wine region. Arrived about 11:30, and just like the visit four years earlier, the first 10 minutes were not promising – bus stations are so often in dumpy parts of town. Then it got better, and by the time I got to the beach I thought Viña was a pretty cool place. Lots of cool buildings from the 19th- and early-20th centuries, plus ‘60s-modern high-rise apartments and more.

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Snapped a picture of the Cap Ducal, a hotel built in 1936 over the water, and looking like a ship. Way cool.

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Walked up Castle Hill, Cerro del Castillo, a funky neighborhood; here are some scenes:

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Ambled along a busy highway, noticing a lot of leftist graffiti, like this one:

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I hopped down some stairs, swirled my hand in the Pacific, and hopped on the Metro, riding one stop to Portales, right on the beach where Viña and Valpo run together. The Transport Geek could not resist a ride on another system!

Five seafood restaurants in a row (in fact they had common walls) on the beach at Portales meant that each one had a hawker in front, trying to steer the few winter tourists into their establishment. It was pretty funny. The plump woman in front of Doña Tatito, the first in the row, corralled me in. I took a table on the outside patio, with a nice view of the ocean, and full sun. It reminded me of Mo’s in Cannon Beach, Oregon, where we ate lunch a couple of weeks earlier, but the food in Chile was better – another plate of grilled congrio, plus some creamed spinach. The waiter brought hot rolls and a small dish of salsa, which I vacuumed up and asked for another. A pleasant repast, better than the supermarket sandwich the day before.

I was running out of time, so did not get the chance to hike up the hill to Santamaria University, which has a lovely campus; I settled for a snap of a few Gothic-looking buildings from the Metro, then headed back to Viña and the bus station. En route, I spotted something else that reminded me of Oregon – tsunami evacuation route signs along the main roads.

Chile is an orderly society, and on the bus back to Santiago I spotted something that made the Transport Geek (that’s me, often shortened to T-Geek in these pages) both smile and feel more secure: Tur-Bus (the company) had posted a crew-rest certificate on the door between the driver and the passengers, noting the driver’s name, date, and time he began work. We claim to be advanced in the U.S., but we don’t offer that kind of transparency.

Arrived in Santiago close to dusk, hopped the Bus Azul back to the airport. Spring was in the air, and so were kite flyers along the road, lots of them, with big spools of string. The sight made me smile. Flight is a good thing, no less those colorful kites than the Silver Bird that delivered me back to Texas, and the summer heat, in ten hours.

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Second Post: From Buenos Aires

Five days later, on Thursday night (the 6th), I flew to Buenos Aires. Georgina and Alejandro, two students from ITBA, the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, picked me up at the airport and drove me into the big city. The original plan was for me to participate, for a fourth time, in their student-run South American Business Forum. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the H1N1 virus in Argentina, and government inaction when it first infected, led the students to postpone the forum until October (when I could not participate). Since I was already committed to teaching across the Andes in Santiago, Chile, on Monday the 10th, I offered to present a workshop to the ITBA students – crisis management seemed to be a good topic – and they accepted. As I have written, I have become a sort of minor patron and enthusiastic supporter of the forum, which requires enormous student work and commitment. The least I could would be to do a bit of teaching on how to deal with the inevitable crises that make their way into business and into life.

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The students dropped me at my hotel, a small boutique place I found on the Internet; it was one of those too-hip-for-me places – where else would you find an enormous portrait of Eva Peron made from dried bread, or a big one of local boy Che Guevara with sequins and spangles?

At eleven that morning I met my old boss Bob Crandall (American’s former Chairman and CEO) and his wife Jan in the lobby of the Sheraton Buenos Aires, for an early lunch. But the fancy dining room in the Park Tower of the hotel was not yet open, so we repaired to their suite on the 18th floor. Jan told me that in all her years of staying at fancy hotels, she had not seen a suite so enormous and well-appointed. Indeed, it was eye-popping. Ever one for order, Bob looked at my face and suggested I try out the complimentary shave cream and razor (I had not been able to check into my room on arrival an hour earlier). “Okay, Dad,” I replied, laughing. We had a pre-noon glass of wine and headed down to a lobby bar for a sandwich and some good conversation, ranging widely, and well away from the mess that is the airline business. It was a lot of fun. I had not seen Bob for a few years, and Jan for more than a decade. They were in Buenos Aires to have a look at their catamaran under construction, which they will sail north later this year.

Detail, main entry, Centro Naval, a beaux-arts masterpiece completed in 1914

Detail, main entry, Centro Naval, a beaux-arts masterpiece completed in 1914

Ambled back to the hotel for a short nap, worked my e-mail, then out for a walk through the center, down Calle Florida, a shopping street, cup of latte at McDonald’s, then south past the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada. There I noticed clumps of riot police, but no protesters.

Av. Corrientes, Buenos Aires, August 7, 2009

Av. Corrientes, Buenos Aires, August 7, 2009

Several blocks north, as I approached the main street called Corrientes, I heard drumming. When I turned the corner, there was the protest, trade-union groups and lefties of all manner, banners with the ubiquitous likeness of local guy Che Guevara. The parade began, and I watched for about ten minutes. Quite a scene!

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Back at the hotel came an e-mail message from Juan Trouilh, the young guy who first invited me down to the South American Business Forum several years earlier. He wondered if I had time for a chat. Why not? We met in the hotel lobby, visited briefly, and I outlined my plan to visit two of the city’s bares notables (no translation needed), the second one for dinner. “Wanna come along?” I asked. Yes, he’d join me, and off we went, to the subway and out to the first place, Miramar, in the San Cristobal neighborhood just west of the center. More a restaurant than a bar, it was closed, but a friendly young manager opened a large sash window and Juan explained that the visitor read about the place in The New York Times. Remarkably, the fellow invited us in for a look around. It was very old school. We chatted in Spanish and English, thanked him, and hopped in a taxi to bar notable #2, El Preferido de Palermo, in Palermo, a hip and comfy neighborhood.

Juan Trouilh enjoying a glass of Quilmes Bock, El Preferido de Palermo Bar

Juan Trouilh enjoying a glass of Quilmes Bock, El Preferido de Palermo Bar

It was rush hour and it took awhile to get there, but it was worth it. The place was just way local and way cool. Arriving at 6:30, there were only a few folks inside (locals eat in the manner of the Spanish, which is to say late). We ordered a large bottle of Quilmes bock beer and an appetizer plate of meats and cheese, and kept yakking. Juan is a swell young guy, trying to get an Internet business off the ground. We covered a lot of topics. He was heading to a dinner party at ten, so he did not join me for the main course, Lentejas Asturiana, a lentil stew with meat, from the Asturias region of northern Spain that was home to Mr. Fernandez, who opened the place in 1952, a year after I was born.

Busker on Line D of the Buenos Aires subway.

Busker on Line D of the Buenos Aires subway.

We left after nine, when the place was mostly filled up, walked north to Plaza Italia, and caught the subway back to the center. High point of the ride was a young troubadour on the train, singing and strumming and making jokes. Unlike a place like New York, riders were engaged and responsive. It is a city full of life. We walked back to the hotel. Juan peeled off, and I clocked out. A good day, for sure.

At 8:30 on Saturday the 8th, long-time ITBA and SABF friend Martín Siniawski and his girlfriend Valeria picked me up for a look-around. We motored west through Olivos, San Isidro, and other fancy neighborhoods along the estuary of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata), then out to the river’s delta at a place called Tigre, 20 miles from downtown. Tigre was an interesting place, known for lots of furniture makers and sellers, and the docks for boats headed into a maze of delta waterways. We ambled around for a bit, then hopped on a tour boat for a 90-minute cruise, past summer homes and year-round dwellings, a pleasant recreational landscape. We saw wooden ferries that were the buses of the delta, stopping here and there with passengers and their groceries and stuff. Elsewhere, two-person rowing shells, kayakers, and powerboaters. We sat atop the boat, in the fresh air, yakking and snapping pictures, for most of the ride. Motored back to town, stopping to pick up crustless sandwiches (called migas) at a bakery adjacent to their former high school.

Second homes along a delta canal

Second homes along a delta canal

In the delta, this is the bus

In the delta, this is the bus

The bakery around the corner from Martín's and Valeria's high school, home of the best migas (crustless sandwiches) in all of Argentina!

The bakery around the corner from Martín's and Valeria's high school, home of the best migas (crustless sandwiches) in all of Argentina!

At 3:00 it was time for me to deliver the crisis-management workshop, followed by a good discussion, for about 20 of the conference organizers. At six we headed out to drop off the car (it belonged to Valeria’s parents). At that moment I slapped my forehead – I had forgotten to buy my favorite Argentine souvenir, dulce de leche (milk caramel, then best). We were seeking my favorite brand, La Salamandra, but the first place we visited did not carry it. We settled on another. Valeria joined us and we walked on. Happily, we passed another small supermarket that had the brand, so I bought another big jar, for a total of nearly four pounds of the gooey stuff. Should last ‘til Christmas!

Having traveled internationally for 40+ years, I’ve come to appreciate that one of the visitor’s greatest gifts is to be invited into the stranger’s house. “How do they live?” is on the minds of every curious traveler, and that night was filled with that present and many more. The students had organized an asado, a barbecue, at the home of Ivonne Meninato, one of the conference stalwarts. We were in the very comfortable Belgrano neighborhood, in a lovely house. I met Ivonne’s parents; her father was the head of Dow Chemical in Argentina, and they had a lot of experience in the U.S. I met Geronimo, their Labrador dog (and later handed a few morsels of meat).

And we had plenty of time to visit with current and former conference organizers, all my young Argentine friends. This is a bright and motivated group of kids, always a pleasure to talk with. The dinner rolled on for hours, as Emiliano, tending the fires, brought in waves of beef, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage). There was plenty of beer, and just when we needed nada más, Georgina brought out an amazing cake layered with brownie, dulce de leche, and Italian meringue. Yow. Food coma. Oh, yes, almost forgot: the group presented me with a soccer jersey of the Argentine national team; on the back in the letters where the player’s name would be, it read “Gracias, Rob,” and was autographed by the organizers. It was a totally sweet gesture.

Driving home, I gave silent thanks to Don Miguel, the televised Spanish teacher from the early 1960s for whom (as I have written many times before) I credit for putting me in a place like Buenos Aires. What a gift.

The 2009 conference organizer, Matías Sulzberger, drove me to the airport the next morning. We had a great chat. Chatting the day before, he seemed enormously focused, and on the ride I came to understand a couple of the reasons for it. His grandfather fled Nazi Germany; his grandmother died when his dad was 11, and he was sent to live with an aunt in Buenos Aires. He had no money, but lots of drive, something he passed on to his son. It’s such a joy to get to know youngsters like that.

I’m still trying to figure out how to insert photos — which will be an essential part of my journal — but I have not succeeded. Stay tuned!

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The First Post!

Welcome to my online journal.  I’m glad you’re here, and hope you will come back often.  This is my first posting, on a fairly typical day: some work, then some travel, tonight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Come back for updates!

By the way, the header photo is fresh, taken on July 24 at Smuggler’s Cove, Oregon, 110 miles west of Portland.

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