Monthly Archives: October 2010

On Wisconsin!

Patio, Wisconsin Union, on the shore of Lake Mendota

On Sunday afternoon, October 10, I kissed Linda, hugged MacKenzie, and headed to the airport. I paused to watch the ebb and flow of customers in the B Terminal. To most of them it was routine, regular. I thought about all the organization required to run an airline network, stuff customers never see and don’t care about. Flew north to Madison, for the fourth annual set of lectures at the University of Wisconsin (the title of this post is the title of the school song). As regular readers know, I have great regard for that state and its wonderful public university.

We landed at 8:15, I hopped in a cab, and in 12 minutes was at the Fluno Center, a campus hotel and continuing-education center. Unpacked and walked across the street to Ian’s, a pizza place where Jack and I ate a year earlier. Enjoying a slice and a nice salad, I mused about the passage of time. No, I was no longer chronologically young (something my knees tell me several times a day!), but I felt akin to the handful of students in the joint. Age is relative, and “we are young” continues to be a mantra.

I met my UW host Jan Heide the next morning for breakfast. We got caught up with family and work. Jan amplified some news from a few months earlier, that their son Henrik, a flutist who graduated from Rice in June, had just begun work at the Juilliard School in New York. Whoa. At nine, we walked up the street to his office, then to a classroom to stand and deliver. As I often do before class begins, I worked the crowd, introducing myself and asking a dozen students three questions: 1) where are you from? 2) what did you do before starting your MBA? and 3) where did you go as an undergraduate? The two lectures went well, with plenty of good questions.

I peeled off at 12:30, changed clothes, and as I did the previous two years, walked over to the Yellow Jersey bike shop on State Street and rented a European-style city bike named Chad. He was a bit of a clunker, but the tires held air, the day was sunny and warm, and I had my vectors, south to a former rail right-of-way called the Southwest Bikeway, which ran that direction to the edge of town. From there, a mile or so on the Capital City Trail to the Wisconsin DNR (Department of Natural Resources) Military Ridge State Trail, on the old Chicago & Northwestern Railway line west to Dodgeville. At the start of the trail was a sign mandating a user fee. Obedient and communal, I filled out a short form, enclosed $5 in an envelope, and dropped it in the lockbox. Good to be legal, I thought, and set out. Straining, I thought I could hear the hissing and chug of an old steam locomotive pulling a train headed west from Madison. (A week later, the T-Geek checked a 1902 Northwestern timetable; three trains a day plied the route in each direction.)

Corporate headquarters, Epic, outside Verona, Wisconsin

I stopped in Verona, once a freestanding town that has become a suburb, for a pint of chocolate milk and a cookie (an adequate lunch after a big breakfast), then put legs to pedals and headed west. Fall colors were wonderful, milkweed pods full of their down, the last of the black-eyed susans blooming.


The trail ran through the Sugar River valley, low with lots of wetland, and glacial ridges in the distance – classic Wisconsin scenery. I passed the sprawling and modern “campus” of Epic, a medical software company. At milepost 10 I turned around and headed back on the same route, back into the city, past the enormous Camp Randall football stadium, then down to Lake Mendota and along the path back to the center of town. About 36 miles, a great workout.

At 5:45, Jan and swell wife Maria picked me up, and we motored to the west side of downtown and dinner at L’Etoile, a stylish restaurant right on the capitol square – we were 200 feet from the imposing state building, somewhat similar to the U.S. capitol in Washington. The restaurant owner is deeply committed to local sourcing, and virtually every item on the menu included its provenance – this farm, that field. Impressive, for sure. Dinner was great, the wine wonderful (if perhaps too plentiful!), conversation even better. A wonderful evening with such nice people.

I woke early on Tuesday morning, and after breakfast the first order of business was to reconnect with someone I barely remember. My dad had a fellow salesman friend, Fred Bisbee, in Madison, and I remember stopping to see Fred and his family on motor trips to visit kin in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. In a variant of Talking to Strangers, I tracked down a “Fred Bisbee” in Madison at sunrise. With a little more Googling and online digging – ten minutes max – I had established that the listed person was Fred Jr.

You know me, so you know I had to call him. He instantly recognized my name, and to my surprise and delight said, “You know, Rob, just last week I thought of Cliff for some reason.”
Like his dad, Fred Jr. had been an apparel salesman. His voice was that of a salesman, with vigor, presence, humor, and the optimism that I remember from my dad. His wife died eight years earlier, and at that point he decided to work less (a good choice). We yakked for 45 minutes about the life of a traveling salesman, about clothing, and about all the changes in making and selling what we wear. It was a delightful chat, and I vowed to get together for a beer on my 2011 visit.

I then took a good walk around part of the sprawling campus. The university foundation had erected signs identifying firsts and noteworthy actions, and one caught my eye:

As president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918, Charles Van Hise championed a mission of public service that became known as the Wisconsin Idea. Calling for professors to share the wealth of their teaching and research, Van Hise declared that he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.” Campus leaders have been guided ever since by this moral imperative that the university should work for the benefit of all.

I crossed University Avenue and ambled into the gorgeous sanctuary of the Luther Memorial Church. My people! Indeed, Pastor Franklin Wilson was explaining the parts of the church to some wiggly five-year-olds. After a brief prayer, the kids departed, and I introduced myself. He had been at the church two years, after calls mainly in his native Pacific Northwest. We yakked a bit more, and it turned out that a couple of decades ago he interviewed our former senior pastor in Dallas, Jon Lee, for a posting in Eugene, Oregon. Small world! Leaving the church, I sent Jon an e-mail. A reply came back an hour later, with the connection and note that he and wife Stefani were “in Sibiu, Romania, serving a tiny International English-speaking Ecumenical congregation.” We are mobile.

At ten, I met my undergraduate host, Jean Grube, and we yakked for about 45 minutes, then ambled to a classroom and delivered two back-to-back lectures to her HR management students. At 1:20, she handed me back to Jan and said goodbye. Unhappily, she had office hours and could not join us for a caloric lunch at a nearby tavern. Jan and I had another good yak. Such a good guy.

After lunch, I said thanks and goodbye to Jan, worked my e-mail, took a quick nap, and ambled down State Street downtown, then back to the university. At four, I entered the recently restored main reading room of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Ceiling, main reading room, Wisconsin Historical Society

A century ago, it was the library of the university, and I heard faint echoes of ten decades of scholars. That afternoon there was a busload of seniors, digging and sifting through various sources, seeking answers to the question “where did we come from?” I cued my iPhone to the UW fight song, “On Wisconsin,” smiled, and thought of all my friends who studied here. Katherine and the late David Kelly in the 1930s, John Borchert in the late 1940s, and Edward and Karel Moersfelder and Cheryl and Daniel Smith in the 1970s. A great place, for sure, and I am lucky to be associated with it, if in a small way.

The Wisconsin Union, meeting place for students and faculty

After five, I crossed the street and headed into the Wisconsin Memorial Union, the student union that is another campus anchor. I picked up a large cup of local brew, Grey’s Rathskeller Ale, and walked out onto the huge patio along Lake Mendota. The place was hopping, people enjoying drinks and the last hour of daylight. Gulls flew overhead, kayakers paddled by, a youngster wearing a T-shirt with an image of Karl Marx rearranged chairs. This was the good life, for sure. I’d live here in a heartbeat, I thought.

At 6:45, I met Katy Kvale, a pal from geography graduate studies 35 years ago. She was a medical geographer with an interest in tropical diseases, and is now an epidemiologist for the State of Wisconsin. We repaired to an Ethiopian restaurant for a good chat and some laughs, back to the old days at the University of Minnesota. I was home the next morning by 11.

The classic Wisconsin barn, though in some disrepair

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Talking to Strangers, Right at Home

You know that when I travel, I talk to strangers, and almost always enjoy the experience. T-t-S is a wonderful way to enhance travel. But you can meet strangers in your neighborhood, too, and this morning I did. MacKenzie and I were on our mid-morning stroll, and we came upon an older fellow with a cane, walking his dog, a handsome whippet. Not surprisingly, MacKenzie started to bark. The man smiled. I maneuvered Mac closer to the whippet for a little canine socializing, and some small talk with the man, who looked kindly (I am a big believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of thin-slicing, the ability to size up people quickly, which is perhaps why I have such good luck with T-t-S).

Toward the end of a short exchange, I said “I notice a bit of an accent, where do you come from?” The man smiled and replied, “Germany, but a long time ago.” When? 1951. I anticipated some stories, and we yakked for more than half an hour.

Harry was born in 1930, near Dresden. He was drafted at age 15, and was manning a Nazi anti-aircraft gun on the edge of that city when the firebombing came. He survived. In the chaos thereafter, he and some young pals escaped and headed west (in the opposite direction of the advancing Red Army). The Yanks looked at the teenagers and sent them home.

Harry got out of East Germany three years later, and to America in 1950, where he was promptly drafted, spending more than two years fighting in Korea. Life got considerably better when he got back to the States, and he has had a good run in Illinois, New Mexico, and here. They moved to Dallas some years ago after his son’s wife died unexpectedly, to help out.

Harry and I chatted about Germany then and now, about reunification, about his father (who was a prisoner of war in Czechoslovakia until 1957), about his sons, and, with evident pride, about his grandson who just began at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He told me he had Parkinson’s Disease, but did not complain. People like Harry are too wise and too experienced to do that. And he said something that people born here do not ever say: “This country has been so good to us.”

It is such a joy, and such a privilege, to meet people like Harry. Take time to reach out, and you will likewise be enriched.

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Quick Zip to Montreal

Two days after returning from Lake Superior, I was back at the airport at 0:dark and up to Chicago, and on to Montreal. Had I planned better, I would have stayed up north, and taken the Canadian train from Thunder Bay, about 60 miles from where we stayed (Grand Marais) to Montreal, as Linda and I did almost exactly three decades earlier. There’s an interesting historic link, too: beginning in the 17th Century, French trappers and traders collected furs along Lake Superior and inland, and canoed them east to market in Montreal, a very long trip.

Flying northeast, I cued longtime Canadian singer Neil Young, reaching back to my youth for some favorites, including “Helpless” and “Long May You Run.” To my delight, the public-transit agency there, STM, just began a frequent, fast, and cheap express bus service into the city. Even better, for the cost of a roundtrip I could get a three-day pass for unlimited rides on their network. On the way into town, I read in a STM magazine that Montreal launched the first public bike network (like the ones in Paris and now London) “thanks to Quebec know-how.” The rise of Quebec identity and pride in place has long been of interest, and the phrase made me smile. Reading further, the first evidence of the essential goodness that I have long admired in Canada – the bike network awarded the contract for cycle maintenance to an agency that supports at-risk youth (you Canadian readers, take a bow!). I rode the Metro for the last part of the trip, and at the Peel station I spotted a nice reminder of my first visit in 1967 – a large, colorful, round mosaic.

A stand of Bixi, the Montreal public-bike network

I was at my hotel on Rue Sherbrooke in no time. Washed my face, checked e-mail, and hopped back on the Metro, riding two stops. Grabbed a late light lunch at Tim Horton’s, and entered Concordia University. It was a downtown campus, no green, no statues, but with an enormous and palpable sense of energy. It was 4:15, toward the end of a school day, and the place was still buzzing. The student body was hugely diverse with lots of new Canadians of varied colors, a reminder that higher education is the key to a better life. I chatted briefly with a Chinese kid in suit and tie, fresh from an interview with McKinsey and Company. I stepped off on the sixth floor, and wished him well. I had only been here once before, in 2005, and I didn’t recall it being as vibrant.

At 4:30, I met Sue Hogan, who runs the aviation program in Concordia’s John Molson (yes, the beer) School of Business. We yakked about some short-course teaching opportunities – they do a lot of corporate contract work for companies like Bombardier. Took a quick nap and got back on the Metro, riding north to a hip neighborhood along Blvd. St.-Denis, and ambling to Bieres et Compagnie, which I visited a couple of years earlier. Quebec has some great microbreweries, and I was soon enjoying a Blanche de Chambly. Got a table and perused the menu. The roast wapiti looked interesting, but they were out, so I had a caribou burger, really yummy, and a pint of Rousse ale from the brewer Boreale, whose symbol was a polar bear.

Before dinner arrived, I was heading for the denouement of a touching and remarkable novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Fiction can be powerful, and the account of injustice visited upon Japanese-Americans during World War II made me want to stand up and scream. Handily, my meal arrived, and my vector toward hyperventilation abated. Whew!

Getting off the Metro at 9:37, a thought from a few hours earlier surfaced, so strong that I stopped to make a note: it started here. What, you ask? Rob’s foreign travel started in Montreal, in August 1967. That weeklong visit to Montreal, with diversity that contrasted so much with white-bread Minneapolis, was one of the experiences that has propelled me outward, and enriched my life in so many ways.

Was up at 6:30 on the 29th, down to the gym for a short bike workout, then out the door, west on Sherbrooke, and into the leafy McGill campus. Had a brief T-t-S chat with a fellow walking his dog, then headed to the Law School and my host Maria D’Amico. We chatted briefly, she walked me to class, and I delivered a three-hour presentation to 20 students in the Air and Space Law master’s program – a hugely diverse group, from Australia, Korea, China, India, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, the UK, Italy, and France. Oh yes, one Canadian, an interesting older fellow Paul, who had worked on aviation liberalization at Transport Canada. Paul, a prof named Richard, and a student took me to lunch at the Faculty Club.

Playing field, McGill campus

Peeled off at two, and headed out on a suburban train to the Town of Mount Royal, an interesting and green suburb begun in 1920s. Walked around a bit, then took the bus and Metro back to the hotel. Did a bit of work, took a short nap, and at 5:30 walked south to meet longtime friend Gary Doernhoefer. Arriving early, I was tempted to take one of the Bixi public bikes for a quick ride, but instead read The New York Times on my iPhone. Gary is now General Counsel of the International Air Transport Association, headquartered both in Geneva and in Montreal. We walked to his apartment on the edge of the old town, Vieux-Montreal, had a beer and a yak, and continued the chat at a nearby brewpub. We covered a lot of territory, and had a lot of laughs.

Was up at 5:30 on the last day of the quarter, out to the airport, and a nonstop back to Texas.

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The North Shore of Lake Superior

The Pines, a famous stand of evergreens close to the Gunflint Trail, Cook County, Minnesota

The Devil's Kettle (left), a disappearing waterfall, Brule River

On Friday the 24th, Linda and I flew north to Minnesota for a quick weekend with Jack, up on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Enroute to his house, we stopped at the Minnesota State Fair to pick up the watercolor that I bought five weeks earlier.

This year's State Fair choice, At the Lake, shown hanging in our house

The Fair changed the buying process; in the past, you picked up the art from the artist, which offered a wonderful opportunity to meet and visit with him and her, and learn a little about the creative process (something that, as I have often noted, fascinates me). I wrote the artist, but she didn’t reply, so parked and entered an administrative office, where the receptionist told me there would be a $10 “holding fee,” because I had not picked it up within the time frame specified in “the rules.” I told her I didn’t recall receiving a copy of those. She shrugged, so I paid the ten buck shakedown, and we continued north.

Picked up Jack a little after eleven and got back on I-35 toward Duluth. It was raining lightly, but the forecast was for clearing. Still, the cool felt great, and the fall color was sensational. I smiled broadly when we crested the hill above Duluth and the big lake, the one the Anishinabe (Ojibwe) people called Gitchi-Gumi, the Superior I have marveled at for 53 years now. Beyond the town of Two Harbors, we stopped for a late lunch at Betty’s Pies, a sensational place. I had a walleye (fish) sandwich and split Jack’s five layer chocolate mint pie. Whew!

Linda took the wheel for the last 80 miles on Highway 61, which winds along the shore. I was glad to be a passenger, and my neck swiveled a lot, taking in the raw beauty of rocks, the mixed evergreen and deciduous forest, and many streams tumbling down an escarpment to Lake Superior. Later that day, I tallied the trips along the shore since 1957, and every one of the 31 has been a delight.

The Coast Guard Station, Grand Marais

The autumn portion of a four-section mural created by fourth-grade students at the local elementary school; it adorns the west wall of the local food co-op

Grand Marais has always attracted artists, even for a weathered garage door!

Kayak parking lot, downtown Grand Marais

Renovators of the old East Bay Hotel saved the iconic sign, which I recall from my first visit in 1957 (we had dinner in the hotel dining room)

We checked into a Best Western and took needed naps. At seven, as we did back in the 1990s when we came up year after year, we ambled to Sven and Ole’s Pizza. Unlikely that Swedes would make a good pie, but they do, and the place has become something of an institution. After dinner, I peeled off and walked along the lakeshore. Returning to a familiar place offers a chance to take stock, and I thought a lot about the past, including how much my dad loved the North Shore.

On Saturday morning, Jack and I jumped in the Ford and drove up the Gunflint Trail (actually Cook County Highway 12), rising 800 feet above the lake, then entering thick woods. I wanted to show him some famous old pines that hug the road. He’s a great photographer, and snapped away. On the way back, we detoured down a dirt road to Elbow Lake. The sky was clearing, and the autumn color around the lake, and on hills in the distance, was splendid.

After breakfast, the three of us motored north to C. R. Magney State Park, named for a judge and conservationist who worked to build parks and preserve the wild character of the North Shore. On a plaque inside the park was a great quote from Judge Magney: “our state parks are Everyman’s country estate.” Amen to that. We crossed the Brule River on a footbridge and headed upstream to some waterfalls and a curious formation called Devil’s Kettle, where the river has, over the eons, bored a hole and disappears into igneous rock. Way cool. The leaf colors were splendid. On the way back, we saw a Bald Eagle across the river. Wow!

After lunch, Jack and Linda went shopping, and I drove a few miles east to do another hike, along the Superior Hiking Trail (which runs the length of the North Shore, from Duluth to the Canadian border). I parked and was soon ambling west and north along the Devil Track River, amid spectacular foliage, and zipping up and down over ridges. My creaky knees held up, and I made it to a bridge across the river, 2.3 miles from the trailhead, in 44 minutes. Reversed course, snapping pictures along the way. Walking in the woods is such a delight. We walked to dinner at Chez Jude, a remarkably fine place to eat, headed back to the motel, and put on pajamas. A long, wonderful day.

Here are some snaps from that day:

I got up before sunrise Sunday morning, for prayers of thanks and intercession on the beach, then a walk out to the lighthouse at the end of the harbor breakwater, then west to Artist’s Point, subject of many a work of art (including a watercolor above our fireplace). The morning light was superb. Ambled back to the room, ate breakfast, and drove back, dropping Jack in Chisago County, and popping in for a short visit with Linda’s mother, Karen, in her late 80s and still going strong.

Here are photos from sunrise on Sunday:

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The Other LA: Long Beach, California

Downtown Long Beach has a splendid mixture of exuberant old buildings from 90 years ago and shiny newer stuff; it is a very pleasant place

Two days after saying goodbye to Charlie, I flew west to Los Angeles. Landed at 1:30, into the cool and clear weather that has attracted people to California for decades. I was headed to give a keynote speech the next morning at the Inflight Services Association (IFSA) conference in Long Beach. A taxi would run $60, and 40 minutes without traffic. The L.A. Metro proposed $1.50 for a trip of just over an hour. Of course the thrifty Transport Geek chose the latter, hopping on the shuttle from the terminals to the Green Line rail station, then east to the Blue Line, which runs between downtown L.A. and downtown Long Beach — on the same right-of-way that the Pacific Electric line opened in 1902 (and closed in the 1950s and 1960s). Public-transit riders in Los Angeles seem poorer than any other city I visit regularly; a few of them stare, while others try to figure out the old guy with the rolling suitcase. What’s his story?

Downtown Long Beach was immediately attractive. It had the clean, friendly, optimistic ambience of mid-size cities, sort of Omaha with palm trees. I rolled my suitcase several blocks west to the Hilton on Ocean Blvd. For the first time in quite a while, decades perhaps, the desk clerk had no record of my reservation, which IFSA was to have made. After a bit of tracking in my PC, I found the mobile number of the conference organizer, who told me that despite the e-mail that read “Hilton,” I was at the Westin, about eight blocks east. Did I want them to send a car, she asked. No, I replied, it was too nice a day, and I simply rolled down Ocean Blvd.

The IFSA folks had me installed in a very posh room. I washed my face and walked back down Ocean (was getting to know that thoroughfare quite well) to the opening reception at a third hotel. In the big meeting room, I grabbed a California ale and was quickly yakking with a new IFSA attendee, James from Toronto. He was funny and a great storyteller. After some laughs I moved around, saying hello and hugging old pals, including friends from Umbria Lorenzo Fasola and Tina Andreassen. The party ended at 7:30, and folks were going on to more fun, but I was worn out, and headed back to my suite, put my feet up, and read.

Morning scene from my hotel-room window, Ocean Blvd.

Up early Wednesday, suited and necktied, and out the door to the Long Beach Convention Center for a sound check and run-through of my slides. Gave my talk, answered questions, and headed around the corner to the arena, where the IFSA trade show was in full swing. Wandered the floor. At 3:30, Tina offered to walk me to yet another exhibit hall where two related shows were underway, the World Airline Entertainment Association (all the folks that supply hardware and content, and their buyers), and the Aircraft Interiors Expo. There was clearly way more money in those industries – the displays and hoopla were amazing. Champagne flowed freely, tschotschkes dispensed; there were even a few mini-skirted girls hawking stuff. Tina, who has worked for an aircraft-seat manufacturer for several years (in addition to helping Lorenzo with his olive oil and wine business), introduced me to several people who might need my consulting.

At 5:15, I went for a nice walk, further east on Ocean Blvd. to photograph the green-copper roofed Villa Riviera Hotel (1929), now condos.

The 1929 Villa Riviera Hotel, now condominiums

From there, I turned south along the water, past some pleasant and clean parks. In the distance were the cranes of the Port of Los Angeles, in the middle ground the original Queen Mary, and in the foreground tourist shops and restaurants.

The original Queen Mary, which entered service with the Cunard-White Star Line in 1936

On the way back to the hotel, a nice Talking-to-Strangers moment with the owner of Matilda, a cute but shy Australian cattle dog, and her older friend. The two ladies, who lived in a nearby high-rise, were out for their pre-dinner walk. They had moved to Long Beach only recently, from inland, and greatly enjoyed the place – as did I, I told them.

At 6:30, it was time for another party, and I fell in with James, the Canadian from the night before, and Ken Samara, a Dallas food broker. Yakked a bit with some other friends, and headed back to the Westin. Did a bit of work the next morning, hopped back on Metro to LAX, and flew home.

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