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December 16, 2008

A way to ditch a date and other lessons learned on vacation

As I write this our plane just departed for the airport in Orlando. We had a minor delay due to people finding a way around what had referred to in my last Retrospective regarding the airline’s policy of charging you for suitcases. Instead of paying $15 per suitcase, people now opt to carry more items onboard with them – creating a nightmare for other passengers. By the time we boarded, there was nowhere to put our few personal effects, nor those of the other 10-15 passengers that came on after us. That was not only annoying to us, but also to the flight crew who had to wait while people’s items were…reorganized.

I think the airline really ought to rethink their idea to charge you additionally for your bags. Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to bring on ONE suitcase? I mean, shouldn’t that be considered part of what you paid for with your ticket? Otherwise, they’re going to need to draft up some rules about exactly how much you can carry on the plane with you. I am still slightly boggled by why I couldn’t bring my hair care products on the plane when the folks who boarded ahead of me could bring their wheelie carryon, a laptop case, three or four shopping bags, a winter coat, snacks, beverages and a small department store with them.

So, the purpose of this was to tell you all the interesting things I learned on my trip. I’ll start with what I learned in the airport before we left Chicago: unhappy people lead unhappy lives and to be grateful for small miracles. There was a woman who for at least 20 minutes bemoaned every possible thing about her life to another woman waiting nearby. She wasn’t happy with her significant other, her children, her pets, basically anything at all and guess what – she seemed like a miserable person. As I listened to her go on and on, and then later voice her disgust about everything related to the airline industry, I quietly prayed that I would not have to sit next to her on the plan. Well, by some small miracle, it turned out that she was only there to help someone else get onto the flight…bringing me to the second thing I learned: flying with oxygen is inconvenient for everyone if you don’t know the FAA’s rules.

Lucky for the family whose child needed the oxygen, they packed enough of whatever was within the FAA guidelines that they didn’t pull the whole family off the flight. They, like their cohort out in the loading area, was also lacking in the happiness department – further tying things up. Here’s the other thing, instead of arguing with the nice flight attendants and airline personnel who are just trying to enforce rules handed down to them, accept what they say and move on with your day. Don’t argue with them. They didn’t make the rules and they’re not going to bend them for you. You are no different than the hundreds of other folks they’ve dealt with today -- particularly if that means bending FAA rules. Folks, those rules just aren't pliable.

Just before boarding the plane tonight, I learned a dating escape mechanism that would have come in handy years ago before I was married. All you single readers, take note – maybe you can use this yourself sometime! Look at is as a way of getting out of a bad date and getting a free meal in the process – all without the awkward, “Yeah, this just isn’t going to work out.”

At a steakhouse where we had dinner before leaving Orlando, we were seated next to an attractive young woman. As we arrived at our seats, I could tell from her body language something wasn’t right. Seemingly, she was having dinner with her date. He’d eaten most of his meal (as was apparent by the mostly empty plate) and she was still eating her salad. What happened next could be up for some speculation. He apparently looked at her and said, “I’m going to be sick,” and ran toward the bathrooms. She ends up waiting for a very, very long time. She eats a bit more of her dinner, she orders some rolls, she looks around.  Still no sign of her date. She balances her checkbook, reorganizes her wallet and still not date. The waiter offers to look for her date in the bathroom, but comes back with no news. He’s gone. So, she asks for the bill, pays and leaves.

Maybe he really did get sick though. So, that’s the neat bonus part of this if you are brazen enough to do it. Say the next day he actually feels bad about it. At that point, he can say, “Look, I got sick all over myself and I thought it would be rude to come back to the table, so I just went home to clean up.” That way, he can save face instead of looking like a total jerk. Or he just saved himself the cost of dinner and a couple of wasted hours of pointless conversation with a woman he had no interest in pursuing. Either way, interesting, and might give some of you on the dating scene an option to get out of the worst date of your entire life.

Some of the rest of this is probably less interesting and useful, but I did learn a few other interesting factoids on my trip. Did you know that cypress trees are both deciduous and coniferous – in fact, they’re the only trees that are both. I also learned that those little bumps that protrude out of the water around them are called “knees” and their true purpose isn’t really known.

I learned that the neat grey moss that hangs from trees in Florida used to be used to fill mattresses and other furniture – and made for some itchy seats (pun intended). Apparently, they didn’t realize that the Spanish moss was also a great place to find annoying little bugs called chiggers, resulting in red bumps all over bums and bodies.

I learned that it is easier to keep an alligator’s mouth closed than it is to open it up. I learned that while watching a guy wrestle an alligator. That was cool, by the way.  At the same time, I also learned you can put an alligator to sleep by flipping him over and rubbing his belly. If I'm close enough to rub his belly, I'm probably already missing a limb. Not good. Not going to try this one at home.

I learned that if I think I’m about to be pooped on – I probably will be shortly. I managed to spoil my going home outfit as I walked through this wilderness area at one of Central Florida’s oldest amusements, Gatorland. In addition to a plethora of gators, there were also birds of many varieties including my favorite flamingos and my now least favorite -- egrets. (Interesting that egret rhymes with regret....) I was thinking to myself as I walked, “Gee, with all these birds, it is possible I could find myself with droppings on my shirt and how would I handle that?” If you’ve ever read “The Secret,” you’ll understand this, but it was as though I was asking for it to happen to me because within a few paces, I found myself with a big white splat of egret excrement on my shirt. I quickly learned how I would handle it. I tried to wash it off and while that worked somewhat, I knew I’d be thinking about whether it was still on there in a less visible but still gross form during my flight home. So, in a very smooth, secret agent move – I changed my shirt in the parking lot. I guess I'm still thinking about it, but only to tell you about it.

I learned that all the Christmas music, decorations and lights in the world still don’t make it feel like Christmas without the cold and the snow. The children and I had a roaring good time “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” in the swimming pool by the light of palm trees. It was hilarious and fun, but it wasn’t the same as singing that song while wrapping presents or making Christmas cookies. I also learned that Christmas shopping in flip flops and Capri pants without a coat is fun, but it just feels like shopping…not Christmas shopping.

I learned why it was that my grandparents used to eagerly pack up their belongings and just as the fall was setting in, they’d head to Florida and not return until spring was well-established. For years, I could not understand (given my limited experience with Florida) why you would want to miss Halloween through most of April in Indiana in exchange for humid weather, bugs, sweat, sand and crowds. I still don’t understand why they’d want to miss the family element of the holidays at home. Oh how many Christmas celebrations they missed over the years! But, I finally got it the first afternoon we arrived – Florida in the winter isn’t the muggy, overpopulated, stagnant air place I’d previously experienced. Instead, winter in Florida feels like the most perfect late spring day when you’re comfortable in short sleeves and in the evening, you might wear a jacket if you really want to. It’s balmy when the sun’s not shining, but not too hot. I was seriously thinking that one day, in the far, far future when I hand this business over to my children (who are already fighting over who will be ultimately ‘in charge’ of it – they’re each pleading their case about why they are better suited to run Talk of the Town than the other one), then I can retire to some nice villa in Florida and spend my days writing on a laptop on a wicker lounge chair poolside. In the evening, I can have barbecue chicken on an outdoor grill. For breakfast, grapefruit. I’ll drink margaritas, wear long floral gowns and flip flops and listen to “Classic Vinyl” on satellite radio. Tony will wear the middle age man's casual uniform of a button down Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts. While I’m at it, I’ll also have a convertible and I won’t care if my hair gets messed up. I’ll wear my sunglasses even at night. Yep, those are my plans. I will, however, be home for Christmas…and Thanksgiving…and New Years.

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December 15, 2008

So when does the economic trouble at home reach central Florida?

It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled anywhere…apparently.

Last year, we went to North Carolina, rented a cottage and lived on the beach for a week. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever had, but one where we were heavily at the helm of the financial impact of that trip. We chose to drive, we bought groceries and with a few exceptions, spent most of our time cooking fantastic meals at the cottage, swimming and driving around.

On Tuesday, we packed our bags and headed off for another adventure and though it has been a wonderful experience, it has been shocking in a lot of ways.

For weeks, the children knew we were going to Chicago, but they had no idea that was only the first stop in our big adventure – we were boarding a plane there and flying to Orlando for a week. You can’t imagine the shock and delight when the learned where they were really going as we sat waiting to board our plane. It turns out that Jamee, age 8, was “on to us” early on when he thought we were “up to something.” No, he didn’t see that all the clothing packed for him was shorts and swimsuits, but he did think my behavior was odd when I told people we were going to Chicago. He also thought there was more whispering than usual. There probably was. Oh, and when we checked our baggage at O’Hare, the lady asked him if he was going to see Mickey Mouse…he wasn’t. We’re doing that next year.

Anyway, the first big shock of the trip is this: did you know the airline now charges you for each of the suitcases you bring along? Isn’t that usual to bring a suitcase with you when you go on a trip? Our family of four brought exactly two suitcases and we paid $15 each for them! Back in the day, on other trips, we might have brought a suitcase each – I’m glad we didn’t!

The last time I went on a plane, you were not only served a beverage, but a light snack or a meal – depending on the length of the flight. Oh, and they used to offer peanuts. Later, for fear of causing anaphylactic shock, they offered complementary chips. Now, you still get a beverage, but a cheese and cracker snack was $4 and a small portion of chips were $3! Can you believe that?!

In Orlando, I’m sure you can imagine how easily one finds themselves hemorrhaging money. Children’s meals are on the order of $7-10 each – and kids don’t eat much! Adult meals, as you might guess, were considerably more. Appetizers were $9 and up everywhere. In the hotel, we considered having a sushi dinner at one of the lobby-level restaurants but were shocked to find that not only would you pay for dinner, but a 20% service charge and also gratuity. I believe there was also some other random $3 charge.

We didn’t make it to any of the other major attractions in the area since swimming the hotel pool was such a great attraction, but in looking at the prices – we found it would have been several hundred dollars for us to spend a day at any of the theme parks or to go to a dinner theatre event.

Looking around Orlando, Florida, I see almost no indication of the economic trouble that is so apparent at home. I saw what appeared to be a huge group of new employees at the hotel at an orientation – which indicates hiring. I saw shoppers with bags loaded with items at the mall. I saw parents shelling out what I later determined to be hundreds of dollars for their little girls to get dolled up like a princess at a theme park affiliated store. Can you imagine a costume, a hair style, some glitter, shoes and you’d find yourself writing a check for $200? Shocking!

Yet, as the heartland continues to suffer and people around the country continue to get a financial reality check as their jobs disappear, savings dries up and things continue to get worse – I have to wonder, when will the impact be visible in a vacation destination place like Florida? When will people decide they’re not willing to spend the money? And when they decide that, will the prices become more reasonable? Will someone in some high place realize it might be more prudent to lower prices than to wait too long and wait until there is almost no one there to willingly hand over hard-earned money for a few hours of fun? I realize I’m talking about one of the biggest establishments in the free world with fingers in everything and about establishments that are well-vested in feeding off that tourist trade…but if things remain as bad as they are at home, and keep getting worse, it only seems reasonable that people will not be willing to pay the prices any longer. It would be a shame to think that instead of ramping down with the economy, they’d wait to long and be closed forever.

I’m glad we live in an area where a good meal is affordable, where we have ample choices of entertainment for our families that are free or inexpensive and, on some level, that when things get bad, we don’t have as far to fall.

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December 03, 2008

Peter is home!

This year, I think Christmas began making appearances on television commercials about the time school was back in session…maybe…I don’t know…it was early.

It could be a cost-saving production measure or because we love them so much that we see some of the same Christmas commercials played year after year. While I do not look forward to Christmas shopping, crabby shoppers, busy parking lots, crying kids in carts, the squeaky noise snow-laden boots make walking around department stores, germs on cart handles and the heightened level of pre-holiday stress – I do look forward to those commercials. There are a few that stand out, like the Hershey’s one with the foil-wrapped kisses that sound like hand bells and one I’m sure you’ll all remember.

Sadly, it’s this one I remember most and look forward to for nostalgic reasons, that I haven’t seen this year.

Christmas was definitely my Mom’s holiday. She was the best gift-getter I know. She either made you something or found something at an obscure shop, garage sale or second-hand store – the kind of perfect thing you’d never find in a whole year of shopping. On rare occasions, she might buy you something – but it was those other gifts that really stood out in the wrapping paper carnage of the living room floor on Christmas morning. She decorated for Christmas like nobody’s business and always fixed a holiday meal that couldn’t be beat. In a lot of ways, with her birthday being just days before Christmas and her name being “Carole” as in Christmas Carole, it was though she was meant to love the holiday and make it larger than life.

Every single year as far back as I can remember, we had a little game to see who could announce one of our favorite Christmas commercials first. It was a coffee commercial where a boy named “Peter” would come home for the holidays just as his idyllic family was waking up on what must have been Christmas morning. The first one of us to see the commercial each holiday season would yell, “Peter is home!!”

This usually brought about smiles, laughter and marveling at how Peter hasn’t changed a bit since we saw him last year. It was, after all, the same commercial year after year. I believe the commercial must have been shot sometime in the early 80s and I am guessing Peter may have been returning home from college. His family, all neatly dressed in their best holiday jammies and robes, awake at the scent of Folgers Coffee brewing on the stove downstairs. In all the years we watched the commercial, we’d joke about various elements of the commercial – how Peter wore the same thing last year, when was Peter finally going to graduate, how is that no one in their family ever got old or couldn’t they all be more prepared next year and actually be awake when Peter got home? Or…shouldn’t somebody by watching little sister who seemed to be roaming around the house by herself in the early morning hours? Or…who forgot to lock the front door again this year?

Silly stuff, I know, but in a lot of ways, Peter arriving home in the form of a television commercial was kind of like the herald of Christmas holidays coming forth.

In the years since my Mom died, I still waited for that commercial each year and when I saw it, I’d smile and think of her.

So, if by some chance I’ve missed it this year and you’ve seen it, you can be the first one in your house to announce it – and then send me an e-mail or post a comment below…all you have to do is write “Peter is home!”


By the way, I just found the commercial online…click here if you’d like to watch it and reminisce with me.

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