Friday, December 28, 2012

Playing Defense

Two Kinds of Defense

Anyone familiar with basketball knows there are two kinds of defense: one-on-one and zone.  The former occurs exactly as described, with each player being covered individually.  The latter casts a net designed to be impenetrable.  I find similarities between civil defense and national defense; one covers town by town and the other protects the whole country.  Whether applying to sports or security, all of the players practice and drill and know their position.

Not being a basketball aficionado, I’ll admit that my awareness of the one-on-one coverage in a particular small town needed additional practice metaphorically.  While visiting a small Illinois town, I joined others in our rental car, secured our lap belts, started the engine, and then stopped when a shrill moan began to stir and gain in volume.  My first instinct to check the car proved unnecessary.  The seasoned veterans of Midwest civil defense recognized the whining alarm as the monthly test of the civil defense sirens on the first Tuesday of the month.  We don’t really have those kinds of drills where my team plays.

Knowing All The Parts

On my recent expedition across South Dakota, I stumbled upon the tiniest of historic sites with one of the longest of names: The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  Housed in a single-wide mobile home, the visitor center informs the casual spectator on the history of the massive rockets (all to the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans) and then sends visitors to one of two sites: an underground command center or a former missile silo.  As a child of the Cold War and the arms race, I recall the threatening realities when Matthew Broderick’s computer asked him if he wanted to play a game.  But this former missile site, now featuring a glass dome, allows visitors the chance to peer inside the underground über-reinforced tube.  I learned about each element at the rocket site, from the antenna tower, to the blast door, to the self-contained generator, all within the sightline of the Interstate 90.  If you didn’t know the various parts and pieces, you would never identify this innocuous station and realize the firepower just beneath the surface.

Several days later, while skirting along a two-lane road in Montana, as I am blown harshly by the autumn wind, I come upon what appears to be a pumping station or well in the middle of the ranchland.  As I drive closer, I notice the fenced area contains every identical part from the Minuteman missile site.  But this collection serves not as a historic marker; this location serves as an active point guard in the zone defense casting an impenetrable deterrent across a national court.  This time, I elect not to wait for a siren to serve as a drill, nor do I tour around the site educating myself.  Instead, I keep driving and don’t even slow down.  Even with my limited basketball skills, I know the best offense is a good defense.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Chicken Coupe

Glühwein und Volksmarching
Living “on the economy” meant surrounding myself with the lifestyle of the German people, quietly rising and sleeping, shopping and strolling in their 800-year-old towns.  Routines never changed: daily walking to the local market, sweeping the sidewalks and stoops, and shrugging at the silly Americans.  Their self-contained towns, which resembled islands surrounded by farmland, some less than a klick from “Willkommen” to “Auf Wiedersehen,” may not have exuded hospitality, but they offered quaintness in abundance.  From tulips on the street corners in the springtime to the giant sunflowers reaching skyward at the edge of town in the summer, these little villages offered a simple glimpse at German life.
A common winter tradition, many of these little towns open their central squares to its residents, and a few nearby country folk, and celebrate the Christmas season with nighttime street fairs for the children and warm glühwein in souvenir brown clay mugs for the parents.  The hot, spiced wine sufficiently numbs the adults while the children squeal in delight at the December carnivals.  In warmer weather, when the volkmarchers come to town, the beer flows as ten- and twenty-kilometer hikers return from their countryside strolls to join in the merriment in the center of the cozy villages.  While the traditions may be different, the close clusters of brick and modern homes unite as communities celebrating their culture, living their lives nearly identically to Americans.  Nearly.
During my stint in the Rhineland, I delivered subscriptions of the Stars and Stripes to my fellow expats starting at o’dark thirty and continuing until the predawn light began to filter through the sky.  But as summer’s longer days began to sneak into my early morning delivery window, I witnessed far more in the quiet mornings throughout the small-town German life.  Hexennacht involves innocent pranks being played upon neighbors in celebration of the longer days pushing out the evil winter spirits.  This would explain the bicycle I saw one morning dangling from the sign post.  In other neighborhoods, farms abutted homes and the yard in front of one house included a chicken coop, whose presence eluded me until as the light appeared earlier and earlier, I could hear the chickens coo-cooing with each other waiting for the lone male of the roost to announce his morning doodle-doo.
And then one morning, the sun’s light illuminated the tiny hamlet and the coop displayed itself for its true identity.  The cozy home of the domesticated fowl included four tires, a steering wheel and partially lowered side windows.  Yes, this family of German hühner lived out their daily routine of clucking and scratching in the interior of a BMW.  Imagine the engineer who designed, the laborer who built, and the salesman who watched the rollout of this vehicle from its initial drawing board, to its European assembly line and then across the showroom floor.  Their work culminated in this final resting place for their modern marvel, now serving out its illustrious life as a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom for a band of German poultry.  I love life on the economy.  Cluck.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Soundtrack

The Theme Song

Since the epic vacation of 2007, every voyage comes complete with a theme song.   When planning a new travel itinerary, often the selection of the primary musical accompaniment happens within days of the selection of the destination, sometimes even before booking a hotel, selecting flights, or asking for time off work.  A single song title may make the choice inevitable, or a wide range of songs could fit the profile, such as when I planned my trip to Cooperstown, New York.  Certainly a baseball theme would be most obvious, but between soundtracks from The Natural and Field of Dreams, and classics like the Troggs and Terry Cashman, narrowing down the choices became as difficult as deciding when to pull a seasoned opener when the team holds a one-run lead and the cleanup batters are on deck.

The thought process in selecting the theme song (or songs for longer vacations) occasionally happens when random music plays that has hovered in the baffles of my favorite playlist selections.  Just as often the final selection blossoms from a new song with which I have suddenly fallen in love.  A song may be representative of the geographical destination leading me down the road or a wistful emotional destination driving me to my escapism.  Collectively the songs provide a ribbon tying my vacation together and they serve as a bungee cord keeping my loose ends bound together when I completely desire to vanish into the scenery that surrounds me.  And once a song connects me to a place, a time, an adventure, and a memory, it stays with me forever.

The Collection

I describe my iTunes devices as my ultimate traveling companions loaded with a soundtrack that I adore intimately.  They rank as my most critical travel must-have and I prioritize the music as holding the most pivotal role in my travels.  Anything else – clothes, shampoo, atlas, rental car – may be obtained along the way, but my collection of musical oxygen remains irreplaceable.  Once when I had forgotten to pack the necessary car charger, I applauded myself for packing an iShuffle to carry on when my iPod had given its last full measure of musical devotion somewhere between Sioux Falls and Brookings.  More than once I have purchased the necessary cable to connect these devices to the car’s audio system, thinking that I had tossed one of the many I own into my suitcase.  Once I forgot my glasses and was forced to wear my contacts from morning until bedtime, but never has the music been left behind.  It illuminates every voyage and during my solo outings serves as the closest resemblance to a traveling companion.

Any one song of the one hundred fifty hand-picked selections reminds me of a specific trip, or lingers in me as a mental photograph of the sites I have visually savored, or captures a moment in time when I felt absolute tranquility.  Neil Diamond’s tribute to Richard Bach spoke volumes inside another nameless-faceless rental car climbing through the rocky snow-capped cliffs on my way up to Logan’s Pass.  During any given commute to the office, my mind drifts through the litany of recollections from that day’s spectacular, memorable experience, and others like it from across the United States, all in thanks to the playlist of tunes that I appropriately title “Travel.”

Below is an audio snapshot of the Travel playlist

America by Simon and Garfunkel
Anthem by Neil Diamond
Breathe Me by Sia
Classic Gas by Mason Williams and Mannheim Steamroller
Come Sail Away by Styx
(Ghost) Riders in the Sky by The Outlaws
Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley
In The Hall Of The Mountain King by Edvard Grieg
The Masterplan by Stop the Clocks
Soarin’ by Jerry Goldsmith
Trip The Light (feat. Alicia Lemke) by Garry Schyman
Where the Streets Have No Name by U2

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One-Trip Wonder

The Must-Want Travel Accessory

Yes, I over packed.  Of the four-page list of items needed for my epic three-point-five-week vacation, I clearly could have survived without several items.  Did I need to bring my iShuffle and my iPhone?  No, but since that impromptu trip to North Dakota (see “North Dakota on a Napkin” from November 2011), I find a way to fit them both in my bag.  Did I need my pom-pom scarf?  No.  Did I bring it anyway?  Yes.  Did I need five pairs of shoes?  My sons would say, no, I, however, feel differently.  And what about the eight-inch-square pieces of taffeta that I brought along as a craft project?  Critical, no, but the fabric laid flat and took up almost no space.  The pink pirate hat for 'Talk Like A Pirate' Day?  Okay, maybe that was an extravagance, but c’mon, our ship was The Pearl.

In a slightly impromptu moment as the “To Be Packed” list grew, I decided it would behoove such a traveler as myself to have a new, and larger, suitcase.  The store I selected offered a lovely array of non-traditional luggage and when it came down to the two best choices, both hard sides, I had to decide between the case featuring a photograph of the only state of the fifty I have yet to check off the “Go, See, Do” list (see “Forty-Nine” from August 2012) which would undoubtedly be perfect for a future vacation, or an obnoxiously loud print of palm trees along a Floridian Causeway that resembled a cross between Miami Vice and Piet Mondrian.  Plenty of space, smooth rolling wheels, several sleek pouches, and an orange fabric lining made the bag lovely and practical, but the outside screamed, “I’ll look sensational on the airport baggage carousel.”  So I opted for the artsy choice and when she slid down the conveyor as my plane load of passengers waited for their luggage, did she look fabulous!

Trip Two: eBay

She rolled smoothly through MCO and STL.  She held the iShuffle, both pairs of boots and my beloved atlas (see “Traveling with Boys” from November 2011).  The taffeta stayed flat until day eight when I finally drew them from their cozy pouch.  And on September 19 I embraced the pink pirate hat festively because my spectacular luggage offered room enough for me to indulge my inner child and pack savvily.  I imagined the adventures my crazy suitcase and I would have in the future – pirates were just the beginning.  But then, when we arrived home, I saw it: cracked plastic around two of the wheels.  Thank goodness I saved the receipt and the warranty information.

On a far less glorious adventure, my suitcase departed on its second trip without me, back to its home to be repaired, or even replaced.  If the former, we would vacation again soon.  If the latter, it would be like the family goldfish – swapped out but looking so nearly identical that I could get away with it.  A month later when the box arrived at my door, I neatly sliced the tape open with a single scissor blade, and my breath caught in my throat at the site: a cross between Piet Mondrian and FTD.  It undoubtedly had the same features, the same smoothing rolling wheels, the sleek pouches, the lovely lining, and plenty of space, but it just wasn’t the same.  My truly unique traveling companion had suddenly become a one-trip wonder and its distant cousin just wasn’t going to get to experience the same future journeys that my vibrant palm trees had known.  I slid the wacky bouquets of red roses and little white daisies back into the box and listed the brand-new bag on eBay for someone else to make it a part of her travel adventures.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Muse

My Right Hand

With apologies for the hiatus, but my right hand has been severed metaphorically.  On a scale from Pong to launching a Global Positioning Satellite, my comfort and reliance upon technology falls in the mid-level range.  At work, a computer shut down means I am dead in the water.  At home, my list of television shows saved to my DVR hovers consistently at zero, since I find the technology to be of little interest to me.  In my car, I love tapping Pandora to identify new songs that I might enjoy, but a spiral-bound map is always preferred to a Garmin (see “Traveling With Boys,” November 2011).

I love the conveniences technology brings to my life, and besides my professional dependence, I never defined myself by the hardware and software around me until my beloved netbook unexpectedly died three days into my epic vacation.  Lost to virtual inner space are three days of photographs and videos full of memories, and while I found ways to manage moving forward (new SD card, borrowed hotel business centers, etc), I found my greatest loss in the Hard-Drive Catastrophe of 2012 became how much my little electronic friend suited my blogging.  Suddenly, sitting at another screen felt less creative, less inspiring, and less like my fading friend.


Consider the feeling when a common cold begins to take hold: a little achy, maybe a bit feverish, and notably more sluggish as the first day wanes and a collection of microscopic viruses burrow into your system.  That is how my beloved Ray must have felt as I prodded him on his final day to download the first wave of pictures snapped inside the gates of Yellowstone National Park.  Maybe I had missed that signs that his performance was lagging, until suddenly, he just sputtered and whimpered and failed to respond; and then, nothing.  I used my digital camera to grasp an image of his faintly illuminated MS-DOS screen.  Nearly a week later, realizing my neglect and accepting my loss, did I take my little buddy to a walk-in clinic for ill hardware; a twenty-first century computer witch doctor, whom I affectionately refer to as my knight in shining pre-formed casement.

Poor Ray, I pushed him too hard, and I failed to appreciate that he had become more than a laptop of convenience.  Perching lightly on my lap, he became an extension of the thought process as I scribed.   Like an inkwell to Jane Austin, like Jack Kerouac pecking at his typewriter, Ray translated my mind’s visions.  He worked as the tool that transferred the dialogue in my head into the written word and uploaded these recollections to the world.  But now, thanks to the wonders of 21st century technology, an email on my smart phone links me to a website notifying me that a package tracking towards my home is allowing me to monitor the journey of Ray on his way home to me.  My muse, my magical keyboard, my phoenix returns to bring forth new life and new posting, and will arrive in less than twenty-four hours.  Travel swiftly my friend, I await your homecoming and promise I will never take you for granted again.