Runaway

Mono Lake, eastern Sierras. Taken from U.S. 395, north of Lee Vining CA.

I have tried to run away, only to learn that there is no escape. It took some life experience to learn that you will always be outrun by whatever is chasing you, even if the pursuer is none other than your own shadow. (See Proverbs 28:1). It’s true that you can’t run away from yourself.

In my lifetime, I have thrice made the run from sea to shining sea. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family, and I sometimes wonder where I’d be today without their help.

First time: I was living paycheck to paycheck and, had I not suddenly decamped from Connecticut to the Bay Area, would have eventually run out of money, if not from an automotive crisis, then certainly when my employer closed up shop. That is, unless the abusive relationship I was in killed me first.

Second time: It’s true what they say about not being able to go home again. My eight months in California were disastrous, leaving me to choose between moving in with my parents or homelessness. I saw running away as a viable third option, but high-tailing it back to New England got me nowhere fast. I couldn’t land a stable job in Hartford, went broke and moved in with family in Boston. My first day there, my car disappeared from in front of the laundromat where I was washing clothes. Turned out the cops hauled it away because I couldn’t afford to update my registration and insurance. Back to California I go.

Third time: I was fortunate to have parents who took me in, as I had run out of emotional capital with everyone else. I figured it was better than homelessness. After four and a half months of emotional misery, much of it brought on by myself, a stroke of good fortune led me to a stable paycheck that was just enough to secure a rented apartment six months later.

Twenty years have gone by since then. I have visited the east coast twice without incident. While the sight of New England continues to engender incipient longings, I have come to the understanding that California is my home, now and forever. I was one of those hardheaded dumbells who had to learn the hard way that running away gets you nowhere.

That isn’t to minimize the setbacks that I have experienced here in the Golden State. It took me decades to learn the life lesson that resolve, perseverance, and plain old staying the course can get you far.

Come October, I’ll probably still gawk at the online photos of the amazing Crayola leaf show, coming to you live from Vermont and New Hampshire.

And then I’ll log off, step out into the California sunshine, and laugh.

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On Traveling with a Disability

The fact that traveling with a disability can be a challenge is nothing new to millions of people around the world. Some hotels will bend over backward to accommodate you, others will give you the stink eye, while still others will be utterly dismissive as if you are a nuisance and not a paying customer.

Where it gets really tricky is when you have a “hidden” disability. Hotels may not recognize that you have a disability unless you come right out and tell them. Even if you don’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable doing so, you never know what type of reaction you will elicit. Some staff will think you’re trying to scam something for free or that you’re unfairly monopolizing the hotel’s resources.

For example, you’re a lot more likely to get what you need if you roll through the front entrance in a wheelchair than if you walk in on your own two feet and explain to the clerk that you have limited capacity for ambulation. Visible disabilities are one thing, but less obvious conditions may have to be explained. If your disability is not immediately apparent, there is a reasonable chance that you will be barely tolerated as some type of faking miscreant.

Granted, even the wheelchair-bound will be mistreated in some places. There will always be those who believe that we, the disabled, should just stay home and avoid appearing in public lest we make someone uncomfortable. After a while, you come up with techniques of suppressing your ire and politely expressing that you’re not looking for special treatment and certainly don’t want their misplaced sympathy. Just comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, would ya?

When traveling with a disability, there is no substitute for advance planning. As a frequent business traveler, I enjoy the distinct advantage of the services of secretaries and other support staff at my place of employment who will patiently make my travel arrangements. When necessary, they will yell, threaten, cite the ADA and demand to speak to management. I am truly blessed to be insulated from this crap. Our support people are worth their weight in gold, and then some.

No amount of planning, however, will guarantee that what you reserved will actually be available when you reach your destination. You get out of the car and say a little prayer as you approach the lobby, hoping that everything will go smoothly and all you’ll have to think about is how to best explain that one tricky concept during your presentation tomorrow.

Some hotel chains are more reliable than others when it comes to accommodating disabilities, and after a while, you know which ones can be counted on and which ones cannot. Bill Marriott, wherever you are, take a bow for your hotels’ reliability and for your unfazed staff. Ditto for the Westin and Holiday Inn Express. Other places, not always so much. Names withheld to protect the guilty.

Most of us with disabilities have a pet peeve or two related to our particular limitations. In my case, it’s reserving an “accessible room” or “ADA room,” only to arrive and find a bathroom with a wide doorway that accommodates wheelchairs — and a shower inside a bathtub that is so far off the ground that there is no chance whatever of me being able to lift my legs high enough to get in. So what do I do now? Find another hotel at the last minute, or endure three days of sponge baths? I hope I brought along plenty of deodorant and Ammens powder. By the time I get to the third day, my poor trainees are going to be holding their noses and gagging. Is it too late to teach this class via Skype?

“But this is our only available accessible room,” the desk clerk will demur when you ask to be moved. “That’s what you reserved, right? Did you see that the shower has a grab bar?” You want to cuss a blue streak at everyone and everything, including the desk clerk standing before you, the secretary who made your reservation, and the bad luck that left you with a disability in the first place, even though none of them had anything remotely to do with your current predicament. Instead, you smile sweetly and squeak out the words “okay, I guess I’ll make it work.” You count your blessings, thanking the Lord that you’re not blind or a paraplegic. Take deep breaths. Perspective, dude.

Later, you may learn that the hotel has another room with a roll-in shower, but the staff failed to mention that fact when the room was being reserved because someone else had already booked it. And, sooner or later, you will reserve a room with a roll-in shower only to find that the hotel gave it away to someone else who arrived 15 minutes before you did.

You learn to grin and bear it. After all, horror stories are more than balanced out by the trips that achieve textbook perfection. And so today I raise my glass in a toast to those hotels that are scrupulously honest about what’s really available and what isn’t, that honor their commitments, and who treat those of us with disabilities of any type as valued customers and fellow human beings. You engender the undying loyalty of road warriors the world over.

A Business Travel Primer

I travel around California a great deal for my job and, along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about staying in hotels. I offer them up here for your edification and entertainment.

1. If you’ve seen one chain motel, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t expect too much of a discount hotel room. It’s a place to lay your head and take a shower. Period.

2. If you get an upgrade to, say, a Hilton, Westin or Marriott, be prepared to pay $20 to $30 (or more) for the privilege of parking your rental car. Um, yes, that’s for one night! If you don’t like it, Motel 6 is thataway.

3. Just because you’re driving a rental car doesn’t excuse you from knowing the license plate number and writing it on the registration form. Yeah, I’m talking to you! Instead of being a lazy butt, walk back out to the parking lot and write down your license plate number. What’s that you say? You can’t be bothered? If you write “black Honda” on the registration form and leave it at that, be prepared to be woken up out of a deep sleep at 2:30 in the morning by your ringing bedside phone, the desk clerk informing you that someone with a black Honda left his or her lights on. That’s right, there are six guests registered as driving black Hondas (no plate number listed), so the desk clerk had to wake up all of them! Now pull on some pants, slip on your shoes and head for the elevator and out to the parking lot to see if you’re today’s grand prize winner. Oh, it’s pouring down rain? Bonus!

4. Parallel parking skills are helpful. No, I’m not talking about the hotel parking lot. For returning the luggage cart! Don’t be the genius who leaves that huge thing in the middle of the lobby for someone who’s not paying attention to trip over.

5. When it comes to breakfast options, learn to translate hotel-speak into English. Complimentary means breakfast is included in the price of the room, so you don’t have to mess with your laughable so-called expense account and end up paying for half the meal out of your own pocket. Breakfast buffet is the gold standard, as in there is likely to be at least one offering that is actually edible. Continental breakfast does not mean chocolate brioche and croque monsieur. It means you’re welcome to a stale donut to go with that stale coffee. Light breakfast means run the other way screaming (unless you’d like a rotten banana with your dry cereal). Grab ‘n Go means keep walking straight past the front desk, out the door and drive to Starbucks. Unless you’re six years old or like surprises, that is. Okay, don’t listen to me. When you open the bag on your break, enjoy an apple that is past its prime, a mini honey-oat bar and a bottle of water. Happy?

6. Whenever possible, snag a room with a mini-fridge and a microwave. Then you can make a stop at the local supermarket and eat what you actually enjoy. (See above.)

7. “Restaurant on premises” means you get the privilege of paying for your own breakfast. If you happen to be in San Francisco or Los Angeles, breakfast can easily run you $30 plus tip. If you’re stuck in LA for a week, well, you do the math.

8. Just because the on-premises restaurant is advertised as opening at 7 am does not necessarily mean that they will actually be prepared to serve you food at that hour. If you have an early meeting, make other arrangements.

9. If you’re not sure if you should eat it, don’t. Just don’t. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already paid for it or that the cost is included. If it smells a little off, looks weird or tastes funny, throw it in the trash. Get something else, or go hungry if you’re in a rush. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when you feel an urgent rumble in your bowels just when you’re hitting your stride on the PowerPoint about half an hour into your presentation. ‘Nuff said.

10. If you conscientiously attempt to save your employer money by staying in the cheapest motel available, be prepared to be richly rewarded by water stains on the ceiling, blood stains on the sheets, broken crack vials in the parking lot, and all-night cussin’ and carryin’ on by the 40-in-a-paper-bag crowd just outside your door. Throw in the occasional cockroach for good measure.

11. Some hotels have nothing but liquid soap available in the shower and at the sink. If you prefer bar soap, have your own supply ready as backup.

12. When staying at a hotel with interior corridors, know the location of the stairs and the emergency exits. I know, no one bothers with that stuff just for a night or two. Do this long enough, however, and you’ll wish you had paid attention when you get to experience a deafening fire alarm go off in the middle of the night. Just sayin’.

13. Regardless of your beliefs regarding immigration and/or speaking English, learn at least a few basic phrases in Spanish. Otherwise, do not complain when you are urgently in need of toilet paper and are unable to communicate this to the woman who cleans the rooms.

14. Generously tip the bell hop and the valet. It won’t kill you to leave a couple of bucks for the chambermaid either. Remember, these folks support their families by doing physically demanding work and being ill-treated by guests for their trouble. Oh, and good karma is priceless.

15. Be polite, like your mama taught you. Say “please” and “thank you” to the hotel staff, even if you’re having a bad day. Smile and say “good morning” or “good evening,” even if you don’t feel like it. Hotel employees are not robots and they are not your slaves to be abused at will. They’re not asking you to be their best friend; just treat them like human beings. Kind of like how you would like to be treated, you know?

The Jim

My parents are visiting us this weekend. Mom and Dad are 85 years old and have been married to each other for 66 years. That kind of longevity boggles my mind. Then again, my boss at work tells me that her parents are ages 90 and 94 and also have been married forever.

When we visited my parents at their home in the Central Valley a few weeks ago, Dad opined that it’s really silly for people to refer to the rest room as “the John.” He’s renamed it the Jim, he tells me. That way, he can impress people by proudly announcing that the first thing he does when he gets up every morning is go to the Jim.

Mom says she’s depressed because she’s always alone. Dad is there, of course, but he can’t hear too well anymore, and besides, he prefers to sit by himself either in the shade of the patio awning or in his recliner in the living room. Lost in his own thoughts, he will soon be snoring.

Dad watches TV with the volume turned up to deafening levels, so he does so in the office with the door closed. Meanwhile, Mom stretches out on the couch and watches TV alone in the family room. Being out in the boondocks without a satellite dish, my parents are stuck with limited choices available on over-the-air stations. Mom gravitates toward old westerns, while Dad enjoys his crime and murder shows, as well as the news and the opera that airs at noon on weekdays.

A few months ago, my parents decided to visit their daughter at her new home in Boston. It was to be a nine-day trip. Their grandson from here in California would travel with them, helping them in the airport, with the luggage, with the rental car. Then, a couple of weeks ago, they decided it was all too much and canceled their plans. I think they made the right decision.

For one thing, ascending and descending a big flight of stairs in an old 19th century house would be asking for trouble. Plus, their host is a dedicated vegetarian while my parents are of a more carnivorous persuasion. Also, I don’t think they have the energy to traipse around Beantown with the tourists. When their daughter asked my mother what she wanted to do during her visit, Mom reportedly replied “sit on the porch.”

Finally, the simple fact is that my parents are most comfortable in their own home. Even this weekend, they are staying over with us for one night only. Dad is rather attached to sleeping in his own bed.

With the amount of traveling I do for work, I can relate.

The Commuter Life: Bernie (No, Not That One)

As a native New Yorker, even after 25 years as a California resident, I remain fairly ignorant of the ins and outs of state politics here in earthquake land. With so much at stake, however, perhaps it is time for me to learn. After all, I work just four blocks from the capitol rotunda, where It all goes down. There is no longer any excuse for me to bury my head in the sand.

Back in my college days in New York, I vaguely recall hearing about popular singer Linda Ronstadt being the girlfriend of a young California governor named Jerry Brown. Then I heard that a former California governor and star of Hollywood kitsch movies was running for president. By the time my feet hit the Golden State, I felt we were lost for good when the administration of Gov. Gray-Out Davis gave way to the Terminator. Then Jerry returned to the governor’s mansion. Everything old is new again. Now we have a new governor, still a Democrat but not a fiscal conservative like his predecessor, whom my mother wryly refers to as “gruesome Newsom.”

Maintenance and improvement of infrastructure has become rather a big deal in California, a point that may not always resonate locally, but one that rises to the fore if you commute a long distance to work every day, as I do. The politics involved in widening roads, repairing potholes and making lane merges less dangerous is brought to mind by the somewhat odd practice of naming sections of highway and even particular interchanges after civic leaders of yesteryear.

For example, after years of availing myself of the short hop on Highway 4 (Crosstown Arterial) between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 in Stockton, I finally had to research who exactly is the guy behind the “Ort J. Lofthus Freeway” sign. Apparently, he was instrumental not only in getting that road constructed, but also in building the last piece of I-5 (also in Stockton) that completed that interstate between the Mexican border south of San Diego and the Canadian border crossing in Blaine, Washington. Also, he was the manager of a local radio station. An interesting bit of California history.

Now that I commute back and forth to Sacramento, curiosity got the better of me in regard to my daily drive past a sign on Highway 99 announcing the Bernie Richter Memorial Freeway. As my aunt taught me when I was ten years old, “memorial” is a polite way of saying “he’s dead, you know.” I soon learned that the same is true of the practice of preceding someone’s name with the modifier “late.” (I remember being disappointed, thinking that “late” should mean what it says, that the person is never on time. Then again, I was a big fan of Ramona Quimby, who believed that “attacked” should mean to stick tacks in someone. And I guess, in a way, it kind of does.)

A quick search online informed me that Bernie Richter was a high school teacher in Chico who was later elected to the state Assembly, where he was a staunch opponent of affirmative action. I read that the conservative Republican was known for his impassioned speeches, was seen by some as a racist and caused plenty of legislative controversy.

It seems that Bernie Richter could be considered the ideological opposite of the other Bernie, the independent from Vermont whose bid for the presidency I support.

Still, while flying down the pavement at 70 miles an hour early in the morning, it’s good for a commuter to know something about those whom our state government has chosen to so prominently honor.

The Commuter Life: Suddenly, it Dawned on Me

Gooooood morning, Sacramento! What time is it? Oh five hundred. What does the O stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early!

No matter how you cut it, 3:30 am comes early.

That’s the latest that I need to haul myself out of bed if I’m driving into the city for another day at the job. It gives me about 90 minutes to get ready and still make it out the door by 5 am. Any later and the likelihood of availability of the one and only handicapped parking space that allows all-day parking and is close to my office rapidly approaches zero, like the curvilinear graphs I remember from calculus class.

Looking on the bright side, I get to witness God’s handiwork every morning, as the sky is brushed with purple, pink and gold. It’s an inspiring start to my day.

My morning commute destination: My parking space, when I can snag it. At least it’s under a leafy tree, shading my car all day from the 100 degree plus afternoon temperatures that we’ve been experiencing lately.

I try to balance my need to awaken in the pre-dawn hours with my desire to spend time with my wife in the evenings. Eight hours of sleep would require me to be in bed by 7:30 pm, which (let’s face it) is not terribly conducive to a reasonably normal family life. My bedtime was later than that when I was eight years old.

An approach I have been taking involves splitting the difference by taking a nap as soon as I walk in the door and then getting up later to have dinner and family time. On one level this works well, as I am invariably exhausted when I get home. But the experts warn that splitting up sleep time like this deprives the brain of its vital REM cycles and the body of opportunities to replace its supply of melatonin. I tend to compensate by engaging in marathon sleep sessions on the weekends. On Friday evenings, I want to say “Don’t wake me up til Monday morning.”

I am extremely grateful to my wife, who drives me in to work and returns to pick me up twice a week. I look forward to those days, as I get to sleep until 5 am and then nap in the passenger seat during the commute. But it means that my wife must make two round-trips, leaving a severe dent in her schedule. And it costs us twice as much at the gas pump.

No one said living in the exurbs was going to be easy.

On average, my morning commute takes about 40 minutes and my return in the evening about ten minutes longer. My previous concern was that my evening commute time would double due to the need to take surface streets out of Sacramento to avoid the harrowing experience of entering the freeway at the metering lights downtown. True, at times the two-lane merge can be nerve-wracking, but I find that I am starting to get used to it. It seems to be just a matter of signaling, making eye contact, and then muscling your way into the flow of traffic as if it’s your God-given right. There may be some so-and-so who’s determined not to let you in, but you can’t let it faze you. The attitude has to be “here I come, so get out of the way. Oh, you’d prefer to rear-end or sideswipe me and raise your insurance rates? Make my day, pilgrim.”

No, the problem is not the loonies with whom you have to share the road. As has famously been said, “we have found the enemy, and the enemy is us.” My chief adversary out on the road is myself alone.

This is not to say that I won’t end up in a wreck eventually. If I do the commuting dance long enough, the odds are simply not in my favor (particularly in light of my already dented, scratched and crunched driving record). More than likely, however, the day of infamy will arrive when I fall asleep while tooling down Highway 99 at 70 miles per hour.

I’ve tried just about everything to stay awake on the drive home. I keep the windows open, blast the music, sing, slap my face. I drink coffee in the afternoon and sip a Pepsi on the road. Sooner or later, however, I catch myself nodding off. It’s been a long day and the road is monotonous. More than once already I’ve reached my exit with little memory of how I got there. I guess my horse knows the way home.

All I can do at this point is count the years remaining until retirement and hope that, in the meantime, I’m not awakened by an exploding air bag to the face.

And with that I shall say good night. 3:30 am comes early.

The Commuter Life: Ready, Set, Go!

Tessie, my sister’s new toy, er, commuter car.

My sister recently texted me a photo of her newest acquisition, a shiny black Tesla. “This is Tessie. Pretty no?” she asked by way of introduction. “She’s sitting in the garage sipping electricity.”

The thing costs almost as much as I earn in an entire year. But then again, the garage in which Tessie imbibes electrons is part of my sister’s million dollar plus home on a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. Tessie is now her commuter car.

Someone needs to tell Sis that she is doing things backwards. Thousands of Bay Area employees cannot afford to live there and endure hellish daily commutes from the exurbs just to keep their jobs. Sis, who has always been a bit of a firebrand, has decided to buck the trend. While she has been unable to escape the fate of the supercommuter who spends hours behind the wheel, she at least gets to do it in reverse, and on a nontraditional work schedule, to boot. She commutes from her fancy home in the East Bay against traffic to two jobs in the Central Valley. She mitigates the distance by working both weekend days and by staying over with my parents two nights per week.

I feel sorry for my parents.

Mom and Dad are well in their eighties, but that doesn’t stop Sis from upending their routine on a weekly basis. My sister leaves her junk all over the place at my parents’ house, then disappears for a week. If my parents try to clean up, when Sis returns she throws a fit about not being able to find anything. Oh, and she brings my parents food and expects them to cook it for her.

Granted, I would not enjoy living the type of commuter lifestyle that my sister has fallen into. And so, the vagaries of fate being such as they are, the commuter lifestyle went out and found me instead. It’s about to bite me on the nose.

At the improbable age of 60, my wife and I have just purchased our first home. On the salary of a public servant, we cannot begin to afford the hyperinflated prices of houses near my workplace in Sacramento. We ended up buying a newly-constructed home in a bland subdivision in an exurb requiring a commute that nearly rivals my sister’s.

I’ll have a better idea of how this odyssey will play out when I embark on this new challenge next week. What I do know at this point is that I must leave our new home no later than 5 a.m. for the 45-minute drive downtown if I am to be assured of a parking space. Coming home, however, will be far worse. The outbound commuter traffic on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush is reminiscent of the parking lot known as the Long Island Expressway. Not that I would even attempt it. I panic at the very thought of merging into freeway traffic from the downtown streets at rush hour. I am not prepared to take my life in my hands. So I figured out an alternate route through surface streets that is likely to take me at least an hour and a half. I know, I should count my blessings when thousands sit in their cars for four to six hours each day. It’s just that it will take me some time to get used to the commuter life.

My chief concerns are the cost of filling up my gas tank every day ($4/gallon out here), the fact that my already aging vehicle will surely give up the ghost on Highway 99 one fine morning, and that I already struggle to fight off sleep on a relatively short 30-minute commute. My plan is to pull into a fast food parking lot about halfway home and take a nap in my car before hitting the freeway. This, of course, will extend my commute to encompass even more of my day.

I am fortunate that my very generous wife has agreed to drive me in and home two days per week. On those days, I can put my seat back and saw logs while in transport. As for the other three days, I’ve made contingency plans for those inevitable times when there are simply no parking spaces to be found anywhere near my place of employment. I will simply drive another half hour to a suburban shopping center and will wait there for Uber to pick me up and transport me downtown. After work, I’ll have to pay for another Uber to take me back to my car. On the bright side, my drive home will be shorter on such days.

All in all, I anticipate that the commuter life will turn out to be an expensive time suck that I’ll never really get used to. And then there’s the whole fossil fuels/carbon footprint/destruction of the planet thing. Perhaps it’s time to follow my sister’s lead and buy a Tesla. Not that I can begin to afford one now that, in my old age, I have finally become a real adult with mortgage payments.

Clearly, there is only one solution to the problem of getting back and forth to work. Beam me up, Scotty!