Thursday, July 31, 2008

My winning stock pick!

Before I forget, I want to say thanks to Smarty over at Growing Money for hosting the June Stock Challenge. I entered and actually won a prize! The challenge was to pick a stock that you thought would do well over the course of the month, and, at the end of the month, whoever had the "best" stock would win, best meaning "the most percentage gains from the open price." I picked InBev NV (INB) and my stock actually LOST 10%, but it still did better than almost everyone else's picks, so I won a prize. I didn't win first prize-that actually went to someone whose stock went UP in value, but I came in second. Just goes to show that sometimes a bad thing can still be a good thing.

I hope there will be more stock challenges and that lots of people will participate! July participation seems to have fallen a bit flat, but I think that may have just been due to the timing of it. If you're thinking about investing but aren't quite sure if you want to jump in, this might be a fun way to test the waters without having to worry about actually losing any money. You might find that you enjoy the game or you might realize that it's just too stressful not knowing what is going to happen from day to day.


We took a train from Sydney to Newcastle, which was a pretty scenic ride for the most part. Newcastle is about 2 1/2 hours north of Sydney via train, and it's an old coal town which is trying to revitalize itself as something young and hip. To some extent they are succeeding, but it's currently an odd mix of ghetto and swank. When we arrived at the train station, we walked outside to the taxi stand area where we watched one taxi pull away and then waited about 10 minutes for another taxi to show up. I thought that the taxi stand would have taxis lined up waiting for passengers; but, then again, we did seem to be the only people actually standing around looking for a, I guess everything was doled out proportionately. My husband went in search of some information, and we found out that our hotel was within walking distance, so we started hoofing it. While we were waiting for the taxi, I took this picture:

We stayed at the Crown Plaza Hotel Newcastle. As we were approaching the property, I was skeptical. It was on the water's edge (swank!) in this industrial port town (shetto!), but it turned out to be quite lovely. Our room was a nice one-bedroom with a little kitchenette area and a view of the waterfront, sort of. After we unpacked we grabbed some lunch and then walked along the waterfront, past the lighthouse at Nobby's Head, down to the end of the pier where we sat on a pile of rubble (ghetto) for a while watching a seal play in the water (nature-imposed swank). Every once in a while we saw whale spouts in the distance, and we watched all kinds of sea-faring vessels going in and out of the harbor. It had been a bit rainy and cold when we arrived, but it turned out to be a lovely sunny day. That night we ate at the near-by BWP (which stands for Blue Water Pizza) which had great food and very friendly staff. I ate an entire pizza all by myself.

On the news that night, I learned that the Pope is affectionately known as "B16." I don't know if this is an Australian thing or something that is sweeping the world, but I wondered if the Pope was aware of this nickname and, if so, if he approved or not. Again, as with the flags-as-capes situation, I'm a little conflicted; it's nice to see the Pope as approachable and that people are referring to him affectionately, but he's THE POPE. Is nothing sacred anymore? I mean, really, when it's ok to be casual about the Pope, what's left?

For the rest of the week, my husband was working, so I pretty much wandered around the town, spent a day washing laundry in our sink (underwear, socks, tank tops) (self-imposed ghetto), and took a ferry ride. The wandering around town part took me to Darby Street which is where all the restaurants are. Everything we ate in Newcastle was great and also quite expensive. The cheapest thing I ever found was a noodle house where the small portions were around $6 or $7. Other than that, everything starts at about $20. This is what we can't quite figure out about Newcastle. At night, there is definitely a young, hip vibe going on in the swanky new part of town (where we were staying) and on Darby Street. There are a lot of people coming out and spending a lot of money, but we're not sure where any of it is coming from. Newcastle is a coal town, so unless these are all kids whose grandparents made millions in the coal business, where are all these people getting all this money to go out and blow $25-$50/night on food, not on drinks and food, just food? Maybe their parents all own restaurants. Anyway, like I said, everything was good, but we ate twice at Anacapri and both times it was wonderful.

As I was wandering around Darby Street, I kept seeing signs saying "The Obelisk." I decided to follow them and see what this obelisk was all about. Turns out it' obelisk. Who woulda thunk? It looks just like the Washington Monument only smaller and whiter. It's on top of a hill and there's a great view of the city from up there. As I was climbing up the super steep streets that lead to the obelisk, I noticed that you cannot live here and be a bad parallel parker, at least not in the steep-street neighborhoods. There is no messing around with the parallel parking here.

Once I reached the obelisk, I knew I was there by the nice signage(bottom right corner).

I was really impressed with the signage. It was all on street signs and everywhere I needed to turn, there was a sign. I didn't need a map or anything, and for me that's saying something. From the obelisk I walked to Strzelecki Lookout which was listed on my map as a scenic lookout. (I didn't say I didn't HAVE a map, I just said I didn't NEED a map.) Turns out it is also the jumping off point, literally, for the local hang gliders and paragliders. They just walk off the hill and swoop up into the sky! Go to Air Sports' home page and watch their videos of people taking off-they did a much better job with the photography than I was able to do! It was really cool to watch and a nice surprise at the top of the hill as well. If we had been there through the weekend we could have gone on a tandem hang glide, which I think would have been cool, but we didn't have the time, what with our pending wine tour and all.

As I was walking back to the hotel I walked past a lot of houses that were for sale. The Aussies don't fool around with their For Sale signs. They're these huge signs, probably 4' X 6' and they have a big color picture of the property with the address and other pertinent information like how many bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. They don't list the price, however, which I guess is fair. You have to call the realtor for that kind of info.

One day I stopped in Newcastle's local library which also houses the Lovett Gallery. I almost didn't stop in, but I'm glad I did. They were displaying the winning entries from the 2007 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, and they were amazing. This picture was in the downstairs entry, and as soon as I walked in and saw it, I knew I had to go upstairs and see what else they had.

On another occasion I took the ferry across the channel to Stockton to see the Shipwreck Walk. At one time Newcastle was a very dangerous place if you were trying to navigate a boat through its waters, and lots of ships ended up wrecked off its shores. They finally built a breakwater, and they incorporated one of the wrecked hulks into the sea wall, so I wanted to see that. I sort of over dramatized it in my mind. I thought I would turn a corner, and there would be a whole beach full of wrecked ships, their monstrous carcases towering over me as they stood watch over the shores, keeping them safe...from other dangerous ships...or pirates or something. I'm not sure why I thought this; the brochure that I had showed a picture of the ship in its place in the breakwater and pretty clearly explained what the situation was. I guess I just got excited. I've never seen a wrecked ship on land before. Apparently I am a carnage junkie. So, while I was a little disappointed that I only got to see one wrecked ship, I still enjoyed my 3-minute ferry ride over to Stockton and my walk to the end of the pier and back.

It's hard to see, but there is also a bird on one of the rocks with his wings outstretched, sunning himself. See how artsy I am?

Another thing I did in Newcastle that I have never done before is I went to a spa to have my legs and bikini area waxed. We were getting ready to jump on a live-aboard dive boat, and I didn't think I wanted to be trying to shave at sea. Just down from our hotel was a lovey little spa called Sugar Suite. Emma, who is possibly the teeniest and most adorable person ever, was my aesthetician and she was so sweet! I walked in and was trying to work an appointment out for the next day, but the times they had available weren't really what I was hoping for, but they were workable. She was at the counter and said that she could get me in at 8:00 that night if I wanted to come back, which worked out much better for me. She gave me champagne and a little fruit plate when I got there (I'm pretty sure that's part of her job, but still.) As she was viciously ripping out all of my hair, we chatted as though nothing traumatic were going on south of my navel and she made some recommendations about local attractions and then wrote everything down for me later so I wouldn't forget. And now we come to my conundrum. Tipping is not really the norm in Australia, and from what I hear it's kind of pissing them off that we Americans keep coming in and tipping everybody because now people are starting to expect it. They had a good thing going and we're screwing it up. I'd be pissed too. I think they do tip in restaurants, but I'm not sure where else, if anywhere, they tip. So, do I tip for my spa service or not? Emma and I had been talking earlier about how you have to be sensitive when you are visiting other cultures and should make an effort to play by their rules, and here I was, a hairy American coming in and foisting tips on people who aren't expecting them and are not happy about the prospect of other people becoming accustomed to them. Emma stayed late to accommodate me, she went out of her way to be helpful with tourist information, and she handled all my bikini-area hair, something I don't even want to do for myself let alone for someone else. I decided that some things are just worth the tip, customary or not. Emma protested and assured me that it wasn't expected, but I insisted. So, if you're ever in Newcastle and need some spa services, ask for Emma and while you're enjoying your treatment tell her I'm sorry about messing with their gratuity system.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sydney, part II

So far, we have been walking around Sydney without a camera. This is not because I didn't think ahead and bring batteries AND a battery charger. This is because we accidentally blew up our battery charger and its contents when we plugged them into the adapter in the hotel room. (Note: Adapter, not converter.) Oops. Anyway, we figured the convenience store across the street would have batteries, and we knew we'd be paying tourist prices for them, but that's what happens when you do dumb stuff and have to rely on a convenience store across from your hotel. Anyway, we grabbed the batteries, and the guy rang them up and said, "That will be $30." I said, "Is that right?" and he turned the battery pack over to show me the price tag on the back which did, indeed, agree with his cash register. After my heart started beating again, I said, "30 dollars?? Why so much?" He seemed surprised by this. "Well, these are the lithium ones." "Are they also made of gold?" Okay, I didn't actually say that, but I was thinking it. Did I mention that these were not rechargeable? These were Energizer. I was pretty sure that I had about an hour's worth of use to look forward to from these batteries, maybe two, based on previous experience. We passed on the batteries. I'm prepared to pay tourist prices, but not $30 for batteries. My husband had been to Sydney before, so we already had a lot of pictures from there. Otherwise, I might have caved for the batteries. A few days later we finally gave in and paid $20 at another convenience store. Hey, it's better than $30. BTW, for any of you who are thinking, yeah, but that's in Aussie dollars, it makes no difference. The US dollar and the Aussie dollar are almost one-for-one right now, so it really was $30.

fter that we took the ferry over to Darling Harbour, which is just sort of the next harbor over, walkable, but my husband likes being on the water, so we took the ferry. We walked around for a while and then visited the Sydney Aquarium which was pretty cool. Near the entrance, they have a platypus, which is cool because I don't think I've ever seen one, and they're just so wierd! After that I wasn't overly impressed until toward the end where you get to walk through tunnels which go under/through one of their giant tanks, and you find yourself surrounded by lots of different sharks, big rays, and huge turtles. I could have spent hours in there. After you leave that area the overall aquarium experience picks up considerably compared to the pre-shark-tank part, in my opinion. They have lots of salt-water tanks that are very cool. I probably enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef because here I wasn't worried about drowning all the time. (More on that later.)

At the end of the day, we took a taxi back to the hotel. It was cold and my knee was pretty sore, and walking from the harbor to our hotel seemed like more than I could do. That was the night of the 3AM fire alarm where I realized that there would have been no way for me to make it down 26 flights of stairs in my gimpy condition and I would have burned alive had there been an actual fire.

The next day we walked around The Rocks where the main street was closed off for a street market. There were a lot of quality goods there, as far as street markets go. By the time we were done walking around we were getting hungry. We'd walked past a number of restaurants, but nothing looked quite like what we wanted. We thought about going back to GG espresso, which we'd been thoroughly impressed with a couple days ago, but that was all the way back by our hotel, and we were not too far from Lord Nelson's, so we decided to go back there and get a meat pie and some beer. After a fabulous meat pie and some great beer (my husband finally got to try the Nelson's Blood) we started chatting with some of the folks that were hanging out there. Turns out one of them was the brew master, whose picture you saw here . I'm going to call him Robert because I think that was his name, but I can't remember for sure. Whether his name is Robert or not, he was a very nice guy who gave us a tour of his brew operation and then plied us with free sample beer all afternoon. Quality control is important when you're the brew master! His mates, Jason, Eleisha, Tank, and Joel were all fun folks who were nice enough to let us hang out with them for the afternoon as well. Thanks guys! We had fun!

All in all, I would totally recommend Lord Nelson's Brewery Hotel. Their food was great, their beer was great, the people were friendly, and I suspect their accommodations would be great as well. Check them out if you are in Sydney!

After leaving Lord Nelson's we headed back over to Darling Harbour because I had purchased a package deal for the Sydney Aquarium and the Sydney Wildlife World. Turns out the Wildlife World was not that impressive, but I did get to pet a koala, which was as close as I got to grabbing a koala, stuffing him in my suitcase, and bringing him back home to hang out with my Basset hound as I was ever going to get. They will take your picture with the koalas as well and, of course, sell you the picture for about $20, but we ducked out after I got to pet the koala and before they tried to sell me a $20 picture...which I probably would have given in and bought, and now I kind of wish that I had because it's the only picture in existence of me and a koala. We had plans to go somewhere where I would actually get to cuddle a koala though, so we were counting on getting THOSE pictures. Never happened. Bird in the hand, people. Oh well.

That night we ate at Alfredo's, the adorable little Italian restaurant which is right next to the Marriott. They offer authentic Italian and, if you're lucky you might catch them on a night when they have live entertainment, opera if I remember correctly. Anyway, we decided to try them out, and it was terrible. It was the worst food we had the entire time we were in Australia, and it was probably the worst Italian food I've ever had. I ordered a pesto dish which was flat noodles-larger than fettucini but smaller than lasagna. I'm sure there's an official name for these, but I don't know what it is-so, anyway, big flat noodles, pesto, and olive oil. This sounds great; I eat stuff like this at home all the time. It was a disaster. You couldn't taste basil or nuts, but it was super oily. It just tasted like oil, and not even good olive oil, just oily. The parts with the sprinkled-on parmesan cheese were less nasty, but not enough so that I was able to finish my dish. My husband ordered the Penne with Italian Sausage. This came out looking like someone had dumped a can of Chef Boyardee on top of some penne. Always willing to give the chef the benefit of the doubt, he tasted it, and it tasted like it was straight out of a can. The sausage was...mealy? I know sausage is ground up meat parts, but it shouldn't be squishy. Also, it was not Italian sausage, at least not what I consider Italian sausage-spicy, flavorful, not squishy. I'm willing to allow for the fact that I've never had Italian food from Italy. I know and love my American versions of Italian food, but I'm pretty sure that this was not a matter of authenticity, especially since we were in Australia, not Italy. I think this was just bad food. I think if Gordon Ramsay had been called to consult on this place, he would have had some choice words for the head chef. There was a plaque on the wall behind us thanking Alfredo's for their service to the 2004 Olympic teams? commission? I don't remember exactly, but I remember thinking that this couldn't have been good for anybody's morale during the Olympics. Then again, a lot could have changed since 2004. Maybe ownership has changed, maybe management has changed, maybe the head chef has changed. Or maybe they just had a bad night the night we were there, but our experience was not good. I will give props to the lovely gentleman who was playing the piano. He came around and asked all the tables if there was anything he could play for them, and did his part to keep up the ambiance. So, for the entertainment, I will give Alfredo's one star.

After our disappointing dinner we returned to our hotel to find two clean, non-smoky robes hanging nicely in our closet, not draped sloppily on a wire hanger on our bed like the last one.

The next day we walked through Hyde Park. (Yes, we're still in Australia; it turns out Australia has lots of things that England had first.) Pilgrims are beginning to arrive en masse and they are walking around everywhere wearing their countries' flags as capes. I sort of have mixed feelings about this. I'm not super patriotic, but some things are just tacky. Along with the flag capes there are lots of people with guitars and lots of groups singing and generally being youthful and excited but in a good Catholic way.

From Hyde Park we walked over to the Chinese Peace Garden, which was beautiful. They have a bamboo garden area that I really liked, and I would like to do something similar in my backyard.

The gardens were very well laid out and even though they didn't cover a huge area, there were lots of places that were tucked away around a bend or down a hill so that you discovered them as you walked through the gardens, rather than being able to stand in one spot and scope everything out. Also, the temples were painted in colors that perfectly matched the winter foliage. I don't know if this was intentional or not, but I thought it was a nice touch!

After this we walked back through Hyde Park to the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain where they have a "Sex and Death" exhibit starring orchids and carnivorous plants and it's housed in the Tropical Center which is this cool glass pyrmid that reminded me of the one in front of the Louvre. I was really disappointed. For as phenomenal as the rest of the gardens are, this was a sad, sad display. Everything looked overgrown and half dead. I don't know if they were attempting to make it look "natural" but it just looked "unkempt." So, my advice would be to go check out every nook and cranny of the Botanic Gardens and Domain that you can, but don't waste your money on the Tropical Center. I would, however, highly recommend the United States Botanic Gardens in Washington DC. They're display is largely indoors, extensive, and quite well-kept. And, I didn't get mugged while I was there.

We finished off our night with another fabulous meal at Lord Nelson's Brewery Hotel, and went back to the hotel to pack up for our travel to Newcastle.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Well, kids, as you can see from my last post, I have just returned from Australia, 17 days in Australia to be exact. Which is why I have been a big, giant slacker in the posting department. Sorry.

I think the best way to break up my posting of this trip will just be to do it by region. So, one post for each city we visited. Let's start with Sydney!

First of all, if you are the person in charge of planning a work conference, and you know the Pope is coming to town, you might want to consider timing your conference so that it doesn't happen at the same time as the Pope's visit give or take a week. For one thing, any of your Catholic attendees probably won't appreciate you very much. Secondly, anyone who has to travel to and find accommodations in your city during this time probably will not appreciate you much either. I'm just sayin'. Some things to consider.

Anyway, I really liked Sydney, World Youth Day craziness aside. We stayed at the Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel at Circular Quay. It was...fine. The hotel was nice, the staff were courteous, the room was clean. I wasn't overwhelmed, but it was ok. The one complaint I do have is that I asked for a robe, and they sent one up that smelled like smoke. I don't know if they didn't wash it after the last person wore it or if someone was smoking in the supply closet or what, but it stunk. Also, the 3AM fire alarm was a drag. Turns out someone down the hall from us was a smoker and couldn't drag his ass outside to take a drag. So, not really the hotel's fault, but still. Actually, it could have been the hotel's fault. Maybe whoever was wearing my robe and smoking in the supply closet finally went too far and set off the smoke alarms. Damn closet smokers...which brings me to...

my first public safely announcement: If you are injured or in some other way not highly mobile, don't get a hotel room on the 26th floor. I had never considered this before, but my knee was tweaked from all the walking around we'd been doing, and I couldn't go up or down stairs in a normal fashion. I had to do it old-people style where you put your left foot down a step and then, instead of bringing your right foot down to the step below your left foot, you bring your right foot down to the same step that your left foot is on and then start all over with the next step. I am here to tell you that if there had been an actual fire, I would have burned alive, probably on the 24th floor. So, I guess I should be thankful that it was just some thug smoking up robes to foist on unsuspecting guests.

Before all this nonsense with the fire alarms, we walked down to the Sydney Opera House. We tried to get tickets to see Hamlet, but it was in its last two nights of production and was sold out. The architecture is, of course, unique and fascinating. What was cool for me though was that it reminded me of the architecture of the Air Force Academy's Cadet chapel, which my grandpa helped build. When I say "helped build" I mean I think he was one of the lead guys on the job, but I'm not actually sure on that, so I'll have to do some fact checking. For comparison check out pictures here of the Sydney Opera House and this picture of the chapel.

After that we walked over to the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain which are huge! And quite lovely. They have some amazing trees and beautiful walkways and fruit bats, or flying foxes as they are more euphemistically called. Some people found the bats creepy. I kind of liked them. They were flying all over the place and chattering like crazy during the day, which surprised me. I figured they would be pretty quiet during the day and active at night. Shows what I know about fruit bats. They also had herds of cockatoos flying around. I'm sure the correct terminology is probably "flocks" but if you've ever heard these things, you'll agree it sounds more like a herd of cockatoos coming at you than a flock.

Anyway, the Royal Botanic Gardens have a lot of open space that doesn't involve bats or stampeding cockatoos, so don't let that discourage you if you're wary of either. It's a beautiful area and you can spend days walking around. Definitely a winner! Hawaii, take notes-this is how you do a botanic garden!

After all our walking around, we needed some food, and we found this little cafe called GG espresso, which was fabulous! And it wasn't just because I was famished and getting mean. I had the lemon pepper chicken, tomato, cheese, pesto and rocket on Turkish bread, which was one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. It was so good! The chicken was tender and had great flavor, the cheese was perfectly melted, the pesto was good but not overwhelming, the rocket (arugula) was fresh and the bread was light and crispy. The whole thing was wonderful! Sydney Airport, take notes-this is how you do sandwiches! My husband got the meat pie, which is not on the menu, but was also really good even though he burned off most of his taste buds on the first bite. A warning about meat pies: They tend to be served at roughly 800 degrees. Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick; at that temperature it doesn't really matter.

Speaking of food, we decided to go to Lord Nelson's Brewery Hotel for dinner. Instead of eating dinner there, we ended up trying some of their beer which is, as the name of the establishment implies, brewed on site. I'm not a beer gal, but I liked the Old Admiral and the Victory Bitter (not to be confused with Australia's Victoria Bitter or VB, which from what I could gather from the locals is sort of Australia's Budweiser-everybody drinks it, but it's pretty much crap.) I think we tried one other beer that night, but I can't remember which one it was. My husband wanted to try the Nelson's Blood, but they were all out. After finding the beer selection pleasing we decided to ignore the tempting menu and wander around the city a little more. At the time, some things seem like a good idea.

We walked around until we found the Australian Hotel, which apparently is some hot-shit, award-winning beer venue, but we found their beer to be far inferior to Lord Nelson's and their food was mediocre. My pizza, however, did make me laugh until I cried. Not because it was particularly funny, but because sometimes all the elements in the universe line up just right to make one split second in time so funny that you can't stand it. I ordered a cheese pizza, and as I was taking my first bite, I sort of sighed and thought, "I love cheese." This made me smile a little, and I knew that my husband had caught me smiling and was now wondering what I was smiling about. Then I thought about having to explain my wistful, "I love cheese," thought and that made me laugh, which made my husband ask, "What?" which made me laugh even harder because I thought about how ridiculous it would sound to actually say, out loud, "I love cheese," and how non-funny that is and then I thought about the disparity between the funniness of my "I love cheese," and how hard I was now laughing and that made me laugh even more. So, it just kept snowballing, and I probably laughed for a solid two minutes before I could pull myself together enough to tell my husband, who by this time was waiting for something really freakin' hilarious, "I love cheese!" which then sent me into peals of laughter for another minute or two. I'm sure anyone watching from the outside would have had no doubt that I was high as a kite, but I swear to you I wasn't. I just really love cheese.

I have more to report, but it's bed time, so I'll be back later with more.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I am not a good traveler

My recent travels between Hawaii and Australia have led me to realize that I am not a good traveler. My husband travels about 30-40 weeks a year. I don't know how he hasn't landed himself in jail yet because if it were me, I probably would have been pulled out of line at the airport for making some snarky, smart-ass remarks about airport security because I cannot stand the ridiculousness that is airport "security" these days. What the hell difference does it make if I have a 3-oz. tube of toothpaste or a 6-0z. tube of toothpaste that has been squeezed down to less than half? What's that? All the reasonable people in the world say, "I don't know. There doesn't really seem to be much difference."? That's what I thought too, but if you read the TSA web site, you will see that you are not allowed to carry a 6-oz. container of toothpaste (or mouth wash or deodorant or whatever) even if the contents are clearly down to 3 oz. or below because this would be...WHAT???? Dangerous? A slippery slope-where do you draw the line between 3 oz. and 3.25 oz? If someone could please give me an actual, based-in-common-sense answer to this, I would be fine with it, but they don't. They just make up all these arbitrary rules, and I'm pretty sure they do it just to piss me off. Seriously, do any of you barefoot people in line feel any safer now that your toiletries have been trimmed down to a safe, single layer of 3-oz. containers? Lighter, and less loaded down with crap? Sure. But safer? Me neither.

Did you know that you can't take a box cutter on a plane? Of course you did, you're not an idiot. That's a dangerous instrument, and you could hurt somebody with that. But did you also know that cork screws are ok? Are you telling me that a cork screw would inflict less damage than a box cutter? If I had to fight someone on the street, and I had my choice of a box cutter or a cork screw, I think I'd take the cork screw. Arbitrary rules, man. Arbitrary.

Anyway, none of this has actually been an issue for me, but it pisses me off every time I have to pack my 3-oz. bottles in my clear plastic baggie. Why? It just does, ok?

What WAS an issue for me was the additional security features brought on by international travel. At the Honolulu International Airport, when you arrive at your international gate, they tell you, "once you enter this holding area, you will not be allowed to leave and come back in. Are you ok with that." That is very nice of them. They could just get you trapped in there and then laugh at you when you get up to try to go back out for a Starbucks. Upon hearing this information and being sort of hungry and kind of wishing I had stopped at the Starbucks we just passed, I peer into The Holding Area, and see a doorway with big letters that say, "GATE 30 SNACK BAR." So, I say, "Yes, I am ok with that," and wander into The Holding Area where I get a better view of the Snack Bar area:

Hmmmm...this does not look promising at all. I decide to investigate further and discover this:

That's right, there's no snack bar here. MWAHAHAHA! I'm not sure what sick bastard is in charge of this operation, but I think s/he needs to contact somebody about updating the airport signage. ASAP. I don't know about you, but I get bitchy when I get hungry. I don't mean to be, I just am. This is no fun for me, and it definitely is not fun for my poor husband, who usually ends up taking the brunt of my bitchiness. I know there are other men out there who can sympathise with this. So, if you are traveling internationally out of HNL, be sure you have some snacks hidden in your pockets to fend off your bitchy travel companion (or somebody else's bitchy travel companion whose boyfriend/husband/brother/father did not read this post and went in unawares) when she gets trapped at Gate 30 by the misleading "SNACK BAR" sign.

Flying back from Sydney was similarly frustrating. First of all, the Pope was in town for World Youth Day, and as a result Sydney had a lot of extra people on hand. I'm not sure of the exact number, but I think it was somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. Turns out all those extra people decided to return home on our flight. All of them. They may have even had the Pope with them. We arrived at the airport 3 1/2 hours before our flight, thinking we would have plenty of time to check in, sit down for a bite to eat, and then mosey on over to our gate, pretty much in that order. An hour-and-forty-five-minutes later we were finally checked in. I had given in and hit up the vending machine for a $2.50 bag of peanut M&Ms earlier because I was starting to get mean. I try to take evasive action when I can. We finally make it through security and into the terminal to find that there are only 2 (two) places to eat, the place with the nasty looking sandwiches and the place with the nasty looking pizza. I go for the nasty sandwich place because they also have coffee. I buy my dry-ass $7.50 toasted cheese and tomato sandwich-even the cheese was dry-and sit down to eat. Seriously, people, didn't Sydney host an Olympics, and wasn't it fairly recently, like the year 2000? Is this really what they greeted all of their high-falutin international guests with?

I've choked down my sandwich, I'm drinking my coffee, and the pilgrims behind me are singing and somebody nearby is trying to play...a harmonica? A dead wombat? Ah, perhaps a didgeridoo. Either way, it sounds terrible. There are times when I would be able to be happy about the pilgrims singing-youth celebrating in a non-destructive uplifting way, enthusiastic and having fun. This was not one of those times. I wanted to grab the dead wombat didgeridoo and beat the singing pilgrims with it. Instead, my husband talked me into walking over to our gate.

At our gate, the security guard informed us that we WOULD be able to come and go, but that our bags would have to be searched each time. This, of course, sent me into another blind rage. Why? WHY?? We've already made it through airport security. Presumably, we are in a secure location. It's not like we're leaving the gate and going back out onto the streets of Sydney and coming back in with drugs, guns, and hookers. Although, technically, I don't think hookers are on the "things you can't bring on a plane" list. Anyway...if you are worried about what I might buy at the Duty Free store or the souvenir shop, should I be worried? I go to the bookstore which is over by some other gate where the gate agent has gathered everyone around and is yelling boarding information because, "we don't have a PA system." Oh, for the love of God! Are you kidding me? Seriously, people! 2000! It couldn't have gone that far downhill in 8 years!

After that, it was fairly non-eventful. I bought a book at the bookstore which, to my knowledge, was not selling any "Build Your Own Bomb" kits, made it into the gate area hassle-free, and then sat around with the 200,000 other people that were on our flight, waiting for our shouted-out boarding instructions. To Sydney airport's credit, they did have a soda machine in the waiting area.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Kitty feet!

Laurie, over at Crazy Aunt Purl, recently (sort-of) posted about "Things I Like." This was a list of the little things in life that make her happy. (Check out her June 17, 2008 post entitled, "Cheap and Cheerful." Sorry, but I am not sophisticated enough to link you directly to this post, just to her archives.)

Recently, we found a kitten in our yard, and have been taking care of it while we try to find it a home. The longer we keep it, the more it is looking like we have a new kitten. Look how cute his feet are!!!

Okay, the rest of him is pretty cute too, but look at his cute little feet! Kitty's feet make me happy. When he passes out on my chest, I like to play with his toes. Because I can. And because they're SO CUTE!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Courage, part III

Well, I've been talking about John McCain and his thoughts on courage in the last couple of posts, and I wanted to post this. While I was in DC, I went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This is the first time I've been to DC, and of course I've always heard about the Wall and seen pictures of it. It's incomprehensible just trying to wrap your mind around all those names and what they represent, but what really got to me were all the letters and mementos that were left there. There were what appeared to be letters written by school children, pictures of grandchildren and other personal symbols of remembrance. The one that really stuck with me though was this one, pictured above. It reads:
"Dear Heroes,
I sincerely hope I am soldiering with the same courage & bravery you all did.

SFC E. Orque"

I'm not sure about the signature, but I think that is what it says.

It was written on what appeared to be the back of a business card, utilitarian, to the point, humble, simultaneously uplifting and heart-breaking.

John McCain, Elephants, and Courage

Here's a nifty little coincidence. As mentioned in my last post, I just finished reading Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Lifeby John McCain and Marshall Salter. One of the points that they drive home in this book is that courage means doing something that you know is right even if you are afraid of the physical, psychological, or social ramifications of doing so, even if, especially if, you KNOW that the outcome is likely to be not only unfavorable but possibly even dangerous, if not fatal. I read this book while I was in VA, visiting my mom. A few days later, while I was waiting around in the airport, I picked up Water for Elephants: A Novel.

On the plane ride home, I saw Horton Hears a Who! which is about an elephant (Horton) who is on a mission to save a community of people he can't see (the Whos of Whoville). They live on a speck, and Horton can hear them, but he can't see them; and the leader of his community is fit to be tied when Horton's nonsense about believing in life you can't see starts to influence the youngsters. She calls for his head on a platter, and Horton is facing real, physical danger; but he persists in his promise to help save Whoville because as he says,"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one hundred per cent." As I'm watching this, I think, "Wow, Horton is courageous in the sense that John McCain would recognize and appreciate."

On the second leg of my flight home, I open up Water for Elephants: A Novel, and the epigraph reads thus:

"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant...
An elephant's faithful--one hundred per cent!

--THEODOR SEUSS GEISEL, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940"

I mean, seriously, what are the odds? What does it all mean? I recently read The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence, and Imagination, and the author talks about paying attention to coincidences. In particular, he talks about his personal experiences with travel-related coincidences. So, seriously, what does this mean??? Am I about to face some situation which is going to require elephant-sized courage? That can't be good.

What I'm Reading Now-July 2nd edition

Well, as you can see, my wheel of books has not changed significantly since my last post. I did finish The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals which I did enjoy even though it was a long read. It was thoughtful and thorough and provided a lot of good information. It's very easy for people to take frivolous political stands about being meat-eaters or vegetarians or vegans, but I think Michael Pollan did a good job of evaluating the different considerations of these various stands. It's not as cut-and-dry as we would all like to think it is, especially for those of us lucky enough to be living in a place like the United States, where food, and food choices, are, for the most part, abundant. Pollan does end up creating a meal that he has hunted, gathered, and grown on his own. While proving that it can indeed be done, he makes no bones about the fact that it isn't a very realistic expectation for most people. Anyway, long story short, I would recommend this book.

Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever by Susan Warren-I loved this book! Remember how I said that, "I like reading about gardening and huge undertakings by inspired visionaries." No? Well, I did. In my review of A Clearing in the Distance. This book was all the things I wanted that book to be. Okay, maybe growing giant pumpkins isn't the same as designing Central Park, but it's something. The book was a quick, easy read, and it provided me with a lot of interesting facts. Did you know that pumpkins can put on up to 40 lbs. of weight a day? I didn't think so. And neither did I before I read this book. Backyard Giants follows a group of growers, mostly in Rhode Island, through a pumpkin-growing season, during which they are attempting to break the 1,500 lb. goal. That's right, 1,500 POUNDS. Go outside and look at your car. Now, imagine it's a pumpkin. Impressive, right? Anyway, it mostly follows a father-son team, but also incorporates all the folks in their growing club as well. These are regular Joes, people who work for a living and tend to their pumpkins the rest of the time. They help each other out, they cheer each other on, they wrap their pumpkins in blankets at night. I was laughing, crying and cheering throughout this book. Pick it up and give it a read. If nothing else, it provides you with great material for small talk.

Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life by John McCain and Marshall Salter-I feel bad not giving this book a rave review, but it was just ok. I had a hard time with McCain's writing style. To be fair, I guess it could have been Marshall Salter's style that I had a problem with and not John McCain's. It wasn't complex, but I often had to go back and re-read sentences several times to figure out what he had just said. I think McCain felt awkward about writing this book, and it sort of showed. While I liked his humility and candor, I felt like he felt obligated to write a book when perhaps a short paper would have sufficed. He tells several stories about brave and courageous folks who are certainly worthy of our admiration and provide much inspiration. He talks about how we tend to over use the word "courage" these days, thereby devaluing real courage. Sure, it might be painful or scary to talk about your struggle with weight or make a public speech, but is it really courageous? Can you really put that in the same category as running back into a jungle full of enemy soldiers to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade when you're already injured, out of ammo, and outnumbered 10-to-1? He talks about moral courage and setting examples for our children. Overall, the message was good, but I don't think the book was great.

Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen-This is one I've picked up a dozen times over the years but was never quite convinced that it would be as good as I wanted it to be. I finally had a couple rave reviews from close friends and picked it up in the airport on my way home from DC. I loved this book. It had elephants and romance and the circus and trains and beloved pets and sweet, sweet justice. What more could you ask for? The main character, Jacob, runs away and, without really meaning to, joins the circus as their resident vet. He meets and immediately falls in love with the beautiful Marlena who is married to August. August is in charge of the animals and is a bit psychotic. August is also Jacob's new boss. You can see where this is going, right? Nowhere good.

This is a depression-era novel, and circuses are going out of business like crazy. The owner of the circus that Jacob has fallen in with is a shrewd businessman and manages to pick up defunct circus assets in his travels. In this way, they gain the new star of their show, Rosie, the elephant. Rosie is gentle but doesn't seem to know anything. Between the general hit of the depression and August's non-performing elephant, the circus is falling on hard times. Employees aren't getting paid, and the owner isn't averse to "red-lighting," tossing people off the train during its night-time travels to avoid...problems. Things eventually pick up, Rosie gets in the game, but she still makes mistakes that send August into psychotic rages, much to everyone's distress.

At the very beginning of the book, we learn what we think is the big secret that Jacob has been keeping all these years, and the book works its way back around to this calamitous moment, during which even more is revealed, and I have to say I was surprised. I thought I knew where it was going, but I didn't. Jacob is now an old man in a nursing home, and the story goes back and forth between his days in the circus and his days in the nursing home. The circus has come to town, and so begins his reminiscing. I liked both endings of this book-the ending to the story that Jacob is telling and the ending of Jacob's current-day story. This was also a quick, easy read.

**Edited 3/31/09 to add
Other reviews:
Marg at Reading Adventures

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood-Margaret Atwood is one of those authors I feel compelled to like. I've read a couple of her books and thought they were ok, but I don't recall being bowled over by any of them. People always rave about her, and every couple years I think that maybe I've matured enough to finally appreciate Margaret Atwood like I am supposed to. Apparently, this isn't the case. I still think she's ok. Wilderness Tips is a book of short stories...*sigh*. I feel compelled to try to like short stories too. I just can't think of any short story that I've ever read and gone, "Wow!" And, again, this makes me feel like a literary 12-year-old. So, anyway, I've got this book of short stories by Margaret Atwood...and so far, it's ok. Actually, at the end of one of her stories, "Hairball," I did go, "Wow," but it was "Wow, that's kinda f*cked up," not "Wow! I've got to tell other people to read this!" I'm about half-way through; I'll let you know my final verdict.

What Makes a Character "Likeable"?

I recently posted about Icy Sparks and how irritated I was by her wandering mind and her tendency to make up stories. I noted that I thought this was probably a bit of a survival tactic, but how I still wanted to slap her upside the head and tell her to quit lying and pay attention. I know. Endearing, right?

Shortly after that post, I posted a comment over at Chain-Reading about Pi, the main character in Life of Pi, which I loved. The same quality that I found so ultimately irritating in Icy is what endeared me to Pi. So, this left me thinking, "Huh." I know, Deep, right?

Anyway, on a base level, they were both doing the same thing, inventing stories, changing their realities to make their current situations more tenable, so why did I have such severe and opposite reactions to them? Granted, Pi's situation was one of true survival-stuck on a life raft for 200+ days-while Icy's was just one of endurance-make it through another day of mean kids and mean teachers and wondering, "WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME??" but still...Icy should be the more relateable-we've all had to endure feeling this way to some extent, and maybe that's the problem. Everyone's felt rejected, like a freak, like a pariah at some point, and I think most people manage to get through it without turning into irritating liars. I, on the other hand, have never had to endure 200+ days stuck at sea in a life raft with or without a bunch of wild animals. There's no telling what I would have to do or, more importantly, be able to do to survive, so judging Pi seems a bit harsh, especially when you realize the vast difference between his potential reality and his story. I don't mean to be cryptic, but I don't want to ruin anything for anyone who has not read the book.

So. Can you think of other characters/books/settings/plots to which you have had similar opposing reactions?