December 27, 2010

The City of New Orleans

As most of my regular readers know, I went to Baton Rouge for the first part of my holiday vacation. The second leg of travel, up to Champaign, Illinois, I decided to take via train. And not just any train– the famous City of New Orleans. I didn't get on at New Orleans itself, but at the first stop: Hammond, LA. As a Christmas present to myself, I sprung for a second-class ride in a roomette. It was small by the standards of an apartment, but luxurious compared to most other methods of travel. To compare, I have about quintuple the personal space of my accomodations on the USS Essex, and here I don't even have to scrub the bathroom! The scenery is more exciting too, although I do miss the tang of the salt air.

At the start of the trip, we slightly underestimated the time it would take to get from R&R's place to the train station, or perhaps we overestimated the extent to which the two kids would dawdle getting into the car. Either way, instead of arriving 45 minutes before the train arrived, it was more like 20 minutes. Even so, I invited R&R to leave without seeing me off, as it was cold, and the kids had been napping during the drive. Sure, it would have been fun to talk to everyone for a few more minutes, and the kids would have enjoyed seeing the train arrive and depart, but naptime is important, especially for kids overstimulated by holiday excitement. Waiting in line to check in and get my reserved and paid-for ticket, I was getting concerned as the minutes ticked by. The only ticket agent was also calling out to suggest that people have IDs handy, because "We're running out of time! The train'll be here in a few minutes, and they ain't gonna wait on us!" I got my ticket in hand at 2:38 PM, a closer shave than I'd prefer for a 2:45 PM train. The train pulled in seven minutes behind schedule according to my watch, but when I was boarding the car attendant told me they expected to pick up time on the way. As I write this, at 8:20 PM heading towards Memphis, we seem to be about on schedule. There have even been a couple of freight trains waiting on sidings for us to pass, which is a reversal of roles from the prior American train trips I recall.

My dinner was included with the passage, so I had the catfish, which was decent. The dining car has limited space, of course, so I ate in companionable style, four of us to a table. One gentleman was in coach and had been in line right in front of me in Hammond, where he bought his ticket with cash. The other two were a married couple, staying in first-class. Over dinner, I made a point of chatting, although the other single gentleman at our table had brough a book to entertain himself.

So, the married couple lived in a small community in Arkansas. She worked for the county judge, while he worked for the county trying to get industry to move to town. More interesting was the fourth at dinner, a Taiwanese man just one year younger than me. His father had retired from running several restaurants, and the son was now working as a traveling restaurant consultant. In essence, he advertised his services in a nationwide Chinese-language newspaper. If one was wishing to open a new Chinese or Japanese restaurant (Japanese being more profitable right now), he would help you find a space, negotiate local regulations, equip the place (including working with the local fire department so you could get the needed exceptions to put in hibachi tables), and help you train cooks and staff. He'd do two or three different restaurants a year, each one taking three or four months, and spend the rest of the year visiting friends or relaxing in Chicago, his "home base." It sounded like an interesting life. His parents moved back to China upon retirement, which is a sign of relaxing political tensions, as they'd come from Taiwan originally. Being in coach, his dinner wasn't part of his ticket; he paid in cash, with a crisp $100 bill. After paying for tickets and then dinner with cash, I am suspecting that he works as a cash consultant, and perhaps some portion of his annual earnings are not fully reported. But perhaps I have an overly suspicious mind– some people just prefer to use cash.

The train rolls along through pitch-black rural Mississippi. During the daylight, I looked avidly out the windows at the Louisiana swamps and Mississippi forest. Now, I can finally get some studying done. Which is to say, I ought to conclude this blog post, even though I won't be able to upload it until tomorrow. If we continue to be on-time, I'll be getting off at 6:10 AM, so perhaps an early bedtime is in order.

UPDATE (morning): Well, what an unpleasant night. Previous train trips, I slept in the lower deck, down between the bogies. This time I was an upper deck. What is a minor rocking motion when down between the wheels, becomes a two-foot violent lunge up on top. It's something to do with moment arms, I'm sure. At any rate, that was one of the worst nights of sleep I've ever had. That's not a metaphor– I've slept better while under enemy bombardment. Ah, well. It was still probably better than coach would have been. And much more comfortable than flying!

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December 23, 2010

LA Bound

Off to Louisiana! At the airport, I got frisked. They didn't do a very good job, either: as a "brig chaser" in the Corps, I learned how to search people, and the TSA guy didn't. Of course, the TSA is kind of in a bind, as a real search requires getting very intimate with the searched. I'm annoyed enough about the pointless "security theater" being perpetrated by the TSA, and I don't think a more professional search would have actually improved their effectiveness rate.

Waiting at the Buffalo airport, watching the lake-effect snow blow past the windows, I was not surprised when my flight was delayed. But it wasn't a weather problem– my aircraft had sprung a hydraulic-system leak. Believe me, I know all about those. With a good aircraft, we loaded up, taxied away from the terminal- and the head flight attendant announced that we had a weight-and-balance issue, and that five volunteers were needed to get up from the back of the plane and get an open seat at the front, so we could take off.

I had an isle seat three rows from the back, so I stood up. I ended up sitting next to a garrulous old guy who had been an Army medic in Korea and then a fireman (eventually a captain) in Buffalo. I prefer to spend my flights reading or in quiet contemplation, so once we were in the air I got permission to escape back to my original seat, with the excuse that my stuff was still back there.

My scheduled three-hour layover in Charlotte was now just fifteen minutes, and I needed all of them to hustle across the airport. It's a pity, because Charlotte's airport has a pretty decent sushi restaurant. At any rate, I got crammed into a turboprop for the hop down to Baton Rouge. My bad luck with seatmates continued, as my seat was occupied by a rather confused elderly lady. After some discussion, I and the other nearby passengers just shuffled around, as being easier than convincing her to move. She had a broken arm, and her cast was jamming me in the side for the whole flight. All in all, not the most entertaining trip I've been on.

But at the terminal was my sister, brother-in-law, and their two children, who were cheerful and happy to see me; I suspect they were not so pleasant during the wait for me to arrive, but hey– not my problem!

Once in Baton Rouge, after some initial skepticism, the children have decided that their uncle is an acceptable substitute for a grandparent. While Uncle does not supply candy or cookies, Uncle is substantially more durable than Baba or Gram and is willing to carry people around on command, wrestle, and serve as gymnastics equipment. But when little Zoe asked for her Uncle to change her diaper, said uncle stood on his principles and passed the child off to her parents.

Christmas is in just a few days, and enthusiasm is high. Zoe asks to open presents just about every day. Nick is somewhat more patient, except that his sister's enthusiasm is annoying. There are rules about when presents get opened, and Zoe just can't seem to understand them, which is very very frustrating.

Sadly, before I left, a professor "offered me the opportunity" to rewrite a paper over break, including recommending a book that "might be useful for me to read." So while the postman was delivering presents to be put under my sister's tree, he also brought me a some work to do. There is only one thing left to say…

Bah! Humbug!

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December 14, 2010

December In Buffalo

We had a lovely November this year, very warm. On December 1st, it started to snow. I guess Mother Nature is willing to stick to the schedule, for once.

At any rate, this morning there is a lack of agreement among local meterologists. The optimist says we'll be getting 4-6 inches in the next day. The pessimist says we'll get triple that. Seeing as I have to physically turn in a paper tomorrow, I'm hoping for less instead of more.

Also, I've decided that I will not use my bicycle until the wind-chill factor gets above zero again.

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December 11, 2010

Simpsons Tells It Like It Is

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