Thursday, December 22, 2011

So, this is a horse

Frequent readers know that I like going on trail rides when I'm on vacation.  I've been on various horses about a dozen times -- although, what with the rides being vacation trail rides, my horse was pretty much just following the horse in front, and I wasn't exactly controlling the animal.

After the unfortunate experience in the Czech Republic (when they wouldn't take my horse off the lead for half the damn trail ride), I stumbled upon a Groupon for 3 riding lessons at a nearby stable.  This seemed to be exactly the ticket -- I very much doubt I'm ultimately going to take riding lessons, but I wouldn't mind having a few beginner lessons under my belt the next time I'm in a foreign country and trying out the local equines.

First lesson was Tuesday night.  Did not go entirely well, in that my horse was on the lead for the whole damn thing.  But I didn't really mind being on the lead when I'm actually learning to do stuff with the horse, rather than having the horse just follow a set path like the boats in "It's a Small World."  So, I spent an hour on Tuesday in an English saddle, being regularly yelled at to keep my heels down, riding my horse in an ever-increasing circle around my teacher.

I was on a (relatively) small brown horse named "Oso."  There was another guy there taking his third Groupon lesson from the same teacher.  He was on a larger white horse.  While I'm going around in a circle, he's going around the whole ring, attempting to get the white horse to trot.  It isn't going well; the horse is just not in a trotting mood.  As soon as he gets a little bit of trot out of it, the horse goes back to walking.  Meantime, the teacher is trying to get him to post, and (in what I am certain was simply for her amusement) making me to stand up in the stirrups while my horse was walking.  (She claimed this was good for my balance, and I suppose the idea was that I'd eventually be trotting a horse and would need to be able to post, but I'm still thinking it was for the laughs.)

I was wiped out.  When I got home, I decided the horse was named Oso, because when I was finished riding him, I was Oso tired.

Took a hot bath and everything.  (Which was a good trick, as the little thingy that plugs the drain wasn't working, so I just jammed some plastic sandwich bags in there.  When the bags started floating to the surface, the bath was over.)

Felt fine yesterday -- until about ... well, until about 24 hours after the ride.  Apparently, feeling sore after a ride is a time-delayed sort of thing.  Realizing that I would be getting back on the horse again today, I sat with a heating pad across my, er, inner thighs last night. 

So, today, back off to the stables.  To my surprise, I did not get Oso -- one of the other riders got him.  I got ... the tall white horse the other guy couldn't make trot.  This:  (1) concerned me (on the issue of how far I'd have to slide off this thing to dismount); and (2) gave me a (false!) sense of security that the horse actually wanted to go slowly.  

(On the plus side, I got "the dressage saddle" today, which was way more comfortable than your standard English saddle of the lesson before.  Even though I had a great laugh over the idea that I'd be doing dressage today.  Because, yeah, controlling a horse through precise movements with pinpoint accuracy totally describes my riding style.)

My teacher had an assistant today, and two other students.  The other students walked their horses around the ring.  My horse was guided by the teacher's assistant.  For about 30 minutes, we all did the same things (walk horses, stand up a bit, sit back down), although my horse was being led and the other students' horses weren't.  I was getting a little annoyed by this, because I was pretty sure I could handle the horse at this point.  (I think the other students were getting a little annoyed by it, too, because the teacher would tell us all to stand up in the stirrups, and then compliment me on my standing, and I'm sure they were thinking, "uh, yeah, she has it easier, what with not simultaneously controlling her horse.")

Eventually, my teacher decided I'd graduated to actually Operating the Horse Solo.  (After an intermediate step of the assistant releasing the lead, but still walking next to me and the horse.)  And I did pretty well!  Walked the horse all by myself!  Turned left!  Turned right!  Go me! 

So, we're walking around the ring, turning between gates (they jump horses there) whenever I feel like it, and my mind momentarily wanders ...

... and the horse knows.  The horse is freakin' on it, and immediately starts trotting off.  So, here's me yelling "Whoa!" and pulling on the reins, all of ten minutes after they sent the assistant away (and I'm sure everyone is questioning whether that was the right call), but I'm actually more amused than anything.  Because, with all of those trail horses (and the mules in the Grand Canyon) I've ridden, you can pretty much daydream and the horse will still follow the butt of the horse in front of it.  But, now, I'm on a horse that is genuinely not going to fall for that crap, and I think it's pretty cool.

So, back to paying 100 percent complete and utter attention to the fact that I'm on top of an animal that has a different idea of how he would rather be spending his time.  We walk some more; we turn some more; I ask the teacher what I should be doing -- she suggests that I try standing up in the stirrups again, although I should go closer to the rail when I do it.  (I say to the horse, "Let's go over to the rail, so that when I fall off, I'll fall on metal!")  We're toddling along near the rail at the far end of the ring and ...

... honestly, I'll take the blame for the first one.  The first one was totally my fault.  But this time -- well, if this was my fault, there is cause for concern, as I have no damn idea what I did to set the horse off.  One second, we're walking along, and the next second, the horse starts something rather more akin to a gallop.  It happened pretty quickly, but I assume there may have been a buck involved too, as, all of a sudden, there's mane in my face, and I'm pretty sure that my head shouldn't be anywhere near the back of the horse's neck if we're all doing what we're supposed to be doing.  I yell "Whoa!" a few times and pull on the reins.  It doesn't seem like it's working, but eventually it does.  (I was moments away from yelling, "A little help here?") The teacher asked if the horse got spooked by something, and I went with "yes," as it seemed the best explanation (as well as the most face-saving one).  The assistant had mentioned there were sometimes coyotes in the trees near the far end of the ring (where we were) and the teacher confirmed that and suggested we stay in the near half of the ring for the rest of the lesson.  Good plan.  

Teacher said she was proud of me.  (I was all, "For what?  Not falling off the horse?"  Apparently, I got points for my attitude of not jumpng off the horse, saying, "Screw that," and walking away.)  I'm good with it, though.  I mean, I (eventually) did the horse back under control, so I should be less freaked out at the possibility it may happen again.

One more lesson, in January.  I'm staying away from the coyotes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

XBox Report -- Day Two

So, I finally broke open "Dance Central" for the XBox/Kinect.  Light years ahead of the old dancing game I had for the PS2.  No more putting a mat down and stepping on the arrows.  This is full body dance moves -- just mirror the dancer on screen.

As for my own personal dancing abilities, I did fairly well (on the easiest dances, on the "easy" level).  Given the difference between my score on the Lady Gaga song and my score on ... well, I can't even remember the name of the song, but it had dance moves with names like "merengue" and "Latino" and, overall, a substantial increase in hip action over the Gaga tune ... the only conclusion I can come to is, "I am so white."

I am very glad that this whole experience went down in the privacy of my living room, because, damn, the whiteness of my dancing is downright embarrassing.

Human Beings: Largely Decent

My thanks to the three people involved in returning my wallet to me, when I dropped it in the parking lot, and hadn't even known it was lost.

I was attending the theatre.  I dropped my wallet in a public parking lot where it was picked up by another theatregoer.  Who was going to another theatre.  He handed my wallet over to the artistic director of the place, who happened to recognize my name, and telephoned a publicist who knew me.  The publicist called me on my cell phone ... with the result that I got a call about a minute after I walked out of the theatre, telling me that I'd lost my wallet, and that I could pick it up from the other theatre's artistic director.  (I went directly there.)

Now, clearly, this process was helped along greatly by the fact that the artistic director knew me -- but this wasn't strictly necessary.  When I returned to my car, I found a note there from the dude who had found my wallet, and left his phone number.  I'd already picked up my wallet by this time, but I called the guy just to thank him.  He said it was a karma thing.

(I guess I just got repaid for sharing some electricity with my neighbors, when they had a downed power line for several days.)

Still, this is clearly one of those days when I'm having a lot of faith in my fellow humans. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

That's It. I'm Officially Five Years Old

Got the XBox yesterday.  Began playing with it last night.

The Kinect really does get you moving -- I'll give it that.  And I like the fact that the "Kinect Adventures" (which isn't so much a game as an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the way the controller works -- which is an odd thing to say as, like the adds profess, you are the controller) ... ANYWAY, I like the way that the game is set up so that it's fairly easy to succeed, so you move through it quickly.

It was set to the mode to automatically take pictures of me.  I subsequently turned that off.  I mean, it's one thing to dodge and weave and jump in the privacy of my living room --- another to have photographic evidence of it.

The real problem was that upon winning a game, it asks you to record a "living statue," where there are a bunch of avatars on the screen, and you're supposed to dance around and talk -- and then play it back and all the avatars are doing your dance moves while your voice plays back.  

So, now, although all photographic evidence has since been deleted, my XBox can now play six little avatars dancing around while my voice says, "I did it.  Go me.  I did it.  Go me."

(Oh, the shame.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Now I'm a Tourist Attraction

I saw a car drive by this morning and slow in front of my house while someone leaned out the window and took a picture of my downed tree.  Hey, lady, get your own storm damage!  This one's mine!

Here's my backyard.  Branches everywhere.  Also lemons.  And shingles.

Lots of shingles.

I was trying to look up the warranty on my roof when I my next-door neighbor came by with the happy news that the shingles aren't mine.  My roof (which you can see from their house) is still intact.  The shingles aren't theirs, either, although their yard is also full of them.  They came from the house on the other side of theirs.  That's two houses from me, if you're keeping score.

That was the good news.  This is the bad news.

Note the gap in the fence on the left of that walkway by the side of my house.  Shouldn't there still be fence there?

Oh!  Here it is!

In my other neighbor's yard!

I'm not 100% sure that I own the fence.  It could be his (although I think it's mine).  I left a note for him (he's a firefighter, so is busy working right now) -- if it's mine, I'll be calling my insurance carrier.

(I already checked.  My tree removal isn't covered as the tree didn't fall on my house.  All things considered, I'm happier with this set of circumstances.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's ... er ... windy

The City of Pasadena's automated computer called me (several times) to cheerfully inform me that starting at midnight, red flag warning parking restrictions will be in effect.  Basically, the combination of Santa Ana winds plus low humidity means that if there's a spark, fire can spread really, really, really quickly.

A friend at work was planning to go away for the weekend.  I told her that they're expecting some serious Santa Anas, so I hoped she wouldn't have any flight difficulties.  She asked what Santa Anas were.  I said it would be windy.  Really, really, windy.

Because a picture is worth 1000 words, I'll shut up now, and give you the picture I just took out my front window.  

I'm concerned.  Largely because the winds were that fierce and it isn't even midnight yet.

(Aside to folks concerned about "Pokey" -- the five-foot plywood reindeer that I put out this weekend, back when it was 80 degrees and beautiful.  Pokey has to be on the parkway.  I tied him to a tree (a different tree) and set a light out in front of him.  Indeed, that brown line you see across my driveway is the duck tape covering the extension cord which continues down the lawn, under the downed tree.  I only discovered the tree when I looked out my window to check on Pokey.  I then went outside to observe the damage.  Pokey had, in fact, escaped his ropes.  (My knots held, but the rope attached to the frame on Pokey's backside didn't.)  He was lying flat on the ground -- miraculously, he hadn't crushed the lightbulb in front of him (and started one of those fast-moving fires).  I briefly tried to pick him up but the utter stupidity (not to mention impossibility) of carrying a five-foot piece of plywood in 45 mile per hour winds quickly struck me.  I decided that flat on the ground was probably the best place for him.  I went back inside the house, pleased that (for now), I still have electricity, internet, and satellite TV.  Gonna hunker down with the cat.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fortune Cookie Fate

Er, yeah, so... one of the items I totally don't need that I was thinking about picking up this holiday season is, in fact, an XBox.  It was on a pretty good deal (expiring Monday) but, you know, since I'd missed an even better deal, I was going back and forth on it.

Went out for Chinese food today, and mentioned the dilemma to my friend (who understood, as she was experiencing the same thing -- only it was about a $3 price increase for some skeins of yarn).  When I picked up my fortune cookie, I said, "Oh great fortune cookie, tell me whether I should buy the XBox."

The fortune cookie was empty.

I figured the fortune cookie wanted nothing of this decision.  My friend really wanted to know what the fortune cookie had to say about the XBox question, so asked the waiter for another cookie.  He gave us three more.  I picked one, opened it, and read:

"Happy events will take place shortly in your home."

The Worst Thing About Black Friday

Well, no... the worst thing about Black Friday would be people pepper spraying each other, or getting robbed in the parking lots, or trampling other people.  Dudes.  It's an XBox.  Get over it.

The worst thing about Black Friday for me, however, is when I find something I want to buy and discover it was on a really good sale two days ago.  Don't get me wrong -- I'm not talking about a doorbuster or an Amazon lightning deal, or some such other situation where they only had a couple dozen (or hundred) available, and you had to brave pepper spraying lunatics to get one.  I'm talking about a perfectly good on-sale-for-a-couple-days price.  Which I missed.  And now, while the item may be listing for a decent price, I don't want to pull the trigger on it because I could have got it for less the other day, and who really knows if it will go on sale again next week?

In other words, I'm not making my buying decisions based on whether I'd be getting good value for my money right now ... but on the fact that I could have gotten better value for my money the other day, and the speculation that the better value price may reappear.  Because, I mean, I'd feel like a jackass if I ordered something today and it went cheaper again tomorrow.

And I'm talking significant money here.  Lord knows, in the great big "Time = Money" calculation (the calculation that had people camped out in front of my local Best Buy from the night before Thanksgiving), my time is worth more than five or ten bucks.  But there are two, er, big ticket items I've been looking seriously at.  If I hit the right prices, I can get both of them for about $500 total.  (Doorbusters would have put the combination at $350, but let's not go there.)  Worst case scenario prices put the combination at $700 or more.  And since these are what you might call luxury items -- you know, I don't really need either one -- my brain can justify spending $500 for the pair, but I balk at anything over that, because then it's, you know, real money.

In the meantime, I've still got another, I don't know, ten or fifteen things to buy for other people for the holidays, but the process of:  (1)  actually figuring out that I do want these things; (2) hunting down the cheapest current prices; and (3) figuring how much I'm actually willing to spend on this has taken up most of my weekend.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pics from Capitoline Museum

These last pics are from the Capitoline Museum. 

This one is mandatory -- anyone going to Rome is required to take a picture of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf.  I'm not sure they let you out of the country without this shot, but I didn't want to risk it.

Here is the really cool statue of Marcus Aurelius, now displayed inside the museum what 'cause the elements were damaging it.

Here's ruins of some temple they found when they were building this room in which to house the statue.  Check Marcus Aurelius in the background -- it's like, right there, so they made it part of a lower level of the museum.

Here's the ancient law thing I mentioned:

And, finally, the statute of the Dying Gaul.  I mentioned earlier that I thought this one might be known only through the Roman copy, and it turns out I remembered correctly on that one.  So, I mean, this is the only way we know this statue.  Two things I remember about it from Art History class -- (1) we're talking about the Hellenistic period here, where the emotional intensity of the moment made its way into the physicality of the work -- so, I mean, check out the guy's hair for crying out loud; and (2) the Gaul was an enemy -- this is one of the earlier times in art history where we see sympathy for the enemy; he's not portrayed as weak or a monster, he's a man wounded in battle, dying with dignity.

Pics of Old Stuff From Rome

Colosseum!  I went to the Colosseum!

And saw the Constantine Arch.

And used my zoom on the Arch.  Dude, check out the relief on that thing!

I saw lots of ruins.  Even got my picture taken in front of them.

This one is interesting.  Look straight across behind me.  That's Palantine Hill.  Now look below me, where the helicopters and planes are.  Apply imagination.  That's a large round track (stretching out in both directions behind me).  Now imagine chariot races there.  Conclusion:  Circus Maximus.  (Now used, apparently, for temporary displays of aircraft.)

Pics from Rome

The Pantheon.  OMG(s?), I so loved the Pantheon.

The dome on this thing just resonated with me in a crazy geometrical perfection sort of way.  I mean, yeah, sure, here's the dome on St. Peter's, which has its own undeniable appeal:

But they're something like 1500 years apart.  (I think I incorrectly posted the Pantheon was 1500 years old -- it's more like 1500 years before St. Peter's -- it dates to 126 A.D.  Come to think of it, that's exactly 1500 years ahead of St. Peter's, which was consecrated in 1626.)  I digress.  The point is:  Look at that thing!  Look at the architectural ballsiness involved in putting a great big hole at the top of your dome.  Not to mention the way that the shadows fall is a huge part of the beauty of the pattern in the dome.  Man, I loves me the Pantheon.

Since I mentioned St. Peter's, this would be a good time to throw in the shot from the front:

(I'm too close to see the dome here.)

Also, Michelangelo's Pieta was there.  Photos don't really do it justice, but, y'know, I was there, I saw it, I snapped a picture.

What else?  Me, Rome, Trevi Fountain:

(Before I left, everyone warned me about all the pickpockets in Rome.  Please note the way I'm holding my bag -- it isn't the big blue thing -- that's the jacket of the guy walking below me.  It's the tiny brown bag clutched under my arm with my forearm on the zipper.  My philosophy is this:  when you're dealing with pickpockets (as opposed to, say, armed robbers), all you have to do is be a less attractive target than the guy next to you.  I walked all over Rome with my purse clutched that way.  Took a little effort to relax my arm at the end of the day, but I'm happy to say I left Rome with all my stuff.)

Pics from Monaco

OK, this first one isn't from Monaco.  It's from somewhere on Corsica.  I don't know where, exactly.  But it's me!  I'm there!  (Wherever there is.)

OK, I think I mentioned the oceanography museum in Monaco and how they displayed their jellyfish in a crazy expensive tank with cool lighting that almost made the whole thing seem neon.  And my picture didn't do it justice, but they still look like awfully pretty jellyfish.

And, then there was the automotive museum -- sorry, not museum, private collection, as this sign explained:

Not sure why, exactly, but I took a ton of pictures of the cars.  Here's ... some of them.

And before we go off to the pictures from Rome, here's another one of those Bonifacio shots.  Not my favorite, but still pretty impressive:

Pics from Cruise

I just love holiday weekends.  Gives me time to get caught up on things, like going through the 275 photos on my camera's memory card, and figuring out which ones are worth sharing with you guys.  

So, let's cut to the chase.  The reason why I take 275 photos is because I'll have no idea as to which ones are the good ones.  I had anticipated the best photo being a sunset shot I took from the top of the Capitoline Museum in Rome -- there was a flock of birds in the sky and thought they'd make a great shot.  Not so much.  It looks like this:

On the other hand, the very bestest shot turned out to be one from Bonifacio (on Corsica).  I'd had hopes for this, actually -- I took it six different ways, but this was by far the best one:

I hadn't really expected the surface in front of the camera (I think it was just the top of a very old guard rail) to make the photo -- I left it out of most versions -- but, honestly, I think the texture makes the picture somehow.  Ah, the things I'm learning about photography.

So, let's start this photo essay in Nice.  I didn't see much OF Nice, but there were some really spectacular views of the Mediterranean from there.  Here are a couple.

The first, obviously, is from a height.  I think that's when I climbed to the top of the castley thingy -- a mistake which made my knees hurt pretty much until I'd gotten to Rome.  But you have to admit, the view is gorgeous.

The second picture is from a little area I accidentally found when I was looking for steps down to the port (so I could get to my cruise ship).  The steps instead led down to this little rocky area, where a bunch of people were sitting (I found an angle that excluded them) and eating lunch.

(It was time to leave when I saw a big old rat get up and scurry between those rocks, probably looking for leftovers.  At the time, I wondered whether this was going to be some sort of metaphor for France -- lovely on top and rat-infested beneath.  As it turns out, I still haven't seen enough of France to know for sure.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Something Cool and Something Cooler

Cool:  I saw a performance of a new Broadway musical called Bonnie & Clyde.  The actress who usually plays Bonnie was out, and of her two understudies, the one that went on today is usually a swing.  Which means she doesn't have a regular role in the show.  Which means -- as excitedly pointed out by two of her friends sitting behind me -- that this was her very firstest time performing any role on a Broadway stage.  And here she was, playing the lead (on relatively little notice, and -- I'm guessing -- not a whole ton of rehearsal).  She was good, too -- had a lovely singing voice and good characterization.  Congratulations on your Broadway debut, Cassie Okenka.

(The show itself wasn't particularly engaging.  I think the problem was that, the way it was set up, you didn't particularly identify with Bonnie and/or Clyde, and you didn't particularly want them to get caught/shot either.  So, I mean, the songs were good and the acting was terrific, but I wasn't particularly involved in the show.  Thank goodness for Cassie over there -- I was much more interested in seeing whether she could pull it off than in seeing what happened to Bonnie and Clyde.)

Cooler:  And I saw The Book of Mormon.  Which was, like, instantly engaging from the first moment, when I was completely involved in the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham and their mission to Uganda.  I don't really see much point in analyzing something that's just so damn entertaining -- but when you think about it, it's quite remarkable how the script simultaneously mocks Mormon beliefs (and religion on the whole) while still somehow connecting with what it is that's good and valuable about faith.  But, mostly, it was really f*cking funny.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not Wolverine...

Anonymous (hi there) inquired if I was going to see Hugh Jackman's show.  I was tempted, but I'd already seen it when he did an out-of-town tryout in San Francisco.  (Really!  I did!)  And there was so much stuff I still hadn't seen, it seemed better to go for something new.

So, no Wolverine last night.

Instead:  Harry Potter.

Now, obviously, Daniel Radcliffe did not take the lead in a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the money.  This is his second Broadway show (his first having been Equus), and in this one, he's called upon to sing and dance and be charming and generally be a leading man.  And he pulls it off.  From clips I'd seen on television, I had my doubts, but he was genuinely good.  (Indeed, he might have improved a bit from earlier performances.)  Actually, he had a bit of a misstep in the big dance number -- he either slipped or got slightly lost in the choreography; it went by so fast, I couldn't be sure.  And I was happy to see him make that mistake.  Because from what I'd seen from him in Equus, that never would have happened before.  His performance was competent, but safe.  And with that sort of safety, you never miss a step, but you also miss out on the opportunities for real greatness -- you miss out on getting lost in the play and letting the moment take you someplace unexpected.  So I was pleased that he's loosened up enough to the point where a tiny mistake is allowed to happen.  It means he's not so caught up in making it perfect that he misses the chance to make it wonderful.

This is also that fun time of year when shows compete to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.  Most shows have collection buckets; some sell off autographed merchandise.  At the end of How to Succeed... Radcliffe makes the BC/EFA sales pitch.  He is accompanied by John Laroquette (who won a Tony for playing the company boss).  Radcliffe takes out a card and reads, in his own voice, a list of all the good things BC/EFA does.  Laroquette waits a beat, then backs up in shock, saying, "You're BRITISH?!!"  (Much audience laughter.)  Radcliffe then explains they're going to auction off the signature bowtie he's wearing on stage.  He and Laroquette will autograph it and personalize it (and pose for pictures...).  Bidding starts at an embarrassingly low $50, and is soon about $1000.

I got a great seat for this show.  It was the last seat available, a cancellation, sixth row center orchestra.  I'm seated more or less in the middle of a bidding war, as people right behind me are fighting it out with people a few rows in front.

(When they're around $3000, a voice bids from somewhere in the back.  Laroquette asks the bidder to stand up, as they can't see him.  The bidder is finally identified as sitting in the mezzanine.  Laroquette quips that he could probably have afforded a better seat.)

The bowtie finally goes for FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS, a price which makes the dude sitting next to me comment, "I guess we've been sitting with the one percent."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Vacation (again?)

OK, yes, I'm on vacation again.  And yes, I just got back from vacation.

The only thing I can say in my defense was that I'd actually planned this one -- a quick cheap long weekend in New York -- long before I'd found out about that really cheap cruise I just got back from.

But this is a pretty standard vacation for me: go to New York, see many shows.

I'm trying a new hotel this time -- Yotel.  It's described as a "pod" hotel, which is pretty funny, because my "cabin" seems roomier than plenty other rooms I've had in New York in regular old hotels.  (Here, there is actually room for a tiny desk next to the bed!)  So far, I quite like it.  I'd like it better if it was on 9th Ave. rather than 10th, but it's still doable.  I also get the feeling that they really need to keep it pristine; it'll suck if the clean white surfaces start looking less clean.

I would be telling you something about the show I saw tonight, but apparently, my mother doesn't read her text messages.  She's been challenged to guess what I saw, so I can't go and spoil it all until she takes up the challenge.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Good Day to Call Your Bank

I called my bank today to question a questionable interest charge on my credit card.

(I missed a payment by a day a couple months ago.  I paid the interest charge without question the next month, because I stupidly deserved it.  Did not understand why there was an interest charge the month after that, however, as I'd paid the previous statement in full on time.)

The customer service rep immediately explained it.  Then she immediately offered to waive it.

Then she immediately offered to waive the interest fee from last month as well.

I don't know how many people are taking part in the whole "dump your bank and join a credit union" thing this weekend, but if today's call is any indication, there is definitely a friendliness and eagerness to help coming from my bank which wasn't necessarily there the last time I called.

So, thank you, protestors.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Long Slog Home

I've been home for a few days now, and have barely recovered.  

We start at the hotel.  They'd booked a car for me (50 Euros, no more, no less) and wanted to have it arrive at 7:20 a.m. -- this would, if traffic behaved, get me to the airport an hour and a half before my flight.  I told them to kick it up to 7:00, just to be safe.  (Probably should have gone earlier, but my desire for sleep was overwhelming.)

So, at 7:00 a.m., I'm in the hotel lobby with my stuff.  The driver is not.

Time passes.  More time passes.  The guys at the hotel desk keep telling me he'll be here "in a minute" -- I do not think this phrase means what they think it means.  He eventually shows up around 7:15.  I'm more or less livid, but would have been frantic if he'd been this late on a 7:20 pick-up.

We head to the airport.  A few minutes in, I notice the meter is running -- did he do a flag drop on a fixed rate trip?  I say, "This is 50 Euro, right?" and he turns off the meter.

(Aside:  Did anyone try to pick my pocket in Italy?  No.  Did anyone try to rip me off?  Yes.  In my two days in Rome, I caught two different vendors short-changing me.  Then again, there was also that merchant on Corsica who refused to accept my friend's coinage because it was Italian money rather than French.  Dude, they're EURO -- it doesn't matter where the coins were minted.  That's what a unified currency is.  I can't count that as ripping off, though, just being a dick.)

So, as we approach the airport, my cabbie asks me what airline.  Alitalia.  He asks if my destination is international; it is.  He says all Alitalia international flights leave from Terminal One (of the five-terminal airport).  He dumps me at Terminal One, takes his 50 Euro, and disappears into the day.  I go into Terminal One and do not see my flight on the board.  Odd.  I go the Alitalia check-in machine and try to check in for my flight.  It finds the reservation but will not let me check in.  Odd again.

You see this coming.  I was on about four hours sleep and did not.

The Alitalia rep comes by and asks if she can help.  I explain the problem.  She tells me the flight to London is out of Terminal Three.

Crappity, crap, crap, crap.

I grab my luggage and start booking down the sidewalk in front of the terminals.  As I round the corner into Terminal Three, it dawns on me that this little unnecessary burst of energy has pretty much used up my supply.  I'm on fumes now, and I haven't even boarded the plane.

I check in (the line is very long -- then I realize I'm in the wrong line; my line is shorter, but by the time I clear it, I'm running out of time).  I am checked in for my flight from Rome to Heathrow, but not from Heathrow to L.A.  I had noticed some British Airways check-in counters nearby; since BA was operating my Heathrow flight, I thought maybe I could get a boarding card from them.  But nobody was at their counters, and time was tight.

Went through security.  (The Rome airport has a separate security line for flights going to five destinations:  the U.S., Russia, the UK, Israel and ... something else I forgot.  In any event, this was clearly the "high security" line.)  We had to take all electronics out of our bags, but they didn't seem to care about liquids.

Made it into the terminal.  There was a place where they were selling food.  I needed food.  Badly.  There were three workers behind the counter; each one was handing food to people.  I got in the middle line.  I knew what I wanted and had the change in my hand to pay for it.  I got to the front of the line (ten minutes later) and the woman said something in Italian to me.  I did not understand.  She changed to English and said "pay first" and pointed me to the line on the left.  During this exchange four more people joined the line on the left.  I would never get my food before my flight.  Dammit.

Went to the gate.  A minute or two after I got there, they started boarding.  It was general boarding -- no concern about rows or anything.  This was one of those airports where you have to take a little bus out to the plane, and they were just filling busses and sending them on their way.  

The bus ride must have taken 20 minutes.  I shit you not.  I couldn't believe we were still in the airport; thought maybe we'd drive this thing to Calais and take a boat to England.

Finally got on the plane.  I had a center seat.  Was sitting next to some Italian dude.

Lance had commented, the other day, that there are no douchey guys in Italy -- when you see a guy dressed all in black with red shoes and expensive red sunglasses in the States, he's a douche; but when you see him in Italy, he's just Italian.  I was pretty much sitting next to this guy.

Best thing I can say about Alitalia:  Instead of a bag of peanuts, it's a bag with biscotti in it.  I downed that right quick.

Arrived at Heathrow; took the shuttle bus to terminal five; checked in...

OK, there were two reasons I chose British Air for this flight.  One:  little personal video screens in coach, so I could watch whatever I want; Two:  they have a "premium economy" section I intended to attempt to upgrade to.  I was unable to book an upgrade in advance (because I'd booked my ticket on Orbitz, rather than with the airline directly), so I was stuck with trying this at the airport.  Bad news:  No premium economy seats left.  Worse news:  Only center seats left.

I had a couple hours in Terminal 5 to prepare for ten hours cramped into a center seat on a transatlantic jet.  I approached my next two hours as an attempt to buy anything I could that would make the following ten hours survivable.  Mostly food items.  I got a peking duck wrap, a scone and cream, some Jaffa cakes, and a bag of pretzels.  I really wanted one of those overpriced airport massage places, but there wasn't one in Terminal 5.  Someone had really missed out on a business opportunity there, I thought.  You had thousands of people killing time between flights (often hours); you could make a killing with one of them overpriced airport massage places.

Terminal 5 has a billion gates, several are in satellite terminals -- B and C.  Signs tell you not to go these terminals until your flight is announced.  About an hour before my flight, it is announced that it leaves from Gate section B.  I take the little train over to section B.  Where I immediately discover the overpriced airport massage place.  Man, if any shop needed to be in the main terminal ...  I note their menu of services includes hour-long treatments.  How can anyone get an hou-rlong massage if they don't go to section B until their flight is called?  I'm telling you, the existence of this shop in section B is something I am seriously going to remember the next time I have three hours to kill in Terminal 5.  Between center-seat flights.

So, I've got about 30 minutes before boarding -- at least I can get a ten minute quickie neck massage.  Er, no, I can't.  There's one lady working the shop; her partner just went on break, and she is giving some guy a pedicure.  She'll be done in ten minutes, and there's a woman in line in front of me who is planning a 20-minute service.  Well, poop.  (At least I've saved the fifteen pounds, but still.)

Board the flight.  I am seated between a woman (on the aisle on my right) and a dude (in the center seat on my left) who are both Dutch.  Throughout the flight, they have many animated conversations in their native language over me.  I would have gladly traded seats with one of them (even the dude in the other center seat) to avoid this, but I hadn't realized this would be an issue early enough in the flight to offer.  

Full marks, at least, for BA's personal video screens, which had way more selection than American's did (on the flight over) and which let you start and stop the movies whenever you wanted.  (AA ran each movie on a schedule, so you'd have to wait until the film on channel 12 was restarting.)  I watched three movies (Paul, Green Lantern, and, X-Men First Class)  I am certain I must have slept on the plane, as I drifted off during the big ol' fight scenes in the latter two films.  (Did not mind as I'd see X-Men before, and Green Lantern was pretty stupid.)

The flight landed at 7:05 p.m.  I did not clear Customs and Immigration until 8:05 p.m.  I noted that, as a general rule, I wait longer at Immigration in the U.S. than in any foreign country I've visited.  Customs guy was a hoot, though.

Customs guy:  Anything to declare?
Me:  No.
Customs guy:  It says here you've got "food."
Me:  Yeah.  Chocolates, olive spread, honey ...
Customs guy:  You got any apples, oranges--
Me:  No, no.  Nothing like that.
Customs guy:  (continuing) -- meats, sausages, dope, dung, soil--
Me:  Wait a minute.  Did you just say dope?

What with Halloween traffic and all, I hit the door at 9 p.m. Pacific Time, some 22 hours after I'd started in Rome.  There was no food in the house.  But there was candy!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rome Bonus Post -- Never Send a Jew to Buy a Rosary

So, a friend had requested "some Holy Water blessed by the Pope or something like that."  This seemed like a reasonable request.  Heck, the little font thingie near the door of St. Peter's has perfectly good Holy Water in it free for the touching (or doing whatever one does with Holy Water ... Rudy told me to dip my fingers in it and joked that it wouldn't turn me Catholic or anything) -- certainly Pope-blessed Holy Water should be around and available for purchase.


Rudy gave me about 20 minutes ("but take as long as you want") to make my Vatican purchases, and aimed me toward the right shop for all my Vatican needs -- there's the Vatican bookstore (largely limited to books) which is right next to the Vatican post office (which is not limited to postal items, but has all sorts of religious items).  So, I go into the Vatican post office, where lots and lots of people are filling out post cards to mail them from the smallest country in the world.  Stamps are also available for purchase -- many in sets.  I gave some consideration to the set with images of the Popemobile through the years -- but if you were expecting some Holy Water, I'm thinking a stamp of the Popemobile may be a let-down.  So, I approach the cases with religious items.  If there's no holy water, maybe there's a medal of a saint or something.

Saint medals are surprisingly limited.  In fact (and I'm guessing this is largely a result of market demand), there's way more stuff commemorating the beatification of John Paul II.  I do not recall my friend being a huge devotee of the former Pope (not that she had anything against him or anything -- I just don't think she'd get much comfort from a medallion with his face on it).

If we omit the crazy expensive stuff, I'm left with three or so cases of crucifixes, rosaries, and crosses.  It is around now that I realize I'm totally out of my depth.  I haven't experienced this particular feeling since the first time I set foot in an REI (to buy someone a topo map) even though I'd never been on a hike (or camping, or skiing, or kayaking, or anything else that REI sells stuff for).  I was walking around with a look on my face that clearly said, "I have no idea what to do in here," only, in this case, it was compounded by, "and I don't speak Italian, either."

My first problem was that, not having prepared for this shopping experience, and not having had any cause to ever meet a rosary up close, I had no idea as to which of the pretty crosses on beaded chains were rosaries and which were just, y'know, crosses on chains (e.g. bracelets or necklaces).  OK, yes, some were some that I could clearly identify as rosary beads, but others were somewhat ambiguous to me.  And I had no idea if the friend in question even uses (or would use) a rosary -- heck, I know my friends' faiths as a sort of general manner; I rarely get into the details of how they actually pray.  It's sort of personal.

Fifteen minutes have ticked away, and I've walked up and down the cases a couple dozen times, and was no closer to a decision.  Those popemobile stamps were starting to look good.  I was tempted to find someone who spoke English in there and ask for advice, but I couldn't quite figure out the question I would ask ("Hi, what's a good reasonably-priced gift for a not incredibly devout Catholic who had been hoping for something like Holy water?") and didn't want to offend.  I mean, I definitely got the vibe that I was the only non-Christian in the place, and one wants to be respectful.

Ten minutes later, I walked out, tightly clutching a bag with a pretty silver cross in it.

Rome, Day Two

So, as planned, I spent today with Lance, the American dude on his way back from Iraq.

It went really, really well. Actually, a lot better than planned in a lot of ways.

Rudy had driven my be a lot of stuff in Rome – for instance, the ruins and a building that goes by the name of “the wedding cake.” With Lance, I had the opportunity to actually stand next to all this stuff and take pictures (and, bonus, now that Rudy had given me all the background info, I was able to call up bits and pieces of it to share with Lance – it also helped me get a better handle on things when I was seeing them for a second time and trying to repeat some of the info). We started off looking at a bunch of the ruins (there are so many pictures, it will take me hours to go through them all). Lance saw what looked like a really pretty building way up the hill and wanted to get a good look at it. I didn’t quite realize it until we were there, but it was “the wedding cake.”

On the way up the hill, we got an awesome view of the Constantine Arch. I’d seen that the other day from the Colosseum, but that was down on the ground level – seeing it from a staircase gave us a much better view of the frieze on it. Then, once we reached the top of the winding stairs, we were in an open piazza which looked vaguely familiar. Yes! I recognized the statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback in the center. Rudy had driven me by this piazza – we were on a road at the bottom of the main stairs leading up to it – and told me about the statue. (Basically, someone had lied and said it was a statue of Constantine, the first Roman Emporer to convert to Christianity. For this reason, the Church did not destroy the statue as they’d destroyed other Roman stuff.) The statue is in the center of a plaza with buildings on three sides (the main stairs are on the fourth). Two of those buildings make up a museum. I know this because it said “Museo” on it. The museum had two other words I recognized, on a banner announcing a temporary exhibit: “Michelangelo” and “Leonardo.” These were good words to see on a museum. I made a note of the name of the place, and Lance and I made our way down the main stairs and around the corner to the “wedding cake” building.

Am still not entirely clear what the wedding cake is – it’s labelled as something like the ministry of history and culture, but that isn’t the name it goes by now. We went up the stairs on the front of this thing (there were a lot of stairs today – I happily report no knee issues at all), at which point I remembered Rudy had said there was a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here. We hit the top just in time to see the changing of the guard. We went inside the building (in Lance’s continuing quest to get to the top of the damn thing for the view) – there were lots of flags inside; they looked like regimental flags, and I guessed we were in a military museum of some sort. There also looked like there was a second Tomb of the Unknown on the inside.

We never quite made it to the top. There was a scenic elevator, for which there was a fee, so we decided to take a pass on it, but we got some lovely pictures from a terrace.

We had a map. Looking at the map, it seemed like we weren’t all that far from the Trevi fountain, so I suggested we walk over there. Walked Lance over to the Trevi fountain and got some more pictures. On our way over, I noticed a sign that said Pantheon, and realized that wasn’t all that far from things either. I wanted to show that to Lance – I’d been talking it up the other day – and, actually, I really wanted to give it a second look. So, after lunch (yummy lasagna), we walked on over to the Pantheon. Way more crowded than it had been yesterday, but still as impressive.
We then decided to head back to the hotel, but first stopped at an internet cafe. While there, I googled the museum in question and discovered it was hosting a temporary exhibition of upwards of 60 drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo – the largest collection ever exhibited together. I was all over this. Admission was 6 Euro, but admission to the exhibit AND the museum was 12 Euro. I did some further research and decided that, yes, I wanted to see the museum, too.

Now, Lance had arrived her from Iraq with a backpack and the clothes on his back, so he was in need of some clothes shopping. We split up for a few hours – he hit the shops and I hit the museum.

I want to be very clear that, as the whole fate thing goes, I never would have known about this exhibition if I hadn’t spent the day with Lance. I’d looked at a magazine listing museums and exhibitions and it didn’t mention this (it was an October magazine and this exhibition had just started on the 27th). And I would not have walked up to this plaza if Lance hadn’t wanted to walk to the top of the wedding cake. So, totally, even though Lance didn’t end up going to the museum, it’s indirectly due to him that I ended up there.

And the exhibition was awesome. No photos were allowed in there, and the little weasels were not selling a catalog of it. (I checked. For the record, this is the first time in my life that I wanted to buy the catalog for a museum exhibit.) I’ve probably mentioned that, as a general rule, I like artifacts more than art – manuscript rooms are often my favorite parts of museums, and I love seeing drafts written in the hand of famous authors. And this here exhibit was about 66 examples of, basically, the place where art and artifact meet. I was standing with no more than six inches (and some museum glass) between my face and a piece of paper on which Leonardo sketched a design of a machine, or Michelangelo sketched a study of a face. These were terrific from the “I dig manuscripts” point of view, but there was also some impressive art going on in some of them (Michelangelo’s “Cleopatra,” for instance). And it was such a great opportunity to see the difference between the two artists – see them both sketch a man’s profile; Leonardo’s is a perfectly accurate depiction of how the man appears, while Michelangelo’s is idealized and captures the emotion of the moment. See them both sketch a building; Leonardo’s is a mathematically-precise blueprint, Michelangelo’s looks pleasing. (And both were huge fans of the ancient classical ideal.) They were each dancing around perfection, but in completely different ways.

Having given that exhibit about an hour, I had another hour to spend in the rest of the museum, which also held plenty of treats. I discovered that the statue of Marcus Aurelius we had seen in the courtyard was a copy – the original was inside the museum (having been harmed by years of exposure to the elements), and was much more impressive. (In this case, the copy didn’t compare. Hell, the color alone was amazing on the original.)

Rudy had taught me that most of current Rome is built on top of ancient Rome (the latter having been at the level of the river Tiber). This was conveniently demonstrated by the museum itself – when doing some excavation near the impressive room where Marcus Aurelius is displayed, they discovered that the museum itself is located on the site of an ancient Roman temple, so they just opened the floor for us to get a good look at it. Thus art and architecture happily meet here.

Various other cool things – some unexpected (like a tablet indicating the powers of the emporer – the damn thing contained what I can only call an early “supremacy clause” – my inner lawyer geek was impressed) and some anticipated (the Greek statue – although a Roman copy – known as the “Dying Gaul”... I’d studied it in college and loved seeing it up close; also got a camera angle on it I’ve never seen before)

(Interesting note about Roman copies – Rudy, who is otherwise a 100% awesome tour guide – tried to pass off a Roman copy as an original Greek statue in the Vatican, until I called him on it (in most instances, a Roman copy is crazy easy to spot). He gave an explanation about how when something is this old, you can safely call the Roman copy an “original” artistic piece. This may be legit, although I had specifically asked if this was an original Greek statue. In any event, I pretty much gave notice that I’m not falling for that.) ANYWAY, the Dying Gaul that they have at the museum is a Roman copy – I’ll have to look it up, but this may be one of those statues that we ONLY know through its Roman copies – and the piece was getting a lot of attention in the museum. I’d given Rudy a certain amount of shit for trying to pass off a Roman copy as a Greek original in the Vatican, but now that I was looking at Dying Gaul up close, I didn’t entirely care that it wasn’t the original. In retrospect, I gave Rudy a pass. While I hadn’t appreciated what he was saying at the time, I sort of got it while I was looking at the Dying Gaul. This was the Dying Gaul – even though it was a Roman copy of the Greek original, it was a copy made by someone trying to exactly copy the original, and he’d done a job that convincingly lasted for nearly two centuries. That’s good enough (and may be the only chance I’ll get).

Lance and I met for dinner (I am happy to report that Italian hot chocolate is just as good as nice, thick French hot chocolate) and said our goodbyes. (I have to pack.) I’m very glad I had a friend to share Rome with today.

Early start for the airport tomorrow – I’ll be home soon.