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!