Sunday, April 28, 2013

What a down-and-up week / I'm In Canada!

So this last week has been somewhere between "less than great" and "completely s****y", but this week is promising.

Starting last Wednesday -- or maybe Tuesday evening if you want to be picky -- I came down with one of the nastier bugs I've had in the past decade (I think it ranks #2)...while I was in a hotel in Columbus. Being sick is miserable. Being sick on the road is worse. Being sick on the road and having to drive yourself three hours home doesn't help things either. I have a feeling the effects of whatever I had were magnified by my stress lately (snowed under with work + lots of looming travel + not sleeping well + grandfather's health + ...) until I reached a breaking point.

I think I'm still suffering with some of the tailing ends of that bug -- but at least I can stand up and generally function in public without feeling light headed. But while lying in bed on Friday -- semicoherent and Rachel nursing me -- I got a call from my mom. Not a good sign. My grandfather -- the same grandfather I visited last week to celebrate his 86th birthday and because he wasn't doing very well -- passed after a 7 year battle with cancer. I can't say it was surprising (The Wikipedia article calls out median survival as 3-4 years or 5-7 years "with advanced treatments" and it was really tough to see him last week) but it was still not the news I was hoping for.

Anyway, on Saturday thought feeling a smidge better, in the interest of my health and the health of those around me I unfortunately had to wave off both  a CIM student recital that had sounded very interesting and the Cleveland Orchestra's Saturday evening performance -- not an easy decision but in hindsight not regretted at all.

This morning I woke up and -- with Rachel serving as escort -- made it to the airport shortly after 7 am. I've flown "enough" (~255 times based on my data*) but this was my first time using my passport, or leaving the country so for some reason I found myself exceptionally nervous.

The reward, though, was an International Premier Access boarding pass for a "premium" cabin (for some reason the same seat on a domestic flight is called "First Class" yet on an international flight it becomes "Business Class") -- thus granting access to the hallowed halls of the United Club (formerly Red Carpet Club or President's Club) at no charge. I've been curious about the clubs, but always too cheap to pony up on my own and too guilt-ridden to expense it to the company.

But clearing security in Cleveland I didn't feel like I had enough time to make it to the club, enjoy, and get back to the gate in time for my flight. The flight from Cleveland to Denver was uneventful, and on arriving in Denver -- since I had to walk past the club to get to my connecting gate, I figured "What the heck".

Oh, what a glorious space -- free food, plenty of comfortable seating, and almost frighteningly quiet. Plus free WiFi. I almost talked myself into the $475/year fee before I had to leave to board the flight to Canada.

If you really want to -- click for larger.

Arriving in Canada was a weird experience -- off the plane and on to beautiful glass-enclosed jetways (which are prohibited by a particularly irrational fire safety law in the US) and into a never ending segregated corridor, before dropping in the immigration lobby. I will say, that while the walk seemed interminable it was pleasant -- including some almost natural-history-museum-seeming settings (This video captures the experience fairy well -- including the sound effects in the hall)

As we snaked back and forth, back and forth through a line that would make Disneyland proud I was nervous -- my first experience with Customs & Immigration, with a "Business and Pleasure" answer, and a coworker who answered the "Business" question incorrectly and wound up denied entry and on Canada's Terrorist Watch List.

I approached the window "Business or Pleasure" he asked while scanning the declaration form that we had been given on the aircraft -- "Both" I answered.

"Can you elaborate on the nature of your business?". Ah crap. But I did, and he stamped my card and said to have a nice day. After an interminable wait for my luggage, I walked to the "green" exit (as I wasn't above any of my duty free allowances) handed the office the same form, who took it without even looking and I walked past... and into free Canadian air.

It was a little anti-climatic. From there I picked up my rental car from Hertz (somehow a Toyota Crayola turned into a Jeep SUV, but I won't complain) and used the GPS feature on my phone to find my way to my fist ("Pleasure") hotel for this trip...

"In 600 meters, turn right..."

WTF? How far is that? Ok I know Canadians (and the rest of the civilized world) use metric -- and I got used to matching speed limit signs to the speedometer, even if it's  a foreign language. But I can't believe my own phone would betray me and suddenly start spouting off distances that I don't fluently comprehend. By the time I had done the mental conversion to a distance my brain could cope with it was time to turn.

In any event I made it to the hotel, and as I conclude this post I'm about ready to crawl under the covers and spend my first night outside of the United States. My first night after 10,576 consecutive nights in the US. I suppose it's about time -- and just in the nick of time to do it before my 29th birthday. And in honor of my wanderlust grandfather.
My grandfather inspecting my travel map last week.
"One traveler to another" he said.

*- It's "extremely accurate" (date, time, flight number, and specific aircraft and seat) for flights since 2005ish, "very accurate" (at least date and flight number) for flights since 2000ish, and "a general representation" for all flights before -- not all of my early flights are logged

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sometimes the little thins make a huge difference

I've had a rough week -- beyond being stressed by the volume of work that needs to be accomplished in a frighteningly short amount of time, and more importantly, my Grandfather in Northern Michigan is not doing so well.

For as long as I can remember he's been physically and intellectually strong, and with an engineer's mind we share a lot in common, including a love of travel (he prefers to drive; I prefer to fly), even after a multiple myeloma diagnosis a few years ago he was still in relatively good condition. But over the past few months his condition has deteriorated alarmingly.

My mother flew out from Portland to visit him this weekend and I took Friday to make the 7-hour/450-mile drive up to see both my mom and my grandfather; it was tough to see him so incapacitated. And even tougher to leave -- but it was necessary as I need to be in Columbus (where I am now) for a project Monday morning.

While my grandfather would have no problems with it, putting in another 470 miles and 7 hours to get from Michigan to Columbus in two days is a little more than my ideal tolerance for driving, and combined with an emotionally draining few days...well... There were more than a few times I thought about just pulling off the road and taking a nap.

But I made it to the hotel -- the Hampton Inn Columbus/Dublin -- and checked in. I've stayed at this property before -- most recently about two months ago -- but I didn't recognize the gentleman behind the counter. As he checked me in he mentioned "Stephanie said to say Hi."

That lifted my spirits a little -- as a mid-grade road warrior I tend to feel like I fall into obscurity on the road. Despite the scripted, almost robotic, greetings that are doled out as part of the "standard" Hilton HHonors Gold greeting, I don't get the sense of human-to-human connection.

I remember Stephanie well from my last visit -- actually her genuine hospitality is probably 90% of the reason I came back to this property rather than "shopping around" a bit. I also remember asking the "crazy question" about the keycards.

(Aside) You see: Hampton Inn has, for as long as I've been a "road warrior", issued a unique keycard for each state ("Welcome To ________"). The first Hampton I visit in each state, I keep one of the key cards -- working towards my unwritten goal of "Collecting all 50". I was somewhat alarmed on my last visit to note that instead of the "Welcome to Ohio" keycard, there was a new card advertising USA Today. Not because I needed an Ohio card, but rather because I was looking forward to adding Arizona to my collection with my first trip to that state. Aside from graciously answering my question and offering to find an Ohio card if I needed one, I had largely forgotten the specific question.

But as I trundled up to my room, I noticed a piece of paper in with my key card. On it, the hand-written note:

"Hey! Welcome back! So apparently the keys you had last time were a promo. I believe we are all going back to the state keys. See you tomorrow! Stephanie"

It sounds a little goofy, but I have to say it instantly buoyed my spirits -- rather than being a faceless reservation number or a nameless person wandering the halls of a global corporation I felt like I was truly someone's guest, not to mention that I was tremendously impressed that despite the number of travelers seen on any given day she remembered both me and my question from my last visit -- almost exactly two months ago.

It was a simple -- but extremely nice -- end to a very long weekend.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cleveland Orchestra: Franz Welser-Most Conducts Dvorak's Sixth

Shepherd: Tuolome (World Premiere Performances)
Shostakovitch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (Frank Peter Zimmerman, violin)
Dvorak: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60
Franz Welser-Most, conductor.

Today is my last day in Cleveland before departing on the "Two (if) by land" legs of my travel schedule. Since I won't be in Cleveland on Saturday I wanted to sneak in a concert before I left.

The first piece on the program was the world premiere of Sean Shepherd's Tuolume influenced by Ansel Adams photographs of the eponymous location in Central California not far from where I was born. While I'm not a fan of most new music and this was no exception, I did enjoy it significantly more than his last endeavor presented by the Orchestra, and particularly in the first movement I had the sensation of slowly panning across a particularly vivid landscape photograph.

Coming to the Orchestra straight from a violin lesson wedged into my schedule (yes, despite reprehensible lack of practice time, I am still attempting to learn the instrument) my appreciation for the talents of the Orchestra and Mr. Zimmerman particularly were heightened in Shostakovitch's Violin Concerto -- it is nowhere near as effortless as they or he make it look. The first movement is dark and somber, as if the soloist is wandering alone on the dark and scary streets of a large and unfamiliar city. The second movement -- my favorite from the piece -- released the tension had had a fun, nervous energy in the solo violin that was responded to by the Orchestra. The third movement wasn't as dark as the first, but was a bit more mournful with an extraordinarily impassioned solo.

While Shostakovitch is one of my favorite composers, Dvorak slightly edges him out and so I was delighted that the concert ended with his Symphony No. 6. While the first two movements were delightful, to my ear they didn't sound particularly Dvorak-esque, clearly coming earlier in his career than the "From the New World" (Symphony No. 9) for which he is best known. The third movement, though featured the dance rhythms that are part of the composer's signature and one of the aspects I find most compelling in his music.

It's also worth noting that last week's Carmina Burana was still the talk of the hall with not a bad opinion to be heard.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Canada, Here I Come! (Or, where do I live again?)

I love traveling.

At the top of my list is a visit to a new city, in the middle of the list is a repeat visit to a far-off city where I've established local knowledge, and at the end of the list are repeat visits to closer destinations.

Driven (Red) and Flown (Black) Travel through 4/2013. (Click for larger version)
Looking back to the beginning of the month, and through the middle of June I'll touch on each of those. My first-time trip to Phoenix was fun, and next week I'm driving to Northern Michigan for a quick visit with my grandparents before driving down for a three-day visit to Columbus.

After that, I'm back in Cleveland for four and a half days before embarking on a week-long trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, back in Cleveland for a week, then in Northern California (Chico, more-or-less) for a week, back in Cleveland for a bit and back to Rochester, Minnesota for a quick visit.

Columbus is somewhat ho-hum -- not my favorite city, but at least it's not Ann Arbor -- Chico is new destination but in an area I'm passably familiar with (and in In-N-Out Burger territory), Rochester is always fun, with a relaxed client and the Marvin's Burger at Newt's, my favorite burger outside of In-N-Out territory.  

But Vancouver is both exciting and a little nerve-wracking at the same time. It's a new client, which always has be a little (too) on-guard, it's a new city, and essentially a new country. My first "new country". I've had a passport since March 25th 2010, but as yet the furthest it has moved is from one corner of my home-office desk to the other as I occasionally thumb through it and wistfully think of all of the places I want to see.

Yes, I've technically been to Canada twice, the extent of both visits being quick trips into Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Both while I was in my mid-teens--at the latest. And as I recall, both were on Canadian national holidays where everything was closed. To the best of my recollection, my feet have never actually touched Canadian soil.

The client doesn't really have me that worried, but I'm in hyperdrive worrying about all of the mostly trivial details.
-  Customs and Immigration? How does it work? What do I need to say or not say to avoid raising any red flags? How do I answer the "Business or Pleasure" question since I'll be doing both? Does my laptop fall within the definition of "Business or commercial equipment" that the declaration card interrogates for?

- How much, and what kind, of documentation do I need for the business portion of my trip to avoid problems at the border?

- Local customs: I know the US and Canada are physically close but culturally considerably different. How do I avoid unintentionally offending the locals? I actually find that sort of knowledge very interesting [along with this old Northwest Airlines commercial]-- for example, In Japan the way you handle a person's business card is seen as an extension of the way you treat the person (and that makes a lot of sense to me). Even tipping is an area I'm foggy about.

- Money: Is Credit Card acceptance in Canada as broad as it is in the US? Do I Canadian currency--or rather how much Canadian currency should I carry?

- Do I really want to rent a car, or should I plan on public transit/taxis?

- With the client, how forceful should I be regarding our "typical" policies and procedures, developed entirely for the US market, versus how much should I yield to their expectations. In other words, where's the fine balance between being a push-over and a jerk?

- What should I do as my two-and-a-half days as a tourist?

- Perhaps most ominously, what should I be worried about that I'm not currently worrying about?

I suspect I'm over-thinking this by at least an order of magnitude -- but I'm about to enter foreign territory, figuratively and literally, and I want to be prepared.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cleveland Orchestra: Carl Orff's Carmina Burana

J.S. Bach: Concerto in A major for oboe d'amore and orchestra, BVW 1055 (Robert Walters, oboe d'amore)
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana, cantata for solo voices, choruses and orchestra (Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Robert Porco, director; Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus, Ann Usher, director; Rebecca Nelsen, soprano; Nicholas Pahn, tenor; Stephen Powell, baritone)
James Feddeck, conductor.

After a week in Arizona preempted my attendance at last week's concert for some reason it felt like I had been absent for a particularly long time when I returned to Severance Hall tonight. I, did, however have the good fortune of having pre-purchased my ticket. Others approaching the, box office, not so fortunate were turned away with even the Standing Room only section completely sold out.

Still others in the lobby could be overheard remarking that that this was the second ticket they had purchased for this weekend's concerts as it warranted a second hearing.

Indeed, it was an amazing concert -- and for the first time, I found myself humming the epic chorus as I was leaving the hall.

The appetizer was a delightful and quick Concerto in A major -- the first time the Cleveland Orchestra has performed this bit of Bach. Orchestra member Robert Walters took the duties of soloist with the oboe d'amore. The first movement was a bit fanciful and floating, the second movement provided a darker, more punctuated scene -- almost as if slowly walking through a cemetery and pausing at each grave marker. The third movement had a sunnier disposition but was more grounded than the first movement.

The main course was unequivocally Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. While the Orchestra and it's chorus typically work well together, tonight's performance featured a seamless interface between the two, easily the most impressive choral performance I've heard. While I haven't been the biggest fan of James Feddeck's conducting in the past, tonight he handled the Orchestra and the Chorus as the precision instruments they are, just as cleanly accelerating to near light-speed as decelerating to a more contemplative speed.

Like my impression of Mr. Feddeck's conducting, I likewise have not often cared for the Orchestra's choice of soloists, but tonight I was thrilled, especially with the substantial presence Mr. Powell added as baritone soloist. Messrs Pahn and Powell injected some visual humor into the performance's Part Two, marking the first time I can recall hearing a substantial swath of the audience laughing during a performance. I also particularly enjoyed the instrumental Dance from the Uf dem Anger ("On the Lawn") section of Part One.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus had crystal clear projection from the loudest-of-louds to the quietest-of-quiet sections making it easily the easiest time I've had following the text and translation in the program.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Checking in from Phoenix, Dinner in LA

I'm sitting out the Cleveland Orchestra concerts of this weekend -- partially because I'm not a fan of Mitsuko Uchida, but more importantly, because I just got back from a week on the road.

Sunday evening saw me flying to Phoenix via Houston -- where due to weather everything went a little crooked (the net result was both my inbound flight and my connection were delayed; for a little while there was talk of possibly diverting to Amarillo due to low fuel).   Being Easter, I checked in to the hotel three hours later than expected and sans the In-N-Out that I had been craving.

Monday morning I awoke to this glorious sunrise view from my hotel bed. (The tranquil feeling was soon dismissed by the sounds of lawnmowers on the golf course, immediately followed by the golf starter on a booming public address system, but c'est la vie... I would have had to have actually gained consciousness sooner than later anyway)

Room 5011 - Embassy Suites Phoenix/Scottsdale
Although my first time in Phoenix and my first visit to this particular campus, I was actually visiting one of my favorite clients. (For better or worse, I think I'm now one of the few people who has actually visited all three of their primary sites -- Rochester, Minnesota; Jacksonville, Florida; Phoenix/Scottsdale Arizona). The sign at the entrance to campus leaves no doubt that I was in the right place:

Guess who? Guess where?
Note the cactus in the background. They were everywhere.
Easing things a bit, my primary contact at this campus is actually a recent transferee from Rochester with whom I had worked on some projects up there. The days were full, but not particularly stressful and the whether was spectacular for the week I was in town -- only starting to get really warm towards the end of the week.

Unfortunately long days and a 3-hour time difference didn't leave much room during the week for sight-seeing, but as the project wound down, I had a little bit of time to sneak in a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West campus.

Taliesin West was Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and still serves as the winter home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the headquarters of the FLW Foundation. The tour, at $32 is a little steep, but a requirement to see the site.

Don, our guide, was particularly relaxed but covered a ton of information about the history of the property (starting with the fact that it was purchased for $12.50 an acre) and the architecture of the site, making this one more enjoyable than many of the "school tour/hit you over the head" guides I've had in the past. As a result the 90-minute tour flew by.

While I took many pictures on the tour, none of them really adequately encompass the entire setting (you really need to be there). Though I thought these two, taken from essentially the same location, provide an interesting contrast:

Some of the never-ending maintenance required on the studio building
Raw Desert!

At the conclusion of the tour, Don asked how many people had been to Falling Water. Of the 30 or so in the room, I was the only one who raised his hand [Rachel and I visited just over a year ago]. Don impressed the importance of visiting that site, and mentioned that it was with the much-needed money from that commission that Frank Lloyd Wright purchased a few hundred acres of land in the desert... for $12.50 an acre. Talk about bringing it full-circle.

Leaving Taliesin West I checked into my second hotel for this trip -- my theory was that it would be closer to the airport. In reality, I'm not sure that that was true or that it mattered. On the road leading to the hotel, though I found a warning sign that I can't say I've seen before, and I actually walked about a half mile back to take a picture of it...
Alas, no horses -- wild or otherwise -- were seen on this trip, but with the view, it was easy to imagine encountering wildlife

The next day it was time to head home. When I booked the trip, one of my options was a long connection in Los Angeles. Given that my dad lives about half an hour from LAX I called and asked if he was going to be in town and wanted to meet for dinner. Score.

Having only had In-N-Out five times over the course of five days it was still an option, but also having also been curious about the restaurant in the Theme Building on site at LAX, and with Mary being not a huge In-N-Out fan, that route was chosen instead.

While the food and service were somewhat less than thrilling, Encounter -- the aforementioned restaurant -- offers an amazing view of the activity at LAX, particularly, as it seems, at sunset.

Dinner and margarita finished, my dad and Mary walked me back to Terminal 6 where I passed through security for the second time that day, and boarded my red-eye flight back to Cleveland.