maybe I’ll just rent a car instead

A decade ago when I was working at the Alley Theatre, we sponsored a breakfast event for our corporate donors. Larry Kellner, then-CEO of Houston-based Continental Airlines, was the speaker. The company’s slogan was “Work hard, fly right,” and Continental was being awarded a number of honors, including Most Admired Global Airline and Most Admired U.S. Airline by Fortune magazine.

Kellner told the inspiring story of how Continental turned around mediocre performance and rose to the top of a competitive market through employee incentives. Employees were rewarded when planes left on time, bags made it to their destination and customers were happy. So instead of just one white dude at the top of the food chain grabbing all the money, employees across the organization had incentive to work together and do a great job. Which they did.

It was a pretty simple formula: Honor your obligations, and satisfy your customers.

Then things changed. And not just in the airline industry.

The story that broke yesterday about the doctor being manhandled and dragged off a United flight (R.I.P. Continental) spread like wildfire–and is still burning. There’s the disturbing video shot by a fellow passenger, which makes the situation more “real” than if this had been an anecdote shared by a couple of people on Twitter. But it’s more than that. Disturbing videos get passed around on social media all day, every day.

What many people are reacting to is the naked display of how much corporations are in charge and what little concern they have for their customers. We the people haven’t been in control for a long time, but now it’s becoming less of a secret that’s chuckled about in boardrooms and more of a, “If you don’t eat this poopoo ‘voluntarily,’ we’ll force it down your throat.”

Just check out the United CEO’s tone-deaf response. He started with some Newspeak (changing “bloodying and dragging a passenger by his wrists” to “re-accommodating” the passenger) and has since begun victim blaming. There’s even a story making the rounds now about some misdeeds in the doctor’s past. As if something he did in 2004 excuses his treatment yesterday.

This is what deregulation and monopolies are buying us. Getting dragged, half-conscious and bloody, down the narrow aisle of an airplane while our shirts ride up and our pasts get mined for embarrassing information.

Guess I need to start doing some work on my flabby core muscles.

going home again

The day before we
The day before we left to go home for Christmas, Jean, James’ mom, came to the end of her nine-month battle with cancer. She was still young, vibrant and feisty, so this was a huge blow. Jean used to send me a mother’s day card from Stella the rat dog every year, and she always remembered dates like our anniversary or the day my brother died. Her house was full of things she made with her hands–from paintings on the wall to ingenious inventions to deal with the minor irritations of life (like a lost remote). We shared a lot of laughs over the years, including after the ill-fated whale watching trip where I spent the entire time puking into the Pacific. I’m so glad she was able to visit us out here in 2014 and wish she’d been able to make the second trip we’d been talking about.
When we left
When we left in our rented mini van to make the three-day drive to Houston, we knew it was possible this soul wouldn’t be making the return trip with us. She’d been declining for a few months, and she was in pretty bad shape as we set off. Dali died on the shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice and the day before Jean’s funeral. She’d been with us for almost 13 years, and we think she was a year old when we got her. Not a bad run for a crazy dog with two different-colored eyes and a bit of an attitude. She had many nicknames, but a favorite was “Cooj” (rhymes with Baton Rouge, short for Cujo because sometimes she liked to bite us).
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We broke the drive up like this: Pacific Grove to Blythe, CA (just inside the border with AZ) –> Blythe to Van Horn, TX –> Van Horn to Houston. After fighting our way through the gridlock that is the western half of Southern California, we expected smooth sailing across the desert with just a few semis to keep us company. But CalTrans decided to do a little road work on the Saturday before the Christmas holiday, and it took us two hours to go seven miles. I considered using this random port-a-potty in the median–I could have easily done my business and caught up with James and the van walking at a casual pace–but I was a bit afraid of using an interstate terlet in the middle of the desert as night is falling.
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Van Horn, Texas is just a blip of a town in the moonscape that is West Texas. But it has a super cool, old school (but renovated) hotel with a great restaurant. This is the sister hotel to Hotel Paisano in Marfa, and they share remarkable physical similarities. The hotel in Marfa is a bit cooler because the rooms have patios with fireplaces in them. This place just has a view of the railroad tracks, empty lots and a gas station. But the rooms are nice, the lobby is beautiful and the chicken fried steak with jalapeño gravy is pretty hard to beat.
While in Houston
While in Houston, we had the chance to check out a few new places. This is Lei Low, a “rum and tiki lounge” in the northern end of the Heights and just a short walk from the house we rented for our stay. I had a drink with an umbrella in it that was tasty and not overly sweet. The drink, not the umbrella. I didn’t taste the umbrella. We also had really amazing brisket at Pinkerton’s Barbecue and a delicious breakfast (twice) at Morningstar–both in the Heights. When we lived in the Heights, dining options were Andy’s, Someburger and King Biscuit. The area is an embarrassment of dining riches now, and I wish we’d had more time to try more places.
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After a few days in Houston, we headed up the country to see my family, stuff ourselves with my mother’s nonpareil cooking and drink all my dad’s booze. My nephew and niece, almost 8 and 6.5, are at that great age where they’re smart and fun to talk to but aren’t too cool to hang with the old people. I was thrilled to see Molly reading real, live, 3-D books and watch Rowan build intricate Lego creations instead of being buried in electronic devices, staring and swiping like zombies. They both have great senses of humor and a surprising handle on absurdity.
Here's a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) camera we gave her for Christmas.
Here’s a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) instamatic camera we gave her for Christmas. She took her photography very seriously and captured some seriously great shots. She also learned a lesson about angles to avoid (like not shooting up toward people’s faces/double chins).
My car is
The two times we’ve driven back to Texas since the move, we’ve rented a mini van. Our cars are nine and 15 years old, both on the small side, so the van provides lots of room for dogs and luggage and the confidence we’ll actually get from A to B and back to A without mechanical difficulties. It was nice driving a brand new vehicle for a couple of weeks, but I was happy to get back to my no-computer-display, no-warning-when-a-car-is-in-your-blindspot, stick-shift Mazda. I can’t get behind this no key thing. Pushing a button to start a car, then turning a knob to put it in gear makes for a completely unsatisfying driving experience. On our long drive, James and I talked a lot about automated cars and how in the somewhat near future a kid will be talking to her grandmother about road trips and will be incredulous–“You mean you had to steer the car and make it go by pressing your foot on a pedal? For hours? How did you pay attention? How could you be off (insert relevant social media tool) that long?” And the grandmother will think longingly of a more simple time when you had to balance your intake of caffeine with truck stop availability so you didn’t consider using a port-a-potty in the median of the interstate in the middle of the desert as night is falling.

Links
Hotel El Capitan
Lei Low
Pinkerton’s Barbecue
Morningstar

don’t be a tourist

James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. On weekends, traffic makes it almost impassable, which really sucks for the poor bastards who live along the road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can't handle the traffic.
James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can’t handle the traffic.

A newborn bison was euthanized Monday because a couple of tourists in Yellowstone thought it would be a good idea to give the little feller a ride in their warm SUV (it was cold outside), causing the mom and rest of the herd to later reject it.

Tourists reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail are behaving so badly, the park is considering moving the end point to something a little less Instagram-ready in hopes of preserving nature.

A tourist was gored by a bison in Yellowstone while posing for a selfie just a few feet away from it. And a group of tourists who own a clothing store in Canada were just charged with violating Yellowstone’s rules for going off trail with their cameras to capture themselves near a beautiful spring. (Yellowstone seems to make tourists crazy. Or stupid.)

Last year, selfie deaths outpaced shark attacks for number of fatalities.

Heavy tourism is causing major damage to beautiful places around the world.

In California, Muir Woods has gotten so crowded the National Park Service has asked tourists to stop coming.

Key word for all these stories: tourists. Not travelers. Tourists. Tourists are people who bang and clang their way into a situation with no regard for where they are. Instead of Hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and socks + sandals, today’s annoying tourists are identified by the smartphones blocking their view. They’ll do anything for a great selfie or epic vacation pic. Going off trail. Getting too close to wild animals. Walking past numerous signs warning of danger or imploring them to respect nature. Thinking the rules of good behavior are for all those other people, people who aren’t as special as they are.

The biggest problem? Everyone thinks they’re special.

We see it every time we head to Big Sur. Tourists are crammed into every turnout or darting across the road without looking, many even leaving their cars partially on the highway while they glance at the breathtaking view then quickly turn their backs on it to take a picture of their stupid faces.

If you manage to find a turnout with room for your car, don’t look down when you get out. Since Big Sur is very rustic, there are few bathrooms to be had. So intrepid tourists are just letting ‘er rip in the turnouts, leaving their soiled toilet paper (probably napkins from the McDonald’s they had on the way down) on the ground along with their waste.

Here in the Monterey Bay, tourists in kayaks keep getting too close to wildlife, routinely trying to lure otters onto their vessels so they can take a picture. “Getting close to the locals!” the caption will say. Thumbs up, asshole.

As a glance to the right of this post might suggest, I take a lot of pictures that I then share on Instagram. I love being in a beautiful place or seeing something funny and sharing it with my family and friends. And I enjoy being able to look back through my posts to be reminded of the good times or mundane moments I chose to capture.

So I understand why tourists want to get that shot with the wind in their hair and the Bixby Bridge in the background. I get why they want to go off-trail in Muir Woods to find a green, quiet spot away from all the other tourists. I’m sure a bison that’s small enough to pick up and put in your car is incredibly cute (and makes for an awesome Facebook post). But in the quest to document how amazing these places are, these places are being ruined.

This isn’t just handwringing or pearl-clutching. There are demonstrable bad results from ill-behaved tourists. Emergency vehicles are having a hard time navigating side roads in Big Sur because tourists have literally blocked them with their shittily parked cars. On my favorite trail, tourists who don’t want to do the hard work of descending down the steep, sandy path keep walking in the grass on the sides of it, causing trail creep. In some places, the trail has grown as wide as a road instead of being as wide as your shoulders. Tourists are driving back roads and setting up camp where they please, leaving piles of poop and smoldering fires in their wake. Guess they think their moms are going to clean up after them?

The world needs more travelers and fewer tourists. Staying on the trail doesn’t mean you’re that trail’s bitch–it means you respect nature and want to preserve it for other people to enjoy long after the glow from your potentially awesome off-trail selfie has faded. It means if there’s no parking at the place you’d planned to stop, you continue adventuring on down the road–you don’t double-park with your rental car hanging its ass out on the highway. It means you need to stay at your hotel and drink coffee until you’ve done your morning business, you don’t drop trou in a turnout and leave a mess for the next person who comes along.

It means picking up your trash, not having fires when there’s a burn ban, letting wild animals stay wild, not climbing up or down something you aren’t capable of getting back down/up without having to be rescued, turning down your iTunes when you’re on a trail other people are using and realizing that everyone is special–thus, no one is special. We’re all hurtling through space on the same rock.

Let us be travelers, not tourists.