Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolutely into the New Year

New Year’s Resolutions are always tricky. I am reminded by my high school friend Gina’s advice of “aim low to avoid disappointment”. Like all good advice, I wish I followed it more often. Instead, I’ve generally focused on tangible tasks (“finish my thesis”) or process-oriented resolutions (“to eat more healthy food” or “to exercise more”). Those ones are easy (well, finishing my thesis wasn’t, but that was due to powers out of my grasp at the end). Generally, you just eat more vegetables, and go for an occasional run, and you feel like you’ve accomplished your task by the end of January. I’ve always felt like I was almost cheating when I made those resolutions.

Due to this darned influenza, I’ve had an entire evening to come up with some good ones. And, needless to say, I am no closer to coming up with some grand, over-arching concept with which to frame my 2008 than I was this morning. There are the obvious ones, but since I do intend to start playing soccer again and possibly joining a swim team, that’s cheating. Same with publishing another paper or two. Turning 30 will happen no matter what I resolve, and taking it with dignity is perhaps so unlikely as to be out of the question and not worth my breath resolving. In general, I’d like to be a nicer and better person – but, again, that shouldn’t require a resolution. It requires me keeping the snark to myself. Which sounds easier than it is. Particularly early in the morning.

And my crowning thought of reducing my carbon footprint seems next to impossible, considering I’m flying to Manaus via Sao Paulo in a week or so. It requires an awful lot of compact fluorescent lights to compensate for that one.

So I give up on the resolutions. When asked, I will lapse to the answer of ‘I couldn’t come up with anything particularly brilliant or witty’. Which is true. Instead I hope to ring in the New Year asleep, allowing my immune system to finish off the last remnants of the flu virus. It gives me the chance to start 2008 well-rested and with a freshly-energized set of antibodies. Free of cheap resolutions and bad hangovers. (And with a lame social life that, really, can only get better... hmmm... there might be a resolution in that...)

Good night, happy new year and all the best,

Holiday Travels (Part II, or How not to spend Christmas… or Why the flu shot doesn’t work…)

Perhaps my title has given away the punch line. The day after I arrived in Rhode Island for my four day, fleeting Christmas visit to the parental units, I started to cough. The next day was Christmas, and I woke up with a full-out flu - the real thing: nasty muscle aches, fever, cough, congestion, headache, the whole nine yards. This all despite a flu shot. There’s also the coincidence that I seem to get sick every time I visit my mother, but I’ll choose to ignore that one...

My state didn’t really affect the Farmer Family Christmas plans – we’re quite devoid of traditions, aside from stockings, my father’s grumblings about the size of the Christmas tree, and late-morning present-opening. But I was unable to make the persimmon pudding cake I had planned on, and my mother had to cook the winter squash, which she’d never done before (she did a very fine job with both recipes. Though I would have added herbs to the squash… but my mother’s lack of fresh herbs and complete absence of garlic from the house is a different matter). More than that, my father was going to be alone in drinking red wine for dinner.

I made it to the living room for the annual stocking and prezzie opening. Highlights? My brother gave my mother a recycled-metal piece of art: a rather clever crab made of old horseshoes, giving no doubt as to the intended species. My brother received numerous books on the coming apocalypse (climate, oil, politics) with the delight and enthusiasm only a cynical lawyer could have on those subjects. My father reserved his usual grinchy comments as he sat on his spiffy new rocking chair. And I couldn’t be happier with a new selection of cookbooks (The Muffin Book was particularly amusing, and the accompanying floppy silicone muffin pan viewed great interest – with slightly rolling eyes, I was obliged to put on my chemist hat and explained that it wouldn’t melt in the oven), novels and the DVD collection of the BBC’s Planet Earth.

I’ll spare the details of five days spent in bed. I read a lot of books. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta was quite excellent – funny, well-written and an interesting commentary on the role of born-again Christians and the American education system (a high school health teacher is forced to teach an abstinence-only curriculum while she battles with the local churches on post-soccer-game prayer).

So I managed to finally get on a plane and home yesterday. Still a little battered from the flu, and frustrated by having to miss the New Year’s festivities, but at least I have a bit of time to come up with appropriate resolutions – one of which will be not to bother with next year’s flu shot…

Holiday Travels (Part I)

(author’s note: this was mostly written on my trip to Rhode Island for Christmas, but finished from my Boulder apartment a week later…)

I read the New York Times Travel section almost daily. It has become part of my lunch-time routine, having (temporarily, I hope) surpassed looking up the latest journal articles on atmospheric chemistry. That, I now deal with in that late-afternoon slump that plagues all post-docs.

But the ability of the NYTimes to crystallize interesting social commentary, new-worthy items, beautiful photographs and good grammar is unparallelled. Due to upcoming travels, I am of course obsessively interested in any mention of Brazil or the Amazon. And due to the sheer amount of flying I seem to do, I am also intrigued by the various articles on the trials-and-tribulations of travellers. There have been a growing number of rants in opinion articles and reader commentary about poor airline service and delayed flights. I'm currently sitting in Chicago airport waiting for a flight that is delayed by over two hours, and, while I get to sit in the luxury of the United lounge, I still had to pay an outrageous sum for a plain tuna sandwich. So the poor people who's flights were not just delayed but outright cancelled have my sympathy.

But, here's where this is going: I noticed a blog-post on the Times by a flight attendant - almost a response to the irate commentary about poor airline service. The FA pointed out that his job was a difficult one, balancing customer courtesy, safety in the face of a post-9/11 world and dealing with the ever-unreasonable demands for more carry-on luggage space. He reminded readers that most other service industries have the luxury of showing an unpleasant customer out the door, but, due to some pesky legalities, that's not possible for airlines. And he reminded readers that everyone can have a bad day or need a few moments of personal time, and unfortunately that's not a luxury for flight attendants. As I read the article, I had to sympathize with the Flight Attendants. It's not their problem that airlines no longer serve meals to Economy class, or that the snacks they hand out are unhealthy and vile, or that the aircraft was delayed and that there's turbulence in the air.

But there was dissent, debate and many, many reader commentaries. It seems that generally people want the service of Singapore Airlines Business Class for Southwest prices. They're fed up with being told that they can't go to the bathroom during mid-flight turbulence, that they don't get meals on short-haul flights (but, really, I remember the airline food from ten years ago. I can't imagine craving the indistinguishable soggy white mess that was either chicken or ravioli and no one could tell which is which.)

So here's my two cents. You get what you pay for - and for an extra $30, you can have extra legroom, and for an extra $300+, you can have an excellent meal and near-horizontality. I agree, the lack of in-flight services on some airlines (like making one pay for headphones) can be obnoxious, but in general, there isn't much anyone I typically talk to (gate agents, flight attendants) can do about it. So why make their lives miserable by berating them?

Economy class travel is pretty phenomenal – it’s cheap (and, from someone with a growing conscience about her carbon footprint, perhaps a little too cheap and easy). And the service is there to keep us safe and sound, not in five-star luxury. That’s for Business Class on Singapore Airlines (or so I hear). Case in point: on my flight back to Colorado from Rhode Island yesterday, the lady four seats over from me stopped breathing. Her neighbour called the Flight Attendants, who couldn’t have been more prompt in getting competent medical attention, and informing the pilot who immediately made arrangements for landing. Within no more than 15 minutes, we had landed in Omaha, NB (a city I don’t really intend to visit again – at least from what I saw in our VERY rapid landing), and shortly thereafter paramedics were on the scene. And we were delayed by no more than 45 minutes in total. Impressive. While some travelers actually had the gall to complain, my thought was that there could have been no better handling of the situation.

In this era of entitlement, we seem to expect the glamorous standards of the 1930's air travel, complete with cocktails and lounging chairs, but for the price of a cut-rate airline. In thinking about my impending 36+ hour trip from Denver to Manaus in January, I did a little web searching. And accidentally came up with a brilliant image: a 1920's poster advertising a trip from the US to Brazil on Pan Am Airlines. The giant slogan over the picture of the twin-engine plane circling the Christ-Redeemer statue: "Only Five Days To Rio". That put things in perspective for me...