Sunday, September 12, 2021

Remembering the Lists of My Life: Beautiful Sights

Decades ago I made a list of the ten most beautiful sights I had ever seen. They were so impressive that even though the list got lost, I was, over a few days, able to reconstruct the list. I posted them on Facebook one-a-day for ten days starting on 9/2/2021 but in no particular order.

Below is the list starting with my first post on 9/2/2021.


I once made a list of the ten most beautiful sights I had ever seen. We didn’t have cameras in our phones so I had to take a mental snapshot of moments when the locale, the weather and the lighting came together to create an unforgettable image. No exotic location was required. The first I remember was out my kitchen window when I lived in Connecticut. The sky was clear, the leaves were off the trees and there was a light coating of snow on the ground. The full moon made the white birch tree with a double trunk glow. I don’t think a camera could have done the scene justice.


Item two on my list of the ten most beautiful sights I have ever seen. (In no particular order.) In my mind, I think the train stopped but, in fact, I think I just snapped a mental picture. On train from Oslo to Bergen, Norway. I guess above the tree line. Wide, gradual and snow-covered hill climbing to a gray sky. Not a mark on the snow. Near the hilltop a gray fence also climbing at an angle an artist might choose. Monotone except for the dot of red. A skier standing by the fence. A minute later and the smooth surface of the untouched snow would be gone. But, I got my mental snapshot. Better, I suspect, than an actual photo.


Item three on my list of the ten most beautiful sights I have ever seen. (In no particular order.) This one is easy to visualize and probably should be a video (not photo) memory. Lightning bolts in the desert outside Tucson on a dark night. Why I was driving on a back road outside of Tucson late at night, I have no idea.


A lot of people say they’ve experienced number 4 on my list of the ten most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, but I was close to fifty when I stepped into a clear, moonless night on St Agnes, one of the Isles of Scilly, and was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of the night sky. I’d watched the sky from islands along the US’s East Coast and deserts in the West, but I never had a glimmer of what I saw that night. I stopped dead, grabbed my friend’s arm and exclaimed (I don’t usually exclaim) “Oh My God!” I hope to see this sight again if I can visit the islands 28 miles off the SW tip of England in the right part of the lunar cycle and catch a clear night. I don’t remember anything else in my life stopping me dead in my tracks.


I am still working through my list of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Day 5, sight 5. I posted about this one before on tax day. Leona Helmsley was ordered to start her prison term for tax evasion on April 15, 1992. Her husband, Harry, owner of the Empire State Building, protested by keeping the lights on the Building dark. Lit only by the light of an almost-full moon, the building looked gorgeous - especially to anyone walking east on 33rd Street to get their taxes to the main post office before midnight. That’s what I heard!


Number 6 on list of ten most beautiful sights (in no particular order). This one is different because I’ve seen it more than once - mostly when driving southwest on interstates between Boston and Philadelphia. The pitch black silhouettes of leafless trees against a bright pink sky at sunset. When I was into needlework, I saw a lot of patterns honoring this phenomenon but none of them did the sight justice.


Day 7. Sight 7. PA 23 runs through Valley Forge Park. Going east you go through the woody, hilly part. Then, the road runs along a ridge with hills sloping off to the right. I never realized that I was looking at a series of valleys until early one morning when a heavy mist wove it’s way through them. It was like looking down at the clouds. I’ve driven that road more times than I can count but I never saw anything like that sight again.


Beautiful sight number 8. I have no idea why I was in London in April, but a street of white Victorian townhouses In Kensington that I had walked down many times in winter was transformed by trees covered with white flowers. Most of the petals were still on the branches but enough had fallen that they laid a white carpet down the sidewalk. Then, a gentle breeze created a shower of white petals. The pink and purple blooms on other blocks were gorgeous but the white wonderland was magical.


Sight 9. A great view of the New York skyline provided the only compensation for hundreds of hours on the New Jersey Turnpike. No view was better than one I caught on a day sometime between 1973 and 2001 when I was driving south at sunset and the twin towers of the World Trade center, painted an orangish-gold by the setting sun, shone against the blue sky. Valerie Silver Ellis, a former colleague I quote often, usually when talking about advice I should have followed, was 46 years old when she went to work on the the 104th floor of the North Tower on a Tuesday morning like any other twenty years ago today. The memory of the beautiful vision from the turnpike is bittersweet.


Beautiful Sight 10 of 10. The novel, The Ice Storm, was set on a road I lived on in Connecticut but I don’t recall ever experiencing an ice storm there. The one I recall was near my parents’ last home in Pennsylvania. The road at the end of our street curved past a big stone house sitting back on a wide lawn crossed by a stream split into two sections by a waterfall. And, trees. Lots and lots of trees. When the ice storm hit, the lawn turned silver, the waterfall froze and the trees were coated with ice that sparkled in the sunlight. From what I can see on a drive-by, everything is now gone.

In thinking over the decades since I made the list, I could only think of one sight I would add to the list.  I always thought that those photos of huge moons hanging over a scene such as the New York skyline were fake, products of Photoshop. However, one night on a New Jersey Transit train leaving New York, I looked out the window and realized they were real. An unbelievably big moon had just climbed into view over New York. The sight was not fake.

I've had a long dry spell without seeing unforgettable sights. I am not sure the problem is a change in my travel or in my vision. I need to get out and about and hope that I am lucky to encounter more unforgettable moments and wise enough to see them when I do.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Fifty by my fifties - states that is

I always knew that I would get to all fifty states. I might not have been born to travel but I was definitely raised to.

I come from a family that celebrated the first hotel room I ever stayed in as the first step in one of the great accomplishments of my life. (For the record it was Room 1410 at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey.) I did not record all subsequent room numbers or even hotels. But this story is not about hotels. This is about states.

For many years of my life, I had only been to mid-Atlantic states. I lived in Pennsylvania, went to the New Jersey Shore for the summer, and took day trips to New York. The first time I flew, my mother took me to Washington DC--not a state. I really got off to a slow start. Delaware to visit my parents' friends in Wilmington and to take a ride when they opened the Cape May Lewes Ferry. I was heading off to college and had been to a measly four states.

I didn't start racking up my state count until, at the age of 21, I got my own car. I added Connecticut visiting friends but I was still only driving through New Jersey and New York to get there. (5) Several drives to visit my brother who lived in Marco Island Florida netted me Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Things were picking up, but only along I-95. (11) Then, I drove to Arizona, adding eight more. Ohio. Indiana. Illinois. Iowa. Nebraska. Colorado. New Mexico. Arizona. (19) And, I took side trips to California and Nevada. (21) Inexplicably, I returned to Pennsylvania via the same route along Route 80 losing the opportunity to add all the I70 states. I don't know what I was thinking.

When my brother moved to New England I netted Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. (25) I was halfway there. Maine remained elusive for many more years although I was often within an hour of its border. I'd like to know why I took my eye off the ball.

Sometime during that time I flew to Hawaii on vacation and started acquiring the second half of the states. (26)

A cross-country drive with a friend in 1975 filled in some gaps. Oddly, Utah and Missouri. How we missed Kansas, I don't know. But we did, leaving me with (28) and some hard-to-fill gaps in my state count.

Heavy-duty acquisitions started in 1980 with a job as a traveling trainer. My territory was the southern US. Suddenly, I was adding states to my list every week. Texas. Oklahoma. Louisiana. Alabama. Mississippi. Tennessee. Kentucky (and not just because the Cincinnati airport is in Kentucky). I did not get to go to West Virginia but a couple of day trips from my home in Washington DC resolved that issue. (36) But others remained.

The challenging thing about Michigan is that it is not on the way to most other states. Michigan became my 37th state with a plane trip to Kalamazoo for a conference. I've been back to Detroit but, despite driving by it many times, I have never actually driven into Michigan.

Conferences were a boon to raising my total. Even a meeting in Winnepeg Manitoba helped. Three of us state-seekers rented a car and drove south to have dinner in Minnesota and after-dinner drinks in North Dakota. After a previous conference in Chicago, a couple of us figured we were so close to South Dakota why take a flight and hop on over? We rented a car and took a drive that got me not only South Dakota, but Wyoming and Montana. (42)

During this time Eastern Airlines introduced an unlimited travel fare. You could fly anywhere for three weeks but you couldn't go home. This led to conversations in the hotel van at the Atlanta airport (the Eastern hub) that sounded like this. I had a meeting in Denver on Friday and I have to be in Albuquerque on Monday, so I thought I'd go to Bermuda for the weekend.

I used that pass to pick up Washington State (43) but mainly I used it to visit friends. Again, with 7 states still in play, what was I thinking?

You would think I would get Washington and Oregon at the same time, but no. I met a friend in Oregon on a separate trip. Not sure how I got there but most like courtesy of Eastern Airlines. (44)

Desperate to get Kansas, I once drove from Denver about fifty miles into the state, went through a drive-thru restaurant and drove back. Later I questioned if this was a legitimate score. My feet hadn't touched the ground. At a conference a few years later in Kansas City, Missouri, I located another state-seeker and we drove into Kansas City, Kansas for dinner and a thorough tour of the city.

I cannot recall the first time I got Wisconsin. I spent a year in Chicago, so I can't imagine I didn't go to a state that was within commuting distance. I simply can't recall but I definitely remember going to the MLB All-Star Game there in 2002, However, I am sure it was not my first visit. It's coming to me. I had visited friends there before. Perhaps back in the Eastern Airlines days. All is a bit hazy but I know I stayed overnight.

I know Arkansas was my forty-seventh state (47) because I recall sending a postcard that said simply 47. I could have gotten the state much sooner if I had realized all I had to do was drive across the river from Memphis, but I didn't. So, I used a Frequent Flyer. I had originally planned to use the award to go to Maui but a reorganization came up at work and I asked my boss if he thought I should cancel. He did. So I changed my flight to Little Rock. I spent a Sunday there. Tip: if you are going to spend one day in Little Rock, Sunday is probably not the best day. I drove around the state but not much was going on. Reference sign in Window: Saturday Brunch. (The frightening part of this trip was on the flight when the pilot announced that there was fog in Little Rock and that we would be landing in Shreveport. LOUSIANA. I had Louisiana. Luckily the fog lifted.)

I had been so close to Maine, so often but never really understood that. So, one day a group of us took a drive from my brother's house to southern Maine.  Maine never should have been (48).

Years went by and Alaska and Idaho eluded me. Finally, I decided I had to take extreme measures to get them--which I did on a trip to a conference in Seattle.

I thought there was great symmetry that Alaska, our forty-ninth state, was my forty-ninth state. (49) I had to fly to Seattle for a conference and somehow figured out how to add a stop in Anchorage for the same price. I stayed overnight and was awake most of it because of the daylight in June. I saw a lot of the state flying in and out. I didn't feel cheated.

My brother was on a ski trip once and called me repeatedly. He kept driving back and forth to resorts in Montana and Washington through Idaho. I can't seem to get out of Idaho. He knew it was one of my two remaining states.  It did not appear that I was going to go on a ski trip to Idaho, so on my trip to Seattle, I took a side trip to Boise. Whew! Finally 50.

I've been back to most states multiple times. I have no "gets" that I feel are in any way iffy. I said I'd get to all fifty states and I did. If the District of Columbia becomes a state, I am covered. I even lived there. If Puerto Rico gets statehood that is a different matter. I should probably go now. Just in case. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Why I won't get to sit next to Conan O'Brien at dinner

UPDATE: I posted about this encounter and was surprised to find that several people felt Conan behaved like an entitled celebrity. I did not see it that way at all. I simply felt he was wandering into a public area and I was the person who alerted him. I found it funny. I felt as if I had slimed him. I took the post down.

Conan O'Brien did his last show on TBS last week and the milestone went unnoticed on my Facebook feed. I think that is because many people of my generation do not like or get his humor. Some actively dislike him. I'll admit some of his bits make me uncomfortable (as intended I am sure) but some make me laugh out loud. 

I recall reading back in the nineties when he got the job at the Late Show that someone, perhaps Lorne Michaels, explained the choice by saying he was the guy you'd want to sit next to at dinner. 

When I heard he would be interviewed at the Kennedy Library, I signed up. I was a little disappointed to be sent to the overflow room. (My fault I lingered over dinner.) He was smart, modest and hilarious. Someone you'd want to sit next to at dinner. 

Before leaving the library, I wandered down the hallway towards the (closed) snack bar where the view of Boston Harbor is the best. At the same time Conan wandered out of the elevator hallway I assume to enjoy the view. Then, he spotted me. I like to think he realized he was wandering into a public area and it was what I represented and not the sight of me that made him recoil. No matter. I don't think I'll get to sit next to him at dinner.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Juicy Fruits - what does the green mean?

They were so innocuous looking. A young man, caucasian, in his twenties. A middle-aged woman, African-American, in her forties. One seated to the left of me. One seated to my right. They never acknowledged each other.  Or did they?

I was spending the day in the Charlotte, North Carolina airport. I suspect I missed a connection from Charlestown, West Virginia. I normally wouldn't plan to spend six hours in the Charlotte airport.  But since I had a layover, I filled the time as I normally would. Eating.

I found a restaurant in the concourse and was seated in a row of tables for two. I sat with my back to the wall facing into the restaurant. When I arrived,  there was a young man seated at the table to my left. I am not sure how much time passed before a woman was seated at the table to my right. They in no way acknowledged each other's presence.

I noticed the man do it first. He took out a box of Juicy Fruits and pulled out a green one. He laid it on the table in front of him.

A few minutes passed, not sure how many, before the woman on my right got out her box of Juicy Fruits. She also pulled out a green one and laid it on the table in front of her. 

First, let me say, that to my knowledge, I had not been in close proximity to any box of Juicy Fruits in years, but when I had been, they had never been positioned as an appetizer. I mean, really. Who eats Juicy Fruits before a meal? Let alone, one Juicy Fruit. Let alone, one green Juicy Fruit.  A green Juicy Fruit is neither fruit nor vegetable.

The three of us ate our meals with zero interaction as far as I could tell. I do not recall if any other Juicy Fruits came into play. I didn't want to know too much (and this was before I watched the Americans). I left first and began a complete tour of the terminal looking for a promotion. Someone had to be giving away free boxes of Juicy Fruits. If they were, I couldn't find them.

I told myself I was being silly. They were probably playing an elaborate game. This was not a real brush with espionage. Or was it?  I  posted about this odd little incident on Facebook but no agents--from the good guys or the bad guys--showed up at my door. Still, I find this a little suspicious. Especially after I watched The Americans.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Mingling with spies in DC

During the late Cold War years when I lived there, the thing about residing and working in the District of Columbia was, even if you couldn't watch the Americans for another twenty-five years, you knew that spycraft was going on all around you. You knew because some of it was obvious and clumsy. I probably would have - and should have - been frightened by the spies I didn't see. (Ref: the Americans) But, I wasn't. Spies were a fact of life. A humorous fact of life.

Everyone knew there was a man sitting in a top-floor window across from the Soviet Embassy. I don't think I am misremembering when I say that he was visible. The way I recall it, he would sit on the window ledge of an open window with a long-lens camera in his hand. I don't think that is accurate except as a visual metaphor - although that technique would certainly have kept spies from going in and out of the front door.

What do I mean by clumsy spycraft? My favorite incident involved a laundry truck. One Sunday night I was taking relatives on a tour of DC at an hour when the streets were not usually crowded with laundry trucks. Nonetheless, we seemed to be encountering the same one repeatedly circling Georgetown. At one point, we were behind the van and followed it as it made a left turn at a speed that allowed the curtains on the back windows to swing open. We could see inside easily. What we saw in the well-lit area was not rows of hanging cleaning or stacks of boxed shirts, but a wall of electronic equipment and a team of men monitoring it. Okay, it might not have been an American spy vehicle and, in a way, I hope it wasn't. I would not want my safety to rely on a bureaucracy sophisticated enough to design state-of-art electronics, but too dumb to install a rod at the bottom of the window in order to keep the curtains from falling open.

Of course, it was possible for one's imagination to run away. Once the Russians killed one of their enemies on the streets of London with a poisoned umbrella tip, waiting on the corner for the light to change became a harrowing experience although I knew of no foreign power that wanted me dead. 

I may have overreacted once on a Sunday stroll through the Kalorama neighborhood, home to many bigwigs and diplomats. As I walked down the street a mailman in uniform came down the path from an impressive house - as I recall the only kind in the area - after making a delivery. He gave me a hello along with big smile. I returned the greeting and passed as he hopped into his truck. I had not even walked another block before it occurred to me that there was no Sunday mail service. I picked up the pace and headed for home along an illogical route all the while keeping an eye out for the mail truck and its assassin driver. He knew I had seen him. He had no choice. He had to kill me.

When I went to work on Monday, I found out that Post Office had started Sunday delivery of Express Mail.

Okay, I saw spies where there were none, but I bet I didn't spot spies where they were. I wish I had seen the Americans before I moved to DC. I would have seen spies everywhere.

NOTE: You had other brushes with espionage in Monte Carlo, Charlotte and London. They are written up separately.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

And then everything looks so normal . . . after the RFK assassination

The other day I was reading an article that mentioned in passing that Andy Williams had been staying in the Kennedy suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in the ballroom below. It occurred to me that I had, at very different times, encountered several people who had been present at that event. I was not. I was starting my summer job that week. I was not at the site until close to twenty years after the assassination. 

I am sure it was sometime in the 1980s that, sitting at a conference dinner in the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, I became amazed that although it was just a ballroom like dozens of others where I sat through after-dinner speeches, it had been the scene of a major event in the history of America in the 1960s. If there was a historical marker, I didn't see it. I was simply sitting at another business event when I looked up and wondered if the lighting fixtures - not fancy enough to call chandeliers - were covered with the same dust on June 5, 1968. When Sirhan Sirhan waited to shoot the winner of the Democratic California primary in the kitchen pantry behind the ballroom where I assume our meals had been prepared. When Robert Kennedy said his last public words, "On to Chicago and let's win there," on the same stage where conference speakers discussed the world's information needs. When Americans had a few moments left before they would need to clarify to which Kennedy assassination they were referring. 

I am not being ridiculous. There was a lot of dust. The room has since been torn down along with the hotel although the lobby lives on in many TV shows and movies.

I never saw Bobby Kennedy. On the day word went around the school cafeteria that he was coming to speak in Broomall, I was interested in cutting class to go. Only problem was none of us from the other side of Philadelphia had any idea where Broomall was. I wasn't upset. I figured I'd have another chance. Of course, I didn't.

The encounter that got me thinking about how many people I had run into who were somehow connected to the RFK assassination was Roosevelt Grier, NFL legend and Kennedy supporter. I stepped into a hotel elevator in New York - I think it was the New York Hilton - and found him leaning against the back wall. He was smiling. I think Rosey Greer was almost always smiling.  

I never speak to celebrities but Rosey spoke to me. For the entire ride. He said what a great day every day was and he hoped I felt the same. He said he felt blessed.  He gave off a contented vibe. I like to think the feeling was contagious. At the time, I don't think I put him together with the assassination. The encounter was so upbeat that I forgot that this was the man who was said to have wrestled the murder weapon away from Sirhan Sirhan.

It wasn't until the movie Mank came out in 2020 that I put Frank Mankiewicz together with the Hollywood Mankiewiczes and with the Robert Kennedy assassination. Memories can get a bit muddled as the years go on and mine did. I know that Frank Mankiewicz, at the time a middle-aged, Caucasian, political advisor, was not often confused with Julian Bond, at the time a dashing, young, African-American civil rights activist. It isn't that I can't keep the two individuals straight. I can't quite get a handle on our interactions. A friend and I were charged with escorting both of them to an event at our college, picking them up at the airport, dining with them, getting them to the lecture on time. I clearly remember Julian Bond in the car. I clearly remember Frank Mankiewicz at dinner. The rest all jumbles together. At far as I know, Julian Bond was not in LA at the time of the assassination, but Frank Mankiewicz announced the death of Robert Kennedy on June 6, 1968.

Of course, Ethel Kennedy was there with her husband. I ran into her with Andy Williams whose presence in LA got me thinking about this "theme." The circumstances were the opposite of the assassination and require some context. My brother used to work in Nassau, a frequent docking locale for the Christina, a yacht owned by Aristotle Onassis who married Jacqueline Kennedy only months after Robert Kennedy's assassination. One evening a friend and I were on the dock when a group of bicyclers swarmed off the boat.  Among them were Ethel Kennedy and Andy Williams. (For the record, the others I recall were William's wife Claudine Longet, Christina Onassis, Mountaineer Jim Whittaker and his wife.) Not exactly meaningful contact. Actually not contact at all.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did not come out to ride bikes that night but I ran into her on other occasions around New York when I lived there. She was present when RFK died.

Even more tenuous connections are two Kennedy children. Robert Kennedy Jr. was in LA with his father. Rory Kennedy was present in the sense that she was expected at the time and born almost six months after his death. I've heard Rory speak. I only ever ran into RFK Jr. in the Stamford train station with his family. The surprising thing about him to me was that he has incredible blue eyes. 

There is nothing significant about these encounters. These coincidences are more like an unpleasant game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. There is nothing magical. If there were, I would have run into George Plimpton and I have no recollection of ever seeing him.  The number of brushes with people who were connected just strikes me as odd.

NOTE:  In fact-checking Julian Bond, you discovered you and he share a birthday.

NOTE: You were exhausted from your second day at your summer job at Home Life on June 5 and went to bed shortly after dinner. You had no idea that there even was a California primary that day. When you woke up you remembered a dream. Robert and Ethel Kennedy were running an ice cream shop in a building that was shaped like a coffin. A windowless brown box on top of a chrome base. The ice cream store was inside the base. The shop was on a hillside without other buildings around. At the time you figured someone had a television on that you could hear and that put thoughts of the Kennedys in your mind. For proof that you were not psychic, see your story about Christopher Reeve.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Cocktail hour with the Kellys

When most kids were collecting bottle tops, I was collecting little paper umbrellas from cocktail lounges. Eventually, the collection wore out and was discarded but the sentimental attachment remains. To this day, I am surprisingly at home in a bar.  Especially for someone who barely drinks. 

Just about any drinking establishment will do, but I do have a preference for a place that stocks paper umbrellas or the 21st century equivalent. Cocktail lounges. Lobby bars. Places with comfortable chairs clustered around low tables. They are my favorites. The kind of place where you linger and the visit is not about alcohol as much as relaxation and conversation. Where you feel at home. At least, I do. Possibly because our living room became a cocktail lounge every afternoon.

My parents were fifties parents. Strong believers in cocktails. Every night when my father got home from work, they would appear in the living room with a large silver tray stocked with cocktails and their favorite hors d'ouevres: cheese and crackers. I say they because they prepared the tray together. There was no hint of the little woman waiting patiently with a cocktail for her hubby returning from the business wars. They might have been fifties parents, but my mother was never a fifties housewife.

Originally, the cocktails arrived in a silver cocktail shaker that might well have been a wedding gift in 1937. Then, they received a lovely silver-trimmed pitcher as a gift. Very elegant. A lovely tradition, until they discovered that Skippy Peanut Butter jars had measurement markers on the side. At that point, the pitcher disappeared to be replaced by two Skippy Peanut Butter jars--one for her, one for him--that held perfectly mixed drinks. 

My mother would have to run to the kitchen occasionally to make sure dinner didn't burn but for the most part the next hour was devoted to conversation. I would hang around sometime, but I don't recall ever interrupting. I did, however, snack from the tray as the two friends chatted over Manhattans (I got the cherries), martinis (I never wanted the olives) and Gibsons (I was thrilled when they switched to cocktail onions). To this day, cheese and crackers are comfort food to me. Cocktail hour was far more important to me in my formative years and as a memory than dinner.

My parents really enjoyed each other's company. They shared a friendship of the type that modern research tells us is so important in a couple. They never ran out of conversation.

My father outlived my mother by less than three years. I don't think I ever realized until this moment how painful cocktail hour must have been for him without his best friend.

NOTE: A little irony. On March 7, 2020 I was lingering after an MWA New York meeting with some friends and told them that was my favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon, sitting around a table, this one in a pubby-like bar, having good conversation. By the next Saturday, no one was hanging out in any bars. Over a year later, I still haven't been able to do that again. I don't miss the drinking. I do miss the conversation. It just isn't the same on Zoom.