October 29, 2008

Give me one good reason to vote for McCain/Palin. Someone. Anyone. Just one.

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One week til the election. Let's talk politics. An acquaintance recently asked (in cyberspace - does anyone still call it cyberspace??) "why do so many smart people support Obama?" - Ummm... I think that question answers itself.
I want to know why people (smart or not) support McCain/Palin. If you are hell-bent on the abortion view and can't see past that one issue, okay, you get to vote along that line. If you are pulling in over $250k and don't want your taxes raised, okay, you've got a better reason to vote republican this year.
So aside from that, why do you support Palin/McCain? I'm curious. Please comment on this post. I want to hear other perspectives. Share.
The Obama/Biden ticket seems obvious to me. Obama's campaign stresses reasons they should get your vote. McCain's message weighs heavy on why you should not vote for Obama. Obama's 1st presidential decision was his running mate - he selected Biden to compliment his skills and experience which can be leveraged running our nation. McCain (after loading up his campaign leadership w/ former lobbyist) selected someone with charisma and a pretty face. Sure, Palin shook up the race, but was a short term pawn to help win the election, not run the USA. She has no useful experience to bring to the white house, she can't even get her hometown newspaper's endorsement for that reason.
"The election, after all is said and done, is not about Sarah Palin, and our sober view is that her running mate, Sen. John McCain, is the wrong choice for president at this critical time for our nation." [Anchorage Daily News, 10/25/2008]
Just look at Obama's endorsements compared to McCain's endorsements, the shear volume is astounding. I'm astounded that this race is even close. After 8 years of Bush-blunders, Colin Powell and I are ready for a change, a positive change, an intelligent change.
Rock on.

October 13, 2008

Getting Back to Nature - Camping in Great Smoky Mountains

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I've been in North Carolina for 18 years sporadically exploring many different pockets of this diverse state. The mountains are an area I've wanted to see more of. So when my brother was planning a family camping trip, I tagged along. Destination: Great Smoky Mountains, Elkmont Campground (technically in TN, barely). Knowing the dynamics of the trip would be tailored to the kids, I grabbed the dog (Little Mo) and we ventured out a night early to literately unplug from everything in Raleigh. No phones, no email, no TV (missed the 1st 2 ALCS Red Sox games!), no showers, no hot water. What they do have is wildlife. The campground had ample warning signs and precautions posted regarding bears. Bears. Yes, this is black bear country. All food, anything with a remotely edible scent, must be left locked in the car. We arrived Wed night, after a long drive through the rain. Fortunately the rain stopped just before I arrived. While setting up camp, Little Mo focused on woods and let out a few low growls. We took a walk to investigate; found nothing. But the kids in a nearby site informed me (in a thick Kentucky hills accent) "There was a coyote in your campsite." Nice. We dined on hot dogs & beans around a camp fire, purged the site of food and crawled into the tent.

Several hours later, I hear a "Ummmf" sound. Is Little Mo dreaming again? No - I see her sitting at full attention, ears up, facing the outside of the tent. I hear it again. "Ummmf". A deep snorting sound. "UMMMF", it is getting louder - and closer. Raccoon?, not a chance. Coyote? No way. I've never heard a bear before, let alone run into one in the wild, but I was 99% sure this was a bear. And it is close, getting closer. Not knowing if this was a 75 lb curious yearling or 400 lb hungry male, I wasn't about to go outside and verify. Little Mo let out a few low growls of her own. Not sure if this would interest or deter the bear, I decided it would be best if we were quiet and still. Fortunately Little Mo was. Fortunately the bear moved on, eventually. After another 15 minutes or so of snorting around the area. The next day some fresh bear dung confirmed it's presence - yes aside from scaring the crap out of me, that bear crapped in my campsite!

So rest of the weekend we kept hoping to see a bear (preferably from the car). Finally, on Saturday after a day trip over to Clingman's Dome as we approached the campground, I spotted a bear in a spot where Little Mo and I walked through a couple days ago. Lighting was poor, but the camera was ready & I captured a few pictures, along with many of the beautiful vistas and foliage.

Black Bear sighting! Little Mo - on bear watch

Little River Touring Cades Cove

Hammock view

September 6, 2008

Election 2008, JibJab style

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Try JibJab Sendables® eCards today!

August 8, 2008

Who's on first? A Mitt Romney Topps baseball card??

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Every summer I pick up a pack of baseball cards - sort of a nod back to childhood memories of collecting and trading cards. The brand to collect was always Topps®. Last weekend I picked up a pack in the checkout line. Later I carefully opened it and with the anticipation of an 8 year old from Boston hoped for a couple Red Sox players. Miguel Tejada, Byung-Hyun Kim (former Sox!), Kevin Millar (another former Sox... getting closer), Jose Baustista, Mitt Romney, Josh Willing... wait a sec, hold on, rewind... Mitt Romney? MITT ROMNEY!?! What the? Mitt Romney of the "GOP" team - in a suit and tie. Mitt Romney? Mitt the Mormon! Is this some kind of joke? Did he play ball? No. At least GW had some MLB connections. Now if I was an 8 year-old and got stiffed with a Mitt Romney card instead of Jeter, I'd be PO'd! Whose bright idea was it to mix politicians into the deck?
Well no Sox cards and no gum! What happened to that stale pink chipboard they passed off as gum?
At least Mitt was governor of Massachusetts. I would rather have found an Obama card.

Update: Aug 2012 - Well if he wins this year, maybe the value of this card will increase.

July 2, 2008

J is for June (& July). J is for Jimmy [Part 2]

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Well the month of June flew by fast.
And a lot of free time for the 1st few weeks of the month was devoted to another Jimmy - Jimmy V, specifically the Jimmy V Junior Celebrity Golf Classic. For the past couple years I've been part of the core dozen or so people that coordinate the event. All our hard work resulted in 72 children golfing with 18 local celebrities (plus Lorenzo Charles) supported by another ~150 volunteers and generous sponsors that help us raise funds (estimated $50,000) for pediatric cancer research.
I can't verify it, but I believe the "Jimmy V Junior" is the only fund raiser of its type - one in which kids are the primary participants and raises funds for kids. Some of the golfers are cancer patients, even better, some are survivors.

I gotta credit the sponsors for bringing in the funds, but a special shout out goes to all the volunteers from Larry, our Tournament Director, to the die-hard Standard Bearers. Sunday June 22 we overtook a bowling alley for the "Pairings Party" (catered by Moe's) where golf group pairings were announced and an auction raised additional funds (I was tempted - and won - some Red Sox memorabilia featuring Jason Varitek). On Monday volunteers started arriving at the course at 6am. The volunteers were, as usual, awesome. Random needs always crop up. Every time something needed attention, there was a volunteer (or 2) nearby ready & willing to jump in assist. And working with fellow enthusiastic volunteers for a good cause keeps me coming back.

Speaking of coming back, the main event, the "Big V" - the Jimmy V Celebrity Golf Classic in historic Pinehurst, NC is on the horizon. I'll be there - August 9th & 10th.

June 8, 2008

J is for June. J is for Jimmy [Part 1]

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Saturday June 7, 2008 was a treat. For the 1st time since 2002, what used to be an annual event returned to my town & my calendar. Yes, it was the long awaited Return of Buffett - Jimmy Buffett and The Coral Reefer Band, live in Raleigh outside. With four "fun tickets in my pocket, visions in my brain" we braved the 100° heat to partake in the tailgating ritual before staking claim to a tiny bit of grass on the Amphitheater lawn. The heat actually wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Perhaps the super-soakers, canopy & fan eased the heat, or maybe it was the boat drinks.

The show was excellent. It was my 14½th live Buffett concert (and counting), the 1st for both T & her daughter (a happy belated 21st bday!) and 2nd for her buddy Cameron (for a 21 yro, I was very impressed w/ his Buffett knowledge - but he's still trying to figure out what kind of cheese goes on a Cheeseburger in Paradise).

The set list was a great.
Jimmy is starting to show is age - a little (but still going strong) - on several songs members of the band took the lead on vocals, including USS Zydecoldsmobile, Makin’ Music For Money and a personal favorite, The City. The ode to Bob Dylan with Rainy Day Women was a surprise. The common Buffett concert cover of Brown Eyed Girl was in the mix, along with most of the fan favorites (Cheeseburger, One Particular Harbor, SofSofSailor, Volcano & of course Maragritaville). The video monitors displayed footage of JB's recent trips to the Far Side of the World (Thailand, Cambodia) which was neat. Fins was part of the encore and is always a sight to see live. The autobiographical School Boy Heart was a pleasant surprise. JB updated and personalized Fruitcakes for NC and closed out the set most appropriately with another favorite from the License To Chill album, the romantic Coast of Carolina.

In summary seeing Jimmy on stage with his regulars (Mike Utley, Mac, the chick w/ the long blonde hair) felt like a reunion with old friends. I hope I get to do it again some day.

Jimmy Buffett - Thanks for stopping in Raleigh, NC!

P.S. There are photos of the event - if I get my hands on them, I'll share a few select shots. :)

May 12, 2008

Bikes, Hikes and the Gas Tax

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Hey - It's Bike to Work Week! Now if the weather will cooperate, I'll get the bike out (what happened to the drought?). Reflecting back on the Switzerland/Italy trip (I can't believe we've been home 4 weeks), the contrast between the acceptance of public & 2-wheel transportation over there and lack thereof in the US is amazing. It's hard to pinpoint why, obviously it is a cultural difference. With the exclusion of population dense areas like NYC, Philly, Chicago, LA public transportation seems to have a social stigma tied to it. Our cars are a status symbol. Plus, how many Americans want to walk to a bus station? Who has time to add the extra overhead of that into their schedule? I'm certainly a guilty SUV driver. So I'll ride my bike to work some days this spring to keep a car off the road a little bit, get some exercise and save some gas money. Hopefully no one will run me off the road, God bless the Greenways. A friend/co-worker also in Milan for business with me was so enamored by the Italian scooters, he bought one - and is getting 100 miles/gal.

Speaking of gas money, what's the deal with this summer gas tax break that McCain and Hillary are pushing? This is so backwards. I ran across a
great article in Newsweek that succinctly sums it up. Read it now.

And the hike, well the last good hike I took was in Magione, Umbria (10km), where the blog photos last dried up. I'm processing a bunch of photos from the trip through PhotoShop and plan to get a healthy sample online soon. In the meantime, here are a few photos from the hike up (& over) the ridge in Magione. To the North was Lake Trasimeno, over the ridge and coming down the other side we saw Perugia in the distance before discovering the little village Monte Melino and weaving back to the villa.

Lake Trasimeno view

Bonus photo:
Sunset view out our villa window on our last night at Il Cantico della Natura
I'd like to get back to Umbria and explore the area on bikes... someday...

April 14, 2008

We came, We saw, We conquered - Rome!

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April 11-14, Roma.
Veni, Vedi, Vici - something from those HS Latin classes finally paid off!
We plowed through as much of Rome as we could in 2 full days, saw most major sites & a little local flavor.
Legs are tired, feet are sore, and my hand is literately cramping from holding the camera so much!
Time to catch the plane home. Need to grab taxi to train station in like 20 min, so being brief.
Looking forward to returning home to the dog (hope she remembers me!), soft bread, green beans, Mountain Dew, bagels, baseball scores and kicking my feet up in the ottoman and doing nothing for a few hours.
Wish we had more time in Rome too.
Will post more photos in a day or two.
- Mark

April 13, 2008

Two Hour Tour of Perugia, Italy

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On the way out of Magione to Rome we had to catch a train in Perugia, which is the big city in the area (~25km from Magione). Since we already had to take a taxi from the villa & would have a layover in Perugia if we took the train from Magione to Perugia, we decided to spend a few extra euros and head straight to Perugia. We saw Perugia in the distance on our hikes and new they had a large chocolate factory. We tried to get to the chocolate factory, but didn't have time to figure out the local transportation. We did catch a bus up to the top of the hill to the city's center, found some good views, chocolate & birthday present for my nephew who will be 7 next week.
Wish we had more time!

April 11, 2008

Travel Log: Vacation from Vacation - il Cantico della Natura - in Umbria

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Tuesday night-Wed-Thu, April 8-10 - a Magione hillside villa

We've scaled the Swiss Alps, visited the Milano Duomo, rode a gondola through canals in Venice, saw "The David" in Florence. It was time for a vacation from the vacation.
Our train pulled into the little town of Magione & we barely made it off (I think we were the only people deboarding). Rain was picking up & we sought shelter in the little very-local cafe at the station. Soon our host, Frencesco arrived to carry us up the hillside through the tiny village of Monte Sperello to our destination - Il Cantico della Natura. In heavy rain we wedged our luggage out of the tiny car into the warm hospitable confines of the villa dining hall.

This place was picture perfect & exceeded expectations - already set high by the web site. Since the restaurant was closed and we didn't have a car, Frencesco prepared us a spread of local sliced meat, cheese & wine (best wine on the trip, so far - a couple bottles will hopefully make it home). Tee enjoyed the large "slipper" tub on a cold rainy night before enjoying a good night sleep.

In the morning we found the entrance to the dining room blocked by "guardians of the breakfast lair" - 3 sleeping puppies!

Rain was in the forecast Wed & more so on Thu, so we nixxed biking plans and after a huge breakfast spread hiked up the hill, along the ridge, explored an abandoned very dilapidated dwelling overgrown with vegetation, and traversed down the back side and into the little village of Monte Melino. This village had everything it needed, small [private] castle, 1 building housing a few families, large villa w/ mean dogs, taverna, olive orchard, and beautiful church. No more, no less (well, there was a timely placed public WC!). A local elder invited us to visit the church. The hike back UP the hill (and through the village of Monte Sperello) prepared us for dinner - which was awesome (not sure what it all was, since the fixed menu was in Italian, but all was good).

Thursday - Definitely a day off. We caught up on email, explored the grounds, napped. I took a run down the hill and weaved over to large abandoned villa which intrigued me - it was viewable from our room. I found it, ventured inside, then ran (ok, walked a lot) back up to get ready for dinner.

Both Wed & Thu called for rain, but we never felt a drop, so no complaints!

So much to say about this wonderful place, definitely wish we had more time. See later posts for photos.

Florence, Italy

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Sun night/Mon/Tue April 6-8 - Florence When I walked into our hotel room in Florence (Hotel La Scaletta) I really felt for the first time that we were in a different culture linked to a different time.
A few hours earlier we checked out of perhaps the "shortest" room I've ever stayed in and just walked into the "tallest". The ceilings of Room 30 were nearing 20' with a long window over looking the street below. I'd describe the walls as a fresco red, with old stone steps leading to a mirror on a wall long ago sealed off. We walked down to the hotel from the train station; it was late (~11pm) but we had enough energy to zip downstairs (94 steps, thankfully they had a SMALL lift, barely big enough for 2) and grab some late-night gelato at the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) - best gelato of the trip, so far.

Rain was in the forecast for Tuesday, so Monday was focused on outside activities. We started with a hike up to an overlook. En route stopped at a local grocer to stock up on bananas & H2O and stumbled into a quaint "paper shop". Florence was filled with these ancient paper & leather shops, as well as lots of gold/silver shops (especially on the Ponte Vecchio), and T managed to find some nice leather boots.The lookout contained a large (nearly full size) replica of The David & beautiful views of the river, bridges and churches (including the iconic Duomo of Florence). Venturing further up we found a large monastery (got to go inside) and captured many photos, of course. On the way back down the hill we spent .6 euro for a much needed WC stop! Winding through the streets we ventured into the Palazzo Vecchico Piazza, home of Neptune fountain, another David (on the spot the original was located; it was moved many years ago after someone tossed a bench out the window and broke his arm) and numerous other statues (including a bronze depicting the slaying of Medusa) and the likes of da Vinci & friends in the Uffizi courtyard.
End of the afternoon included a visit to the local market for some bartering for pashminas & photo opp w/ the bronzed wild boar, followed by a visit to the top of the Duomo dome (~450 steps, no lift). The view inside & out was beautiful.

Dinner was awesome, T ordered the best risotto we've ever had. I've noticed a trend at Italian restaurants - pasta dishes are superb, while second courses (meat dishes) are great, but not quite as good as the pasta (or anti-pasta, which would preceed the pasta, of course). After dinner we walked deeper into the local district to take in a piano recital in an old neglected church. The audience numbered merely two dozen. It was an enjoying & relaxing way to wrap up the evening. Our final day was a rush through the final "must-see" sights on our list - Galleio's finger & telescopes in the Science Museum and, of course, "The David", which was well worth it, and some turbo shopping before we were back on the train station in route to the little town of Magione in Umbria region.

Originally I was going to skip a stop in Florence, but glad we made it - and wish we had more time. Thanks for talking me into it T! Sample more photos (most taken by T).

April 10, 2008

Venice, Italy

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Sunday, April 6 - Venice A whirl-wind (or world-wind?) tour of Venice came & went quickly, but was well worth it. The visit got off to a scary start on Saturday. Between the train station snack bar and ticket office, I lost my wallet! After a mad-dash to retrace my steps over the past 5 minutes, I abesent mindedly left the wallet on the snack bar check out counter. Fortunately the workers turned it over to the police and we found it - with all cash & credit cards intact. Whew!

The water bus from the train station (there are no cars in Venice - zilch, boats are the only form of transportation) dropped us off by the Rialto bridge (which is wide enough to hold 2 rows of shops). Traversing the bridge w/ luggage through the crowd was a sight. A left, a right and to the end of a little alley, we found our
tiny B&B. Up a long staircase we arrived at the front door.
Up another long staircase to the owner's flat. Then up another staircase to our room, which is basically a renovated attic - very well renovated - we liked this room better than the 4-star hotel in Milan (Milan was more like an average 2-star joint - it did not live up to the web site billing). The Venice room was perfect for our 1 night stint (just watch your head).

Spent a few minutes settling in, then hit the streets.
Our target destination was St. Mark's Square, we intentionally deviated off the beaten path - discovered a maze of alley ways, campos (squares), deadends, characters & canals. And lots of photos opps. I logged 400+ photos (& mini-videos), not to mention all that T captured. Among discoverys, a McDonalds! - whose "water closet" was nasty, just like home! :)

Sunday morning began with the obligitory (and recommended) gondola ride, our gondalier pointed out several sites (many we saw by land/bridge yesterday), including Marco Polo's home during his Venice stay. We enjoyed seeing the locals hanging laundry out to dry above the canals. Remainder of the day was filled with a boat ride to Murano (famous glass factories & lunch; both underwhelming IMHO), an impromtu stop at San Michele Cemetery island, tour of The Doge's Palace back at St. Mark's Square and cruise back up the Grand Canal to pick up luggage (over the Rialto Bridge again) and back to the train station (with wallet secure).

The city is surreal, just like the movies (I kept trying to spot the Grand Canal Palace which was imploded in Casino Royale). Well worth the trip. Wish we had more time.

Next stop - Florence.

April 5, 2008

Ciao Milano

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Saturday, April 5 - We've wrapped up Milan, Italy stop and are on the train to Venice. Thursday evening we did laundry in the bath tub and found creative places to hang our clothes before meeting my co-workers for some pizza & beer on the Navigli canal where Craig gracefully spilled one all over Tee and into her purse (photo below). The quest for a Karaoke bar for Chris didn't pan out, so we settled for more beer and dancing with representatives from South Africa, Romania & Canada. After we shut down the bar Tee & I crashed hard. Fri am was spent catching up on sleep & lightening up our load by shipping winter clothes, souviners and some work material back home via the local office. With some panini sandwiches from a street vendor in our bellies, we hit the Milan subway for some turbo sightseeing which included quick tour of National Museum of Science and Technology (lots of Leonardo da Vinci stuff) , Castello Sforzesco (castle) and the highlight - a trip to the top of the Duomo. The Duomo itself is beautiful and huge, one of the largest churches in the world. The volume of detail was amazing. The top was the best. Aside from a bird's eye view of the city (1.3 million residents) we could see the alps to the north in the distance. The trek back to the hotel included a wrong turn after the subway ride, so we resorted to a taxi (we were closer than we thought). The evening was topped off with a fabulous dinner at el Brellin (recommended, but not cheap), just 2 bridges down the canal from the hotel (Art Hotel Navigli - not recommended!).

Enroute to Venice now, view from the train window includes the alps again :)

Some Milan photos:

April 3, 2008

Greetings From Milan, Italy - Final Switzerland thoughts & photos

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Apr 2, 2008: From Switzerland to Milan Italy

Tee and I arrived (via train) in Milan, Italy at noon Tuesday and immediately ran into several of my co-workers at the hotel. We all enjoyed authentic Italian pizza on the canal (Milan has a couple canals). My work activities just wrapped up after 2+ days of meetings & presentations with colleagues from around the world. It is a unique pleasure to sit down at dinner in Italy with folks from Finland, Greece, South Africa, Canada, Romania, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands and a dozen more countries. With work wrapped up, I can start to see some of Milan before we head to Venice.

But first, some more on Switzerland - despite gray skies & light rain, we enjoyed our final full day in Switzerland (Mon, 3/31/08) with a short train ride to Thun (pronounced "tune") for a tour of the local castle & shops. We finally took in some of Interlaken at dinner time - and ate Italian! (sorry Ted Farr, we didn't find the Hooters). Definitely glad we did not stay in Interlaken, it is nice, but touristy. Wilderswil was much more our speed. A few Switzerland photos...

Grindelwald Alps

Thun, CH castle

March 30, 2008

2 Planes, 4 Trains, 4440 miles, plus 1km

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Mar 30, 2008: Wilderswil, Switzerland

Our Swiss/Italian Adventure Begins

We made it! After traveling via 2 planes, 4 trains over 4440 miles on 5 hrs of sleep over 34 hours we arrived late Saturday (after an afternoon of walking around Zurich waterfront, very pretty) at the Wilderswil, Switzerland train depot. It took 1 more km up a slight grade to reach our home for 3 nights: The Baeren Inn. Weather's been great so far. We have beautiful views of the alps & trekked up to Jungfraujoch. Sunday and took an impromptu tour around Grindelwald. Initial impressions of Switzerland - everywhere looks like the photos you traditionally see (e.g. Swiss chalets, beautiful vistas) and is very clean (including public toilets, compared to the US).

Surprising views from train rides include: graffiti (lots of it), buffalo & tee-pees! Took a short hike and ran into a bunch of llamas. Rain tomorrow...
>Lugging luggage the final km

March 27, 2008

Departure Countdown

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We've entered the 36 hours till departure window. Time to pack and get all those last minute details taken care of (like finishing my presentation for meetings in Milan, yeah the primary driver behind the trip, let's not forget about that while plotting out gelato shops in Italia).
Got the dog's stuff packed for her extended field trip across town, got Buffett & Rick Steve's audio tours loaded in the iPod, camera ready, German & Italian phrase books, Clif bars, maps ...crap missing some maps! What did we do before Google Maps & MapQuest?!?! Gotta run ... will post more from the road.

March 25, 2008

Welcome to "15 Short Beach Road"

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15 Short Beach Road doesn't exist anymore in the real world. It was located in Centerville, MA (Cape Cod) and home of the cottage my paternal grandparents rented all summer, every summer for 30 odd years. Around 2003 the 3 bedroom, 1 bath cottage (with a shower outside) was leveled and replaced with a $1.25 million "cottage" and new address (it was for sale in 2005 when I made this discovery). Many fond summer childhood memories were made here and it was the 1st destination I traveled to.

I'm about to embark on my longest & furthest journey to-date.
In a few days I'm heading to Milan, Italy for business, but unlike my first brief (but fantastic) business trip to Heidelberg, Germany, I'm doing it "right" this time and adding a slew of personal time to travel through the area.

Tee, my girlfriend, is joining me and we've been planning 18 days abroad over the past 4 weeks. I'd recommend planning a trip like this a little earlier than we did! Needless to say, we've been busy, and there is still a lot to do. The plane takes off Friday afternoon, 1st destination: Zurich.
Hopefully I'll have some time to share a few updates before we leave, while on the road and when we get back.

Stay tuned!