Friday, October 30, 2009

Hydrogen = Teachers...Wow!

My younger brother, Bobby, works for Gensler, the multi-national architecture and design firm. Bobby has an interesting job with interesting clients...and he's really good at what he does. I heard today that he's in China, picking out tile and other components for one of his latest projects. I'm in Amsterdam, finishing a week of work on my current project. Our younger brother, Thom, has an ongoing gig in Korea, so the Johnston boys have clearly gone global.

What got me started on this riff was an item I saw tonight at Some Gensler folks have proposed an innovative project in Chicago - converting an abandoned rail line into a greenhouse to grow food for local consumption and also including a "hydrogen generator" that would split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen could be sold for use by alternative fuel vehicles, with the profits being funneled back into the Chicago school system to pay teacher salaries.

Hydrogen = Teachers.

It seems inadequate to call this "out of the box thinking". Sure, it's a design concept, and some of the infrastructure doesn't yet exist. But it represents an approach to problem solving that is clearly not encumbered by the traditional.

I've spent much of today talking with my project team about how we approach our work with new eyes - challenging assumptions and looking for the breakthrough ideas that get us to our goal faster, better, and smarter.

Hydrogen = Teachers.

What's our equation?

Friday, September 04, 2009

One More Airline Horror Story - This Time About Delta Airlines

About six months ago, Mary and I decided to take a vacation over the Labor Day week. We had an invitation from Mary's brother, Eddie, to join him, his wife Susan, and some friends at a house on the Jersey shore. We've never been to the Jersey shore, and we haven't had any real contact with Eddie and Susan over the years. It seemed like a great opportunity. We said "Yes!".

We thought we'd be smart and plan ahead, so we got online and booked two tickets with Northwest Airlines. At the time we did it (March, 2009), we were shopping for convenient flight times and low cost - no different from any of the millions of people who buy airline tickets every year. We found what we thought was a good deal, and were even able to cash in part of a flight we had to cancel last year. We carefully looked at each leg of the flight and selected seats side-by-side. We coordinated with Eddie to arrive in Philadelphia at about the same time, so we could share a rental car. It was all coming together nicely.

We made a mistake, though. I imagine it was a mistake that most of the other millions of ticket buyers make.

We didn't read the fine print.

I don't even recall seeing the fine print - the "rules" associated with the tickets. It was probably displayed - we were booking through Northwest Airlines web site, - and they probably gave us the option to review it all. And I probably didn't review it. Tell the truth, now. How many times have you read all the fine print on a web site when you're conducting a routine transaction? You don't , do you? You hit "Accept" and move on.

You probably think that when you select a seat on an airplane, it's yours. It's not. You probably think that if you and your wife select seats side-by-side, that you'll actually get to sit together. You're wrong. You probably think that if you pay what the airline asks for the seat, that there will be some integrity in your reservation, even if the airline merges with another. Ha Ha HA! Foolish mortal!

I bought the seats from Nortwest Airlines six months ago. Paid for them. Selected the adjacent seats. Since then, I have received multiple emails from Northwest advising me of changes in the reservation. Most were innocuous, even inscrutable. There was an initial change in arrival time - getting in an hour later than we originally planned. (Sorry, Eddie, you'll have to wait an extra hour for us.) The others didn't appear to change much. Last night (Thursday evening before Labor Day), we looked at the reservations online (at We were still together on the same flights, still in the same seats. Our departure on Saturday was confirmed, according to Northwest.

Tonight (Friday), we checked in on line. The first sign that something had gone wrong was when we had to switch from to to check in. I know the airlines combine flights - selling tickets on a delta flight, a northwest flight, and maybe somebody else's flight - each with different flight numbers, but all really being the same plane. We bought a ticket on Northwest. Delta would deliver. OK. They bought Northwest...or Northwest bought them. I don't care too much...just get me to my destination, safely.

After a couple of false starts, I got us checked in. Then I printed the boarding passes. I though we were all set.

But, wait a minute...the seats are different. The seats we were assigned in the Northwest confirmation were not the same on our Delta boarding passes. We were sitting in different rows! WTF?!

So I called Northwest. I spoke to a customer support rep who told me, politely, that he couldn't see our seats on the Delta flight and that we'd have to contact Delta. Thanks a lot. I paid you for the tickets. Why should I expect customer support to be helpful?

So I called Delta. I spoke to Donald. He couldn't help me, either. The flight is full. You'll have to talk to the gate agent. There was nothing else he could do.

What?! So it's MY problem now? No way. I asked for a customer service number where I could lodge a complaint. He gave me one: 1-888-286-3163.

Guess what? That's a fax machine! I'll grant him this: Donald did a nice job of getting rid of me.

I searched for Delta customer support number on line. I found a number for Delta in Atlanta. The answering machine said that their office hours were 8-5 and I should call back. I found another listing for customer service - 1-800-221-1212. I called it and kept hitting "0" until I got a live human. I don't know where she was physically located, but her accent suggested somewhere in India. She was polite, and looked up my reservation, and politely told me that there was nothing she could do. She recommended that I talk to the gate agent.

Thanks, I said, but that's not an answer. Get me your supervisor. She put me on hold for an extended period...probably about 10 minutes. When she came back on, she told me that her supervisor could not help me, but that she'd talk to me anyway. Great. Put her on.

Debra, the supervisor, was from somewhere in North America. She, too, was polite, but reiterated that she couldn't fix the problem.

Why, I asked, would I get confirmation of adjacent seats from Northwest, but be seated in different rows by Delta? Debra calmly replied that when I agreed to purchase my tickets, I agreed to the airlines' conditions that I only had a seat, not a specific seat. There were no guarantees that I would have a specific seat. Its all spelled out in the agreement for your ticket - that pesky fine print!

Then why, I asked, did the airlines perpetuate the charade of allowing us to select seats on line? Why waste our time and the airlines' computer bandwidth? Good question, she replied. But she didn't have an answer. She repeated that should talk to the gate agent.

I'll admit that by now I was pissed. No thanks, I said. Here's what I want: I want you, Debra, as a customer care manager with Delta Airlines, to notify your people in Indianapolis and have them sort it out, so that when I arrive at the airport tomorrow afternoon, they say, "Hi, Mike. We understand there was a problem with your seats. We've fixed it for you." That, I said, would be real customer service.

To her credit, Debra didn't laugh. Instead, she told me that she could document my request, but there was no guarantee that the people in Indianapolis would read it.

What? You mean that Delta Airlines goes to the trouble and expense of maintaining a 24x7 Customer Support line, but that the rest of the organization will likely ignore what customers say?

Oh, no, said Debra. They'll pay attention if I call to request a wheel chair or some other special assistance. But a complaint about how Northwest / Delta mangled my reservation? Sorry, they probably won't read that.

Whether I ever buy another ticket on Delta or Northwest again will have absolutely no impact on the financial performance of either/both/the combined airline. I know that, and so does Delta / Northwest. But maybe the one or two people who read this blog will tell a couple of their friends, and they'll share the link with others. Maybe our combined voices demanding better service will influence how Delta / Northwest handle their seat assignments.

Maybe sooner or later, somebody at Delta who is empowered to actually solve a customer problem will give me a call and offer a solution.

Maybe I'll pick up the phone.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Saturday at the Races

Indianapolis is known in some circles as "The Racing Capital of the World", with most of that motorized activity taking place a few miles from where we live. This weekend, though, we got a close-up look at a different type of racing just a few blocks from home. The 2009 "Mass Ave Criterium" took place on a 2/3 mile triangle of city streets just a few blocks from our condo.

According to Nuvo Newsweekly, criteriums are the most common type of bicycle races held in the US. They are road races, typically run on city streets that are closed to other traffic. The race format is simple - each race runs for a set period of time (at Mass Ave it was 35 to 60 minutes) followed by 2 or 3 additional laps. During each race, extra prizes called primes (pronounced "preems"), usually cash, are given to the winners of specific laps. Speeds on the course may average 25 - 30mph during the race, with sprints of 45+ mph to the finish line.

This is the 2nd year that the criterium has been run on Massachusetts Avenue. Mass Ave is lined with shops and restaurants. It's a popular destination downtown, and makes a great venue for the Criterium.

The start / finish line was at 435 Mass Ave, just outside the Three Dog Bakery, one of Beans' favorite haunts.

The racers proceeded southwest on Mass Ave, then turned left on Vermont St., right in front of the Old Point Tavern and Julian Opie's animated LED artwork "Ann Dancing".

(I always get a kick out of watching Ann dance. You can see a video taken during the winter of 2008 when she was first installed.)

The route continued east on Vermont, past St. Mary's church. Riders then turned north on East St. and finally turned back onto Mass Ave.

Some spectators enjoyed the view from a safe distance...

...while some of us wanted a close-up view of the action.

Many of the participants were highly-skilled athletes, but they made room for a few others, too. Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, a former participant in the "Little 500" cycle races at Indiana University, led the parade lap for the final event, the men's professional race.

There was also a race for younger cyclists, many of whom demonstrated the same level of intensity as their older counterparts.

It was a beautiful Saturday in downtown Indianapolis, the racing capital of the world!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Squatting in Newark

At about 7:45am EDT this morning, I boarded a plane in Amsterdam - yes, that Amsterdam - in Holland, or "The Netherlands". (There is a distinction between the two, according to people who live there. ) I had been in Holland for a week on business, with a day trip into Belgium. It's the first trip of many over the next year. I'm leading a business process transformation project for our company, and our first pilot locations will be in Holland, Belgium, Norway and Sweden. It's a big project, with high visibility - good if we're successful, not so good if we're not. My motto for the team is simple: "we have no option to fail".

I enjoyed my stay in Holland. Our office is in Dordrecht, one of the oldest cities in Holland. It is an island - surrounded by the inland waterway. It was good to get acquainted with the local team, to see their facilities, and even to meet some customers. The next year will be challenging, but everyone I've met so far is enthusiastic and ready to get going.

That was the good part...and it extended through the trip back to the US. I had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel this morning, did a few emails, and caught a cab to the train station. The trip from Dordrecht to the Amsterdam Schipol airport took about an hour, giving me plenty of time to read the International Herald Tribune - almost the first news I'd seen all week.

The flight left Amsterdam a few minutes late, but we had smooth flying throughout the day. Once on board, I set my watch to Eastern time - 6 hours earlier - and effectively started my day over. The 8 hour flight gave me time to get a lot of work done and still have time to finish a novel on the Kindle. The flight was smooth and the food was edible - thanks, Continental!

Things started to change, though, when I got back to the states. Due to bad weather, we were put in a holding pattern over Albany, New York, waiting for the Newark airport to open up. We landed an hour late. I took my time going through Customs, knowing I had at least 3 hours before my flight back to Indianapolis. But when I checked the "Departure" boards, my flight wasn't listed. That's always a sign of bad things to come.

The bottom line: the last leg of my trip is delayed at least 2 hours, so instead of getting home at 10:30 tonight, it will be after midnight. Mary and Beans will be asleep. For now, I'm sitting on the floor in the Newark airport, tethered to a power outlet that's charging the laptop and the Kindle. I'm surrounded by fellow travelers, all trying to sort out their plans. One couple is stretched out on the floor across the aisle, asleep. Others are in various states of repose, resting on backpacks. For the moment, no one seems too stressed. Let's hope it stays that way. It could be a long night.

Ain't travel fun?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Playing for Change

This afternoon I stumbled on some of the most fascinating and moving music videos I've ever seen - products of a project called Playing for Change. The videos were created by a recording engineer named Mark Johnson. Over a four year period, Johnson traveled around the world filming and recording dozens of local musicians performing the same songs. He then edited the performances together, creating a series of "songs around the world" - virtual group performances that are compelling to watch and wonderful to listen to.

Johnson talks about the project in this video clip that also features snippets from the videos of "Stand By Me" and Bob Marley's "War/No More Trouble" and "One Love".

Several of the songs have been released as individual videos on YouTube, Vimeo and the Playing for Change web site. (I've linked to the YouTube versions because they seemed to play smoother - with less delay.) Two of my favorites are embedded below. "Stand By Me" begins with film of Roger Ridley, a street performer in Santa Monica, California who was the original inspiration for the project.

The performance of Bob Marley's "War/No More Trouble" weaves together voices and images from Africa, Ireland, Israel, India and the United States.

As a technical feat alone, these videos would be tremendously impressive. As a vehicle for illustrating the unifying power of music in a divided world, they are tremendously powerful.

Watch, listen. Visit Playing for Change on the web at .

Monday, May 25, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 7 - Wrapping Up

We've had a great time on the "staycation", but, sadly, all good things must come to an end. Here's a quick recap of the last few days.

Thursday - no planned activities. One of the best parts of a staycation is the ability to decide to do nothing special. Its tough to do that when you're away from home and paying for hotels, rental cars and meals out. We took Thursday as a day to run errands and stock up the pantry.

Our one nod to exploring Indy on Thursday was lunch at Roscoe's Tacos in Greenwood. We had seen an article in the Indianapolis Star about several good places to eat in Greenwood. Roscoe's was one of the places. It was plain and simple, low priced, and good. Mary tried their soft tacos - one chicken and one ground beef. I tried the "Son of Sampler" - three corn tacos (one ground beef, one shredded beef, one chicken) and a side (I had black beans and rice). We were surprised that the ground beef tacos were the best of the bunch. There were seats for about 20 people, and all were full - even at 1pm on Thursday. Maybe the newspaper article helped, maybe they are always this busy. Lunch was about $15.

On Thursday evening we met our neighbors Ann and Alan for hors d'oeuvres and wine on the roof. We had a delightful, relaxing evening - swapping stories and watching the sunset over the skyline. Our neighbor Richard joined us on the roof midway through the evening. Richard works in state government and always has a good story or two to share.

Friday - A light day in the city. We had lunch at King David Dogs on Pennsylvania Ave.

This is "the" place to get a hot dog in Indianapolis. Like a lot of our staycation destinations, we had walked past King David's numerous times, but never during their business hours. (They're only open from 11-4, Monday through Friday.) On Friday as we walked to lunch, we encountered a steady stream of people carrying plastic cups with the King David logo. It seemed like everybody on Pennsylvania Ave. had been there for lunch.

King David Dogs is run by Brent Joseph. He's the grandson of William Hene, one of the founders of the Hene Meat Company, which developed the King David brand of meats, including all-beef hot dogs. They sold them through delis and grocery stores in Indy from the 1940's through the 1990's. Brent uses the family recipe and serves all his dogs on steamed poppy seed buns.

It's a small place inside - maybe 10 or 12 tables, and at 1pm on Friday it was packed.

Mary ordered a chili dog (chili with beans, brown mustard, cheese and onions). I got the "Chicago Dog" (onions, tomato wedges, neon green relish, yellow mustard, sport peppers, a dill pickle spear and a dash of celery salt). We both also got tater tots. (Where else can you get tater tots?) We enjoyed every bite!

While we ate, we compared notes on lunch spots with the man sitting next to us. He told us he worked at the NCAA headquarters and had tried practically every lunch place downtown. His recommendations:
  • The Workingman's Friend (also recommended by our neighbor, Alan)
  • The Tip Top Tavern
  • John's Hot Stew
  • The Ice House
While we won't get to all of these this week, we've added them to our list for future outings.

Later on Friday afternoon, we went back to the Otte Golf Center for their "twilight" special - 18 holes for $10 (walking). We got there about 4:30 and had the course almost completely to ourselves until the very end. It was hot for the first 9 holes, but the evening turned very pleasant for the back 9. An added bonus - we were both hitting the ball well. The course is open until 10pm. We're planning to go back regularly throughout the summer for more twilight golf.

Saturday - We hadn't planned any activities for SaVturday, but the staycation spirit stayed with us, anyway. The big event downtown on Saturday was the Indy 500 Festival Parade. It started at noon, just a couple blocks from our condo. People were walking past in groups by 10am. We had attended the parade for the past two years and decided to skip this one. We decided to drive south, away from the crowds downtown, to run some errands and try someplace new for lunch. I checked the "Dining Out" listings in the Indianapolis Monthly and got the address for the Ice House Restaurant on S. West St. It was a warm day and we figured the a place called "Ice House"would be a comfortable spot.

The Ice House was described as an "after work hangout for generations of clock-punchers". It is located in an industrial area a couple miles south of downtown, with a freight yard behind it. It looked like the kind of place where a man (or woman) with a powerful thirst might be found after the quitting time whistle blew.

On Saturday afternoon, however, we had the place almost to ourselves. A couple of tables were occupied by groups of men in town for the race.

The place had a well worn, comfortable feel to it. At one end of the long bar was a jukebox, a couple of video games, and a cigarette machine. How long has it been since you've seen one of those?

The menu was on the table as a laminated place mat. It didn't take us long to make up our minds. Mary got a club sandwich. I went for the tenderloin - another recommendation I'd picked up somewhere.

Portions for both sandwiches are best described as "ample". In the finest Indiana tradition, the tenderloin nearly covered the entire plate!

While we enjoyed the sandwiches, Mary flipped through the Indianapolis Monthly City Guide. She found a short note about Garfield Park, the oldest city park in Indy. What got our attention was the fact that the park has a "formal garden like something you'd see at Versailles". We were intrigued...even more so because I remembered seeing signs for Garfield Park on our way to the Ice House.

The waitress confirmed that the park was nearby, so we headed that way after lunch. We drove into the park past the public swimming pool and several large groups having picnics. I was about to conclude that we'd been led astray, when I saw a sign for the Garfield Park Conservatory and Sunken Gardens.

Sure enough, it was a large formal garden, laid out in a very symmetric fashion. We can't compare to Versaille, since we haven't been there, yet, but it was a surprising find in the middle of an urban park.

Adjacent to the garden is the conservatory - a 10,000 square foot green house.

We wandered through the garden, out a back gate and through a portion of the larger (136 acre) park. The grounds were neat and well maintained. We saw the MacAllister Performing Arts Center - an outdoor ampitheater that feature pops concerts on Thursday nights and "movies in the park", all summer long. We also saw the Garfield Park Arts Center that offers a wide variety of programs in the visual and performing arts to the broader community.

Looking back, this was possibly the best way to end the staycation. We've had a week of fun, at very low cost, that did not require the expense and stress of traveling. And best of all, we discovered several new places that hold lots of promise for future activities, right here at home. We'll still travel, of course, but we'll do so with a much better appreciation for all that we have in our back yard.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 6

Wednesday was another beautiful day in Indiana. We couldn't believe our luck in having a string of great weather for the "Staycation".

Our first stop was the City County Building, the home of Indianapolis and Marion County government. At 28 stories, it is a prominent part of the skyline we see from our roof.

At the very top of the building is an observation deck. We headed up for what we expected would be a great view of the city. We weren't disappointed.

We arrived just before 10am, which was when the observation deck opened. We took the service elevator to the 26th floor, and then a separate elevator to the top. On the way up, we met Robert Short, the attendant in the observation deck. We were his first "customers" of the day, and he welcomed us warmly. Like everyone else we've met this week, Mr. Short was interested in the "Staycation". He thought it was great that we were exploring Indianapolis.

The observation deck is enclosed, with windows all around. It is bright and airy, with lots of Indianapolis artifacts on display.

The walls of the the deck are set back from the outer walls of the building. When you look out over the city, you have a floor just outside the window. This helps people with a fear of heights - you're not looking directly down all those 28 floors!

It was easy to pick out some of the more familiar landmarks of the city. Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium were clearly visible.

The City County Building was completed in 1962 and was the tallest building in Indianapolis until 1970. It was the first building taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

The other great thing about the observatory is the price: free!

After taking in the panaramic views of the city, we thanked Mr. Short and rode the elevator back to the ground floor. Our next stop was just outside. On Wednesday mornings in the summer, a Farmers' Market opens on Market Street.

We browsed among the stalls and found some bread from a local bakery and fresh strawberries. We needed both for our picnic lunch.

From the market, we headed back to the condo, where Mary packed a picnic lunch of California BLT's, Traders Point Creamery cheese, and fresh Indiana strawberries. We threw in a carafe of white wine and headed for the IMA.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art sits on a 150+ acre site at 38th Street and Michigan Rd. The museum grounds include the main galleries (at left) as well as Oldfields, a 22 room mansion that was the home of Josiah K. Lilly, the grandson of Eli Lilly. A 100 acre park, the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, will open in June, 2010. Another bonus: Admission to the museum and grounds is free. Special exhibits in the museum usually have a fee, but there are three floors of galleries that can be viewed at no charge.

We had visited the museum grounds once before and had enjoyed walking through the Oldfields gardens. Today we found a shady spot by the fountain and spread out our picnic. It was cool and quiet - a very relaxing spot for a picnic.

After lunch we toured the third floor gallery in the museum where the contemporary art is housed. We enjoyed most of what we saw, then Mary got the giggles in the room with the yarn pieces (a 20 foot strand of yarn stretched diagonally from a window to the floor, several strands of black yarn stretched from floor to ceiling, and a wall with yarn stretched in "L" shapes). We decided it was probably time to leave, before we disturbed the silence and the attention of the serious art afficianados. We'll go back some other day and look at the Asian art or the textile exhibits. Its easy, and best of all, its free!

Friday, May 22, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 5

Tuesday of the "Staycation" dawned cool and sunny - a perfect day to get out and explore. We began the day with a walk around our corner of downtown, to give Beans a chance to burn up some of that Boston Terrier energy.

Our route this morning took us up East Street, where we literally "stopped to smell the roses" at one of the row houses.

Around the corner on Michigan Ave., we stopped in front of the Anthenaeum to give Beans a chance to meet the "big kitty". Beans was not particularly impressed. Garfield was more focused on the patries.

The Garfield installation is part of the 8th Annual Mass Ave Artful Tread tire decorating contest. Merchants along Mass Ave. and adjoining streets create works of art using discarded tires to celebrate Indianapolis' racing tradition.

Later in the morning, we drove to the Northwest corner of Indy, to the Traders Point Creamery. This is a certified organic farm that produces whole milk, cheese, yogurt and grass-fed beef.

The Creamery Barn houses a dairy store, offices, a restaurant and a cheese aging room. The barn was originally built in Bluffton, Indiana in the 1860's. It was slated to be demolished, but instead was salvaged and moved over 100 miles to Traders Point. Several other barns on the property were also salvaged and moved.

It was a nice day, and we took the walking tour of the farm. The Traders Point web site mentions that they milk between 60 and 90 cows each day. We didn't see near that many, but we did see this group of young calves, jostling for a drink at the tub.

The chicken coops are on wheels and can be moved to follow the cows, which helps to control bugs. But because of the number of coyotes, hawks, foxes and other predators, the coops are kept in one area. We couldn't help but think of Chevy Case's line in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation about the "tenement on wheels"... though the chickens seemed as content as Cousin Eddie.

The walking tour took us around the pastures and on a pleasant walk through woods alongside Eagle Creek.

We ate lunch at the Creamery restaurant, on an outdoor balcony. Mary had a hamburger made with the Creamery's own grass-fed beef. I had a pork belly Cuban sandwich, made with Indiana pork.

Late in the afternoon, we walked to the Mass Ave Wine Shoppe for a wine tasting. We had not visited this shop before, but had heard good things about it from neighbors. The shop features a "wall of wine" - 100 bottles under $15, and also sells cheeses and craft beers. The place was packed and the tasting was fun, with four very different wines featured. We bought a couple bottles for a rooftop gathering later in the week.

Next door to the wine shop is The Best Chocolate In Town. We figured "since we're in the neighborhood, we might as well stop in". Everything looked delicious, but we showed admirable restraint and left with only a small bag of chocolate truffles.

Back at the condo, we took our dinner up onto the rooftop deck and enjoyed the view of downtown while the sun set. A great end to a great day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 4

Mary and I are taking a stay at home vacation - a "staycation" - this month. During this week, we're visiting a number of places here in Indianapolis that we have never seen. This series of blog posts records our adventures.

Monday...the day that vacations really begin. The day when you get up knowing that your friends and colleagues are fighting traffic and facing another day at work, while you're free to do whatever you want. No matter how relaxing the weekend might have been, Monday on vacation is sweet! Even better on a staycation - you wake up in your own bed!

Today's activities included:

Golf at Saddlebrook Golf Club . My neighbor Alan, a retired professor from Purdue, invited me to come play with his "old guys" league. They play on Monday and Thursday mornings. They were a congenial group. The outing began with coffee and banter in the clubhouse, including the "joke of the day". (I won't try to repeat it here, but it involved a guy getting Viagra as an anesthetic for dental work.) Shortly after, we broke up into three groups of three and headed out.

It was a beautiful spring morning, with a deep blue sky rarely seen in Indiana. The course winds through a residential area, but feels very open and park like. It's also very forgiving, with some wide fairways and large greens - both of which I managed to stray from periodically as I tuned my swing. I shot 101, which took me well below my goal for the year to break 120. I was helped in this department by the old guys' liberal interpretation of the rules of golf - no penalties for going in the water, no score over 8 on a hole, and frequent use of the foot wedge to improve the lie.

It was a delightful morning. Very reasonable too - the greens fee, with cart, was $26.

After returning home and cleaning up, Mary took me to lunch at the Creation Cafe in Buggs Temple.

From the outside, Buggs Temple looks like the church it once was. Originally built in the late 1800's, in the 1970's and 80's it was home to a congregation of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The church was led by Elder James C. Buggs, a trumpet-playing pastor who attracted large crowds and nationally-known gospel groups to the church.

In 1993, the building was donated to the City of Indianapolis. In 2003, redevelopment began that led to its current reincarnation as home to two restaurants.

Buggs Temple sits at the north end of the Indianapolis Canal Walk. The Creation Cafe has an outdoor patio that overlooks the canal.

In the spirit of adventure, we decided to try a couple of new beers with our lunch. Mary had a "Horse Piss Beer", brewed in Louisville (we hope not too close to Churchill Downs). I tried a Stone Ruination IPA, which came from California. In this case, the Horse Piss was a better choice, as the Ruination was too hoppy.

Mary's lunch was homemade tomato soup (delicious!) and the Gobbler sandwich (turkey, swiss cheese, bacon, avocado) on sourdough bread (also very good). I had the Heavenly Chicken Salad - a mix of chicken and Yukon Gold potatoes, among other things, topped with greens, with a maple ginger dressing on the side. Delicious!

After lunch we drove to the Indianapolis Central Library to look at the new sculptures that had recently installed out front in late April.

The installation, called "thinmanlittlebird", was created by Peter Shelton, an artist from Venice, California. According to the library web site, the two pieces were set on pedestals that were part of the original building erected in 1917. Because of budget limitations then, no statues were installed when the library opened. Ninety years later, a combination of private donations and Library Foundation money was used to purchase and install the two Shelton pieces.

"Thinman" is self-explanatory.

But you can't see the "littlebird" in the photo - he's dwarfed by his round perch. Watch the videos of the actual installation:

Part 1
Part 2

and you can see him up close.

The library faces the American Legion Mall, a large grassy field where we have often walked the dog on sunny afternoons, and where we saw Barack Obama speak on a rainy evening last year.

Today, though, we spent some time and looked at the war memorials that flank the field.

Directly in front of the library is a monument to soldiers who died in World War I. It includes a plaque in memory of James Bethel Gresham from Evansville, Indiana, the first US solder killed in World War I. Other monuments remember those killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. These memorials include inscriptions from letters written home by the soldiers. From their words we get brief glimpses of the humor, the humanity, and the courage of these fallen heroes.

I expect that as we walk through the Mall in the future, it will be with a greater respect for what it symbolizes.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 3

Here's what we did on Sunday...

First trip out to Dick's Sporting Goods. What's a vacation without some shopping? I needed (er...wanted) a new pair of golf shoes. While I tried on every pair in the store (it seemed), Mary tried on some new clothes and discovered that her regular size 8 is really a size 2. We both left happy, though Mary wants to know what the heck is going on with women's clothes.

Next stop was the Otte Golf Center in Greenwood, just south of Indy, to hit a bucket of balls. We've visited their driving range several times in the last few weeks. Last weekend we played their "Executive Course" - a tight little par 3/par 4 course with plenty of challenges to keep us busy. We keep going back to Otte. The place is clean and well-maintained, and everyone who works there has a super attitude. Every time we walk through the door, they seem genuinely happy to see us and to have our business. In a world where surly customer service is the norm, these guys are the exception. We'll keep going back. (The price is right, too - a large bucket of 125 balls is $10, and they usually throw in a few extra. 18 holes is $16, walking, on the weekend.)

After the driving range, we drove back downtown to have lunch at La Parada Mexican Restaurant on New York Street at State Avenue.

This was the "hole in the wall" place recommended to us by the young lady from Zimbabwe we met on Saturday. It's a small place, with about 8 booths. The walls are clad in some kind of faux brick panelling that has been painted in a yellow and white wash. We each tried a fish taco ("pescado"). Mary also had a taco with goat stew. I had a chicken quesadilla. The food was very good, and noticeably different from most Mexican food we have had. (This probably reflects our experience of eating in Americanized Mexican restaurants, where flour tortillas and lots of cheese reign.) Our selections were served on small corn tortillas, two tortillas wrapping around the meat. The fish was pan-fried, not breaded, and served with lots of cilantro. The chicken quesadilla was long on chicken (also pan-fried), with minimal cheese. The goat stew was tangy. With a Modelo for Mary and a Negra Modelo for me, our lunch was only $16, plus tip. This will be our "go to" place for Mexican food from now on.

Later in the afternoon, we got out the bicycles and went on a ride around downtown. Our first stop was at the open house for the Landmark of Lockerbie condominiums, a new development on East Street. We live downwind of their construction site and were curious to see what's been created in the midst of all the noise and dust. We were impressed by the finishes in the place. They are nicely done - pricey, but nicely done.

After the open house, we rode around downtown, looking for each of the installations of sculpture by George Rickey. Rickey was an artist, engineer and sculptor who was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1907. He died in 2002. Ten of his kinetic sculptures, created between 1964 and 2000 are located around downtown in an exhibition entitled "George Rickey: An Evolution", sponsored by the Arts Council of Indianapolis. We were fascinated by the balance and lightness of the various works, some of which were very large. Each one moved gracefully in response to the afternoon breeze. Two of our favorite pieces were:

Column of Four Squares Excentric Gyratory III Var. II (1990)

(Located on Washington St. at Pennsylvania Ave.)

Four L's Excentric II (1987-90)

(Located in front of Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle)

Just before 5pm, we had found all but one of the Rickey scultures, and were on Maryland St. at Capital Ave., near the gardens behind the Simon Property Co. building. (It's worth a walk down to see the gardens. It's a very simple, peaceful space, currently featuring two of the Rickey sculptures.) While we were waiting for the light to change, a man walked up to us and asked, "Did you know Barack Obama is going to be right down there at the Westin in about half an hour?" We had forgotten that President Obama was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser in Indy, after his commencement address at Notre Dame. We decided "what the hell", and rode down to the Westin. We joined a small crowd of people who were all waiting for the President to arrive. We could see people a block away on Washington St. waving signs. We figured they were protesters. After a few minutes, we decided to move on, figuring our vantage point was not good enough to give us a close look. (It was just as well. The evening news reported that Barack didn't get into the Indy airport until nearly 6pm. We'd have waited another 90 minutes before we saw anything.)

While it would have been fun to see the President up close, we pushed on for what became one of the most interesting sights of the day. Embedded in the crosswalk on the west side of the Maryland St. and Meridian St. intersection is a "Toynbee Tile".

It's about the size of a license plate, and says "Toynbee idea in Kubrick's 2001 resurrect dead on planet Jupiter".

A number of tiles like this have been found in Philadelphia, PA. They have also been found in Pittsburgh; Toledo, Ohio; New York City; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Boston; Atlantic City, N.J.; Chicago; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; Detroit and even Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile.

No one knows exactly who is responsible for the tiles, or exactly what the cryptic message really means.

According to the web site

The most tantalizing clue as to the source of these tiles was a 1983 newspaper interview with a social worker from Philadelphia, a man named James Morasco, who claimed that Jupiter could be colonized by bringing Earth's dead people there to have them resurrected.

The site also offers some brief explanation of the relationship between "Toynbee" - Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey , but it seems like a lot of conjecture.

So, our day ended with a puzzle. It just proves that Indianapolis is an interesting city. Damn interesting.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 2

Our first full day of Staycation began bright and early. Mary had signed us up to participate in a volunteer project - cleaning up the planter beds along Massachusetts Avenue. "Mass Ave" runs Northeast out of downtown Indy, and is lined with shops, galleries, restaurants and bars. (Also the Three Dog Bakery, Beans' favorite store.)

The planter bed cleanup is an annual event, sponsored by Indianapolis Downtown Inc.

At 8:00am we met the other volunteers at the park adjacent to Starbucks and Elements, where Mass Ave and Alabama intersect. Shovels and rakes were neatly stacked at one end of the park, along with a row of wheelbarrows and a box of cotton work gloves - all those things that urban apartment dwellers don't own.

We enjoyed a bagel and cup of coffee with the other volunteers while we waited for instruction. We didn't have to wait long. Shortly before 8:30, a young woman waved her arm in the air and shouted "Anybody who's ready to work, follow me!" We joined a group of 10 or 12 people and got our orders - grab a shovel or rake, a pair of gloves, a garbage bag and head out. New perennials had been laid in the beds where they should be planted. Flats of petunias were also set at each bed, to be used as a border along the curb.

We started with the planter bed right outside Starbucks. Soon we were joined by our neighbors, Ann and Alan, and several other people. It took us about an hour to do the first bed, our work punctuated by good-natured banter and a lot of laughter. After the plants were in, we hauled mulch from a big pile across the street. The end result looked pretty good.

With one bed done, we moved north along Mass Ave, past other groups at work, til we found another bed that had not been done. Our group expanded as more volunteers arrived, and we could look up and down Mass Ave and see groups working at planters all along the street.

A highlight of the morning, besides the fun of getting our hands dirty and doing some gardening, was meeting Gus. Gus was a young African-American man, in his mid-30's, who worked with us on both beds, and heard us comment about something new we had seen when we first moved to Indiana. When we were done for the day, he walked along Mass Ave with us and asked how long we had been in Indiana. When we told him we'd lived here about 10 years, he commented that at the same time we were moving to Indiana from Tennessee, he was moving here from Zimbabwe.

Gus and his wife had moved to the US from Zimbabwe in 2000. They came with very little money and a TV-fueled vision of an easy life in the States. What they found here was a much harder life than they imagined, but one that has been both challenging and successful. Gus got his MBA from the University of Indianapolis and he and his wife have recently started a laundry business. He talked about the differences in culture between Zimbabwe and the US. The biggest difference, he said, was that people in the US are persistent. His favorite American phrase was "Failure is not an option" - an idea that he and his wife repeated to themselves many times as they launched their new business.

We enjoyed a buffet lunch of cold cuts and pizza at picnic tables in the Rathskellar's Biergarten. Gus introduced us to two young women, also from Zimbabwe. We compared notes on good places to eat cheap in Indy. One of the women, Amanda, said she loved to eat "street food" wherever she traveled. She told us about a guy here who sells Mexican food out of the back of his car, late at night, near 38th St. and High School Rd. She also told us where to find the best fish tacos - a small hole-in-the-wall place on New York St. at State Avenue. We'll be checking that out later in the Staycation.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The "Staycation" - Part 1

We're doing a stay at home vacation - a "staycation", as I've heard it called. I'm taking a week of vacation, but we're not going anywhere. Anywhere outside of Indiana, that is. At first, this seemed like an approach that lacked creativity and imagination. But as I've worked through the last week leading up to the vacation, I've gotten a better focus on the possibilities.

We recently received the annual "Indianapolis Monthly City Guide", which contains a series of articles on the things you should see in your hometown. We're going to do a bunch of those things...and probably a few others that didn't make the magazine.

Let's start with Friday night - "staycation eve"...

I was driving home on Friday afternoon, a little before 5 (yes, I snuck out early), with the stereo up loud, singing along to Blind Faith.

(It's really true - you can find anything on the Internet!)

As I approached the I-465 loop, I got a call from my friend Dan. "Hey", he said, "My daughter won a happy hour party at Howl at the Moon. We're going there as soon as I get home and change. Why don't you and Mary join us?"

We'd never been to a place called Howl at the Moon, though my friend Sherod used to talk about it as a concept when we lived in Memphis and needed to let off some steam. (As in, "Come on over tonight, we'll sit on the deck, drink some wine and howl at the moon." We'd go over, sit on the deck, drink some wine, and usually howled with laughter, if not directly at the moon.)

The local Howl is a quick 15 minute walk from our place, and it turns out to be a great concept. They bill themselves as the home of the "World’s Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Dueling Piano Show". We arrived right at 6pm and found the place was packed, or so we thought. Because we were there for a party, we didn't have to pay the $5 cover charge. We found Dan and Dona, his wife, and their daughter and her friends at the far side of the room, close to the bar, with a good view of the stage. There were two large pianos, facing each other, ready for the duel. The music for happy hour was provided by one piano player, a bass player and a drummer. They played non-stop til almost 8pm. It was loud, fast and just right.

Throughout the Happy Hour, the place got louder and busier. They had a buffet set up near where we were sitting. It was standard fare - nachos, tacos, hot dogs and salads - but the staff maintained it continuously throughout the evening. The beer was cold, and priced right - Bud Lights were $2 during Happy Hour.

At 8, the band packed up and were replaced by two piano players. They launched into a fast-paced show, taking requests from the audience (attaching a dollar or two to the request helped get attention) and bantering with the crowd. There were opportunities to sing along (we did) and to dance on the stage (we didn't).

We stayed til about 9, then headed home with smiles on our faces and a ringing in our ears. It had been loud, rowdy, fun and inexpensive. Our tab, with tip, was $22. A great way to start the "Staycation".

Thursday, March 19, 2009

How You Know You're a Bad Golfer

Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously wrote that "In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love". I can vouch for that...I was a young man, once.

Being a bit older now, as spring approaches I find my thoughts lightly turning to thoughts!

There is a whole list of parallels between the two (love and golf, that is) - the cost involved, the way you start out as a novice and maybe get better at it - depending on your tolerance for embarrassment, the seemingly endless potential for heartbreak punctuated by moments of joy...but that's an analysis for another day. Today I want to focus on the half of that pair that I'll admit to being bad at - yes, golf again!

Here are 10 of the ways I know I'm a bad golfer. If you're honest (a stretch here, since most golfers, like lovers, like to embellish their accomplishments), you'll probably conclude that you're a bad golfer, too.

  1. My handicap is not a numeric score, it's the way I swing the club.

  2. I believe that mulligans, like praise for children and puppies, should be dispensed frequently.

  3. I get the scorecards and little pencils because I like to collect the little pencils.

  4. Tallying my score on any given hole may require counting the digits on both hands, and at least one foot.

  5. I don't know what to do with a 3-iron, but my foot wedge always gets a workout.

  6. Starting a round with less than a dozen balls is risky business.

  7. A confession: I have occasionally pocketed a range ball, knowing that I'll give it back before I reach the 18th tee.

  8. I never met a water hazard that I didn't like...or miss.

  9. "Shaping a shot" is a fantasy I entertain occasionally, like breaking 100...ok, like breaking 120.

  10. The one or two perfect shots that happen unexpectedly during every round are just enough to keep me coming back for more. A bad golfer is an eternal optimist.

Here's maybe the be best thing about golf: Like love, even if you're bad at it, it's still fun!


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Things that make you say "#$%^&*()!!"

On last night's TV news there was a quick blurb about how Andrew Card, George W. Bush's chief of staff, had commented that President Obama was showing disrespect for the Oval Office by dropping W's rule that coats and ties had to be worn at all times.

My reaction would have shocked my mother. (She doesn't think I use that kind of language. Sorry, Mom.)

We just finished eight years of constitution trampling, waterboarding, WMD-faking, country-wrecking (Afghanistan, Iraq and the US), world alienating bullshit by the last occupant of the White House and his cronies, all of which showed utter contempt and disrespect for the rule of law, the goodwill of the world, and the intelligence of the American people. Whether or not the new president and his advisors wear coats and ties while they are working to unravel this mess makes absolutely no difference.

What's that old saying we use to describe a person who has fully engaged in a new task? We say he has "rolled up his sleeves". Roll 'em up, Barack! We'll roll ours up, too.

I could have continued my rant, but the folks at the "Think Progress" blog and their readers have said everything else I might want to say. (And Mom, don't read the comments...they get a bit crude. Hysterically funny, but crude.)