Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Owe, I Owe, So Off to Work I Go

There are so many things in life I hate. I wish I could list them all for you, and then you'd get an idea of why I'm the miserable old bastard I am.

I pulled out onto the road leading out of the campus where I work today at 4:45 p.m. The first half mile of my trip was normal; nothing thereafter was, however.

I came upon a line of traffic backed up at the light on the first intersection with a road that didn't go into another campus in the commercial area. The miniature river of red tail lights winked at me in defiant mockery. I hit the brakes and rode them the rest of the way to the intersection. I was greeted there by another, slow-moving inchworm of traffic that snailed its way down the winding, two-lane road. About another half mile up, the traffic ceased movement altogether.

I've dealt with nasty traffic on this particular stretch of road before. It slaloms through the swank Riverwoods area and is patrolled often and well by police eager to raise revenues and keep wealthy homeowners from complaining. The 35 mph speed is best observed, particularly at high-traffic times. A pull-over not only costs the one being pulled over time and money, it can stop or delay the movement of the road for miles in both directions.

I let my foot off the brake a few times and realized I wasn't going to get home early, after all.

I thought, initially, that perhaps the additional flow was due to holiday-seekers sneaking out early to jump on their four-day weekend. A huge number of people will take the Friday before a three-day weekend off (or the Monday following) and extend their leisure. Still, the traffic was thick and crawling in BOTH directions ... highly unusual. I let up and the brake, crept 10 feet, and stopped again. I heard a sound and realized I'd LOUDLY sighed in resigned exasperation. Then I heard another sound.

A woman in a minivan trying to turn onto the crossroad to my left was yammering at me. "Does this Portwine street go to Lake Cook Road??" her irritatingly grating voice intruded into my solitude. "I have no idea," I sneered, knowing full well it didn't. She rolled her eyes in frustration and let her ham hock of a paw drop hard onto her steering wheel. She'd know soon enough, and the very road she was turning from was the one that led to the street she sought. What am I, I thought, Tom-Tom? 411? Get a frickin' MAP, I thought, and called my wife.

The kids were screaming in the background. She put the phone down and I heard a bellowing, followed by a few seconds of silence behind it like a boat's wake. But before the conversation resumed, the clamor started again.

More bellowing. A threat is issued. A few seconds of quiet. Phone conversation continues. Cacophony in the background a few seconds after that.

I let the brake off and crept some more. I wondered how far I'd gone. It appeared to be less than six miles. It took me nearly forty minutes.

My wife told me she had a headache. More caterwauling in the background. Another threat, followed by a shouted imperative to get off the bed. Reiteration of the headache. I offer to pick up dinner and immediately regret my offer. In two days, I've spent a total of three or four hours with her and the kids. I ask if they want to go with me and offer to pick them up, then creep some more. Not really, she says. See you when you get home.

I hang up, trying to have some mercy on her. I know from headaches; I get migraines triggered by sinusitis. It's a joy. If she's got a headache, and the kids are out of control ... well, I can only say it was God's grace that it was her at home and not me.

Let the foot off the brake. Creep. Stop. Wait. Creep. Stop. Wait. Wait some more. Still more. Creep ahead.

Nearly an hour in the car now, and I haven't gone even seven of the TWENTY miles I have to traverse to get home. The weather was warm, much warmer than I wanted, but the wind was blowing stoutly without becoming that obnoxious, uneducated and uncouth wind so common in the Chicago area. With both windows down, I didn't need the non-existent air conditioner ... thank God.

I blew air through pursed lips and listened to them slap together, effectively giving a raspberry to everyone that cared. I heard a man speaking over his hip-hop into his cell phone declare that he HAD come from [Route] 60, and where the fuck is he now?? I wondered who was on the other end of that conversation. Spouse? Co-worker? Mistress? Drug dealer? Then it came to me -- I didn't care.

Let the foot off the brake. Move a whopping 20 feet this time. Then again. Hmm. I'd rounded a bend in the road and from my vantage point at the crest of what passes for a hill in Illinois I could see the red and blue flashers blazing far distant from me. They appeared to be in the middle of the next major intersection, cutting off westbound traffic and forcing cars to go either north or south ... onto the very street where I was slugging my way home.

It took me another twenty minutes of inching along to finally reach that intersection. A few seconds before I did, two police cruisers floated lazily past me going south. The first had his window down, and all I could hear was the cackling laughter spilling out of his mouth and into the cars of the people he was passing. I wondered what could have been so funny. A maiming in the accident that had traffic blocked? A death, perhaps? Or just the idea of the rest of us being stuck in the mess while he can turn on his lights and rush to Dunkin' Donuts for another dozen? Then it came to me -- I didn't care.

Two hours and twenty-three minutes later, I finally walked into my house. I was greeted by my glass-eyed wife and, when his video game permitted, by my son. And soon, it's off to bed. So despite leaving twenty minutes early, I was nearly two hours later.

Just one of the things on that long list of things I hate. Traffic.

It's probably near the top.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Some Thoughts on my Trip to PR

Well ... I'm back from Puerto Rico, and have finally a few moments to tell some things about my trip.

The first thing I'd like to say about Puerto Rico is, that the people here seem very nice. They're friendly and will smile and say hello as you pass them in hallways and on the street. That's the first thing I'd like to say.

The next thing I want to say is that I've never been so grateful to God Almighty in Heaven for seat belts in my entire life. Ever. Period.

Turn signals, people! They're standard on ALL VEHICLES! Try 'em! PLEASE!!

"Driving" as you may know it in the United States does not exist here. I've never driven in places like New Yawk or Noo Joyzee, so I can't comment on those places. What I CAN say is that the IT contact person here, Robert(o), is FROM New York -- specifically, the Bronx, I believe he said. And HE told me that people down here are CRAZY when driving. So -- there you have it. I didn't really need him to tell me that, but having him confirm that even NY drivers aren't as bad was something of a confirmation of my suspicions.

There are some other things about PR that are sort of interesting. For instance, the sky hasn't really been blue since I've been here. It's kind of a humid-blue, the same sort of grayish off-toned blue that I remember from the south eastern US. The humidity is high, but there is a steady and nice sea breeze blowing most of the time. It's not an obnoxious wind like in Chicago or, even worse, where I grew up in California. It's a gentler, quieter breeze that has a sea-mist smell (most of the time) and has learned its manners from its world travels. It's unobtrusive and welcome, polite and helpful. Being here has reminded me how much I love, and miss, the ocean. And I occasionally flatter myself with the belief that the ocean loves and misses me too. (Yeah, whatever.)

Anyway, the food in PR is very interesting. I've had two absolutely OUTSTANDING meals while I've been here (and I have less than 24 hours to go, so I doubt I'll top those two). One was at Ruth's Chris restaurant, and that's kind of unfair, since it's technically a Texas restaurant that's grown and spread. The prime beef they receive is second to none on earth, and is some of the most deliciously perfect beef you'll ever find. If you haven't been to a Ruth's Chris Steak House yet, please go and treat yourself to an exquisite meal. It's horrifically expensive and worth every penny, I promise.

So, I don't count Ruth's Chris. By the bye, I had a Kobe sirloin, which is from Japan, the famous Kobe marbled beef. I must tell you it was divine.

Sorry, I digress. And now my mouth is watering.

All right, so I can't really count Ruth's Chris. It would have been a horrible shock if that meal had been BAD, so let's scratch that one. The other fantastic dinner came from a place called The Parrot Club in the district known as Old San Juan. I don't know why it's ''Old", because most of the buildings down there were in much better condition and maintenance than the area where we were staying. But I suspect it's because that is where San Juan originally started, and it has since sprawled over the rest of the area and eventually swallowed the surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs so that now it's a metro area of a million people. The district is clean, well-lit and packed with high-end hotels, bars and restaurants, and I suppose if I'd spent more time there, shops and boutiques. It's the area wherein conventions are held, and where the huge (and I do mean HUGE) cruise ships port for the vacationers to shop and play on dry land. Some of the streets are paved with very unique and attractive bricks made from local minerals that are naturally a violet-hued color. The buildings seem reminiscent of New Orleans style architecture (based solely on the photos of NO that I've seen, never having been there), but are colored with bright Caribbean vibrancy. Not garishly so, but lots of yellows, turquoise or aquamarine ... colors along those lines. And plenty of white. The area is a sort of peninsula that juts into the water from the east as is surrounded on the west by the ocean(s), so there's really only one way in or out.

Of course, those lovely violet-brick streets are absolutely CRAMMED with cars, taxis and pedestrians. There isn't much of a sidewalk to speak of on a lot of those streets, so you spend as much time negotiating your way through the crowds as you do enjoying the sites. It was more warm and humid that I cared for to be walking about, but the breeze courteously kept me from dripping in sweat, and the ocean whispered quietly in the background to remind me that it was there. As we walked along the southern end of the peninsula on the inlet where the cruise ship docks the wave action was a calm lapping against the stone and concrete walls that kept the water at bay. The northern side of the peninsula was the Atlantic, with its tumbling, rough-housing waves foaming and playing at the beach.

So, Old San Juan was a pleasant experience. On one of those narrow, cobblestone streets was this Parrot Club bar and restaurant. We decided on that, and went in at the enticement of a Puerto Rican girl who would have been just as much at home in New York as she was here on her "Island of Enchantment". She challenged us with the statement that there was no place better; we took her up on her statement and were seated almost immediately (which I thought was a nice touch). Several beers and not enough appetizers later, we were served our meals. I had a skirt steak with a very Puerto Rican name that was glazed with a light, not-too-sweet barbeque sauce that was nothing short of extraordinary. It was topped with chopped green onions, and served beside a chile stuffed with goat cheese and a sweet corn tamal. Now, I thought "sweet corn" was something like a desert, implying that the base was corn meal and the dish was sweet. It actually meant just what it said: the base was sweet corn meal, not SWEETENED corn meal, and the tamal was savory. So, that was ... meh. I'm not a big fan of tamals, evidently.

At any rate, the meal was delectable. The skirt steak was tender and juicy, cooked perfectly, and despite the immense amount of chewing that comes along with that cut of beef, every morsel was enjoyable. I left nothing of the steak on my plate and was sad when it was over. One of the local beers -- it appears to be, by far, the most popular -- is called Medalla (pronounced med-EYE-ya) Light. It's a light beer. It's better than other light beers I've had, and I was actually grateful it wasn't any more robust than it was, but it was definitely a light beer. Oh well.

Those were the two best meals I had while I was here, and I would not hesitate to have them both again, even if I had to pay for them myself. Absolutely fantastic. If you're coming to Puerto Rico at any time, don't miss the Parrot Club and their skirt steak, and don't deny yourself Ruth's Chris, either. You haven't lived fully until you've had a Ruth's Chris steak.

So, now, here are some thoughts that ran through my head, but thankfully not out of my mouth, at some other places I've eaten.

"What's THAT??"
"Oh, look ... more plantains."
"What's THAT smell??"
"Am I supposed to EAT that, or is it a decoration?"
"Did they bring this from home? Did their mother cook it?"
"So ... you eat this EVERY Christmas? I'm sorry."
"Wow, there really ARE 101 ways to cook a plantain, aren't there?"
"Your definition of 'good' and mine are very, very different."
"Please God, don't let this come with plantains."
"Okay, I'm sure that's not supposed to smell like that."
"What part of the animal is that?"
"Wait a minute ... is that even edible??"
"You really, REALLY like pigs here, don't you?"
"Three milks? Like what -- cow, goat and say, cat?"
"What do you mean there's no English equivalent for this?"

There were others, of course, but I've tried to be polite and grateful, because as I mentioned, the people were warm and friendly and meant well. They deserve to be treated graciously.

Finally, I'm home at last. This entry is a collection of thoughts and things that I jotted down while I was there on the "Isle of Enchantment" (as they like to refer to it), and some final, closing things now that I'm home. I've never been gone on a business trip for so long, it failed miserably, and it was at BEST embarrassing. At worst, it was catastrophic for the product. But all should be well again on June 22, after which I will very likely have to travel far and wide again to roll the product out once more. For the last time, I hope. And maybe -- just maybe -- I won't have to go and do this after all. Perhaps by then, the manager I work for will trust his full-time resource (whose job description says "software deployment" and includes a statement about 40% travel -- unlike MINE) enough to send HER to these places to do this. I can always be reached by phone for help if needed.

*Sigh.* Well. It's over. And the best part of any trip is coming home to a loving and wonderful family and being able to bask in their welcome.

I can breathe again.