Monday, July 31, 2006

Sweating on the Tube

After enjoying the high life of the business class lounge, I boarded British Airways flight 114 to fly business class to London overnight. Once settled into my seat, I was handed a glass of champagne. Although I had already consumed several drinks in the lounge, I find it hard to resist champagne! After takeoff I rested my weary and by now somewhat inebriated head on a cloth pillowcase, pulled my blanket up under my chin, and slept soundly for nearly 5 hours in the “cocooned environment with award-winning armchair style seat that converts into a 6-foot fully flat bed.” At daybreak I was awakened to croissants and fresh fruit for breakfast. (I turned down the bacon roll.) The coffee was terrible, so I traded it for tea which was fantastic.

Once we landed and I got through customs, I collected my luggage and headed for the London Underground. The last time I was in London, the station was right there at Heathrow Airport. However, due to construction, one must now take a shuttle bus to the Hattan Cross station. I loaded my luggage onto the bus for the quick 5-minute ride. At Hattan Cross I got my Oyster card (weekly travel pass) and set off for the hotel via the tube (subway). I was pleased with myself for getting all I’d need for an 8-day trip into a rolling suit bag and my backpack-style laptop carrier. Both those bags were pretty full, granted, but there were only two of them. Very practical for traveling on the tube.

I had plotted a route that required only 2 changes on the Underground before switching to the Docklands Light Rail, the train went closest to my hotel in the Docklands on the far East side of London. Feeling confident and enthusiastic, I took the Piccadilly Line to the Jubillee Line, which promptly announced a power outage as soon as I reached the platform. Bad omen. Back I went to the Piccadilly Line via the very long underground passageway at that transfer point. I reboarded the Piccadilly line, going back 4 stops in the direction I had just come, so I could change to the District line. Up to this point I had been lucky enough to find lifts (elevators) so I could avoid lugging the rolling suit bag up and down stairs when changing trains. However, the District line had no lifts, and no escalators either. By now this trip was no longer fun. I rode the hot, unventilated District train for a very long way, then changed to the Docklands Light Rail (DLR) and in the process had to negotiate more stairs. Now, the DLR has about 5 different routes. I needed a Lewiston train which, wouldn’t you know it, wasn’t running that day! To get it, I was advised to take any train at all to the Westferry stop, then CHANGE AGAIN to the Lewiston train. In case you've lost count by now -- I know I did -- I'll summarize it for you: counting the shuttle bus, I transferred SEVEN TIMES in all, and spent over 2.5 hours on trains that were not air conditioned on one of the hottest days of the summer!

My husband asked me why I didn’t just bail out of the whole effort and take a cab. In hindsight, that’s what I should have done. But I had forgotten to get cash at Heathrow and wasn’t sure how easily I could find an ATM up on the street. Since I was unfamiliar with the neighborhoods where I was changing trains, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to hail a cab even if I was successful in getting cash. On the other hand, I was confident about my abilities to negotiate the London Underground, having been in London twice before. I figured it was best to stick with what I knew.

By the time I was checked into the hotel, my clothes were soaked with sweat. I peeled them off and jumped immediately into the shower. Afterwards, I thought about the lovely business class lounge and flight, followed by the muggy and sweltering trains with their power outages. What a contrast! A verse from the New Testament (Philippians 4:12) popped into my head. The Apostle Paul says, “I know both how to be abased and how to abound…” I guess I can say a hearty amen to that!

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Business Class Lounge

One very effective way to discover the difference money can make is to fly business class out of JFK on British Airways. My new job is sending me to London for training, so I'm having my first business class overseas flight experience. Please forgive me if I sound a bit like a kid in a candy store. I can’t help it.

After eight hours of laundry, errands, and packing in 85 degree heat and 100% humidity, I arrived at New York's JFK International Airport to find that my 8:35 pm flight to London had been delayed until 11 pm. Generally when flights are delayed, the airport becomes a madhouse. But not for business class passengers. Check-in was a breeze, only one person in front of me in the special business class line. Getting through security was also a piece of cake since there is a separate security checkpoint for business and first class passengers. Again, only one person in front of me going through security.

The Terrace Lounge, which British Airways shares with Iberia Airlines, is extensive and very pleasant. As I sit here in my cushioned Adiondack-style chair with footstool under a beach umbrella facing a zen-like fountain where water tumbles down into a bed of rocks with plants all around, let me describe my environment.

There is an area for business, of course. Desks, small tables and chairs, phones, faxes, copiers, PCs with access to the internet -- whatever you need placed in appropriately businesslike decor.

Need a break? Just around the corner is the snack zone. There you can graze on juices and sodas, chips and pretzels, cookies and fruit. Moving on, you come to the coffee corner with gourmet teas and coffees (including espresso and cappuccino machines) and freshly squeezed juices accompanied by mounds of fresh apples and oranges. Across from that is the bar area where wine and beer as well as hard liquor are attractively displayed for self-service. Off to the left is the Pre-Flight Supper buffet. Everything is “free.” Whatever you eat or drink is included in the hefty fare you already paid. And throughout, one finds a variety of sofas, chairs, recliners, tables -- all grouped for easy conversation or solitary relaxation.

After surveying the lay of the land, I helped myself to a glass of chardonnay and called my husband. This conversation was more relaxed than my frantic goodbye as I straddled a puddle to get into a cab in the rain. We chatted until my wine was finished, then I stowed my backpack laptop carrier in the bins provided for that purpose and headed off for my Pre-Flight Supper. There were many interesting selections, all served buffet style. I had a lovely salad with yet another glass of chardonnay. My main course was lamb stewed with shitake mushrooms and asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes and peas and carrots. (What can I say? Sometimes my love of the TASTE of good food is stronger than my vegetarian resolve.) I ate at a table that overlooked travelers entering the terminal, all more anxious and harried than I was at that moment.

A little card placed on the table suggested the diner should retire to the lounge area for an after-dinner liqueur. I took that advice, so here I am in my lounge chair under the indoor beach umbrella, sipping a cognac. Looking around, I notice that there are NO TELEVISIONS in this lounge. There was lovely jazz in the dining room. Here, there is some very faint background music, but no TV. Not even the BBC or CNN. It’s wonderful. My British friend Maurene described this absence of television as being very upper-class British.

And who are the other people in this lounge? Business travelers, of course. Some can’t resist working, evidenced by the phone calls I overheard. But there are also families. How much money does it take to fly an entire family business class? Maybe the fathers have so many frequent flyer miles that the families are flying free. But still, a lot of money was spent by someone at some point in time.

I noticed how much easier it is for mothers here to manage the needs of traveling toddlers. Mothers in the coach lounge were sitting on the floor along with their kids because it was so crowded (all the flights are delayed due to thunderstorms). Here, there is space, soothing music, relaxed atmosphere. One little Indian boy bumped his head in the dining room. A dining room worker brought the mother crushed ice stuffed into a latex glove. Not only did the ice soothe the boy’s head, the stiff fingers filled with ice made him laugh.

This lounge is nice, but not sumptuous. It doesn’t reek of wealth. I’m sitting in a wooden chair fitted with plain cloth covered cushions. The cocktail tables in the snack area are simple stainless steel with high stools placed around them. It is very clean, simple, and tasteful, but more importantly, it is secluded, not fraught with the anxiety of international travel. The element of luxury is based on the fact that we are separated from the masses.

Speaking of separation, there is another lounge for first class passengers. It probably is sumptuous. I shudder to think what the differences must be.

So… I have finished my cognac. I still have about an hour before boarding. To tell you the truth, I don’t care how late the plane is! I am perfectly content here. Sometimes working for a living has its advantages. And although I am not working tonight, I must say… I LOVE THIS JOB.

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Inspired by Joanie

Photo by Linda Mason Hood
Well, for me it wasn't Irish Arts Week, it was just Irish Arts Days. But what a glorious two days they were! I had two lessons with Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies and one lesson with Laura Byrne. I played in two large group sessions and heard many fantastic performances.

The lessons with Joanie Madden were the highlight of my time in the Catskills (as evidenced by this picture -- I'm the smiling face in the lavender shirt). Joanie is the only major Irish traditional artist who plays the silver flute. All the others play the wooden flute. Since the flute I own is a professional concert flute, I have been trying to figure out how to execute the ornaments so that they sound like they do on the wooden flute or the tin whistle. I hoped to pick up some pointers from Joanie.

A good silver flute can be coaxed into coming very close to the fat, dark sound of the wooden flute, but the player must work on his or her embouchure to be able to produce a consistently strong sound in the low register. Joanie's low register is absolutely amazing. I've never heard anyone make the sounds she makes on low D. Her solid silver heavy weight Miyazawa flute gives her a little assistance, but her technique is the main element in the sound she produces. She doesn't teach embouchure exercises or advise practicing "low tones." She tells of her own experience -- just playing a low D until she could produce a "dirty D" (a phrase used by older musicians that she knew). Once she got it, she practiced for weeks until she could get it on demand. Reflecting on her method, it seems like your ear has to guide you. To train my ear, I've decided to practice with headphones on, listening to HER sound while I play. If I can solidly implant that sound in my head and work on reproducing it even without the headphones, maybe I can make it mine. By the way, this is an original idea as far as I know. I've never heard anyone talk about developing sound or tone with the method I just described.

Some creative fingerings and stylistic finesse are needed to to get the ornaments of Irish music to sound "right" on the silver flute. I had figured out some cuts and rolls on my own, but Joanie taught me some new tricks (taps and slides). She also talked a bit about how the ornamentation lends rhythmic emphasis, which plays a role in where the ornaments are placed.

Yes indeed, it was a great two days. I learned a lot, I knew more tunes this year in the sessions, amd most importantly, I came away with renewed passion to play this music well. Now all I have to do is practice, practice, practice!

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Career Satisfaction, part 2

(This post is an addendum to the 5/22 piece entitled Career Satisfaction. )

Four weeks into my new job at Reuters and I am still happy with it. The global atmosphere there is really refreshing. In my group are 9 people. Most of them regularly speak more than one language in the office. Only 3 of us have American accents. One person is from Britain, one from Mexico, one from Argentina, one from Ireland, one from Asia, one from the Caribbean. The rivalry and teasing surrounding the World Cup games these last two weeks has been very amusing!

I am making good progress figuring out what my job is and how to do it. I know that sounds weird, but nobody in the US does what I am supposed to do, so there is no one to teach it to me. The other people who do what I do are all in London, so it was decided that I should go there the week of 7/24 to work with and learn from them. I'm very excited about that, and about the whole trip in general. I will be flying business class and was encouraged to take advantage of the weekends to visit with my good friend Maurene and do some sightseeing. So stay tuned... this blog will become a travel diary very soon, complete with pictures!

When I realized I would be changing jobs this summer, I decided not to go to the Irish Arts Week in the Catskills. For the last two years I've signed up for a week's worth of flute or whistle lessons and basked in the rarified air produced by playing and listening to Irish music from morning til the wee hours of the NEXT morning. Well, Irish Arts Week has arrived. Monday evening I was really depressed thinking of all my Irish music friends up in the pavilion on the hill in East Durham listening to wonderful music, and there I was in my hot kitchen trying out a new vegetarian recipe. After much deliberation, I decided I had to go too, just for the last 2 days if nothing else. I mustered my courage and after only one month's employment, I asked for 2 vacation days. My boss had absolutely no problem with it! As soon as I got off work, I rented a car, packed my bags, and at 6:30 am tomorrow I'll be on my way to East Durham.

So what more could a person ask from a job? Reasonable work and reasonable pay as well as interesting business travel and vacation at the right time! I LOVE THIS JOB!

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Confessions of a Meat Junkie

After a record-setting three months, my proud new vegetarian lifestyle has fallen apart. On a recent trip to Florida, vegetarian choices were few and dull. By the end of the week, my vegetarian resolve was sufficiently weakened to permit chicken. Faced with the post vacation stress of changing jobs, I reverted to old eating habits and the comfort they provide. One night my husband and I shared an order of Ta-Chien Chicken, a longstanding favorite Chinese dish. Last week we shared a plate of lovely German sausages at Zum Schneider. Sausages! It’s hard to call yourself a vegetarian when you eat sausages.

What were my original reasons for wanting to adopt vegetarian eating habits?
  • To avoid the unhealthiness of meat caused by the farming industry which has more regard for profits than for the animals’ quality of life and death
  • To eat a low-fat diet
  • To see if vegetarian eating would improve my digestion

My recent vegetarian stint was interesting, there’s no denying it. I felt generally less heavy and sluggish after eating, and my digestive system functioned better. However, I consumed significantly more cheese and drank a daily glass of soy milk which has the same fat content as whole milk. Hardly a low-fat diet! Consequently, I gained weight, which was not part of the plan. I found it more difficult to maintain vegetarian eating habits outside NYC and when life became stressful. Finally, I realized that, just like being on a Weight Watchers diet, sticking to a vegetarian diet means planning ahead and spending more time in food preparation.

Planning and food prep – without those, any type of diet is doomed. Unfortunately, I would rather spend my time doing most anything else. While my son was growing up, I felt it my motherly duty to put meals on the table. Now that he’s a college student, however, I feel less family responsibility around food. When my son is home during vacations, he eats with his friends in Brooklyn more often than not. My husband frequently eats on a different schedule than I do. So now the planning (or lack thereof) is all about me. It looks like I'm going to be forced to deal with the fact that planning and food prep are necessary if I want to be a vegetarian.

OK... taking a deep breath now, looking determined... OK then. Nothing left but to make a fresh start of it. Rather than make an elaborate plan for a whole week’s worth of meals, grocery shopping and cooking, maybe I should just plan one day at a time. Just commit to one day at a time, like a person who is trying to break an addiction. Hmmm… I wonder if there are any AA-type meetings for meat-eaters?

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement