Saturday, July 31, 2010

Insomnia everywhere

Almost without fail, when I check Twitter at night, I see one of my friends noting that they cannot sleep. I've noticed it even more since moving to the west coast since when I'm lounging on the couch, my east coast friends are already in bed.

Or should be.

And it's not me seeing them make updates and then interpreting it as insomnia. These folks actually discuss how they have insomnia.

And I can't help but wonder... why?

You have to understand that my average night involves me fading quickly into sleep once the 11 o'clock hour hits. I sleep like crazy. I sleep through just about anything. My wife stays up far later than me, but I would stay up later, too, if I had her schedule. I'm up at 6:15 every morning. She gets at least two more hours of sleep. Bottom line, though... neither of us are struggling to get our 40 winks.

Many of our friends are, though.

I am neither a doctor, nor a psychologist. But I don't think you need to be one to know that the inability to fall asleep cannot be healthy. From a standpoint of pure disease prevention, I know that when I've had a series of early mornings for a week, I can start to feel my throat get sore. And then I sleep. And away it goes. I almost never get sick. And while I think a healthy lifestyle has something to do with this, it can't hurt that I sleep well.

And in my non-professional capacity, I cannot say for sure why my friends are unable to sleep. But, of course, I have two theories.

The first is simple... anxiety. The time in my life I couldn't sleep was years ago and related to a specific stressful situation. I tossed and turned. I would wake up with a sore jaw from grinding my teeth. And the remarkable thing was that as soon as the situation was resolved, I went back to sleeping normally.

Certainly there is a significant amount of societal anxiety right now. The economy is odd and it seems to be dawning on people that there may not be a simple solution to that issue. Many are under pressure at jobs. Many are likely seeing plans on hold due to their financial situations. I can understand that. But for these folks, I would hope they could find a way to find a contentedness with their lots for the time being. As one of my favorite fictional characters once said... "Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."

The second theory I have is much more complicated and speaks more to our Gen Y culture's outlook than anything else. These people do too much. I could make a list of friends that spend their days at work, then the gym, then a class, then meeting friends, then doing 10 other things - performing, writing, teaching, speaking, you name it...

And I think when these folks start trying to do 10,000 different things, their minds never really relax. I have a ton on my mind about work every day. And a ton on my mind about life at home every day. And those are both two things I enjoy greatly. But I cannot imagine having something else on top of it.

Actually, I can... and when there is something else, I'm almost a mess. When we were preparing to move across the country I was extremely stressed out. And, certainly, I didn't sleep well. Why would I choose to get involved any any other pursuits that could do the same to me - something I would only be able to care too much about - voluntarily?

Yet, I see a ton of my friends doing this. There are folks I know who love their jobs, love their spouses... but spend hours of anxiety about something they took on themselves.

I'm not saying go to work, then go home. Each of us needs hobbies. But shouldn't the point of those be to de-stress? I love hiking. I bake. Now and then I sing. And I work hard at all of them, but not a one of those activities causes me an iota of anxiety about life.

I have friends who have taken on hobbies and pursuits that they claim to enjoy... but it's clear that they are giving themselves a whole new source of stress.

And I fear it could start to catch up with them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Taking the stress out of air travel

I spend a lot of time on the road. And this leads to any number moments where I complain about clueless travelers, crowded airports and other hilarity.

I realized I haven't relayed a lot of the things that can make your day of travel better... and maybe even help make those around you get where they're going more smoothly. I am hardly the be-all-end-all of travel advice, but I've found a few practical things to be very helpful.

  • Packing - I have no major packing tips. I stuff socks in my shoes. I fold, but I know that anywhere I go will have an iron. And when my trip involves multiple cities, I totally recycle a shirt. I'm not some slob that gets every shirt dirty every day. Big ground rule... if I think I might need something, I usually don't pack it. For example, I might need my swim trunks. I can think of exactly one business trip in my life where they've been used. Leave 'em. Hanging at the pool with coworkers can be done in any attire.
  • Check in the night before. This should go without saying. If you cannot, please don't look confounded by the check-in kiosks. You're gonna need to swipe a credit card. It won't charge you... I promise. You might need to know your confirmation number. Generally, if you have a smart phone of any description it's not so hard to simply put this next to the calendar entry for your flight.
  • Phone numbers - primarily your airline's number. Landed late and you know you missed your connection? Don't scramble around the airport like the world is ending. Call your airline as soon as you land. Which brings us to...
  • Be nice. I imagine every customer service rep has a bad day every day. But airline customer service reps have to deal with tears, rage, stupidity and more... every 10 minutes or so. Even the ones not getting yelled at are dealing with some guy who walks up to the gate counter every five minutes to ask if his upgrade came through. Smile. Tell the person helping you that you know it's not their personal fault your plans are screwed. I've had people bend over backwards to help me, just by being nice.
  • If you really want to get good customer service, know a little bit about the airline industry. You stuck in an airport loses the airline money whether they compensate with cash or not. They have to give you a seat they could otherwise sell. Provide them with solutions. A friend was sitting at JFK trying to fly south to Charlotte. Her flight kept getting delayed (mechanical reasons) and cancellation was looming. The airline, faced with having to rebook nearly 200 angry passengers was more than happy to switch her to a flight out of LaGuardia the same night when they were asked.
  • Store your smaller bag under the seat in front of you. Yeah, I know. Wouldn't it be great to have more legroom? If so, drive. You're on a plane. Do not put your purse up in the overhead when people have actual bags that can go there. When people put laptop bags and the like up top, other people stand around looking confounded... and that holds up the plane leaving on time. Also, once you're airborne, you can slide the bag out and place it under your knees... and discover all the legroom you wanted.
  • If at all possible, don't roll your suitcase down the aisle. Carry it the 40 feet to the jetway. Trust me.
  • Security - The TSA has a lot of rules. One of them is not wait until you're at the metal detector to take out your toiletries/take off your shoes. Have your things in accessible places and have them ready.
  • Book smart. What I mean is, if you have a choice of connection cities, it's almost always a smoother connection the farther west your connection is (note: does not apply to O'Hare). Up north, congested airports can mean any number of issues with making your connection... congestion of air traffic and weather are conspiring against you making the switch at Logan, Philly and any NYC airport. Airports like Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake, Cleveland, Memphis, Minneapolis... these are massive, multi-runway airports that can handle incoming and outgoing planes in ways that antiquated airports in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cannot.
Beyond these, I would advise any traveler to simply be patient. Millions of people fly every day. Moving millions of people around up in the sky is no easy task... especially if we want everyone to survive the trip.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Topless

I drive a Camry. Probably will for a lot longer, too. You don't buy a Toyota because you want a four-year car. You buy a Toyota Camry because you want a reliable car. And you know, not only that, but my Camry is quiet. It has 6-cylinder giddyup in a 4-cylinder engine. It gets 600 miles to the damn tank at highway speed. The worst problem it ever had was needing a new battery.

You could say I am not one to go overboard about a car. And then I got to LAX last night.

I take whatever car Avis gives me on business trips unless it is an atrocity (looking at you PT Cruiser...). If asked, I prefer a car with satellite radio, sun roof and, if in the Northeast, EZPass.

Last night, at LAX, I had a convertible Sebring waiting for me. Tonight, I decided to see what that was really like.

After a looooong day of work throughout Southern California (picture filming, in the desert, in searing heat, in dress clothes and then still having to drive to LA), I met a friend for dinner downtown. A significant side effect of this dinner: rush hour traffic went away.

So, as I got my car from the parking deck, I knew the following and carefully took each into account:

  • I had a convertible
  • It was still light out
  • I had, in all likelihood, no traffic in front of me
  • I had 55 miles to drive
Folks. FOLKS. I hit the 60 freeway with the roof down and a damned smile. Let's face it. California wasn't built to be taken in by train or bus. It was built to be taken in at high speed, the silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains framing the horizon as you zoom down the freeway.

It's funny. I love my quiet car. Driving a convertible at highway speed is not quiet. In fact, on a 10-lane freeway, it's loud. Cars passing are even louder.

But with XM satellite radio booming, who cares? They were even playing the songs I wanted to hear. It was the single planetary alignment of perfect driving conditions in the one place in the USA where, when driving conditions are perfect (read: the mess of Southern California freeways), it's flipping brilliant.

I basically had my own personal roller coaster for the better part of an hour.

And what's interesting: blind spots in a convertible suck. Until the top is down. Then you can see everything.

Last March, I made almost the identical drive from LA to Riverside at the height of rush hour. It was misery. I was in an unruly SUV in stacked up LA traffic the whole way to the Inland Empire (which is neither inland, nor an empire... discuss). Tonight, was the polar opposite.

Don't believe in karma? You clearly weren't in the passenger seat tonight.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hiking Ira Springs Trail to Bandera Mountain

Since moving to the Northwest, Sarah and I have been doing all we to explore out new neck of the woods. We're trying to explore all Seattle has to offer (and maybe at least learn whether Spring St. or Seneca St. comes first when traveling through downtown).

And, as you might expect, I've been trying to take advantage of hiking in this area since you can barely drive 10 miles without passing a trailhead. Sarah has been going with me on a few of them as we're both gearing up for an August trip up Mt. Katahdin back east.

Knowing that Katahdin is a 4,000-foot ascent, I decided it would be wise of me to start going uphill on some hikes. Since moving to Seattle I've has some steep climbs up to the Rattlesnake Ledges and at Wallace Falls State Park.

But I hadn't done anything that was a true mountain hike, going out above the timber line into exposed areas and all the trimmings.

That changed today, when I walked up Bandera Mountain, a 5,100-foot mountain near Snoqualmie Pass. The trail is a 3-mile route to a "false summit" (the actual summit is much harder to reach and not much higher), ascending 3,000 feet in the process. Let's remember that fact.

Why this trail? According to my trail guide... "views south the Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams." And, the weather people said that the clouds would burn off this morning and we'd have a beautiful day the rest of the way.

So, I was pretty undaunted by the clouds on my drive out to Snoqualmie in the late morning. In fact, as I was driving, the sun was starting to peek through from time to time. I drove down the USFS road (past an active logging operation, by the way) thinking my timing would be right on... that I would arrive at the summit and be welcomed by sunshine and views. I dug into the Ira Springs Trail.

An old friend used to describe some mountain hikes as "uphill hikes." Granted, when you are climbing a mountain, they're all uphill, right? Honestly, the 2,000-foot walk up Grandfather Mountain in NC felt flat compared to say, Overlook Mountain in the Catskills. And Bandera, it needs to be known, is an uphill hike.

But it starts off pretty easily. Past some lovely views of the Snoqualmie Valley... and where I could see the clouds still stubbornly scraping the tops of surrounding mountains. Let's go sunshine. Get it done.

Now, the trail guide says "ascend steeply." That pretty much captured the way of things from 0.5 miles to a trail junction at 2 miles. There, the trail guide says, "begin climbing a trail that could use steps and ladders."
Understatement.

Bear in mind, I'm well out of trees and into a field of brush and large talus (read: boulders). And, this is going to sound insane, but looking up the trail is basically just looking up. The stairway in your home is less steeply pitched than some of the spots on this trail. No really:
That's looking to the side, so I was hiking up that pitch. Oh! And see that fog? Yeah, at this level, I was actually within the clouds that didn't burn off. When the wind blew, I am willing to guarantee the pitch of the hill was made up of more degrees than the temperature.

I honestly have no idea how people were climbing this without telescoping trekking poles. It was no picnic with them and I am sure I couldn't have done it without them.

So I reach the ridgeline after the toughest climb of my hiking career. No view to speak of, but... there was snow. Oh yes, friends, on July 5, 2010, I touched snow in the northern hemisphere.

I do wish I could have had the nice view. I mean do a Google image search of Bandera Mountain and it gets pretty cool pretty quickly.

But the toughest thing about this hike... and the one I would tell anyone reading who might hike this trail (and judging by the comments from the last time I blogged a tough hike now and then some of those people read this blog): be prepared for descending the trail from the summit. The talus field is not overly difficult, but it's not a forgiving place... miss a step and, from what I could tell in the gloomy fog anyhow, it could be a few hundred feet of rolling before you stop. Again, without my poles, no idea how I would've coped.

Also, the tough climb is one of the most exposed places I've been. If I hadn't had extra layers, hypothermia wasn't out of the question. If the sun had been out, it would've been an easy sunburn. Be prepared for that.

Still, I have to say that as I was climbing, I kept asking myself if it was really worth it. Now, back in Seattle on my couch (where there, it must be noted, isn't a cloud in the sky and the sun is literally in my eyes), I would love to go back and do this hike again. And I likely will.

Just hope I can take the sun with me this time.