Miami (Oct 1)

And I was trying so hard not to get my hopes up.

The first practice session wasn’t until 1:30 today, allowing us to sleep obnoxiously late.  Of course this meant we missed the free breakfast at the hotel.  So we dodged 4 lanes of fast moving Miami traffic to get to the Starbucks across the street.  It was one of the largest Starbucks I’ve ever been in and only one person was working there.  But at least they spoke English.

Miami is a third world country.  Based on our experiences yesterday and today, there is a less than 50-50 chance that any clerk (fast food, convenience store, etc.) will speak passable English.  I guess the ability to count money is the only real job requirement.  Any conversation you overhear in a store or restaurant is more likely to be in Spanish than English.  Obviously there are a lot of native Spanish speakers in Phoenix as well, but it doesn’t seem nearly as pervasive as it does here.

The traffic in Miami pretty much sucks.  Part of this is due to the sheer volume of of cars and part of it is due to the lousy drivers.  There are the usual problems such as cell phone users that seem to permeate every large city now.  Then there are the retirees who drive like they’ve already been embalmed.  Then there seems to be a subset of the population that drives unusually slow for no apparent reason – I secretly suspect they are trying overly hard not to get pulled over because they either have outstanding warrants or lack proper documentation.

The racetrack here is like no other we’ve ever been to.  A long road lined with palm trees leads you to a grandstand painted in Art Deco colors.  Small artificial lakes dot the perimeter.  It’s a little surreal.  It’s also obnoxiously humid.  Walking around outside is like getting hit in the face with a damp towel.  I am having bad flashbacks to Texas in June.

The first practice goes well.  Scott is second fast and Dario is fourth.  Unfortunately, Will Power is first.  Goddammit.  Qualifying starts at 4:45.  We have drawn positions 21 and 23.  Normally, qualifying late is a disadvantage, since the track tends to heat up and get more slick as the session progresses.  Today the late draw is an advantage, as the track should actually start cooling off towards the end.  Ryan Briscoe takes the pole after his run.  He is topped by Will Power.  Double goddammit.  Then it’s Dario’s turn.  He smokes Will’s time, going more than 1/2 mile per hour faster.  In a sport where the first 10 qualifiers are often separate by two tenths of a second, this is huge.  Scott follows Dario.  This is tough, obviously we want Scott to do well but he is out of the championship race at this point, so the pole point means more to Dario.   Scott qualifies second.  No other significant contenders follow, so the order sticks.

This is the best possible qualifying outcome at the most critical point in the season.  Dario gets the pole and the extra point with Scott starting at his side.  As a teammate, Scott can provide a tremendous amount of support in helping Dario achieve a win tomorrow.  He can also lock up second place.  Finishing in the order we start will guarantee the championship.  Any other scenario requires a poor performance from Will Power, something that hasn’t happened too often this year.  Starting first and second also provides a tremendous psychological boost to the Target team and a corresponding deflation of hopes at Penske.  We are the fastest.  Nyah, nyah, nyah.  The head game is an important part of the sport.

So, just as I am trying so hard not to get my hopes up, we pull out an amazing performance in qualifying.   Tomorrow will be elation or heartbreak, there is no more middle ground.

I love this sport.

In the Air Again

We are now safely ensconced in our Miami hotel room.  It’s a very nice Hampton Inn near the airport, about 30 miles from the Homestead-Miami Speedway.  We are not staying closer to the track because the hotels by the track are flea bitten dumps that charge triple their normal rate of $60/night for race weekend.  Sometimes a 30 minute drive each way is well worth it.

We returned (MN) home from (AZ) home on Tuesday night and had one full day before taking off again.  In that day I managed to fit in a haircut, lunch, a massage and a facial.  I really, really did not want to pack last night for this trip.  For some reason I was dreading the thought of getting on another plane and staying at another hotel.  I’m feeling very pessimistic about our chances for winning the championship.  This is probably partially sheer exhaustion from all the travel and partially not wanting to get my hopes up and be disappointed.  I have definitely reached my boundaries on travel.  I guess it’s good to know my limits.

The flight to Miami was one of the emptiest we’ve been on in years.  With the exception of one exit row, there was only one other row on the plane with three people in it – ours.  After they closed the door to the plane, I pointed out to the man at the window that there were several aisle seats nearby that were empty, should he want to move somewhere with more space.  “That’s okay, I’m fine here.”  WHAT??  Who in their right mind wouldn’t move to a row with an empty middle seat?  Just our luck to have an insane person who likes to be packed in like a sardine.  So I ended up moving to the aisle seat across from Tim.

We arrived in Miami a little after 4 PM, so by the time we picked up our luggage and our rental car it was 5 on the dot.  So once again, we were flouting travel rule #2 – never land in a big city at rush hour.  (Refer to my post on Sonoma for our last transgression of this rule)  However, our hotel was literally right next to the airport so it was only a 15 minute drive even with the ridiculous traffic.  We copped out and went to a large mall near the hotel to find dinner, figuring it would offer some decent options.  Sadly, we ended up eating at Buffalo Wild Wings.  My grilled chicken salad was lame compared to what I could get at Culver’s or Wendy’s.  I guess people don’t go to Buffalo Wild Wings for the salad.  When the check came, we found that the tip was already included.  Not sure if this is a common practice in Miami or just a peculiarity of the mall or the restaurant.  It actually just made it more confusing because the included tip was 16% and we always tip at least 20% unless the service is aggressively bad.

Keeping my fingers crossed that tomorrow will be better.

Better to Give

One of the signs of impending old age is that it gets to be more fun to give presents than to receive them.  I don’t remember exactly when this started happening to me, but I definitely became aware of it once I crossed into my forties.  To be fair, part of it is due to being able to buy pretty much anything I want/need for myself.  At least anything that anyone else would ever consider buying and giving to me as gift.  I’m incredibly picky about things like clothing and jewelry, so I’d rather just choose them myself.  My husband and I came to an agreement a few years back (at my suggestion) that we would not give each other anything other than cards and token gifts for the standard occasions.  So for my birthday this year I received a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says and for our anniversary it was a really nice mechanical pencil for doing crossword puzzles.  I loved them both.

Okay, I sense the men in the audience applauding and the women groaning.  But it was just as hard for me to find cool gifts for my husband as it was for him to pick something out for me.  So it made sense to just cease and desist.  It takes the pressure off and we can just enjoy the occasion rather than stressing out about the presents.  And I do stress out about buying gifts.  It’s really important to me to find gifts that suit the recipient and will be appreciated.  I don’t like copping out and giving giftcards either, although I have resorted to it on a few occasions.

I purchase a lot of gifts when we travel.  In some respects it’s risky, because I’m giving something that obviously can’t be returned or exchanged.  But I usually do it for people I know really well and who don’t have the opportunity to travel themselves, like my mom.  I’m pretty good at it, judging by the reactions.  Unless I’m underestimating their acting skills.

I don’t have a lot of people to buy gifts for, so I can afford to be extremely picky about it.  My brother and I agreed many years ago not to exchange gifts.  My mom is really easy to buy for.  My dad is impossible, of course, so I have to get pretty creative there.  My brother has a step daughter and son, with three kids of their own.  I buy Christmas gifts for all the members of the family and birthday gifts for the kids.  (I’ve never been big on buying birthday presents for adults)  The little ones are easy – the four year old (our goddaughter) gets adorable dresses and the baby gets cute baby clothes.

Their oldest son turns 13 in two weeks, which is a really tricky age.  He’s obviously not a child anymore, but he’s not an adult yet either.  When he was younger, I got in the habit of buying clothes for him.  Their grandparents and parents always provided a lot of toys, so I didn’t really want to compete there.  Plus, kids always need new clothes.  Of course, buying clothes for a 13 year old is a lot harder than a 7 year old.  Fortunately, he is really into skate board brands and cool shoes, so I’ve managed to keep finding things he likes.  I gave him his present early this year, since we won’t be back in Phoenix until late Oct or early Nov and I thought early was better than late.

He opened the packages in front of us and almost immediately tried everything on except for the T-shirt.  (black leather Converse high-tops, dark skinny jeans and a funky hoodie that zips all the way up to show a pair of sunglasses and mouth that you can see and breathe through)  Judging by his reaction, everything was a hit.  So my status as the cool aunt is still intact.

Now I just need to start working on Christmas presents.

Spam Spam Spam Spam

Reading through the spam comments posted to my site was starting to irritate me, so about a month ago I installed some software that screens the comments and automatically tags the spam ones.  I still have to go into the spam folder periodically and delete them, but they no longer get mixed in with any real comments.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the spam is either blatant advertising in the body of the comment or a generic comment with a hyperlink in the commenter name.  At first, the bulk of what I received was in the first category.  They always start out something like this:  “Sick of getting low amounts of useless visitors for your site? or Hey guys i wish to share with you a way i make $500 daily and i only spend 5 minuites doing it a day!” Many of the messages are identical, down to the typos and bad grammar.

I checked the spam folder recently in order to delete the latest batch and noticed an interesting shift.  Now I seem to be getting more of the second type of spam.  Still annoying, yes, but quite often inadvertently humorous as well.  So I thought I would share a few before I send them off into oblivion.

Some are vague and innocuous:

“I’m very happy you took the time and wrote that post

Kindest regards,

“Thank you for sharing this! I found a few interesting sites here”

“Hi there this post is very interesting. I’ll use it for my essay. Can you tell me some related articles I could use too?”

Some are cryptic:

“Hey Gale, whatever dude.”

“Callie fail?!?


“Hey Alfonso, I doubt it..”

“I need to know exactly what Johnny will do with this


One even appeared to make sense in response to the post (on Starbucks):

“So, is it true A wonderful, straightforward blend of Latin American coffees.”

But the best ones contain some startling examples of the English language:

“My son was laughing at me when reading one paragraph on your blog “……” it makes me to feel more intelligent after reading it.”

“This can be one of the most authoritative discussions I ever encountered in a long time, I’m talking about this component of your article “……” it also reminded me about the day I ran across my husband.”

“wow I realistically including your current webpage persist in keep approach which are information I definitely should pop in multiple another time to read by means of several approach added thanks.”

And my personal favorite:

“I haped to find out your post by accident in Google. Where by did you got all the entropy from? I intend SCREAM,.you got rocking selective information for your article. I care it genuinely educational. Can’t hold back for your future publishbest. Scholar loan integration companies.”

Having never been the target of Nigerian email scams, this is the first time I have been the recipient of manglish on this scale.  It does have an element of humor to it.  Yes, it’s still incredibly annoying.  This blog is an expression of myself, not some lame recycling of content in an attempt to drive traffic and make a few bucks.  I find it insulting to get comments like “Why have you taken out my post? It was very useful information and i promise atleast one person found it helpful unlike the rest of the comments on this website.” As if I should value spam comments more than real comments from real people who actually read what I write.  Yes, I know they are baiting me in an attempt to get me to respond to them so they can add my email to their collection.  I’m not falling for that.

Instead, I am getting my own little revenge by using their comments for blog fodder without giving them credit or including their links.

Take that, spammers.

Time Passes Slowly Here

Time is a tricky thing.  The busier you are, the more quickly it seems to pass.  The more tasks you have on your to-do list, the faster hours fly by.  The worst day at work is the rare one where your calendar is empty, your in-box is clean and you have no pressing deadlines.  Those days just crawl by.  I became more sensitive to this phenomenon after we bought our house in Phoenix.  My many years as a visitor to Phoenix have firmly imprinted this city in my mind as a vacation spot.  As soon as I step off the plane, my entire body lets out a big sigh and I shift into a lower gear.  Two or three days of just hanging out can feel like a full week.  Perversely, when we try to cram a lot into trip, usually when it’s a week or more long, it feels like a really short stay.

Whenever we are at our home in Minnesota, I always feel like I should be doing something.  Maybe because there’s always something needing to be done.  At our home in Arizona,  I can go for days without doing anything more ambitious than picking up a few groceries or checking out a new restaurant.  When I watch TV here, I actually just sit and watch TV.  In Minneapolis, watching TV is always accompanied by reading, working on my PC and/or eating.  Okay, I do still eat in front of the TV here.  We have beautiful dining room tables in both places that primarily collect dust when they aren’t being used as ad-hoc work spaces.

I don’t know if my lower gear mindset in Phoenix will change when we start spending the majority of our time here this winter.  Will it start to feel more like just being in another home, with all of the nagging tasks that implies?

I hope not.

Busting up a Starbucks

I have a gold card from Starbucks with my name on it.  This is a sign that I spend too much money at Starbucks.  Ironically, it doesn’t really take much to get one.  I had always used cash at Starbucks until I received a re-loadable giftcard last Christmas and for some reason decided to register it online.  Primarily because it allowed me to reload it online.  It’s actually quicker than paying cash and since we started traveling so much, it was handy to just use the card and save my smaller bills for things like cabs and tips.  Once you register and start reloading a card online, you become a much more valuable marketing commodity to Starbucks.  So they enroll you in their little loyalty program and start issuing you “stars.”  After spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $100, which is frighteningly easy to do at Starbucks, they send you a gold card with your name on it.  They also send you postcards for free drinks after you accumulate so many points and you get a free coffee for your birthday, so there is definitely some benefit to the whole thing.

It’s sort of amusing, since I am not a heavy Starbucks user by any means.  I rarely get anything other than a regular coffee and only recently upgraded the size from Tall to Grande.  Mostly because I object to having to order a cup of coffee by saying Grande Bold instead of medium dark roast.  They do really brainwash you about the lingo at Starbucks.  They’ll take your order if you say medium or dark but they will repeat it back as Grande Bold in a tone that suggests you please use the correct terminology next time.  Of course it’s only correct at Starbucks.  So it gets a little confusing when, on the rare occasion I visit a coffee shop other than Starbucks, I need to use normal terms or god forbid some other made-up lingo for that particular establishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Starbucks or I wouldn’t spend so much money there.  Their product is reliably good and you just have to admire any retailer that can take a product costing maybe 10 cents wholesale and get people to willingly pay $2 for it.  It sometimes makes you wonder if they put something other than coffee in their coffee.  I am not a coffee snob by any stretch of the imagination.  Other than the basic brew, my order has never been more complicated than a non-fat latte.  (I did learn the hard way never to order a latte in Europe – you will get hot milk)  In New Zealand we drank something called a flat white.  As best as I could tell, it was a no foam latte.

Most days when we are not traveling, we brew our own coffee.  By “we” I mean my husband, who is the designated coffee maker in the family.  We buy 3 pound bags of beans at Costco, paying about $13 per bag.  I haven’t figured out our exact cost per cup, but it can’t be more than about 30 cents.  The coffee tastes just as good as anything at Starbucks and the best part is you get to drink it in front of the TV in your pajamas.  So it was highly amusing to me when I recently received an email (the downside of the whole marketing thing) toting some exclusive new blend of coffee that was available for pre-sale to Starbucks Gold Members.  This was the advertising pitch:

If your love of the bean has you yearning to explore something exquisite and rare, you’ll fall in love with the rich, woodsy herbal complexities of Aged Sulawesi Kalosi. With hints of warm baking spices and a rich mouth-feel, this extraordinary coffee is produced in very small batches on family farms and has been aged five years to gently reveal deep, intricate flavors that play delicately on the tongue.

Just for fun, I clicked on the link to see you much they were charging for this rare treasure.  $18 – for 8 ounces.  About 8 times what we pay for the coffee at Costco.  And get this – it was SOLD OUT.  I have a hard time paying $18 for a really good bottle of wine.  But apparently there are a lot of serious coffee connoisseurs out there.  Or a lot of people who have been brainwashed by Starbucks.  I think I’ll stick to buying from Costco and occasionally enjoying a medium dark, excuse me, Grande Bold from Starbucks.  Purchased with my personal goldcard, of course.

In case you didn’t get the title reference to this blog – it’s a Mike Doughty song.

What Time is it Anyway?

Jet lag sucks.  I’ve never had a huge problem with it on European trips, taking the approach of toughing it out and staying up long enough to sync with local time.  Australia/New Zealand are so far ahead in the time zone that you just sort of shift into the next day without experiencing a lot of issues.  Asia kills me.  The first time we went (in 2005) I kept wanting to fall asleep during dinner.  I never had difficulty falling asleep when we finally did go to bed, rarely before 11 PM, but would consistently wake up around 3 or 4 AM and be unable to get back to sleep.  This lasted for more than half of our 2 week trip, leaving me feeling like a zombie.

When I traveled to India for work in 2007, I resorted to taking sleeping pills.  They didn’t really help me on the flight, I think I managed less than 3 hours on a full dose of Ambien, but they did allow me to fall asleep and stay asleep once I arrived.  I made the mistake of not taking one after about 3 nights, thinking I had to be adjusted to the time zone by then.  Bingo, I woke up at 3 AM the next morning.  At least I’m consistent.  So I went right back to taking sleeping pills for the rest of the trip.

I’ve never been able to sleep on airplanes, even in the relative comfort of a business class seat.  When we took our epic first trip to Australia, spending 46 hours in transit, I only managed a few short cat naps on the plane.  This trip to Japan was no exception.  The coach seats were extraordinarily uncomfortable, with less leg room than a typical domestic Delta flight.  We also experienced a lot of turbulence, which I don’t generally find to be conducive to sleeping.

We stuck with our strategy of toughing it out and staying up until something close to a normal bedtime once we arrived.  We did wake up early (4-5 AM) every day, but since we were able to go to bed by 8 PM it wasn’t bad.  Staying on a super early schedule fit with the buses to the track and seemed to lessen the effect of the jet lag.  At least while we were in Japan.

Our first day home we managed to stay awake until after 8 PM before crashing in what turned out to be an epic (nearly 15 hour) sleeping jag.  Since we had been up for over 30 hours, I assumed this was just catch up sleep.  When we flew to Phoenix the next day, I actually thought it would help us readjust, since the time would be 2 hours earlier.  So we hadn’t really slept until 11 AM, just 9 AM Phoenix time.  No big deal right?

Hah!  We didn’t even try to go to bed until 2 AM, since neither one of us felt tired.  It took at least an hour to fall asleep and by 6 AM we were both awake again.  Now I’m just getting a little annoyed.  We needed to be up early today, so we went to bed at 8 PM last night, hoping for a better night’s sleep.  Now it’s not even noon and I’m tired already.  Maybe I’m getting too old for this.

Jet lag sucks.

Home Away From Home

We flew out of Minneapolis at 10 PM last night and still spent the night in our own bed.  Neat trick, huh?  It’s because we are currently hanging out at our second home in Phoenix.  I don’t think I could have gotten back on a plane 30 hours after returning from Japan to go anywhere else.  Even I have my limits.

One of the reasons we have a home in Phoenix is because I complained to my husband last September that I needed a project.  He was out of town at the time, so we were talking on the phone.  We didn’t have any big trips on the horizon and I was feeling lonely and bored so I started whining about needing a new project.  He suggested looking for a vacation home in Phoenix.  In some respects it seemed like an obvious thing to do.  I’ve been vacationing in Phoenix for well over 20 years.  My dad owns a vacation home here so it was a free place to stay during my early post college years, when I didn’t have a lot of money to spend.  I fell in love with the desert.  The real estate market in Phoenix was one of the hardest hit (along with Vegas) when the economy tanked, so there were plenty of deals to be had.

So we went to Phoenix together at the beginning of October and spent two days looking at condos and townhomes.  We figured out pretty quickly that we wanted someplace new that wasn’t a distressed (short/foreclosed) sale.  One, we wanted to be able to just furnish the house and enjoy it.  Two, we wanted to close quickly, which is impossible with distressed sales.  Of course this meant we wouldn’t get the best possible deal, but that wasn’t the primary driver.

After two full days of seeing just about everything in our price range we narrowed it down to two options.  One was in Scottsdale and one was in Phoenix.  I spent Saturday night agonizing over the decision.  We decided to drive around both of the neighborhoods on Sunday morning, before I needed to fly back to Minneapolis.  The Scottsdale place, while in a unique looking complex, was surrounded by hundreds of cookie-cutter generic Southwestern condos and apartments.  The only retail space within a reasonable walking distance was a strip mall with Starbucks, Chipotle and similar fare.  The Phoenix place was in an urban, mixed neighborhood with small homes, businesses, churches, schools and a number of independent restaurants within a 2 mile radius.

It was sort of a head slapping moment.  There were a number of other factors that we evaluated, but in the end it was the vibrancy of the neighborhood that was the tipping point.  We made an offer on Monday and closed at the end of October on our beautiful new Phoenix home.  Since then we have received nothing but reinforcement on our choice.  Whenever we tell someone familiar with Phoenix where our home is located, their first response is “that’s a great neighborhood!”

They’re right.  It is and we love it.

Reflections on Japan

Now that we’re back home and relatively rested, I thought I would use a few of our 15 conscious hours in between flights to reflect on our journey.  The total transit time was about 25 hours of flying and 12 hours of bus rides.  The race lasted a little over 2 hours.  Therefore, the fun to inconvenience ratio was highly unfavorable.  The food was mediocre at best with limited choices.  It’s bizarre to spend almost 5 days in a country without eating any of the local food.  The bed was incredibly uncomfortable.  The days were long with a lot of “free” time and not much to do.  All of those factors make it highly unlikely that we would ever repeat the trip.

On the plus side, it was a truly unique experience.  The fans are not like any you will find in the US, we spent a lot of time with the Target crew and we got to see a race outside of North America.  I took some great photos, especially of Scott and Dario during the autograph session.  I’m glad we went.  I do wish we would have had more opportunity to see the area.  Having to take a bus to and from the track every day just didn’t allow us much in the way of free time.  In theory we had the evenings free, but staying up past 8 PM was pretty much impossible.  It would have been nice to be more ambitious with our last free day and take the train somewhere, but with the language barrier and cumulative exhaustion it would have been a daunting task.

Never turn down a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We Made it Back Alive

Our epic race journey came to an end today.  We were up before 5:30 AM for our final bus ride.  At 9:30 AM, with bags checked and boarding passes in hand, we were eating at the Narita Subway.  It was the best Subway sandwich I have ever eaten and unlike McDonald’s, I actually have a basis for comparison.  In retrospect, it would have been smart to purchase a second one to take on the plane.  Our flight was airborne just after noon and it turned out to be much smoother than our departure, up until we landed.  Sadly, the food wasn’t much better but this time I had a few granola bars and a pack of peanuts instead of just candy bars to stave off the hunger.

We arrived at O’Hare right on schedule and went through the scariest landing I have ever experienced.  For a few seconds I was convinced the pilot would roll the plane or at least hit the ground with one of the wings.  As we exited the plane, all of the flight attendants cheerily wished us goodbye and invited us to fly ANA again.  NOT IF YOU PAID ME.  I promise to never complain about a Delta flight again.

Of course landing at O’Hare wasn’t the end of the trip.  We still had a 3 hour layover and our final flight home.  Fortunately the Delta Sky Club at O’Hare is lovely and since it was morning I was able to get a bagel with peanut butter.  Our flight to Minneapolis left on time and was short and uneventful.  Sadly, we sat on the ground at MSP for nearly 30 minutes because our gate was occupied.  (I promise not to complain about Delta.  I promise not to complain about Delta)  There’s nothing more frustrating than being so close to home and still being stuck on an airplane.

We managed to stick it out until just after 8:00 PM, when we crawled into our heavenly soft bed for what turned out to be a nearly 15 hour sleeping marathon.  It’s nice to be home.

Here’s one of my photos from our day of wandering in Utsunomiya: