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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Soundtrack of My Travels

Have you ever had an ear worm? You know the phenomenon. An ear worm is when you can't get a song out of your head. It plays incessantly in there, like a broken record.

I am most often plagued by ear worms when I travel. And it's no surprise.  According to one Dr. Vicky Williamson, a music psychologist at the University of London, ear worms are most likely to develop in moments of stress or at times when your mind has the freedom to wander. Both are common states-of-mind when away from home.

Thus, when I take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express, I can't get Back in the U.S.S.R. out of my noggin. Every time I go to Phoenix, Arizona (all the way from Tacoma), Steve Miller Band's  Keep on Rockin' Me, Baby keeps knockin' around my head. And don't even get me started on Maria Muldaur's Midnight at the Oasis, which for decades has been triggered in my mind by the sight of camels and/or visits to the Middle East. For years, I thought the lyrics of said song started like this:
Midnight at the Oasis
Take Your Camel to Bed...
And I would sing this aloud in Jordan or Israel and people would look at me funny.  Take your camel to bed?  What kind of freak is this Maria Muldaur? Heck, no wonder they were looking at me funny.  I had to Google the lyrics.

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed (editor's note--oh). Shadows painting our faces.Traces of romance in our head
You don't have to answer. There's no need to speak.  I'll be your belly dancer, prancer And you can be my sheik
[Instrumental Interlude]
I know your Daddy's a sultan, A nomad known to allW. With 50 girls to attend him, they all send him....
Jump at his beck and call
But you won't need no harem, honey
When I'm by your side
And you won't need no camel, no no
....When I take you for a ride
Come on, Cactus is our friendHe'll point out the way
Come on, 'til the evenin' ends, 'til the evening ends.
Tsk, tsk--dirty lyrics, Maria Muldaur.
Anyway,  according to an article in The Guardian U.K, I did the right thing. I went to Google; I looked up the lyrics: I got closure and washed that ear worm right out of my hair. According to Dr. Ira Hyman, an expert in the study of ear worms (he wanted to be a gynecologist, but he didn't put enough time in the labia), "Choruses tend to get stuck in your head because they are the bit we know best. Because we don't know verses, the song remains unfinished. Unfinished thoughts are more likely to return." Finish the thought and ear worm be gone.
Dr. Hyman, who works at Western Washington University, also suggests we can dig ear worms out of our heads by distracting ourselves. Read a book. Not this one. though. Put together a piece of IKEA furniture. Or bake a cake. Of course, the latter remedy comes with its own ear worm side effects.

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again
Oh, no!

Would love to know what ear worms enter your head when you are on the go. Please write in.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Inside Track on Romance of the Rails

Here's an excerpt from my upcoming article for Emirates Open Skies Magazine.

There's something about long-distance train travel that conjures images of intrigue, mystery and romance. But why trains? Certainly, when you board a plane, you don't deign to imagine you will encounter a femme fatale or a mysterious masculine nomad in your row of seats. Certainly, when heading off on a 12-hour drive in a car, thoughts of rest-stop romances are the last thing on one's mind. But trains... Why is it almost a fait accompli that our minds expressly orient themselves to intrigue and enchantment upon embarking on an extended train trip?

Perhaps one can blame Dame Agatha Christie for this mysterious affair of perceived style. After all, she was among the first authors and auteurs of the 20th century to set a sweeping stumper on the rails. Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, is an enigmatic whodunit  (spoiler alert: the whole train dun it) starring Christie’s ace detective Hercule Poirot.  

Stepping on the bandwagon,  Ethel White followed  up with The Wheels Spin in 1936. The tale is more familiarly known as The Lady Vanishes, released by Alfred Hitchcock in film form in 1938. In the book, the heroine, suffering from heat exhaustion, discovers an elderly travel companion missing from the train. Adventure ensues. Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (adapted from the Patricia Hightower book of the same name) has two passengers plotting criss-cross murders, whereby each is to knock off the other's bĂȘte noir. A more recent thriller-mystery set on a train is 2008's largely-overlooked Transsiberian. The film, starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer, adds modern-day gore to old-school mystery.

On the silver screen, though, romance on the rails often eclipses intrigue as a plot device. In many screenplays, young lovers meet on a train. There's 1995's Before Sunrise (the second sequel of which, Before Midnight, was released this summer). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy hook up on a train, prefacing a 20-year odyssey of philosophizing and unapologetic profundity.  In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant's character encounters the mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago. After adventures involving crop dusters, Tarascan statues, and Mount Rushmore, the two are seen together in an upper berth as their train zooms suggestively into a tunnel. THE END.

I often wonder how many of the creative types who have married romance and the rails have actually taken a lengthy train trip. Because if they did, perhaps some of the more fragile might end up like one Anna Karenina, who, at the end of her story, was literally wed to the tracks.   

As the aforementioned Transsiberian paints it,  the caravan plying the tracks between Beijing and Moscow is filled with babushkas and pensioners, assorted raggedy backpackers, dirty cops, and drug dealers.  On the Trans-Siberian (as I will stylistically refer to it) I traveled, I experienced nary a cop, dirty or otherwise, nor anyone trading in narcotics (not counting the train's doctor, that is). To clarify, though, rather than taking the "real" Trans-Siberian, the train on which one shares berths, baths, and board with Russian folk, I hopped one of the private excursion trains that has popped up post-Soviet Union.

Was there romance? Were there moments of transcendence?  Was there intrigue?  I won’t prematurely spill any beans, but I will say one lady (me) did temporarily vanish. Like the heroine of The Wheels Spin, I suffered from heat exhaustion prior to boarding the train. The malady struck in the Forbidden City. I headed to a Beijing hospital while the group headed to the train station.  I re-joined the group two days later in Mongolia, boarding the Trans-Siberian in Ulan Bator.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Just Another Manic Punday: Grey's Anatomy

True story.

I am receiving a 2 1/2-hour massage this weekend, which, parenthetically, is a short rubdown for me.
The therapist is focusing solely on my neck and shoulders. Usually, these body parts are quite resistant to pain. But when she hits a spot that has never been touched before (there's a lot of detailed work in a 2 1/2-hour upper body massage), I squeal in pain. "What muscle is that?" I query as I lay face down in the head cradle. "And what is it connected to?"

She tells me it is the infraspinatus muscle, which is attached to the humerus. I tell her I find nothing humerus about the situation.

Thank you and good night.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Just for Laughs: 9 Things to Know About Stand-Up Comedy

I always enjoy expanding my horizons. Usually, I do so by traveling the world. But when I am at home, I take classes. Last year, it was Russian. This spring, it was Italian. This summer, it's stand-up comedy.

Now, anyone who has read my stories about the naked German spa or has savored my punditry or has put up with my on-the-spot quips knows I have a sense of humor, however warped it may be. I can converse funny. I can write funny. I can quip funny. But performing funny--that, my friends, is a whole other ball of wax.

As I take classes at The Improv in DC, here are some lessons I am learning.

1. Set a premise. As you begin a routine, you have to let the audience know your persona. You're the neurotic Jewish girl. You're the woeful putz. You're the put-upon dad. The audience needs to know who you are up front to get the joke.

2. Believe the audience wants to like you.

3. Take a breath before you start. It will calm and compose you (supposedly).

4. Take liberties with the truth. To wit, when relating a real story, always attribute the funny line to yourself....even if someone else said it. There are no fact checkers in comedy.

5. Take it to the crazy. Find veins of humor in situations and explore them to the extreme.

6. Cut the crap. Delete extraneous exposition.

7- Use the Rhythm Method. Alternate between long and slow and slam, bam, thank you ma'am.

8. Beware of jokes based on news events. Sometimes, it's too soon to joke, and sometimes, the joke's already outdated..

9. Don't give the audience a chance to heckle you. Beware of asking the crowd questions, or pausing too long between thoughts.

If you are interested in how well I learn my lessons, please come to The Improv on August 7. But you are only invited if you promise to laugh with me, not at me.

Thank you and good night.

Friday, July 12, 2013

9 Gnomes About Travel Writing

...and no, I am not referring to the Travelocity troll. Look it up.

Meantime, a summer of ennui, spent mainly in the confines of swampy Washington, DC, has left me at a loss for words. That is why, dear reader, you may note a paucity of recent posts. But next week, I am off to speak at Destination Marketing International Association's annual conference. As I have been preparing my remarks, which mainly deal with the changing state of travel writing, I have come to certain realizations. To wit, when it comes to cliches in travel writing, some things never change. To that end, this update of an earlier post

Here a review of the Top 9 Travel Writing Taboos.

#1: Avoid cliches like the plague. The Danish in Copenhagen isn't the best thing since sliced bread (since when is sliced bread so great, anyway?) Since when did you actually feel like a kid in the candy store, even if you are an art historian and you were hanging at the Louvre (actually, if you were hanging at the Louvre, you .might be a masterpiece). And unless you were trying out a carousel, you don't give things a whirl.

#2: Avoid words you never use when talking. I'm talking iconicquaint, and rustic. 

#3: Just to prove that I am not overly persnickety, I'll allow one quaint or iconic per article. But never, ever use luxe or azure, for sure.

#4: That the grass is green is not newsworthy. That the beach is sandy is not newsworthy. Don't include useless and/or redundant adjectives. Keep it pithy, people.

#5: Can a city boast? Apparently, it can, as "Chicago boasts the best deep-dish pizza in the world" and "Honolulu boasts grand luxe hotels, sandy beaches, and azure skies."  But IMHO, a place cannot boast.

#6: Is Albania the next Italy? I don't think so. But some travel writers do. "The next...." is not merely cliched writing; it is also somewhat pejorative if you think about it (i.e.--the next best thing to sliced bread....but it ain't no slice of bread).

#7: Don't trash the locals or local customs just for the heck of it. If you do, as in this piece I did for National Geographic Traveler  that literally talks trash in Albania, provide context and balance.

#8: Maybe it's me, because I simply abhor chick-lit. Articles about your journey of self-discovery are usually a yawn, even to your closest friends. Sure, an Elizabeth Gilbert or a Frances Mayes may hit the jackpot with prosaic poppycock. But my best advice is to circumvent this form of literary litany.
An aside--why is it that 99 out of 100 of self-confessional, self-delusional pieces are written by women?

#9: Never, never, never use the term "something for everyone" in your writing. It's lazy, it's annoying (to me, anyway) and it's simply not true. Don't you be telling me Des Moines has something for everyone. For example, if you are a surfer, where's the beach? New York City doesn't have something for everyone. For example, if you are a climber, try finding a mountain to scale in Manhattan (skyscrapers don't count). Heck, even Sydney, the best city in the world (again, IMHO), doesn't have something for everyone. For example, if you are an astronomer, you can't see the Big Dipper and vast parts of Ursa Major in the Australian night sky. But you can pet a koala.

Which brings me to one more parenthetical point. You can pet a koala, but you can't pet a koala bear. Koalas are marsupials, not bears. Put that in your pouch and ponder. And one more point that may save your life one day: If you want to pet a koala, don't do so by awakening it from a eucalyptus-induced stupor. I can tell you from experience.. this not a good idea. A koala awakening from its hebetude can be vicious, vicious, I tell you.  But that's a story for another post.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Regular readers know about my fixation with collecting Monopoly games. I am very particular about the collection--no City-opolies, no Sports Team-opilies, etc. My prized collection consists of more than two dozen games acquired in countries to which I have traveled (and a couple--well-appreciated gifts--from countries to which I have not been).

If you want to read more about the obsession, just type Monopoly in search. But this post is about a deviant. You see, my most recent frame up is an anomalous Monopoly celebrating the centennial of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts (I should note that it was acquired a few years ago, so Fairmont is an even older dowager now). Despite its corporate origins, I consider it a worthy companion to my collection. Why? Because this Monopoly showcases a panoply of incredible inns in places ranging from Dubai to Monte Carlo.

Given the company's Canadian roots (Canadian Pacific Hotels merged with Fairmont in 1999), six featured properties are from the Great White North. That said, Canadian modesty being what is it, the prime Park Place and Boardwalk spots are occupied by The Savoy/London and The Fairmont San Francisco, respectively.

What I find particularly charming about the board is its oh-so-twee pewter tokens. No dogs or thimbles here....although an iron would have been appropriate. But no iron, either. Instead, you can be a doorman, a pair of slippers, a bed, a key, a steamer trunk, or a tea cup.

The game is quite politically correct. No electric company or water works for the environmentally-conscious hotel company. Instead, you can invest in Wind Power Farms and a Recycling Center. And instead of income tax, your Monopoly money goes toward Community Investment. Very nice.

If you look closely at the picture above, you'll see that railroad stations are replaced by resort activities like golfing, spa-ing, skiing and boating. This doesn't really make sense. After all, you can't buy skiing or golf (well, maybe Donald Trump can, but that's a Monopoly board I do not covet in the least). Chance and Community Chest have become History and 21st Century. However, I discovered that some of the 21st Century cards should have been labeled History and vice versa. Quibbles, quibbles.

I should mind my Ps & Qs, though, considering this was a gift. But one more minor beef. As you might expect, the hotels are still hotels, although they are gold. But what the instructions call "suites" look like little black houses. I would have preferred colorful cabanas, but no dice.

It's Just Another Manic Punday

In Great Lakes parlance, I'm not sure if I find this personalized birthday doodle delightfully superior, erie, or simply michigana. Look forward to huron your thoughts.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Snooping Around Washington, DC/Channeling Your Inner Snowden

Want to check out one of the D.C.area's most secretive spots?

Last summer, I was commissioned to write a lengthy article about Washington's power places for Emirates Airlines Open Skies.  One of the sites profiled is located smack dab on the campus of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland.

If you want to snoop around there, you can take refuge to the National Cryptologic Museum. And if you visit in the summer, you won't have to worry about getting Snowden.

Puzzled? Read the excerpt below.

For the full article, click here and zip to page 100.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Health Tips for Safe Summer Travels

As summer travel season heats up, it's important to stay cool. I can tell you from first-hand experience, you don't want to end up in the ER with heat exhaustion. Here are some important tips for keeping your cool this summer.

Please click on the link for my latest television segment:
  Tips for safe summer traveling - Let's Talk Live | WJLA.com.

And for those of you who prefer reading to watching, here's a recap:

After a long day of summer sightseeing, have you ever felt headache-y, queasy or nauseous? Have you experienced the shakes or has your face gone pale? You may have had heat exhaustion without even knowing it. And it's important to know it, because once you have an episode of heat exhaustion, you are more susceptible to it in the future.

Now, I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. But believe you me, I know from heat exhaustion. I've ended up in the hospital with it four times. The first was after a three-hour singles match in the mid-day California sun. The second was after I had flown to California non-stop and played tennis (doubles, this time) later in the afternoon. That incident was clearly caused by the triple whammy of dehydration from the plane, the sun, and exercise. Incident #3 was after my first and only attempt at Bikram Yoga (I highly DO NOT recommend this form of yoga--it's actually the antithesis of yoga, IMHO). And finally, there was the infamous incident in China, which took place, not after a round of exercise, but in the middle of a day of sightseeing in Beijing. That's another one that resulted in an IV in the ER. I highly DO NOT recommend the ER in China.

One month later, I am still sorting out dozens of receipts written in Chinese, trying to decipher what's what in order to send my claim to the Travel Guard insurance company. So that you can avoid similar travails--both heat stroke on your travels and the accompanying paperwork, a bit of advice is in order. Again, I am not a doctor, but I've learned some excellent tips from the four who have treated me for the condition.

1. HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE. You can never have too much water before you go out in the heat and while you are out. Better yet, as you hydrate, alternate between water and sports drinks loaded with electrolytes.

2. Take it easy within 24 hours of landing after a long-distance flight. Aside from the above-mentioned combo of coast-to-coast flying and tennis, I believe the incident in Beijing may have developed from the following set of activities:
    Day 1: 14-hour flight to Beijing
    Day 2: Climbing to the top of the Great Wall in heat and humidity
    Day 3: Four hours at the (shaded) Summer Palace, followed by an afternoon of sightseeing in Tiannamen
              Square and the Forbidden City. Temperature was in the high 80s, not taking into account the heat  
              from the pavement and the air quality.
While I had taken care to get plenty of sleep and what I thought was plenty of water (although probably rationing unconsciously due to the yen to avoid using squat toilets still so prevalent in China), BOOM! Down I went in the Forbidden City.

3. Carry electrolytes with you if are prone to heat exhaustion. I had Emergen-C packed in my suitcase, but it wasn't with me in the Forbidden City. A friend had salt pills packed, but again, she didn't have them in her purse. Both would have been perfect for dissolving in a bottle of water.

4. Carry energy bars, dried fruit or something similar.

5. Wear a hat and sunscreen.

6. Get out of the heat and rest. Once you start feeling the effects of heat exhaustion, you may be too far gone...and an IV will be your only solution, so to speak. But if you feel on the cusp, immediately stop your activity and stay cool. This is what I tried to do in the Bikram class 30 minutes in....but the instructor wouldn't let me leave the room, the heat index of which was probably upwards of 130. After 30 more minutes in this extreme sauna, I forced my way out (as the instructor chased after me calling me a coward--nice).  Had I left the  room when I initially felt ill, I would have been okay with liquid, rest, and shade. But the extra heat did me in, even though I was laying on my mat during that time. On to the ER.

7. What do you drink once heat exhaustion kicks in? Interestingly, the Chinese doctor who treated me said drinking water straight is one of the worst things you can do. He suggested that once heat exhaustion  sets in,  water intake further dilutes salt levels. He emphasized the need to drink liquids containing electrolytes instead. No other ER doctor had  ever mentioned that to me, but it seemed logical. That said, in checking a number of legitimate medical websites, 100% recommended water, although agreeing that electrolyte-spiked liquid is better yet. These same sites put a total kibosh on drinking carbonated beverages or anything with caffeine.

Best bet--before leaving on a hot trip, ask your doctor for his/her advice and get travel insurance, just in case. As for me, I'm staying out of the heat.

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Just Another Manic Punday

Today's word is pajamas. It was requested by Cary Broussard (had to slipper name in). After sleeping on it, I cottoned to the idea of a pajama game. But before I do my jams, have you heard about the guy who sued the sod company boss? The lawyers had to select a lingerie; a flannel of his peers, if you will.  Don’t mean to cause a flap among nutritionists, but I have a hankering for Long Johns Silker’s. I’m done now--off to spend the nightie playing footsie with Dr. Denton. He’s the cat’s pajamas.

Please serve up your topic requests for next Punday.