Friday, December 15, 2017

Joy and Happiness: Emotions for Humans Only?

This is an absolutely delightful photo from the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Do animals laugh? Do they feel joy and delight? Or, are we just anthropomorphizing them?

There are animals who laugh — rats tickle each other to elicit laughter — and animals who have behaviors that seem to serve no purpose other than having fun. 

Behavioral scientists have been experimenting with animals for years with the understanding that some animal reactions will be similar to human behaviors. For example, the experiment that stressed rat mothers to see how it affected their care of babies, with the conjecture that what was bad for rat mothers would be bad for human mothers.

Of course pet owners have always thought their companions express love, happiness, regret, shame and jealousy. But knowing if these are real emotions being felt, or just instinctual social behaviors evolved for self preservation is still being researched. When my dog chewed up the garbage and seemed so ashamed and embarrassed, was that because of a real sense of having done wrong? Was it just a reflex learned because of my previous reactions to such a mess? Considering the amount of shared genetic material between humans and the animal kingdom, and the perceived similarities in behavior, who can say if we are projecting emotions onto animals, or they are projecting them onto us?

In any event, photos like this one, that we so strongly identify with, can go a long way toward making humans think twice about destroying animal habitats and pushing populations to extinction. After all, wouldn't they suffer, just as humans suffer when displaced and robbed of their ability to survive? Considering what is going on in the world, are we just racing each other over the cliff?

Yes, we have much more in common with the animal kingdom, and each other, than laughter. But it is a good place to start. And sometimes, it takes a tiny mouse to remind us. We are all in this together.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Communicating with Clarity, and Humor

Funny, unless you are selling tools!
Mealtime was serious at my childhood house. Children were to eat, not speak. They were also to eat their vegetables before their meat, not drink their milk until done with everything else, and not dare to rise until they had been excused from the table.

“Please may I be excused from the table?” is a mouthful for a small kid. But, you mastered it, or you sat there. Mastering it meant not changing the words, either. “Can I be excused?” would be met by this answer: “I don’t know can you?”

Yes, my parents were grammar sticklers. Even the use of pronouns was a touchy subject. Innocently referring to my mother as “her” was disrespectful and grounds for some quick discipline. There was no tolerance of a Brooklyn accent in our Brooklyn home, and one of the biggest disagreements I ever had with my Mother was her constant reminder to me that warm-blooded animals were “mammals,” not “mamamals.”

I was a bit less strict with my own children, who started saying, “Please excuse the table?” as toddlers, and I couldn’t stop giggling about it. It persisted way longer than their realization about what they were really saying. So does “all of the sudden” which they still think is the way to say “all of a sudden.” (Sorry, Mom!)

As a writer and communicator, these stories come back to me, as my mother knew they would. Words are important. The right words, used and pronounced correctly. 

Today, dealing with tweets, sound bytes, 10-second elevator pitches and attention spans that get shorter every day should mean that we have all learned to communicate with clarity. Fewer words, more need for using the correct ones. But, how terribly poor clarity is today, is, well, pretty clear. Clear as the difference between asking “Can I?” or “May I?”

A friend taught me a French expression, “le mot juste,” which translates to the English equivalent of “the right word.” For communicators this means saying the right words in the right format to the right people at the right time. How hard could that be? So hard that some famous writers have been paralyzed into silence looking for them.

While you are at it, you may be expected to do it in a clever, and possibly humorous way. However, mayhem ensues when the humor comes first and the clarity becomes, well, less clear. Especially if the only humor you can come up with is using Comic Sans.

For those of you who still watch network television, and the commercials that come with that, you experience this all the time. A commercial plays utilizing a comical plot, a play on words or an absurd charachter or situation. It makes you laugh or groan, abut five minutes later you can’t remember the product. In fact, let me sit here in front of my TV and wait for an example. Oh, the silly grandfather trying to read "The Three Little Pigs" but he can't huff and puff. "Just like you, Grandpa," the kiddies say. They all laugh. What are they selling? Children's books? Cough drops? Life-saving medicine for a seriously ill person? I can't quite remember. But I can see that wheezy Big Bad Wolf.

How about people on Twitter trying emphatically to make a point, but their grammar or spelling or misuse of a word ruins their efforts. Or an imprisoned, dethroned prince sends you an email, desperately trying to share his inheritance, but you can’t get past his fractured syntax. Missed opportunities, all. 

The best humor that communicators use will make the target audience smile, but doesn’t break the connection to the message. Think of your message as a greeting card, serious, funny, nostalgic or sympathetic on the outside, but still says “Happy Birthday,” “Get Well,” or “Thinking of You” on the inside. You can "leave 'em laughing" as long as the humor reinforces the message, not overshadows it. If you can do this, you may be successful. (See what I did there? I am so my mother's daughter.)

Take that Oxford comma in my title and let it give you some time to pause before you add humor to your message. My mother would thank you.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Holiday Stress and Laughter

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Zen and the Art of Doing Laundry

The old saying goes something like, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." This story was written few years ago; it came back to my mind recently.  Sometimes, no matter what is going on in your life, the laundry has to get done.

Zen and the Art of Doing Laundry
©2017 Noreen Braman

Doing laundry was a good thing. A traditional, household chore with an established pattern of steps. Sort the clothes, load the washer. Add the detergent and fabric softener. When the cycle finished, move the clothes to the dryer. Start over again with the next load. Like the mantra on the shampoo bottle of “lather, rinse and repeat,” doing laundry had a simple pattern, an attainable goal, and a reasonable time frame for completion.

Once the clothes began sloshing around in their hot water wash cycle, she made coffee. More defined steps, more secure routine. As the hot, fragrant liquid began to dribble into the pot, she loaded the dishwasher, plates on the bottom, glasses on the top, silverware in the baskets. Following the prescribed motions and steps required to keep the home running was easy; easy as long as she pushed herself, easy as long as she kept the end results in mind; clean clothes, fresh coffee, sparking dishes. Little goals, to be sure, but just enough to keep her from crawling back into bed, burying her head in the pillows and sleeping the day away in a restless dream world.

Without the house to anchor her, she would soon be adrift in the ocean of her life, with nothing to keep the waves from crashing over her head, drenching her, swamping her, drowning her. Swirling around her were discussions of bankruptcy, foreclosure, and the impossibility of selling the house in such a bad market. Her delicate financial infrastructure had not collapsed completely, but was swaying and trembling as its foundation crumbled away. It didn’t help that she lived in worked in one of the most expensive counties in New Jersey.

At work she was barely treading water, every time she thought things were calming down another storm would leave her gasping for breath and holding onto floating debris. On days like today, she couldn’t even face the office, its chaos and the underlying decay of demotivation.

She knew she should have been better prepared. Children grow up and leave home – child support ends. She just never expected it to end so abruptly. She had been sure that by now the promised promotion would have come through or a new job would have been acquired. The worst scenario had been that she would have to sell the house at a generous profit, and move into a funky urban loft or suburban townhouse. She had never considered that her office would be plunged into a desperate struggle for survival, that the economy that had been built around the security of the value of real estate would spiral downward out of control.

She cut off the cable television, turned down the thermostat and drove nowhere except to work. Her refrigerator and cabinets were bare; buying groceries became a carefully considered task consisting of purchasing lots of pasta and canned vegetables. Centered in the empty freezer was a 10 pound turkey she had gotten for free and was saving to sustain her for that week when there was nothing else.

The coffee pot beeped and she poured herself a cup. This small pot of coffee was made with the last two scoops of a gourmet blend left over from a Christmas gift basket. The next pot would have to be made from the one of the hotel coffee packets she collected when she traveled for business. If she could get coffee in a hotel lobby, the in-room packets would go in her suitcase, along with the leftover shampoo and lotion. She always left the skin-drying bar soap behind, considering her liquid body wash to be a necessary purchase. Lately, she had considered taking the soap, too.

She heard the washer’s spin cycle slow down and stop, and she transferred the wet clothes to the dryer. She set up for the next load, changing the temperature to cold for her dark things, and walked back and forth from her bedroom with her arms full. Step by step. Laundry was easy, predictable, unchanging. She fully understood how generations of women had found both comfort and crushing boredom in the task. It brought to mind the Dalai Lama’s teaching about finding purpose and happiness even in the simplest chores. She wondered if he did his own laundry, smilingly filling washers and dryers with yards of saffron-colored robes and wrappings. She closed the washer lid and left the appliances to their work; their defined, predictable, unchanging work.

Tomorrow she would force herself to return to work, to make an appearance in the outside world where her tiny boat was constantly battered and tossed on unfriendly seas. She would face the inevitability that she was destined to drown; but not today.

Today she had laundry. Step by step by step.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Ash Tree in Autumn

Digital Art Photography ©2017 Noreen Braman
The Ash Tree in Autumn

Overnight it has burst into flame,
each leaf a tongue of fire,
glowing embers against a rainy day
a burnt sacrifice to fall.

©2017 Noreen Braman

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Taking Life One Laugh At A Time

The complaint that “there is nothing good on the news” is not new. I can remember hearing my parents say that, back in the days of the Vietnam War, after the daily “casualty counts” on the nightly news. I didn’t even know what a “casualty” was then; trying to figure out why a word with “casual” in it was a bad thing. I had the same trouble at that age with the word “real estate.” It made me wonder if there were fake estates. Today, I don’t mind hearing “real estate” in a conversation, but wish I would never hear the word “casualty” again.

Like many baby boomers, I can look back at my life, and see, highlighted, all the terrible and tragic things I have been alive to see, starting with the assassination of President Kennedy. It was the first time I saw my parents afraid, the first time I found out that they could cry, and the time when the words “nuclear bomb” became burned into my brain.

Previously, our “duck and cover” exercises in school had a kind of “hide and seek” quality. After Kennedy’s death, I lived in terror that the bombs would come next, and that sooner or later I would see a mushroom cloud through the window. At the time, I was too young to realize that living in Brooklyn put me right in a direct hit area. Maybe we would see a flash, but then … nothing.

I can’t help but think of these things when I hear the words “casualties” and “nuclear war,” along with all the new threats to the world, on the news. “There is nothing good on the news.” Even when there is something called a “human interest story” it almost seemed forced, and always squeezed in between the mayhem.

It is enough to awaken a cranky voice of self-doubt in my head. The one that likes to tell me I’m an imposter, or a failure, or an omelet burner. This time, the voice is attacking my Laughter Wellness practice, saying things like, “What is there to laugh about?” “You are trying to force people to be happy.”  “Laughing while x, y or z is happening is disrespectful!”

So, to this voice, I keep repeating, “Let’s take life one laugh at a time.” Let’s try to find the humor, joy and awe in life anew each day. Some days we will be successful, other days not. Some days the laughter will be an exercise just for the health of our body and minds. You may not feel like walking or sit-ups, but you encourage yourself to keep doing them because you know they are good for you. Regular laughter is just as necessary.

To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, look for the laughers. Call the friend who makes you smile. Tell each other those shared stories that make you laugh. Try a laughter yoga class and learn to laugh for no reason. Take life one laugh at a time.

Your body and brain will thank you.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

To Iowa and Back to New Jersey - Conclusion - Updated

Last night I arrived back in New Jersey. The Lakeshore Limited arrived on time at Penn Station and after getting back my huge suitcase, I waited for my Jersey Transit Train to take me home. Of course it was my luck that the appropriate train arrived at a track that was accessible only by going down 2 flights of steps. I stood at the top of the first flight, adjusting my grip on my two bags and beginning to haul them slowly down. A voice called out — "Can I help you with that?" A lovely woman turned around. I thanked her profusely and handed her the small bag. That gave me two hands to wrestle the big one. As we approached the second set of steps, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a tall gentleman offered to do the wrestling for me. Thank you, Jersey-bound travelers for restoring my faith in humanity! 

Once home, I took a little peek at my online trip diary here. I can see how the unreliable internet has played tricks with spacing and fonts, and typos point to my hurried typing. When I have a chance, I'll go back and fix that all up. 

Today I am back to reality. It was tough morning. After sleeping at home in my comfy bed with the Love of My Life (LOML) near, it was a restful night, but my body wanted more. My elbow and knee complained about being abused by the fall on the Amtrak platform. My back insisted it needed more rest after sleeping in the coach seat on the train. My stomach reminded me that it had been working double duty on lots of high carb foods, and my blood was sluggishly trying to get rid of the extra sugar and fat. "Stay in bed!" my body said. "Get to the office!" said the alarm. It was quite a battle. Eventually I got myself to work.

When I left for vacation, there was still talk of Jersey Shore time and warm sun. While I was gone, it rained almost constantly, and now that I am back, my Facebook feed is full of back-to-school photos. Summer is not over yet, and October holds the possibility of warm, sunny days. However, autumn will arrive, and with it, the strong yearly urge to reinvent, reconsider, reassess and redirect my life. I am not sure what my brain will come up with, but as the leaves turn it will be working overtime.

So, I won't be traveling on a train, but I'll be going places just the same — with the goal of living on the Smile Side of Life.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

There and Back Again – Return Train Trip to New Jersey – Dispatch #3

 This morning I feel like Goldilocks. I’ve ridden in a train car that was too cold, one that was too painful, but this one was just right! I got better sleep last night thanks to a much better temperature in the car. When I did wake up to change positions I was treated to a beautiful clear view of the moon, almost full, shining down on the train outside my window. As the train pulled into Erie, PA, the sun and clouds treated me to a picturesque sunrise. 
Right now we are near Rochester, NY with the next stop in Syracuse. Just the mention of Syracuse brings backs the memories of my writer trip there, and my adventures centered around the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz. I remember fondly my friend Carol, who also connected with that story and the idea of finding a better place “Over the Rainbow.” Here’s a salute to your memory Carol, may we meet again in Oz!

I have been wrapped up in my trip and my own escape from stress and bad news, but my thoughts had turned often to the victims of Hurricane Harvey and the current Hurricane Irma. My own experiences with Hurricanes Floyd, Irene and Sandy taught me that the protection of life is more important than any property.  And while I still see division and intolerance being perpetuated, my hope is that gets put aside for the sake of all who will need assistance in the months (and maybe years ahead.)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

There and Back Again – Return Train Trip to New Jersey – Dispatch #2

The train pulled into Chicago Union Station around 4:15, just about 1.5 hours late.  I am beginning to think this might be a pattern. “Luckily,” the train I am taking for my second leg of the trip does not leave until 9:30 PM. So I have a few hours here. 

After my calamity last time at Union Station, I decided to pay the $20 fee for coach passengers to use the Legacy Club, a recently created lounge for business class, sleeper passengers and coach passengers who ante up the fee. The seating in here is much more comfortable than the polished pews out in the great hall. Amenities include free soft drinks and coffee, snacks, private bathrooms, dedicated Wi-Fi and cable TV. The atmosphere is quiet and subdued.
I am beginning to wonder, however, how anyone who travels a lot and wishes to work online can tolerate the really terrible Wi-Fi. Even here, in a “private” area with a 5-G connection, the signal drops. The coffee is quite good; it is made, per cup by a machine featuring 3 Starbucks varieties. It is happy hour, so there is beer — I will pass on that. However, the snacks are just bagged chips, jawbreaker granola bars (you know the brand) and probably the best of the lot, almonds. Luckily I have a juicy Iowa peach and an apple in my bag.

My idea to buy a blanket in the train station has been foiled, as there are only food places here — unlike Penn Station in NYC or Union Station in DC which have stores selling things you don't even know you need.

But all that is really secondary, because what I am really here for is the priority boarding. I have no intention of getting trampled on the platform again. Today, I was able to observe that many areas of the yellow bumpy safety edging had holes in them and pieces ripped off. Perfect to catch a small swivel suitcase wheel and cause the bag and the owner to be pitched face-first to the platform. Those bruises and abrasions are not healed, 6 days out. I don’t need any more.

There and Back Again – Return Train Trip to New Jersey - Dispatch #1

Today’s train was due to depart at 9:54 AM from Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Text messages began dinging me early, letting me know the train was delayed, and delayed and delayed. It finally arrived at the station at 12:10 PM. The fortunate thing is that Mount Pleasant is a tiny town, my son’s house was about 5 minutes away, and I got to spend the morning with my family. I was able to see the older one off  to here first day of pre-school, and then pick her up and bring her to the train station to hang out for a while as I waited.
The Mount Pleasant train station is a simple one room building. Once there was an active ticket window but no more. The waiting area was full of uncomfortable wooden benches with severe armrests that prevented even a thought of stretching out or slumping. Tough stock, these Iowans.
Luckily, right next to the train station was the coffee depot with a large, comfortable living-room area with a soft couch and armchairs, other tables and chairs for eating, restrooms and snacks and other food. The chocolate chip muffin was a hit with my granddaughter. Eventually, even the delay notices stopped, and it was time to bid farewell to my son and his daughter. We didn’t wait until the train arrived; remembering his daughter sobbing and clinging to me at the airport on my previous visit. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would not be the one sobbing and clinging. I know that other mothers endure children living at all ends of the earth, and sometimes go very long periods of time without seeing them. I know that sometimes it is because of horrible circumstances in the world. So, in that I am lucky that it has only been a year, that we can employ the miracle of video chat often, and other social media outlets keep us connected. Yet, there is nothing that makes up for the touch, the sound, the smell and the comfort of being in close proximity to family. At least, for me.

The California Zephyr is now sweeping me away; we are within 2 hours of Chicago. I spent some time in the wonderful Observation car, feeling sunlight on me, taking snapshots as we crossed the Mississippi River, watching the farmlands go by, and enjoying the fried chicken I had brought with me. Evidently, after comparing train travel notes with my daughter-in-law’s grandmother, I found out that bringing fried chicken was considered mandatory for train trips for several generations.This train car is pretty chilly, something I wouldn’t ordinarily mind, however the air is blowing out of the under window vent at blizzard speed and there is pretty much no way to block or redirect it. It is blowing directly on my shoulder and the side of my head. I am glad this is not the train I will be sleeping on because that would be just miserable. I am realizing that, for whatever cost saving reasons, these long distance trains suffer from age. They are clean and mostly comfortable, but each car seems to have its own environmental quirks. I’ve noticed quite a few people wear hooded sweatshirts that end up being cinched up around their faces, and there are plenty of big, bed-sized blankets in tow. I am seriously thinking of going shopping in Union Station for another blanket for myself, as the towel-sized one that comes in the “comfort kit” just wasn’t enough. I’ve been thinking wistfully about all the blankets I’ve crocheted and how I wish I had one right now! I am also not sure of when I will get to post this, as there isn’t even a hint of wi-fi on this train right now.

The next leg of my trip, back on the Lakeshore Limited doesn’t start until 9:30 PM with an anticipated arrival time in NYC at 6:30 PM. Considering that this train ran 2 hours late coming out here, I am anticipating not getting to Penn Station until more like 8:30 PM. So, I may not be seeing Jamesburg until more like 10:30 pm. But I am looking at that possible delay as just more quiet time for me. The purpose of this train trip was twofold – first it was much less expensive than the never-discounted airfare to Iowa, and second, a chance for me spend some reflective, restful time, away from all the daily obligations, catastrophes, worries and drama we all deal with. And that part has been very successful.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa – All Aboard the California Zephyr! Dispatch #5

After filling out the accident form and sitting for a while with ice on my knee and my elbow, I felt well enough to explore the California Zephyr. My seat was on the top level, which meant climbing up a very narrow set of stairs that curved around tightly. However, the upper level of the car was just as roomy as the Lakeshore Limited, the controls for the seat back and the footrest were different, but I figured them out. 
I walked back to the Observation Car, and it was awash in bright sunlight. The walls and ceiling of the car were all window. Down a set of those same kind of stairs was a snack car, and I indulged in a coffee and a bag of trail mix. I took it back up to the observation car and settled down at a table. My trip was going to be short in relation to the route of the train, and I thought that once the train got further west it might be a little more difficult to find a seat in the car. But this early in the trip I had plenty of room to enjoy my snack and the sunlight.

It was obvious that the Zephyr has not been updated in quite some time, and, as in the Lakeshore Limited, the place where it shows is in the bathrooms. All bathrooms are on the lower level, and, at least on the car I was on, they are clustered in the front of the car, along a passageway that was barely wide enough to open the door. Inside, they were tinier than an airplane bathroom. Part of the welcoming announcement when I first boarded was a rather lengthy reminder to everyone to be considerate of others and keep the bathrooms clean. They probably get dirty a lot faster than the ones on the Lakeshore Limited since they are so small.
It was only a few hours later we crossed the Mississippi into Iowa, and shortly thereafter arrived at my destination, Mount Pleasant. The train station there was an old fashioned one-room structure with wooden bench seating.But I never had to sit down because family was waiting for me, and that is what the train ride was really all about. 
Next week, I get to do it all again, in reverse.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the California Zephyr - Dispatch #4

The Lakeshore Limited arrived 2 hours late to Chicago (all that stopping in the middle of the night), but luckily my layover was long enough to not create a rush. I got my 43-pound checked bag back, as there is no checked baggage for the short trip to Mount Pleasant. This is something important to remember, as it means you have to wrangle your suitcase through the train station and onto the train. I spent my layover time wandering around Union Station and taking photos of the classic, historic architecture.
Much of it had recently been repaired after an unfortunate incident in 2016 when a train passenger was hit in the head by falling concrete that fractured her skull.
Depending on what train you are leaving on, waiting passengers are asked to sit on specified areas, i.e., A, B, C, D, etc. My train was in the C group, and 30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, we were called to line up, just like you do in the airport.  However, after lining up, we had to walk all the way across to the other side of the station — something I expected that mature people with tickets for guaranteed seats would do in an orderly fashion. This, unfortunately, did not happen. 
As we approached the platform area, people began walking faster and faster. Some people began passing others who were ahead of them in the line. Once our tickets were scanned and the line proceeded to the platform things became even more disorderly.
The train stretched out for quite some distance, and the conductors instructed that all coach passengers (which we all were, since sleepers and business class get boarded first) had to proceed waaaay down the platform. (Describing the platform is also important to the rest of the story.) The platform is concrete, with tracks on both sides. Huge concrete pillars run down the center of the platform. From each trackside edge to about halfway across to the pillars is a bright yellow, bumpy covering of some type, presumably to caution people from walking there. However, if you are going to your train with one very large suitcase, and one small suitcase, it is pretty impossible to stay on the smooth concrete. In addition, at this point, anything resembling an orderly line breaks down. People rush past on the left side, on the right side, around the columns. Some are running. If someone stops to ask a conductor a question it creates a bottleneck with people careening to a stop, or bolting past.  
I was ridiculously trying to maintain my place in line as the crowd just surged around me. One of the wheels of my big suitcase got caught in the yellow plating material; it fell over and pulled me and my other suitcase down with it.  I fell flat on my face — actually my elbow and knee  —and slid a little bit on that skin-ripping surface. Not a single person stopped to help me, and I pulled myself back onto my feet as quickly as I could, despite the pain, because I really thought I was going to be trampled. This was probably one of the most disappointing moments of my life. (I rarely pull rank, but damn, I AM 62 years old) No one even bothered to tell a conductor, hey, a lady fell down back there, I’m in too much of a hurry to help her, but maybe you should.
When I finally limped down to the coach car assigned to my destination, it was really empty. I just don’t know where all those people were rushing to, whether it was for window seats or some other preference. However, this train is double decker, with great views from a regular seat, and then the famous sightseeing car with glass walls and ceiling, swivel armchairs, and tables with seating.
After I climbed up the steps and took a seat — a window seat — I stopped a passing Amtrak employee, showed him my bloody knee and asked for both first aid materials and an incident report. An ice pack would be especially nice, I told him. He found some Band-Aids and some alcohol wipes (OUCHIE!) for me, and told me the conductor for my car would return shortly to assist me.
The conductor was a lovely woman, and she was very concerned, even offering to get me off the train for medical care. I assured her that I didn’t need that, but in light of the fact that things always hurt worse the next day, I really wanted some ice and a report form. She supplied me with both. I was surprised that the first aid materials were so sparse on the train. She had to bring me a plastic cup with ice in it, and eventually got me a plastic trash bag to put the ice in. It was a bit leaky, but the quick application of ice did provide pain relief and kept down the swelling. I put the footrest up at my seat, took some acetaminophen, cleaned out the abrasions, and tried to relax.  It was going to be a 5 hour trip to Mount Pleasant and I didn’t want to be a bloody, limping mess when I got off the train and greeted my family.
More in the next dispatch.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lakeshore Limited - Dispatch #3

Good morning Ohio! It was an interesting night aboard the Lake Shore Limited. I had a reservation for dinner at 8:15 and arrived at the dining car to find there were no seats available. Those of us who had reservations were asked to stand in the “vestibule” of the train to wait for seating. The “vestibule” is a fancy word for that no man’s land between train cars. Feeling uncomfortable and usafe, we decided to wait in the car immediately in front of the dining car instead. We heard someone say that the dining car closed at 9, and I said, half-jokingly “I hope we don’t stand here until 9 and then get told it’s closed.” This infuriated someone behind me in line so much that she went back into the dining car and complained enough that she was given immediate seating. That didn’t sit well with those of us left out in the vestibule who were ahead of her in the line.

Eventually I was seated, joining a dad and his son at a table where they were already eating. The fun discussion with young Nick about his trip to New York City was thoroughly delightful. We talked about the statue of Balto in Central Park, dinosaurs, animal rescue and dogs. It was the highlight of the evening.

I then returned to my seat to settle in for the night. I had purchased a comfort kit for $10, which included a blanket, blow up neck pillow, earplugs and an eye mask. I noticed that more experienced travelers had brought full size pillows and blankets with them. Good thing to remember next time around.

The seat has plenty of leg room, and there is a foot rest that comes up. Too bad there are not instructions at the seat to show you how to operate it. Eventually, I stopped fooling around with the stick-shift-looking knob and just pulled it up by hand.

The car was quiet, but for those who need complete dark to sleep, I highly recommend the eye mask, as the center row of light on the ceiling stay on. Bringing your own blanket is a good idea also, as the Amtrak blanket is way too small, and the car gets really chilly. I was glad to have an empty seat next to me so I could eventually curl up across the two seats. For some reason, my legs were just restless and I had a hard time getting comfortable. 

I apologize to my fellow passengers who were serenaded to “Baby Shark” at 7:15 am. I forgot to turn off my workday wake up alarm. I turned it off pretty quickly. A few minutes later, though, everyone forgot about my alarm when a the “Dining Car Open for Breakfast” announcement blasted over the PA system. Apparently there are only two settings on that system — earsplitting and unintelligible.

The train seemed to stop on the tracks several times during the night —and this morning we were crawling along at a snail’s pace for quite some time. We are finally zipping past foggy fields of corn and other crops as the sun tries to break through. I’ve got my coffee and a protein bar and the internet came up and allowed me to post my first two dispatches. 
Even with some of the glitches, this has been a fun experience. Good thing, because I have to do it again for my return trip.

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lake Shore Limited - Dispatch #2

It has been a pleasant ride so far, and I have been lucky to have the seat to myself so far. I’ve noticed that some passengers have filled the two seats with bags and things, and are stretched out across both seats. However, we are now stopped at Albany-Rensselaer where we will be picking up more train cars, and more passengers. The conductors have come down the aisle to tell people they have to move their bags off the seats, but I can see some who just didn’t listen.

What may become an issue is the bathroom situation. There are two bathrooms in this car, and to my surprise, they aren’t any better appointed than other short-distance train bathrooms. One is already showing signs of not flushing correctly, and the trash bin is overflowing onto the floor. I am wondering if there is any provision on the train for bathrooms to be cleaned, trash emptied, etc. The smell is pretty bad too, and I was feeling sorry for the passengers sitting directly in front of the bathrooms, but the air system seems sufficient to control that. Again, so far.

I thought that someone would offer passengers the comfort kit, which contains a blanket, a pillow, earplugs and eye mask for us overnighters, but now I see on the website that you have to buy that in the Lounge or Café car — neither of which is on this train. However, apparently, there will be a café car attached with the new cars, so I guess I will get that when we resume moving and it go back to the dining car for dinner.

Something I find disappointing is the so-called “wi-fi where available.” Although my phone and my laptop say they are connected to the Amtrak Wi-Fi, the screen never gets past, “Join Amtrak Network” and sometimes doesn’t even get that far. 

Right now, outside the left windows I can see a thin ribbon of pink along the horizon, telling me that the sun is setting. The outside temperature here in upstate New York is very fall like, and I took advantage during this stop to get outside the train and walk around a bit. This still beats being squished in an airplane or driving endless miles by myself. I’m getting hungry for dinner.

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lakeshore Limited - Dispatch #1

After taking the Northeast Regional train into Penn Station in New York City, from Metropark in Iselin, New Jersey, I was greeted at the Amtrak waiting area by smiling Amtrak employees giving out snicker doodle cookies. They asked where I was going, and whom I was going to see. When they heard I was going to Iowa to see family – specifically two grandchildren, they fixed me up with extra cookies. I promised to try my best not to eat them all on the way.

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for quite a while. I’ve missed my son, his wife and their two little girls terribly. They left New Jersey for Iowa almost three years ago, and I am still not used to it. I’m a mother who like her children close by, and that feeling is more intense now that I am a grandmother.

I’ve been to Iowa three times before, the first time to accompany my recently-knee-ligament-replaced son and his daughter via airplane to their new home, while his wife and mother in law drove the car from New Jersey to Iowa.  That trip was a whirlwind of helping with unpacking with an extra-special side trip to the future birthplace of James T. Kirk. We had just missed the annual Star Trek festivities by a week.

On the second trip, the Love of My Life (LOML) came along to meet the new baby girl, and last year I flew out solo for her first birthday. 
While there, I was introduced to a yearly event in Mount Pleasant Iowa that must quadruple the population every end of August. The Old Thresher’s Reunion is more than a farm machine extravaganza, although the rows and rows of steam-powered equipment is mind-boggling. These “threshers” and other things are paraded around, judged in competition, their smoky presence giving a distinctively different aroma to what looks very much like a country fair.
Most amazing to me, was that this little town accommodated the thousands of visitors, many of whom fill the surrounding camping areas to capacity. A huge dining pavilion offers nightly dinners prepared by local organizations such as boy scouts and churches. Craft vendors sell their wares both on the fair grounds and in the center of downtown that looks just like the town square in Back to the Future.

Railroad tracks encircle the fairground, and there are daily rides on several well-preserved steam trains. A passel of cowboys accompanies the riders, and sooner or later there’s a train robbery and a shootout that takes places in a reconstructed old-time village. We enjoyed stepping into the jail cell (as long as the door remained open) the country store, and a genuine post office.As if that wasn’t enough, on the other side of the fairground you can ride on electric trolley cars that come from as far away as San Francisco and Italy. The trolley drops you off at another historic reconstruction, this being typical log homes and buildings of a bygone era. 

So, here I am, heading there again, this time having an adventure by train. I’ve just boarded the Lake Shore Limited in Penn Station, and will be riding overnight to Chicago. We have just passed Croton-on-Hudson, and although it is a cloudy day, I can still appreciated the beauty of the Hudson River on the left side of the train, and glimpses of the towns, homes and roads out the right side window. Someone from the Dining Car has just come by to take dinner reservations, and I have chosen 8:15 PM, a very cosmopolitan time for dinner, after the sun has set and we will be riding through a darkened landscape.

The car is quiet, some people are already napping, others, like me, are tapping away on laptops, or looking at cell phones, or read actual paper books or e-readers. I feel sad for the person who is already asking when the train will stop so she can have a cigarette – the train is absolutely no smoking.

I can see out the window that the land is becoming hillier as we head north, and across the lake I can see another train. I am guessing that there is a big loop around and we are going to pass each other shortly----oh there they go!

I am going to settle back for a while, listen to my audiobook and watch New York go by outside my window.