Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Will Smith Day

Dateline: December 10th, 2007 - Hollywood, CA

With a tense excitement, hundreds of people line Hollywood Boulevard to pay homage to one of the greats. We now have confirmation of his greatness because today Will Smith's hands and feet will be immortalized in the cement sidewalk of Grauman's Chinese Theater.

Only the Hollywood A-list is allowed in the near proximity of the honoree, so I waited with the masses along the opposite side of the street. All's quiet on the southern front before Mr. Smith arrives. Each position this side of the barricade is guarded carefully for the view it affords. But at the moment there's nothing much to see--no stars here.

Then someone in the crowd starts yelling, "Tom! Tom! Tom!" The vocalist is joined by a handful of others, all shouting in choreographed unison. Following brief confusion, the pedestrian crowd realizes they are yelling toward Tom Cruise who has matriculated into the crowd across the street. As you can see from the 12-times zoomed pictures, these starry-eyed observers have a finely honed skill for picking out a celebrity at 500 paces. But never once did they succeed in getting Mr. Cruise to acknowledge their bellows.

Excitement peaked as a large, black SUV pulled up in the reserved space along the curb. No limo for this modest actor. The crowd cheers. Everyone is leaning over the strangers next to them to see around the vehicle and glimpse their first sight of the star. The deep amplified voice of the MC says nothing important, but in just the right ways to make everyone even more excited. The door opens, the crowd cheers, and out comes a small dog. The SUV drives away.

No one is really quite sure what happened, but disappointment is unanimous. Was this a joke? That Will Smith--he's such a kidder. But wait, here comes an identical SUV: sleek, black and oh-so-LA. Again the MC states the obvious with that professionally honed, booming voice. In mindless Hollywood fashion, the screaming continues. This time, it's for good reason. Will Smith rockets out of the car.

Taking incredibly large steps, Mr. Smith strides across the red carpet in Olympic time. He shook a couple hands but it didn't slow him down. Greeting a few particular people before taking the stage, Will kindly acknowledges the gathered crowds with an in-character hand to the ear. Then even before saying "thank you" or anything of the sort, he cups the mic close and begins a beat box, bouncing to the rhythm and pointed a craned arm in classic rapper style. Some things never change.

The crowd is completely under the spell of this classy entertainer as he speaks. The best actors in this town gain fame in their field by talent and luck. Today Will Smith is honored for not only rising to the top of the big-screen names, but his acclaim stretches across the music industry and TV screen as well. So the MC and self proclaimed mayor of Hollywood has it easy as he lauds the praises of this honored guest.

Following a non-literary, somewhat rambling, idealistic speech where he said that he wanted to use his fame and position to "change the world," Will set foot on the wet cement. Once finished, the MC again praises Mr. Smith, but this time for his penmanship and lack of errors in signing his name. (Apparently, they set the bar pretty low for Hollywood stars.) Continuing the gratuitous adulation, the "Mayor of Hollywood" declares this the best message any star has ever left in the cement in all the history of Grauman's Chinese theater: "Change the world."

For his final act as honorary mayor of Hollywood, the MC declares that "today is Will Smith Day throughout all Hollywood." The crowds cheer and Will poses for pictures with family, friends, and other honored guests. After losing sight of the star in the crowd of now semi-ordinary people across the street, I turn and walk down the walk of fame to spend this holiday in much the usual way.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Did you know you can open a Champagne bottle with a sword? Or in the absence of the real thing, even a small kitchen knife will work. Watch where you point that thing!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Paying Attention

Walking home one rainy night in Hollywood, I took this sad picture on the front steps of a local church...

The very next night, I took this picture...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Hooray for Hollywood

Hollywood is quaint in ways all its own. I'm staying with an "actress" who lives right in the heart of all the action in Hollywood: just off of Hollywood Blvd. So this morning was like every other morning...

After waking up at noon (because we were out until 4am again last night), I wanted some coffee. A stone's throw out the front door and I'm walking with all the tourists along the Walk of Fame. The first Starbucks I found was way too busy, so on to the next one.

Along the way, I walk by the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater where only the most famous of Hollywood stars' handprints are set in concrete by the entrance. Next up: the Kodak Theater where many of the "Best Actor/Actress" Oscar winners have their stars. The fun thing about this little stretch is that at every hour of the day or night, you can find street performers dressed as Superheros or movies stars or some other character. This morning, Batman decided to walk with me for a bit. Yeah... we're tight. In this town, it's all about who you know.

Of course, it's often hard to tell who the real street performers are and who the crazy people are. There are many! And they can be found in much the same places: talking to no one on the streets, sneaking up behind you in line, or in Starbucks--but the street performers are usually on the other side of the counter.

So here I sit, sipping my coffee at a corner Starbucks. Across one street, the Children line up in front of a faux winter wonderland for the chance to sit on L. Ron Hubbard's lap and tell him what they want for Christmas and how much their parents are willing to donate to "the cause" for them to get it.

Across the other street is a Frederick's of Hollywood store--actually in Hollywood. Lingerie shops can be found in abundance here. This town is amazing because in Hollywood, even the store manikins have breast implants. Gotta admit: they know their market.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Hollywood To-Do List

Tourist things to do while in Hollywood:
- See the famous Hollywood sign
- Photograph a movie star against their will
- Tour a movie studio
- Write a screenplay
- Go on strike
- Get plastic surgery
- Buy some REALLY big sunglasses
- Carve my name into a blank star on the Walk of Fame
- Flake on plans with friends
- Hand prints in cement
- Buy a white Bronco; Drive it down the freeway
- Witness and/or participate in a drive-by
- Buy a house; watch it burn
- Go insane; cuss at the wind incessantly
- Convert to Scientology

Thursday, November 15, 2007

City of Roses

Thanks to the mild climate and very soft rain, Portland is among the best places in the world to grow roses. Thus, the Internation Rose Test Garden is located here. One afternoon, I decided to let my camera stop to smell the roses:

...By Any Other Name

Then I discovered a very fun little setting on my camera which allowed me to take some interesting and dramatic photographs in that same garden:
(Hint: They are even more dramatic full screen. Download and go nuts.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Art of Travel

Having been a typical American, I think I can speak on behalf of the general population and say that we've lost the art of travel. Travel has become anything but. Like so many things American, the goal is to get it over with as quickly and unobtrusively as possible so that we can continue whatever myriad events populate our calendars. At best it's an interruption to the rest of what's important. At worst, we bring along the tools of our to-do list and travel time becomes "productive" time. I'm all for not wasting time--vehemently so! Instead, I'm suggesting that a new value be placed on the actual act of traveling.

Passenger train cars are studded with large picture windows along both sides. My recent 18-hour trip down the Oregon-California rails afforded me plenty of time to enjoy its displays. I didn't realize this until recently, but I think it's probably been about twelve years since I've sat and looked out the window of a moving vehicle. I've always been the driver--so of course I'm looking out the windows, but offensively and defensively. When you're a traveling passenger, you have the chance to look passively, and that makes all the difference. Even if the landscape is made of all familiar elements, something about their constant coming and going is hypnotic. I whiled away hours "seeing the world" out the window.

When day turned to night, the entertainment had to be found inside the train. Unlike an airplane where your interior movement is quite restricted, a train is a world of its own inviting exploration... Alright, it's more like a horizontal building all its own, but it's fun. Waiting for discovery on this trip were the dining car ("Reservations, please."), the cafe car, the observation car, and a long string of passenger cars.

The passenger cars were the setting for an interesting quest--the quest for a power outlet. You have strange needs while traveling. They're often basic needs you take for granted. At this moment, I needed a power outlet. At other times, the need is for a bathroom, or directions, or an all-night Starbucks. But now, I needed an outlet. I wouldn't have died if I didn't get one, but to do what I wanted, this is what I needed. When your traveling (as opposed to commuting or just going somewhere), you have the option to allow your thwarted needs to be an adventure and not a problem. I think this choice is largely what makes you a traveler instead of just a commuter. Then overcoming the problem is what makes "getting there half the fun."

This train, unlike those of previous travels, had electrical outlets in very short supply. Without an electrical outlet, my dear GPS device would not last through the night. It probably would have lost the scent about half-way through. Upon inquiring with the conductor (in his funny little hat--always a crowd pleaser), he said there was only one on the whole train. It was in the cafe car, and he had claimed it. I soon found it with his cell phone hoarding the precious electrons.

Upon further questing, I found that there was another behind the counter of the cafe bar, but alas, it was out of reach for a lowly passenger wanting to string a cord across the aisle. Refusing to believe this apparent state of affairs, I continued searching. It payed off when I discovered that there was exactly one outlet in every passenger car and mixed among the seats. Very accessible... for the person in that seat. Unfortunately, I was assigned another. On a train, the assigned seats are really more like a suggestion, so after making new friends with a socket squatter, I draped my cord along the wall and stated recharging. Problem solved. But after a little more roaming, I found an empty seat immediately adjacent to the plug in another car. Even better. I immediately staked my claim.

When the female conductor approached me a few moment later, I found out that this car was meant to be used by passengers getting on the train further down the line. But this obstacle was nothing a little sweet talking couldn't overcome. After making another new friend, also in a funny hat, I camped there over night, logging GPS coordinates all the way.

I woke up in Sacramento. Full battery. Breakfast was a disappointing 1000 calorie synthetic cinnamon roll I would regret very soon after. Not to be impaired, I relaxed in the observation car and took in the scenery for the rest of the trip and eavesdropped in on nearby conversations, all the while tracking our progress with the electronic breadcrumb trail in my pocket. It was a good thing, because when I noticed my position dot dangerously close to my destination dot, I scrambled to gather up my possessions strewn about. Packed and on my back, I hauled my bag and myself off the train to meet our destination--this adventure over for the time being, and on to another.

When not lost among "the rest of life,"1 travel itself becomes an event of note. In times past, the single most defining experience of an entire lifetime may have been crossing a country, continent or ocean. In our time, familiarity has bread a lack of familiarity--some may even say a professional detachment. But I remain convinced that the art of travel is an option left open to anyone willing to embrace the adventure as one.

1 And by that, I mean exactly the opposite: "the business of life"2
2 If you read that phrase as anything other than "busy-ness," then you're not getting the clever word-play or the point!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Post-Portland Pondering

During my whole time in Portland, I was trying to get a handle on the identity of the city. Normally, when I've gone to cities before, you have a sense for the attitude of the city at large. For example, Seattle very much still has a grunge attitude along with a coffee-drinking, bookstore-frequenting, software-writing kind of vibe. Vancouver has a cosmopolitan Canadian vibe: "eh"-saying, late-'90s-fashion-wearing, pedestrian-walking, downtown-living.

Portland is a problem. There's not a whole lot of vibe to Portland. Nevertheless, by the end of this post, I'm going to attempt it. But before then, an observation: to an outsider, Portland is billed on two things: 1.) Being a particularly "livable" city (although no one really knows what that means), and 2.) Having a world-class mass transit system. After spending more than two weeks living there, I have concluded that Portland is billed on those points because that's all there is to bill.

This is not necessarily a slight to the city, however. Probably one of the things that makes Portland so livable is the lack of tourists. But, there's really not a lot for a visitor to do. You can tour the Portland underground (made famous by such TV networks as the History Channel, Discover Channel, E!, etc.)... or you can go down in your basement with a flashlight and tell ghost stories. They will both provide the same effect--the latter being notable cheaper an less likely to incur the wrath of more conservative historians who question the "historical" stories told about the shanghai underground.

The only other thing for a tourist to really do is ride and marvel at the Portland mass transit system. If you've been to another major city before coming to Portland, this experience will feel a lot like riding a bus. A slight exception should be made for the MAX (Metropolitan Area Express). This feels a bit more like riding a European train because it's on rails. Put together, the bus system and the MAX (which includes an impressively long ride through a tunnel under Forest Park) make up Portland's famous mass transit system.

As nice as that sounds, imagine my frustration when, immediately upon arriving in Portland, I found that the public transit system couldn't take me to where I was staying. The house was well within Portland's urban growth boundary, but almost a 3 mile walk from the nearest public transit stop (only 1 mile if I left the house at 7am). Thankfully, my kind hosts had planned to pick me up.

Herein lies one of Portland's most redeeming qualities: I found the people there to be unusually kind. I suppose they are famous for this as well, but it's harder to point at. Every single person I met, whether staying with them, purchasing from them, walking past them in the park or sharing a meal together, was impressively personable and polite. I think this is somewhat common in the Pacific Northwest, but Portland all the more so.

If I had to describe the general vibe I get from Portlanders, it would probably be such: they're easy-going, MAX-riding, home-beer-brewing, direction-giving, city-walking, Sunday-hiking, fleece-wearing, sleeping-in, outdoorsy types.

Now, unless you think I didn't like the city, let me say for the record that Portland is a unique, beautiful, and... nice city. Don't expect a tourist spot. Don't expect deep history. If you're looking for a nice, affordable place on the West Coast to settle down, this might be it.

Overall, Portland is a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pictures of Portland

Mt. Hood from the Pittock Mansion.


The mansion itself.

The view from my bedroom window.

A Portland street, showcasing it's famous mass transit system, the MAX.

Skyline over the water.

Entry and exit.

Just one local city park.

There are no single-colored trees in Portland.

Portland by night.

Friday, November 2, 2007

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest--in all its ardour and paradoxes--than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.
- Alain de Botton

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What I Was Missing

I can hardly stand this! There are likely only a few travel experiences so amazing as traveling by train through the Pacific Northwest at the peak of Fall. I'm in awe. It's unbelievable!

There goes another river. We crossed over an old school truss bridge. Mountains off to the left. No wait--mountains off to the right. Wait, now it's the waters of Puget Sound. The sun is poking through the mildly cloudy skies to light them up like aerial fire. Now we're traveling through a valley--the very bottom--along a creek filled with yellow leaves and lily pads. We just crossed the creek. Now it's on the right. Evergreen trees mix in with the fall colors on the far bank. Off to the left again, we have rolling mountains of green, gold and bright red. This next hill is a brilliant green pasture with the perfectly quaint little farmhouse on top, surrounded by fence and horses. A little farther along is a run down old barn. It's perfect for this setting. The distant mountains off to the right make a silhouette against the now explosive sun-cloud canvas. Now they're all gone. I can't see a single thing. But the hum and clatter of the train's motion is much stronger. We're in a tunnel and the world is taken away in a blink. Then bright light, brilliant yellows and green pines again. A voice comes over the line, “Ladies and Gentlemen, as we rocket out of the Rocky Point Tunnel, I'm pleased to announce our arrival into Kelso/Longview. For those of you leaving us here, we'll open the doors between cars number 1 & 2 and cars number 5 & 6.” With a graceful deceleration and stop along with an audible sigh from brakes, the train comes to a total stop. There's not a single sound. It is deadly quiet. Less than a minute passes. If you weren't looking out the window, you wouldn't even know we started moving again. It is still silent. A train whistle. Clack... ... Clack... ... Clack...clack... ... Clack...clack... ClaClack... ClaClack... Clack-A-Clack... Clack-A-Clack... We're moving again.

Inside the train car, I'm sprawled across four seats. They're in pairs facing each other with a table in between. Spanning across the entire table are my travel amenities: my newly acquired laptop, day bag, half a dozen other electronic gadgets and an empty Black Butte Porter beer bottle I bought (when it still had beer in it) from the bistro car. They don't call it a “dining car”. The “in-flight” movie just ended. Evan Almighty (seen it). I might not even realize I wasn't sitting in my own living room if it weren't for the motion of the picture windows on all sides (now showcasing a 150 foot shear rock cliff on the left and a golden sunset over a creek and wetlands to the right). We just crossed over another creek atop another historic train truss bridge.

The train is due in to Portland in an hour and I can't tell you how sad that makes me. How unusual it is to not want the journey to end! It's strange to think that what I thought would be only an interlude in my travel experiences has proven to be such a highlight. This is by far, the most pleasant trip I've had! I can't believe more people (in this country) don't ride trains! Of course, if they did, I would have to share my four-seater living room.

We're crossing a highway now. I can't help but look at the diamond headlights and ruby taillights with a bit of contempt. Do they know what they're missing? As they're running around from place to place, strapped in behind the wheel, I'm lounging with my feet up and shoes off. But then again, before this week, I knew little other than that. I never considered taking a train. Why would I? I had a car. I flew in airplanes. And I will do those again. But one thing won't happen again--I will never again sit behind the wheel at a train crossing, waiting impatiently, so I can get on my way without feeling at least a twinge of jealousy for the lucky travelers riding in style. And when I hear the sound of that train whistle through the air, it will take me back to these fond Fall days of tracking across the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rails Over Roads

The elegance of the rails is alive and well! I needed a ticket from Vancouver back to Seattle (on my way to Portland). It was about $3 more than a bus ticket and even though the train is only now pulling away from the station, it's been worth every penny.

There is a romantic allure to train travel that you simply don't have with plane, bus. or car travel. Maybe it's the bell I can still hear ringing; maybe it's the gentle sway of the double-decker car as it picks up speed; maybe it's the 25% occupancy leaving most seats empty for me to stretch out or the ~3 feet of legroom I have (no joke!); maybe it's the couple making out in front of me; or maybe it's the sun setting over the ocean shore where brilliant fall colored trees descend the mountains. Maybe it's all of this. But the experience as a whole is nearly enough to swear off plane travel entirely.

Ahh! There's the train whistle... And the familiar Ding Ding Ding Ding of the crossing signal as all the cars on the road stop for me. It is grand. It is magnanimous!

Here comes the ticket officer. I disappointed that he isn't wearing the funny little hat, but he's quirky and funny enough to make up for it. He says the customs officer will be through in an hour. Maybe he'll be the one pushing the perfectly-aisle-sized cart with beverage and pretzels. Or I suppose I could just walk to the dining car. There is no "Fasten Seat Belt" sign on a train.

Ahah! There's the conductor with the little hat. He seems to be just chatting with passengers. And that thunderous sound was a sister train going north on the adjacent track.

There's the whistle again. One positive side effect to travel by train is that, since you're still on the ground, you get to see a fair bit of the surroundings. We just drove (trained? rolled? tracked?) past the Paramount movie studio lots. Vancouver is known as Little Hollywood. Apparently, it is often much cheaper to film movies in Vancouver (before the dollar sank). "The Fantastic Four" was largely filmed here. I even ran across a film crew with their cranes and cameras and trailers while walking the streets of Vancouver's Gastown.

The only other time I've covered so many kilometers by rail was in Eastern Europe. This experience is much different here--it's North Americanized. Everyone has their own luxurious separate spaces, all facing forwards. In Eastern Europe, the train cars had separate little cabins with six seats each--three facing forward, three backward. So you're staring someone in the eyes the whole ride. There were no arm rests and chances were good that you would have the head of the smelly Russian next to you in your lap after twenty minutes.

Getting up for a stroll yielded some fine results. The dining car had good food for rather little money. People were sprawled out on the U shaped booths on each side of the car, taking advantage of the lack of passengers. Downstairs, the bathrooms were spacious and cleverly laid out. The drinking fountain came with cups. It's a smart little world in here.

Well, after the most enjoyable transit experience of my life, We roll into the station. I'm reminded a bygone era of turn-of-the-century elegance as the tracks back into the ornate historic station. The heyday of the railway has seen its end, but the end of the line on this rail trip has me on track for its elegance again soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Opportunity Cost

Today takes me back to Seattle for a few days. It might be a chance to do, see or say the things I didn't while there before. I don't think there is ever really enough time. Even this time, I'll only be there a few days as a stopping point on my way to Portland. It's always a trade-off. Time spent in one place is time unavailable for another. Nonetheless, it's back into the States for me.
Men work out their souls by strange rules, which other men, who have not journeyed into far countries, cannot come to understand.
- Jack London