Going places in an electric sports car

19 06 2015

About a million years ago, when I was young, naive, and full of optimism and potential, I was chosen for a prestigious fellowship that allowed me to spend a year in Germany, on someone else’s payroll. My alibi was that I was “working”, learning about and looking to advance the transatlantic relationship when I returned to North America. For the sponsoring foundation, nothing less than five stars was ever good enough, and the group had a standing annual invite to visit with the Chancellor and the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.

I was 23 and boy, was I going places.

Fast forward 20 years. I returned to North America two decades after they expected me to return, with a healthy dose of cynicism and significant life experience. I am no longer the bright-eyed bushy-tailed young upstart that I once was… I am now middle-aged and much wiser, and definitely more realistic about my abilities and my station in this world.

But every year the foundation that sponsored my initial expensive jaunt through Europe throws an alumni weekend party that rivals the fellowship itself. There is always crazy, fun stuff to do, interesting speakers, high-profile guests, fantastic food and appropriate adult beverages.

This year’s party included a tour and a test drive in a Tesla.

The factory in Freemont, CA.

The factory in Fremont, CA.

I won’t go into the background of where, what, when… you can research all that on the internet yourself. But one interesting factoid I would like to add: The brain behind this unbelievably fascinating and disruptive new technology is my alma mater’s most famous non-graduate. After two years of business school there (which actually coincided with my own time on the same campus) he said, “Ahhh…. toss it. I have better things to do with my life.”

And he did. And all I can say is… well… wow.

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Hello there, Beautiful!

As you can tell from the photo, the Tesla Model S is a luxury ELECTRIC sports car, and it can go 0-60 miles per hour in just over 3 seconds. I tested that myself on a road where the speed limit was a paltry 35 mph. It seats seven (including two rear-facing child seats in the back trunk), it has every electronic gadget, bell and whistle you can think of… and many, many more that would never even occur to you. The engine has only 17 moving parts and uses no oil… so it never needs to be serviced. The battery pack is located in the floor of the vehicle so as not lose any interior space.

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The view from inside.

Looks pretty good on me, huh?

Looks pretty good on me, huh?

I posted this photo on my Facebook timeline with the caption: “Test drove my new car the other day.” To my great amusement, a whole slew of my friends actually believed I had purchased a vehicle which costs more to buy than the entire pre-tax salary I earned in 2014.

So I guess I still am going places. Just maybe not the places I thought. Evelynn Starr, 40-something super action heroine and Tesla driver. Nice.

But seriously though, I’m not sure how the esteemed German foundation will top this at next year’s alumni party.

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Reason #6 for moving to the Bay Area

10 06 2015

Moving to the Bay Area took a big leap of faith on my part. I left the Northeast, the part of the country I was most familiar with before this. Even though I was born in South Florida and technically I have only spent less than one third of my life actually physically in the United States, it was the Northeast with which I most closely identified. My family held season tickets for the Philadelphia Flyers (1985-87), I grew up saying “wooder” (water) and anything west of Pittsburgh and south of Washington DC was a great big black hole for me.

But my husband, a citizen of a country that is not the United States, who fell in love with the West during a previous life as an adventure guide for European tourists, opened my eyes to the wonder, beauty and possibility of this part of the country almost exactly eight years ago this week. It was our first big trip as a couple, a little more than a year after we had met…. a road-trip through the southwest, starting in Los Angeles, snaking through all of the highlights like Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and ending in the Bay Area. That’s when we started preliminary discussions on the possibility of moving here for good, at some undetermined moment in the future.

So now we are here, in our house and getting to know our new community. To help assimilate and acclimatize, I am compiling a list of reasons it’s nice to live here. I’m only up to about 6 so far (we have only been here 2 weeks), but yesterday added a pretty significant one: Day-trip to Yosemite National Park.

Half Dome.

Half Dome.

Okay, so it is kind of far for a day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area (about 170 miles / 270 kilometers each way), but it’s possible and that’s the main thing. R. and I packed some sandwiches, fruit and water and headed into the hills. It was the hottest day of the year so far (103 degrees F / 39 degrees C) but we still managed two hikes that included some significant elevation changes.

Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite remains in my “Top five places to see in the United States” and I continue to be stunned by its breathtaking beauty, even after visiting it several times in the past couple of years. The views just never get old.

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From the bridge below Vernal Falls.

Vernal Falls.

So yes, I think I’m acclimatizing well to my new surroundings out here on the left coast. It’s not a black hole after all.





Opening Day at Fenway Park

5 04 2014

My employer has four season tickets to home games of the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. And one of the perks is that employees of all levels on the food chain get to use these tickets (for free), most of the time all you have to do is ask nicely. Of course, sometimes some client entertaining has to be done, so on game day one might discover that one’s planned afternoon or evening at the ballpark has fallen through at the last moment. That’s fair, though. The seats are in the 12th row just behind 3rd base. I can see why clients would want to go.

But sometimes, regular old staff like me gets lucky.

Yesterday was Opening Day. The 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox came home to begin another season. It was an afternoon game, with the official celebration and “ring ceremony” – where the players from last year’s team pick up their official championship bling, beginning at 1pm.

Famous Fenway Park.

What more American thing is there to do than go to a ballgame at one of the oldest and most storied ballparks in the country? And what more American of American things to do than go to a ballgame at one of the oldest and most storied ballparks in the country on Opening Day? Lest we forget, last year’s Opening Day at Fenway happened just hours before the Marathon bombings. And of course everyone here in Boston can tell you where they were during the fairytale worst-to-first World Series run last October that made the city whole again.

So Friday morning, as part of a planned office meeting, leadership held a raffle, with the four coveted tickets going to four lucky winners. And… I won a ticket to Opening Day.

The pregame festivities were emotionally-laden and full of symbolism; they included bombing victims and first responders, as well as a salute to the city’s firefighters, after two of them died in a blaze not far from Fenway last week. A Coast Guard helicopter buzzed the 36,000 fans in a very-low-altitude flyover. The pennant was raised to great fanfare. The Boston Pops teamed up with the Dropkick Murphys for the national anthem. The old mayor tossed the ball to the new mayor, who threw the first pitch. The game was not exactly an afterthought, but it was a bit of an anticlimax, with the players and the fans fairly spent. The Sox lost to the Brewers 6-2.

How totally cool is this?

How totally cool is this?

So what did I make of it? Without getting too slushy or overly patriotic – it was an unforgettable day I was absolutely thrilled to experience. And I’m not sure that any of my friends overseas can understand the bond that links me to all of this. This is a small part of why I came back to the States after all these years.

An old dear friend needed just two words to sum up everything I felt, reducing me to tears. She said, simply: “Welcome home.”





Sir Bob rocks my world

7 06 2012

As a 42-year-old, there is not much that rocks my world anymore. I have seen quite a lot of it and become rather cynical about many things. But this week, my world was definitely rocked.

How often do you get the opportunity to meet a childhood hero? Okay, as a journalist I had more of an opportunity than most to experience powerful politicians, sports figures and movie stars, for example, in action, live, with my own eyes, in front of the lens of my camera.

But yesterday, I encountered someone whom I have looked up to and admired from afar for almost 27 years. That’s two thirds of my life.

Do you remember where you were on July 13th, 1985?

On July 13th, 1985, I was a teenager, and I woke up to a glorious summer Saturday in Vineland, New Jersey – about 30 miles south of Philadelphia – on which I would play in my first (and, it would turn out, my last) tennis tournament. I was swiftly smoked off the court, 6-0, 6-0. My mother had scheduled a yard sale; we were about move house yet again and she was on a mission to clear out useless clutter from our garage, our closets and our lives.

But something else happened that day… not too far away, in fact, just down the road in Philadelphia. Something that had global reach and global consequences.

Do you remember Bob Geldof? (Now “Sir Bob” to us mortals.) The guy who rallied his musician friends and family to fight poverty, drought and famine in Africa. His “Do they know it’s Christmas” LP was the very first piece of vinyl I purchased with my own money. Same guy who organized simultaneous blockbuster charity concerts in Philly and London on July 13th, 1985: Live Aid.

Remember?

I met Sir Bob Geldof yesterday, live and up close.

Almost 30 years on, he is now over 60, looking a little the worse for wear, but still rallying the masses with personal, passionate, inspirational messages, delivered extemporaneously, and unconventionally. A scandal here and a bit of outrage there always accompanied him on his journey.

But that never stopped him from his goal of changing the world, a single opinion at a time. With much noise, and little subtlety.

Last night he spoke to an international group of 200 high-level corporate executives from the chocolate industry, government officials and NGO representatives at a five-star Swiss mountain resort. At the industry’s invitation, he spoke about its responsibility to the regions of Africa, Asia and South America from which it sources its cocoa, and where its farmers eek out a precarious existence at the mercy of the weather and the global terminal markets. He spoke about deprivation and dependence, the need for ecological as well as social sustainability for communities ravaged by natural and man-made disasters, AIDS and hopelessness. He spoke about taboo topics like human trafficking, child labor, deforestation, abject poverty and exploitation.

He held up a mirror to the industry, and told all of those important folks in the room exactly what he thought of it. While he acknowledged that all of us are, generally, good people (probably), there are a lot of things our companies continue to do that are absolutely disgraceful. And that in the future, something must change.

We always blame it on “the system” when really, “the system” is every individual.

And the future, well, the future is now.

Geldof was in fine form, using the F-word a good dozen times in 45 minutes. I sat in the cheap seats and enjoyed every minute.

After his speech and a photo op, the event’s organizers invited him to join them for dinner. He declined, adding: “I just want to go get drunk now.”

Just a regular Irishman.

Rock on, Sir Bob. You are my hero.





White folks, a school and recess.

20 05 2012

One hundred pairs of wide brown eyes stared at us like we had just landed in their corner of Ivory Coast from the moon: Two women with pale skin, smiling.

The classroom.

These two strange-looking women were accompanied by a third woman, carrying a leather handbag, who looked like they themselves did, or rather like their mothers, just better dressed. And better fed.

We felt a bit like we were in a zoo: the grown-ups showed us what was there, in the classroom, and the hundred kids got to take a good long look at what had just walked in the door.

The question was only – which of us was the caged animal?

Perhaps they had seen white people like us before, but likely only men, and only in a position of power. A foreman on a rubber plantation where their parents worked as day-labor, or a buyer for the cocoa that their parents harvested on their smallholder farm. In both cases the white man determined what they would eat, and if they could afford to go to school, or to a doctor. Today or tomorrow. Or never.

The principal of the rural primary school about 150 kilometers east of Abidjan opened his doors wide for the visitors from far-away Europe. The children stood for us, bade us good morning in unison, and then sang for us. And they stared at us. It was a strange feeling, being greeted like royalty, or the President.

A goat munched serenely on weeds near the flagpole. A natural lawnmower today, lunch (if necessary) tomorrow.

The schoolyard (with goat and woman).

The school has three classrooms for the 180 kids currently enrolled, a small office for the principal, housing for the teachers – including solar cells on the roof for electricity – and a water well in the barren schoolyard.

The youngest kids looked to be about 6 or 7 – the age where most children in most countries start school. But the one or the other stood much taller than her comrades. A teacher told us later that these were the kids who lived farthest away, and whose parents didn’t let them begin first grade until they were 10 or 11.

Some kids, the principal said, just do not show up during the harvest of whatever crop their parents or neighbors farm. Other children attend for a year, but don’t come back when the new term starts. The teachers are used to this, and have no choice but to accept it as part of this traditional, agricultural society, where child labor (and child slavery) is not uncommon. Often the parents are illiterate, and don’t know better.

During our visit, the principal promised the kids that if they are really good students, and work very, very hard, then someday they can get on a big airplane and fly to where these two strange-looking women came from.

The older kids laughed, knowing full well this was something that maybe a single lucky one of them might experience in a lifetime. The younger ones seemed more bewildered than anything else. They didn’t seem to find this funny – or a state to which they would really wish to aspire. An uncomfortable, confused silence followed. We kept the smiles pasted on our faces so that we didn’t have to say anything – because we had no words at that moment.

At mid-morning a small child ran out of one classroom, grabbed a stick and banged on the rim of an old truck tire that had been stripped of its rubber, hanging on a wooden frame in the middle of the schoolyard.

The bell.

And then we saw what happens at recess at probably every rural primary school in Cote d’Ivoire. And all over the world.

180 kids + break-time = boundless energy.





Three women of Africa

11 05 2012

The first woman is cocoa farmer, grasping a rare opportunity to learn.

On this overcast day she joins two dozen men of her community in an educational program that promises to help her grow more cocoa pods, and deliver higher-quality beans that will be used for exclusive foreign chocolate and enjoyed in sophisticated European capitals that she will never see. She hopes to apply the things she learns on her own farm, to generate a higher income, and build a better life. She squats on the ground in her flip-flops and mixes a pile of freshly shucked cocoa beans, up to her elbows in the white pulp that tastes a little like lychee juice.

She sings while she works.

Womens’ work.

The second woman is a villager, grinding manioc on the doorstep of her mud-and-wattle home, to feed her family.

Her settlement is in a clearing in the rainforest, a red dirt piste the only connection to the main road, several miles away. To get there, we drive slalom around potholes wide enough to easily throw out an axle, and deep enough to easily swallow an entire car. These homes have no running water or electricity, and the roofs are made of dried palm leaves.

She tastes some of the chocolate we bring from far-away Europe. It is soft and runny, from the heat, but she takes a handful anyway, and sucks it off her fingers.

Womens’ work.

The third woman is not a woman at all. She is a child of maybe 13 or 15 years old, who has, herself, just borne a child, a few hours earlier. He lies next to her on the plastic-covered bed, stretching his arms skyward, to hug his new world, while she rests. The doctor at the rural health center tells us that the birth took place without anesthesia. “Natural childbirth,” they call it here. To get to the clinic at the top of the hill she had to walk. Her own mother, barely 30, accompanied her. She is now a grandmother.

I did not photograph them.

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These are three of the women I met last week in Ivory Coast, a country of 21 million inhabitants nestled between Liberia and Ghana in Western Africa. “Met” is perhaps an exaggeration. I don’t know much more about these women than the basic facts I have written down here, hastily scribbled into my reporters’ notebook at the time. I don’t even know their names. We exchanged a handshake, a “Bonjour madame!”, a smile, and a laugh at something silly. Our worlds touched briefly, with that bond dispersing a short time later, just as quickly.

These are three of the strong women of Africa.

She is the backbone of her community, she is the keeper of her family. Here in the rural communities of the Ivory Coast, she learns from an early age that she must embrace hard physical work to survive. And that she must endure the constant machismo of a traditional male-dominated society, where polygamy is regularly practiced and inheritance usually only passes to her brothers. She bears these lifelong hardships with dignity.

Every day she has a million miles to go before she can sleep.

This was my first visit to Western Africa, and it will surely not be my last. My body returned to Europe this morning. My soul is having a hard time keeping up.

Womens’ work.





Screaming kids on airplanes

27 04 2012

So just because I love jetlag so much, I decided to go back to the States five days after I had just returned to Europe. Chicago last week, New York this week. But more about NYC another time, maybe.

Today I want to talk about children (again).

There is nothing on earth that brings the sociopath out in everyone than screeching, red-faced midgets on a transatlantic overnight flight.

I thought that my JFK-ZRH flight would be a good opportunity to get at least a few hours of shut-eye. Oh how wrong I was. Within the five rows around me there were seven kids ranging in age from about six months to 3 years.

Children in front of me, children to the right of me, children behind me.  There were no kids to the left of me because there was only a window, and beyond that, an airplane wing. And if you ask me, I would have put them all there rather than in the cabin with the rest of us.

The best place for kids: Outdoors!

Yes, attached to these children were also parents, all of whom seemed incapable and overwhelmed with the stress of parenting.

It’s bad enough when one child screams incessantly in a closed space with a captive audience of 200. But on this flight, they all screamed. Throughout the night. In a coordinated attempt to drive all the rest of us to commit extremely violent crimes.

Jethro Tull on the inflight entertainment system, at top volume, could not drown out these pint-sized terrorists.

My martyrdom (and that of my child-free co-passengers) lasted seven hours, thanks to a strong tailwind that got us to our destination faster than usual, plus 45 minutes of taxiing at both ends.

What can be done? I have three solutions:

  1. Completely child-free flights. Malaysia Airlines has the right idea, having banned infants from its First Class cabins and implementing a child-free upper deck on its new A380 aircraft from July 1. This is an idea whose time is way overdue. Folks like me who have to go from the gate to the office after an overnight flight will not stand for this kind of noise pollution much longer.
  2. An “objectionable noise surcharge,” kind of like the fuel surcharge all of us have gotten used to paying. The younger the child, the higher the tax. This would automatically disqualify families traveling with multiple infants because they would likely no longer be able to afford it.
  3. A sound-proof cabin at the back of the plane. Like a playpen, or a time-out box. Or just seal off the last five or six rows from the rest of the cabin with sound-proof glass. They used to put smokers at the back of the plane, and now we can just put kids there. Screaming (like smoking) is harmful to the environment and the health of all those individuals not currently engaged in it.

OK, time for all you parents with young kids to come at me with a machete. But you know darn well that I am right.  You have to deal with your own screaming kids all the time. You can’t escape them. (And don’t you wish you could?)

But ask yourselves this: Why must babies travel to other continents before they even know who they are? Why do you people drag them across oceans and time zones when they won’t remember any of it when they grow up? Why do you expose them to foreign germs and the misery of jetlag before their first day of school?

A suggestion that could keep all of us happy, the child-rich and the child-free: Show your kids your own country or region or continent when they are really small. There is so much to see in Europe, or North America, or Asia, alone. Then, when they turn six, or seven, or eight, when they are old enough to appreciate what you are offering them – that’s when you begin to show them the world.