resqgeek: (Default)

September 2017

1718192021 2223

Custom Text

Most Popular Tags

 Every few years, we splurge and book a stay at an all-inclusive beach resort. I would be tempted to do it more often, but it gets expensive, because you have to pay for the accommodations, plus the all-inclusive fee (which is a set amount per person, per day) to cover food, drinks, and activities. So a week at one of these resorts can easily exceed $1500 for a couple. And that is the reason that we have always chosen to do these stays in the Dominican Republic, which is probably the country with the least expensive all-inclusive resorts*. And so we found ourselves doing our third all-inclusive vacation in our third Dominican city. On our previous visits, we had staying in La Romana (south coast) and Punta Cana (east end of the island). This time we stayed in Puerto Plata, on the north shore.

The resort we were staying at was actually just one of a whole complex of resorts, all owned by the same company, and we had access to facilities scattered across several adjacent resorts, including a number of different restaurants and pools, as well as several different bars. Our room was in one of the oldest buildings on the property, and it had its quirks, but it was roomy and the bed was comfortable, so it was adequate for our purposes, as we really didn't spend much time in our room.

The resort "beaches" were set back from the water, separated from the "real" beach by a sea wall. This allowed the resorts to control access to the property, but it also meant that you felt a bit removed from the ocean while you relaxed on a lounge chair or in a cabana. However, having a wait staff that could bring cold drinks and food to you as you lay in the sun (or, as we tried to do, the shade) certainly made up for the slightly limited access to the surf. If I could figure out how to support myself, I would be perfectly content to just stay on one of these beaches, enjoying bottomless drinks and reading good books!

The food was endless, but for the most part was only slightly above average in quality.  Which was probably just as well, because if it had all been excellent, I would have found it impossible to not eat too much.  As it was, I found myself snacking through the day, certainly consuming more calories than I was burning as I reclined on the beach. The other oddity of the resort was that the rooms did not have free internet access, but there was free WiFi on the beaches, which meant that many people lay on the beach with their phones or tablets, checking e-mail and Facebook, or just surfing the internet. Weird.

And because this was a tropical island, everything was lush and green and generally just gorgeous.  There were several resident cats on the resort, who were completely prepared to beg for whatever food you might be willing to share with them.  There were also birds that felt that it was totally acceptable to fly into the buffet restaurants and help themselves to scraps that fell to the floor or to food from the plates left on the tables when people walked away. And for those staying a few buildings over from us, there was a group of peafowl that provided a reliable, if annoyingly early, wake-up service.

We did leave the property twice during our week, on excursions to experience a little of what the Dominican Republic had to offer away from the beach.  On Monday, we visited the waterfalls of Damajagua, where, after a *very* sweaty 40 minute hike in the jungle, we jumped, slid, and swam down a series of 12 waterfalls. Then on Thursday, we dis an all day tour to Santiago and Jarabacoa. Each of those excursions probably deserve an entry of their own. 

* If you find an offer for an all-inclusive resort that includes a really low price, understand that the resort is probably taking a loss on the deal in order to get you on the property so they can try to sell you a timeshare or vacation club membership. These sales pitches are *very* high pressure and generally will cost you about half of one day of your trip, even if you consistently refuse to buy anything. This isn't to say that you shouldn't take advantage of these promotions, but understand what they are and be prepared for the sales pitch. These companies definitely try to take advantage of people who don't understand what they are being sold. If you are staying for a week, losing half a day may be worth the discounted price, but that is a decision that each traveller needs to make for him or herself.
 My wife and I returned home yesterday after spending last week at an all-inclusive beach resort in Puerto Plata. If you have been paying attention, you may note that this is, in fact, our third trip so far in 2017. When I mentioned that we were hoping to begin travelling more, I was quite serious.

I will need to sort and upload photos, and there will probably be a couple more entries detailing the trip, but this trip was mostly about relaxing on the beach, enjoying endless food and bottomless drinks, while making new friends. And I think we managed to accomplish all of that. We managed to find some quite lovely spots on the beaches, in the shade of the palm and mango trees, where we could relax in the breeze off the Atlantic Ocean, listening to the surf, while sipping cold drinks. The restaurants were good, and a couple of the meals were quite excellent. And we met wonderful people...a young couple from Charleston who were celebrating a slightly delayed honeymoon, and another couple from the Netherlands who were in the middle of a two week stay. 

There were minor bumps along the way, including some drama at the airport before we even really got started. As our flight out of Washington National Airport began boarding, a young man with a guitar rushed to the gate, anxious to get on board. The gate crew pulled him aside...they had already made several announcements about how full the flight was and asking for volunteers to gate check some of the carry-on baggage. I'm sure that the airline personnel simply wanted to make sure there would be enough storage space for this guy's guitar, but he was sure he was going to miss the flight, demanding to be allowed to board. When the gate agent who had been speaking with him turned her back, he dashed down the jetway with his guitar, which prompted calls for security.  He only made it as far as the aircraft doorway, and after a loud debate, he was eventually convinced to return to the gate area, but not before they airline staff had threatened to cancel the entire flight! Needless to say, when we finally finished boarding and departed, he was not on the plane.

Beyond that, our travel was mostly uneventful, which is about the most you can hope for these days.  Modern air travel is no longer fun, but a chore to be endured in order to get where you want to be, at least for those of us who can't afford to sit with the 1% up at the front of the aircraft.

Alpe d'Huez

Apr. 12th, 2017 01:37 pm
resqgeek: (Default)
I just realized that I've been home from France for a month, so it's probably time to finish writing about the trip, before I completely forget all the details. I'm going to try to summarize a week in this single post, mostly because I doubt there's much value in a day-by-day account of our skiing. Instead, I'll try to cover the highlights.
  • Weather - While we did have several beautiful, sunny days, the temperatures on those days were well above freezing, which led to less than ideal snow conditions. It also meant that we were overdressed and soaking in sweat by the end of the day.  However, the early part of the week featured a full-blown blizzard, with very limited visibility, lots of fresh snow, and ugly winds.  At one point, my wife and I were stranded on a chair lift for about 15-20 minutes when the high winds forced them to shut it down.  My best guess is that the winds were gusting above 50 mph as we bounced around on that chair like a piñata at a toddler's birthday party. That was, no question, the scariest chair lift ride of my life.

  •  Food - One of the reasons I enjoy ski trips to Europe is the food. Our package included dinner each night in the hotel restaurant each evening, and we sat as a group, sharing stories over five courses of simply amazing French food, accompanied by plentiful local wine (Côtes du Rhône), both red and white. If I hadn't been getting such a workout each day on the mountain, I'm sure I would have gained several pounds!

  • Scenery - The other big reason to ski in Europe is the scenery. While you can argue pretty persuasively that the snow conditions in Colorado or Utah are normally far superior to those anywhere else in the world, the Alps possess a dramatic beauty that the mountains here simply cannot match. On the days when the sun was out, it was impossible not to stop frequently just to soak in the views. I took a lot of photos, only a few of which actually do justice to the beauty that surrounded us.

  • The location - The town of Alpe d'Huez is remarkably small, considering the size of the ski area that it serves. it is also pretty remote, at the top of a long, steep road that includes 21 hairpin switchbacks (famous in bicycle racing circles for the leg of the Tour de France that climbs it). We really didn't explore the town while we were there, focusing instead on skiing during the day, and socializing at our hotel in the evenings.  The ski area is actually a number of small ski areas that interconnect and operate on a single ski pass system that tracks the usage of the various lifts in some form of revenue sharing. Unlike the corporate environment that dominates ski areas in the US, where everything on the mountain is owned by the corporation that runs the resort, here the various restaurants and bars on the mountain were independently owned. The resulting competition meant that the prices for food and drinks on the mountain were surprisingly affordable by comparison to what we've become accustomed to seeing in the US.

  • Final thoughts - It had been more than a decade since we last visited Europe, and this trip was a reminder of how very much we enjoyed our earlier visits there. I have heard people argue that there is too much to see and do in the US, so that the cost and effort of travelling to Europe doesn't make sense. While I agree that there are plenty of great places to travel to in the US, I strongly disagree that this should be an excuse not to visit Europe. I love the experience of visiting countries with much deeper histories, as well as different languages and cultures, from what I can experience here. This trip has reminded me of the value of foreign travel, and I fully intend to do as much travelling as I can, both foreign and domestic.


Apr. 12th, 2017 07:16 am
resqgeek: (Default)
This is the first post written on this new platform. I have been an on-again-off-again user of LiveJournal since 2004, and was reluctant to leave that platform because I had paid for a lifetime membership. And so even when the first warnings came that suggested that it might be time to consider moving, I continued to post entries there.

However, the when the details of the latest changes to the LJ terms of use were pointed out to me (and, yes, I will admit that I didn't read them myself when they were first posted), I realized that I could no longer continue to use LiveJournal. I don't get enough readers to qualify as a "media outlet" under those new rules, so that wasn't the problem. But the new terms of use require the users to conform to Russian law, which does not protect free speech and the rights of expression. And there are a number of issues that I feel strongly about that could violate Russian law, should I write about them.

So, I have migrated here. My entries (all of those earlier than this one) from LiveJournal have been imported (intact, I hope), and I will move forward from here. I hope that the few readers that I had on LJ will follow and continue to interact with me here.
When most people think of the Popes, the city that comes to mind in Rome. But for much of the fourteenth century, Avignon was the city that the Popes called home. Beginning with Clement V, a series of seven French Popes established Avignon as the center of Church administration and the capital of the Papal States. Avignon would remain part of the Papal States until the French Revolution.

When we booked this trip, it was this history that excited me about our stay in Avignon. I was anxious to tour the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and to wander this city that was the center of the Church for two-thirds of a century, just before the Renaissance.

And so that was the first place we headed on our full day in Avignon. Soon after we began our self-guided tour, we fell behind the rest of our group...I was simply to interested in absorbing the experience of the building. The architecture is stunning, even with all the damage done in the intervening centuries (much of it by soldiers when it was used as a barracks). Unfortunately, almost all of the original frescos are gone, and most of what remains is badly damaged. But they provide glimpses of how beautiful it must have been when they were intact.

The tour includes two circuits through the building, each beginning and ending in the main courtyard, just inside the main entrance. Along the way, we explored most of the important spaces in the building and even got up on the ramparts to enjoy the views out over the city and the countryside beyond.

After finishing our explorations of the Palace, we tracked down the rest of our group at Marché les Halles (the Market), where they were buying cheese, bread, and wine for lunch. Since we weren't hungry at this point, we left them to their picnic and continued our explorations of the city. We worked our way back to the Palace grounds, where we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon and the palace gardens. We also walked the perimeter of the city walls (Avignon has some of the best preserved city walls in France), and just randomly wandered through the streets of the city. By the end of the day, my wife's FitBit had recorded over 32,000 steps and estimated that we had walked more than 13 miles!
After returning to the hotel after our day of exploring the region, we agreed on a restaurant for dinner, based on recommendations from our tour guide and from the hotel staff. We had a little time before the restaurant opened, so we went up to our room to relax for a bit, and met everyone in the lobby when it was time to walk to dinner.

The restaurant we had chosen had both a prix fixe menu and a la carte pricing. I opted for an a la carte pasta dish that was absolutely delicious. The restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived, since we were there almost as soon as they opened, but by the time we finished our meal, it was crowded, and the bar area had gotten quite noisy. After a leisurely dinner, accompanied by a couple of bottles of wine, we headed back out into the streets.

One of the sights I wanted to see in Avignon was the famous Pont d'Avignon, the remains of a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhone. I had seen photos of it at night and knew that it was spectacularly lit, so my wife and I set out around the city wall and along the river to the bridge. And we weren't disappointed. Not only was the bridge absolutely stunning in the lights, but the river was mirror smooth and we were, quite literally, the only people out there. I spent twenty minutes or so taking photos of the bridge from various angles, trying to get a perfect photo. But the best of the bunch turned out to be the last one, taken almost as an afterthought as we were about to walk away. I simply turned back to the bridge, framed the view, and snapped the shot.

We then strolled back along the river and around the city wall, back to our hotel for the night.
After walking along the banks of the Rhone river to our bus, we left Arles behind and drove north through the countryside of southern France. The endless vineyards were still in their winter dormancy, with the vines all pruned back and little green to be seen. Our guide continued to entertain us with her ongoing dialog about the region as we drank in the scenery around us.

Our next destination was the city of Orange, north of Avignon. It is because of this city that the Dutch sports fans all were orange when cheering for their national teams. The Dutch royal family belong to the House of Orange, which has its roots here in southern France. And so it is a connection between a city in southern France and the reigning royalty of the Netherlands that results in the color choice for patriotic Dutch.

Orange, like Arles, dates to the Roman period, and boasts of a Roman triumphal arch. The plan was for our bus to park so we could get out to take pictures, but when we arrived, the traffic circle around the arch was under construction and there was no where for the bus to stop. We had to settle for our driver going around the circle a couple of times, while we tried to snap photos through the windows.

After we were all satisfied with our views of the arch, we headed back through the city to our next stop, the Roman theater. As with the arena in Arles, the theater in Orange has been restored and is currently used for music and theatrical performances. In fact, upon our arrival, we couldn't miss the posters advertising the upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera" that was soon to take the stage.
Once we were inside the theater, our guide spoke at length about the history of the theater and its restoration. We then were given a little time to explore the grounds before we headed back to the bus.

By now it was past mid-afternoon, but we had one more destination before we returned to our hotel. Between Orange and Avignon is a famous wine appellation, Chateauneuf-du-pape. The name comes from the castle that was built here as a vacation residence for the Popes when they lived in Avignon in the fourteenth century. Little remains of the castle itself, which was heavily damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. However, we did stop briefly to explore the ruins that remain, before we headed into the village. Our tour guide had arranged for us to have a wine tasting at the Musee du vin Brotte, where we sampled three very nice Chateauneuf-du-pape wines, and learned a little bit about how the wines of that region are produced.

Finally, it was time to call it a day. We piled back into the bus for the final time and headed back to our hotel. As we approached Avignon, we found ourselves trapped in the late afternoon traffic, as we crawled past the city walls towards the hotel, but soon enough we were back and it was time to make plans for dinner.

Arles, France

Mar. 30th, 2017 01:46 pm
resqgeek: (Ambulance)
Our itinerary for our first day in France included a guided tour of other towns in the surrounding region, and so, after breakfast, our group gathered in the lobby where we were met by our tour guide and bus driver. There were only nine of us in our group, which gave us plenty of opportunities to ask questions and to have a really intimate experience with the cities we would visit.

As we drove south from Avignon towards Arles, our tour guide, Nadine, kept up a steady dialogue about the history, geography, economy, and culture of the region. We drove through a light fog, that shrouded the fields in a mist, giving the countryside a bit of a mysterious feel to it, but by the time we arrived in Arles, the sun was out and it was becoming a warm day. Our first stop in Arles was the Arena, which was built by the Romans, and remains in use today as a bull fighting venue. Nadine described the events that take place here, including Spanish bull fights at Easter, as well as the local sport, Cocarde d'argent, where contestants try to pluck tassels from the horns/head of the bull.

After leaving the Arena, we wandered through the streets of Arles, where we saw the site of the Roman forum and the cafe captured by van Gogh in his painting "Café Terrace at Night". We also visited the (former) hospital where van Gogh was a frequent patient, with its courtyard garden, also the subject of one of his paintings. Finally, we made our way to the Place de la Republique. We were given an hour to get lunch before meeting back here to continue our tour.

While most of our group set off to find a restaurant, my wife and I continued to explore the city. We discovered the Théâtre Antique Arles, built by the Romans, but still in use today, and just generally enjoyed randomly wandering the streets of the city, taking photos.

Eventually, we made our way back to the Place de la Republique, where we rejoined our group and made our way back to our bus for our ride to our next destination.
When I began our trip to France, I had every intention of posting regularly during the trip, to record my thoughts and impressions while they were fresh. That fell by the wayside on the very first day, and while I did manage to post regularly on Facebook, I wasn't able to find (or make) the time to write any more detailed descriptions. Nevertheless, I do want to share more about the trip, so in the category of "better late than never", I'm going to do my best to remember what I wanted to share from the trip.

After arriving late in Frankfurt, we found that we had, indeed, missed our connecting flight onward to Marseilles, as expected. United and Lufthansa rebooked us on a later flight without any issues, but that left us with a long layover. We were all pretty tired from our long, overnight flight from Washington, and so, after getting some food (using the vouchers provided by Lufthansa), we eventually just camped out at our departure gate, with many of us taking naps.

When we were re-booked, the six people in our group were seated in the same row on our Airbus 319 aircraft, three on either side of the aisle. There was some discussion as to who wanted window seats vs. who wanted aisle seats, and somehow I got the impression that I wasn't going to have a window seat, so I packed my camera into my bag for storage in the overhead bin.

When it finally came time to board our flight, we learned that our gate didn't board directly to the aircraft. Instead, we were loaded onto a shuttle bus that seemed to drive us all the way around the terminal before pulling alongside the plane on the tarmac. We climbed the stairs onto the plane, and somehow, I found myself in a window seat. After boarding was complete, we taxied out to the furthest runway for takeoff. Seriously, it almost felt like we were going to drive from Frankfurt to Marseilles!

After takeoff, we climbed back through the clouds, so I didn't get to see any of the mountains as we flew over them. Only as we began our descent into Marseilles did I finally get to see some of the countryside. By now it was late afternoon, and the low angle sunlight was casting a beautiful glow over the landscape below me. And then, suddenly, I saw the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct over the Gardon River, glowing in the afternoon light in the valley below. Now I was mentally kicking myself for not keeping my camera out, because I could have captured some really beautiful aerial shots of the bridge. It wasn't until after it was far behind us that it occurred to me that I could have used my phone.

Soon afterwards, we passed over the city of Marseilles and flew out over the Mediterranean. The plane banked to the left as we circled over the bay, lining up with the runway, and those of us on the left side of the aircraft were treated to a beautiful view of the city. This time, I used the phone to snap a shot:

After landing, we made our way through immigration and claimed our luggage and set out to find our transportation to Avignon. By the time we found the bus and got our luggage loaded, it was dark, and so we didn't get to see any of the French countryside as we drove to our hotel, just outside the city walls in Avignon. Arriving about eight hours later than we planned, we checked in, grabbed a light supper in the hotel restaurant, and called it a night. Sightseeing would have to wait until morning.
We'd been flying through the darkness as we crossed the North Atlantic, and I'd struggled to get at least a couple hours of sleep along the way. Shortly after I'd given up the effort as a lost cause, the cabin lights came on, and the flight attendants began to serve breakfast. I pulled up the map display on the seatback entertainment module in front of me, and saw that we were flying over southern England.

I reflected on how different my experience of this flight over England and on to Germany was from those my great-uncle endured more than 70 years ago. Really, about the only thing in common was the company that designed our planes...He flew in the Boeing designed B-17 and I was riding in a Boeing 777. My discomfort paled in comparison to what he experienced in his aircraft, which was not pressurized or climate controlled, let alone a entertainment system built into every seat back, and a flight crew to serve meals. Not to mention the enemies shooting at him and the fact that his mission was to deliver a cargo of bombs to some enemy target.

The sun came up as we crossed the coast over the European continent. Below us the clouds stretched, unbroken, as far as I could see. I watched as we overtook a slower plane flying in the same general direction, far below us. I checked our altitude on the display in front of me. We were significantly higher than the B-17 flew, and we were traveling far faster as well. He would likely have been flying in those clouds below us.

Eventually, we descended through the clouds, and the German landscape came into view. As we circled over Frankfurt, I pressed my face to the window, trying to imagine what it might have been like to fly over this city, looking for the designated target to drop our bombs on. Unfortunately, I really could quite conjure up the experience, but as I watched, the sun began to break through the clouds, providing some really dramatic lighting effects on the ground. I pulled out my camera and took some photos.


I wish I had come to some deeply profound new insight this morning, but all I really came away with was an appreciation for the morning light on the city. Perhaps it is just enough that I was able to spend a little time thinking about the tremendous sacrifices that young men made in those skies in the middle of the last century. The legacy of their efforts lives on in the peace that continues between our nations, the peace that allows me to travel in relative comfort and safety in those same skies.
I'm sitting at Gate C3 at Dulles Airport, waiting to board our flight, which was originally scheduled to depart about an hour ago. Apparently, there's an ongoing maintenance issue with our aircraft, so I really can't complain...I want a fully functional aircraft before we leave. But we only had a 90 minute connection, so we're going to miss our second leg. C'est la vie.

It has taken far longer than it probably should have for me to learn to not to stress out in these situations. And really, it isn't the delay that annoys me, so much as the dearth of meaningful information from the airline. The gate agent is trying to be helpful, but she doesn't know any more than we do, and she's trying to give us an estimate for our departure time, but she's just guessing, really.

Oh well. There is nothing I can about it, so I'm trying to just chill. We're currently hoping to begin boarding in about 30 minutes. It will happen when it happens.
I love to travel ( be more precise, I enjoy visiting places; the travel in between isn't always my favorite part), and it has long been my plan to travel more extensively after retiring. It is the biggest reason I plan to retire as soon as I am eligito collect my retirement benefits. I enjoy my work well enough, ble but my life is more than my work, and I want to experience more of the world.

Over the last year we've come to realize that we really don't need to wait for retirement to begin to travel more. Our retirement savings are on track to provide a more than adequate lifestyle after work, and a careful analysis of our current financial situation suggested that we had more than enough money left to begin travelling now. And, with our daughter off in college, we really only have to worry about managing our vacation time from work.

And so, we've actively been trying to plan significantly more travel. We began last fall, right after our daughter went off to school. We took a week and drove to Florida, visiting one of my wife's friends and doing some sightseeing that didn't involve theme parks. Then in November, we flew out to LA, in part to some sightseeing but also to visit one of my friends. And, of course, we took our daughter with us for our annual ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

And that's just the beginning. We have a number of additional trips either booked or in the planning stages. Over the last few years, I've done a poor job of documenting my travels, but I'm hoping to do a better job going forward. Watch this space to see where we go next...I'm looking forward to seeing some interesting things in the months ahead.
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this doy forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

-Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump

I must confess that I did not watch the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America. I did not watch, in part, because I did not expect any surprises from the man who will now lead our country. But, really, I didn't watch for the same reasons I have never watched a Presidential inauguration. I find the pomp and ceremony of these political occasions boring. While I do appreciate the significance of the way we hand over the reigns of power in a peaceful fashion and acknowledge how truly rare that peaceful transition has been in history, I simply do not find ceremony of it compelling.

But normally I have enough interest in the proceedings to follow them through the news and social media. Not this time. I have grave reservations about the qualifications, character, and abilities of the newly inaugurated President. I find his personality, attitude, and manner abrasive, and I was more than a little afraid of what he might say, or what might be done by his supporters, or his opponents.

Thus it was Sunday morning before I actually read the text of his inaugural address. There are many things that can be said about the speech, and many points that I find troubling. But the one that sends shivers down my spine is the language about "America first." I don't know if the President was intentionally invoking the isolationist movement of the late 1930s, but my immediate reaction when reading these words was to link them to the pro-appeasement isolationist who were sympathetic to the fascist regimes of Europe. I thought about the strong images drawn by a young Dr. Seuss early in his career, including this one:

I think that history has, properly, judged this isolationist movement harshly for ignoring the brutality and inhumanity of the axis alliance and the evil that was being committed in the territories they controlled. And I think that if we do, in fact, undertake a true policy that always and only puts American interests first, regardless of what that means to the rest of the world, then history will judge us just as harshly.

And while I wonder if the new President is sufficiently well-versed in history to appreciate the full historical context of his words, I see evidence that they may be rooted in a similar worldview. There is already a bill pending in the House of Representatives to withdraw the US from the United Nations. A year ago, I would have thought that such a bill would have had exactly zero chance of actually passing, a product of the extreme political fringes. But in light of the words of the President, I can't help but wonder if we aren't about to try and follow a path we have already walked.
Our annual family Christmas letter is about to go in the mail this afternoon.  If you are on our mailing list, it should be arriving within a few days.  If you aren't on our mailing list, here is the text of this year's letter:

The year is rapidly drawing to an end, the days are getting shorter, and the weather becoming colder. In the evening, the neighborhood transforms into a fantasyland of twinkling, colorful lights. Holiday music is being played in the stores and on the radio. The signs all point to the imminent arrival of the holiday season.

There probably no emotion more closely associated with the year-end holidays than Joy. We sing “Joy to the World”, and wish each other “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year”. The music and sounds of sleigh bells make us smile, and who doesn’t enjoy the smell of cookies baking? There is joy in gathering with family and friends to celebrate, sharing stories and food, exchanging gifts. And this joy is perhaps most obvious in the reactions of children when they wake up to see what presents wait for them under the tree.

While it would be hard to deny the role joy plays in the season, we sometimes overlook its power to heal. Isn’t this the lesson we learn from the Grinch? The Grinch, in his unhappiness, is deeply jealous of the Whos’ holiday joy. He does everything he can think of to steal their joy, but even when he has taken everything, the Whos remain joyful, singing together in the joy of the holiday.  In the end, this joy touches the Grinch, healing his unhappiness and allowing him to join the celebration.

There is no shortage of reasons why many people might not be inclined to say that this past year has been particularly joyful. You don’t have to look far to find people who are unhappy, angry, frustrated, or in pain. So many people are in need of the healing joy of the holidays. This year, our holiday wish to each and everyone of you is that the Joy of the holiday find a home in your hearts, and that we each make an effort to share that Joy with others, both during the holidays and throughout the year to come. May this Joy bring healing and peace to those who need it.

And in that spirit of joy, we wish every one of you a very Merry Christmas and an especially Happy New Year.  May the joy of the season bring comfort to you and your families, and may the New Year bring good fortune and many blessings to all.

I am going to take a break for a few days.  I will try my damnedest to not think about the election or politics. When I come back, I’m hoping for some fresh perspective.  We’ll see…

However, before I go, I want to share some thoughts that have occurred to me as I have read the election coverage in the newspaper and people’s responses on Facebook:

  • Please try to avoid saying “This isn’t *my* America” or things like that. If this is what you feel like saying, then it is an indication that you have been living inside an echo chamber and don’t have a broad enough contact with the diversity of this country.  The reality is that this *is* your America, just as it is mine and everyone else’s.  Denying that reality won’t make it any easier to solve the problems we face or change the things we don’t like about it.

  • Do not call those who voted for Mr. Trump ignorant, or stupid, or anything of the sort.  These types of insults are a big part of why they voted for him.  They are tired of being seen as ignorant, unimportant, and even invisible.  I cringed when Mrs. Clinton referred to Mr. Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”, exactly because it made her appear every bit as callous towards their needs as they believed she was. We need to stop dismissing the concerns of the rural poor, the blue collar laborer, the angry core of Mr. Trump’s support.  Only when they actually believe that their concerns have been heard will their anger abate.

  • In spite of what it might feel like right now, this is *not* the end of the world.  We will survive this. It might not be fact, I expect that it will be quite ugly, but we *will* get through it.  There will be future elections, and we will get another chance to correct our path.  In the meantime, we can help to make things a tiny, little bit less ugly by acknowledging the result and trying to figure out ways to help each other get through the next few years.

I couldn’t bring myself to watch the election coverage yesterday. The campaign has been going on for so long, and has been so ugly, that I was just exhausted.  I was in line to vote before the polls opened, and then I carefully avoided election news for the rest of the day.  Just before I went to bed, I saw some unsettling posts on Facebook that suggested that my confidence that the safety net of the Electoral College would protect us from mob-acracy might be misplaced, but it wasn’t conclusive.  So when I got up this morning and turned on the TV and learned that Mr. Trump had won the election, I was stunned.

We, as a nation, have allowed our fear to dictate our choice. I have just perused my Facebook feed, and have seen many people speculate about the reasons for this outcome.  I agree with those who indicate that fear and anger are probably the primary reasons. Too many people in this country are afraid.  They fear the strangers among us, whether they be illegal immigrants, or muslim refugees, or people with different sexual orientations or gender identities.  They fear for their personal future, that they won’t be able to afford to pay their bills, feed their families, provide a home.  The fear change, because it makes them uncomfortable, and challenges their core beliefs.

And they’re angry.  They are angry because they don’t feel heard or understood.  They feel like their fear is being laughed at, being made fun of, is considered to be the product of their ignorance.  They are angry because they don’t hear their concerns and needs being discussed in our politics.  The feel like they are either ignored, or looked down upon.  And they are tired of feeling like they don’t matter.

They are so afraid and angry that they were willing to vote for a man who is clearly and obviously not qualified for the Office to which we have just elected him.  In their hearts, I think they know this.  But he was willing to acknowledge them, and because they don’t feel like anyone else did, that was enough.

Unfortunately, I think that many of those people who voted for Mr. Trump because they believed that he spoke for them are going to be very disappointed.  I don’t think he speaks for (or cares about) anyone but himself.  His presidency is not going to do any more to address the fears, concerns, or needs of those who voted for him than anyone else has.  In the meantime, the tenor of his campaign has given the patina of legitimacy to all manner of ugly speech. Much of the progress we have made towards inclusion and equality is going to erode, and it will take some time to rebuild our structures of tolerance and compassion.

I honestly believe that Mrs. Clinton was her own worst enemy. In her own way it was fear that did her in.  She allowed her fear of embarrassment to dictate a policy of obfuscation that made her look guilty of covering up wrong-doing.  Rather than acknowledging her mistakes and promising to learn from them, she was afraid that her enemies would use them against her, so her instinct was to try to prevent those enemies from finding out.  This was a self-defeating strategy, because when her opponents did find out (as they inevitably would), her mistakes appear even worse because of the efforts to hide them.  This pattern has persisted over her entire career, and it has created a public perception of her as a scheming, manipulative operator who only cares about getting and holding power.  I think she would have been far better served by transparency over the years.  In acknowledging mistakes and learning from them, I think people would have been better able to see past the mistakes to her vision for the country.

The votes have been counted.  To say that I am unhappy with the result is a gross understatement.  But I will not claim that the results are invalid or fraudulent. I will grit my teeth and cross my fingers and hope (against all hope) for the best. But for this country to move forward, one thing needs to change. We need to start listening to each other.  We need to stop calling each other names and dismissing the concerns of the other side as “stupid” or “evil”.  If we could take a moment to actually listen to the needs, concerns, and fears of our opponents, then we just might have a chance to work together in ways that are constructive, rather than divisive.  Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is how we get things done.  No one gets everything they want, but everyone gets at least a little something. But that is only possible if we know what the other side needs.  I have no illusions that the rhetoric is going to change, but I will try to do my best to set an example.  I will try to listen to those who disagree with me and to try to understand their point of view.  If we each make that little effort, then maybe we can slowly change the direction we are headed.
I wrote the following for another site (now defunct) a few years ago:

You are reading an article in your local paper reporting the findings of some recent research, which reports that the study revealed a link between eating some specific food and an increased risk of cancer.  Should you immediately remove that food from your diet?  How you respond to this information depends on how you interpret the findings, and properly interpreting the findings requires you to understand the relationship between correlation and causation.

Causation occurs when a first event *causes* a second event, while correlation is a broader term that only requires that the two events be related somehow.  While events that have a causal relationship will also be correlated, not every correlation is causal.  For example, the first and second event might *both* be the result of some unmeasured third event.  In the hypothetical example in the first paragraph, the specific food item might be associated with some independent activity that increases the cancer risk, so that merely eliminating the food will have no impact on the cancer risk.

A correlation finding is important in scientific research because it shows that there is some type of relationship between the variables.  These findings help show researchers where to focus further efforts to better understand the exact relationship.  The goal, of course, it to determine causation, but that conclusion can only be reached after carefully evaluating and eliminating the possibility of other types of relationships.

Unfortunately, the popular media tends to blur the lines in reporting these findings.  Where a scientific journal will normally be very specific in identifying the exact nature of the correlation, and will likely point out what further questions need to be answered to determine the nature of the correlation, the popular reporting tends to be a bit sloppy in describing the relationship described in the findings.  Combine this sloppy reporting with a general population that does not have a strong grasp of the relationship between correlation and causation, and people will conclude that the results show a causal relationship, even when that is not the case.  Having an awareness of this relationship allows a reader to analyze such an article critically, in an attempt to discern the exact nature of the relationship discovered.  This in turn, allows the reader to respond to the information in a more appropriate fashion.

I was thinking about this again recently because of all the posts I've been seeing on Facebook about the incident where Tim Tebow prayed over a spectator who was having a seizure.  The implication of these posts is that the seizure stopped *because* of Tebow's prayer.  People see the prayer and they see the seizure end, and they link the two causally.  However, just because the two events are correlated...this does not imply anything about whether one caused the other.  Except in very rare (and dangerous) situations, seizures end.  They are almost always self-limiting.  This persons seizure would have almost certainly have ended, even if Tebow hadn't been there. The end of the seizure can be explained by the medical sciences without any need to reference the prayer. There is no miracle here.  Is Tebow's prayer a genuine gesture of compassion? Only Tebow can say for sure what his motives were, but I'm inclined to take it as such.  Is there value in such gestures?  Certainly, in so far as they provide comfort for those involved and bind us a community.  Did it affect the medical outcome? Not at all.  I'm not opposed to prayer.  By all means, pray for the sick and others in need.  But don't expect those prayers to cure people or help those in need.  Don't *just* pray.  Let your prayers be accompanied by *action*.  DO something.  Get medical attention for the sick.  Lend a hand to those in need.  You need to be the instrument that answers your prayers.

There has been a lot of noise about “Religious Liberty” in the public forum over the last couple of years.  I think it started when the US Catholic bishops objected to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required that contraception be covered by health insurance plans offered by employers.  The bishops argued that because the Catholic Church believes that the use of contraception is sinful, being “forced” to provide contraception to all their employees was a violation of their religious freedom.  And even after the law was amended to stipulate that the Church would not actually be paying for the contraception coverage, the bishops continued to oppose the measure.  By itself, this objection by the bishops might not have been more than a ripple in the pond of public discourse.

But the bishops had planted a seed that was to blossom into a much broader debate about the role of religion in the public sphere. As the same-sex marriage fight culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision that laws that prohibit same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, the same arguments began to be used by opponents of same-sex marriage. They argued that “religious liberty” gave them and their businesses the right to refuse services to homosexuals.  And now, the same arguments are being used to oppose equal treatment for the transgendered.

The problem with all of these arguments is that it is based on an unreasonably broad understanding of “Religious Liberty”. The concept of Freedom of Religion is all about freedom of conscience.  Everyone is free to believe as they wish, without coercion from others.  However, the concepts of religious freedom do NOT extend to people imposing their beliefs on others.  As with all rights, an individual’s rights only extend to the point where they impinge upon those of other people.

In spite of what some business owners seem to argue, accepting payment for providing services is NOT tantamount to condoning something you believe is wrong.  The morality of doing business is different that individual or personal morality.  The moral good in business is about treating customers fairly and equally, providing goods and services at a fair price, without cheating or lying.  These should be the measures by which we judge the morality of business practices.  The personal beliefs of the individuals involved just shouldn’t matter.

Being forced to treat all potential customers equally is not a form of religious persecution, and the owners of these businesses are not martyrs, as I’ve sometimes seen them called (not the least because they aren’t being killed…).

These issues have faded somewhat from the public discourse, in part because the politicians who supported these positions have found themselves marginalized this year.  However, the issues continue to simmer in the background, and those who feel that their religious values are being threatened are still out there, biding their time, waiting for opportunities to impose their beliefs on their communities, without any consideration for the rights of others.
Sarasota, Florida is, almost literally, a town built by the circus. This was the town where John Ringling (of Ringling Brothers fame) and his wife, Mabel, decided to build their dream home, a palatial mansion in a baroque Venetian design.  John and Mabel were also avid art collectors, and after John's death, his mansion and art collection were bequeathed to the state of Florida.  Today, Ringling Museum is a world-class art museum on the grounds of Ca' d'Zan, their gorgeous mansion.  The grounds also include Mabel's rose garden, and a Circus museum.

We started our vision with a guided tour of the mansion.  Not only did our guide describe much of this beautiful home, but she also helped us get to know the couple who built it.  They were interesting people, who had fascinating lives.  Walking through the building, it was easy to imagine the parties that were hosted here in the 1920s.  The mansion also is sufficiently authentic to its Venetian inspiration to remind us of our own visit to that amazing city.

We then visited the circus museum, where we had the opportunity to see the customized pullman railcar John and Mable used when travelling on circus business.  We also learned a lot about the history of the circus in America as well as the intricate logistics involved in bringing the circus from town-to-town during the heyday of the big top.

Finally, after we finished with the circus museum, we took a stroll through the Ringling Art Museum.  The size and quality of the collection is incredible.  From the giant Rubens in the very first room, to the sculptures in the courtyard, everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to look at.  We didn't have nearly enough time to truly appreciate the entirety of this collection.

The entire venue is a lasting tribute to the man who was raised on a mid-western farm, but dreamed of running a circus.  He found success, and left an incredible legacy for his adopted hometown.
When I previously visited the Kennedy Space Center, it was the late 1980s and the Space Shuttle program was still active.  I've wanted to make a return visit for a while, so when we found ourselves with some extra time today, we stopped.  The visitor's center is completely different than I remember, and as is the bus tour.  I remember the Saturn V rocket as being on display outdoors, near the Vehicle Assembly building.  Now, the tour just drives past the VAB, but it gets *much* closer to launch pads 39A and 39B, which are now both under construction for future use.  Pad 39A is leased to SpaceX, and is being prepared to launch their new Falcon Heavy rocket here.  Pad 39B is being redesigned to launch NASA's next generation rocket, the SLS, which is intended to return manned spacecraft to the moon and then push further out, eventually to Mars.  It was quite exciting to see the future of the US manned space program in progress.  The Saturn V rocket is now impressively housed in a new facility that highlights the Apollo program.

When we returned to the visitor's center, we checked out the Atlantis exhibit, highlighting the space shuttle exhibit and organized around the shuttle Atlantis, which is displayed as if in orbit, suspended from the ceiling, with the cargo bay doors open, and tilted so that you can see inside the cargo hold on one side and inspect the bottom on the other. There is also a shuttle launch simulator, which provides a realistic approximation of what it feels like to ride the shuttle through a launch sequence into is a real kick in the pants!

There was much more to do here...IMAX movies, a whole pavillion devoted to current and future missions to Mars, opportunities to meet astronauts, and more.  We didn't have time to see everything, but it is all well very well done, and for a space junkie like me, a completely satisfying place to visit.