Sunday, November 28, 2010

How I Broke a Customs Agent

Warning: This post may not be suitable for people with sensitive ears.

I love to have fun at work. Sure, there are a lot of times when flying airplanes is a pretty serious business, but there are also times when joking around with other pilots and flight attendants is the only way to stay sane.

The other night we had just flown over Cuba and off in the distance I saw the island of Grand Cayman. I was reminded of a time I had a customs agent laughing so hard, he was nearly in tears. Now, Customs and Border Protections agents are kind of like the guards at Buckingham Palace, they're tough to break. However, with all the passes I make through the customs's fun to try.

A few years ago, I had started a 4-day trip out of Houston with a flight to Grand Cayman and back. Often times, pilots and flight attendants use those trips south of the border to restock their liquor cabinet or replenish their cigar collection. This would be my first trip to Grand Cayman and before we left, one of the flight attendants told me there's a particular type of rum that's only available in Grand Cayman. I'm always a sucker for picking up things that are only available in certain locations, so when I heard about the rum that's only available in Grand Cayman, I had to get it.

After we touched down in the island paradise, I was hoping our plane would break down and we could stay for a few days. But alas, the ol' B-737 was operating like the finely tuned machine it is, and we only had an hour on the ground. I headed inside to the duty free store with a few other crew members. One of the flight attendants pointed out the rum that was only available on this pristine island. I examined the bottle; it wasn't expensive and I had heard that it isn't the best quality rum. So what makes it so special? The name; Big Black Dick.

I purchased the bottle and headed back to the airplane. On the flight back to Houston, I was filling out our customs declaration form, which is when I thought I'd have a little fun with the customs agents. On the form where it asks you to write what you've purchased abroad, I wrote, "1 - Big Black Dick - $12."

We landed back in Houston and headed to customs. I showed the first agent my passport and paperwork, neatly filled out and stating what I had purchased. He swiped my passport through his computer, stamped my declaration paperwork, and said, "Have a nice day." Well, that's not the reaction I was looking for but I still have to hand in the paperwork to another customs agent before I'm allowed to enter the United States.

I headed downstairs where the agent was collecting declaration forms from passengers and crew. The customs agent in my line looked a lot like the actor Michael Clarke Duncan. In other words, he looks like the kind of guy who eats people like me for breakfast. Uh-oh. I anxiously approached the agent and when I reached his post, he looked like any other customs agent; no smile, eying up every passenger like they're the next terrorist, ready to kill at any moment. I handed him my form, he looked down at the paperwork, then looked up at me. I just stood there like a goober, not sure if I should smile and praying I wasn't going to end up in a back room for a "special" inspection. He looked back at the paperwork, straight faced, looked back at me...and burst out laughing! I breathed a huge sigh of relief and started laughing along with him. He told me that a friend of his lives in Grand Cayman so he was familiar with what I was declaring, which is probably what kept me out of the interrogation room.

I brought the rum home and the reviews were right, it's not that great...but it makes for a good story about the day I broke a customs agent.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Flossing and Flying

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not good at flossing my teeth. As a matter of fact, usually when the dental hygienist asks me how often I floss, I like to joke by saying, “The last time I flossed, you did it.” She usually doesn’t find that as amusing as I do. It’s not quite that bad, but those cards the dentist office sends to remind me of my upcoming cleaning, are usually my reminder to start flossing. I’ve taken care of my teeth for the most part; I wore braces for a couple years, I paid big bucks to have them whitened, but if you were to give me a grade on flossing, I’d get a big fat in Flunked Flossing. I know all the benefits to flossing; better looking teeth and gums, no gum cancer, a longer life span, and even weight loss. So why, you might ask yourself, would I not floss my teeth as much as I should when the benefits include looking better, living longer, and not getting mouth cancer?

My first excuse is that I have built in retainers. These metal fences on the back of my teeth make flossing more complicated than just pulling out some thread and going at it. It requires a flossing needle. I literally thread floss through the needle like I did in 8th grade home economics...which I also failed. The needle isn’t actually a needle as you might think of it, it’s more like a plastic lasso for floss. It doesn’t hurt, but it is a pain. The second reason I don’t floss like I should? Mostly laziness. Usually by the time I’m ready for bed, I’ve stayed up beyond most peoples bed times, and the last thing I want to do is spend an extra couple minutes in the bathroom before I stumble into bed.

The other day, a lightbulb went off in my head (which doesn’t happen very often, so I have to pay attention when it does). I was flying over to Europe, and somewhere over the North Atlantic, I looked at the clock and decided 20 hours awake was too long to go without brushing my teeth. Pilots are allowed to leave the cockpit inflight for physiological reasons, I figured bad breath is physiological, right? I opened my suitcase, grabbed my toiletry kit and headed out of the cockpit and to the lavatory. I also brought a bottle of water because I refuse to brush my teeth with airplane water.

As I pulled the toothbrush out of my toiletry kit, I saw my floss laying there. It was looking up at me, almost as if it were saying, “Hey Paul, wanna play?” So I grabbed the floss and floss threaders and went to work. As I was threading floss through my incisor, the lightbulb went off. I fly back and forth across the ocean at least four times a month, if I floss on every flight, that’s eight times per month. Now, I know that’s not nearly the number my dentist wants to see, but it’s better than zero times per month.

So that’s my plan; flying and flossing. They say pilots are good at multitasking, I don’t think this is quite what they mean, but if people are going to call me Smiling Paul, I better have a good smile to go with the nickname.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A Long Day at the office...

My grandfather has a saying, “Some days peanuts, some days shells.” I’ve found that anyone who flies airplanes probably knows what that means. Some days, the days when the airplane is running perfectly, you watch the sky turn from blue to red to magenta as the sun sets, tailwinds push you into an early arrival, isobars spread so far apart on the weather analysis chart that you know there won’t be any turbulence, those are the days when you love flying airplanes. Then there are the days that consist of mostly shells. A thunderstorm makes for a rough ride, you don’t like the person you’re flying with, or a broken part delays your departure. That was my circumstance recently on a flight back to the U.S. from Edinburgh, Scotland.

It was really a shame to be leaving Scotland on such a glorious day. For those who haven’t been to Scotland, it’s kind of like the Pacific Northwest, continuous rain interrupted by brief periods of sunshine. But let me tell you, when the sun shines, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Good scotch is a bonus too. Of course, the day we were leaving was one of the few beautiful days.

I had bid specifically for Edinburgh layovers in August because of the Fringe Festival and the Military Tattoo. For those curious, the Fringe is a collection of street performers, not to mention over 1,000 musical, comedy, and theatre acts throughout all of Edinburgh. The Military Tattoo is a show featuring military marching bands that takes place in the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle every night during August. Think of it as a high school marching band competition, except better, and with bagpipes. This particular trip to Edinburgh was my fourth of the month, with one more to come the following day.

Over the last year, I’ve become friends with a lot of the airport staff in Edinburgh, so after plotting our course across the North Atlantic, making small talk with various ground agents, I finally made my way to the airplane. I borrowed the “high vis” vest from the security agent at the airplane, which is required to walk anywhere outside on the ramp. After the pre-flight walk around, I came back inside and finished pre-flight preparations. Eventually we got the word that everyone was ready to go, the main door closed, and we called for push back.

After push back, we started the left engine, and then attempted to start the right side. To start the Boeing 757, you basically need to make sure you have enough air pressure, and then you select the start switch to GND which does a lot of things, but basically, it starts the engine. I selected the start switch to GND, at which point we start looking for the engine gauges to start showing some signs of life. On this particular day, there was nothing. Not one of the gauges moved, no oil pressure, no fan rotation, nothing. It was as if we had done nothing at all. Just then, the push back coordinator who was on the tug pushing us back and talking to us through a headset, said (in a Sean Connery type accent), “Sparks! You have sparks coming out of the number two engine!” We quickly stopped the start sequence, went to our abnormal checklist, and then attempted it again. And again, there were more sparks. Sparks aren’t actually that alarming, any time you turn on the ignitors, whether it be to start the engine, or to fly through heavy rain, it puts out sparks to keep the engine running (or starting in this case). We called maintenance and found a new gate to park in.

Once maintenance arrived, all involved thought that the start valve wasn’t opening, allowing air into the engine for start. If that were the case, maintenance can manually open the valve, until we get the engine started, and then close it. They opened up the engine cowling and asked us just to run the starter. They had someone on the headset, and as soon as I selected the starter to GND, the noise was unbelievable. Maybe it was because the cabin door was open and I don’t normally hear how loud it is, or maybe because the starter had giving up on starting engines. We suddenly heard yelling through the headset, “Shut it off! Shut it off!” We did and shortly afterward the mechanic came into the cockpit and told us that as soon as we ran the starter, parts started flying off the airplane. The stater was literally eating itself up. This was not good, we would need a new starter, and being half way around the world, they’re not always easy to come by.

We learned from maintenance that the closest one was in London and owned by another airline. I’m really surprised that when another airline requests a part from a competitor, the competitor doesn’t jack up the price. I’m not sure what the going price is for a Rolls Royce starter, but I heard a rumor that we were paying about $100,000 for this particular one. They would put it on a flight to Edinburgh, but it wouldn’t arrive for at least six hours. Add whatever time it is going to take the mechanics to put it on the airplane, plus a seven hour flight back to the US, and we would be approaching our maximum crew duty day of 17:30 hours.

The captain put in a call to our operations center to talk about options. Since I was coming back to Edinburgh the next day, I had pre-purchased over $200 in tickets to shows for my next layover, but if we didn’t get back to the US today, I wouldn’t be able to turn around and come back the next day (and would loose the money invested in the shows). My suggestion was that crew scheduling put us in an airport hotel for the minimum rest period. By doing that, once the engine was fixed, we would be able to take off in the evening without worrying about crew rest. However, because of all the festivities, hotel rooms were hard to come by. As a matter of fact, the ticket agent spent an hour searching for a hotel room for a business first passenger, she finally found one at the rate of £500, which is roughly $800. Regardless of the hotel availability, the crew coordinator wanted us to stay with the airplane until they knew when they’d be getting the part. And so began the waiting game.

Because we were going to be sitting there for the foreseeable future, they hadn’t parked us at a normal gate, but at a hardstand out in the middle of a ramp. So, in order to get the passengers off and back to the terminal, they had to coordinate buses to come pick them up. Three coach buses later, the last passenger was off the airplane and were now keeping the gate agents entertained in the terminal. The crew coordinator informed us that we would need to take off by 8:30 PM local time in order to be back on the ground in the US within our maximum duty day of 17:30 hours. The local mechanics said it would take six hours to get the part, then a couple hours to get it installed and signed off. Seeing as it was approaching 1:00 PM, it was going to be tight. The ground agents had offered to bring us into the terminal, but when you’re on an airplane with comfy seats, food, and your own selection of movies and television shows, a terminal full of angry passengers doesn’t sound like like a great place to hang out. So myself, the captain, and the flight attendants made our nests in first class.

The next five hours were a mind game. I kept running scenarios through my head, much like someone trying to survive in the wild. When would the part get here? How long is it going to take to install, test, and sign off? How long will it take to gather up the passengers, get them on buses and back out to the airplane? Are there any air traffic control delays that will prohibit us from taking off by 8:30? Unlike someone trying to survive in the wild however, I kept myself entertained by watching Green Zone with Matt Damon, followed by a nap, and then a couple episodes of The Office, and Parks and Recreation while I ate a delicious steak with vegetables and a salad. So, as far as sitting around an airport goes, we definitely got the better end of the deal. Finally, word came that the part was on an airplane departing London and would arrive at 5:00 PM.

As 5:00 was approaching, you could feel the excitement building in the cabin. People were waking up from naps, milling about the airplane, talking about whether or not we would be coming back the next day (as a few of the flight attendants were working with me the next day). Finally we got word that the part was on the ground, about a half hour later it showed up and the mechanics put on their jumpsuits and got to work.

The captain and I walked outside to watch them work, mostly because we had nothing else better to do. As we were watching them a security vehicle pulled up and we got a very stern lecture about how we were required to be wearing “high vis” reflective vests. Well, we didn’t have any vests and the person who normally is in charge of giving us the vest had gone home hours ago. So, like a young troublemaker sent to his room, we walked back onto the airplane where we would stay, all because we didn’t have a reflective vest.

I was incredibly impressed with their work. It was like watching a combination of an Indy pit crew, and an operating room full of surgeons; fast, efficient, effective. Forty-five minutes later, they had the part installed and had run a test on it, then it became a scramble to get the passengers back and get our new flight paperwork. Within an hour of them installing the new starter, we closed the door and pushed back. When it came to start the engine with the new starter, our fingers were crossed.

I selected the start switch to GND, just as I had done previously...and just like earlier in the day, nothing. No oil pressure, no fan rotation, NOTHING!!! At this point, I just about lost it. I couldn’t believe our new starter wasn’t working! Then I looked up at the overhead panel and realized that I didn’t have the air pressure going to the engine which is one of the necessities of starting. I opened the valve that provides air pressure to the engine and tried it again. That’s when I saw what I thought I was never going to see; fan rotation, oil pressure rising, and finally...a good engine start.

We taxied out, took off and headed west, across Ireland, across the North Atlantic, just south of Greenland, over Canada, down the St. Lawrence Seaway and finally back into the United States. After 15 hours spent on the airplane, we finally landed in New York at 9:30 PM on a beautiful night, the lights of the city welcoming us home. What was even more welcoming however, was the down bedding waiting for me at the hotel. And as far as the next day goes, we left on time, arrived early, I saw all the shows I had tickets for, and it was one of the best layovers ever!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Adventures of Life

Life is full of great adventures. Although I’ve never climbed Mount Everest, or sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, I’d like to think that I’ve had a few adventures in my lifetime. It seems that often times, one doesn’t realize they’re having an adventure, during the adventure itself. It’s not until afterward during the debrief, the talk around the campfire, the drive back home, or just the replay in your mind, that you realize what an adventure you just had...and often times, how close you were to death. When I think back to my adventures, having the time of my life, usually meant threatening my life itself.

One life-threatening experience that comes to mind was back in my college days. College life is bound to generate adventure. As a matter of fact, I’d say if you didn’t have any adventures in college, you probably didn’t do it right. But this experience wasn’t because I was in college, it just happened to occur in that timeframe. I had landed my first real flying job, and (so far) the only flying job where I would routinely take off with more passengers than I would land with. I was a “jump pilot,” hauling skydivers to 10,000 feet, kicking them out, and returning to earth for the next group. Like most first flying jobs, it didn’t pay anything, except for maybe an occasional sandwich and soda when a skydiver felt pity for me. The only perk of the job to speak of was the opportunity to skydive for free. I didn’t “jump” on the opportunity right away, but during my second season I decided to make a tandem skydive. Not long afterwards, I took the static-line course, and by the end of the summer, I was making group jumps with the other regulars. During one particular jump, five of us were jumping with a sky-ball. A sky-ball is nothing more than a tennis ball filled with lead weight that would fall at the same speed as a human body in a belly down formation. We would form a circle (during free-fall) and toss the sky-ball from one to another. Around 3,000 feet, one of us would tuck the sky-ball into our jumpsuit, we’d all track away from each other, and open our parachutes. Funny that the life-threatening part of the story has nothing to do with plummeting towards earth at 120 mph, it came afterward, when my parachute was open. I threw out the pilot-chute (which pulls out the main chute), once it was open I looked up to make sure my canopy had inflated and the lines weren’t tangled. As soon as I got turned toward the airport, another skydiver floated underneath me. As he passed me, the top of his canopy snagged on my foot. Often times when two skydivers run into each other under canopy, they become entangled in each others lines, and if one is able to get his or her reserve chute out, they may limp away with broken bones. More likely is it, however, that the reserve parachute may get tangled up with the rest of the mess, and they “go in.” (Two words that are forbidden at a drop zone, “go in” refers to a skydiver going in to the weeds at full speed, the outcome not being very desirable). Fortunately, when my foot snagged the other skydivers canopy, it somehow came out right away. The whole event took place in less than a second, and being a relatively new skydiver, I didn’t know the danger I actually was in, until I mentioned it to someone on the ground. That split second brush with death, is forever embedded in my mind as one of my great adventures.

They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you are near death. I never doubted that, but had never experienced it until one day while flying in a small airplane with a friend of mine. I won’t go into details, but it’s true, when my body perceived imminent death, I started seeing pictures in my mind of my dog Spunky and my family sitting around the Christmas tree opening presents. Honestly, if my parents knew all the times I’ve been near death, whether it be on a motorcycle, in an airplane, or falling out of an airplane, they’d probably be near death themselves.

But this piece isn’t about death, it’s about living, it’s about embracing the adventures that life brings you. You won’t always know what your next adventure will be or where life will take you. However, I have a sneaking suspicion one of my greatest adventures is about to begin...and that’s the adventure of life. More precisely, the creation of a new life. Erin and I are expecting a new addition to our family in February, 2011, and I have a feeling, the adventures have just begun.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

How to Escape a Wild Boar...and Get in Shape.

I took the pull-up bar out of the box, and as I assembled it, I wondered how long it would be before it was collecting dust in a corner or being sold for a nickel at the next garage sale. After I had it assembled and installed in the door frame between the hallway and the guest room, I hung there, in a vein attempt to do a pull-up as part of the “fit test” before starting a fitness program called P90X. To say that I did a pull-up would be a stretch, I just sort of dangled, flexing and grunting, thinking that the 20 pounds I’d put on over the last five years wouldn’t affect my ability to pull myself up. Why I would ever need to pull myself up is beyond me, I guess if I was being chased by a wild boar and needed to get up into a tree quickly, then being able to do a pull-up might be handy, but besides wild animals, my life didn’t really require pull-ups.

As a matter of fact, my life is probably the reason I couldn’t do a pull-up. Sitting in an airplane every day, and for the last year, making upwards of six trips to Europe every month, eating first class meals along the way, was probably one of the reasons I’d put on 20 pounds. I’m not sure what it was that motivated me to finally get in shape; maybe it was looking at pictures of me at family get-togethers, pictures that reflected more than the ten pounds the camera supposedly adds, or maybe it was hearing about a fellow co-worker, just a few years older than me, dying from a heart attack. Whatever it was, I needed to get in shape before it was too late - enter P90X.

P90X is a revolutionary home fitness regimen designed at confusing your muscles by constantly switching up your workout routine. It’s a 90 day program that involves cardio, resistance training, yoga, martial arts, and plyometrics. The 90 day course has three training blocks. Each block has three weeks of intensity, followed by one week of recovery. Within each block, there are three phases; (1) The Adaptive Phase when the body learns how to do the new exercises, (2) The Mastery Phase when the body responds to these exercises and experiences changes, and (3) The Recovery Phase when muscular healing occurs and your body grows strong, ready to be “confused” again.

Day 1 just about had me packing up the DVD’s and sending them back. There was sweating, swearing, grunting, and by the end...complete exhaustion. My muscles hated me, but the endorphins in my brain were firing on all cylinders now, and I had that “good sore” that you hear athletes talk about after a great workout. Day 2 was plyometrics, which for those who don’t know, plyometrics is jump training. I’m not really sure why more people don’t send these DVD’s back because after an hour of jumping around the guest room, which was now “the gym”, I was fairly confident I was in over my head. But, for some reason, Day 3 came, then Day 4, Day 5, and so on. I kept hitting “Play”, and kept working out, and before I knew it, a month had come and gone, then two months, and finally the last day was here.

Erin decided to participate in the program as well, believe me though, I didn’t tell her to. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after being married for five years, it’s that you don’t tell your wife that she needs to start a workout program. She stuck with it, sometimes working out in the morning, and other times after work, but she hit “Play” just as many times as I did.

Some days were better than others, but I can honestly say that I kept at it and even if it meant waking up at 4:30 AM before I left for the airport, I would get up and do it. I worked out in my hotel rooms too. After flying across the ocean all night, I’d take a nap and the first thing I’d do in the afternoon is P90X, then I’d do it again the next morning, which often meant waking up at 5:00 Europe!

I kept an eye on what I was eating and the pounds started to drop. The first time I weighed myself, I honestly thought the scale was broken. The first 5 pounds came off quick, after that I had to work a little harder, but at the end of 90 days, I had lost a total of 23 pounds. I’m still not Superman, but I’m planning on Round 2 later this summer. Oh, and as far as pull-ups go, I can now do six with good form. Sure, six pull-ups isn’t much, but it only takes one to get away from a wild boar.

DNA Removal

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Not to Tell Others About Your Birthday.

Every one of us has a day each year that we love to celebrate more than anyone else. This day is really only important to us, other people usually celebrate it with you, but only because they feel obligated. What day am I talking about? Your birthday.

There are a few birthdays that are pretty exciting. The day you turn 16, you get to drive on your own. The day you turn 17, you can fly an airplane by yourself. Then of course comes the privilege to vote and join the military once you turn 18. The last big milestone is 21, when you can finally start drinking legally. However, in my personal opinion, if you joined the military when you were 18, you should be able to drink then. Those guys spend more time away from their family and see more blood and guts in a day than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. I’m not saying that they should drink their sorrows away, but a cold beer after you’ve been out in the hot desert chasing bad guys all day, isn’t that out of line.

After you turn 21, things kind of go downhill. At 25, your insurance rates go down, that's nice but not really worth celebrating. At 30, you start feeling old, eventually you start having kids and their birthdays become more important than yours. From here on out, people tend to celebrate every 10 years...until you reach 90, then every year is a celebration that your heart is still ticking.

Generally, nobody keeps track of your birthday except for you (and Facebook), so I find it interesting how people bring up their big day, when they do want to go celebrate. Some people go with the direct approach, “Hey, just wanted to let you know it’s my birthday on Tuesday.” To which I would respond, “Hey, just wanted to let you know, I’m not getting you anything.” The cool people of the world bring it up like this, “Hey, I’m buying a round of drinks for the whole office tonight to celebrate me getting older.” Some try to slip it into normal conversation, “My wife and I went to dinner last night to celebrate my birthday.” Regardless of how you bring it up to people, it’s tacky. The whole world doesn’t need to know about your birthday, the people close to you will know, but don’t be one of those people who thinks the whole world should be celebrating with you.

Oh, there’s one other way to tell people about your birthday, it’s probably the tackiest, most self centered, shameless, egotistical method out there - and that’s writing a blog and publishing it on the world wide web. Seriously...don't do that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Theater of the Mind

There are some great ways to be entertained out there; who hasn't streamed a movie from Netflix directly to their TV, or watched the latest episode of "The Office" on Hulu, or just tried to catch up on the latest with their friends on Facebook. These are all great forms of entertainment, which is why I'm not surprised that my favorite type of entertainment is disappearing quicker than Girl Scout Cookies in a Weight Watchers meeting. So you might be asking, what is my favorite form of entertainment? Talk Radio.

I'm not talking about the news or sports stations, like Fox or ESPN, I'm talking about good ol' talk radio, you know, theater of the mind. I'm sure you can picture a little boy sitting in front of one of those huge radios from the 1920's. What happened to those days? What happened to the kids rushing home from school, to sit in the living room and listen to their favorite afternoon broadcast.

Anyone can entertain you with special effects or pretty girls, but it takes a very talented individual to entertain someone with words alone. There's something magical about listening to someone tell a story. A good storyteller, one who can paint a detailed picture, will actually make you feel like you're part of the story itself. There are a few storytellers that come to mind; Paul Harvey would tell "the rest of the story" so vividly and with such personality that history became fun. Another great storyteller is Garrison Keillor, who has created an imaginary village called Lake Wobegon. When you listen to one of his stories, you can actually picture the daily business of the residents from a little town in Northern Minnesota.

A lesser known storyteller, from St. Paul, MN, is a man named TD Mischke. Although no longer on the air, "The Mischke Broadcast" was one of the most entertaining pieces of talk radio. Mischke would entertain you with whatever was going through his mind, and let me tell you, it was an interesting mind to get inside. Often times, there would just be silence, which on any other show would be a huge mistake, but not with Mischke, he would sit there in silence for sometimes minutes at a time, just ruffling papers, and mumbling and grumbling. You know you have a talent when you can entertain people by saying nothing....on the radio. Mischke would often take calls from a few select people, these people almost became local celebrities themselves. One of my favorite callers was a young boy named Luke, when you listen to one of his calls, you get the feeling that he may be the next great thing in talk radio, that is, if entertaining talk radio even exists in the future.

Fortunately there is still one entertaining talk show in St. Paul. "Garage Logic", an imaginary town where the philosophy is "anything that needs to be figured out, can be figured out in the garage." Joe Soucheray, the shows host, is the Twin Cities' preeminent purveyor of Common Sense. He is also the self-appointed Mayor and Fireworks Commissioner of Garage Logic, Minnesota. Garage Logic is more a state of mind than an actual place on a map. We are lucky to have such a great show on a local AM station, but unfortunately, other than Garage Logic, this station has switched over to a sports talk format. It seems that listeners would rather be entertained with the latest scores than the mind theater of the good ol' days.

As much as I enjoy listening to music, I enjoy listening to entertaining talk radio even more. But sadly, entertaining talk radio - theater of the mind - seems to be disappearing. I'm hoping for a comeback, maybe people will start thinking it's "retro", much like the clothing of the '70's coming back into style. Until then, I'll just have to be entertained by the voices in my head.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Starbucks

We've all been there, you walk into Starbucks and look up at the "menu" behind the counter, quickly try to find something to drink, yet what everyone else is ordering doesn't seem to be on the board. As someone who has spent way too much time in Starbucks, I'd like to give you a few hints on ordering, as well as some fun facts about my favorite coffee shop.

Before you even walk into one of the 15,000 Starbucks locations, you might notice the logo. The company logo, modeled after a 15th century Norse woodcut, is a mixoparthenos, or twin-tailed mermaid, or siren as she’s known in Greek mythology. When it comes to ordering, there are over 87,000 different possible combination's of drink orders. So if you think the baristas have an easy job, think again. If you didn't know, the barista is the person taking your order. They typically average about three minutes per customer, which seems pretty fast considering all the possible combination's. Here’s how picky the drink standards are – each drink has a specified weight range. Falling above or below this range will cost a barista points on their drink making. Despite the baristas knowing all these different drinks, they don't get paid very much, so don't forget to tip.

You may have noticed that when you order a drink, they often read the order back differently than the way you ordered it. That's because they have a special calling and drink naming system. This is probably by far the most confusing aspect. There is a default method for making all drinks, and the calling system is the most consistent way to let the barista know what the customer wants. There is a default recipe for every drink, so the cashier will only call the changes that are made to the drink. The system works really well because the barista will always know what order the changes come in, and they can adjust accordingly. So, it goes like this; (1) decaf, (2) number of shots, (3) cup size, (4) syrup, (5) milk, (6) custom, and finally (7) drink type. For example, a grande latte normally has two shots of espresso, and whole milk. If the customer asks for a grande latte, that’s how the cashier will call it to the barista. However, if a person wants a non-fat, triple, decaf, hazelnut, extra-hot mocha, the cashier will call it in this order: decaf, triple, grande, sugar-free hazelnut, non-fat, extra-hot mocha.

Starbucks uses the word "pumps" to refer to the syrups, and "shot" to refer to the espresso. So, if you said that you want a “shot” of vanilla, you should probably go to a different coffee shop and get some more practice.

As you may have experienced, there is no "small", "medium", or "large" when it comes to drink sizes. The options are "short", "tall", "grande", and "venti" (which means 20 in Italian). There aren't too many people that know about the "short" size, so you won't see that very often, and if you ask for a "small", you'll get a "tall". In order from "short" to "venti", the sizes are 8 ounces, 12 ounces, 16 ounces, and 20 ounces for a venti, unless you're getting an iced drink. The iced venti's are 24 ounces. The reason behind the iced venti drinks having an extra 4 ounces is this, the espresso drinks have an extra shot of espresso in them, and cost a few cents more than their hot equivalents. Lastly, any coffee shop with the cup size, “supremo” should not be taken seriously.

You may hear people say "skinny" when they order. Most people think that means that they use non-fat milk. That's partially true, however "skinny" means they're using non-fat milk AND sugar-free syrup. If you want your drinks syrup to have sugar in it, then you should ask for "non-fat", not "skinny".

So there you have it, ordering made simple. Clear as mud...right? Once you figure out what you like, when you order it, it should be consistent at every Starbucks you go to. Unless you go to a Starbucks inside of a grocery store or bookstore? You'll probably notice that the selections are usually quite limited, and there are stupid things like soda being sold there. That’s because these stores aren’t real Starbucks. Instead, these companies pay Starbucks so that they can use their products and machines, but they run the store according to their own company’s rules. This creates the opportunity for a very varied experience. You have to go to a real Starbucks to get the real Starbucks experience.

Okay, so now for some fun facts about Starbucks, everything you didn't need to know.

10 Fun Facts About Starbucks

1. Espresso has no "x" in it, it has an "s", consequently, it should be pronounced ES-presso, not EX-presso.

2. Last week 20 million people bought a cup of coffee at a Starbucks.

3. The pastry at Starbucks with the lowest amount of calories is the low-fat blueberry muffin, clocking in at 290. The pasty with the highest calorie content to date is the cinnamon roll at 640 calories. I'm pretty sure both of those shouldn't be part of my diet.

4. A typical customer stops by 18 times a month, I average about 23.

5. Coffee is harvested during November and December.

6. The most expensive coffee Starbucks sells is Kona Coffee, which retails at 22 bucks a pound.

7. Cappuccino gets its name from the Italian order of Catholic Capuchin monks, whose hooded robes resemble the drink’s cap of foam in shape and color. The frothed milk from the top of the steaming pitcher is spooned on top to “cap” the cappuccino and retain heat. The proportion of espresso to steamed and frothed milk for cappuccino is usually 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 frothed milk on top.

8. Starbucks was in part named after Starbuck, the Chief Mate character in the book Moby-Dick, as well as a turn-of-the-century mining camp (Starbo or Storbo) on Mount Rainier.

9. Starbucks has never, and will not, sell fountain drinks. If you ask the barista for soda, you will probably hear a snort of derision. After all, it is Starbucks COFFEE and TEA company.

10. There is a super rare drink that is not available at most stores, and not really well known, it's called a Caffè Medici — A doppio poured over chocolate syrup and orange peel, with whipped cream on top. Good luck getting one of those.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What's Your Number?

I recently watched the movie "Up in the Air", a story about a corporate downsizer and his travels. The film follows his isolated life and philosophies along with the people that he meets along the way. In the movie, the main character, Ryan (played by George Clooney) runs into another frequent business traveler named Alex (played by Vera Farmiga). The question comes up; "What's your number? How many miles do you have?" They are of course, referring to the frequent flyer miles that are used for upgrades at various airports and hotels. To two well-traveled business people, that's kind of a personal question. Ryan reveals to Alex that he has a goal, a number in mind, of how many miles he wants to achieve. His goal - 10 Million Miles! It got me thinking about how many miles I have flown in my years as an airline pilot.

Before I could figure that out, I started thinking about the difference between nautical miles and statute miles. The average land-lubber uses statute miles, your car's odometer uses statute miles, and the speed limit signs on the road use statute miles per hour. Statute miles date back to the Roman Empire; 1,000 (left-right) paces by a Roman soldier equal one statute mile.

Ships and airplanes on the other hand, use "knots" as their unit of speed, one knot is equal to one nautical mile per hour. The origin of the word "knot" comes from ships. To measure the speed and distance of a ship, knots were tied into a "log line." This line was thrown overboard, an hourglass was tipped, and the knots were counted. When the sand ran out, the counting stopped, and a general speed was determined.

So why are nautical miles used in aviation rather than statute miles?
It's because pilots use nautical charts — similar to those originally designed for ships — based on longitude and latitude. The world is divided into 360 degrees, with 60 minutes to each degree. Each minute equals a nautical mile. So you might be asking, "What's the actual difference, speed and distance wise, between a nautical mile and a statute mile?" Well, one knot is equal to 1.15 MPH and one nautical mile is 5,280 feet, while one statute mile is 6,076 feet.

As an ironic side-note, the first airplane I flew was so slow that the airspeed indicator used MPH instead of knots, that way you at least felt like you were going faster.

After I did this little bit of research, it got me wondering, "Do the airlines use statute miles or nautical miles for their frequent flyer programs?" I checked a few different airline websites, after typing in different cities into the airlines mileage calculators, I compared it with the great circle mapper. You'll be happy to know that the airlines use statute miles, so you're gaining the higher number.

So how many miles have I flown? I didn't have the time to go through 16 years of flying and figure out the distance - we measure our time in the air by hours, not miles. I did however go through my 2009 calendar year and with the help of the great circle mapper, I calculated that with commuting, vacations, and of course trips that I actually flew; I flew a total of 370,667 nautical miles. If you were to convert that into statue miles (or frequent flyer miles), that's a grand total of 426,267 statute miles.

So, what's your number?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hello, I'm a Mac.....

We've all seen the television commercials for Mac computers. A really hip looking guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt who looks like he got pulled out of a Gap commercial, talks to a nerdy middle aged man wearing a suit and tie, sporting Coke bottle glasses and a pocket protector. Every commercial starts out the same; "Hello, I'm a Mac...." says the cool guy, "....and I'm a PC," says the nerd. The commercials really appeal to the nerd who's trying to fit in with the cool crowd because anyone who's cool, already owns a Mac. That's exactly why I went out and bought a MacBook Pro the other day - a desperate urge to be cool.

Now don't get me wrong, I didn't buy a Mac just to fit in with the cool kids. I bought one because (1) they rarely become infected with virus', (2) they're simple to use, and (3) they just work. That's what you hear from most people who have Apple computers, "They just work." There is no re-booting, no more Ctrl-Alt-Delete, and they don't take 10 minutes to open Internet Explorer like my PC did. Another reason I bought one is so I could use the music and video editing programs to make movies like this one.

The main reason I wanted a Mac however was so I would have a computer to take on the road with me. I spend a lot of time hanging out in hotels and without a computer, I feel like there is a lot of wasted time that I could be using to work on other things - like my recent subscription to Facebook, chatting with my wife, and working on my book.

"Book! What book are you talking about?" I'll tell you. I'm working on a fictional love story with a little action mixed in. A lot of people ask me what it's about. It's a constant work in progress and changes every time I sit down to write it but if I could write a teaser for it right now, it would look like this;

"When airline pilot John Nash finds his marriage in trouble, he turns to ex-girlfriend and aspiring psychologist Joy Hill for advice. After a traumatic experience at work, he changes the way he thinks about life.....and love."

Now, I don't know how long it's going to take to write, or if it will ever get published but if it does - I expect all of you loyal blog readers to show up at my book signing. I'll be the cool guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Minnesota Nice

Picture this; It's a cold, clear December night. You just finished celebrating Christmas with your family and you and your spouse are driving home on a quiet two lane road in the Minnesota countryside. It's the middle of the night, the stars are shining, and there is no traffic to speak of. The radio is off, the two of you are exhausted from all the traveling over the holiday so nothing is being said. You look down at the outside temperature gauge and it reads -20F. All you can think about is getting home and into a warm bed. Then, without warning, the silence is interrupted by a loud pop. You feel something hit the bottom of the car by your feet. Your serene drive home just took an unforeseen twist. You think to yourself, "Maybe it was just a chunk of ice falling out of the wheel well." Not more than a couple seconds later you here a "thump, thump, thump" sound as the steering becomes increasingly more difficult to control. Your spouse asks the obvious question; "Do we have a flat?"

That was just the situation my wife and I found ourselves in this Christmas. After we pulled over I got out to inspect the damage and found the front left tire to be completely flat. I walked around to the other side of the car to check the remaining tires and noticed that we had not one flat tire, but two! Just to be sure I wasn't seeing things I pulled out the tire pressure gauge and checked both of the flat tires, and one of the good tires just to make sure the gauge worked.

Once I got back inside my wife asked me what we were going to do. I told her we would call AAA and have a tow truck come out. Even if we had only one flat tire, the middle of the night in sub-zero temperatures on the side of a highway wasn't the time to learn how to change a flat. I called AAA - hoping that I had remembered to renew my membership - and told them where we were. The dispatcher told me it would be 20-30 minutes. After I hung up the phone with AAA, and my mom who was going to stay up until we figured out where we would bring the car, Erin told me she had to use the restroom. A good reminder that even adults should go potty before they leave the house.

As we sat there, looking at the stars, the hazard lights providing an annoying strobe effect, I wondered how long it would be before someone would stop to check on us. I was pleasantly surprised when, not more than a few minutes after I got off the phone with AAA, did an elderly couple pull along the side of our car to ask if we needed any help. I told them about our flat tires and that the car was running - and keeping us warm - just fine so we should be okay. A few minutes later another person stopped to see if we needed any help. And shortly after that, another person stopped. Then a police officer stopped to check on us - and to make sure I wasn't a felon who's luck had just run out.

Considering what little traffic there was, I was amazed at how many people stopped. It may have been a different story had it been the middle of summer, but there was a lot of "Minnesota Niceness" happening. There was some "Wisconsin Nice" too as I remember one of the trucks had Wisconsin license plates.

After sitting on the side of the road for about an hour, the tow truck finally showed up. I felt bad for the driver - who had gotten out his warm bed to come help us, but like he told us, "It's part of the job." Ironically, I knew the tow truck driver from high school and went to class with his brother.

We dropped the car off at a tire shop a couple blocks from my parents house. My mom was waiting there for us with a warm van and permission to drive it to our house where she would get it the next day. A long day that became even longer was finally coming to an end.

I'm not sure if the story would have been the same had we been sitting on the New Jersey Turnpike. I'm sure somebody would have stopped but it wouldn't have been an acquaintance from high school and my mom certainly wouldn't have been waiting with a vehicle for us to drive home.

It was a cold night in Minnesota, which wasn't nice - but there were a lot of Minnesotans with warm hearts, who were very nice.