The Perils of Pedals

As a city dweller, I count myself fortunate to rely on walking for my daily commute. A half-hour stroll is the perfect amount of time to organize one’s day or unwind before getting home, while enjoying a podcast or favorite playlist. It’s a relaxing and introspective experience except for one unpredictable matter—navigating the crosswalks increasingly popular with daredevil cyclists.

Now don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great that people are biking instead of driving or riding already crowded public transit. It’s environmentally aligned and promotes good health among those commuting via two-wheelers. But for whatever reason, most cyclists simply don’t obey the rules of the road. They ride through red lights, weave in and out of pedestrian traffic and zip through walkways in parks and other areas. And yet this same population demands dedicated bike lanes and free storage racks, not to mention office buildings with showers to enable transforming from the peloton to the cubicle.

I’ve wondered if it’s the impatience factor that makes cyclists feel above the traffic laws, or having to assimilate the behavior of the car they’ve just left in their driveway. Whatever the cause it’s actually rather dangerous for pedestrians simply trying to cross the street.  When rogue riders consistently run red lights, we walkers must run or freeze in place to let them swish by. Maybe it’s the helmets favored by American cyclists that offer that feeling of invincibility? (If you’ve traveled internationally, you’ve likely noted that city cycling is common, but helmets and fancy gear are unusual, with cruisers the bicycle of choice.)

On a few occasions, I’ve shouted “Hey—it’s a red light!” when a cyclist interrupts my attempt to cross the street. And once I actually got a sheepish “Sorry!” in response. That was nice but it certainly doesn’t solve the problem.

I guess it takes a lot of nerve to ride through a city relatively unprotected and competing with couriers, Uber and taxi drivers, not to mention buses and trucks. However, if you’re on wheels, you’re on wheels, so those traffic signals apply to you regardless. And if you cycle around me on your ride to work, please be extra careful if I’m carrying my coffee.

 

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Train Trends

Those of us who live in warm-weather deprived climates do everything we can to maximize our summer pleasure. Personally, that means getting to the Maine coast to relax by the quiet shoreline. Since a lot of you have the same objective, I often travel by train to avoid traffic and remain productive. Amtrak has a dedicated service dubbed the Downeaster that is exceptionally convenient, if not typically a bit slow. It is consistently sold out, however, suggesting customer demand and competitive pricing (there is also bus service, but I’d rather drive than sit on a bus any day).

Occasionally, I head back on Sunday afternoons instead of Monday morning and I can’t help but notice a significant difference in passenger demeanor when comparing weekday vs. weekend travelers. Whether it’s the early Monday morning train to Boston or the 5PM Downeaster to Maine, the crowds are quiet; throughout the train its heads-down individual travelers busily absorbed by their laptops or mobile device. Many people wear headphones, so conversation is limited and few buy on-board snacks.

On the weekends, the riders are younger, more boisterous and nearly always traveling at least in pairs. Their constant giggles, walks to and from the café car, and shared mobile device views, with jolly “Haha; look at this” comments fill the three-hour ride. Clearly, the business travelers are extending their workday, while the weekenders are in downtime mode. Both experiences make the ride go quickly, but what happens when you’re in workday-ish mode but traveling on a Sunday?

That was me today—and it was tough to stay fully focused but the atmosphere was more lighthearted than on a Monday—and the train had less competition on the rails, so ran on time…almost, anyway!

@Amtrak – thanks for the service; it’s a much preferred alternative to suffering through traffic jams in either direction. And fellow passengers, I appreciate your quiet company as we ease into/out of our workdays,  as well as your weekend joy when we share downtime on the Downeaster.

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The Oxymoron of Cuba Libre

It’s been nearly a year since my last post…a particularly extended period for a budding blogger. But like most “leaves of absence” I am reinvigorated and committed to regularly authoring my thoughts on branded experiences.

To jumpstart posting, I’ve been thinking about the resiliency of sustained traditions, which are essentially branded occasions. One such tradition is taking an annual vacation–a time for purposely changing our routines to relax and enjoy new experiences. Recently, we had the opportunity to do just that by vacationing in Cuba through my husband’s college alumni association. As you know, Americans visiting Cuba must comply with itineraries that include certain cultural interactions. Sanctioned group tours offer the most turnkey option.

I will admit to a longtime fascination with Cuba, fueled by its revolutionary history and proximity to the U.S., as well as the popular Buena Vista Social Club documentary and my own Caribbean roots. I was unsure what to expect besides hot weather, some ideological commentary and salsa music. Additionally, group travel was a novel experience, as we’ve always preferred to set our own itineraries and travel independently.

Our group numbered just 13 travelers, which kept us less conspicuous and facilitated smooth movements. As well, the sightseeing/cultural itinerary was sufficiently varied and provided us with a reasonable transparency as we discovered Cuba and its citizens.

Unsurprisingly, politics has hampered their economic stability and substantially contributed to deteriorating infrastructures. We learned, for example, that three buildings collapse each day in Havana (or “La Habana” as its known locally). In spite of free education and healthcare, many struggle to feed their families and coexist among neighbors whose lifestyles are subsidized by friends and family who have fled the island.

More recently, the government has permitted certain businesses to launch outside of state-run organizations. These bed & breakfasts and home-based restaurants or “paladars” are obliged to remit substantial portions of their revenues to the government, but they exemplify the Cuban resiliency and creativity. And frankly, the meals we enjoyed at these family paladars were significantly better than those served in the more prevalent state-run restaurants.

You’re likely familiar with one of their national drinks—a lime-infused rum and coke known as the Cube Libre—or Free Cuba. Our arranged meal providers always offered a “welcome drink” of mojitos or Cuba Libres. The irony of this titling is not lost on anyone—locals or tourists alike. As vacationers, we wanted to believe that it perhaps symbolized the triumph of the human spirit over state ideologies. Or maybe just saying those words keeps optimism afloat during these otherwise difficult times.

After a week of touring, we left Cuba saddened about their near-term prospects but hopeful that over time, the locals will have expanded opportunities to engage in free-market experiments like the paladars. In the meantime, consider the deep value of our vacation traditions. I hope your summer features some downtime and hopefully you can unwind while expanding your mind.

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Baseball, Legends & Love

On Friday, June 23, I was fortunate to be among the Red Sox faithful who witnessed the retirement of David Ortiz’s uniform number. Fondly known as “Big Papi,” this larger-than-life star athlete was everything a fan could wish for: clutch player, fun-loving and through it all, remained humble and kind. David is yet another product of the Dominican Republic’s player talent pool and throughout his career, never forgot his homeland. Given my similar roots, I have always favored players from the DR, and of course, particularly those who help keep the home team atop the standings and in championship contention.

Baseball is all about patience and tradition. It takes hours to complete a nine-inning game and more than half a year to proceed from spring training through a World Series. Yet, the rewards for fans are short-lived; we get excited about a win but there’s usually another game within 24 hours. And championships certainly earn bragging rights, but again, they tend to be more impactful in that moment.

That fragile experience is exactly why players like Ortiz are special. Every time they step into the batter’s box, you anticipate a little magic. And quite often, they make the impossible happen. When they’re pushed into the limelight, they instinctually know exactly what to do. What Red Sox fan doesn’t have a mental image of Big Papi’s famous bear hugs or his emotional ballpark comments following the Boston Marathon bombing?

The David Ortiz experience came to an emotional climax last month when friends, family and fans gathered at Fenway to pay tribute to our local hero. The number 34 was ceremonially unveiled above right field, joining nine previous Red Sox and Jackie Robinson as eternal legacies. Several honored guests were invited to offer tributes including former teammates and fellow legends. The comments were festive but perhaps none more heartfelt than second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s observation that what meant most to the team was the great love Big Papi always shared with everyone in the dugout. That simple statement came just before Ortiz spoke to the crowd—and brought tears to his eyes and to those of many throughout the ballpark.

Looking back, we’re forever grateful for the many baseball memories but as every member of Red Sox Nation knows, David Ortiz will continue making us proud for many years to come. Here’s to you, #34!David-Ortiz-Number-Retirement

What United Forgot: Customers Matter

Last week’s United Airlines debacle caught international attention for a simple reason. The airline forgot that they were dealing with a paying customer—and it could easily have been any of us. Yes, perhaps the customer was being overly stubborn about his circumstances, but something happens when we enter the air travel zone. Perhaps it’s how we’re welcomed at the airport—long lines, security check-ins and the TSA presence. Or maybe it’s that we’re all intent on reaching our destination on our timeline, so any unplanned delay becomes a crisis. And of course, airports are teeming with crowds and we all know that crowds contribute to stress in any circumstance. Together, these variables foster an undercurrent of irrational tension.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I checked into my Sheraton Hotel in Minnesota last night and noticed a small red carpet in the entryway. Having just been at the same property a few weeks ago, I questioned the look but thought they were maybe just getting creative for spring. But then placed by the television I noticed a tray of snacks—which I had not ordered—and a printed card stating that I was their VIP customer of the day. This was clearly a random welcome experience that probably cost the hotel less than $5, but boy, did it make me feel great about my stay. Through this very simple gesture, they reinforced that they understood that the customer comes first. Winning my loyalty by providing a memorable experience matters to them—and that is a powerful message.

I called the front desk to thank them for the surprise welcome, and they were happy to reinforce the card’s message. We care about your business and are glad that you’re here. Hmm….seems pretty simple. United – are you listening?

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City Winters: A Theory of Relativity

This weekend was our first encounter with a snowstorm as boomerang city dwellers. We were pleasantly reminded that it’s a more timid urban event, as places remain open and are quieter as it’s just the locals. With no windshields to scrape or driveways to shovel, we had free time. So what did we do during the storm?

Before the snow started, we headed to the Y, along with a significant percentage of the membership. (We think many are still in their New Year’s resolution mode.) By midday it was snowing pretty hard, but we went out for lunch anyway at a local cafe — and were fortunate to snag the only open table. I had scheduled a hair appointment for that afternoon, but of course, the salon was open as all the stylists live in the neighborhood. No emergency snow closings during this so-called Nor’easter!

We met extended family for dinner at a little place around the corner and thanks to the storm, we didn’t have to wait for a table and were able to linger and enjoy our meal and good company.

Oh – and how can I forget the wonderful realization that we didn’t have to fear power outages as in the city, all the power lines are buried.

So the moral of this story is that winter is a relative experience. I hadn’t appreciated that geography isn’t the most substantial variable; zip code matters and I’m liking my odds for the winter of 2017.

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First Day Predictions

By now, the internet shouting about the “new year, new me” has hopefully died down. I am an optimist by nature and pretty self-disciplined, so don’t feel obliged to start fresh just because the calendar changed. However, I do enjoy considering whether our January 1st experiences are an omen of the year ahead. How did you spend your “first day” and was there anything extraordinary that left you wondering about 2017?

For starters, I slept until 10:30 a.m. – something I haven’t done since college. And no, I can’t say we were out particularly late the prior evening. I must have needed the extra rest, so of course, I wondered if 2017 was going to be a year of catching up on needed sleep. Not a bad start!

Feeling so rested I was motivated to go out for a jog; yes, my pace is slow these days so I can’t honestly use the term “run.” Anyway, as I made my way through the city streets, I approached two still-tipsy men who I actually thought were going to trip me for a laugh. Then I realized they just wanted a fist-bump as they continued on their merry way. Hmm…does this mean 2017 will be a year for chance meetings with happy people?

Next, we decided to attend the last of the local First Night events – an organ concert at an 19th century church. We’re not religious or organ-music fans, but we do walk by this church regularly, so thought it would be a good excuse to check it out. Although I didn’t love all the music, it was entertaining to watch those in attendance, especially the little kids putting their hands over their ears whenever the music was loud (and scary?) and the elderly woman nearly tipped over as she slept through the entire concert. Could this be a foreshadowing of finding humor in unexpected places?

After the concert, we stopped by a restaurant we’ve wanted to try and found two seats at the bar. The bartender apologetically noted that the kitchen had just stopped serving brunch and was transitioning to dinner, so she couldn’t give us menus for 15 minutes. I guess this suggests “beware of bad timing.” We decided to wait it out, however, and eventually enjoyed some tasty appetizers, reminding us that patience is a virtue and that sitting at the bar is more entertaining than a table for two.

The day wound down with the last of the NFL season on our TV competing with Netflix on my tablet. Okay; so another year of multitasking – or competing priorities. My last mobile interactions of the day were texts confirming a family birthday-weekend getaway. I like to think this means we’re in for a year of celebrations.

So to sum it up – more sleep, chance meetings, unexpected humor, timing, patience, multitasking and celebration. Oh – and jogging and good food. I suspect that on December 31, I’ll confirm having lived through these experiences because they’re not particularly extraordinary. But hopefully, they’ll be enjoyable and memorable. May the New Year offer you many good times, both anticipated and unexpected!

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