Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New York City - Impressions of Manhattan

The "Lipstick Building"
Business recently took me to Manhattan. Despite all my travels, it was my first stay in New York City.  It was a short stay - two nights with my days spent in client meetings and a deposition.  But with some encouragement from the hotel front desk staff, I traveled to the deposition by subway and by foot, giving me a quick view of many the most identifiable places in America.  I was toting my camera with me, so on the return trip after the deposition, I took some photos despite the heavy overcast.

Overall my impression was quite different than I expected with my preconceived Midwestern prejudices.  Yes, the city is big and crowded, but it very quickly lost any intimidation factor. I found it was not a particularly difficult place to navigate.  I was able to get around by subway and walking, except for going to and from the airport.   

People are busy and generally keep to their own business. But in my experience, they are not unfriendly or rude.  In fact, quite the opposite.  And the fascinating mixture of languages and cultures you find just walking down the street is exhilarating. 

But the place that left me speechless was the site of the World Trade Center and the new Freedom Tower.  Like Arlington Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial Wall, it is hallowed ground. And it leaves a profound impact that cannot be described.

St. Paul's Chapel (oldest building in Manhattan), which hosted George Washington  on his Inauguration Day and survived the 9/11 attacks across the street from the World Trade Center, and new  Freedom Tower

A reminder in the shadow of the new Freedom Tower

Central Park South

Historic buildings in shadow of skyscrapers

Gilded Gen. Sherman - Central Park South

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2013 Milo Awards: Best Movies and Performances of 2013

It's the week before Oscar, so here are my picks as the best movies and performances of 2013 -- the coveted Milo Awards.

Best Actor
Jered Leto & Matthew McConnaughey

Matthew McConnaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)  Runners Up:  Bruce Dern (Nebraska); Leonardo DiCaprio  (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Best Actress
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks).  Runners Up:  Judy Dench (Philomena); Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

Best Supporting Actor
Jered Leto (Dallas Buyers Club.  Runner Up:  Barkhad Abdi  (Captain Phillips)

Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave);  Runners Up:  Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle); June Squibb (Nebraska)

Best Song:
I See Fire - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Best Movies
  1. Nebraska:  Remarkable film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.  Bruce Dern is wonderful as an old man determined to travel to Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize.  The film is laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, filled with quirky characters and great performances, particularly June Squibb as Dern's wife. And the black and white cinematography of the great plains is breathtaking.
  2. Philomena : A gripping story that lives through the marvelous acting of Judy Dench, a bevy of other wonderful performances,  and a well-crafted screenplay,  In some scenes, Judy Dench tells so much without saying a word.
  3. American Hustle:  Great story.  Great cast. Great movie.
  4. Gravity:  This is the most visually stunning movie of the
    year, and is held together by Sandra Bullock, who is on camera for virtually the entire movie.  Thought it was going for a cheap gimmick at one point, but I was wrong. 
  5. Dallas Buyers Club:  Matthew McConnaughey is simply riveting.  So too is Jered Leto in one of the most amazing performances ever given in a supporting role.
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street:  Vile.  Vulgar. Rude. Profane. Funny. The story of Wall Street excess told to excess.  Not for the faint of heart.
  7. Saving Mr. Banks:  Most delightful movie of the year. How Emma Thompson was not even nominated for an Oscar is simply beyond comprehension.  A wonderful touching movie about the quest to make Mary Poppins
  8. Fruitvale Station:  Overlooked mid-summer movie of a true-life New Years Eve shooting.  It deserved a lot more attention than it received.
  9. Rush:  I'm a racing fan and this is by far the best auto racing movie ever made -- mostly because it is not so much about racing as it is about the two diametrically opposite drivers who fought for the 1977 Formula 1 world championship
  10. Captain Phillips:  Really well-made movie.  Tom Hanks is outstanding, as always. But it's the Somali pirate crew, and particularly its captain - all untried actors from Michigan - who made this movie work.
  11. Frozen:  A surprise for me. Entertaining. Funny. Well-developed characters. Best animated movie of the year by far.
  12. The Way Way Back.  A coming of age movie that raises itself above the rest of its type.
  13. Side Effects:  Clever well-done modern suspense movie.
  14. 12 Years A Slave:  Some great acting here, but have a feeling I've seen this movie before in various machinations.  Seemed a bit pretentious.  A bit stale.  But the performance by Lupita Nyong'o is simply stunning.
  15. Hunger Games: Catching Fire:  Gotta say, they are doing this series right.
  16. Mud:  Another coming of age movie, but this one with a little darker tone. Again, Matthew McConnaughey is unforgettable as the off-kilter escaped convict known as Mud.
  17. Star Trek:  Into Darkness:  Speaking of doing things right, the Star Trek reboot has been hitting all notes right on pitch.  The first in the reboot series was really good. This one is better.
  18. The Hobbit:  Desolation of Smaug:  The fifth Peter Jackson movie of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic tales is well done, but getting a little tired. Still, the dragon Smaug was pretty impressive.
  19. Before Midnight:  This is the third in series of movies following the smartest lovers on the screen since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert shared a bus ride in In Happened One Night. Now they are married, with children, facing the realities of life.
  20. Despicable Me 2.  Fun.  Can't help but like this movie.
Best Animated Movie:  Frozen:  No competition. One of those movies where I walked out with a smile, so surprised that the movie was better than I ever expected.

Best Documenary:  Blackfish:  Powerful story of Orcas, trainers, corporate greed and death.

Guilty Pleasure:  The Lone Ranger:  Okay, all the critics hated it. But I thought it was great summer fun. And Johnny Depp as Tonto was a hoot.

Worst Movie of the Year: All Is Lost :  Yes, Robert Redford shows he is still a great actor. But what can you say about a movie that you can watch on fast forward and not only do you feel you didn't miss anything, but that it improved the movie.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

JFK Assassination at 50: Five Myths About Jackie Kennedy

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was the single most shocking, devastating moment of my life - and a seminal moment that changed not only the course of American history, but who we are as a people.  The only events that even compare with it are the attack on Pearl Harbor (before my lifetime) and the terror attacks of 9/11.

As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the assasination of President John F. Kennedy, I will write a series of posts about JFK, the time in which he lived, the people who surrounded him, and of course the assassination itself.  Some will be my own ideas, thoughts and recollections.  Some will be those of others.  Some will be a combination.  I will try to delineate between them.

I'll start with this. Jacqueline Kennedy ranks with Eleanor Roosevelt and Hilary Clinton as the most influential First Ladies ever, but for far different reasons.  Unlike Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Clinton, who seemed more like political advisers and business partners, Mrs. Kennedy deflected any suggestion that she was a political adviser to her husband.

But she was - particularly on personnel matters.  

At only age 31 she became First Lady.  Over the next three years, Jackie Kennedy's charm, grace and style captured the imagination and hearts not only of a nation, but also of world leaders.  So much so that JFK referred to himself as "the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to France."

The Washington Post recently put together a fascinating short article about five myths about Jacquelin Kennedy.  This article offers a glimpse of the remarkable young woman who captured the nation.

Here is a link to the article:  CLICK HERE

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Motorcycle Trip - Day 6: There and Back Again -- The Journey Home

Day 6:  Tuesday, September 3.

Oh who will come and go with me?
I am on my journey home.

I’m bound fair Canaan’s land to see,
I am on my journey home.

-- Traditional Appalachian Hymn

Waking in Cumberland, Maryland on Day 6 was different.  The Tail of the Dragon, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Skyline Drive -- all were in our rear view mirror.  Ahead was only one objective -- home.  

Weather reports showed there was heavy morning fog around Morgantown, WV.  My riding companion Steve Winters and I loaded up, then decided to take a liesurly breakfast at Bob Evans to give the fog time to clear.
One last cup of coffee, then we headed out.  Ahead of us was 460 miles and home.

When riding, I don't relish Interstate travel.  I don't thing any rider does.  The pavement stretches out in long straight lines with uninteresting bends.  All the while you contend with the buffeting from wind off heavy truck traffic and drivers distracted to inattention by the radio, and cell phones, and simply the miles rolling by in the comforting cocoon of a modern car.  

But riding through the interstate in western Maryland, West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania is different.  It is as beautiful a stretch of Interstate riding as exists in the country. The road unwinds in curves that lay gently across the hills, mountains, and valleys, opening up grand vistas of natural beauty.  

As we headed toward Morgantown, the clouds hung heavy and gray, resting close to the mountain tops.  The coolness of the day swept past us.  As we headed north out of Morgantown and into Pennsylvania, the clouds dissipated and the sky turned a luminous blue.

That morning, riding with Steve in the lead, it was pure joy to be on a motorcycle.

South of Washington, PA we followed the commands of Steve's GPS, and cut off on S.R. 221.  The two-lane blacktop rolled and twisted through picturesque Pennsylvania countryside.  The passing landscape was dotted with well-kept century-old homes, Norman Rockwell-like farms and small towns from an America long past.  

We picked up I-70 just east of the West Virginia border.  We rode the short 12 miles through West Virginia, bypassing the famed Wheeling Tunnel for the less dramatic but safer route around the town.  At about 1 p.m we crossed the Ohio River, shining in the sun as it had six days earlier when we crossed the river at Madison, IN rolling into Kentucky, the entire trip still in front of us. 

Ohio. I-70. What lay ahead was a 220-mile stretch of mostly flat straight-line riding at 75 mph. The ride was no longer about fun and adventure.  It was about getting there.  About getting home.

Near Zanesville we stopped at a Denny's Diner for lunch.  After six days of being together on the road, it was our last meal together. 

We finished eating, topping off the meal by splitting a celebratory forbidden peanut butter milkshake.  As the waitress cleared the table, Steve got serious.  

Steve Winters on the Skyline Drive
He thanked me for taking the trip with him, knowing I had last minute family matters that pulled on me to cancel.  Steve talked about how when he was a boy, his family traveled to the Smokies to camp.  It was then he formed his dream of traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Later he added traveling by motorcycle.   It had been his dream for more than 40 years, maybe more than 50.

But now at age 68, Steve knew the realities.  "I'll never take this trip again," he said to me.

I asked if the trip lived up to his dream.  Steve gave that infectious smile with his whole face.  He didn't hesitate.   "It was better than I ever imagined."

With that, we got back on our bikes and we were off through the flat tedium of Ohio.  Two hours later we were, as the song says, back home again in Indiana.

At the U.S. 35 exit in Richmond, we made our final stop.  We chatted for a few minutes about exchanging photos and GoPro videos from the trip.  We made plans to get together for dinner, which we did the following weekend.   We reflected for a couple of minutes, but not long.  The sun was setting.  It was time to get home.  

We shook hands firmly with the true affection of two men who had shared something very special.  Then we fired up the engines and headed off into the coolness of the approaching evening, heading our separate directions.

Less than an hour later, I was home.  The journey was done.  1,763 miles.  Nine states.  628 photos.  Fog, rain, heat, and one bear.  And memories.  So many memories.

None of us know what the future holds.  Steve fulfilled his 40-year dream, but less than three weeks later a motorcycle crash would take his life.  He was unaware that pancreatic cancer had already ravaged his body, though statements Steve made to me, his wife and his friends seemed to hint at an awareness that he did not have long with us.  The cancer would have taken him within months had the accident not intervened.  Somehow, I think Steve would have preferred the way it happened.

As for me, I have no crystal ball.  I don't know where the future will take me -- how far or for how long.  But I know it will be on some twisting, winding back road, a camera in my saddlebag and a notebook in my pocket, the compass in my head pointing north.  

It will be on two wheels.  

I will miss having Steve riding there with me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Motorcycle Trip - Day 5: End of the Parkway & Skyline Drive

Day 5 - September 2:  Labor Day -- The End of the Parkway and the Skyline Drive

The driving rain from the previous night had cleared and the fifth day of our journey -  Labor Day - broke in Bedford, Virginia with brilliant sunshine.

Wisps of fog; starting final day on Blue Ridge Parkway
My riding companion Steve Winters and I loaded our bikes up with a mixture of excitement and just a tinge of sadness.  Excitement in that we knew this was the day we would complete all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway and ride the entire 105 miles of the Skyline Drive.  But there was also the reality that this day marked the real end of the adventure.  By days end, we will have completed the ride that Steve had dreamed about for more than 40 years.  

Tomorrow it would be the day after Christmas.  

Looking for a McDonalds or some similar fast food place for breakfast, we stumbled on a Huddle House restaurant.  The waitresses were pure southern charm, and the food was much better than we expected.  We ate omelets and shared a pecan waffle (sugar free syrup).  Then it was off to find our way back to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Overlook near end of Blue Ridge Parkway

Steve was directionally challenged, something he readily admitted.  He was largely dependent upon the feminine voice in his ear from his GPS unit.  And although he complained about it vigorously, he relied on it for getting him almost anyplace.

On the other hand, I abhor GPS units.  Thanks to my mother and dad, I have an inherent sense of direction.  I have a built in compass that points north without fail.  I may take a quick look at a map -- I did so twice on the entire 1,763 miles of our trip - but my usual practice is to figure out where I am, where I am going, and point the bike in that general direction.  If I'm going northwest, I'll ride for a while going north, then find a road headed west.  And I end up where I was going - without fail.

With some vague directions from the waitress and cooks at the Huddle House ("You go down to the four lane, then when you get to a big yeller house, you turn right, till you cross the crick, then you go left . . . "), we headed with me in the lead to find our way the 20 miles or so to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Because heading back the way we came would result in us backtracking some 20 miles, we headed north. 

Bedford is a gorgeous old south town with stately homes and quiet streets.  We passed a few people out for early morning walks or jobs.  Some waived.  Then we were into the rolling rural countryside, heading north toward the Peaks of Otter and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Wildflowers along Parkway
On our trip we had dealt with heat, fog, and rain, but this last morning was perfection.  We rode through the morning coolness, gradually rising toward the mountains.  At Peaks of Otter, we reentered the Parkway.  It was the place where I camped on my previous motorcycle trip to the Parkway two years earlier.  It was comforting to recognize the area - to see something familiar after so many days on road that was all new.

Eighty-five miles left.

The Parkway was splendid in its early morning coat.  Ghosts of thin fog floated across stretches of the road, punctuated by bright shafts of sunlight cutting through the tall oaks, hickory, ash and occasional pines.  Wildflowers in yellow and purple carpeted the roadside.  In places the towering trees formed a canopy over the pavement, still dark and damp from condensation left behind by morning fog. 

At an overlook we stopped and looked out over the valley below, taking it in.  There was a sense of trying to absorb all of this.  Steve was candid about this on our way home.  He was certain this was his last time on a motorcycle on these roads.  We did not know how prophetic that was.
Steve Winters (right) & Me, Skyline Drive

As the sun rose higher, the fog disappeared and we were left with a glorious late summer day, just cool enough in the mountains for perfect motorcycle riding.

As we started the last 10 miles of the Parkway, I pointed out the mileposts to Steve.  There was a strong sense of accomplishment as we moved through those last miles -- 10,  then 7,   then 4,  then 2, then finally the last mile marker. And the end.  Just after noon, we finished the Parkway.

Somehow I expected there to be a "Congratulations!  You've Just Ridden the Blue Ridge Parkway" sign.  But there wasn't.  In fact, there wasn't even a sign saying "End of Blue Ridge Parkway."  Instead, the road just continued, crossing an overpass above a 4-lane highway, then a sign: "You Are Entering Shenandoah National Park" with the entry fee schedule.  

No trumpets.  No banners.  Nothing. But we had done it.  We had ridden 469 miles from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park to the Shenandoah National Park.

We stopped for gas and lunch.  We talked a bit, but not really about accomplishing the ride of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There were still too many miles in front of us.

Back on our bikes, we started the Skyline Drive.  The Skyline Drive is the road that runs through the center of Shenandoah National Park, twisting and turning 105 miles along the top of the Shenandoah Mountains.  

Overlook, Skyline Drive
Unlike stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway which were at times nearly deserted, the Skyline Drive is a favorite holiday destination for the metropolitan Washington D.C. area.  Throughout the Skyline Drive, traffic was moderate to heavy.  Overlooks that on the Blue Ridge Parkway would seldom have more than one car - and often none - were filled with half a dozen or more cars.  

But the views from the Skyline Drive are simply awe-inspiring.  To the west is the Shenandoah Valley, stretching as far as one can see.  To the east is Virginia's rich Piedmont area, filled with farms and small towns.  The view painted with shades of green,marked by streams and weaving pavement, accented with the shadows from billowing white clouds gently moving across the sky like a fleet of durigibles. 

Me at overlook, Skyline Drive
At one overlook we met a young couple from Pennsylvania spending the day on the Skyline Drive.  He was a trucker, but no longer.  He decided the long days on the road were not what he wanted for his life.  I pulled out my camera and took a few photos.  I was ready to put the camera away when he suggested I take one more - of them kissing with the Shenandoah Valley as the backdrop.

We also met an older couple - at least in their mid-70s.  They were from Colorado, riding their motorcycle on a 4-week trip through the east, riding roads they had heard about but never traveled before.  Steve and I talked to them for perhaps 20 minutes, talking and looking out over the beauty of the valley below.

Wildflowers & Piedmont, near end of Skyline Drive
The woman particularly was a delight.  With an impish smile, she explained how they had gotten packing and traveling by motorcycle down to a science.  "I don't have to travel with all the stuff I used to.  And he says he doesn't mind seeing me in the same clothes," she said.  "As long as I have my rain suit, I'm good to go."    They had enough to go seven days between stops at local laundromats -- two pair of jeans, underwear and shirts for seven days -- and no makeup bag.  

Souvenirs?  Yes, they buy them, mostly for their grandchildren.  But they don't travel with them.  They just ship them home.

Busy bee, Big Meadow - Skyline Drive
The one thing I can't explain is why I didn't get a photo of them.  I took over 650 photos on the trip , but I didn't get one of them.  It's my one regret from the trip.

Steve and I stopped at Big Meadow for a while.  We took in the vast expanse of the tall grasses and scrub bushes that cover the meadow, but we passed on hiking.  There were still too many miles to go.

We rode the final 50 miles of the Skyline Drive, stopping at occasional overlooks to take in the view, knowing these would be the last overlooks of our trip.  Shortly after 5 pm we exited the Skyline Drive to the town of Front Royal.  It was done. The Tail of the Dragon, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Skyline Drive.  They were all behind us.
End of the road. Last tunnel, Skyline Drive

All that was left was the trip home.

We got our bearings in Front Royal, and headed home.  We headed out toward Cumberland, Maryland, mostly riding 4-lane highways and I-68.  We chased the setting sun through the indescribable beauty of the hills northern Virginia and Western Maryland.  Green mountains opened into vast valleys, then rolled into mountains again. 

As we rode, the sun setting in our visors, the mountains turned deep purple.  With dark coming quickly upon us, we stopped at a Best Western in Cumberland.  A nearby Pizza Hut was good for a late dinner.  The food was slow in coming, but neither Steve nor I minded.  It gave us time to talk.  To reflect on what we had done.  And to celebrate with a couple of beers. 
Why we ride: 
Steve Winters on Skyline Drive

The candor of Autumn, the young waitress serving us, made the experience worthwhile.  "The salad bar is crap," she said in response to my inquiry.  "I wouldn't pay for it.  I don't eat it, and I get it free."

Steve and I both laughed, and gave her a bit extra with her tip.

It was over - but not quite.  Left in front of us was the road home.