Category Archives: travel

BC: Before Cleveland

Tomorrow, Evelyn and I will get on a plane from Seattle to Houston, then on another one from there to Cleveland. We didn’t find any practical, affordable direct flights to get there, although we managed that for the return trip. Many flights route you through nearby Detroit or Chicago. When we went to Cleveland the last time, ten years ago, thunder storms caused our plane to be parked on some distant Chicago runway for a few hours, with us sweating inside. When we got there, a lot of construction around the airport made getting around difficult. The African-American gentleman who managed the crowded line for the rental car shuttle joked in a way that still made me squirm. But I suppose it is possible that he was actually being sarcastic in response to a (white and white-shirted) business traveler’s obnoxiousness.

Back then, downtown Cleveland seemed mostly quiet.

What will Cleveland’s Terminal Tower complex and Public Square feel like tomorrow, I wonder?

You could make a U-turn on Euclid Avenue, the main thoroughfare, without waiting for traffic or bothering anybody. Splendid old department store buildings were boarded up and had obviously been so for many years. Public Square in front of the Terminal Tower was mostly empty of pedestrians. People moved around in their cars; I don’t think I saw a single bicycle commuter. Some innocuous public art didn’t much alleviate the sense of loneliness at the center of the city. Yes, at the Terminal Tower lots of people changed trains, caught buses, and rode elevators up into their offices, but very few of them seemed to walk anywhere from there. The theater district only came alive at night. Except for a few restaurants and drinking places, the place was dead after about 5:30pm.

And, you know what? Everybody was incredibly, genuinely friendly. It wasn’t like the “Seattle nice,” where people smile at you while they’re often seething in their skin. Folks were engaged, ready to have conversations, and helpful; they reminded me of people in Italy, where you never know if the next person you meet will be one of your best friends and patron saints. They didn’t try to run you over when you were crossing the street, the way I see it here at home all the time. The most passive-aggressive driver behavior I saw, if that’s what it was, was a slow, barely noticeable roll forward while waiting for red lights.

Huge areas of the city felt like stony deserts, with barely maintained residences, potholed streets, and almost no retail outside of gas stations and depressing convenience stores. Somewhere in the east 40s, I remember leaving an old-fashioned Czech or Slovak restaurant and seeing a bunch of black kids up the street throwing rocks at cars and windows. They didn’t look aggressive or angry. I think they were just bored. Just a few driving minutes away from them, there was the excellent art museum (which also had wonderful air conditioning, a huge asset). On a weekday, very few visitors had come to see the collections.

The communities right outside the city—Cleveland Heights, Parma, Shaker Heights, Garfield Heights, and so forth—that’s where middle-class and wealthier people seemed to make their homes. Bonus points for any place name with “heights” in it, of course. I expect that hasn’t changed, but maybe now a few more people actually live in downtown? I also have high hopes for a district called Ohio City, just west of the Cuyahoga River. In 2002, it had a wonderful indoor market, surrounded by a lively, intriguing neighborhood. Throughout Ohio City, many residents had obviously moved in recently and were working hard to maintain their homes and gardens beautifully. The area was still a little incoherent and somewhat intimidating then, but I get the impression that much has happened since. It sounds like many more people have taken advantage of inexpensive housing and were willing to get to work. The district now boosts a huge variety of artisan businesses, restaurants, and services for residents. I’m looking forward to spending some time there.

When I talk with Seattle friends and colleagues about visiting Cleveland, they quickly volunteer a few clichés, probably much like people elsewhere have at hand about Seattle. I don’t think any of these pat statements, about any place, are ever true anymore, but maybe there was a notion of some actual perception in them a few generations ago. It seems that hardly anybody is disposed to like Cleveland, but they have no idea why. We really need to get out of the house more.

I might not get to the blog while I’m traveling, but will report again when I’m back, late next week. Please visit again!

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Facing the great good-bye: How will mass extinctions affect us?

Even if you squint away from some of the worst news and some predictions are exaggerated, extinction is happening. Right now, while you read these words, entirely unknown as well as familiar species of animals and plants are becoming extinct. Over the next few years, extinction events will continue. Some of them will involve well-known animals—tigers, orangutans, lemurs, rhinoceros. Many zoos and some sanctuaries are trying to keep these species around, but they’re already having a hard time maintaining enough genetic diversity to maintain viability. It won’t get any easier—animals don’t breed on command, and captivity is generally not a good inducement to procreation. The poachers and traders won’t quit, however—body parts and substances from the bodies of elephants, chimpanzees, tigers, bears, rhinoceros, leopards, and other animals will continue to be much sought after. Habitats will become ever smaller. The human population may eventually stabilize, but probably not soon enough for most of the animals already at risk. Cloning might maintain the hope of reviving certain species, but if habitats are overly compromised or no longer existent, it’s a frivolous waste of time and resources.

What will happen to us when animals disappear that have been with us since we became sentient? People living now will remember and some of them will grieve. Eventually, the memories and stories will fade along with the anguish associated with extinctions. Tigers, for example, will be known much like dinosaurs—fascinating and worth studying, but not real. The mythological tigers one finds in works of Borges and other writers will have more emotional impact than the faint recollection of the animal that once lived. Except for some areas of science and art, we will be oblivious to the vanished animals. We will never know them any better than we do today.

Gone forever, soon.

Don’t doubt that the extinctions will affect our minds. The presence of powerful, dangerous, smart animals has enriched our lives with love, fear, respect, loathing, danger, and a host of other emotions and qualities that we may never have access to again. Without them around and in us, we will become different. Some of us might notice and most of us won’t be able to tell, but our quality of living, feeling, and thinking will change. In a way, the world will be more homogenous, and the meanings of such notions as “other” and “self” will be unlike what they were so far in our history.

If you don’t like thinking about this, you’re not alone—I don’t think anybody does. Even people who work in sustainability and conservation efforts are having a hard time facing mass extinction. The scale of the coming events is simply overwhelming. And everybody’s quality of existence is at stake. But what can you do?

I think our best hope is with the low-overhead, close-to-the-ground, savvy organizations and initiatives that strive for social, environmental, and economic sustainability in practical ways. The Ugandan Village Project comes to mind, but there are many others similar to it, in all regions of the world. These kinds of efforts closely involve the people who stand to benefit from keeping species alive in a sustainable environment. Without them, nothing worthwhile will happen—instead, conservation will be a distant, useless cousin to colonization. Even if it’s possible to slow down and delay some of the extinctions already underway, that is probably preferable to their rapid process, if only for selfish reasons. We should support and participate in these initiatives as much as we can, and visit the locales where history is unfolding. The deeper we understand the people there, the closer we see the last few representatives of disappearing species, the better we will be able to render assistance.

I’m not looking forward to what’s coming, but I will probably be gone when the worst mass extinctions become part of the daily news.

But what about you? And your kids?

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Perfect marketing for a good cause: Have a drink in Vancouver

What happens when you provide an item everybody needs and link it to a worthwhile cause that requires no additional activity from consumers? You can raise lots of funds, for one thing.

Take water, for example. Everybody needs it. You probably drink it yourself.

In Vancouver, BC, you can help the homeless by purchasing a small bottle of water. You won’t be badgered about it, and it’s unlikely you’ll feel smug. Depending on how thirsty you are, you might not even notice what you did.

On a warm day in June, I walked into Café Bica and got some We Love Van water. They sell other water there, but I l liked the simple design. And, visiting from Seattle—how could I not? I almost recycled the bottle before I noticed the statement on the label: “10¢ of every bottle of water you purchase is used to care for Vancouver’s homeless.” The organization’s website explains how the donations work and introduces the Lookout Society through a short video. It also tells you why they chose the kind of plastic they use, and addresses some common misconceptions about plastic recycling.

When in Vancouver, drink lots of water.

If you’ve been to Vancouver, you probably do love it, so the drink’s name will appeal. Vancouver is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world. As you probably know, housing is very expensive there, hard-drug addiction and alcoholism are huge problems, and a large homeless population lives right next to wealth and elegance. If you live there, you meet the homeless, day after day, unless you take steps to avoid and ignore them. The Lookout Society has a strong, successful program in helping people in a dignified, gracious manner.

The We Love Van website, Facebook page, and Twitter stream use the same, appealing visual brand and an upbeat tone. I’m intrigued by the fact that the homeless support message is treated very lightly—no images of miserable people, no exhortations, no moralizing. The Facebook page shows a few images of homeless people, but most of the content is really about one’s affection for the city and sustainability concerns.

I know that it’s very easy to judge the homeless and be bothered by them, all the more so when you are made to feel as if you are lacking in integrity if you don’t help. We Love Van entirely avoids that emotional mess by attractively presenting a necessary product and letting water drinkers feel good. Imagine what one could accomplish with this approach. After all, there are other things everybody has to have. Connectivity. Operating systems. Electricity. Gas. Think about it!

I hope you’ll be thirsty in Vancouver.

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Golden revenue opportunity: Enable vacationers to take time off from digital living

Many of us, when we go on vacation, move our bodies from place to place, but our attention remains as attached as ever to the devices that connect us to our social networks, news, email, and work-related online resources. We become traveling digital ghosts, much like the walking ghosts who are so absorbed by their smartphones that they stroll straight into traffic accidents. Digital ghosts can be everywhere in what we used to call cyberspace, but they are really nowhere in conventional reality. Or at least, they’re not aware of being in the older world. They may have lots of digital fun, but find it hard to relax. Vacation stresses them out, because the risk of being disconnected from digital life is much higher than when one is at work and in high-bandwidth environments. They return fatigued and grouchy, but quickly forget about this when they are once again completely connected and distracted. After years of this, the mind crumbles, the body screams for relief, the family moves on, and the dog goes for a lonely walk.

Help is on the way, however. In the next few years, hotels, resorts, timeshares, and travel agencies will offer a new type of travel. It’s a little like joining a nudist camp, only digitally. Your vacation service provider (VSP) will make it possible for you to take a complete break from your demanding digital life—and nobody will need to know! To your followers and all the world online, you will be as clever and connected as always. Maybe even more so. If your VSP’s digital concierge knows what she’s doing, she will keep up your Twitter stream, Facebook updates, LinkedIn status, photo and video shares, and other online presences with the brilliance you wish you could maintain all the time.

If you want to go a step further, you can park your smartphone, laptop, and other devices with your VSP for baby-sitting while you enjoy time off in the old world. Of course, the VSP will contact you if there’s an emergency, unless you paid her not to do so. If you are miserable in digital withdrawal, you can book a session with the concierge to review your postings and get the highlights of what’s new with your followers and friends. If you lose your job during your vacation and your boss tells you so through email or a Facebook message, you can at your discretion rely on the concierge to keep this news hidden from you until your non-digital off-time is over.

Bed-and-breakfast places will offer their own, homespun and charming versions of disconnected vacationing. Your children will be able to go to special offline summer camps. Once the business and civic leaders in the areas tourists flock to understand how much revenue the spending from VSPs and their out-of-touch guests can generate, they will do what they can to support the business. You can expect entire districts of Rome, Paris, or Barcelona to go non-digital for entire weekends during tourist season to enhance their visitors’ experiences.

Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon and other monasteries offer you a retreat from your digitally demanding life. But VSPs will catch up with the opportunity soon.

Some of us feel shy to admit our desire for disconnection. Others are already signing off at times. Monasteries are leading the way for VSPs by offering retreats where you can take a break from the digital avalanche of your day-to-day life. The Monastery of Christ in the Desert (which, years ago, thrilled the world with one of the coolest and most beautiful websites ever) will gladly welcome you. So would Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon. At the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, you can even stay close to an urban environment. The level of tolerance and generosity in these places is very high—you don’t have to be a believer. Other monastic and faith communities are no doubt offering similar opportunities and will increase their capacity soon. They should really patent and copyright their offerings today, before VSPs catch on.

In the beginning, VSPs will be able to charge a premium for taking their guests’ lives offline. If you’re interested, you should get into this line of service right now. Eventually, digital ghosts from all walks of life will be able to disconnect a least for a few days. But don’t worry, some travelers will always pay for valuable services, such as a complete mental download of all the memories of an exciting trip—without having to go anywhere at all. That, too, is coming.

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