Sunday, November 30, 2014

 Fall has been, as is usually the case, very pretty in and near Asheville.

 Someone tries to look innocent even when lying next to a toy he has eviscerated and on top of a bed he started to eat but then decided to save for later.

Asheville has arrived at that strange time of year when it seems the climate cannot decide what season it actually is.  Some days it is warm enough to hike in shorts and a t-shirt or long sleeve shirt at most and other days I have to bundle up in so many layers of insulation that I start to look like I am on a Polar Expedition.

Fall arrived in Asheville pretty much on schedule and while it was mild and beautiful through most of October it did, suddenly, get very cold just as Felix and I were heading north for some family visits.

I am hoping to be able to travel extensively with Felix as I was able to do with Abner so when he arrived at the ripe old age of 7 months I decided the time had come to try a road trip.  Going to Fort Wayne to see my parents is a bit of a long drive for Felix’s very first road trip so I decided to drive to the Cincinnati suburbs where one of my sisters lives with her husband and Labrador Retriever.  This is about a 6 hour drive with a natural stopping point in Berea Kentucky at roughly the half-way point.  In Berea right off the freeway is a visitor’s center that I found on another trip where we stopped to eat and pee (both of us) prior to driving the last couple hours to our hotel in Northern Kentucky.

As is almost always the case when I am doing this drive there was a traffic delay that added a bit more than an hour while we crawled along through 6 miles of stop and go backup.  I don’t know what it is about this section of I -75 but every time I have driven it there is some kind of traffic issue between the Tennessee border and Berea.  Nonetheless we made it to Florence KY where I had booked a room at the somewhat dismal LaQuinta Hotel.  This is a chain that, as far as I can tell, is pet tolerant in all their locations.  They aren’t fancy but never seem to have a pet fee nor do they have severe restrictions on size or what rooms are available to travelers with pets.  My sense now is that this was an unfortunate decision for Felix’s first experience of sleeping in a hotel since there was very little space for his bed.  The hotel also had terrible sound transmission issues so there were many disturbances during the night that concerned him and made sleep somewhat challenging for us both.

We had scheduled a meeting with Jan and a stockbroker with whom we both have dealings at a Starbucks in Fort Thomas which Felix and I made just in time.  The afternoon and evening were pleasant and uneventful.  Jan had arranged for a sitter to come to her house to stay with both dogs while we went to dinner.  Felix did fine and apparently enjoyed being around Jan’s Lab.  I am not sure how the Lab felt. . .puppies can be a bit much for adult dogs.

On Friday we got started early but still at a civilized hour and got across the Ohio River and on I-75 North with no delays.  I have found that in many cities, if you are willing to wait until about 9:30 in the morning most of the commuter traffic is gone and you can sail through what would otherwise be traffic-clogged freeways.  Cincinnati seems to have had the freeways under construction for the whole 10 years I have been driving through there to get to Fort Wayne and there was no sign of progress this time.  You have to bounce over uneven pavement, lane changes, deal with huge concrete barriers that barely allow the behemoth trucks that ply this route to get past without sideswiping vehicles on both sides.  I think Cairo is probably the only city I have ever been in that had worse infrastructure but probably some day Cincinnati will finish its endless project.

Dayton is little better.  The only difference is that the roadwork you have to get past to get through Dayton doesn’t cover as large an area, although it seems like it has been there just as long.  Now that I think about it, Jacksonville, FL suffers from this same problem. . .perpetual freeway construction.  I wonder what this is about.

We made it to Fort Wayne in good time and checked into our hotel there, which was a huge improvement over the LaQuinta from the night before.  We stayed at the Homewood Suites Hotel at  I-69 and West Jefferson Blvd.  This, as it turned out, was perfect.  The hotel was much nicer.  To begin with the staff offered to walk Felix to keep him busy while I moved all our crap to the room.  This was a huge help since otherwise he would have either had to wait in the car or the room, and in either case would have been confused and frustrated.

The Homewood Suites room was in fact a suite.  We had a small living room, nice well-equipped kitchen, and a large bedroom and bath.  There was plenty of room for my stuff and Felix’s.  He had a nice spot for his bed in the living room so we were both comfy and I didn’t have to worry about tripping over him if I had to get up in the middle of the night.

It was pretty cold in Fort Wayne while we were there but I had come with appropriate clothes and Felix has a permanent fur coat that keeps him comfortable.  We did a little walking in my old neighborhood and generally had an uneventful visit with my parents.  The couple times we dined out I had another sitter for Felix which worked out well again.  This is the biggest issue with traveling with a young dog.  You really can’t leave them alone.  As long as he has company he doesn’t seem to get into trouble.  He doesn’t bark or whine and isn’t busy devouring furniture or parts of the building in which he is left. 

After three nights I had one more broker meeting on Monday morning in Fort Wayne and then headed to Indianapolis to spend a half day and an evening with my sister Lisa and her husband.  The final drive home on Tuesday turned out to be easier and quicker than I had thought.  Again, part of the trick is avoiding commuter traffic in all cities through which one must pass.  We got around Indianapolis on 465 (which is often no mean feat) and made it onto the surprisingly lightly traveled I-74 heading Southeast toward Cincinnati.  There are two routes from Indianapolis to Asheville that are almost identical in length and over the years I have always gone the way Google maps told me to.  This route has you taking I-65 to Louisville where you then head East to Lexington and then pickup I-75 toward Knoxville.  This time I used my GPS which preferred the route that takes you around Cincinnati and then onto 75 once you have crossed over into Kentucky.  As it turned out, I think this is a better route.  The Louisville route has you crossing the Ohio River on an old bridge that deposits you right in the middle of downtown Louisville.  In my experience, no matter what time you do this you will have traffic issues.  Again there are a lot of trucks to deal with and the infrastructure is old and just not sized for the load currently on it.  Going around (and not through) Cincinnati avoided almost all the urban traffic there and put us on the familiar road South very quickly without delays. 

What was even more significant about this drive was that this time there were no catastrophes to deal with between Berea and the Tennessee border.  I swear this is the first time I have ever done this drive without a single delay.  It was election day and I guess everyone stayed home.

We are now settled into our Fall/Winter existence in Asheville.  Most days the weather is good enough that Felix and I spend a few hours hiking.  On the weekends we try to connect with Matt and his and Amy’s two new dogs Chachi and Joanie.  Those of you who are old enough will know where those names came from.  Felix and I also try to get Bruce and Nora out most weekends with Beckley who is tolerating Felix’s exuberance quite well.  He also calms down more quickly now after the unavoidable explosive first encounter each time we get together.  I live for the day that he doesn’t get excited when he sees people or dogs he wants to see.

Ben Fowler and Ben Zonnevylle will both be in town in the next two weeks and that will be nice.  It will be particularly amusing for Ben F to see Felix.  He was with me on May 23rd the morning I picked Felix up at the Atlanta airport and hasn’t seen him since.  I suspect he will be a little surprised at the size of the puppy now.

So, at this point, I have no travel plans set for this winter and no guests planned after the two Bens.  Could be a quiet season. . .lots of opportunity for work on our obedience training.

November 23rd marked 5 months with Felix and I can say without equivocation that I am glad he is here.  Puppy frustrations notwithstanding, I have to say that the amount of joy I get from having this big sweet affectionate pup around balances out the damage he does to my house and me.  The truth is that I had forgotten some of the details of the difficulties of raising a puppy.  People have always said that the only reason women ever have a second child is that they forget the pain of childbirth.  I think puppyhood is similar.  You have this vague recollection that it is difficult and trying but you tend to forget the details.  We will both get past this period.  Fortunately he is lovable enough that I will, once again, end up forgetting all that he put me through.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Occasionally I feel the need to rant about some perceived injustice or failure that is inflicted on me in daily life and this morning I had another humdinger.  I think it is typical of the reason people hate their cable companies and the reason I hate the very oddly named Charter Communications.  The reason I think the name is odd is that the one thing they consistently fail to be able to do is communicate.

This morning I logged into my account online to pay my monthly bill as I always do but the system wouldn't allow me to get to the online bill pay page.  Each time I tried the link to that page I was returned to the log in page again and again.

Initially I tried to resolve this with an online chat agent who, after 20 minutes had not grasped what the problem was at which time as she was asking me for my service address, the chat session froze and would take no more input.

Then I called customer service.  This is something I have learned to dread because it is so consistently awful but I could see no other choice unless I was willing to drive to their office and stand in line with a bunch of people who were there to argue about why their service was cut off when they hadn't paid their bills in months.  I think they should have a special line for people who aren't deadbeats.

The shockingly condescending Customer Service Agent took quite awhile but eventually said that the system was being "upgraded" and that some things weren't working at this time.  No shit!  Since my bill is due tomorrow and they would charge me a late fee if I didn't pay by then I asked her what she suggested.  She offered that I could go to the office and pay there, pay with their automated system for free, or pay and extra $5 to talk to an operator.  I opted for the free automated system with some dread.

Charter's voice recognition system is one of the worst in the industry from my experience and it took endless repetitions of information and answers to finally get through the process but eventually the credit card I offered was accepted.  Once a confirmation number was given the automated voice asked if there was anything else I needed.  I said no and was transferred to a customer satisfaction survey consisting of 5 questions.

This was my favorite part.  Here I was almost an hour into trying to pay my bill and the first question asked was about the degree of competence and professionalism of the agent.  You are given the choice of 1-5 with 5 excellent and 1 awful.  I chose 1 and the system immediately want to the old rapid busy signal.  "Perfect", I thought.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My friends Ann and Bowers were here for a brief but very busy and fun visit a week or so ago.  On their last full day we did a little excursion up to Craggy Pinnacle and did the short hike to the top (elevation 6,100 feet) since at that altitude the weather is much milder than it is in town.  This was one of the pictures I took of them with Felix, who is a growing boy.  People keep asking me about why I don't have more pictures of him but it is because 5 month old puppies rarely stay in one position long enough to get a picture and it is particularly challenging if the person taking the shot is also trying to hold onto the puppy in question.

At his last weight he was up to 61 pounds. . .getting bigger almost while I look at him.  He is still a very sweet boy.  He likes just about everyone and has a good time no matter when we go or what we do.  Lucky me.

I just turned off Frank Stasio’s interview with Sarah Creech, a young novelist, that he did on today’s episode of The State of Things and was, once again, horrified by the tendency of people who are otherwise seemingly intelligent, making themselves sound like idiots because of a speech pattern.

Ms Creech answered every single question posed to her by beginning her response with the word “so”.  I noticed the explosive growth of this speech pattern about 6 months ago and have found it very annoying.  These people sound like the Valley Girls of the 80s who were so successfully ridiculed by Moon Zappa in her song of the same name that some young women actually stopped talking like that.

Ms Creech exacerbated the impression that she is of this ilk by demonstrating her use of up-talking. . .the tendency to finish every sentence with an upward inflection as if she were asking a question.  The combination of these two traits is lethal, in my opinion.  Part way through the interview I found her so annoying that I turned the program off.  Since she was there to promote her book, it is unfortunate that she managed to lose at least one potential reader by sounding so infantile that I couldn’t imagine her writing is worthwhile.

To be clear, I am not picking on Ms Creech.  These two tendencies in speech are pervasive at this point although the dramatic nature of the “so”-speakers sudden appearance on the public airwaves has surprised me.  Up speech has been around for years, and while irritating, doesn’t, for some reason, make the speaker sound as ignorant as those who begin every answer with “so”.  I realize that English, like no doubt most languages, is fluid, but it doesn’t mean we have to accept each and every trend, regardless of how stupid it makes the speaker sound.


Okay.  That is my rant.  I have always appreciated the sort of yin and yang in life and in keeping with that I think it is time to post a rave as well.  To my utter amazement this time the rave is for a large member of corporate America. 

I have had a Capital One credit card (with Abner’s picture on it) for many years.  It is one of those cash back cards I read about once when I was shopping for a credit card.  It has no annual fee and rewards are paid in cash without an annual limit and with no restrictions whatever regarding when you redeem your refund.  If you have $122.68 in the account you don’t have to wait until it is exactly $150 to redeem (like you do with Wells Fargo’s card) or other nonsense.  They also allow you simply to apply it as a credit toward your bill on any month that you want to.

Anyway, I have always appreciated the simplicity of this card and its use and generally, as soon as I get an e-bill from Capital One with the amount due and the due date I log into my online bill pay service and set up the payment for a date that will pay it very close to the due date without going past.  This way I don’t pay interest or late fees.

A month ago I got my bill and it said the due date which would have required payment to leave my account on July 27th to post on time in my Capital One account.  Inadvertently though, I entered the payment to go out on August 27th instead of July.  Two days after the due date I got an email from Capital One politely asking if I forgot to make a payment.  Horrified, I looked up the account in both the Capital One website and my online banking website and realized what I had done.

In the past, when dealing with other credit card companies, and in particular the odious Citi card system, I realized that if you are even one day late, they charge you a late fee as well as interest for the previous month and for the next month.  Then if you pay it off completely you get hit with yet another interest charge because the payment you sent in in month two didn’t include the interest they would charge for that month.  In the end, the only way you can stop this cycle once it has started is to get a quote from customer service as to the exact amount due on the day you talk to them, including interest to date, and pay it with a direct bank draft that day.  Then you put the card away for one complete billing cycle so nothing can be charged on it for which they can compute interest, even for a partial month.  That way you end up starting over as if it were a new account.

I called Capital One with every intention of following this plan but to my surprise the extremely pleasant young man who answered my call said that it wouldn’t’ be necessary.  He said he would be happy to waive the late fee and as long as I authorized him to debit the past due amount from my bank account, the only interest I would have to pay would be the interest due to that date.  That way I didn’t have to stop using the card.

At a certain point I thought I would have to go to the emergency room because  of the heart attack that would no doubt come from being treated well and generously from a large American bank without asking or demanding it.  I can’t remember any similar experience with the banking sector in the US.  As a rule you talk to people in call centers in India, Bangladesh, the Philippines or similar whom you can barely understand and who very obsequiously tell you there is nothing they can do to help you and that if you want to avoid interest charges you really have to cancel the account and start over.  This experience with Capital One came as such as surprise that I feel like I need to thank them publicly for such a small but generous and reasonable act.  Little things like this are the kinds of actions that breed brand loyalty.  If more American Corporations realized this and acted accordingly I suspect they would be in better shape and their customers would be far more content and loyal.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

This photo is from last weekend when Felix and I took Alanna Nappi out for her birthday.  We were waiting for a table at Sunnypoint which was crowded with its usual lunch/brunch crowd.  Felix was far more patient than I was since everything was interesting from his perspective.
Every Saturday morning I get up and go into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.  Lately I have started with a quick trip outside with Felix since he spends 8 or more hours in his crate overnight, and while not desperate, needs to relieve his bladder first thing in the morning.

Once we finish that I usually walk into the kitchen, hang his leash, turn on the radio, which is always on NPR, and put food in his bowl, which he usually ignores for awhile.  Finally, at that point, I turn on the coffee machine and wait for it to warm up so I can have my first cup.

The thing that makes Saturday morning special for me is that Selected Shorts is always on NPR when I turn the radio on.  This is one of my favorite programs that NPR offers and for any of you who have never heard it, you really should check it out.  What it usually consists of is a host-Parker Posey and David Sedaris have lately been frequently fulfilling this role since the death of founder Isaiah Sheffer- and a variety of talented actors who read short stories in front of live audiences, usually in New York or Los Angeles.

Today when I turned the radio on I was immediately hooked by the gorgeous voice of the amazing John Lithgow, who is in my opinion, one of the best readers this program has.  Today he was reading a story about a dog walker in New York and before it was over I was reduced to tears while putting creamer in my coffee.

As most of you know, Abner died on September 27th 2012 at the age of 10 years and two months and while Felix has occupied a big place in my life in the 6 weeks we have now been together, I suspect nothing will ever reduce my missing Abner.  I think that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime relationships that most people have with other people, and I had with a dog.  During the reading of the story, close to the end, the narrator mentions that when a dog is put down he quietly closes his eyes and lowers his head to his paws.  In Abner’s case, since our vet gave him a drug that induced sleep, it happened in the back of my car and his head dropped, just as described, gently to my lap.  I think I am doomed to have this image seared into my memory for all time, and hearing this gentle description today reminded me of how desperately I still miss Abner.

 The above picture is of Felix on his first trip to the summit of Craggy Pinnacle on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The photo below is of Abner in one of his favorite conditions. . .lying in the cool cushiony embrace of ivy. . . with a big smile on his face.

Monday, June 09, 2014

As I write this it is June 1, 2014 and I am 9 days into being the responsible parent for an 11 week old Great Pyrenees puppy named Felix.  I did, however, take one last trip before Felix arrived.

At the end of April, I once again climbed into my heavily packed Volkwagen Touareg TDI with a full tank of diesel and at a very early hour on April 30th I left for the long drive to Ithaca, NY.  According to Google maps it was supposed to take 11 hours and 25 minutes under normal circumstances but according to and the National Weather Service, I was in for anything but normal circumstances.  In fact, the weather was predicted to be so bad that I actually considered leaving at 9:00 the night before when I finished packing the car.  My thought was to drive as far into Virginia as I could before collapsing at a hotel somewhere around Roanoke.  In the end I was just too tired so I went to bed and got up before dawn on Wednesday.

I left roughly when I had expected to and the weather wasn’t great but really there was no rain or wind, which had been predicted in copious amounts.  I drove up I-26 into Tennessee and then got onto I-81 north toward West VA, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes region of New York.  This particular route is becoming almost painfully familiar to me in view of the number of times I have driven it since 2011 when I bought the ill-fated Earthbound Trailer (the rolling turd that many of you have already had to read about).  Remarkably though the weather held up almost the whole drive.  I had decided to leave 81 near Harrisburg, PA and head North to Ithaca on US Highways and State routes just to vary the drive a bit.  The only place I encountered any rain at all was for about an hour when I was perhaps 20 miles West of Harrisburg, and it was gone by the time I made it to Corning, NY.

The approach into Ithaca from the Southwest is actually more rewarding than coming from the East as one would coming from I-81 but I had forgotten this in the 40+ years since I had been on that road.  As I was heading into Ithaca the sun was low but shining and as I descended the hill down into downtown Ithaca I was reminded how beautiful the geography of the hills in this are is.

I had talked with my niece Amanda on the way and had confirmed that she and husband Tom had already made plans for the evening but she recommended a restaurant that was walking distance from the hotel I had booked on Priceline.

I checked into the hotel and at that point the drive had, in fact, been about 11.25 hours but that included lunch and pee stops as well as refueling.  Not bad for a day that was supposed to be a true horror.  Nonetheless, I was fairly tired and decided to walk to the restaurant, have a nice dinner, and then go back to my room to crash so I would be in decent condition to spend the day with Amanda on Thursday.

The restaurant is called Agava and it was quite a pleasant surprise.  Because I was by myself I was seated at a small bar area that faced their pizza oven.  This was fine with me for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, when I am by myself on trips like this one I prefer to be in a quiet inconspicuous corner of the restaurant.  I usually take something to read which encourages others not to try to engage me in chit-chat.  Possibly more significantly though was that this evening I was showing signs of a potentially nasty cold and featured, among other charming symptoms, the secretion of what seemed like green glue from the areas around my eyes.  It got to the point where I could barely see there was so much of this goo on my eyes.  My lids tended to almost stick to each other because my lashes were completely coated in this disgusting discharge.  I felt very conspicuous every time the server came by since I could only imagine what I must have looked like.

I will not go into detail about Agava other than to say that in spite of feeling like absolute crap on toast, I had a terrific dinner there and highly recommend the place if you find yourself in Ithaca.

After dinner I walked back to my room, did the best I could to clean the gook off my eyes and hunkered down for the night.

Thursday morning I got up, went to the breakfast room of the hotel for a light breakfast (mostly coffee) that was included with the price of the room.  Then I cleaned myself up as much as I could and dressed for the day at Cornell.  Fortunately, even though I didn’t look all that great with this semi-cold I had seemingly come down with at the worst time, I wasn’t feeling terribly bad.

Amanda and I met on campus and spent the day at the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, the Johnson Museum of Art, and a number of other spots on campus.  I hadn’t seen the new building at the College since during my last visit in June of 2011 it was still under construction, and the same was true of the large, mostly subterranean expansion of the Johnson Museum.  Amanda teaches at Cornell but has spent little time around the Architectural school so touring the new building, talking to students who were finishing project before the end of the spring term, and meeting one of the directors of the model lab who showed us all the very sophisticated toys the students get to use was really a treat. 

We stopped a couple times during the day for coffee and lunch and took a break to allow me to have a meeting with the director of undergraduate admissions at the College.

By the end of the afternoon I was feeling like I needed to deal with this cold before it got too bad and ruined my trip.  After all, this was really on the second day of 10 and I didn’t relish the idea of wheezing and dripping all over the Northeast.  After a brief stop at the University Health Services building we took their advice and went to an Urgent Care clinic that was quite close to where Tom and Amanda are renting a house.  I was somewhat unfamiliar with this kind of facility but was very impressed.  It was in a shopping center next door to a Chipotle Grill, and was a perfectly pleasant place.  When I walked in there was only one woman ahead of me.  I sat in the comfortable waiting area and filled out paperwork.  Before I could even finish someone came to escort me to an exam room and within probably less than 5 minutes a very young doctor appeared.  She asked me all the appropriate questions about my symptoms, checked vital signs, listened carefully to my recent medical history, and prescribed an oral antibiotic for 10 days as well as antibiotic eye drops to deal with the infection in my eyes.

The whole process took at most 20 minutes and then I went a half mile down the road to Rite-Aid to get the prescriptions filled.  I paid nothing for the medical care since they bill Medicare and my supplementary policy, and the pharmacy deeply discounted the drugs because of my Medicare Drug Plan.  I was stunned by how easy, pleasant and effective this treatment ended up being.   I started using the two prescriptions that night and got progressively better over the next 48 hours, so by the time I was hiking in New Hampshire I felt fine.

That evening we had a really nice dinner with Tom at Mercato in Downtown Ithaca and then called it a night since I had a pretty decent day’s drive ahead of me to get to Jackson, New Hampshire, where Rob and Carolyn are now living.

Friday morning I was able to hit the road by around 9:00ish which for me, on vacation, was pretty good.  The drive from Ithaca to Jackson involves a lot of back country driving.  The roads from Ithaca to I-88 are mostly 2-lane rural roads through small towns.  There is a lot of truck traffic everywhere so often you simply cannot make very good time.  Eventually I made it to the freeway which took me to Albany.  From there you head a bit North where you pick up another decent but smallish highway to Vermont.  The route then cuts across Vermont almost to its Eastern border and then you follow that Northward until a cutoff that takes you over to the area around Pinkham Notch and on into Jackson.

With all this driving it was around 5:00 when I made it to the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson where I had booked a room for the 4 nights I would be in the area.  This was a fairly last-minute change from my intention to stay at the Kearsarge Inn in North Conway again as I had when I was in the area in January.  The wisdom of that changed though when Rob told me that he and Carolyn would have moved to Jackson by the time of my visit.  Without knowing much about the area I booked at Eagle Mountain solely on the basis of what I could find on the Internet.  As it turned out, this was the perfect choice.

The Eagle Mountain House has been a functioning inn for more than 130 years.  It is a large old wooden structure that sits on the flank of the mountain for which it is named.   On the grounds across the street from the hotel is their beautiful rolling golf course.  Views are quite impressive in most directions.

The first night I was in a room that shared a couple walls with the ancient but still working elevator.  This is the kind of elevator that has outer doors operated by hand, and an inside scissors gate, also hand operated.  The elevator cab won’t move without both inner and outer barriers closed.  What is more significant though is that when the inner gate is opened a very annoying high-pitched alarm goes off and doesn’t stop until it is closed.  Since the elevator is used by people moving their luggage up to and back down from the guest rooms, it gets a lot of use, particularly when people are checking in and out.

As it happened there were both a wedding and a high school reunion at the hotel the weekend I arrived so the place was packed and busy.  After one night of listening to the elevator I decided that a different room might be nice.  The very accommodating staff arranged for me to move to a room on the top floor at the very North end of the building.   This was great.  It was quiet, large and comfortable and had beautiful views of Eagle Mountain and Carter Notch.

The first night I met Rob and Carolyn in the village of Jackson itself for a nice dinner at a place they used to frequent for their pasta feeds during the winter.  In spite of having seen them about 4 months earlier it seemed like there were a million things to talk about so dinner was pleasant and busy.

I managed a reasonably decent night’s sleep in spite of the elevator and in the morning, met Rob for coffee and the first of our hikes.  For starters we took the trail that starts directly behind the inn and goes to the summit of Eagle Mountain.  I will include some photos from this spot, but suffice it to say it was quite rewarding.  The weather was stunning and as usual it felt good to be out hiking again.  Since Abner died my best hiking has been when I go see Rob.  He is so stimulated by natural surroundings in these various gorgeous places where he works that he becomes a great guide and companion on these outings.  The fact that he is 40 years my junior usually means that he makes me work. . .pushing my envelope a bit.

After our usual lunch to resupply our energy level (ok. . .mine) we did an afternoon hike followed by dinner with Carolyn that night and the excellent White Mountain Cider Company.

On Sunday Carolyn decided that she was going to devote her day to getting their new digs set up so Rob took me to the Kancamagus highway for a couple hikes in widely varied weather.  The first hike in the morning was a nature loop that was quite popular with other hikers and dogs.  It was very pretty and had a number of examples of growth and forest development that helped clarify how the evolution of forests works.  Since Rob and Carolyn both work for a program called Mountain Classroom, these are people who are well versed in the details of the nature through which we were walking.  I always go away from my hikes with Rob with a great deal more information than I had at the beginning.

Lunch was at a brewpub in Lincoln and then in the afternoon we hiked to Franconia Falls.  This hike is about an 8 mile round trip but the slope is mostly so gradual you barely feel the rise.  It follows a couple of rivers that were flowing copiously when we were there.  Eventually you get to the top of the falls at which point we turned around and went back.  I gather the trail continues a great distance but, of course, unless one makes arrangements to be picked up later (as Rob does when he goes on these really long runs of his) you are kind of screwed if you decide to keep going.  It rained lightly on and off during the hike so we got a little wet although we were both geared up in what were advertised to be waterproof togs.

That evening there was a pot luck dinner with a lot of people at Rob and Carolyn’s new home.  I made it a relatively early night after dinner and chat with a few of the other guests.

Monday was back to work for Rob and Carolyn so I headed off hiking a couple of recommended routes near the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center where Mountain Classroom operates.  These were really pleasant and, importantly, reminded me that within reason, I can enjoy hiking solo.  I miss the companionship Abner always provided but new beautiful places are pretty stimulating even when you have to enjoy them by yourself.

By mid afternoon I was finished with my two hikes so I grabbed some lunch and headed to North Conway to hit the outlet mall.  This is not exactly a pleasant way to spend the afternoon from my perspective but I have dropped about 30 pounds since late December and was in desperate need from some clothes that fit.

After that, I headed back to the Eagle Mountain House, cleaned up, and waited for Rob to appear for our last dinner.  Carolyn worked late on Monday and couldn’t join us so we went into North Conway, had a great pizza dinner and Rob even got me to try another beer which, I have to admit, I liked.

We said our goodbyes back at the hotel since Rob was planning a fairly early departure for work in the morning.  I packed up as much as possible, read The Goldfinch (the book I brought on this trip and was really into by my 5th night) for awhile, and got a good night’s sleep on my final night in New Hampshire.

I have to recommend visiting the area of the White Mountains if you have the opportunity.  Of course seeing this place with friends who really know their way around is very helpful but having now visited once in the winter and once in spring, I am a big fan.

Tuesday morning I got started around 10:00 in the morning and decided to alter my route to Boston.  The previous time I had just followed the GPS instructions and got there but parts of the drive were kind of unpleasant due to bridge construction and also the necessity of driving into Boston on surface streets through some less than attractive neighborhoods.

This time I decided I would head Southwest from Conway, eventually hitting I-93 in Southern New Hampshire, and then taking that route into Central Boston.  As it turned out, this route took me around the amazingly picturesque Lake Winnipesaukee of Mitt Romney vacation fame.  I have to admit that I could see the appeal.  It does look the kind of place very rich white people would flock to.  The village I drove through had that old New England picturesque look with small cute shops and real estate office.  I had no real reason to stop since I had brought leftover pizza from the previous night’s dinner to have for lunch later on, but I was glad I got to see the place.


The drive into Boston was uneventful in other respects until I was downtown and trying to follow the GPS instructions.  This is one place where sometimes this device is of little value.  Boston, particularly in the very old central parts, is a labyrinth of streets, often with changing names, that are actually quite small and close to each other.  What kept happening was that the GPS couldn’t keep up quickly enough with where I was and didn’t give me instructions in time for me to follow them.  Eventually I just pulled over, let it catch up and figure out where the hell I was, and then develop a way to get me to my hotel, The Boxer.


When I booked this room on Priceline, it indicated that this was a 4-star hotel on Beacon Hill which sounded great online.  As is the case with most of the downtown hotels, parking is very costly and is in separate garages, either by valet or self park.  I had decided that for practical reasons I would spend the extra $8 per day on valet so I could get the car when I needed to.  The self park arrangements, unlike at the Revere where I stayed in January, are a bit more distant from the hotel and do not allow you to take the car in and out.


When I found the front of the hotel there was a generous valet parking slot curbside and I pulled in.  It took a little while but the valet did appear and ran through the options with me.  The one very odd part of all this was that the valet parking service isn’t offered after 11:00PM or before 7:00AM.  What this meant was that if I decided to drive somewhere for dinner and would be coming back late, I was out of luck on getting parked in the garage they use.


I decided to do it anyway because I had enough crap I had to get to the hotel room that I didn’t want to deal with moving the car after unloading and reversing the process when I was checking out. 


I went to check in and was told that I was an hour early.  This really pissed me off since I had called before leaving Asheville to find out some of the parameters of staying at The Boxer.  At that time the assistant manager on duty told me that check-in was at 2:00 or later, and since it was about 2:15 I was expecting to be able to go right up.  The lobby is rather small and there is no place to store luggage while you wait for a room so I was a little flummoxed by this turn of events.  All my stuff ended up in a pile in the lobby and I had to stick around to guard it while I waited for a room.


In the end they found one relatively quickly so the wait wasn’t as long as predicted but it was an inauspicious start.


The Boxer is an interesting place but I suspect will only appeal to a small niche clientele.  The room I had was a handicap-accessible one on the 8th floor (of 9) and all of 3 feet from the elevator.  The room itself is small, with no closet or dresser space at all.  I gather this is the general approach the designers took when doing the extensive remodel of the old Bullfinch Hotel, from which The Boxer was created.


Rooms are very attractive and contemporary and on the top two floors have rather large windows.  Due to the handicap access requirements I also had a rather large bathroom, albeit with a shower you can roll a wheelchair into that consequently has no curb and does not retain water well.  I did a lot of mopping up outside the shower after every use.


There is a nice desk for sitting down to use a computer or tablet and the free wifi worked quite well.  The bed was absolutely wonderful and fulfilled my sleep needs very well.  The lack of any storage space to speak of makes it very hard to use these rooms in a very tidy manner.  There is hanging space but it is completely exposed.  With only one drawer below it, there is not really an easy way to store ones other things so you are pretty much relegated to putting luggage on top of whatever horizontal surface you can find and living out of your bags.  Since I was there only for two nights it wasn’t that bad but I was only one person and for only two days.  I can’t imagine what a mess it would have been with two people and/or more days.  To me this place would be perfect for someone coming into town to see sporting event at the Garden around the corner or go to the theater a few blocks away.  For a single night with only one change of clothes this place might be perfect.


As a rule, aside from the woman who checked me in, staff were very nice people.  Service was uneven but not for lack of effort.  There is a bar/restaurant on the ground floor that, like everything else in the place, is small with a modest menu but is very pleasant and serves very good food and drink.


My big adventures in Boston were mostly on day two.  It was a gorgeous day and I walked all over the place.  From the hotel I walked to ICA Boston (institute of Contemporary Art) whose building was extensively publicized when it opened.  I am glad I got to see it but was decidedly unimpressed.  The building is one of those done by starchitects that while dramatic and in some ways intriguing, strikes me as very self-indulgent and gimmicky.  There is a particularly odd element that hangs down from a large cantilevered upper floor that contains a stepped down room with a bunch of computers in it that apparently is supposed to allow public access to certain data the Institute has.  This was very contrived.  It aims your view to a flat expanse of water in Boston harbor (you literally see nothing but water in the very large window that spans the bottom of the room).  The whole idea of having it step down might have made sense if there actually were a view everyone would want to see but there isn’t.  Furthermore it is completely inaccessible to anyone with a movement disability.  It seems to only succeed in looking like some odd rectangular goiter hanging under the mass of the upper part of the building.


This structure was a project of Diller Scofidio + Renfro who have been quite infamous lately for their participation in the destruction by the New York Museum of Modern Art of the adjacent Museum of American Folk Art.  Seeing this building in the flesh makes me even more contemptuous of their support of this inexcusable loss of an important piece of contemporary architecture.  Like Daniel Liebeskind, I think this practice is guilty of believing that they know better than everyone else what should be built.  To me this building is another example of the emperor having no clothes.

In the afternoon I returned to the Charlestown Naval Yard which I had visited as a child in the early 60s.  This is where Old Ironsides (the USS Constitution) is berthed and open to public touring.  I had enjoyed it as a child and did even more so as an adult.  Several decks of this grand old wooden tall warship are open for touring and the navy keeps plenty of personnel on board to give detailed information about the ship and how everything on it was used when it was a major element of the navy.  This ship played a major role in the War of 1812 and has been retained and lovingly cared for ever since.

Dinner that night was in the hotel and it was excellent, as I mentioned earlier.

The drive home from Boston is certainly more than I wanted to cram into a day so at a certain point I started looking at stopping somewhere around the mid-point of the trip.  Then I remembered that an old college roommate of mine whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years lives in Baltimore.  Thanks to the Internet and his comparative fame in his chosen field, I was able to track him down.

The visit was brief. . .just and evening and overnight, but interesting and fun.  Matt has changed so little in 40 years that it was almost eerie.  Of course everyone goes through physical changes over that period of time but the person I visited seemed largely the same as when we had last seen each other in our young adulthood and at the beginning of our careers.  He lives in a lovely old house in an area of Baltimore that abuts Johns Hopkins University.  His house is filled with art that reflects pretty much the same tastes he had already refined when we were in college together.  He is still soft spoken and modest but charming in a quiet sort of way and in spite of getting older I would probably have recognized his face anywhere.

The next morning I began the somewhat long drive home.  Leaving the Baltimore and Washington urban areas is not easy but I escaped relatively unscathed once I got past Arlington and Alexandria Virginia.  What I hadn’t counted on was the virtual impossibility of refueling in Reston.  For those who don’t know it, Reston was a planned city in the 60s that exemplifies almost everything bad about these places.  It is heavily landscaped so you can almost never actually see any of the endless office parks and shopping centers that line the long, wide featureless streets.  It is very disorienting and make finding anything almost impossible.

I got off at a major Reston exit and literally was driving around, stopping and asking for directions, and slowly running out of diesel for 20 minutes at this one exit before I finally succeeded in finding a service station about 2-3 miles from where I had gotten off that had the combination of working pumps, a connection with the credit card reader that worked, and diesel for sale.  I had been by several shopping centers, countless office parks and apartment/condo complexes, and junk food restaurants and was desperately eager to get back on the freeway.

After that escape though the drive home was pretty easy.  Because of the aforementioned familiarity with I-81, much of which is unavoidable, I bailed at I-77, drove to Statesville, NC and then came up to Asheville on I-40 which delivered me almost to my front door and probably didn’t make the trip 3 minutes longer.  Sometimes risking something the GPS doesn’t encourage is more than worth it just for variety.

So after 10 days, probably close to 3,000 miles, a slight cold and reunions with two friends I had seen 4 months earlier and two whom I had not seen in many years, I made it home with 2 weeks to prepare for the arrival of my new puppy.

Most people who read this blog are aware of the life I led with Abner and the blow I sustained when he developed bone cancer and ultimately died in 2012.  20 months had elapsed between Abner’s death and the long awaited arrival of Felix.  For the longest time I just didn’t feel like I could even consider having another dog around because my feelings of loss were still too raw.  I also had to deal with recovering from a complex spinal fusion surgery I had two weeks after losing Abner, and the subsequent return of the pain that necessitated it.  I was left feeling like I was never really going to get over losing Abner when I met Janet Ingram, a Pyrenees breeder who lives in Radford, VA. 

Last summer, on the return drive to Asheville after visiting Rob in Seneca Rocks, WV I stopped in Radford to meet Janet and her 14 Pyrs.  As you can imagine, it was quite bittersweet.  I was surrounded by all these big affectionate (or in a couple cases, completely uninterested) beasts and a lot of the feelings I had held for Abner returned vividly to my consciousness.  I was sad and elated at the same time.  Janet related to me that in all the years she has bred and lived with Pyrs she has had many dogs she has loved deeply but none so much as one she had in the 1990s.  What she said was that based on her experience, it is possible that I will never get over losing Abner.  This doesn’t mean that I cannot get a great deal of pleasure out of having another dog in my life, but it is possible I will not feel the magic connection I had before.

In the end, I decided she was right and started the process of trying to get a dog.  I will not belabor that whole story again.  Most of you know that there have been a number of false starts in my attempts, since August, to find a new puppy.  In any case, that is now all history.

Felix arrived in Atlanta at dawn on May 23rd after flying overnight from San Diego.  There are a lot of rules about transporting live animals and in the end, it turns out the only way you can come close to complying is to put them on a red-eye.  Even then, Delta, the airline I have hated above all others for about the last 10 years or so, managed to almost screw up this transfer.  On the day Felix was supposed to fly, Kim Lasley, the breeder from whom I got both Abner and Felix, called the airline to confirm the time and circumstances of checking the dog in for his flight.  The plan was for him to travel as extra baggage in tandem with Kim’s daughter who was traveling to Pensacola, FL to visit her boyfriend.

Delta informed Kim that they imposed a moratorium on flying animals that started on May 15th.  This was, of course, typical of Delta.  They had sold tickets, taken money, and booked both Kim’s daughter’s transportation and Felix’s without ever saying a word about terminating the service a week before his scheduled departure.  There was also no word about it on the pages of their website relating to the transport of live pets.

She ended up spending almost the whole day arguing with and then being transferred by various Delta employees and departments until she extracted an agreement that allowed him to fly on the same itinerary (but of course for considerably more money) as cargo. 

Finally on the morning of the 23rd, after spending the night as the guest of Ben Fowler and his father and step-mom, I headed to the airport, with Ben riding shotgun, to pick up my as yet unnamed puppy.

We arrived about 30 minutes after the flight had landed but the crate hadn’t made it to Delta’s cargo terminal so I drank coffee and looked at email on my phone killing time for the big arrival.  When Felix finally did show up he appeared to be curious about what was going on but not particularly distressed or frazzled by the experience of being in an airline kennel for more than 5 hours.

Without a whole lot of ceremony we left the cargo terminal and made the 20 minute drive back to Ben’s house.  Once there we took the pup out and hung out on the porch with him just so he could get kind of stable.  He drank some water, ate some food, and promptly barfed on Ben’s front porch.  Following a quick cleanup we decided that perhaps it would wise to take him to the park across the street to walk a bit and perhaps a quick pee and poo.

Many of the early morning joggers were smitten with this cute ball of fluff after which Ben made a comment that I will not repeat here but it pertained to Felix’s appeal to women.  We stayed in the park for perhaps 15 minutes and then headed back to finish coffee, pack up my car, put the puppy back in his kennel for the drive to Asheville, and head out.

The trip home was uneventful although Felix did pee in the crate once.  Once we got to Asheville though, we started the complicated dance of a puppy and his new surrogate parent getting to know each other.  What I will tell you is that for the first 12 hours or so, I was pretty much panicking that I had made a huge mistake and that I would never bond well with this puppy.  He wasn’t Abner and I felt no magic.  I think I have probably gone through some version of this emotional turmoil when I got Harvey and again with Abner, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I would panic at first with Felix.

The first night didn’t improve things much.  Felix was OK until bed time and was definitely not pleased about being crated even 5 feet away from me.  The Monks of New Skete recommend tethering the pup to one’s bed but that really wasn’t an option for me so I went with the airline kennel in which he had flown.  He cried and whined and then barked when he didn’t get the desired response.  Initially I gave him verbal corrections as recommended and when that didn’t work I tried the abrupt noise (bang on the top of the cage).  Amazingly enough that worked and he stayed quiet for a couple hours. 

For the first 5 days or so he had to get up somewhere between every 1 and 45 minutes and 3 hours but then the nights started getting longer.  He almost immediately was able to increase the time to 6 hours and for the last few nights (he is no longer sleeping in my bedroom as he appears to prefer the kitchen) he has gone 7-1/2 to 8 hours in the crate without so much as a peep and no mess inside.  He still occasionally gets lazy and pees in the house without noticeably asking to go out but that is rare.

As day two rolled around my panic abated somewhat as Felix’s charm began to emerge and by Sunday night I was quite taken with him.  I had been agonizing since before his arrival over names and just couldn’t make any of them work.  Then I watched an HBO movie with a character named Felix and suddenly I realized that was the name I was looking for.

We started puppy preschool last Thursday and I wouldn’t say it was a huge success.  He was a little intimidated by the other puppies in spite of being the largest one there.  He didn’t really understand how they were playing and it really put him off.  He spent most of the time hiding under a chair or behind an adult human.  The people who run these classes say this is common the first time and not to worry about it .

So. . .things are slowly evolving toward something that might be mistaken for normal life, whatever that is.  More news of these transitions will follow in other postings.