Friday, November 11, 2011

My Visit to a Tormented Penn State

By now you have heard of the child molestation scandal at Penn State. Quite honestly, it's been hard to avoid lately. It seems that everywhere I've looked in the last few days the only thing that anyone wanted to talk about has been the victims, coaches or about who was or wasn't getting fired. This isn't surprising considering that I was recently in State College, PA.

During my time there I saw quite a bit while trying to make sense of it all, and it hasn't been easy. I'd like to share with you my experiences and thoughts on the matter.

When I arrived at Penn State, the scandal was all that I heard about while walking across campus, eating dinner and riding to the hotel in a taxi. There was a single news van on College Avenue not far from some my favorite haunts. Having been here several times before, this news van seemed out of place, but I understood the necessity of it. I saw a group of protesting students discussing how best to occupy a public space in order to gain support for the firing of university president Graham Spanier. I heard one of the protesters mention that he was in it for the long haul. They were all gone the following morning.

I saw the same news van that was present the day before as I ducked into my favorite coffee shop (The Cheese Shop). The normally crowded place was packed, and the patrons discussed the scandal at length as I fixed my morning coffee. While there was a sense of general interest, it wasn't as charged as the attitude that was soon to unfold.

That day head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired over the phone. This is the most beloved football coach who, based on my discussions these last few days, seemed more like a mythical father figure than a mere man. He even has his own ice cream flavor at the Penn State (Peachy Paterno). When you mention Paterno, the emotions run fondly and swiftly. Needless to say, the decision to fire Joe was not a popular one. Rumors of the imminent firing of Spanier circulated, but this took a back seat to news of the head coach not being allowed to finish out the season on his own terms.

I tried to keep my work on track the best that I could, and ended up insulating my group from some of the fervor. This ended up causing the impending riot to be more of a surprise than it otherwise might have been.

At about 10:30 I am awoken to what sounds like fireworks going off along with some shouting. This continued intermittently until 10:42 when I got up to check the news. Sure enough, the news had just been announced that Graham Spanier was fired. I thought nothing more of this until I work up the next morning and turned on the news. It turns out that the "fireworks" that I heard were most likely some sort of pepper spray grenade or other crowd control device.

A large group of students had occupied College Avenue, tore down street lights/street signs and even toppled over that news van. All of this was going on a half block from my hotel room. That morning's trip to The Cheese Shop was a little different: the news vans had multiplied overnight, and the talk was of an entirely different tone.

Some blamed the media which had called for swift and decisive action in response to allegations of child molestation. Others blamed the board for making a rash decision. Sentiments such as "What did they expect from the student body?" and "They should have known this was going to happen" were common.

Outside of State College, I heard that the reaction to the rioting students was not nearly as empathetic. When there are bigger issues to address, such as the economy, an emotional battle that you aren't linked to is hard to understand. Being present for these events, but not being a local has me caught in the middle. While there are much bigger problems in the world, changing most of them seem out of reach for most of us. What can one really do within the course of a few days in regards to the economy? With a local issue there is much more focus, so change seems more tangible.

Perhaps this local scandal is giving students and residents something real to focus on. They know the people involved and they live in the community. By focusing on the local problem, they can ignore the more daunting global problems for a while. It just may be a form of escapism which, considering the state of the world, I find completely justifiable.

The final home game at PSU is this Saturday and there is talk of students charging the field in protest. I sincerely hope that this doesn't happen, and I'm wishing all of my friends and acquaintances in the area a safe and peaceful weekend.
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Taking a break from Blogging

Currently, I have too many important projects going on in my life. While I love blogging, I'm going to have to take a break from it for a while. I don't know how long this break will be, but I don't expect for this to be a permanent change.

Thank you for your loyalty, I hope to be back once things settle down.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'd Rather be Safe Than Dead

On a recent flight home, I ran across some truly ugly behavior. I hope that pointing out this behavior will help others to realize their folly.

I had arrived and checked in with plenty of time to make my flight. I always like to err on the side of being too early rather than slightly late as it really ruins my day when I miss my first flight. At check in, I was gently informed that due to a late arrival the night before, the crew was going to be about 30 minutes late. This was because FAA regulations stipulate that a crew must get a certain amount of rest before serving on another flight the next day.

I've known about this regulation for some time, but the way that it was presented made me suspect that other travelers that had checked in that morning were less than understanding on this point.

Personally, I'd much rather have my flight crew be well rested than to have them be groggy when it comes to air travel. It's amazing that commercial air travel even happens at all, so if I need to be a little late for safety's sake so be it. Sure I might miss my connecting flight and get home a few hours later, but when it comes down to it I'd rather be safe than dead.

Once the 30 minutes came and went, an announcement came over the speakers. It was a courtesy message letting us know that two members of the crew were further delayed due to a taxi not showing up.

I know that anything can happen when you travel, so none of this phased me. I wish I could say the same thing of my fellow travelers. That poor gate agent was bombarded with complaints. Some of these were to his face and others were just audible amongst the travelers in the terminal. People were reacting as if the gate agent had personally delayed the crew, and they wanted to hold him responsible.

"How dare you delay my flight?"
"Don't you know that I've got someplace to be?"
"I bet he made last night's flight late!"

Haven't these people ever heard of not shooting the messenger? Seriously, this guy was just trying to keep us all informed. As far as I could tell, there wasn't a line of people pounding on his desk asking for an update, so he could have easily not said anything and saved himself grief by not updating us.

He did the right thing by giving us an update, and I appreciate that. Honestly, I don't know how this guy does it. I've seen a lot of poor behavior while traveling, but gate agents seem to get the burnt of the wrath of irritated travelers.

I've had to depend on gate agents often when a flight gets canceled or I miss a flight due to delays, and they've always been helpful as long as I am respectful, ask for help nicely and remain reasonable in regards to my expectations. I've met some exceptional gate agents who are able to get their flights down the jetway in an orderly fashion while delivering announcements and changing customer's tickets.

To these gate agents I am eternally grateful, and I will always remember to thank them for the service that they provide me. I hope that you will join me in doing the same the next time you fly.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Philly Pretzel: Ultimate Airport Snack

As you know, I travel a lot. Much has been said about finding great food at your destination, but what about when you are in transit? Airport food has a bad rap (expensive junk food), but every now and then there is a shining star at airports that is worthy of seeking out.

One of my favorite airport treats are available in Philadelphia. I'm not talking about a greasy cheese steak, but rather one of their iconic soft pretzels.

Prior to visiting Philadelphia, I had never heard about these pretzels, but upon exploring a few of the cities food carts I quickly fell in love with these lunchtime staples.

What makes them special? First of all, they are fresh. These aren't pretzels that have been manufactured months before in a factory hundreds of miles away, frozen and then reheated. These are made the day that they are consumed, and the taste is reflected in the freshness.

The second thing that makes these unique is the fact that they aren't the traditional pretzel shape, but rather a squared off figure eight. While this was most likely done for production efficiency, the shape is much more conducive to eating it on the run.

Fortunately for travelers who have frequent connections through PHL, these soft pretzels are readily available in carts within the airport terminal. With such accessibility, I find them hard to resist on even a tight layover. What's harder yet is resisting buying a half dozen to take home with me. At about $1 each, you'll be hard pressed to find a better value for a snack at an airport.

While I can't eat 6 of these before they go stale, they do freeze relatively well. They will loose a little something in the freezing and reheating process, but when I can't get them fresh, a frozen pretzel will do in a pinch.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When Renting a Car- Anything but an HHR

Before I tell you how much I dislike the HHR, let me give you a bit of background. I'll freely admit that I am not the world's best driver, but I do my best to be safe and my driving record shows that. I've only had one minor accident in my driving career and that was years ago. As long as I'm being honest about my driving, I will also admit that I am terrible at parallel parking. There are activities that I dispise more, but parallel parking ranks pretty high on the list.

My work takes me to various places around the world, and occasionally I need to rent a car; usually through Hertz. Hertz is a fine company, but they are not without flaws.

Until recently, they insisted on putting two bulky keys on the keychain for each rental car. Since you are unlikely to need both keys as they are both on the same keychain, I never saw the point in this. When asked about this, they said that they didn't have a way of tracking the second key so they kept them together. I could never figure out why two keys together was better than one, but they have thankfully rectified the situation and my latest rentals from Hertz came with just one key.
The only remaining problem that I have with Hertz has to do with their fleet. I started seeing the Chevrolet HHR show up in their lineup not long ago and I was borderline excited to try it out as it had ample space for my suitcase and my toolkit. I soon realized that this vehicle had potentially fatal blind spots when I nearly merged into someone on a freeway.

Not spotting someone prior to a merge rarely happens to me, but it does happen. I wrote this off as a fluke. When this happened again on that same trip I was convinced that it wasn't me, but rather the HHR. On a trip a month later I rented an HHR again. When they assigned it to me, I rolled my eyes and thought I'd give it one more try. I had the same problems.

From that point on I've made a habit of requesting "anything but an HHR" at the Hertz rental counter. When confronted with this request, the Hertz representative mentioned that mine was the third such request that she had heard in the last 10 minutes. I added that my request was because of the blind spots and she confirmed that this is the most common comment that she hears about the HHR when the "anything but…" requests come in.

Unfortunately, she also commented that the rental location had just received a large shipment of HHRs to add to their fleet and she pondered aloud as to why Hertz would buy cars that seemingly no one wants to rent.

That's a good question. Has Hertz struck a great deal to add HHRs to their fleet? I do not know the answer to this question, but it makes one think.

At any rate, if you are renting a car and are assigned a HHR, I would encourage you to sit in it and evaluate the blind spots for yourself before accepting it as your rental. If you aren't comfortable with it, please let your rental agency know and request a different vehicle.

If you have had similar experiences with the HHR, please let me know. I'm sure I'm not alone here, so let me know what you think.

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