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Chasing The American Dream

May 29, 2007

TESTING 1, 2, 3

I’m convinced life is a big test, or a series of tests, or maybe even a daily test. Now, I’m not a religious person, but I think whoever is up there presents us a daily quiz or test. The test is never ever easy, but the good news is that we get to grade our own papers. And you know me; I’m a very critical self-grader. Unlike my umm, 20 years of school, I’ve often gotten an F. But unless you’re part of that whole Apollo 13 experience where failure was not an option, failure is not necessarily a bad thing. I used to fear failure, but now I look at it as a risk I’m willing to take in life which, I think, broadens my horizons substantially.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I guess you have to admire the "if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” mentality, but the thing is, when we try try again, pass/fail becomes less of an importance. What’s important is that even if we fail, and fail again, we learn from our previous mistakes. And that’s where these daily tests come into play. Ya dig?

Maybe it’s appropriate that on my would-have-been 14th wedding anniversary, I got a pop quiz. Remember those things? “Put your books away and take out a #2 pencil.” My little pop quiz came up on TV. It’s one I’ve had plenty of practice with, but the results for the past couple of years have been a crapshoot. It’s a state-of-mind quiz. Am I progressing or regressing? Chances are, if I’ve repeated the same mistakes over again, then I’m most likely regressing. I know, I know. What’s the quiz, and how did I do?

Well like I said, it’s basically a quiz on my emotional state. Two-years ago, I was getting F, F, Fs. My emotions were a wreck. For many reasons. When grading my quizzes, I didn’t take off points for going through all that leaving home, leaving my son, my dogs, driving across the country for a new, unstable job, yada yada yada. Back then, what challenged and truly failed my emotions was this whole dating thing. The harder I tried, the more effort I put forth, seemingly, the greater the disappointment. It made me a mental mess. The result was that when I watched TV or listened to the radio, I’d cry way more than I care to admit. I remember crying while watching the finale of “Friends,” even while watching “How to Lose a Guy in 10 days,” some silly Vin Diesel movie for which I can’t even remember the name of, and countless other embarrassing moments.

Well, while I was flipping channels, one of my crying movies came on and the quiz began. I don’t know why this movie always had hit me so hard, but for some reason ”Cast Away” was a guaranteed cry. Oh man, when Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt shared those kisses in the pouring rain after he returned from the dead…whew! I couldn’t shut off the faucet. Maybe that’s understandable; I don’t know. But when Hanks couldn’t rescue his volleyball best buddy Wilson? Yeah, the tears would come rolling down my face. A poignant moment in the movie sure, but I don’t know if it’s cry-worthy. And so I watched. And waited. First came Wilson. And as he (it?) drifted away and left Hanks sobbing on his storm-ravaged makeshift raft, I felt the sadness. I felt it hard in the back of my throat and in the pit of my stomach. I was genuinely saddened but no tears this time. And came the kissing in the rain scene. Again, the same feelings hit me hard in my throat and stomach. Close, but no tears.

It was a good test. Do I get an A? Perhaps. Progress has been made in the past couple of years. A kinder, gentler, softer Plantation that perhaps is more in tune to his emotions. And I give myself credit for taking time out for myself. Splendid Isolation was much-needed. No repeated dating mistakes that tend to break me down disappointment after disappointment. It’s been seven months now. I definitely know isolation isn’t the answer but metaphorically a vacation of sorts. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the right time for me to get off the island now. WILSON!!!


May 24, 2007


On my cab ride to the train station, Belgian cab driver Eve asked me if I had missed anything in the States. I thought about it and actually said no. I hadn’t missed anything. I told her I was happy being in Belgium and living the moment. After all, I was in a different mode.

Now the tables have turned. I’m back in the U.S. and I’m actually missing something from the other side of the pond. I’m missing my croissant breakfast. Yes, those pillowy, buttery, flakey, mouth-watering, big-time fattening treats on your standard Belgian breakfast plate. I don’t know what it is that makes them so perfectly irresistible. I mean each bite has that bit of crunch that gives way to the soft inside and is sometimes met with that orgasmic ribbon of Belgian chocolate. The flakes float to the bottom of your plate like autumn leaves in Vermont. And like a big pile of leaves that you can’t resist jumping in, you can’t help but dab all those piles of flakes onto your finger and into your mouth, not wanting to miss one buttery bite no matter who is watching you. Yeah, they are THAT good, and I miss them. On the other hand, I don’t miss the five pounds I gained from eating them.


May 21, 2007


It took me 26 hours to get home from Brussels. Traveling, even if you’re in first class, isn’t easy especially if you’re doing the international thing. But hey, I made it and that’s what counts. Along the way, I noted these observations:
  • Why do people wear sunglasses inside the airport?
  • A guy next to me ate a muffin, put the garbage on the seat next to him, got up, and left. Who does such a thing?
  • I don’t know if Europe’s airport security is any looser than in the U.S., but it’s most definitely faster.
  • Speaking of which, after I trudged through airport security in Miami, a TSA agent was standing behind me in the Dunkin Donuts coffee line. The line was long and we weren’t going anywhere which prompted this pot calling the kettle black quote from the TSA agent, “I can’t believe this line isn’t moving any faster.”
  • What’s the big deal over these elite airport clubs? Crown Room, President’s Club, Admiral’s Club, Diamond Club, blah blah. They make it sound so fancy. It practically takes an FBI investigation to get in these stupid clubs. In Newark, I handed the agent an invitation card issued to me in Brussels. I figured I’d give them the card and that would be that. Just ahead of me, two guys were denied access. They ONLY had first class domestic tickets instead of first class international tickets. I don’t know of any first class ticket you can buy for under a thousand dollars. But you can’t get in the President’s Club for that? Anyway, the agent took my card and asked me if I had an international leg on my flight. “Yes.” Not good enough. “Where,” she asked. “Brussels,” I said. And now I’m thinking, what good is the invitation card if I can’t get in?May I see your ID,” she demanded. For crying out loud. OK, I understand if I’m at will call picking up Broadway tickets or football tickets, but what are they protecting here? She finally let me in. You know what they had in there? Cheese, fruit, crackers, chips, and a bar. Big deal. People pay hundreds of dollars for that? I guess to most, the bar is the big deal but I’m not really interested in getting plastered before I board a plane so that I can throw up. Oh sure, there are comfy chairs, a TV, and magazines no one’s ever heard of. And there is free wireless, but nowadays, isn’t the whole airport wireless? OH OH! I just figured it all out. Mystery solved. The reason for paying big bucks for a bunch of nothing, iron clad security to get in the place, and the real reason for these clubs being so popular. It has its own bathroom, and it’s 50% cleaner than the public ones in the terminal. I change my mind. It’s worth all the fuss.
  • How come when they announce pre-boarding for first class, all 300 passengers at the gate get up and stand in line?
  • You get silverware in first class, right? But did you know you get three knives, three forks, and a spoon? Even in the finest restaurants, I’ve never gotten so many utensils.
  • My mixed nuts selection consisted of 100% cashews.
  • Flight attendants in first class smile a lot more than in coach.
  • I don’t think first class food tastes any better than coach. It just looks better and the selections are fancier.
  • In first class, the video equipment and seat are so difficult to operate, by the time you figure it out, the flight is over.
  • Want to know the definition of tired? Observe people in an airport gate waiting for a delayed flight at 2:30 in the morning.


May 14, 2007


For a better view of pix, check out the flikr badge in the margin below.

Like rebooting, once in a while we could all use a good adventure to stimulate the senses. I debated with myself as to whether I wanted t make the effort to take on a big adventure to the unknown. At first I was against it. I woke up at 2:30 pm once again still not used to the time change and going to bed at 6 am. Then my Belgian blogging friend EAO said it was raining in Brussels so I just figured I’d hang out in Gent. But when I walked around Gent Sunday, it was dead. Most shops were closed and the streets were virtually empty. Even my little bakery was closed. I guess Saturday is the big day to go out as it was packed with people and all the shops were open. It was then that I decided to take on the adventure of going to the famous Grote Markt (Grand Palace) in Brussels.

The adventure began simply enough with a cab ride to the train station. I picked a short line and got my round-trip ticket for my train which happened to be leaving in all of three minutes. I did a full sprint to train platform 10 hoping I’d make it. I wasn’t lucky enough to have the train leave on platform one. I had to run all the way out to number 10. I got there right as the bell went off. I did a double take at the monitor to make sure I was on the right train. I have this bad habit of getting on wrong trains. It looked right, but I had no time to figure anything out so I just got on. I sat down and felt the ol’ heart pumping not only from the sprint, but also from the rush and anxiety you get from these journeys to the unknown. I was 90 percent certain I was on the right train. I just hoped I would see my station within the next 15 minutes.

Damn. Big decision #1. Stay or get off the train? We stopped at a familiar station (Brussels Midi), and there was an announcement made in Dutch. My stop, Brussels Central, was mentioned in there somewhere. I didn’t know whether to get off at Midi and get a connecting train to Central or to stay on this train to get to Central. De volgende halte is Bruxelles Centraal. Le prochain arret est Bruxelles Central. I was hoping that in either language, it meant that the next stop was Central. So I stayed on the train, heart pumping once again. We komen aan in Bruxelles Centraal. Nous arrivons a Bruxelles Central. Sacre Bleu, I made it. Now the walking adventure began. The search for famous Grote Markt.

I walked out of the train station and looked for any sign of the Grote Markt. Aaah, I found a directional sign and headed that way while looking for a church spire landmark that EAO told me about. I spotted what I thought was a church spire but really had no idea where I was going. So I just took a left and headed for some of the beautiful architecture I saw in the near distance. Just about then, a light rain began to fall seemingly from nowhere. It was sunny only seconds ago. I grabbed my hat and windbreaker out of my “survivor” bag. No umbrella for this silly American.

After a nice 30 minute walk up and back down the streets, I still didn’t think I was any closer to Grote Market. I’m not sure how I missed it. It was a huge square, big, famous, tons of people. On my way back to where I started, the skies opened up big time, again seemingly out of nowhere. My skimpy jacket and hat were no match for this storm complete with lightning and thunder. As I ran, I spotted a low level parking lot sheltered beautifully from the rain. So I sat under the shelter and watch the storm amid flashes of bright lightning and claps of loud thunder. A typical “me” adventure. Finally, after about 30 minutes, the rain slowed and I could hear the thunder now rumbling in the distance. Thank you Belgacom for the free shelter. Time to continue the adventure.

I ambled my way back down the slippery, wet streets greeted by the sun. I couldn’t believe how fast the weather changed yet again. I followed one more directional sign toward Grote Markt. So far, I’d not seen any of EAO’s “must sees.” You know, sometimes when you’re on these adventures you end up finding a place or landmark purely by accident. Accident or not, I was glad to see a familiar name from EAO’s email. It was the Galeries St. Hubert, an enclosed shopping mall or arcade with shops on either side and had a long tunnel-like ceiling enclosure. EAO told me this was Europe’s first pure shopping arcade founded in 1847! The view inside the arched opening was magnificent. Clothing, food, cafes, and plenty of chocolate. After making a must chocolate purchase, I wondered on. I was searching for a stovepipe Charlie Brown-type cap to buy, but no luck thus far.

When I got back outside, lo and behold, I ran into a second EAO landmark. Rue de Bouchers. Wow, what a view! I looked down the narrow cobblestone street as far as I could see and both sides were crammed with shops and cafes. As I walked farther down, the shops disappeared, and I was surrounded with wall-to-wall cafes on both sides of the street. It cracked me up. Like survey takers in a mall, waiters begged for your attention. They all had similar lines, “Best and freshest food here, sir,” spoken in a French accent. I didn’t really have to believe them. I mean, most of the cafes had their fresh seafood actually displayed out front. It was beautiful and a rare sight to behold for a foodie like me. I couldn’t imagine having to actually pick one of these places to eat out of the hundreds on the street. My route was getting complicated because now there were side streets filled with similar looks of shops and cafes. I wanted to go down each street, but I stayed the course and figured I could go back later after I found the actual Grote Markt square. Bouchers ended so I made a left and then another left hoping to catch some of those side streets I had mist. Whoaaa Nellie! I looked up and looky hear what I stumbled upon; the one and only Grote Markt square! Hokie smokes Bullwinkle, what a sight! It literally took my breath away. This wasn’t your everyday town square folks. The spectacular Town Hall and the surrounding buildings date back to the 15th century and had to be rebuilt in the 19th century due to wars. I did a few laps around the square and took in all the history before returning to tourist mode and whipping out my camera like the rest of the crowd. It felt cool to be in that moment. A historic place, a worldly famous one, and a sense of accomplishment for being able to finish the adventure.

I went down a few side streets and saw more chocolate shops. One even had a chocolate fountain spewing ribbons of milk chocolate. Mmmmm. I found a souvenir shop and found something for Andy and even found my Charlie Brown hat for a mere six Euros. I went back to the square to locate EAO’s bar that he mentioned. I simply HAD to see the hanging marionettes. I took my last two pictures of the bar before my batteries went dead. After a Belgian beer of EAO’s choice, I was feeling my own batteries wearing out. I came back around and saw the entrance to St Hubert so I guess I made a complete circle. Heck, I owned this town now. I knew exactly where the train station was and headed back. I passed the spot where I came into the town only then realizing I should have turned right instead of left. Oh well, part of the adventure, huh?

In the train station, I studied the board but decided to ask a clerk just in case. No wrong trains at this late hour. The 7:27 took me back to Gent no problem. The 30 minute ride gave me time to type this story and gave me time to reflect on what a great day I had and best of all, what a great decision I made to journey into the unknown.


May 10, 2007


I'm back and loving it in Belgium where it's different. The cars, the streets, the people, the customs, the culture, the food, the architecture, the clothes, the eye glasses, the beer, the language, TV, the currency, heck just about everything compared to life in the States. My blogger screen is in Dutch! Different makes you change your programming. It's like you have to hit control/alt/delete and reboot yourself. I think we all need to reboot once in a while. It's refreshing.


May 04, 2007


I'm actually the guy in about row 5, just to the right of the R and behind a guy in a black shirt.
No, this isn’t about the fairly irrelevant lesbian movie from the 80s. Rather, this is about an unlikely occurrence last night. I ran the Corporate Challenge 5K race for the second time. Last year was the first time I’d ever run in a race. My goal this year was simply to be faster than last. I had a few things going for me compared to last year. I ran and trained more regularly, and I knew what to expect from the heat and the course itself.

The problem was, my times were slow. I really run for exercise only. I don’t really like it or think it’s fun. My best 5K time for the past month was only 31:40 so going into the race I had little expectation. Yet for some reason, I felt confident. I felt like I was challenging myself and I was not going to fail. Maybe I was a little inspired by the absence of my friend who broke his ankle just 3 days before the race.

Whatever the reason, the gun went off and I clicked my iPod into action. I selected songs to inspire me and it worked. Running over the two bridges didn’t kill me this year. I was ready for them. At the half-way point, I’d dunked myself with two cups of water to keep myself cool; something I failed to do last year. I was stunned to see my time of 14:28. I thought to myself even if I slowed to my normal turtle pace, I could break 31 minutes. The next mile was certainly the toughest as I fretted that I’d gone out too fast and had nothing left for the finish. But I just concentrated on my music, got two more water drownings, and ignored my watched until I crossed the finish line as the timer read 29:12. I’d beaten my best time by over two minutes and I still have no idea how I did it?

One thing’s for sure. I was exhausted. I think the hardest part of the race was walking from the finish line to our corporate tent where I quickly downed three Gatorade’s. It seems fairly insignificant, but for one of the few times in my life, I’m readily proud of what I did. Maybe it was the personal challenge and doing something I didn’t think was possible. Yeah, I don’t like running but I AM looking forward to next year’s race with the opportunity to do another personal best.