21 days is a lot of time on your hands

All of this talk about Ebola and quarantine has set me to thinking. Suppose you were faced with an obligatory quarantine of twenty-one days. Presuming you were disease-free, how would this work for you? Are you one of those “people . . . people who need people,” or would you find twenty-one days without direct human contact to be a blessing? Would you go stir crazy after a week; or, is this your idea of heaven on earth?

Having posed this scenario, I suppose it’s only fair that I reflect upon it here. First, if it hasn’t already been made clear, I most definitely WOULD NOT want to be away from Marla for twenty-one hours, let alone days. However, if faced with this situation, I fear my single addiction in this life would be difficult to overcome. “Hello, my name is Mark Okrant, and I am an email addict.” I can’t stop checking my messages. I do it on the hour . . . and that’s during my controlled moments. I’m more likely to check every ten minutes. Faced with twenty-one days of isolation, it’s obvious I couldn’t survive without a reliable iPhone or computer. While I avoid talking on the telephone to the greatest degree possible, email is another story. Many times, I have handed my business card to a new contact and warned the recipient not to bother dialing my number, as I won’t answer. By emailing, on the other hand, the person is virtually guaranteed to receive a response . . . or two . . . or twenty.

What would a person do with all of that other time? After all, we’re talking about 21 days. That’s 504 hours, or 30,240 minutes. I can tell you exactly what I would and wouldn’t do–that is, when I wasn’t using email. I would not turn on the television, except to watch an occasional golf match (jealous?). I suppose I’d spend a good deal of time reading. I’d work on writing a new book. I’d practice my putting. And, of course, I’d practice my Spanish. The latter is something I’ve been working on. Do you remember back when no bad decision ever stuck to Ronald Reagan? Well, that’s my relationship with Spanish. Oh yes, one other thing I would do:  I’d bounce a soft rubber ball off of the walls and ceiling to see how many times in a row I could catch it before literally dropping the ball.  

So, I do understand why those medical personnel who, having assessed themselves to be in good health, do not want to be subjected to a quarantine. I wouldn’t either. The only thing that sounds worse would be forced to endure those twenty-one days in the company of Chris Christie.

How about you? Could you stand your own company for that long a period? How would you kill the time? 2 Comments

Atlanta–so much more than a baseball town

A year ago, I learned that the annual tourism outlook forum would be held in Atlanta, home of my beloved Braves. As a fan of 56 years (but, who’s counting?), I had visions of World Series tickets dancing in my head. Things looked good until September, when the Braves forgot two main goals of baseball: 1) score runs, and 2) win games. Thus deprived of my pipe dream, I headed to Atlanta this past Sunday. My rating of Atlanta follows.

Many travelers get their first impression of a large city at the airport. No airport of significance offers a much worse impression than Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. While some of us were sleeping, Hartsfield-Jackson became the world’s busiest airport (2000). I’d been told to avoid it at all costs on a Sunday or Friday; so, naturally, my arrival was on Sunday. Despite the comparatively late hour (8pm), the place was an absolute zoo. Masses of people streamed along, shoulder to shoulder and heel to toe. After walking approximately a half mile, I arrived at a sign pointing to the escalator that would take me to baggage claim. A smile of victory briefly crossed my face, only to be replaced by an “oh-no” expression. The escalator had taken me to a line of people awaiting the terminal train. Of course, my particular terminal was at one end of Hartsfield, while my suitcase awaited at the other. An automated voice kept telling the mob to “get away from the closing door.” After two minutes of this at every one of the five stops, I arrived at baggage claim a beaten man. Naturally, despite the crowded journey that took more than fifteen minutes, suitcases did not begin to arrive until an additional ten had passed. Once I reclaimed my bag, I had a choice of three carriers to my hotel: the MARTA system, a remnant of the 1996 Olympic Games, an airport shuttle van, or a yellow taxi cab. Feeling mentally fatigued, I elected to pay the fixed fare of $33.50 to be cabbed to the Loews Midtown.

My driver was fast and efficient, breaking only a handful of traffic laws along the way. To his credit, he made just the right amount of conversation to guarantee a substantial tip. Atlanta’s urbanscape proved to be dynamic, colorful, and extremely well maintained. I saw buildings whose architecture rivaled that of Chicago. One building was so gorgeous, I decided to break the wonderful silence to ask my driver its name. Unfortunately, he was in the middle of a narrative about a driver who had refused to allow him to pass . . . about three years previously (remember, this is the South). I received a quick reminder of the world’s realities as we sped past the Emory Medical Center. My hotel and the surrounding neighborhood proved to be a very pleasant surprise. Of course, none of this matters if the guest room fails to measure up to standards. I’m happy to report that the room was magnificent, especially the bathroom. The shower was tiled on two sides, with glass on two others. I had a brief scare while I was showering. Discovering that an old, grotesque man was watching me, you can imagine my relief when it turned out to be my reflection, visible through the glass wall of the shower stall.

The Braves not withstanding, Atlanta proved to be an excellent host. An evening reception at the city’s aquarium was thrilling. As we stood drinking wine and eating hors d’ouevres, two massive whale sharks swam above us, accompanied by groupers the size of college football linemen. The neighborhood surrounding the Loews Midtown proved to be safe and absolutely teeming with wonderful restaurants. At one, South City Kitchen, I feasted on southern fried chicken and collared greens (okay, I hated the collared greens). However, it was at the Cafe Intermezzo where I met my match: a delicious piece of chocolate raspberry cake topped with real whipped cream. The next morning, at breakfast, I learned that Intermezzo has another claim to fame: it serves more than one hundred varieties of delicious coffees from all over the globe.

All and all, I’d rate Atlanta four and one-half stars (Hartsfield mustn’t be ignored). The Braves may not have played, but I had a ball.  PS, the conference was excellent, too. 1 Comment

Political ads: the 21st century’s pay toilets

Those of you who reside in overwhelmingly blue states, or red states for that matter, may never realize how fortunate you are. You are shielded from the onslaught of political advertising that we more ideologically balanced states face every 2-4 years. In Vermont, where the two present US senators are bullet-proof, why would the Koch brothers waste their money? The situation is quite different here in New Hampshire. While Governor Hassan appears to be safe, the Senate and House seats are all too close to call. As a result, the Kochs and others of their ilk have dumped a huge amount of money in support of conservative candidates. Progressive leaning individuals have followed suit. All of this is much to the dismay of the residents here in the Granite State. As we suffer through all of this unwanted attention, I can’t help but ask “What’s it all about, Alfie?”  Why is all of this money being spent? Let’s take a closer look.

Axiom number one: political ads are (maybe) half truths.  As a person who has analyzed statistics throughout most of his adult life, I promise you the numbers being presented by both sides are filled with potholes. For example, when one ad tells you that Candidate A voted with the unpopular president 99 percent of the time, what does this say, and not say? As a member of the same party as the sitting president, OF COURSE Candidate A is committed to support the agenda of those who put her/him into office. If I supported the candidate in the first place, I’m probably wondering what happened to that lagging 1 percent. Then, there is that which goes unsaid by the other candidate’s ads. In truth, Candidate B was supportive of the president’s agenda 4 of every 5 votes. 

Axiom number two: after the first ten minutes of the campaign season, no one really paying attention to those ads. Not only are we not listening, in all likelihood, we haven’t even heard the ads. The less technologically savvy among us use the mute button during normal TV commercials, much less political ads. Among the growing populace of people who subscribe to DVRs and similar weapons of mass obstruction, the fast forward button is our best friend during political seasons. So, one is compelled to ask, why buy all of this air time?

This leads us to Common Sense question number 1: at a time during which we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint, why are there no laws against roadside/lawn political signs?My dear friend Mari Hoell said it best the other day when she condemned the sign-planters for obscuring our beautiful views of foliage. Here in Plymouth, one sign for a newcomer named Garcia is the size of our family car. This is simply ridiculous! And, more to the point, what impact does any of this have? Can’t you just imagine the following dialogue(?):
         Mother:  I just can’t decide who I’m voting for in the congressional race.
         Father:   I was undecided, too, until I just saw the big beautiful Garcia sign along side the road. That convinced me to vote for her.
This is nearly as unthinkable as the recent idiotic statement by a Republican state legislator, who indicated that no one will vote for Congresswoman Kuster because (in his unbelievably stupid rhetoric), “she’s as ugly as sin.” One hopes that the aforementioned legislator soon will be visited by a pretty woman named Karma. 

All of this leads me to Common Sense question number 2:  if much of the civilized world can choose its leaders in a few months’ time, why does it take us 2 -4 years? One need only look north of the border to Canada, where elections take as little as 36 days (the max is 365 days). An even better question is: in a country that should be a model for others to emulate, why are people like the Kochs throwing money at political campaigns while millions lack sufficient social services and food bank shelves sit bare? Leave a Comment

A moose is on the loose . . . and that’s good news

Moose_superiorGrowing up, I had two heroes: Hank Aaron and my big brother, Bruce. To this day, there is no male of the species who I love and respect more than the latter. So, a few years ago, when Bruce and Lydia–my favorite older sister-in-law (FOSIL, for short)–asked to see a real moose, I was determined to make this happen. Waiting until near dusk, Marla, Bruce, Lydia, and I drove north through Franconia Notch, then along much of Crawford Notch, looking for moose. For those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a moose in the flesh, they are tall, seemingly awkward, gangly, quite dark creatures. For this reason, the only way to find a moose in the evening hours is with the help of a set of very bright lights. The by-product of our search was skepticism, as not a single moose presented itself. Both my brother and my FOSIL admonished me for inventing the existence of those moose beasts. Subsequently, Marla and I brought them tee shirts, inflatable underwear (please don’t ask), and coffee mugs bearing images of the aforementioned animals. At that moment, not even a guest appearance by the cast of Rocky and His Friends would have saved my failing reputation.

Enter Larry Hartle and his wonderful Moose Tours of Lincoln, New Hampshire. Marla and I were determined not to fail a second time. We contacted Larry and arranged to be booked on one of his tours. It proved to be the best $30 per person I’ve ever spent. On June 4th, Bruce, Lydia, Marla, and I boarded Larry’s 44-seat bus just east of Lincoln, NH. By pure luck, we picked the best time of year to take the tour. As Larry later told me, spring is the best season to find moose, while late summer and early fall present extreme difficulties. We know those difficulties as the Dating Game.

On the night in question, our busload of passengers was treated to what proved to be much more than a moose hunt. As Larry drove out of the parking lot, he and his sidekick, Tony, slipped into their schtick. For three and one-half hours, we were treated to corny jokes, edible “moose droppings,” and excellent video footage of moose. Meanwhile, as we drove along the very same route I’d used two years earlier, out came spotlights–mounted and hand held spotlights. Soon, we had our first sighting, a cow with a very large yearling calf. We weren’t finished. Four more moose made their appearance, as the bus circled round and round past the wallows that Larry knows so well. Just as I was about to nominate Larry for man of the year, it happened. A large cow moose appeared on the left side of the bus, not more than thirty feet from where Bruce and Lydia were seated. What happened next was the stuff of legends. As we drove along route 302, the moose decided to accompany us. For nearly a mile, the moose galloped along, stopping occasionally to wave its ears at Bruce and Lydia. Watching the expressions on their faces is one of the thrills of my lifetime. Much as our reaction to the Gemini Giant must have been theirs.

So, Larry Hartle, we had no idea our paths would cross when, during the summer of 1999, you put a much smaller bus into service. How clever you were, upon seeing the desire to see moose on the part of visitors, to establish your tour. Larry is much more than an entrepreneur. Inside his chest beats the heart of a conservationist. You see, Larry’s tour serves the best interests of more than the visiting public. By converting multiple car trips into a single busload, he has protected the environment, and has made the lives of our moose much less complicated. 1 Comment

A true peach of a place to stop

peachesI’m not normally given to writing about specific accommodations; however, this post will be an exception. Like so many others, when we travel the highways and byways of the US and Canada, Marla and I are looking for a memorable place to eat and enjoy local ambiance. Several years ago, we discovered such a place in North Conway, New Hampshire, a once-quaint town whose appearance has been altered dramatically during the past several decades. Long ago, North Conway’s traditional character was subsumed by the influx of outlet stores. Over time, massive amounts of traffic supplanted the bucolic town and country roads. Soon, bargain shopping replaced sightseeing as the principal reason to visit the town. Despite the aforementioned metamorphosis, the Mount Washington Valley retains more than its share of quaint places, including one-of-a-kind shops, lodgings, and restaurants. And, yes, it provides one of the very best views of Mount Washington and the Presidentials, readily  observable from Route 16. But, I digress.

A recent meeting in North Conway, to visit old and new friends at the dynamic Glen Group, provided the opportunity to search through book shelves at the marvelous White Birch Bookstore, and to enjoy the wonderful food at Peach’s. While only in business for the last seven years, this little food establishment is already a regional classic. As a mom-and-pop place surrounded by a large range of family and franchise restaurants, Peach’s has succeeded where many others have failed. The reason for this is simple: they provide high quality, unusual breakfast and lunch fare, in a manner that makes guests feel we are sharing a meal in their kitchen. While I eschew the word ‘unique,’ I can report that the breakfasts I have experienced are like nothing else I’ve eaten–ANYWHERE. My new favorite is their occasional daily special: banana bread french toast served with bananas, strawberries, blueberries, a sprinkle of confectioners sugar, and a spritz of real whip cream. Oh, did I forget to mention the real maple syrup? All I can say is OMG.

If you’re looking for a lesson in this post, here it is. There are treasures to be found everywhere: small family motels, cottages, and b&bs; hole-in-the-wall restaurants; and crazy, cool roadside attractions. So, study websites like Roadside and Trip Advisor; then, get out there. But, one must stay the heck off of the interstates, or you’re doomed to a rubber stamp experience. 

1 Comment

Who benefits most from scholarships?

Several years ago, Marla and I faced a decision. We felt that it was time to give something back, in return for the educations we, our daughters, and other family members have been fortunate to receive. More than any other members of the Okrant family, I was a recipient of substantial scholarship and assistantship money along the way. . . funds that would not have been available without the generosity of others whose names I never knew. As we considered where and how to best spend our limited dollars, the answer was obvious. No educational institution has had a greater bearing on our welfare than Plymouth State University. It was Plymouth State that hired me as a comparatively unproven young faculty member. It was Plymouth State that allowed me the opportunity to develop a travel and tourism program, when there wasn’t another of its kind in New Hampshire. Plymouth State provided me with freedom to grow as an academic, and has even encouraged my development as a fiction writer. While faculty salaries are never apportioned to make people wealthy, our family has lived comfortably during the last thirty-five years. With all of this in mind, we established The Okrant Family Annual Scholarship in Tourism Studies. The purpose of the scholarship is to further the higher education and professional development of a deserving Plymouth State University student, one who will make a significant contribution as a professional in the field of tourism and hospitality. To date, we have given four of these awards, each to a wonderful young woman or man.

Two nights ago, the university conducted its annual scholarship recognition dinner. The evening is a celebration of givers and recipients alike. Principal donors are recognized and support donors are thanked. However, the evening belongs to the recipients. Marla and I always take a level of pride in our awardee similar to what we felt as our own daughters succeeded along the way. This year’s recipient, a young man from Sharon MA, has a wonderful story. When he first arrived in my office as a sophomore, James said little and never made eye contact. Two years later, he has exhibited academic excellence, interned at an area resort hotel, and completed one excellent piece of applied research for the Livermore Falls area, and another for one of New Hampshire’s iconic family theme parks. He has spent a summer abroad working in Ireland, and now is ready to take his place as a leader in the tourism and hospitality industry. 

Returning to the original question: who benefits most from our scholarship? Some could argue that it is students like young James, whose financial burdens are reduced.  Others may say it is the donors, who have the pleasure of extending the Okrant family, watching its members grow and contribute measurably to society. I contend that both benefit equally. We certainly feel privileged to take part in such an undertaking. 3 Comments

The secret to a happy marriage(?) . . . go shopping

m and r at brahminphoto handbagsAs Marla and I near the completion of our first 44 years of married life together, each of us has been asked what our secret is. First, I can assure you that I have absolutely no idea how Marla responds to this question. Furthermore, I wouldn’t attempt a guess. To a large extent, marital bliss is based upon good fortune . . . being lucky enough to cross paths with one’s soulmate. In our case, it can probably be traced back to our respective reactions to our first (“blind”) date. I was immediately struck by two characteristics that Marla exuded, namely kindness and the best sense of humor I’d ever encountered. She could make me laugh when I was 22, and she can make me laugh now that I’m . . . older than 22. For Marla’s part, she returned from our first date and told her mother, “I’ve just met the nicest boy.” Did I mention that Marla also is keenly perceptive? 

Move ahead 44 years, and I think you’ll see two people who are still very much in love with one another. I certainly use my ballot to vote in the affirmative. While we give one another plenty of space, each of us supports the other’s interests. For example, Marla is always aware of my need to feed a longtime addiction to bad golf. There have been times when I am lacking a partner. She is kind enough to sit in the golf cart next to me while I play a round (I’ve never played around). Sure, she reads her Kindle the entire time, but I know she is rooting for me. To repay this kindness, I join Marla for two of her favorite activities: pedicures and shopping. For those men who guffaw at the idea of a man getting his feet massaged, my response is simple: try it! There are reasons that women live longer than men, and pedicures are right at the top of the list. There is nothing quite as close to heaven as a good foot and leg massage (Note: I do draw the line at getting my toe nails painted … although, orange polish is tempting). The other activity–shopping–is a bit more of a sacrifice. Marla and her sister, Rayna, have a predilection to shop. If the two are not the most proficient shoppers in the world, I’d love to meet the ones who are. Watching the two of them at work is not only educational, it’s downright inspiring. And, did I mention that Marla is the funniest woman on the planet(?). Well, Rayna is not far behind. I never fail to leave one of their forays without several hearty laughs . . . okay, and a pair of sore shoulders. You see, my role is to carry their booty and to check for imperfections in the merchandise. 

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Hopefully, by viewing these two (attached), you’ll understand why I’m a very happy guy. 4 Comments