Thursday, January 14, 2010

Second-Fattest Man In The World

Early last year, my sons were killing the last few minutes before the mandatory 6:30 am weekday rise-and-shine time watching a motivational story on television. The report told about a young boy who lost 40 or 50 pounds by getting involved in a variety of physical activities. I entered their room to rouse them out of bed only to be hit by some direct advice.

I should pause to explain that my sons are fraternal twins. The older looks and behaves stereotypically Italian, the younger looks and behaves stereotypically German. For purposes of storytelling, they will be referred to by their respective stereotypes.

I walked through the glow of the television. The Italian looked at me and stated, point of fact, "Daddy, you should take the fitness challenge so you won't be so fat."

"Really?" I said, looking from him to the German and then my waist.

"Yes," he said. The German nodded.

It was that simple. Over and done with. No joking, no judgement, no mean-spiritedness. Just simple observation and conclusion.

"I didn't know I was that fat," I said. Truth be told, at the time I was carrying at least 20 extra pounds, mostly around the belly, and the best you could say about my physical condition was I did not yet need a man-bra. My fatness reconfirmed by both nationalities, I pressed the Italian for a point of comparison.

"Do you know anyone fatter than me?" I asked. I expected one of many possible choices from among family and friends. Maybe even a random celebrity. Was I thinner, perhaps, than Tom Hanks? He seems to have packed it on recently. But would the Italian know who he is? Okay, then, maybe Mr. Incredible from the first half of the movie, or Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter films.

The Italian put his hand to his chin, screwed up his 8-year-old face and gave my question serious thought. After several seconds he answered with some uncertainty: "The fattest man in the world?"

Since then, despite miles on the treadmill and spending much of the fall dieting, I occasionally remind my wife she is married to the second-fattest man in the world.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Trains: Turning Travel from Mundane to Meaningful

I recently had the pleasure to substitute Amtrak for my routine six-hour drive to Washington, DC. Despite adding two hours to the trip and repeated questioning of my sanity by my train-phobic wife, my initial enthusiasm for the journey built to genuine excitement as the date drew near.

As a child, trains never interested me. I grew up too far away from functioning tracks to ever hear a distant whistle. Traffic, blaring radios with booming bass, random sirens, ice cream truck music, rattling bicycle chains, jet airplanes coming or going from the two major airports just 20 miles away -- these were the sounds of my childhood. Literary and pop-culture references to the allure of the "train in the distance" were lost on me. I understood them but I couldn't fully appreciate them. The episode of the Andy Griffith Show in which Opie planned to run off with the hobo confused me. What was the attraction? It didn't help that the town in which I lived from birth to college offered everything an active mind could want. There was no need or desire to flee.

Transplanted to semi-rural North Carolina 20 years ago, I often have watched the passenger and freight trains grind noisily through the continually rejuvenating Broad Street shopping district in the small town near my home. Walking the dog at night I hear the whistle wafting through the pine trees as it calls to passing neighbors. Traveling down local rural highways, delivering the kids to school or heading off on a business trip, I catch glimpses of train cars bumping and dodging their way in and out of sight behind roadside groves of pines, scrub oaks and dogwoods. Lumbering beasts, starting from nothing and gradually building momentum until thundering along with unstoppable force, the trains called to my inner child and demanded his attention.

My lovely wife tried five or six years ago to satisfy my new-found fascination. Some local folk had started a dinner train that would run from one end of the county to the other, serve a nice meal, and return to the starting point after two hours. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience but riding on a train did not satisfy my desire to travel by train. The novelty of the two-hour dinner ride -- much the same as the novelty of the two-hour Polar Express round-trip train ride in the mountains of North Carolina a few years back -- served only as a tease. I decided, at the first feasible opportunity, I would commute for business or pleasure by train.

Several obstacles stood in the way.

First: train routes are not flexible. New lines of track will not be laid out simply because I need to get to Elkridge instead of Union Station. Second: train schedules require flexibility. An eight-hour train ride to DC, with set departure and arrival times and the distinct possibility of running late, means an entire day dedicated only to travel. Third: you can't pack your car in your luggage. Once you get where you're going, you will need to rent a car to get around.

After several years of toying with the idea, the opportunity finally presented itself last fall. A business trip made it necessary for me to make sales calls in and around downtown Washington, DC. The day of travel arrived and the train was almost two solid hours late. Eventually settled into an exceptionally wide and comfortable coach seat, I plugged in and got to work. While the day was productive, it also was filled with little pleasures that I kept wishing I could share with my family. The freedom to move around the train was liberating. The passing scenery at times captivating.

In the dining car -- on the trip north assigned to sit with a young couple traveling home from their Florida honeymoon and a woman with her two grandsons on the trip south -- I discovered the highlight of my trip. I wasn't sure about it at first. After all, like most people in our spoiled society, I am accustomed to staying safely in my little bubble, keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact until getting to my destination. While the food may have been merely passable the company was pure entertainment. What a wonderful level of connection we Americans would have with each other if we were forced on a regular basis to sit across a table from complete strangers for an hour and make small talk over an otherwise unremarkable meal!

In the end, the entire experience left me longing for more. Rest assured, the next chance I get to ride Amtrak again I will. Look for me in the dining car. I'll ask the hostess to sit you at my table.

Friday, January 8, 2010

It's remarkable how little one has to say about anything after a day spent driving an eight-hour round trip, six of those hours with a relative stranger trying to make small talk in a very loud car. While my driving companion was pleasant and did his fair share to keep conversation interesting, the lags started appearing around hour four. Being a business trip, all work-related topics were exhausted within the first hour. Family, parenting, vacations, food, travel -- all of the safe topics -- followed in order, both of us consciously drawing them out to avoid the inevitable.

Hour 4. This is the point at which, if traveling with a familiar friend or family member, a long and happy silence would kick in. Music volume increases; minds shut down; scenery passes. The conversation has an opportunity to recharge, possibly restarting with an off-the-wall statement or question related to some shared experience.

With a stranger, no matter how skilled at conversation, this typically does not happen. Firstly, a pause in the conversation becomes awkward, as though we are telling each other: "I have entirely lost interest in speaking with you." To avoid a potential breach of etiquette, we both draw up meaningless topics not worthy of discussion just to avoid the pause, or we rehash bits of conversation from previous hours. Secondly, we have no shared experiences to discuss, not really anyway. Despite both being parents, I don't know his kids and he doesn't know mine. I don't want to hear more than a handful of stories about his kids and he doesn't want to hear more than a handful about mine. We both eat food. We both have favorite foods. But beyond knowing he likes an ethnically diverse menu and I prefer Italian cuisine, we really don't care too much about each other's dietary preferences. Besides, for a guy that says he enjoys foods from all continents, so far he's eaten only chicken caesar salad two days running for lunch.

By the time I leave him at his front door I am spent. I have nothing left mentally for the wife and kids and it shows.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A new year, and a resolution to return to writing. Like cranking an old engine sitting too long in a cold, dusty garage, ideas and words don't want to rumble up yet. No matter. Practice makes perfect. Right?

The most difficult part of this is coming up with an overriding theme to serve as glue to hold future posts together. If I remember anything from my reporting days, it's best to write the story first and figure out the title after the fact. No such luck here. A blog requires a title, which suggests a theme has been chosen.

I protest! I rant, internally of course, and to a degree that hardly constitutes a rant but rather a fleeting moment of indignation that gives way to resignation. A vague title that suggests nothing is selected and I am satisfied, free to ramble about things most dear to me: family, classic movies, creaky staircases, prog rock, travel, dryer lint, Dashiell Hammett, Disney World, homemade ice cream... The possibilities are endless!