Hollywood & Vine … & Spiderman

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I find it really annoying that I have a pretty high tolerance for tourist traps.  You know those places; crappy venues that offer stupid things for a price that never ever is worth that price.  Museums that charge $20 for a tour, which ends up being something like a picture of Micheal Jackson made out of chewing gum.  Endless rows of places selling t-shirts that are never interesting.  Those kind of things.  When I see a place like that, I am drawn to it like a moth to a bug zapper, and shake a fist full of dollars blindly going along with it.

Of course what I am really paying for is my ability to be snarky after the fact about the experience … and meat a guy dressed like spiderman, who doesn’t like that.

As tourist traps go, Los Angeles has probably the worst in the world.  Let me understate that a little more … WORST TOURIST TRAP IN THE WORLD.  I am talking about Hollywood Boulevard.  I took up the trap yesterday as the closest shop to get the tires I want for my car were just up the street from there; so I spent the afternoon on along this famous street wondering why I thought being there was a good idea in the least.

If you never been, Hollywood Boulevard is in Hollywood (as the name suggests) runs just Northwest of Downtown LA along the edge of Beverly Hills.  Once upon a time, it was home of many of the main theaters that were where many movie premiers were held along with some stage theaters, some of which held the biggest of award shows.  From time to time, it also hosted television shows & other events.  In other words, it is the epicenter of the Entertainment industries in the Entertainment Capitol of the world.

I think that means that tourists think that going to Hollywood Boulevard will mean they will see a celebrity.   In a way it’s like thinking that if you hung out in a steak house long enough, you would see a cow.  I guess it could happen, but you’re more likely to see the outcome than the starting point.

There are two pretty famous attractions there; one of which isn’t even there … and is arguably not an attraction.  The Hollywood Sign … which is a sign that spells ‘Hollywood’ and I guess that makes it kind of exciting … is visible at spots along the road; most notably by the Dolby, El Capitan, and (formally) Mann’s Chinese Theaters.  Of course, the only good place to get that photo is in the shopping center they built just for that purpose.  You can get a fine picture of yourself with the Hollywood Sign over your shoulder, just a few feet from a Victoria Secret (though I do recommend the ramen shop there).

The other big attraction is the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Running nearly 3-1/2 miles up and down Hollywood Blvd and branching off Vine Street, the walk of fame is … and let’s call it what it is … pavement with peoples names on them.  Intended to be landmarks of entertainers past and present, this famous stars embedded in the sidewalk allow you to walk along, read their names, ignore them, ask who the hell is “Hildegarde” (no last name, just Hildegarde), and occasionally squat uncomfortably next to the dirty ground as some random person takes your picture as if you are right there next to that person.  The whole thing has a silly air to it.  I mean, do you really think Dean Martin wanted his name next to a tattoo parlor?  Or Danny Kaine want to be next to a Pep Boys?  Or those poor folks that are the gateway to the strip club.  It’s not like the streets here are the cleanest to begin with, and the tourists are flocking to crawl around on ground level to get to these little bits of something.

Of course there is more to soak the money from the randoms walking about.  The main source is street performers.  Specifically people dressed up in a costume so that people will take a picture with them for money.  It’s a little extra dumb because in the world of copyright images, none of these people can actually “look” like the characters in question.  Not that you would mistake the short pudgy guy in red spandex busting out at the seems to be Spiderman, but people were still posing with him.  Of course, the guy could have been trying to look like Deadpool too … or a zombie, the costume wasn’t that good.

Oh, there are other things to see there, and I did fall for some of it.  I threw $20 to go through a Believe It or Not museum because …as I mentioned before, I am a sucker for these things.  I got as much out of the Dave & Busters next door though.  I could have seen the creepy wax statues too, but I have my limits.

In the end, the two hour wait for my new tires allowed me to remember why I love to hate tourists traps.  The extra three hours at the tire shop waiting for the work to get done was all because I knew that there is a limit on my tourist trap love too.  I just know now in the future that if I need to get new tires, I just need to bring my red spandex suit with me to make a little scratch on the side.

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The Wicked Little Beast

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I almost had to change one of my annoying “Theories”.  I have a bunch of them.  From the “Pillow Theory” to the “Oil Change Theory.  From the “Ketchup Theory” to the “Catsup Theory” (no relation).  From “Not-Poutine” to the “50 Mile Radius” I have a lot of these concepts that I turn into thoughts.  One of the longest standing was the the “Coming Off the Mountain” Theory.  It came from a vacation I took through the old Civil War Battlefields back when I lived in Milwaukee.  The last day included a trip over Skyline Drive over the Shenandoah Mountains, the last 10 miles of which was literally all down hill.  As I took that finished that road and the realization sunk in I was ending my vacation, the gloom of heading back to work grew so much that the time I was off the mountain the vacation was over.

My last day in Alaska this week ended with a drive to Talkeetna, the town that acts like the gateway to Denali.  Small, quirky, beautiful; it is considered to be the inspiration for Northern Exposure, the ’90s TV show based in Alaska – and recently lost their long time mayor, Stubbs the Cat.  The drive up to Talkeetna is gorgeous with Denali looming over every hill.  The ride back … well, unless you spend all the time in the rear view mirror, you have less to look at.  Unfortunately, it also means more time to spend in one’s head space.  It felt like I started coming off the mountain on the drive back to Talkeetna – so strong that I almost considered changing the name of that theory to “Driving Back from Talkeetna”.

I’m home now, and after nearly 20 hours of sleep since then I still feel that afterglow of a good vacation – so arguably I am still on the mountain.  Yet it’s still easier to be in that mind-space that riding back from Talkeetna does to me.

Thing is, hindsight is a wicked little beast.  It picks out those things that are easy to see and dangles it in front of you like cheese (and good cheese too, like a nice smoked gouda, ya know?).  I can see clearly now that the reasons I chose to pursue work outside of Alaska were pretty petty – reasons that didn’t really make me any happier.  I can see now the concerns I had of staying were real, but manageable.  In fact, that sort of is the Alaskan way; you see a challenge in front of you, and you make do because the outcome is worth it.

Sure, I am happy these days, I like my life, I like my job, and I like my friends – but … yeah … that was true up there too.  I wasn’t putting things into space up there, I wasn’t helping the world to know itself better, I wasn’t a part of something as important – but I was a part of something.

That’s part of the evil of hindsight.  It’s easier to see than the here and now; and it gets you to believe you will never be as happy as you once were.

So, part of the goal of today (besides engulfing enough coffee to return to the fully awake), was to put this past week into some sort of perspective to start to look forward.  I remembered that when I left Boston I quoted the Broadway show Wicked – and another line came to mind.  It states:

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better,
But because I knew you,
I have been changed for good.

Yeah, who can say my life over the last two … four … ten years has changed for the better; but because I lived in Alaska, it had changed for good.

Anchorage Familiar

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I am sitting in the airport lounge, an hour before a flight home, and trying to figure out how to put into words the weekend I am finishing.  It’s a Monday night, and I’m in Anchorage, Alaska.  I only landed here last Thursday.  This weekend, however, felt like it lasted for years.  Years and years and years.  So it’s just hard to put this all into words.

For you Johnie-come-lately Bear Feeders Anchorage used to be my home for two years.  in fact, this Blog exists to chronicle my misadventures in the 49th state.  Then sometime, for some reason, I decided to move south in 2014.  This weekend was the first trip back since that time.  Three and a half years later, one would expect all I could see, and all I would feel is the changes.  Yet everything about it was familiar.

In Los Angeles, I would be figuratively and literally lost if it wasn’t for my GPS.  Year-and-a-half, and I can’t tell Sun Valley from Sunland.  I am not always sure what is north, west, or towards the Ocean.  In Anchorage, no GPS was needed.  No maps.  No directions.  In my rental car, I could find each place I wanted to find.  From the quickest way towards Girdwood, down to a nice little coffee hut I knew could keep me awake.

That’s just the symbolic side.

A motivating factor to get me up here was a curling Bonspeil at my old Anchorage Curling Club.  While there was absolutely nothing in the way that I played that could be considered to be familiar with my old game (it hurt … it hurt a lot), being at the club was as familiar as things get.  There were a lot of new faces, a lot of new players, but  a lot of old friends.  I spent so much time chatting and hugging (and drinking … and maybe sleeping on the curling club couch … and a few chairs a well); that for a while it felt like I never left.

The trap with saying ‘familiar’ is that people quickly throw out ‘Familiarity Breed Content’.  Maybe that is what I have over those days of the past.  All through my time up here, I could see those things that I loved about this place, see it in all it’s glory, beauty, and greatness.

The high peaked mountains jutting out of the water of Turnagain Arm rising up to the sky.

The way the snow pulls up the side of a hill to show you that seasons are changing.

The way evergreens blend through birch trees.

The clouds rolling and breaking just so a splash of light bounces just right off of a glacier.

How the sun seems bigger, the light brighter, the night darker.

The people happier.

The friends.

The smiles.

The words.

I found myself thinking … life was just easier here.  Life in Alaska, the most rugged, most demanding, most difficult place to live in this country … was easier.

So I sit in this airport lounge, trying to find the right words to put this weekend into perspective.  It’s hard to do it.  Maybe it’s hard because I still need to process this weekend.  Maybe it’s hard because Alaska is so unique.  Maybe it’s hard because 3-1/2 years of questioning why I left is staring me in the face.

Or maybe it’s just hard to sum up, because it’s just hard to sum up.

Loving thanks to one of the bestest people in the world, Laura Sherman, for putting me up for a weekend.  As well as Mr. Cat (aka Christmas) for letting me room with him; Puck the dog for warming up to me; and Squirrel the dog for never cooling off of me … and Farley Dog to, but not as much cause he’s a jerk.

The Magic Returns

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If you think Auggie is getting upset because of all the travel I’ve been on; well, he is going to be downright pissed when he finds out where I am not taking him along to next.

In little over a week, I am returning to where all of this Bear Feeds stuffs began, and doing all those things that Bear Feeders wish to have back … probably.  I am flying up to Anchorage, AK for a long weekend of catching up with good friends, curling, and maybe … possibly … having a drink or two.

Story goes … About a month ago, I was banging around on the old Facebook and came across a picture of my old curling team (Team Strugglebus).  Being in a sentimental way, I waxed about what it would be like to “get the band back together”.  One of my old teammates, Heidi Hill, floated back that a bonspiel (that’s curling for ‘tournament’) was coming up soon.  I checked flights, poked at people who could end up making a team, poked at others to get a couch to sleep on, sobered up, sobered up again, make sure I was sober for a long enough time to make good decisions, then hit the ‘purchase’ button.

Every since that day, a complete lack of a plan has led to poor planning (so … an improvement).  I’m going to be competing in the Spring Spiel at the old Anchorage Curling club; where I will throw my first rock in anger then probably spend the rest of the weekend crying from blown knees.  As we were working up the team, that old teammate Heidi and I had this conversation:

Me:  “So, if I skip, will you be my 3rd?”
Heidi:  “Sure”
Me:  “You know, in Canada, that would be a way to propose marriage”
(insert uncomfortable silence here)

The team is still coming together, meaning, yeah, who wants to play on a team where the skip hasn’t played in 3 years.  Contrary to popular belief, Kilts won’t be worn either.

As far as a rest of a plan … still coming together.  I’m being taken in by the world famous Laura Sherman with the blessings of the pack Auggie used to run with (plus Squirrel, cause … Squirrel is new).  I get some time to myself which made me want to do things that people do in Anchorage … like get chased by a moose, yell at the BP Building for taking years of my life away, or get stuck in traffic on the Glenn Highway in a Turtle Costume (look it up).    I am sure sooner or later we will hit some of my old haunts if they are still open.

The thing is … this is the first time I will be back in Alaska since the day I moved away.  Since that day, I don’t go very long between times I pull up the Alaskan Dispatch website, or check out old photos, or talk to old friends.  I’ve now nearly doubled the time I’ve been away compared to the time I spent there, but my memories are so rich and full that it’s so easy to miss that place.  Yes, things are good these days (at least better than my time in Boston), but it’s hard to forget a place that is so hard to forget.

Hockey Week in La Crescenta

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Oh a good old Hockey Game is the best game you can name, and the best game you can name is a good old Hockey Game!

Welcome to my Hockey Month.

While I never played the game, never really donned ice skates, I am a sucker for a good old hockey game … and as it turns out, I am in the midst of a heck of a hockey month for me.

It started last weekend getting live scoring from the Wisconsin State Championships for my Nephew AJ.  Their team went into Sheboygan as defending state champs, and were there to defend cup.  While they fell short in the defense, the updates were coming in all hours of the night (California time), and had me hanging on results on a plane.   It continued as word was coming back that my alma mater, Michigan Tech, reached a game 3 of a 3 game serious against a heated rival in Minnesota State.  That final game I got to live stream with my cousins (see the post: Out for Bread).  That party continues as Tech plays our greatest of great rivals Northern Michigan (aka NMU aka eNaMaU aka ‘That’s Alright, That’s Okay, You’ll Be Working For Us Someday’).  The winner of that one game tonight will win the WCHA and get an automatic bid to the NCAA Div I Playoffs & the road to the Frozen Four.  While I can’t physically get to any of those games … there is a few games I can.

One neat thing the NHL does to reduce the impact on players and fans is that east coast teams only have to play west coast teams once a year, and when they do they get it all done at once.  While they sometimes break it up, catching a ‘Grand Tour’ is great chance to follow a team that you only see once a year.

Way back in 1985, I was starting to get a itch for hockey.  Back then, the most we would get to see is tape delays of *blech* University of Wisconsin home games late at night, something that a teenager could pop on when he got home after doing whatever.  Being from Wisconsin, I didn’t really have an NHL team to follow.  I mean, I could follow the North Stars in Minneapolis or the Blackhawks in Chicago; but being a Green Bay Packer fan first and foremost, following a team from Minnesota or Illinois was a little bit contradictory.  So … I picked the team with the coolest logo.  No literally … I liked someone with cool uniforms, and … that was it.  Thirty years later, I am still a New Jersey Devils fan … and by fan, I am a reverse band wagon fan.  I tend to only follow them when they stink, when they are good I don’t even notice; I mean, I completely missed two of their three Stanley Cups.  Surprisingly, the Devils are decent this year, and I still haven’t turned my back on them.  Currently in the playoffs, but right on the edge, they started their Grand Tour earlier this week … and I am here to follow.

Wednesday, when I stuck in Florida meeting astronauts, the Devils were in Las Vegas.  If you haven’t been following the NHL this year, the Las Vegas Golden Knights are the story of the year.  They are an expansion team, in their first year in existence, a place which usually makes a team a joke at best.  Vegas is not only NOT a joke, they are not only in the playoff hunt, they are in the hunt for the best record in all of Hockey.  They are eating teams up by being nothing more than a really good team.  Devils started their Grand Tour by going into this foramble team’s home ice … and won.  Not just won, put on 8 goals in the biggest scoring fest in Las Vegas history.

Today, I join the Grand Tour wagon.  In a couple of hours, the Devils face the LA Kings at the Staples Center.  I’ll be there in my NJ Devils Green for St Pats day.

Tomorrow, I am in Anaheim to watch them play the Ducks at the Honda Center / Duck Pond.

Then Tuesday, I fly to the bay area and catch them against the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center.

All four teams on this grand tour are in the playoffs currently, so no game is going to be easy for the beloved Devils.  Not only that, before they head home they have one last game at the defending cup holders, Pittsburgh.  With just a couple of weeks to go in the season, these should be huge games and huge events.

Come April, of course, starts the playoffs … which means my nights are basically all taken up by watching game after game after game.  But that is what makes the game so much fun.  It is non-stop intensity for long periods of time.

So forgive me if I get a little bit wrapped up in hockey this month.  But as the Canadian country singer Stompin Tom Corners once coined … “the best game you can name is a good old hockey game.”

Spacing Out on Quality

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Did I mention I met an astronaut?  Okay, so by “Met”, I mean I was in the same room as one that gave a talk.  Spun from one of my favorite Laura Sherman-isms, I could literally say his attention was fully on me – because when he turned my way he was looking right at me.  That and he talked about me … and by ‘about me’ I mean he basically described why I was hired to move to Alaska and why I left … and by that, I more mean he described the situation that I just happened to be a part of … and by that I mean, he mentioned it … and  by that, I mean he was talking about me.

Today, I make the long trip back home after a week of conferences in Cape Canaveral.  I attended two in the same hotel / room (not actually at the space center, but come to find out where the Apollo astronauts stayed when they were in town … which explains the ’60s decor of the room).  Both conferences focused on quality in the Space industry – the first put on by our main industry group the American Society on Quality called the Collaboration on Quality in the Space & Defense Industry (giving you the mouthful acronym of ASQ-CQSDI).  The second, a NASA center Quality Leadership Forum (following the more responsible TLA approach of QLF).  Both pulled in industry leaders and key subject matters to discuss current topics & cultures in Quality – in a battle for everyone to stay awake through four days of industry leaders and key subject matters discussing most of the same current topics and cultures in Quality.  I joke, but it was actually really good.

After 16 months in this industry, I am still trying to put my finger on it.   Every job I have had in quality had shown me that Quality means something routinely different from industry to industry.  You would think my time as a quality person in the “Aero” side of “Aerospace”, would translate easily to the “Space” side of the same word … but it’s quite a shift.  Quantities is the most glaring one.  For example, while never to be confused with the quantities of parts needed to build hundreds of thousands of cars a year – we could still consider that any part a supplier would make would need to have a few dozen similar friends to fill the 40 aircraft built on a design in a year.  So, in comparison, how you deal with 100,000 parts for automotive is different than the 40 for air frames.  At JPL … we’re building one rover.  For a field that relies on data, a single data point to make decisions is difficult.  The gut feel for that is to make sure everything about that one part is perfect, to make sure every risk is mitigated, to make sure no chances are taken.

Yet where Space also sets itself apart is that it is defined by the risks it takes.  This whole week, the message was “if there is a major threat, a danger, a chance someone may not come back … you must stop the process” … shortly followed by “if there is a risk that exists, and you can accept the outcome; it’s okay to take it.”  It’s sort of like – the best decisions are made when you have all the information in front of you; but the worst decision is the one that is never made.  Apollo 13 for example was a great feat of problem solving to save the lives of astronauts; but some of the biggest risks and biggest moments in the rescue happened because the people on the ground not only knew the capabilities of the crew capsule and had calculated those events years before the failure happened.

After four days of discussions like that, I come back a little more informed and a little more motivated.  I’m a little more networked, a little more ready to do my job, and a little more disillusioned by winters in Florida.  I’m a little more aware of why we do what we do; little more aware of how I fit in the greater machine of space flight, and a little more excited about what else I can learn from this experience.

And I met an astronaut.

So what did the rest of you do this week?

Out for Bread

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Contrary to what you may have heard, this story begins with a plane coming in for an emergency landing.  Picture if you will, fire trucks lining the runway – ambulances on call – and pilots trying to calm the nerves of anxious passengers.  The plane had a computer fault, one that made itself believe that it was still on the ground when it was very much in the air.  This fault caused the plane to have to keep the landing gear extended; which on the surface isn’t a bad thing but could mean that the gear wasn’t locked out.  There was a chance that when the wheels touched down, all of it would collapse and the fifty or so passengers will be at the fate of whatever result that comes.

The way Missy tells the story, I was just trying to avoid meeting her.

If Missy was correct, I got pretty good at it too.  For nearly 10 years, I avoided meeting my cousin-in-law.  Missy married my cousin Ed Tietel up in Minnesota that weekend I almost died (not to be dramatic but ALMOST DIED) in a plane crash.  It all happened out of Wichita, who didn’t exactly have hourly flights to Rochester – so ultimately I didn’t make it up there.  Then other family get togethers lined up against other commitments I couldn’t get out of (why my family is committed to getting married during fall band judging season, I don’t know).   Ed and Missy made frequent trips to ‘The Du’, but only during times when I wasn’t there.  Missy, a graduate of Minnesota State in Mankato, would egg me into random bets when my alma mater, Michigan Tech, would play them in Hockey … something that happens more and more as they become top of the the table rivals in Division 1 WCHA conference games.

Of course, as Missy started seeing a pattern, a running joke arose.  Sometimes they would call when I was visiting my parents – which I would then take the time to ‘be out for bread’.  You do it once or twice and you start doing it all the time.  Like all the time.  I mean, nearly 10 years this joke went on.

It all changed more on a joke played not on Missy, but on Ed.  On one of those Thanksgiving visits to ‘The Du’, my cheapest flight was through Rochester.  As it happened, their Minnesota State team was up against Alaska-Anchorage in Mankato; a two hour drive, but still doable.  She hit me up, asked if I wanted to come down, and we decided to keep it a secret from Ed.  Story goes, they were meeting friends of hers for pre-game drinks – she gets a call (from me trying to find parking) – leaves them to take the call – pisses off Ed – and he is stewing about the whole thing I sit down next to him.  That night was a classic for me; yes for meeting Missy for the first time, but moreso catching up with Ed.  I may have gone nearly 10 years without meeting her, but that also meant a much longer time without seeing my cousin.

Since then, we have had more chances to get together.  More ‘in the area, come for a visit’ visits.  It usually involves a few beers, a few hashtags (#cousinsgonewild #wheresvegas #tomnelson #whatsahashtag), and more than a few laughs.  While sometimes there is planning, the better visits are done with very little.  This Saturday, as I was preparing to spend a week in Cape Canaveral for conferences, they hit me up remind me that:
A) They were just an hour away for Daytona Bike Week
B) Michigan Tech was playing Minnesota State in the WCHA playoffs Sunday night
Couple of beers, a couple of bucks to steam a hockey game, and a couple of hashtags, and the night was complete.

So now, I don’t avoid them to get bread.  Arguably, others get the honor of being the person that I reluctantly but consistently not hook up with (yeah, that’s probably you Greg Walker), but let’s hope that it doesn’t take a plane crash to make me avoid people in the future.