Straight Line to the River


I grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.  Since this is a blog, most of you can just open a new window and google the town, see where it’s at; but when I am standing around talking to someone it’s a challenge, sometimes, trying to describe to people where I grew up.  Some of you, my parents, in particular, know exactly where I grew up … right down to the corner they made me stand in when I was in trouble.  For others, it’s a lot harder.  People from Los Angeles don’t exactly explore the upper midwest, and can’t picture the geography.

Proximities seem to be what people look for.  It’s good for people who know Wisconsin enough for me to say, “South of LaCrosse” or “Near the border of Iowa & Minnesota”.  That can be pretty confusing for those who don’t know it though.  For instance, it’s not out of the question for someone to ask “Is that anywhere near Chicago?”  which I usually answer that with, “Yeah, sort of like how LAX is just down the street from Las Vegas.”  Then I get asked about the town that has the sports team, and I am not sure if they mean Green Bay or Milwaukee – then I realize they think it’s both (or Chicago again).

More often than not, I try to use the ‘straight-line’ description.  I’ll say, “You know how Milwaukee & Madison are in a straight line east to west?  Well take that line and go all the way to the river, and that’s where I grew up.”

What is interesting to me is that there are people confused about the phrase “the river”.  The problem is that I describe “the river” like there is only one river.  Then I have to explain, I am talking about the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America, and one of the largest in the world – regardless of how you would measure such a thing.  Granted, I this is partly on me, I have to embrace the fact there are other rivers, but I know there are other rivers, but none are like “the river”.

Most people who haven’t seen the Mississippi up along the Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Upper Illinois boarders probably picture something like out of Mark Twain-ish stories near St Louis.  Slow-moving, meandering, muddy river that is fairly wide.  Others might think of the Mississippi in New Orleans, narrow, deep, and heading out to sea.  While the muddy and slow part is my river, the rest isn’t as much.

Where I grew up, the Mississippi is very wide and doesn’t meander as much as it took different paths to get where it was going.  The Northern Midwest was carved by ice ages, so rivers filled those gaps the best they could.  This means the Mississippi stays the course between ridgelines rising a few hundred feet over the valley floor.  Still, it breaks into channels or sloughs.  Small pockets of water or small river pathways are broken by low lying islands and strips of sand, swampy and smelly from constant debris hanging up on the shores.  The largest channel is maybe three-quarters of a mile wide, but to get from coast-to-coast is well over two miles.

I grew up on that river, in the many ways I can say that statement.  We lived two blocks from the closest waterway, a tiny passage that was a stone’s throw across – and we spent time as kids tossing those stones across it.  While I wasn’t much of a fisherman, it’s not like I didn’t try.  I remember a phase in high school, were to just get some time to myself I would throw a bucket, a rod, and some worms onto my moped and drop a line in for an hour.  Wikipedia shows the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers just down the way from us, and I can remember long nights hanging out under a train trestle just talking.  My first job was in a bait shop.  My dad’s summer business rented boats.  There are people who are rivermen, who are like seamen but on the river – that wasn’t me; I stuck to the shore.  Yet I still grew up on the river.

Maybe I say all this hoping for forgiveness from those people who can’t visualize what it’s like to be so near such a great body of water.  I remember meeting someone when I was in my twenties who grew up with the Manhattan Skyline out their bedroom window, and I thought that was the coolest … but I told him I grew up on the Mississippi, and he thought that was the coolest too.    Maybe that’s what I am expecting, and what I am getting is something else.

I guess that’s alright.  I mean, at least they have heard of Chicago.



Throwing Up the Red Flag


In California, we don’t get Hurricanes.  We don’t get Supercell Thunderstorms, Nor’easters, or Polar Vortexes.  The Pineapple Express stays to the north, the Chinooks are inland, and El Nino is something that the rest of the country deals with.  Yeah, we get Earthquakes, but that just ‘happens’.  When it comes to actual weather, the only real threat that comes along happens this time of year.

Southern California is now in what is called a “Red Flag Warning”.  Essentially, this means that the threat is high for dangerous brush fires, but of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Red Flag Warnings are actually weather-related alerts put out by the National Weather Service (the same people who put out your other storm warnings).  That alone should tell you that this is a weather-related condition.  It starts with actually the opposite of what you think – wet weather.  In the spring and early summer, rains and marine coastal moisture allow fast-growing plants to prosper.  The faster a plant grows, however, the faster it dries out.  When you enter a period of drought, whether over years like California saw the first part of the 2010s or short-term like we have seen since August of this year, all that vegetation lays like kindling awaiting the right conditions.

This is where the ‘Red Flag Warning’ conditions come into play.  Today and tomorrow, there is an expected major pressure change that will push air from the desert to the sea.  This is so typically that it has a fairly popular name:  Santa Ana Winds.  These winds stay low, going through valleys and canyons, which makes them move quicker – usually with gusts between 40 to 70 mph.  Also,  because they came from the desert they are hot and dry.

So – We have dry vegetation that can easily burn.  We have hot dry air blowing at fast rates.  Essentially, all you need is an ignition source, and you have a swift-moving, dangerous fire.

That’s why we get the warning.  Good reason right?

Then of course … this is California, so we have to completely lose our “collective stuff” over something like this.  We are on Day Four of ‘Red Flag Warning” countdown.  It’s like Red Flag Armageddon is on us.  A Red Flag Warning that will last for a little over 36 hours mind you (much of it has started with misty, moist morning air).  Schools are closing in ‘high-risk areas’.  Even the local power company has warned of possible power outages where power will be cut rather than threaten a spark to light a fire.  As someone who works in a field where Risk Mitigation is a top priority, I am all for this discussion — but you first need to identify where the risk is.

I’m telling you, La Crescenta where I live is not where the risk is.

Some key things about wildfires in California are, as dangerous and destructive as they are, they typically don’t occur where there are people.  Much like the myth about tornadoes in Kansas, most fires occur or burn across areas vegetation can grow without human interaction.  Sometimes there are homes or ranches in the way, but not communities of hundreds of thousands of people.

Second, these burns are a necessary order of life.  Plants grow, plants die, plants dry out.  For new plants to grow, the old ones need to go away.  Fires are how this happened since fire was first created.

More than anything, firefighters, smoke jumpers, fire crews — they are incredibly strategic and incredibly strong at what they do.  I mean, we all know they are brave and noble, but they know what they are doing.  Many times when a brush fire is going, they may come back and say the fire is XX contained (like 30% or 50%).  What they really mean is they are blocking the fire from doing what they don’t want to do and letting it burn what they will let it do.  Fires are usually the most dangerous when they are first lit because they are the most unpredictable.  Yet once the lines start to get cut, the tankers start laying down retardant, and troops arrive … they got this.  They got this good!

More than anything, the threat of fire, especially to those of us in the concrete jungle, is incredibly low.  A couple of years ago, I was here for the La Tuna Fire, one of the biggest in Los Angeles County that burned over the Verdugo mountains.  This was a fire that burned on a mountain stuck right in the middle of a massive population and burned 7200 acres of land.  It lit up and “threatened” most of the San Fernando Valley – which includes 1,770,000 people.  The fire was widespread, very consuming, and remained a ‘low containment’ for nearly a week.  In the end, 5 homes were destroyed and about 1000 people had to be evacuated.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s sad for those homeowners and those evacuees, but this ‘mostly uncontained fire’ only was an actual threat to 0.06% of that area.  I was in an area that we were recommended to watch for updates, but still a couple blocks from a ‘voluntary evacuation’; and while I could see smoke for days, only saw a single glimpse of a fire once.

So, maybe it is bravado, but I am looking forward to this “Red Flag Warning” as a nothing experience.  The real Red Flag Warning, LA should have been ready for was the Dodgers going down to the Nationals last night, but that’s a wound too fresh to push at.  Instead, I’ll just say I’m expecting the smell of a campfire, the dry wheezing of smoke in my lungs, and an occasional need to watch the news.

Flying the Big Bird


I posted last week about my short trip to Germany, which while enjoyable was … well … short.  While there was some interest in the Oktoberfest I stopped by in Stuttgart, there seemed to be even more interest when I mentioned I was going to be on an A380 for my return flight to the states.  Still battling jet lag, I thought why not spout out about that experience.

The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest commercial airliner.  By largest, I mean, there isn’t even a competition for first place.  The standard A380 carries 525 passengers.  The next closest is the Boeing 747-8, which while impressive at 416 passengers is still over 100 people behind.  A380s can be configured for a maximum passenger number of 853 which if you want to see something crazy, google A380 evacuation test and watch them try to get that kind of number out in less than a minute.  The A380 was so big it left airports in a mad rush to handle such a plane.  Airbus had to test the crushing weight of the wheels so that airports could ensure runway lights wouldn’t get destroyed by them.  Wings were so wide they had to take into consideration blowing up dirt and wrecking other planes.  Airports had to have tractors big enough to push and pull these beasts around if they had to.

Then there’s the 2nd floor.  Oh yeah, did I mention the 2nd floor?  It has the 2nd floor.  Not like the short one at the front of a 747, an Airbus A380 has an entire 2nd floor.  That’s the real standout of this aircraft, it can manage all these people because it has the floor space to handle them.  There are many who love the A380 just for this reason, because with all that space on the plane, Airbus created extravagant First Class accommodations.  Planes this large are intended for long hauls – 8 to 12-hour flights.  I’ve known people who have had rooms on an A380, not isolated seats, but actual rooms with beds and showers.  I’ve seen pictures of the bars they have on these planes, like, chat up the crew bars.

Of course, I didn’t see that … I flew coach.  I always fly coach, when there’s something cool at least.

Last week was my first ever flight on an A380, and it just leaves one commercial airline (the aforementioned Boeing 747) that I haven’t been on. My first reaction when seeing the plane was not positive.  Eleven years in aircraft manufacturing, decades of flying, and I love the look of a sexy aircraft – the A380 is not sexy.  The flight deck (where the pilots sit) is pushed out from the lower level, and the rest of the plane swoops up then back.  It looks like a guy who got hit in the forehead or is losing his hair.  If that plane played an instrument, it would be a banjo.

When choosing my seat, I targeted a 2nd-floor seat, just to say I was on the 2nd floor.  After they scan your boarding pass, you’re sent down one of three tunnels – two on the lower level (likely one is for First Class only because of all the gold-covered red carpet and champaign popping), and one climbing up to the second.  Up there, it didn’t seem any different than any other plane … except, weird-ish. My seat was second to last row and number 82L, so keep in mind there were 82 combined rows on this plane, probably.  Back there, rows were eight across – two by each window, four in the middle.  The fuselage was bending different than the rest of the plane, so my overhead space was smaller than a regional jet.  The seating in the economy isn’t much different than any other Airbus, the entertainment system as ‘Meh’ as I normally see on those flights as well.  The window seat did give me a little bit of a bonus.  Again, because of the weird bend of the fuselage, there were stow bins between me and the wall – wide enough for blankets, pillows, or whatever; deep as well.  It became a good place just to keep things that a seat back doesn’t.  The windows were awkward, as there was about a foot distance from the inside glass to the outside – so even though they were slightly larger than a normal plane, they were like looking through a tunnel.

Otherwise, flying the big bird felt no different than any larger transatlantic capable plane.  The seats were comfortable-ish, the bathrooms were just big enough to feel too small, and you just have to hope someone doesn’t recline during the meal service.  I’ve flown on worse overseas planes (looking at you 767, looking at you), but the smash forehead beast that is the A380 works in it’s own ways.


Guten Tag aus Deutschland


Today is German Unification Day.  This is the anniversary of the day when East & West Germany reunited bringing in the modern German era.

Most of you were probably unaware that German Unification Day was today, because, well, most of you aren’t German.  It goes without saying – most of you aren’t aware of ANZAC Day or Guy Fucks Day or Nemzeti ünnep.  I’m not so educated on these either, they play football and eat cookies in Australia for ANZAC Day, Guy Fucks Day is my birthday, and that last one I just googled ‘national holidays in Hungary’.

I know German Unification Day is today because everywhere I look banks are closed, shops are closed, and people are sleeping in.

Because I’m in Germany.


Yeah, the blog has been quiet, shouldn’t have been but was.  There have been issues, and that means blogs go quiet.  I did try, in fact, there is a mystery post I was pretty happy with on Monday about the panic I get from flying overseas.  I told the story of my first trip, about how I almost starved myself out of fear of counting English money wrong, and how a stuffed dog named Elvis got me by.  That bridge is passed, so sucks to be you to have never seen it.

I’m in Germany for work.  Specifically the area around Stuttgart in the southwest.  My plane landed Tuesday night, my work was finished up by early Wednesday afternoon, today is my day to get caught up on sleep, then tomorrow I fly home.  I’ll have some time to enjoy Stuttgart, which may mean visiting the Wessen (or Oktoberfest) but because it is a public holiday it may be sold out.

For those of you new-ish to the blog, I used to travel overseas a fair bit – like about 2 to 3 times a year.  It has been three years since I have made such a trip, and six years since I have been to Germany.  Ironically, while I am banging away at trying to remember what it’s like to be overseas, I am tracking issues back at work that may require me to go again – not just overseas but back to Germany, and not just back to Germany but to the same exact place I was at yesterday.


Issues do come up.