Knives On a Plane

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I used to have an awesome Swiss Army knife. It was given to me by my eldest sister as a 21st-birthday present. I had been wanting one for years, and considering the milestone birthday, and the fact that she’d first taken the time to have my initials engraved in the blade, it was an object to which I’d formed a particular sentimental attachment. It was shiny and compact; both beautiful and practical. And for more than a few years, I carried that handy little tool in my pocket at all times.

But as I passed through airport security in Seattle one day, my folded-up knife was stashed in a small inner pocket of my carry-on bag. I had completely forgotten it was there, and apparently, the TSA screeners never noticed it. I boarded my flight without incident, and for the rest of that trip, I was totally oblivious to the illicit little stowaway in my backpack.

That is, until it was time for me to fly home.

The more-alert TSA screeners at Newark’s airport detected the knife right away. The agents immediately pulled me aside to ask me what, exactly, this potentially lethal object was doing in my carry-on. I explained my honest oversight to them, and they seemed to understand. Nevertheless, they weren’t about to let me board a plane with that blade in my bag. I was presented with a choice: Go back and check my carry-on (and almost certainly miss my flight), or toss my knife into a sad receptacle full of forbidden items discarded by other absent-minded travelers. In the heat of the moment, I made a snap-decision, and ruefully (almost tearfully) relinquished my treasured Swiss Army knife.

I’m sharing this sad tale because I recently read that the TSA is about to relax its restrictions for knives on planes. Today, it’s considered unsafe to carry any knife onto an aircraft. But next month, blades of a certain size will be perfectly fine. It feels kind of arbitrary to me. I mean, has something suddenly changed as far as the inherent risk posed by a two-inch blade? Or is the TSA telling us that flying would have been just as safe all along without a decade-long ban on pocket knives?

In other words, was losing my Swiss Army knife a noble sacrifice made for the greater cause of safer skies? Or was it just another degrading act of TSA security theater, serving only to coddle the reptilian brains of anxious travelers? I really don’t know.

As an anxious flyer myself, I readily admit to sometimes allowing myself to be soothed by hollow security gestures. (Whatever gets you through the flight, my friends.) But from the grounded comfort of my home office, I feel more free to rationally ponder the implications of these measures, and question whether they make us safer, or just make us feel safer.

I understand the original rationale behind the knife ban. And I realize that the line between genuine security, and the mere illusion of it, is a blurry one. I don’t pretend to know what it takes to keep a planeful of travelers safe.

But I do know that reactionary, emotion-based impulses frequently lead to less-than-reasonable decisions. (Heck, if all security decisions were based on my usual pre-flight emotions, the only objects allowed on planes would be donuts, Valium, and Captain Sully.) And useful or not, the security measures born in these rash moments seem to have exacted a troubling toll on the weary traveling masses.

So, with these policies subject to sudden and seemingly arbitrary reversal, it does seem reasonable to ask the overall question, “what for?”

Anyway, I’m not trying to get all mired in a controversial debate to which I bring zero expertise. And I really don’t mean to offer commentary from one side or the other. (I’ll leave that to The Onion.) I’m just saying, now that the TSA’s decided it’s safe to carry knives onto planes, I wish I could get my knife back.

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Seattle = Emergency Dispatch Nightmare: Impressions from a First-Time Visitor

There’s really no better way to enjoy the city you call home than to do so in the company of a first-time visitor. What better excuse to indulge in all the local delights and quirky trappings of your burg than to show them off to an out-of-towner? New guests can offer refreshing insights into what it is that makes your city special, and renew your appreciation for a place you’d nearly forgotten how to enjoy:

Curious visitor: “Why’s that wall caked in gum?”

Proud local: “Because Seattle!”

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Yeah. This place rules.

Last week, Mike and I had the pleasure of playing host to our dear friend Belinda, who was visiting the Emerald City for the first time. By all accounts, her stay with us was a big success. The weather was freakishly pleasant, traffic was uncharacteristically obliging, and we didn’t run out of toilet paper once (wins all around). We took in all the must-see sights, enjoyed some of our favorite local eateries, and snapped a bunch of great photos:

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I don’t photograph well in the morning.
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Nothing but the finest for our house guests.
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The rent-a-car folks were PISSED about their vintage Beetle.
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Floating houses? The future is now!
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Prepped for a day of beauty at the spa. Or was it a chocolate factory tour?

It was a real treat to witness Belinda’s reactions as she took in the sights and, perhaps more importantly, the flavors of Seattle. There was, of course, plenty of basking in the scenic splendor that surrounds our city. Belinda seemed particularly impressed by the rows of snow-capped peaks flanking the city, noting that our home state’s Green Mountains would be mere foothills in their midst:

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Mt. Rainier. For perspective, it’s 80 miles away in this shot.

And Belinda learned that when it comes to iconic landmarks, Seattle’s not all Space Needles and fish markets. We also have this:

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Doubling as Seattle’s gay Republican HQ.

But let’s not kid ourselves: This city’s real attractions come in dessert form. I would be lying if I told you most of our itinerary wasn’t planned around visits to places like this:

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Cupcakes!

And this:

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Doughnuts!

And not to mention this, and this.

For such a health-conscious city, Seattle is quite the dessert mecca. As a longtime resident of this Bermuda Triangle of sweets, all I can say is, thank goodness for its many steep hills. “No wonder you’re all so fit,” Belinda observed as I put away my eleventh doughnut. “These hills are just brutal.” Word.

Anyway, one of Belinda’s more spot-on observations about Seattle came from her experience as an emergency-services dispatcher. As someone who routinely directs first responders to emergencies, she’s developed a keen sense of workable traffic patterns. And apparently, there are one or two kinks in the layout of our fair city:

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If you stare at it long enough … you might get a migraine. (photo credit)

Unlike, say, Manhattan, with its rigid, numerically ordered grid, Seattle’s street plan is anything but straightforward. If you ask me, it’s more like an Escher drawing, or one of those webs spun by spiders on crack. I’ll spare you the wonky details, but let’s just say that to the unschooled visitor, these streets can get pretty disorienting pretty fast. To quote Belinda’s professional assessment, “this place is ONE BIG CLUSTERFUCK.”

Okay, maybe those weren’t her exact words. But she did point out that this city is “full of emergency-services nightmares.”

As we zipped across our sprawling cityscape, Belinda couldn’t help but marvel at the confidence with which Mike and I navigated this jumbled maze of thoroughfares. How was it possible, she wondered, that we could find our way to cross-town destinations without the aid of GPS, or some kind of celestial navigation? Fortunately, Mike and I are seasoned Seattle veterans who’ve been working this crazy jigsaw puzzle for years. I suppose our ability to navigate the city with relative ease is one of those things we now take for granted.

This is not to say we don’t hit our fair share of snags around town. There are times, for example, when just getting home can be a bit of an ordeal. You see, while Seattle is not without imagination when it comes to naming its streets:

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Not pictured: Ogre Boulevard and Gremlin Lane.

One sometimes senses that they’re not even trying:

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Not pictured: the actual city of Bellevue.

This in-no-way-confusing intersection is where you’ll find Mike’s and my apartment building (you’re welcome, internet stalkers). It’s tucked away in a relatively quiet corner of our neighborhood, and, as Mike recounted to Belinda, it often requires careful explanation:

Taxi driver: “Where to?”

Mike: “The corner of Bellevue, Bellevue, and Bellevue, please.”

Driver: “No such corner, wise guy.”

Mike: “Dude. I think I know where I live.”

And so begins the comedy routine that is describing our address to locals and visitors alike. Belinda was right – God help us in an emergency.

But thankfully, Belinda’s stay with us was emergency-free. It fact, the entire visit was just about perfect. I’m confident her first impression of Seattle blew away all expectations, and hopeful that a few days with the city’s two funnest gays left her eager to return soon. But until that day comes – thanks to Belinda’s own expert observations – Mike and I can rest easy knowing that if ever there is an emergency, we’ll be pretty well effed.

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Thanks for coming, B!

Hiking in the Cinque Terre: My Second Everywhereist Guest Post!

I know I’ve been a blogging slacker lately, but I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been picking it up a bit lately. My total number of posts has increased by 30% in the last week, and traffic to the blog has ticked up by literally thousands of percentage points. I’m really gonna to try to keep this thing going now, and I know it’s gonna be great!

So now let me tell you about my latest blogging coup (and pretty much the sole reason for my sudden traffic surge).

Occasionally, my friend Geraldine, who has this truly fantastic and wildly popular travel blog, asks me, “How can I push the loyalty, tolerance, and punishment thresholds of my devoted readers to the absolute limit?”

Then I reply,”By featuring me as a guest blogger!”

So here I am, now a twice-featured guest blogger on The Everywhereist. And seriously, it is such an honor to be featured on Geraldine’s blog. I can’t tell you how flattering it is to have such a smart, witty, all-around kickass writer praise my work, let alone see fit to share her illustrious web-space with me. Someday soon, I’ll have the privilege of saying I knew her when.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my latest guest post, about Mike’s and my adventures in Italy’s Cinque Terre. And if you haven’t already, be sure to add The Everywhereist to your list of daily reads!

200 Miles in an Ice Cream Truck

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Have you ever been on an overnight road trip with your boss? I mean, there must be people do it all the time, right? It’s a not-unheard of demand for any number of professions. But last weekend, on a 24-hour work trip to Portland, Oregon, this was a rather memorable first for me.

I work as a part-time branch associate for a smallish community bank. It’s not really the type of job one might associate with road trips and overnight travel. The branch is an easy five blocks from my apartment. Most of my workday is spent at a teller station about as sprawling as a phone booth. And the farthest I usually travel on the job is to the Starbucks on the next corner.

But an overnight stay was called for last weekend, as the company was holding its annual employee-awards gala at the Portland Hilton. My boss, Stacey, was up for two big awards that evening, so even though no paid time was allotted for the trip, the presence of her staff was forcibly coerced gently encouraged.

Naturally, any reservations I may have had about devoting the better part of my weekend to an unpaid work function were allayed by the promise of a free dinner. And Stacey generously sweetened the deal by putting each of us up in the hotel at her own expense. It also didn’t hurt that the “City of Roses” is a handsome town, and always a fine place to visit.

The night played out as only a gathering of hard-partying bankers could. Awards ceremonies may be invariably tedious, but open bars and chocolate cake will always help to dull that pain. People-watching with a table full of tipsy colleagues never fails as an amusing way to pass the time (and never, ever devolves into catty critiques of the hairdos and formal wear of intra-company rivals). There was plenty of drunken reveling when Stacey won the “Manager of the Year” award. And afterward, our team made its way to an elementary-school-turned-brewpub to drown the remainder of our night in (surprisingly not-awful) raspberry-flavored beer.

I rode down to Portland that day with Stacey and her husband. It was an uneventful, but well-soundtracked three hours in their cushy SUV. But arrangements for the next day’s drive home were a tad less conventional. While the hubby would be driving solo back to Seattle, the boss and I needed to swing by another branch to pick up the truck … the ice cream truck, that is.

I work for a bank that glories in its un-banklike quirkiness. Our branches are designed to resemble inviting hotel lobbies, and are referred to as “cafes.” Cash and receipts aren’t so much handed to customers as they are served on polished-wood platters with a fancy chocolate coin on the side. We offer complimentary espresso, sweets, and free internet access to anyone who walks through the door. And we regularly host local merchants and organizations in need of promotional-event space (“What’s that? You want to set up a professional dog-grooming station in the middle of our lobby? You bet!”).

We also have an ice cream truck. It’s one of the bank’s more deliciously ingenious marketing tools, used to dispense free frozen treats at picnics, parades, and any number of other bank-sponsored events. The truck is shared by a handful of the bank’s Washington State branches, and for the weekend of the awards gala, it was Stacy’s and my duty to retrieve it from Vancouver (WA) and drive it back to Seattle. Fun! Right?

Too bad a terrible glitch would turn the sweet promise of this on-the-road adventure into bitter disappointment on wheels. Normally, of course, you’d expect a three-hour drive in this particular SUV (sweet-utility vehicle) to be a nonstop joyride of frozen delights; a 200-mile, sugar- and cream-fueled jaunt down the Häagen-Dazs Highway. And, had the truck’s freezer been fully functional that day, I suppose this would have been the case.

But the truck was a lie. And not even a truck, really. It was just a big, empty van with the big, empty promise of “free ice cream” splashed across its sides. There was no ice cream, free or otherwise. That broken freezer melted my sugar-high hopes like so much Cherry Garcia, reducing them to a tepid puddle of oozy disappointment. The dream was over before it even started.

All that was left now was the long ride home in a goofy-looking van.

Adding profound insult to grievous injury, we discovered that the van was ill-equipped to play the music on either of our portable devices. With a CD-only stereo system, our great road-trip playlist was suddenly cut down to the few discs that were already in the van (Alvin and the Chipmunks, and an empty case missing its copy of the Grease soundtrack. Awesome). We also had our pick of cheery talk radio (of the “Praise Jesus!” and “Obama’s a socialist-alien!” variety), and a selection of top-40 stations that seemed to know of only four contemporary pop songs between them.

But the trip did go fast. Literally. Not being loaded down with 31 flavors of frozen cargo does wonders for a vehicle’s agility. I can imagine what a sight we must have been – a big, flashy delivery van, painted in Mystery Machine colors, covered with silly slogans, and cruising along at 85 mph (past a puzzled state patrol officer looking unsure whether to stop us for speeding, or to grab a quick sno-cone). Weaving through freeway traffic with the urgency of a blaring ambulance, we no doubt gave the impression that some dire ice cream emergency required our immediate attention. And actually, such an impression wouldn’t have been that far off.

There was no way we were going to drive 200 miles in an ice cream truck and not have any ice cream. Surely that would upset the natural order of things in ways both frightening and unfathomable. So about halfway through our journey, Stacey made the kind of brilliant executive decision that earned her that “Manager of the Year” title: “That’s it,” she declared. “We’re stopping at the next Dairy Queen and getting Blizzards!”

The confused looks we were given as we rolled into the DQ parking lot in our “free ice cream” truck were priceless. The irony was lost on no one as I stepped up to the counter. With a bewildered smirk, the cashier couldn’t help but ask what the hell we were doing there, and why on earth we were buying our ice cream.

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As we finally rolled back into the Emerald City, I was kinda hoping Mike would be there to greet us as we pulled up to my building. I didn’t know him as a child, but one of my most cherished images is that of a young, pudgy Mike running with the contents of a hastily smashed piggy bank and yelling “WAAAAIIIT!” as he chased down a passing ice cream truck. It’s a hilariously precious Mike-memory that he and I revisit often. But alas, he wasn’t home that afternoon. And I suppose that was for the best. There was nothing for my ice cream-obsessed boyfriend to chase this time but a couple of licked-clean DQ containers.

It had been a road trip quite unlike any other. It’s not every day that a banker like me is delivered door-to-door in such a memorable and exciting fashion. I was bummed about the truck’s crappily timed freezer malfunction, but in the end, we got our ice cream, and the indelible memory of a unique and oddly delightful excursion. After Stacey dropped me off, I waved goodbye to our flawed, but noble chariot. My Blizzard-buzz waning, I ambled inside, crossed “Drive 200 miles in ice cream truck” off my bucket list, and crashed.

Another Exciting Shout-Out!

My apologies for the blog-neglect, dear readers. I’m a full-time college student and I’ve been swamped with both midterm and end-of-the-quarter schoolwork for the past couple of weeks. Consequently, I’ve been writing up a storm (and who knew this steadfast Seattle liberal had a ten-page essay on Ronald Reagan in him?). Unfortunately, it’s all dry, boring, wannabe-academic research papers that really have no place in front of human eyes, let alone on this blog.

But I did want to share this quick blurb about my recent guest post on The Everywhereist, which just got a very kind shout out on HostelBookers.com:

This one is a joint effort of sorts. Dan Thies for writing article, and The Everywhereist for featuring it on her blog. Thanks to both. It’s a breath of fresh air to read the experiences of someone who doesn’t take safari too seriously – less time spent comparing binocular focal lengths with khaki clads, and more time taking obscured, and less than perfect wildlife photography. If it is any consolation Dan, I’d have said a giraffe too.

Please note its first-place ranking among their favorite blog posts of July (which, for all I know, merely denotes the order in which the piece was read, and has nothing to do with its “rank” on the list). Either way, not too shabby.

Thanks for the recognition, HostelBookers!

And thank you for your patience, readers. There’s plenty of fun stuff I’m dying to blog about. Just need to get through the rest of the quarter – only a couple more weeks to go!

Kruger Time: My Guest Post for The Everywhereist

Is it bad form, when one has neglected his own blog for so long, to post a link to another blog he’s contributed to more recently?

Whatever. I’m gonna do it anyway.

I promised to write this guest post for my friend Geraldine’s far more distinguished travel blog about a zillion years ago. After no small amount of “gentle cajoling,” I finally got my act together and wrote this hopefully funny little piece.

In it I write about my November 2009 visit to Kruger National Park in South Africa. For this trip, I tagged along with my boyfriend Mike and his friends Julia and Allison, who were all traveling to visit their old college pal Jon.

For me, Kruger was the absolute highlight of the trip. In fact, it fulfilled my lifelong dream to someday travel to Africa and get my safari on. I’ll just say, the park did not disappoint.

Read all about it here. And enjoy!