Riding the Rails

AmtrakA week ago, I had the delightful pleasure of taking 3 separate trains on my journey home. Trains have peppered my life in lovely ways: the electric train set my parents gave me when I was a child, the trains from the then-beautiful Rochester train station to New York’s Grand Central Station where we met up with beloved friends and relatives, and the daily Long Island Rail Road trains I took to the city and that gave me an extra hour of sleep thanks to their rhythmic rocking and soothing whistle. Then there was the train trip from Grand Central to Florida my parents and I took to spend a fun-in-the-sun vacation during a high school Spring Break. We had a sleeper cabin for this trip and took our meals in the first-class dining car, complete with white-coated waiters, china and real-silver utensils.

I love Amtrak. Granted, my trip to Rochester was long, but Amtrak was clean, on time, and staffed with the friendly and professional conductors who out shown their “fly the friendly skies” counterparts. I didn’t have to deal with the  dreaded turbulence, and the coach seats were spacious and comfortable.

If you have never considered traveling by rail, here are some things complied by the Huntington Post that you may find interesting.

  1. Most eco-friendly mode of travel: Yep – train travel is 14 percent more energy efficient than air travel and 31 percent more efficient per passenger car travel.
  2. Guides: If your train travels through any national parks, you’ll be treated to an expert talk as you pass through.
  3. Breakfast in bed: Can you believe it? If you opt to house yourself in a sleeper car, your attendant can actually provide you with bedside service.
  4. Baths and showers: Some sleepers actually have private baths; for those that don’t, public showers are available.
  5. Different sleeper floor plans: Most sleeper cabins are configured to house 1 or 2 people, with comfortable seats for daytime and convertible and/or pull-down beds for sleeping. Some have baths. Others have additional features to accommodate kids. Finally, some cabins are designed for passengers with disabilities.
  6. Coach is not your airplane coach: Coach seats in airplanes are getting smaller and smaller, resulting in significant passenger discomfort and even injury. Coach seats on trains are comfortable, spacious and offer plenty of leg room and storage for your carry-ons.
  7. Hungry? Amtrak trains include a café car that offers snacks, quick meals, drinks, even wine and beer. I enjoyed a glass of chardonnay on my trip home to Rochester.
  8. Need to charge your phone, tablet or laptop? Electric outlets are available at each seat.
  9. Wifi? Included!

My trip home took 12 hours, but every hour was worthwhile. I people watched, read, did crossword puzzles and simply relaxed. It was heaven and already I’m planning my next ride on the rails.

Want to know more? Check out  Amtrak National Facts for detailed information.

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Come Fly with Me

plane-2181180_960_720Remember that song by Frank Sinatra? For me it evokes memories of the loveliest kind. Let me explain.

My daughter recently returned from a trip to see her California relatives and getting there was pure and complete hell. Whereas she was supposed to get there in one day, it ended up taking two. Whereas she was supposed to have just one layover, she ended up with two. Whereas she was supposed to arrive in one city, she ended up arriving in another. All of this combined with cramped quarters, less than lovely flight attendants, and the need to pay extra for luggage.

Flying today is not her mother’s experience flying some 40 (ouch) years ago. Back in the day, it was a really big deal and most people got dressed up for their time in the skies. There was no extra charge for luggage, flight attendants treated every passenger like royalty, and when there was “an act of God” (weather issue) that cancelled or delayed flights, the airlines ALWAYS gave out vouchers for food and hotels.

I too used to fly to California often since I lived there and commuted frequently back to Rochester. Although not all of my memories are so, I vividly remember what wonderfully pleasant experiences I had flying coast to coast in the 70s and 80s. It was always a Chicago connection (except for once when my boss ‘made’ me fly to NYC with a connection to Rochester – but that’s another story for another day…) to a DC-10, one of the first wide-bodies that was commonly flown on longer domestic hauls back then. And here’s where my Fly with Me story begins.

Let me begin by saying I smoked – cigarettes, that is. And I smoked a lot. In those days, smoking was allowed on airplanes. Also in those days, flights were far from full, seats were bigger, and passengers were allowed to drink all the wine they wanted – for FREE. Do you see a theme here? Indeed, you do. I always headed for the very last row of seats in the plane, and even if they weren’t assigned to me – they usually weren’t – those particular seats were almost always empty. Plus, they were right next to the bathroom, which, you shall see, I would need more than once as I quite gaily made my way across the country. Now picture this: a row of three seats with a single person (me), smoking up a storm, drinking like a fish, sprawling like a queen and having a wonderful time.

Can you see this happening today? Oh, maybe in first class or on a first-rate airline like Emirates or Alitalia. But otherwise, no way!

Well, things change, for the better and for the worse. For the airlines? They are striving to make more money (are they); for the passengers? We are losing comfort and gaining stress, not a lucrative endeavor, indeed.

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Posted in Traveling

Doggy DNA

RosieRosie, Posie, Pudding and Pie: just one of the many pet names I have for my precious little Boston Terrier (not). Why the not? Read on.

We were suckers. Both Dominic and I wanted a puppy, a Boston Terrier puppy, a cuddly little creature who would be with us for the long haul. Part of me is red-faced to admit we got a puppy; after all, I am a dedicated member of rescue organizations and we have two dear, older rescued Bostons.

Nevertheless, Dominic saw an ad for BT pups. Right away there were red flags – they didn’t want to send a photo (they finally did, couldn’t see much more than black and white), they were selling the pup for a friend who was ill, and they wanted us to hurry to buy her, and so on. So, off we went, and 2 ½ hours later we beheld this very precious, not-quite-Boston looking 11-week old puppy.

“I want her,” I announced, despite her longish snout, floppy ears, long tail, BIG paws, and coat longer than a BT. With a pronouncement by the seller that she was indeed a BT, off we went with our precious cargo with whom I was now madly in love.

But still, I was dying to know! After several months of watching our little Rosie evolve into something clearly not purebred, we decided to buy a doggy DNA kit to find out who she really was. After 8 weeks of anxious waiting, the verdict was in. Rosie was ¾ purebred BT and ¼ Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. What a surprise! This explained much about her physical characteristics. However, her rambunctious, smart, energetic and fun-loving self is pure and unequivocal Boston Terrier.

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The Perfect Letter

When was the last time you received a handwritten, just-to-you letter, on pretty, even perfume-scented stationary? I don’t remember the last time I did. I have received beaucoup email, text messages, Facebook post responses and other e-messages. But hand-written letter? Nada.

When I was a kid, I had a number of pen pals and I relished writing them long, juicy, letters about all the things in my world, which of course, I thought were magical and creative. I talked about my adventures in grammar school. I wrote about my Barbie and Ken and their latest antics at my hand. I told about my horseback riding lessons and the pizza I made with my mother. And when I got their letters back, I loved every word and every minute of reading about the small and delightful things in their lives.

I remember trips to Scrantoms, the stationary and office supply store in the city and sadly long gone. A trip to Scrantoms was like Christmas. I’d pore over the boxes of multi-colored and decorated letter paper until I came across just the right one. Then, the pen – it had to match, and Lord knows Scrantoms had a huge selection. Finally – sealing wax – do you remember that? The seal, the color of the wax, all critical elements of what just had to be – the perfect letter!

The letters were an investment in these friendships. They took time, effort, and pleasure in their writing, and handed great glee in their receipt and reading. Somewhere I have a box of stationary around. It is old, but that’s okay. It’s time to bring it out and let some people how much I truly care.

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The Mighty Mt. Vesuvius

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Mt. Vesuvius – when we traveled to Italy last summer, I became totally obsessed with Mt. Vesuvius and the once-buried city of Pompeii. It was a magnet against which I had no control. It is a magnet that is active, that is full of magma at some deep level, and that hisses and emits plumes of hot steam near its base. The word from experts is not “if,” but “when” it will one day repeat its spectacularly horrific performance over Pompeii.

The infamous eruption that buried Pompeii occurred in 79 A.D. The city had experienced a series of preceding earthquakes with a major one in 62 A.D. that did considerable damage to the city’s quite advanced infrastructure. As the time for the major eruption neared, seismic activity in the area increased, but having been used to their ground regularly shaking, most citizens went about their business as usual.

On an August day, it was after the noon hour that all hell broke loose and a huge cloud exploded into the sky while the ground shook, and poisonous gases and ash spewed all over the city of Pompeii. Many people gathered some belongings and escaped while others decided to hunker down and wait it out. The ones who waited literally smothered to death.

Visiting the city of Pompeii was like walking on sacred ground where the ghosts of those who died whisper in the bakeries, bathhouses and brothels that remain crumbled in the ruins. Most haunting are the casted remains of those who died in exactly the positions in which they died. When the ash came, it encased the bodies and when it cooled, it made actual casts of the bodies as seen in the photo.

Vesuvius has had a few belches since 79 A.D., including one in 1631 that destroyed the city of Naples which lies at its base, and one in 1944, during WW II. No one was injured in the latter eruption, but lava and ash ruined bomber military planes and other equipment that were stationed at the Pompeii Airport. Since then there have been many small earthquakes.

Now comes the issue of “when.” As the only active volcano in Europe, the city of Naples has precariously draped itself in an area surrounding the volcano’s bottom. Scientist Michael Sheridan of the University of Buffalo says Vesuvius is due for a major blow as catastrophic, or even more so, than the one that destroyed Pompeii. The city has designed emergency plans for an eruption, but these plans don’t cover the magnitude of a Pompeii-style one that could completely destroy this thriving port city.

So, what if? What then? The answers are out of our control. And those in Vesuvius’ shadow can only respect their mighty neighbor and bear witness to the havoc she may one day wreak upon them.

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A Solution to the Rising Cost of College Textbooks

Would you believe that since 2006 the cost of textbooks for college students has risen an astronomical 73 percent? For some students, this equates to a yearly bill of up to $1,200 just for books! What do they do? Many students lasso some of their financial aid, which is really meant for tuition as well as room and board – the things that enable an education in the first place. Others take time away from studies and work! It’s estimated that a student must work 28 hours to buy just one textbook. (Ethan Senack, advocate at Public Interest Research Groups as told to NBC). And some take their chances and don’t get the book at all.

So, what’s with the high cost of these books? First, the academic publishing industry is run by just five publishers who control 80 percent of the market. Second, in most cases, professors decide what textbook is required for their courses, which means students have no choice but to pay whatever those books cost. There are two issues regarding professor choice. One is that some professors do not know the cost of their chosen text and second, some professors know and simply do not care: not an acceptable approach in today’s high-pressure, exorbitant academic expense (let’s not even begin to talk about tuition!) world.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? The answer is a resounding yes. Enter Open Education Resource, a rapidly emerging approach of incorporating academically sound, free digital materials into instruction. I volunteered to take my class materials online when an opportunity arose and after my first go-round, the course received the highest student evaluations of any time I have taught it using traditional texts. Of course, part of the rave reviews was the fact that the students didn’t have to pay $125 for the book I had been using. But I think the main reason was the true fun associated with exploring new and varied resources to support the learnings in class.

So, if learning is more effective and the students actually have fun, why isn’t OER more widespread? Here’s why: it’s hard! Putting together an array of materials that matches your teaching goals and objectives is just plain arduous whereas teaching from a textbook is comparatively easy.

When I volunteered to convert my course, a cadre of librarians joined with me in the hunt. The process was enjoyable – like a treasure hunt, seeking the perfect resource for a given objective or activity. We discovered, we discussed and we designed, using some things, and discarding others. The bottom line: all the resources were free and were easily either transported into or linked to our learning management system. Voila! Free, quality resources.

What are the real benefits of OER? According to William Blick and Sandra Marcus of Queensborough Community College, they are as follows:

  • They lessen the college cost burden for students
  • For faculty, there is far more freedom in choosing sources than if texts are mandated
  • The assembly of materials adds to the greater academic pool of knowledge on a given topic

As I look towards my fourth semester of using OER, I am excited because based on changes in business communications methods and technologies, it’s time to engage in another hunt for the exactly right resource for the topic at hand. Let the hunt (and fun) begin!

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College Classroom Behaviors

speakers-414562_960_720The semester is over – almost. Usually I experience a letdown at the end of a semester. Not so this year. Let me tell you why.

I enjoyed most of the students, with “most” being the operative word. But what I experienced more this semester than in my 25 years of teaching was attitudes of self-righteousness. And those that exhibited it were almost militant in their demands and brash in their behaviors. They showed a disrespect for me and their fellow students that was astounding.

Here is an example: I had one young man whose hand stayed up in the air for the entire semester. He had it up to answer every question I asked, to make a multitude of comments, some relevant, many not, and to respond to one of the other poor souls who dared venture out from under the shadow of his hand. Not only did he do these things, the hand was perpetually raised regardless of whether I was in the middle of a lecture or another student was speaking. Because of that hand, the other students mostly shut down so the semester set out to be the “Lionel” (not his real name) show. His other disruptive (to me) behavior was a constant current of facial expressions with furrowed brow, unnerving, to say the least.

It was time to get my class back!

I did. Here’s how. When his hand went up and the rest of the class sat silent and stoic, I called on one of the others who in fact seemed happy to participate. Of course, I still called on Lionel (as a good and fair teacher I could not ignore this hand forever), but more often I “volunteered” the participation of others and things seemed to balance out.

Now, you may ask, why didn’t I speak with Lionel about his hand and behavior? Mid-semester I did indeed. Things improved … for a week. Then it was as if we never spoke.

For years, I have had an item in my grading rubric called professionalism, which gives me a tool for addressing things like lateness, inappropriate in-class behavior, late work, and disrespect for peers and professor. This year, Lionel’s wasn’t the only professionalism score to suffer significantly, and in fact, I doled out more poor scores than ever before, so I set about to ponder why.

Entitlement. For many of today’s students it’s all about “me, me, me.” In addition to the hand, which clearly did not care about the remaining 20 hands in the room, I had two students who came in late to class, and I mean 10 to 15 minutes late, nearly every day. Then there was the issue of the cell phone and incessant in-class texting. I’ve decided that they think if they put their heads down and behind their computers they can’t be seen. It’s the “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me” thing.

So, I will spend my summer thinking about how to improve my classroom atmosphere, handle this increasing attitude of entitlement, and give all students a better experience.

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