Monday, February 23, 2015

Going to California

  Once upon a time six blind men lived in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today." They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was and touched the elephant. "The elephant is a pillar," said the man who touched his leg. "No! it is like a rope," said the man who touched the tail. "It is like a thick branch of a tree," said the man who touched the trunk of the elephant. "It is like a big hand fan" said the man who touched the ear of the elephant. "It is like a huge wall," said the man who touched the belly of the elephant. "It is like a solid pipe," said the man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
~An Ancient proverb

Welcome to Sacramento, California - The large pit is the future home of the new basketball arena.

  Two weeks ago I took a work trip to California to meet with regulators and the customers and prospects of a customer of our company in preparation for a new software development project. I’d never been to California before – the furthest west I’d ever been was Las Vegas once and I got a gun stuck in my face that time but thats a topic for another post maybe. Most people thought I should be very excited about my trip but I wasn’t for a number of reasons. The first and foremost is that I hate flying. I hadn’t been on a plane since 2007 when I took a work trip to Indianapolis. The first leg of that flight was to St. Louis which got delayed when it was discovered there wasn’t enough fuel on the plane to get us to St. Louis! Then the second leg of the trip was delayed when a malfunctioning part on the plane was discovered. I was glad the malfunctioning part wasn’t the part that found out there wasn’t enough fuel to get to St. Louis. I know there aren’t very many plane accidents but all the same I’ll take my chances driving and walking thank you.

  The other reason I wasn’t excited about the trip was that I’d be leaving on Wednesday and returning after midnight on Saturday. This meant I’d have to miss Thursday night chess club in Marshalltown, Friday morning chess class at St. Francis, and at least 5 walks with my beagles. If I had to list my favorite things to do walking my beagles, chess club in Marshalltown, and teaching chess at St. Francis would be near the top of my list and this week I would be missing out on all three of them.

If you're claustrophobic the parking lot or waiting area at the Des Moines Airport is a much better destination than the back row of a tiny metal tube hurtling through the air...

  I was looking forward to designing a new software project but I wish I could have done the legwork from home. But I don’t work because I want to – I work to feed my family so 2 Wednesdays ago I found myself at the Des Moines airport on my way to Sacramento, California. Whenever me or Kathy had to drop off a car at the airport we were able to park in the covered parking garage across the street from the airport but on this day every lot was full except one parking lot that was at least a mile away from the airport. Luckily there was a shuttle and after a few minutes I was at the terminal.

  I got through the airport security with no problem and was using my 45 free minutes of internet with my iPod conveniently plugged into one of the many charging stations built into the waiting area seats. I boarded the plane that was taking me to Denver for the connector flight and was seated in the very last row and when the plane took off I almost threw up. I really hate flying but settled down after a bit and before I knew it I was in Denver. The Denver airport is really nice with moving walkways but there was no free internet or charging stations. I noticed all the laptop and phone users huddled around the few available outlets (probably available for use by the cleaning crew) hoping to get their devices charged up before their next destination. The flight from Denver to Sacramento was uneventful (unless you were daydreaming about a crash while flying over the Rocky Mountains) and as a bonus there were charging stations in the airplane seats and wireless internet was available for a dollar an hour.

The Denver airport had a moving walkway but then there was more flying - this time over mountains...

  My traveling companions and I got to Sacramento, rented a car, and drove to the Embassy Suites hotel which was right on the Sacramento River across from a touristy area known as ‘Old Town’ which is a few blocks of Wild West era buildings containing restaurants, gift and souvenir shops, and craft stores. One of the restaurants was called the ‘Firehouse’ which was where we were going to meet a prospect for dinner.

On the left is an appetizer sampler from 'The Firehouse' after which you need to cleanse your palate with the cucumber sorbet on the right.

  The weather was pretty warm (around 50 degrees) and after settling in our rooms for a few minutes we were off to Old Town. ‘The FireHouse’ was quite the restaurant with high ceilings, giant paintings, and a wait staff that as all over the place picking up empty plates refilling glasses as soon as they could be emptied. The prices were high but not that much more than I could pay for a steak in Marshalltown. After entrees I had a steak and both were excellent. In between servings we were given a little cup of what I thought was ‘ice cream’ that I was told was ‘cucumber sorbet’ that was meant to ‘cleanse my palate’. I was going to say something about my palate not being dirty but I thought the better of it and was glad I did since I was the only person at the table whose palate had never been cleansed.

This pile of bacon and sausage at the breakfast room of the Embassy Suites makes me think the chef was from Iowa...

  After the meal, we walked back to the hotel. It was midnight Iowa time but only 10pm California time and when I woke up a 4am Iowa time like I normally do it was 2am California time. I didn’t have any beagles to walk so I used the blazingly fast internet in the hotel to play some one minute chess in between naps until 6:30 when I headed downstairs for the free breakfast. And what a breakfast! Coffee, juice, toast, pastries, fresh fruit, giant omelets to order, and massive trays of eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns were all readily available. I passed on the eggs but loaded up on the bacon, sausage, and fruit and was ready for a day of meetings in California.

  The meetings were all in downtown Sacramento so we walked everywhere. Sacramento has half a million people and during the day walking downtown it looked like most any downtown in any big city. I would have loved to visit some of the seedier sections but the meetings were all in big buildings downtown. The town itself seemed pretty clean. I didn't see any beggars and only two 'Slappy' types rooting around in the garbage cans for cans and bottles. There was an electric bus that took people all around so there wasn’t any noticeable traffic jams. One thing I did notice was a giant hole in the ground for the new basketball arena for the Sacramento Kings. Sacramento is paying $250 million dollars to build the $477 million dollar arena which was the price to keep the NBA Kings (Sacramento's only major league team) from moving to Seattle. While walking past the construction site I noticed ‘Ali Baba’s Kabob House’ was the first restaurant on the edge of the construction site. Once the arena is complete, Ali Baba’s Kabob House will be the first restaurant many eventgoers see as they leave the arena and if there is ever a corruption probe in Sacramento concerning payoffs for a certain Kabob House not only escaping the wrecking ball but becoming prime real estate you heard it here first.

Ali Baba's Kebob House may not seem like much today but someday it may be THE food destination after Sacramento Kings games.

  After the Thursday meetings, I trolled the shops in Old Town for a Valentine’s Day gift for Kathy. There was a Christmas shop but when I asked if they had any Christmas candles the clerk gave a curt ‘no’ without even looking up from his smartphone so I settled on a fudge sampler and some salt water taffy from ‘Sacramento Sweets’ which had an operational taffy pulling machine on the premises. With Valentine’s Day all settled I shared a pizza for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Old Town and was back in the hotel room by 10 California time – midnight Iowa time.

Sacramento Sweets helped me out with Valentine's Day presents for Kathy!

  I woke up again at 4am Iowa time – and 2am California time and spent some time napping, working, and playing chess until 6:30 when I could get to the lobby of the Embassy Suites for another awesome breakfast of bacon, sausage, fruit, and more bacon. There was one more meeting an hour away and by 1pm I was back in the Sacramento airport ready to head home. I went through the security gate but while I was able to pass the Des Moines security easily there was a snag in Sacramento – my plane ticket was made out to Hank but my driver’s license has my given name Henry. The TSA agent told me her grandfather’s name was Henry but everyone called him Hank so she understood that I probably wasn’t an imposter but if I didn’t have any identification with Hank on it there was no way I was going to get past the checkpoint. I fished through my wallet and found a Triple A card with ‘Hank’ on it. This only satisfied the TSA agent somewhat and I got to be the recipient of a full body pat down along with a thorough search of my travel bags. I survived the detailed inspection (although the fudge and taffy I got my wife were opened and closed and reopened) and was in the terminal after 20 minutes. I felt like asking how I got to Sacramento from Des Moines in the first place but I figured that would probably get me more attention than I wanted so I kept my mouth shut.

On the left is one of the many excellent work areas and charging stations at the Sacramento airport (once you get past the security). I did manage to get in some celebrity spotting on my trip. I knew Bruce Jenner was undergoing a gender transformation but I hadn't read about Michael Moore also undergoing a similar change. As you can see from the picture on the right it worked a lot better than Jenner's and she was hardly recognized on the flight back...

  Once I got through the extra scrutiny of the Transportation Safety Administration, the Sacramento airport was the best I’ve ever seen. It has charging stations with room for laptops and free wi-fi that was so blazingly fast I was able to play 1 minute chess on the Internet Chess Club with no lag time and was beating people on time that always beat me on time when I use Marshalltown’s Mediacom internet. Sufficiently juiced by a tremendous session of one minute chess the flight to Phoenix and then Des Moines took no time at all and by 12:30am on Saturday I was back in the far away parking lot in Des Moines International Airport. I arrived in Marshalltown at 1:30 and stopped in the Wal-Mart to get Valentine’s Day flowers for Kathy and stood in line behind a surprising number of men who were also buying cards, candy, and flowers. I got home at 2 in the morning and by 5am was back to my normal routine of beagle walking.

  I didn’t get to see too much of California but I can now say I’ve been there and if anyone asks me what California was like I’d have to answer that it’s a pretty clean place with reasonably nice weather and a lot of meeting rooms, hotels, and restaurants. I’d also note that Californians are really security conscious, have great internet, and palates that need a lot of cleansing. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to California but if I fly I’ll be sure to get my ticket under the name of Henry instead of Hank.