mardi 24 juin 2008

Killing me softly with surcharge

Has anyone noticed that as hotel rooms have gotten smaller in the US, hidden hotel surcharges have gotten bigger? When you go to Paris, you expect your hotel room to be the size of a French postage stamp. That's part of the experience, or so my friends who visited me there would tell me. I think I lived there for so long in part because I did not want to have to experience Paris in a room the size of that stamp, which is smaller than a typical US postage stamp.
On the other hand, when the average visitor comes to Paris, it is not to hang out in his or her hotel room. It is to hang out in restaurants, visit museums, shop, soak up culture and walk all over town, stopping in one of the many parks that make Paris such a welcoming place.
Portland, Oregon has its charms, but Paris it is not. And yet our hotel room was so small. There was no room to swing that proverbial cat, which was a good thing because we were traveling with a dog. And our dog was treated like the queen she is. The doormen opened the doors for her; everyone gushed over her, asking for her name and race (can you imagine if we did this for people? asked for a racial rundown?) and giving her affectionate pats on the tummy. She encourages and accommodates this gesture by immediately lying on her back and looking up adorably. Soon after we got to our broom closet -- I mean our room -- Neko's welcome pack was delivered: a big cushion (so she wouldn't sleep on the bed, nice try), a package of doggie pepperoni, a white plastic bone, a stuffed toy that looked like a misshapen pancake or a catcher's glove but was neither, some plastic bowls and some plastic poop scoop bags. One reason Neko slept on the bed (aside from the number one reason, which is that she always sleeps on the bed) was that it filled the entire room. One of us had to be sitting on it at all times; otherwise, nobody could get to the bathroom, the closet or even the door.
And what is it with mini-bars? Not that I would ever pay 6.50 for a small bottle of water, or 8.00 for a hunk of chocolate...But since when are mini-bars so well-stocked that you can't close them or fit a can of dog food inside? Oh, wait, I get it. This discourages people from buying a small bottle of water or an apple for 50 cents from the corner grocery store and sticking these items in the mini-bar instead of consuming its contents. How clever!

We brought our laptops from Seattle so we could check our email or look up local addresses. Next time, they will stay at home. The daily wifi connection fee is 10 dollars. And to think I was shocked when the Starbuck's in Paris charged me 4 bucks a day! I should have thanked them. I suppose the business center offered free access, but still, and then again maybe not. Because the guiding principle is: if you can charge for something, by all means do so. You have a captive audience that has already paid for the room.

This applies to the bedside telephone as well. TREAT IT AS A DECORATIVE OBJECT. I didn't test the waters this time, but have learned from recent experience that every time you touch that dial, or even look at the receiver, it will cost you more than 5 dollars.
I understand why many people prefer to rent furnished studios or apartments when they travel. You may not get that 20 dollar continental breakfast, but you get a kitchen with an empty refrigerator that is bigger than a mini-bar. You may not get maid service, but you get to move freely about your space without tripping over your suitcase or bumping into a door that has to be left open at all times to create the illusion of roomy comfort.

One August I visited Sweden. It was the perfect time to be there, because Swedes generally take the month off, which means that business travelers from the world over stay away from Stockholm. As a result, the fabulous hotels that are usually out of the price range of mere mortals slash their rates. And Sweden is not Europe's number one vacation destination, so it is easy to find such accommodation. I paid less than what we did for the broom closet last weekend to stay at the Diplomat hotel, generally considered one of the best in Stockholm.

It was splendid: the room had two double beds, a sitting area, and a small terrasse overlooking the harbor. The bathroom and toilet were separate, and the bathroom featured a shower and a bathtub. The room had a CD player, with a wide selection of CDs available at no extra charge from the lobby. The floor was hardwood. The fitness room was like the WAC. And yes, there were chocolates on the pillows every night.

But the best place I have ever stayed is Karen and Joe's guest cabin on their property in Northern California. They're coffee roasters (try their Gold Coast coffee; it is the best), and they live on the well-named Lost Coast. They are only 35 miles from Eureka, but it takes an hour-and-a-half to get to their place from there. The desolate road leading to their pristine paradise is deserted but dangerous. Around every dark bend, the Pacific Ocean comes into view. The beaches stretch for miles and miles.

Karen and Joe lived in their guest cabin (first photo after the French postage stamp) while they were building their own house. The shower is in the kitchen, just below the sleeping loft (it has a mirror on the outside, last photo above), which can only be reached via a ladder. It is probably a little bigger than a postage stamp, but not much. And are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by green silence, broken only by the soft rush of the nearby ocean, which you can see. You don't need to open the bathroom door to create the illusion of space. Anyway, this would be impossible because the bathroom is an outhouse. Karen told us to look before sitting down to make sure no wild animal had built a nest in there. This had a radical impact on my elimination strategy. We had no television and could not get the CD player to work. But we had music and visual distraction all around us. See for yourself in the third image above.

vendredi 20 juin 2008

Bad photos and a pina colada my friend

I wanted to send some photos of me to a friend we're meeting this weekend, which is always rather traumatic.

Photos of myself, I mean. I hate them. I am not photogenic. My friend Diane and I have spent far too much time analyzing why neither of us looks good in photos. We think it has to do with the fact that we both have soft features, as opposed to hard or sharp ones. People with sharp features often look better in photos than in life. In life, their features are too sharp. In pictures, these features are softened and attractively accentuated (or distorted) by something magical in a camera. Let's call it the P factor. P for prettification.

For people with soft features, who can be easier on the eyes of the beholder in real life, face-to-face encounters, this same factor makes them look out of focus and too soft on camera. There is not enough there there. You can usually spot these people because they are either looking away from the camera (or running away, if they're fast) or, if they are looking at it, their eyes are closed or they are squinting in a most unflattering way.

Shamefully, this hatred of my own photographic image has caused me to do some horrible things over the years, like hunt down and rip up photos of myself that I hate. And that's a lot of photos. This is my personal, secret search and destroy mission, and I carry it out every time I visit my mother. I line my pockets with bad photos and then cut them up in private. Sometimes I burn them if I feel there is a chance someone will come along and "recoller les morceaux." This is bad.

One problem I think is that I lack instruction in how to photograph well. How to look relaxed in front of a camera (as opposed to panicked or suspicious, neither of which photographs well as far as a "look" goes), how to look into that lens and seduce it. I have read articles on the subject over the years, and none have helped at all. I've tried everything, and the result is that in photos I look like I'm trying everything and it's just not working for me.

There is one photo of me that I actually like. I like it because it looks like me. Or rather, it looks the way I hope I look to the world. It was taken by my ex-daughter-in-law. I am holding her baby. I am lost in thought, probably not listening to whatever is being said. It is an unbearably hot day. My hair is not clean, and is pulled back in one of those clip thingies. I am not wearing any makeup at all. My arms are bare and white--after all, it is late summer.

I cling to this photo and try to understand what it has captured that I recognize and accept as me. I'm not smiling or frowning. I'm not scowling; I'm not talking or eating or gesticulating. I am just sitting there, pretending to listen. And it works.

Moving on to all the other photos I haven't destroyed, they don't work because I am between a frown and a smile, with nowhere to go. When I smile, it seems that invisible fingers point to this one tooth I have that is totally non-aligned. It is crowded behind one of my front teeth. I used to hope nobody noticed it. But one day I was having lunch with the Belgian boyfriend of my Cuban friend Juan. I was talking, and he was staring at my mouth. Finally he said, in response to my brilliant comment about French politics or culture or some other lofty subject, "You know, it would be easy enough to fix that tooth of yours." I don't think I ever forgave him for that. And if I did, let me formally retract the pardon.

The first photo above is the acceptable one. The second is a stand-in for all the bad photos of me. We took it at my friend Caroline's one night, using her mac. It has a feature that allows you to take distorted photos. I actually prefer this deliberately distorted photo to all the inadvertantly distorted photos of me taken by well-meaning people over my lifetime. Seriously, people. You know who you are. It isn't your fault that you take such bad photos of me; blame it on the P factor. Conveniently, the P factor could be the "Peggy" factor.

mercredi 4 juin 2008

Gramma Nazi

I sent this message to one of my friends who runs a publicly trampled blog. Sometimes posters get all bent out of shape about grammar:

I’ve been stewing over your latest harasser, the so-called writing expert, who faulted you for ending a sentence with the word “to”.

I’ve also been stewing over your reply to my post on the famous quip by Churchill, i.e., that you had been accused of “splitting an infinitive”.

I don’t want to split hairs, but I think both you and your silly detractor are wrong. In fact, the rule was never that a sentence must never end with the word “to”. The rule, which appears to have originated in the 18th century and which was born mostly of a desire to make the English language more rule-bound and rigid, was that a sentence must not end with a preposition—whether it be “to” (which also happens to be the first word of the infinitive form of verbs), “of”, “with”, etc.

Splitting an infinitive, on the other hand, is the crime of taking this infinitive form and placing an adverb between “to” and the main verb. The most famous modern example is the Star Trek line: to boldly go.

In fact, most grammarians and linguists think that neither of these faux pas are wrong most of the time. Indeed, following either rule can lead to wooden prose at best and confusion at worst. Today, most people realize that the rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition is an affectation. I think one reason we have let go of this rule over time is that the English language has so many phrasal verbs (get up, get over, get off, get on and on and on…), which cause students of our language much pain.
Let me ask you: Is there anything wrong any of the sentences below?

Whenever my dog jumps up on my new leather sofa, I tell her to get down.

I always feel bad when I discover I have been lied to.

I find his behavior increasingly difficult to put up with.

Ten minutes before the concert, the hall began to fill up.

This is a minor grammatical issue that many people still fight over.

The late, great Kingsley Amis called the rule about prepositions "one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant slobs." Maybe he overstated the case. But the point is, excellent writers not only dare to boldly split infinitives on occasion, they also sometimes start sentences with conjunctions and end them with prepositions when they want to.