Friday, August 28, 2009

Stuck in St Louis

This is part three of a four-part feature about Ben's trip back for his high school reunion, here are part one and part two if you missed them.

Monday (8/3):

I awoke at noon on a couch in St Louis.

I didn't even bother going to the airport on Monday; having called the US Airways help line the night before to check flight statuses, I knew my chances of getting on a flight were slimmer than an anorexic fashion model wearing the world's smallest corset.

Instead, Erik and I went to Pei Wei and ate breakfast and lunch simultaneously, or in rapid succession, whichever you prefer. We also chatted about philosophy, cuz that's what we usually do if you leave us together for more than five minutes.

Like icing on top of the Being-Stuck-in-St Louis cake, Monday also happened to be my day to submit a presentation for school, due by 6pm Arizona time. To write this presentation on surgical fixation of bones, I normally would have referenced podiatric surgery textbooks, but unfortunately I didn't see any of those lying around Erik's and Sachin's apartment. My saving grace was that Sachin, though oblivious to my plight, had left his laptop at home; plus he somehow already had the internet hooked up even though they had just moved in. Resorting to Wikipedia and a few random websites, I managed to pound out a mediocre presentation in a little over three hours. To make matters more interesting, I was scheduled to deliver said presentation the following evening at a time when, for all I knew, I would be in a plane somewhere over Oklahoma.

Monday night I slept on the couch again at Erik's and Sachin's place. Wondering if I needed more padding due to some bars in the couch (it has built-in recliners), Erik produced the world's largest comforter. I placed it on the couch and folded it over again and again until there were at least five layers. I felt like the princess in “The Princess and the Pea” would have felt if there had been bars instead of a pea and she had used the not-yet-produced world's largest comforter for additional padding.


All flights were full, but the one on Tuesday at 2:45pm was a little less full than the rest, so I got a ride from Erik and stood by for that one. At the gate however, I heard a familiar phrase: "It looks very bad." It was deja vu all over again. As bloated with passengers as all the rest, the flight had no space for me.

Left languishing in the main terminal of the St Louis airport, my life had secretly just gotten five times more complicated; and that's why your head might explode if you read the next few paragraphs: The next flight which left at 5:50pm didn't arrive in Arizona until just after 7pm, and I had to be in a conference call at 6pm AZ time to give the mediocre presentation I had written the day before. If I could make it on the 5:50 flight, I could ask someone else to call in for me when they took role and say “here”, in hopes that I could still join the call before it was my turn to present; but what if I didn't make it in time? Alternatively, I could stay in St Louis for another night and do the conference call from there, though there was the question of who would pick me up from the airport this time, and finding a computer I could take over for two hours to give the presentation.

It took a few calls to get ahold of the doctor who was to host the conference call; when I did, and once I'd halfway-explained the situation, he told me I could just join another call he was doing the next night if I didn't make it. That made things easier than expected. I preferred not to wait for the next day's conference call, because someone else would basically be giving a better version of the same presentation during that call, which would be a great way to highlight how much mine sucked. But thanks to Dr Jafe, I now at least had options.

Around the same time I called the help line again to check on flights. Now this may surprise you, but all the upcoming flights to Phoenix were hopelessly overflowing with passengers. And that's not even counting the amorphous blob of standby passengers rolling along from one flight to the next, much the way The Blob himself would look if he were on a treadmill running two mph.

Searching for alternatives I asked the help-line rep if any "nearby" airports had flights to Phoenix that weren't so full. It was then that I was told something that would have helped me immeasurably had I but known it three days earlier: Flights out of St Louis going to Phoenix on US Airways are always full with no exceptions under any circumstances, while flights out of Kansas City on the same airline going to the same destination always have open seats. The reason for this is not clear to me, but if I were forced at gunpoint to say whether this bit of information would be useful to someone in my situation, I would most likely say yes.

Thus illuminated, I wasted no time in asking the rep to switch my listing to a flight out of Kansas City, and said, “Screw St Louis, I'm going to KC baby!" Any way I can.

I still needed a ride out of the airport and a place to stay. Since I couldn't get ahold of Erik or Sachin, I texted my old college roommate Jake Erickson, whom you may know better as the other member of Cows Never Die. I hadn't wanted to call Jake at first because I knew his wife Amanda had just had a baby about 10 days earlier, and when I had talked to him the week before they were inundated with out-of-town visitors. But Jake called me right back, told me all the visitors were gone now, and offered to come get me.

Jake and Amanda live in a community called New Town, a rather picturesque planned city that kind of looks like a movie set...which could be because it was designed by the people who made the set for The Truman Show.

Since Amanda was busy caring for the new baby, families from church had been taking turns bringing them dinner. (Jake thinks this is funny, because he's perfectly capable of making dinner. “What, the wife's down? Life cannot go on! Everyone will starve!”) But that day the people who brought dinner had unwittingly cooked for me as well. The main course was tamale pie (which it turns out I like better than actual tamales), followed by blueberry crisp for dessert.

Chatting with Jake and Amanda was fun, but it was cut short by that blasted conference call. I was glad I hadn't tried joining the call late after flying to Arizona, because for the first time ever the moderator asked me to go first. My presentation sucked. I knew it would. I gave a little disclaimer at the beginning, and then everyone else joined in the fun and gave their own disclaimers, saying something like, “Well, since everyone else is giving a disclaimer today, here's mine...”

After the conference call I was left to ponder how I would get to Kansas City the following day. I looked at craigslist, Amtrak's website, and info for a Columbia shuttle that goes to and from both airports. There was nothing convenient on craigslist; I would have shelled out the cash for a train or shuttle, except they were much slower than I expected. They couldn't have gotten me to KC any earlier than 3pm, and my goal was to be there for a 3pm departure.

With dreams of convenient transportation dancing in my head, I drifted off to sleep in the as-yet unoccupied baby room.

See how the story ends in part four, coming soon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

High School Reunion, Part II

This is part two of a four-part feature about Ben's trip back for his high school reunion, here's part one if you missed it.

Saturday (8/1) :

The second reunion event was a picnic at Brashear Park, only it was rainy so it got moved to the HS cafeteria. My food for the picnic: pudding snacks. Mmm.

There was a different crowd at the picnic than the previous night. Families came out, and they brought their children with them. There were even games for the kids to keep them busy. At one point all the kids gathered together for a picture—I knew several of my classmates had children, but seeing a big bunch of them together was shocking nonetheless. There were big and small, ranging in age from zero to about ten. These kids will probably graduate high school sometime between 2017 and 2027. I wonder when my kids will graduate...

We took advantage of being in the high school by having a little tour; there's been some remodeling. You've still got the endless orange lockers, but the trim is different in some places, the science rooms are torn to shreds, the hall by the locker rooms looks newer, and the library expanded like an amoeba to consume the once-proud computer lab where my Computer Club friends and I played countless hours of Descent (a first-person shooter spaceship game). I felt a little nostalgic seeing my old lockers and classrooms, and the halls I'd walked in as a wee freshman when I was socially awkward and didn't know how to woo women. Wait, I still don’t know how? Crap.

Quick tangent: The girls that organized the reunion are awesome—they did it with no reward and no complaint. Most people would never take the time, but they gave countless hours unselfishly putting it all together. Lindsey Fraser, Tara Duck-Hoffman, and Jennifer Moore deserve some serious credit. Sorry if I forgot anyone. Thanks to them everything went smoothly.

After the tour dissipated I sneaked off and took a look at the copy machine in the teachers lounge that I had once broken making flyers for the “Ed for President” campaign. I just wish Mrs Nothdurf had been there to revoke my voting privileges a second time. Good memories all around, though possibly unconstitutional.

Caroline went with me to both reunion events on Saturday, and for the most part we didn’t confirm or deny any relationship between us. I introduced her as my friend and let people draw their own conclusions. At least one person asked her, when I had stepped away, if she was my wife or girlfriend. Others didn't ask but you know they were thinking it.

After the reunion picnic and tour, Caroline and I went home and made sweet, sweet sandwiches at the top of the hill. Actually we made them in the kitchen. Annie was in charge of tomatoes and photo-documentation. You may recall my blog about sandwiches—these sandwiches followed the same basic formula, but with the addition of thicker, redder onions and plenty of avocado, as well as a huge fresh tomato from the garden.

The reunion finale was held Saturday evening in Too Tall's Two eatery and spirits. A storied venue, Too Tall’s was a bar and local hangout for years until the owner and then mayor of Kirkville set it ablaze in an attempt to collect insurance money. I didn't know this until I was in the building and David Morley told me the story. It was later reinvented as an event hall with bar-like qualities.

Saturday night had the best turnout, plus dinner was catered. I got to talk to several more classmates I hadn’t seen yet, and a couple former teachers. Chatting with Mrs Coy brought back memories of the time I gave a speech about WWII using Warcraft 2 terminology. I don't know if she had any idea what I was talking about but I still got an A.

Sometimes I play scrabble and Saturday night was no exception as Annie, Caroline, and I faced off in a not-really-that-epic battle. Annie seized control, perhaps due to her literary prowess, and she would have won had I not in dramatic fashion gotten a bingo to take the lead for good. I love bingos, but I don't love bingo.


The reunion was over, and it was time to go home. Ed Kohler picked me up around 11am to give me a ride to the St Louis airport, even though it was about two hours out of his way. I was really tired and slept almost the whole way there, waking up just long enough to eat a rather tasty sandwich from Jimmy Johns, and for Ed to play me some songs by Richard Cheese. Richard Cheese, whom Ed described as “the greatest thing to ever happen in music” (or something like that) is a comedian who performs covers of heavy metal, rap, rock, and pop songs in a lounge style reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Some of them are hilarious, such as his version of Welcome to the Jungle by Guns 'N' Roses.

So Ed dropped me off at the airport and headed back to Columbia where he lives. The good news was I had plenty of time before my 5:50 flight to Phoenix. The bad news came a short time later when the lady at the gate said, "It's lookin' really bad." Despite her sour prediction, I waited for the flight anyway just to see if I'd get lucky. Alas there were no open seats, not to mention several other people who were standing-by and didn't get on either. Gold is scarce in St Louis and I got none.

Once the plane was gone, I did a little research at customer service and got the skinny on upcoming flights to Phoenix (there are three daily) and even got a fancy 800 number to call for up-to-date flight info or to switch my listing. That number is the best-kept secret in stand-by travel.

Stuck in St. Louis I did what any sane person would do-I called Erik Olsen, a good friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in about six years and who hadn't made it up to the reunion. He picked me up with roughly no notice, and we chilled at his new apartment where he's living with Sachin Bansal, another high school friend I hadn't seen in forever. Basically I had another mini high school reunion in St Louis. Erik and I shared music and life stories until Sachin got home from the hospital a couple hours later. Sachin recently started a new residency at WashU after spending three years in general surgery and then having a change of heart. I wouldn't want to be a general surgeon either, the hours are miserable.

Erik and Sachin had just moved in and the living room was still crowded with boxes. I made it a little more crowded with my luggage, and a few hours later I was passed out on a couch, somewhere in St Louis.

Find out what happens next in part three of the extended reunion tour.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Reunion, Part I

Editor's Note: This is part one of a four-part feature about Ben's trip to Missouri for his high school reunion. We would have run it all together, but when he exceeded the 10,000 word mark we thought it would be better to split it up. Part two coming soon.

I recently went back for my 10-year high school reunion. It was a last-week decision. Two months before the reunion I got a surprise phone call from one of the organizers, after which I gradually warmed to the idea of going, but I didn't schedule a flight until five days before. The reunion was on the weekend, and I left a day early so I'd be more relaxed, and in case of delays since I was flying standby. One week later, after one high school reunion, nine passes through various airports, one trans-state hitchhike, five unanticipated sleeping locations, and one killer game of ultimate frisbee, I returned home at last. After such a wild trip I did what any rational person would do: I created a running diary of the experience. Here it is for your reading pleasure.

Thursday (7/30):

Arose at 8:55am after about two hours of sleep. I had an hour-and-a-half until my 10:25 flight, I hadn't packed, I didn't know how to get to the airport, I didn't have a ride, and I should have left five minutes ago. But like I always say, “If you fail to plan, you plan to....improvise.”

When I reached the ticket counter at 9:56 there were 29 minutes before my flight. The lady at the counter said, "I won't be able to get you on this flight." I knew my day was screwed if I didn't make the flight, but I didn't think arguing would help. Turns out she was lying because three minutes later she had re-entered all my info (she couldn't find my listing), printed off my tickets, and told me to run like the wind. I'm not as fast as the wind, but I made it to the gate with 15 minutes to spare, and easily got a seat (remember I was flying standby, where seats are like gold).

At the Phoenix airport with just under an hour 'til my next departure, the lady at the St Louis gate said, "It's not lookin' good." I wasn't sure if she meant the flight or her face, but I didn't wait to find out. Instead I went to customer service and had a chat. Finding out the flight to St Louis was oversold with lots of people waiting, while a flight to Kansas City that left at the same time was merely "full", I opted for “full”, and ran back across the airport (kind of like the wind) to wait for the KC flight. I was the second-to-last person to board it. Gold is precious.

Waiting for the flight to take off I texted feverishly, telling my St Louis contacts I wouldn't make it, and contacting my high school buddy Frank Fleschner who lives in KC to see if he could help me out when I got there. He said he could, and the plane was off. Frank was pretty amazing—how many friends when called with two hours notice will pick you up, put you up for the night, and drive you three hours to a small town in the middle of nowhere the following day? That's what Frank did.

For dinner we went to "Gates" for some authentic KC barbecue. Frank warned me, “you'll probably get yelled at.” Sure enough, even before I neared the counter a worker screamed, "Can I help you?!" They may not be civil, but they can make some killer BBQ, which is really all that matters in the end.

The balance of the evening was spent watching various youtube videos on Franks rather large tv (Apparently when you have TiVo you can do that sort of thing). First we watched a video of opera tenors singing higher and higher notes until their heads explode , one cool enough that Frank shows it to all his visitors. Ok so their heads don't really explode.

We then proceded to watch a few matches from the professional Korean Starcraft league. Starcraft in South Korea is a 50+ million dollar industry, sponsored by Samsung, Microsoft, and some big Korean bank. You could call it the Great Korean Pastime. Plus they have some pretty sweet commentators, such as this guy, who's like the Gus Johnson of professional Starcraft.


I woke up at 5:17am and couldn't go back to sleep for a while, so I wandered around outside Frank's house. I finally went back to sleep around 8 and didn't wake again 'til noon, after which I was really groggy the rest of the day. It may have something to do with my yanking around my circadian rhythms like the Chain Chomp in MarioKart—you know Baby Mario's special item, the one that barks like a dog while it yanks you down the track and makes you pray it won't let go on the turns cuz you might end up going backwards? That's how my rhythms felt. I also felt a little like like I'd overdosed on benadryl, the way I did the night before I took the MCAT...but that's another story.

Frank and I took off for Kirksville in the afternoon, hitting up a sandwich joint called Mr Goodcents for lunch on our way. The worker got really animated when I asked him to make my Italian sub w/ marinara sauce the way I always do at Subway. He must not get that a lot. On the drive to Kirksville Frank listened to choral music while I slept, and at the end we threw in some Rage Against the Machine for a little pre-reunion adrenaline rush, much like we always used to do before choir concerts....What, we never did that before choir concerts? Well we should have.

We had a few hours before the reunion so Frank left me at my house. My parents were on vacation, so the house was empty, and I hadn't seen it that way or been home in the summertime in about a decade. Hoping to finally kick the grogginess, I took a long cold shower. Then I was cold, but still a little groggy. My sister Annie came over after a bit and we hit up Il Spazio, a decent restaurant that may or may not be Italian, for dinner with Frank, Ed Kohler, and Brian Woehlk, other high school buddies of mine. Just as we were leaving we saw two other high school friends, David Morley and Josh Lobert, coming into Il Spazio. After a little chat it was time for part one of the reunion: a social evening at the Dukum Inn (a bar).

Seeing all the old classmates was strange and cool all at once—a little like going back in time, which I've only done twice previously. Some people I recognized easily; for others it took several glances before their identity dawned on me. I was a little surprised at how many names I remembered--Facebook helped some there, but other names I hadn't been reminded of by any social networking sites seemed to pop back into my head out of nowhere. The turnout was decent, plus I figured more people would come on Saturday. I talked to several people (actually yelled mostly cuz it was so loud in the bar) and found out what they'd been up to for ten years. One thing about our class is, it's small enough that we basically all remember each other, so even people I didn't talk to much in high school were still fun to catch up with, see what has become of them and all. That kept me busy for about two hours and then I went home.

On the way home I called my friend Caroline who was driving down from Chicago to visit for the weekend. I didn't know what time she'd be arriving, but she told me she'd just gotten into town and was waiting outside my house. I remembered our back door was unlocked, so I told her to go in and make herself at home. To make sure she had the right house I described it to her, “White siding, light tan brick, white pillars, a big oak tree...”

When I got home I didn't see anyone in the house, so I called her to see what was up. Caroline reported she had tried the front door which was locked, and the back door which was also locked, so she was waiting on the deck behind the house. Well we don't have a deck. Confusing the neighbor's house for ours, Caroline had tried to break into their house and was now enjoying the view from their deck. Luckily they didn't see her and call the police or she might still be in jail. More importantly, that would have thrown a wrench into my plan to have her pose as my girlfriend (sort of) at the reunion on Saturday...

The story continues in Part two.