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Flying in the Modern Age

In the past year the airline industry has come under increasing scrutiny. We know they brought just about all of the pressure on themselves with high-profile (and ugly) PR nightmares. The U.S. Congress even dragged airline CEOs and other industry leaders before a committee to get their side of the story.

I think that many of us know that besides the brawl on the flight from Tokyo, started by an intoxicated person, many of the problems could have been avoided with common sense, reason and trying to stick to the adage “the customer is always right.” I’m not saying that is necessarily true (I worked in retail, I know), but the people on a plane have bought a service. The ticket is wrapped with slick packaging that tells you you’ll be pampered, comfortable and relaxed as you’re treated like a first-class passenger regardless of where you’re sitting. So it is understandable that when we’re treated more like the passengers in steerage on the Titanic we get a little testy.

The airlines, or at least their crews, are doing the best they can to accommodate all of the passengers, airline policies and federal regulations. The crew and especially the flight attendants, who are at your beck and call, can work extremely long shifts of up to 14 hours. I think we owe it to the crews to make sure when we pack our patience we put it in our carry on so it’s easily accessible. Yes, we can get screwed over. We’ve been forced to gate check our carry-ons and arrived to lost luggage, we’ve had extremely long delays and cancellations that radically changed our plans.

I think it’s time to put things into perspective: the skies are crowded with more than 16 million passengers a week. Even if there is one United-level incident per day that still means the vast majority of us get to where we are going with no emotional or physical scars. I am in no way making excuses for United, the security, or anyone who treats someone in such an inhumane manner. I’m just saying traveling as we do today is a complex and amazing machine with a multitude of parts that all need to work in harmony for the best experience. We can never forget that we, as passengers, are part of that machine.

If you are interested in what your legal rights are (at least in the U.S.) when it comes to air travel, the Fly Rights page of the U.S. Department of Transportation has them all.

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The May Marathon

If you’re like me you’ve never considered running in a marathon. I grew up with a runner in my family. I spent my elementary school years attending track meets and practices with my track coach father, the same father who more than once participated in marathons including ultra marathons (races of 50 miles or more). I was pretty athletic but just didn’t have (and still don’t have) the mental focus to run for a long distance. I just get bored. Amanda feels the same way despite being at the gym 5-6 nights a week.

We still can’t escape the impacts of marathons, though. For many years I had to cover marathons as part of my reporting in DC. I often hated it. The streets were closed and you couldn’t get around easily with the 50+ pounds of gear you usually had to schlep. But that doesn’t mean marathons are all bad, despite being  inconvenient for those who work and live in the cities where they take place. The Pittsburgh Marathon has the “Run for the Reason Charity Program,” and allows runners to run for free if they run for a charity.  The program established in 2009 has raised $10 million so far and is expected to raise another $1.5 million this year.

If you are not a runner, the GNC Live Well Pittsburgh Health and Fitness Expo is one of the many exciting events held on race weekend, May 5-6, 2017.  It’s free and open to the public. The expo will have products, services, entertainment and information. The Expo will focus on all aspects of health and wellness for people of all ages.

If you’re inspired, for some crazy reason, to run a marathon and don’t have much experience running, you’ll want start with a 5k and work your way up. Amanda gave running a shot years ago (and eventually learned she’s not a runner, either) and followed the Couch to 5k program.

Hydration and fuel to optimize your running performance

Jeffrey Lucchino MS RDN CSSD
Sports Dietitian
Director of sports nutrition, UPMC Sports Medicine
Download the presentation

Prevent and if not treat the top running injuries
Drew Grant, PT, DPT
Staff Physical Therapist
Centers for Rehab Services – UPMC Sports Medicine
Download the presentation

The marathon course will be open for six hours with a planned 14-minute mile pace the would have the runners cross the line about six hours after they started. In six hours I can leave my home in Pittsburgh, fly to the Bahamas, and be on the beach with a drink in my hand. I think that is a much better way to spend those hours, personally.

How are we actually going to spend the day of the marathon? Amanda and I will spend the morning hunkered down in our apartment until the road closures are lifted and maybe, just maybe, emerge from our domicile and face the day.

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Fort Frederick: A Star of a Fort

We were home visiting with family recently and my niece told us how she was taking a trip to Fort Frederick State Park with her class. The field trip got the wheels in my head turning, remembering back to my trip to there in grade school. I only remember the size of the old stone fort and the long distance it seemed from home. I decided to look up some facts about the fort and pass them along to you.

Fort Frederick in an early American sketch

The stone fort is a classic example of a star fort, a design that is typically a hexagon or pentagon with angled corners.  The corners or bastions not only give a panoramic view of the battlefield and great firing positions, but also don’t provide a flat surface for artillery impact, so shells make glancing blows. The bastions at Fort Frederick are filled with earth, making them simple hills to climb for artillery and forces inside the fort to get into firing position.
Fort Frederick was built in 1756 to protect the frontier settlers during the French and Indian, war which brought England and its colonies in conflict with the French and the Indians. A unique quality for the fort is its size, considering it was a frontier fort. The curtain walls, the thick walls that connect the positions on the corners, are 179 feet (55 m) long, 17.5 feet (5.3 m) high and 3 feet (0.91 m) thick at the base. Other examples of this architectural style are the fortifications at Bourtange, restored to its condition in 1750, Groningen in the Netherlands and Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

Photo of the Western Wall of Fort Frederick By Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The fort was in service during the American Revolution as a prison for British soldiers and during the American Civil War, federal troops were based there to guard the C&O Canal (running along the Potomac River from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C.). The Civilian Conservation Corps restored the fort’s walls during the 1920s and began converting the abandoned fort into a 585-acre state park. If you are interested in the 18th century and frontier life early America we highly recommend a trip to this out-of-the-way monument.

Aerial photo, Maryland Department of Natural Resources

The fort is open every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on the weekends in spring and fall. You will find staff and volunteers dressed in 18th century clothing demonstrating daily life tasks in the frontier days of the fort. It’ll take an hour and 47 minutes to drive there from Washington, D.C. You can camp or picnic at the park, but we recommend taking most of what you want with you. The town of Big Pool, the closest town to Fort Frederick, doesn’t have much more than a gas station. We personally recommend visiting the park during the day and spending the night in Frederick, Maryland 45 minutes east.
DO NOT GET CONFUSED just because its Fort Frederick doesn’t mean it’s near Frederick, Maryland. (You can’t imagine how many people make that mistake!)  
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Dinner and Discord

Food has always been one of our favorite ways to experience a different culture or country. From Italy’s finest handmade pasta to mildly mysterious (but delicious) dishes served on our safari in Tanzania and fish tacos on the beach in Playa del Carmen, we love to savor local fare and learn why those tastes are so connected to the region.

The people behind Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen embrace that culinary curiosity and use it to educate visitors about countries with which the United States is in conflict.

According to their website, “Conflict Kitchen uses the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”

When we visited, the menu featured dishes from Palestine including chicken shawarma, falafel, baba ghanoush and hummus. We even grabbed dessert, namoura, a semolina and yogurt cake soaked in sweet syrup with toasted pine nuts.

All of the food is served take-out style from the Kitchen window; tables are available around the Pitt-student-filled park. Each order comes with a wrapper with quotes and perspectives from the country of focus.

From a student on movement and travel:

It’s difficult to move from place to place in Palestine because of the checkpoints. It can take me three hours to get to my university five miles away in Abu Dis. Sometimes the checkpoint is closed when I try to pass through, so I have to return home and miss class. It really depends on whether the soldier on duty that day wants to let you in. It’s their personal decision. They’re not following any set guidelines.

From a medical professional on health care:

I was an intern at a hospital in the West Bank before I came to the US. It’s really bad over there. The Palestinian Authority didn’t set up a way to govern the hospital system. They have some supplies, but their physicians are not really trained. They can’t do even simple procedures at Palestinian hospitals, with the exception of one in Ramallah. Palestinians have to go to the Israeli hospital in Jerusalem for advanced care. It’s terribly expensive and the PA doesn’t pay for treatment at those hospitals. So who’s fault is this? Who is responsible? Is it the Palestinian Authority? Is it Israel? I think it’s both.

On hospitality and food traditions:

It’s a Bedouin tradition to always serve tea and coffee to guests. The first cup is a “welcome” cup, and we’ll fill it up one-third of the way. If you push the cup back, we’ll fill it another third. You don’t need to say anything, just push it back. Push it back a third time and we’ll add more, making one full cup of coffee. But if you ask for more than this, you’ll be seen as a greedy, unwelcome guest. At this point you should shake the cup to say, “No, no more coffee.”

Conflict Kitchen has been in operation for seven years, but will soon close the restaurant to pursue other educational opportunities.

“Conflict Kitchen will continue to expand our educational initiatives throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region with the production of curriculum, performances, public events and publications with cultural institutions, community organizations and schools.”

We’re glad we got to visit the restaurant before it closed, and look forward to seeing what the people behind it will do next in their quest to open hearts and minds.

Andrea Gilbert and Amanda Changuris at Conflict Kitchen

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Tekko 2017

Spring is finally here in Pittsburgh (even though it snowed — a lot — on opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the fans froze in the stands). At the same time, fans of a different kind flooded the warm hallways of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and made me stand up and take notice.

Tekko is the premier event sponsored by the Pittsburgh Japanese Culture Society and one of the fastest-growing anime and Japanese pop culture festivals in America. Tekko fills the hunger for anime conventions as an outlet for cosplay and camaraderie, drawing attendees from across the United States. It may be considered small compared to other conventions, but the growing event is expected to hit 9,000 participants this year. The Pittsburgh JCS brings in big-name talent and hosts amazing events without the overcrowded madness of the top 10 conventions.

The best part for me is that the convention center is just a short walk from our apartment. I’m a geek to begin with and love anime, so the convenience factor made attending this spring event to hard to pass up. I really get a kick out of seeing all the people in elaborate cosplay and sitting in on really interesting panels that discuss issues like feminism in anime and the comparison of eastern and celtic mythologies.

I think something quite clever going on at the convention is the Extra Life Gaming Marathon. A gaming marathon, especially if you play online Massive Multiplayer Online Games is a great place to raise your XP (experience points) — trust me that’s important — and earn some money for a good cause. The gaming marathon works a lot like a charity walk; you find sponsors and log hours online with all the money going to the Children’s Miracle Network. You don’t have to be even be a part of the convention to make it happen. You simply have to sign up on Extra Life.

We have one more day, Sunday, at the convention before it’s over and can’t wait to drop in on a few more panels and get an eyeful of the creative cosplay.

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Transfer Day Centennial

Flag of the United States Virgin Islands. The three arrows represent the Saints Thomas, Croix and John.

100 years ago on March 31, 1917, the United States got a whole lot closer to paradise when they bought three islands from Denmark. The three islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix were purchased for the sum of  $25 million in gold and were incorporated as a US Territory. The USVI is comprised of 85,568 acres so that’s $292 per acre, a great deal considering that  the 15-acre Estate at Spring Bay is currently priced at $10 million or $666,000 per acre.

Water Island, which sits just off the coast of Saint Thomas, wasn’t included in the purchase of the Saints because it was privately owned by the East Asiatic Company. The US didn’t acquire Water Island until 1944, but got it for just $10,000. The original idea was to use it as a massive fort and proving ground, but those plans we scrapped with the end of the second World War. The Department of Defense transferred ownership to the Department of the Interior which then leased it to a private citizen. The lease ran out in 1992 and the island was transferred to the USVI government making it the fourth US Virgin Island.

The 191 7 transfer went pretty smoothly, though residents were frustrated that they didn’t receive US citizenship immediately. The islands were also not granted a representative government, instead being run by naval administrators since the islands were purchased for strategic military value.  The passage of the Organic Act in 1936 established the rule of an elected governor and granted American citizenship to the residents of the islands.

A map of the USVI

Our opinion is that the US citizens of the USVI should have voting rights in our democracy, as of now they have elected local government officials but their congressional representatives can’t vote and they can’t vote in the general election for president of the United States. We do know one thing, though, the US is better for having the Virgin Islands as part of our country, not just to be a mainlander’s playground but for the diversity they bring to our nation.


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Nature in All its Wonder

I remember back when I was a child gathering in my parents’ house around the color TV, still of the vacuum-tube variety and housed in a big wooden cabinet, to watch PBS’ The Planet Earth. The documentary opened my mind to the natural world and how it works with time-lapse video of flowers blooming in the desert and slow-motion photography of life and death struggles on the savannah. The documentary left a major impression on me, creating a lasting respect for the greater natural world. I’m sure if I rewatched the episodes of The Planet Earth today the video would seem grainy and blurry and the photography techniques would seem extremely simple.

The past several weekends we have been transfixed by the amazing photography and storytelling by the highly talented editing and photography crew of BBC’s Planet Earth II. We’ve tuned in each Saturday evening to be captivated by the audio visual wonder of our world. I am still intrigued by nature, and as someone who’s spent his life as a photographer I am continually impressed and in awe of the camera work. I am impressed by the technology that produces sharp images and interesting angles, and envious of the photographers and their opportunities to witness the glory of this planet.

The project took over three years to make, spanning 40 different countries, 117 filming trips and a total of 2,089 shooting days. Planet Earth II is an immersive exploration of the islands, mountains, jungles, grasslands, deserts and cities of the world. We can’t help but smile and sigh at the memories it triggers of our own adventures. The episode titled “Grasslands” told stories of the African savannah and took us back to our time getting up close and personal with the great migration. You might think with specials like this, why leave home? Well for us it just triggers our wanderlust and leaves us wanting to explore more and witness the majesty of our wild world in person.