Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Miles to go before we sleep

This weekend I participated for the fifth time in the Illinois Tour de Farms fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I wish you could have been there to see how much it means to those with MS and their loved ones.

Along the 175 mile-route, there are rest areas every 10-15 miles, staffed by volunteers, many of whom suffer from this debilitating disease.  As the we pull in, hot, dusty and thirsty from a long, hot ride, we are immensely grateful for their support:  cold water, ice, gatorade, protein bars and plenty of salty and sweet snacks to fuel the next leg of our journey.  But - almost before we can thank them for their support, they are thanking us.

When a rider says, "thank you," the reply inevitably is, "No.  Thank YOU for riding."  At our first stop on day 2, I stopped at a table with lens cleaner for my sunglasses and struck up a conversation with a volunteer.  She mentioned that treatment costs $3000 a month.  It immediately struck me:  Wow.  I raised just over $3000 - that's one month of treatment for one person.

The weather cooperated beautifully this year and we were able to complete a 100-plus mile circuit on day one and a 75-mile loop on day 2.  But ultimately, it's not about my ride - it's about support for this important cause and a future where we can imagine a world without MS.

Monday, June 18, 2012

An Idea for Greece: Name Tags for Civil Servants

It's simple but important:  have civil servants wear name tags. 

Without name tags, there's no accountability.  And accountability - or lack thereof - is at the root of Greece's economic crisis.

With protests throughout the country, some people thought we were crazy to plan a vacation in Greece last year - but as one friend pointed out, the best thing we could do for Greece was to go spend money in Greece.  On the whole, we had a fabulous family vacation - but our first three hours in Greece were a nightmare; a nightmare caused by corrupt civil servants fleecing the very tourists on whom their economy depends and who refused to identify themselves.

On Wednesday, 20 July 2011, we arrived in Patras on the ferry from Bari.  We planned to take the bus to Athens, via Egio where we were supposed to connect with friends.  Our friends told us there were buses every 30 minutes so the plan was for us to call them as soon as we were on the bus.  But we didn't plan for dishonest civil servants at the train station. 

The train line from Patras to Athens was under construction and there was a bus running along the train route.  Travelers with rail passes would take the "train bus" for the interrupted portion of the route.  We didn't have rail passes and never intended to take the train but we also didn't know our way around Patras.  We were following directions to bus station when we saw a coach bus with "Athens" on it. The driver said it was the Athens bus and it stopped in Egio and sent us inside to buy tickets.  

I was in line at 13:45 when they closed the ticket booth because the 13:50 bus was full. When they reopened the man said the next bus was at 15:50. I asked if this was the only bus station and said that we thought there were buses every 30 minutes. He said our only option was to take the 15:50 bus to Kialto and switch to the train to Athens. He was quite insistent that there were no other buses. I was surprised but bought four tickets.  When I called our friends with the arrival time in Egio, a friendly Greek overheard me say there were no buses every 30 min. He told me that there most certainly were buses - the green buses that leave from the bus station, only 100m further up the road. The only reason to wait for 15:50 was if we had an interrail pass.

I ran up the road and confirmed that what he said was true. Bottom line, we could have been on the 14:00 bus, we absolutely would have made the 15:00 pm bus (14:30 runs express and doesn't stop in Egio). The ticket vendor at the train station adamantly refused to refund our money and also refused to give me his name. I asked to speak to the manager and he, too, refused to give me his name.  I had plenty of time since I was forced to wait for the wrong bus and spent 30 minutes trying to get someone in the station to give me their names. 

When others in the station overheard me, they realized that they, too, had been misled - including interrail pass holders who were charged full fare to ride the bus which is basically the "train" that goes to all the stations where the tracks are being worked on. No one could get a refund. Those lucky enough to have not yet purchased "train bus" tickets went to the bus station or, if they had interrail passes at least did not pay full fare.

It appeared that it was in the interest of the employees at the train station to steer people to the "train bus" and away from the intercity bus. We took the "train bus" and did not connect with our friends who were waiting for us at the BUS station, not the train station.

In the end, it was merely a hiccup in an otherwise wonderful 10-day vacation.  However, the employees of the station at Patras were deliberately misleading hundreds of tourists and getting away with it.  Tourists are an easy target with very little recourse.

I was reminded of this incident the other day when I read about Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki.  Mayor Boutaris is making a difference.  Maybe he'll read my simple suggestion and have civil servants wear name tags. 

A small change could make a big difference.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Forever Open, Clear and Free

Summer in Chicago is all about the lakefront or, as Montgomery Ward referred to it, "the city's front yard".  As a cyclist, I appreciate the foresight of men like Ward and his contemporary, Daniel Burnham for their vision in preserving the lakefront, "forever open, clear and free" because it truly is what makes this city great.  As an Evanstonian, I appreciate our three miles of lakefront with six public beaches and parks.

As I cycle south from Evanston to the loop or north to Fort Sheridan, the best parts of the route parallel Lake Michigan's shoreline, its spectacular views and distant horizon.  I pity our neighbors to the north, from Wilmette to Lake Bluff, where public access is limited to a single beach and pand the vast majority of the land is privately owned by extraoridinarily wealthy individuals. 

In Evanston and Chicago, the lakefront is considered a public asset and that is what sets these two communities apart.   Thanks to the vision of our forebears, our lakefront is "forever open, clear and free."

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bikers with brains

Every year at this time, as I bike and run along the lakefront I visualize a public health campaign on helmet use for cyclists.  I'm not a visual artist, but it would look something like this:

Cyclist wearing a helmet with the caption Brainiac

Helmet-less cyclist:  Fool

Helmet-less parent riding with helmeted children: D#*$!n Fool and orphans
(Helmets aren't like training wheels.  You don't outgrow the need to protect your head.)

Helmet-less cyclist with headphones:  Road Kill

Friday, June 1, 2012

High speed connections

Two days ago I had dinner with good friends who live over an hour away (not counting traffic).  In itself, this would not be remarkable except for the circumstances of our connection.  I was at a baseball game and used Facebook to "check in" to the Wrigley Field Bleachers.  I only attend one or two games a year, never in the middle of a weekday afternoon and never sit in the bleachers; so I "checked in" to share this unusual (for me) event. I included a photo of our group of top fundraisers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and we were all wearing orange. Within minutes I got a notification from my south-side friend, "We can see your block of orange from here!"  She and her sisters were in the park - an equally unlikely mid-week event for them.

Last month I had an unusual assignment:  try to find someone who became a Rotarian as a result of social media.  At 4:55 p.m., a colleague tweeted our question to two lists and by by 5:22 p.m. we had found 2. One had heard of Rotary and was interested to know more about it, so through Facebook, he found a Rotarian and she eventually became his sponsor.

Three hours ago, a friend who's a science writer told me that she'd noticed increasing Twitter activity about an arsenic study published today and was predicting it would be on the evening news.  Curious, I looked it up and saw that 28 minutes ago a major news outlet was tweeting about it (and the "new tweets" counter has increased as I write this paragraph).

As I texted my friend after dinner the other night, "how did we manage pre-internet and smart phone?"