Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | November 6, 2015

I Don’t Feel Like a Princess. More Like the Queen Mother.

It was bound to happen. My kids went off to college and I turned into an old lady overnight. I’ve taken to eating dinner at 5:30 and going to bed by 9. (In my defense, thanks to the return of standard time, the sun sets around 4pm, so 9 feels like midnight). But the clearest sign that I’m turning into a senior citizen is that I’m going on a cruise. Yes, like the kind with AARP discounts.

For the record, it was not my idea. One of my old college roommates talked me into it. And it feels just like it did in college all those years ago – her talking me into doing something I’m not sure I want to do.

Why don’t I want to go on a cruise? Fires, engine failures, norovirus! All those people and their germs! Being treated like a bovine getting loaded onto a cattle car! Hundreds of elderly people with their high-waisted pants and blue hair pushing each other out of the way to get to the buffet!

Granted, cruise lines have been targeting a younger demographic, marketing cruise vacations as cool and edgy. We’ve all seen the commercials with Iggy Pop wailing about a lust for life. Minor detail that Iggy is as old as the hills.

And my interactions with Princess suggested that they still assume their customers are elderly retirees.

Case in point: I was trying to do something really simple, namely arrange for my friend Stacey and I to eat dinner together at night. But in order for us to dine together on board, Stacey and I each had to contact Princess to make a request. She called Princess and got a “secret code” which I would then have to give in order to complete the request. Secret Code? Is this some kind of Mission Impossible movie?

So I went to the Princess website, figuring I’d do it through their online helpdesk. Which is when I discovered that there was no online help desk. Hmmm, and no email address either. I must be missing something. So I did what anyone would do in 2015 – I tweeted them.

After a slow response time (The next day? Do they not understand how Twitter works?), I was informed that there was no email address for customer service. And no online help desk. I’d have to call. You mean dial a phone? Like we did back in 1993? I wasn’t sure my new iPhone had calling capability. Is there an app for that?

Good lord, Princess, get with the program. Even the cable company has online help, and if ANYONE wants to pretend it’s the early 90s, it’s the cable company. It was almost as if Princess assumed all its customers were 70-year-olds with landlines. Oh…wait….

Fortunately, I found an icon on my iPhone that allowed me to make a call (it’s the one that looks like an old-fashioned handset, in case you’re wondering) and I dialed the number for Princess. After navigating the generic phone menu – “press 2, press 1, please hold” – I got the classic refrain. “All representatives are busy. Due to unexpected call volume, we expect your wait time to be at least several minutes.” So I did what any spoiled Internet addict does when placed on hold. I hung up.

But I knew I’d have to try again, or else I’d be dining with some couple named Cecil and Naomi celebrating their golden anniversary. So I called back and got the same message: “unexpected call volume.” Again and again. EVERY time I called. Day after day, there was “unexpected call volume.” So here’s my question: if the call volume is high every day, can it really be classified as “unexpected?” To borrow from another princess, The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

But if I wanted to get in touch with customer service at Princess, sacrifices would have to be made. I’d have to suffer on hold. So I cleared my schedule, made sure my phone was fully charged, poured a cup of coffee, dialed the number and settled in. I got the usual “unexpected call volume” spiel and waited. And waited.

I called at 1:30 in the afternoon. By 1:45, I’d finished my coffee and was wishing I’d stockpiled some snacks.

“Please continue to hold.”

I started to wonder if anyone had ever died of boredom while on hold with Princess, or would I be the first?

“Due to unexpected call volume, all representatives are busy.”

Gee, you know what might cut down the call volume, Princess? An online help desk.

I finally got someone around 1:50. I explained why I was calling – the dinner request and the secret code and please just let me dine with my friend because I DO NOT want to sit with anyone who thinks it’s normal to stay on hold for 20 minutes to TALK to someone.

The very perky woman on the other end of the line said she wasn’t sure how to process the request. She’d have to check with someone.

So she put me on hold.

To her credit, she came back shortly to say that it was all set. Of course, by that point I’d spent a half hour on the phone for something that would have taken seconds to do online. But hey, Princess, who wants to save that kind of time, right? Us retirees have nothing better to do.

Day 1 of Ride the Rockies dawned clear and sunny in Grand Junction, Colorado, with the temperature headed to a crispy 88 degrees. I had met up with my friends from Chicago the night before and enjoyed a fun night, hoisting several beers to our new adventure. It all seemed quite promising.

Our first day was a 47-mile ride through the Colorado National Monument, with gentle switchbacks and stunning views galore. It was scenic! It was easy! I stopped to take pictures! We had a hearty breakfast mid-ride and still got back to Grand Junction with plenty of time to shower, relax, drink beer and grab an early dinner. If every day was like that, RTR was going to be a breeze.

Then came day 2:

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The ride started out easy enough, a flat bike bath along a river and then gorgeous country roads snaking through wine country. (Who knew Colorado had a wine country? Put Grand Junction on the travel list.)

Then we turned right onto the entrance ramp to I-70. Yes, the interstate highway with the 75 mph speed limit. And no, the highway was not closed. Fortunately, there were plenty of RTR and state police vehicles to encourage drivers to get out of the right lane, away from us poor souls schlepping up the shoulder. But every now and then, a truck would fly by in the right lane, several feet away from us, complete with a vortex that threatened to suck us under it’s wheels. Thankfully, the stretch on I-70 was only a few miles, and we soon left the highway for a scenic spin along a river heading to Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded impressive.

As soon as we began the 20-mile climb, however, it became a ride of attrition as the sun rose higher and hotter and riders pulled off to the side. Some merely needed to catch their breath and hydrate, others waited for the SAG wagon to transport them to the top.

As a New Englander, I’m used to rolling hills – that is, hills with changing grades, including some flat areas and maybe even brief downhills along the way. Grand Mesa, however, was nothing like that. It was more like the hypotenuse of a right triangle – a steady incline. No level areas. I wanted to stop, rest, maybe eat a snack, but with that grade, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to start again. I kept an eye on my Garmin and watched my speed drop from a slow but respectable 15 mph to 5 mph. Then 4 mph. I wondered at what speed I would simply topple over due to lack of forward motion. As I dipped into the 3 mph range, I started doing the math and realized that it would take me all day to do the 20-mile climb up Grand Mesa. Maybe even more than one day. I had visions of myself camped on the side of the road overnight, using my cycling jacket as a makeshift tent, creating a camp stove, MacGyver-like, from the contents of my bike bag. How many days could I survive on energy gels? At 3 miles per hour, I’d be lucky to get to the top of Grand Mesa before Thanksgiving.

I had lost all the friends I was riding with – some ahead, some behind – so I was left to plug along alone, one pedal stroke after another. I think I set a record for how slow one can go without falling over (2.7 mph!). I passed very few people, but lots of people passed me. A 70-year-old passed me, and then a 7-year-old passed me. People riding beach cruisers and mountain bikes passed me. A woman wearing flip-flops passed me. I was going so slowly that flies were able to land on me. There may have been vultures circling overhead, but I didn’t see them; I was unable to look more than three feet in front of my wheel.

After what seemed like several months, I finally made it to the top and was happy to reunite with my friend Holly, who had dropped me hours earlier. I scarfed down whatever food I could get my hands on, and then we rode down the other side of Grand Mesa, enjoying the scenery and the downhill grade. But the ride up had taken its toll. By the time we got to the finish at Hotchkiss, it was so late that even the beer tent had closed for the night. I took a shuttle to my hotel, grabbed some food and tumbled into bed, dreading the next day:

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It turns out that the climb up Grand Mesa pretty much sums up my RTR experience – slow, hot, painful, exhausting, and long. By the end of Day 3, my butt was so sore I thought I’d never be able to sit in a bike saddle again. By the beginning of Day 4, I was wondering if it was possible to get my butt amputated. I resorted to wearing two pairs of shorts to get the double padding effect – helpful, but only to an extent. I’m sure I looked fabulous. Perhaps I’ll set a new bubble-butt fashion trend??

But while I was inflicting damage to my backside, the scenery in front of me was spectacular. I saw areas of Colorado I had never been to before. I passed through the widest alpine valley in the world. I inadvertently steered into the path of an oncoming tumbleweed. I saw pristine mountain lakes and rugged wilderness. I rode 13 miles on a dirt road up Cottonwood pass, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet. I biked across the second-highest bridge in the world. The highlight of the ride came, appropriately enough, on the last day. We had to endure a 29-mile climb (I was cruising along at a speedy 3 mph! Woohoo!), but were rewarded with a spectacular view of the snow-capped Sangre De Cristo mountains in front of us, followed by an easy glide into the scenic town of Westcliff. As I approached the finish line, what must have been the entire population of the town was lining the street, applauding all the riders as we came in.

I had managed to ride the whole thing, every mile (even when, in retrospect, walking would have faster). 465 miles. 31,000 feet of climbing. Think of that the next time your pilot says, “We have leveled off at our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet.”

Although I was miserable for some of the ride – ok, much of the ride – I was glad to have done it. But, as I stated emphatically in the car on the way back from Westcliffe, I had no desire to do it again. Now that the weather has turned colder, though, and the heat and dehydration and exhaustion and butt pain are fading into the background, I find myself wondering what this year’s route will be and when lottery registration opens. Because I’m stupid like that.

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Pain delivered in the summer is conceived in January. In the flush of the New Year, summer seems far away and full of potential. So when Ilyse, my former cycling partner-in-crime from Chicago, emailed me just three weeks into 2015 asking if I wanted to do Ride the Rockies, the optimism of the season took over. A weeklong bike ride through the mountains of Colorado in June? Of course, I could do that! Never mind that my bike hung in the garage, its flattened tires covered in dust while I sat on the couch eating leftover Christmas cookies. By summer I’d be thin and fit and probably even wildly successful and rich and (what the heck) famous. June was off in the distance. By then, anything could happen.

Ilyse had done RTR before – a few times, actually – and when I lived in Chicago, I’d heard lots of RTR stories from her while we pedaled the flat lands of Illinois. She had asked me a couple of times if I wanted to do it, but I’d always thought it was out of my league – too much hill climbing. But this time was different. I was a Coloradan now! Granted, it had taken me months to get used to the altitude, and without my old biking buddies to pal around with, my time in the saddle had been limited. But I’d train! I’d get in shape! I would become a bike monster, a mountain crusher! Besides, I’d read on the RTR website that something like 4000 people apply for 2500 spots. I wouldn’t get in; I never win anything. So I put my name in the lottery and didn’t think much more about it.

When my acceptance came in March, I had two thoughts in quick succession: 1) I got in to Ride the Rockies! I’m so excited! Then 2) I got in to Ride the Rockies. I’m probably going to die.

When I had cheerfully told Ilyse that I was game, the route for 2015 hadn’t been announced. I didn’t know what I was getting into, other than it would be a week of riding somewhere in Colorado. By the time our lottery acceptance came through, the route had been posted and I had learned the painful truth. 465 miles of riding. 31,000 feet in elevation gain.

Are you kidding me?

There was a 96-mile day, followed by a 79-mile day, and soon after, a 102-mile day just for good measure. There was one day that included a 29-mile climb, straight up a mountain.

Someone shoot me.

Fortunately, it was early March and the ride wasn’t until June. My irrational optimism kicked in again. There was plenty of time to train! I’d be fine! Thanks to Denver’s mild and sunny winter, I’d already been riding outside for weeks at that point. Not far, mind you, only 20 miles at a time (20 flat miles, I should note), but it was something. My Chicago friends, on the other hand, had been braving a typical Chiberia winter and outdoor riding was months away for them. What’s more, I was living at about 6000 feet. Compared to riders coming from sea level, I was sitting pretty. I convinced myself I could do it. No problem!

Then the rain started. Lots of it, by Denver standards; the wettest spring in years, complete with flooding. Not only did that put a damper (ha!) on my desire to ride outdoors, but the flooding also forced me off of my favorite creek-side bike paths. I managed to layer up and get out on the road a few times, but then one cold and chilly day I took a spill on some wet pavement. I was fine, but hesitant about riding in the rain. How in the world was I going to train for a 465-mile weeklong adventure?

Enter the bike trainer – one of those little contraptions you put your bike on to let the back tire spin while the bike itself stays in place. Thanks to the bike trainer, I was able to pedal for hours in my basement without going anywhere. But as opposed to a spin class, which can be high energy and motivating, I found biking on the trainer to be tedious. Until, that is, I started binge watching Orange is the New Black.

I bought the trainer on a Monday afternoon. By that Saturday I was finishing up Season One. I was the only person in Colorado who was happy about the wet weather. Every morning, when I’d see the rain clouds on my weather app, my heart would race a bit. How many episodes could I get in? Two? Three? Maybe four? I’d gladly hop on my bike and stay there for hours. Granted, it wasn’t quite the same as biking outdoors, but it had to count for something.

The problem was, I liked it too much. On days that I should have been out doing killer hill climbs, I was in my basement, pedaling slowly and barely breaking a sweat, waiting to find out what was next for Piper and Larry and Alex and Crazy Eyes.

The days and weeks ticked by until I realized one day that I was out of episodes. What’s more, it was now June and my grand plans for getting in the best bike shape of my life had never quite materialized. I’d done a couple of hill rides, but nothing even close to a 29-mile climb. There was no way around it, I wasn’t ready and it was too late. I updated my Road ID contact info so that my body would be easy to identify, and I started packing my bags. Like Piper at Litchfield, I’d have to make the best of it and hope to survive.

Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | August 1, 2015

In Which I Fall in Love with an Elderly Gent

Belated thanks to Realize Magazine for publishing my essay about my crush on a sweet old dog I see around the neighborhood: Canine Lessons. Love the artwork they selected to go with the essay. Check out those hound eyes! Realize has a beautiful site, so surf on over and give them some love.

Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | September 30, 2014

Hope: On Sale Now at Trader Joe’s

I was wading in a pool of despair. I’d spent the night in the hinterlands of Northfield, Minnesota. I’d eaten dinner at a restaurant that was worthy of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, although the place was packed and seemed prosperous, a telling indication of the culinary discretion in Northfield. We sat on the patio with a stunning view of the parking lot. The food was mediocre, but the flies were exceptional. I kept hearing Chef Ramsay’s voice in my head screaming “Disgusting!”

I spent the night at one of Northfield, Minnesota’s finest resorts, the AmericInn. THE AMERICINN. Although it hinted at cleanliness, I couldn’t shake the fear of bedbugs. Phantom itches plagued me all night. In the morning, I roused myself with hot water that had, at some point, come in contact with coffee. I sat at a small faux wood table, alternately gazing at the institutional carpeting and contemplating the offerings of the free breakfast buffet. Should I go for the cereal that was ardently trying to be confused with Special-K? Or should I grab a banana nut muffin even though I was certain it contained neither? Feeling in need of protein, I settled on the pancake-shaped disks that were made of something that once resembled eggs. Adjacent to the Scrambled “Egg” Rounds were sausages that appeared to have been rolled in extra lard, just to make their greasy shine that much more lustrous. I left hungry and under-caffeinated.

Fortunately, I managed to find a decent falafel sandwich later in the day, which fortified me for the marathon wait at Minneapolis airport where I, along with 150 new friends, waited out a weather delay in Denver. We finally boarded the plane and I settled into the second to last row. THE SECOND TO LAST ROW. An hour into the flight, the pilot asked the flight attendants to take their seats because we were heading into some rough weather. The flight attendants did as told, but not before several of my 150 new best friends began vomiting. The flight attendants scurried up and down the aisles not with Rum and Cokes but with napkins and plastic bags. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine I was heading on a vacation to an exotic destination, preferably someplace warm, with fresh local food prepared by professionally trained chefs, maybe Gordon Ramsay himself. And decent coffee. In this fantasy, I was flying first class. A jarring drop in altitude knocked me back to reality.

A storm raged just outside the thin metal of the fuselage. There was no doubt that the wings would shear right off the plane; it was just a matter of time. I wondered which type of crash had a higher survival rate: land or water. I assessed the physical fitness of every person between me and the exit door, determining who would be easy to push aside and who might put up a fight. I targeted those individuals whom I could simply crawl over. I decided I’d be a hero and snatch the baby across the aisle on my way out. “Woman Saves Infant in Deadly Plane Crash.” I imagined that the barrage of lightning outside the window was the flash of paparazzi bulbs at the press conference. I decided that if the mother died, I would raise the child as my own. It was the least I could do. Except then I remembered that in about 17 years I’d have to take him on college visits and stay at the AmericInn and eat fake eggs for breakfast. I had second thoughts. I’d still save him from the burning plane, mind you, but I’d turn him over to a loving aunt after that. Let her worry about bedbugs.

Upon arrival at DIA, I left my would-be infant behind without a word and hustled into the terminal, resisting the urge to kiss the ground, reminding myself that carpet was filthy and God only knows where all those people have been walking. I arrived home hungry but nauseated. I fretted over my next trip, coming up in less than a week. Could I handle the Days Inn, sure to be a repeat of the AmercInn, but with better spelling? Or should I upgrade to the Embassy Suites in order to get scrambled “eggs” that were, at the very least, cooked to order? Could I withstand the sandpaper-like bath towels and “coffee” with non-dairy creamer? When I decided to have kids all those years ago, why did no one warn me about the tedium of college tours? A bleak future, bereft of decent food, stretched in front of me.

And then I remembered the Petit Basque I’d discovered at Trader Joe’s that was waiting for me at home. For $10.99 a pound, it’s half the price Whole Foods charges for manchego. MANCHEGO, the Velveeta of Spain. The Petit Basque was a gift, a sign. I had the strength. I could go on.

I paired the Petite Basque with an ’07 Willamette Valley Pinot and dug up some Pumpkin Cranberry Crisps. I felt it all wash off me – the Kitchen Nightmares restaurant, the scratchy towels, the imagined bedbugs, the sad but real powdery “egg” disks, the CoffeeMate, the turbulence, the vomiting passengers. I still haven’t decided if I’ll be staying at the Days Inn or the Embassy Suites, or heck, maybe I’ll rack up loyalty points at another AmericInn on my next trip. But I know that if I can navigate my generic white sub-compact rental car to a Trader Joe’s, I can find Petite Basque. And all will be right with the world.

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