Baby Sleep

The Comfort Suites here in Linthicum, Maryland doesn’t have too much to recommend it. It does have location, just a couple of miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It also has the de rigueur shuttle bus to ferry you to and from the terminal. And it has a free breakfast, although it is nothing gourmet: a few cereals, a couple varieties of pastries and breads, and little compressed round yellow things that I assume are scrambled eggs but which look remarkably visually unappealing.  High speed wireless? In theory yes, in practice no. It feels like I am using a modem.

My room is a bit musty, the bathtub a bit chipped but otherwise the room is clean and nice. The view outside my windows speaks of the local zoning laws. A Red Roof Inn offers its imposing presence across the lot. A Quiznos is on the corner and I look down at a Budget Truck rental lot. A private park and ride is across the street. In short, it’s a basically clean hotel but except for an oddly placed electronics museum across the street, it has little else to recommend it other than its convenience to the airport. My team found it convenient because five of us were within local driving distance. This plus the bargain rate we negotiated with the hotel makes for a very cheap developer’s meeting at a facility a few miles down the road. It is almost close enough to drive home every night, but Washington’s legendary traffic jams makes it more convenient for me to sleep here for three nights instead.

My hotel room though does have two big plusses. First, it is quiet for a hotel. You may hear an occasional door slam down the hall, but it is well muffled. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it has a very comfortable bed. I have slept in much better beds, and arguably the fine mattress we have at home is even better. But a quiet room and a comfortable bed yield something I rarely get at home: a really good night’s sleep.

This is my guilty pleasure with hotel living, when I can find it. However, when the hotel is quiet because it is only half occupied, the beds are comfortable and, most important of all, I am sleeping alone, I can sleep like a baby. I wake up remarkably refreshed. This happens, at most, one night a week when I am at home. Part of this is due to rising at 6:30 during the week, but the larger factor is that by Friday night I feel sleep deprived enough where I can mostly tune out my beloved spouse’s snoring.

I don’t hold her snoring against her because I snore myself. I never hear myself snore, even when I feel like I am awake and just beginning to nod off. But I usually hear my wife snore, and even a quarter century later I still find it challenging to sleep through her nocturnal noises. What I do most nights is insert silicon ear plugs into the ear canals. It helps quite a bit but is not a solution. To rest well, I generally need to either be exhausted or to be sleeping alone. In short, I need no loud or aberrant noises. I prefer silence or, lacking silence, some gentle white noise that helps tune out other nocturnal noises. I know that if I am snoring, I will tune out my own snores. It’s those other miscellaneous sounds that will wake me up, or cause me to rise momentarily out of a deep slumber and into something lighter that feels less restful.

It was not always this way. I think I learned the habit of sleeping fitfully during the early childrearing years when a baby monitor sat next to our bed all night. Also, somewhere along the way, both my wife and I began to snore more. I assume it is related to aging. It does not help to also be a middle aged man with an active nocturnal bladder. In short, I have learned to sleep deeply but sustained sleep is very elusive.

Here at the Comfort Suites, like many of the hotels I have stayed at, an hour of sleep here feels like two hours of sleep at home. Getting eight hours of sleep, which is supposed to be ideal, feels luxurious. I can arise at four in the morning to shuffle off to the bathroom feeling incredibly rested. I am happy to throw myself back into bed. At six o’clock in the morning I am almost feeling like getting up because I feel fully rested, and yet there is time to sleep even more. It feels decadent to go back to sleep, but I do. When the alarm wakens me at seven o’clock, I realize I had eight hours of restful sleep. This is the way you should feel getting out of bed, but it is something so many of us seem to have lost.

Sleep is highly underrated. We find other distractions that make staying awake far more inviting. I confess I can succumb to these desires as well. Nonetheless, I try to listen to my body. When it tells me it is time for sleep (generally ten p.m. on weekdays, eleven p.m. on weekends) I shuffle off to bed. Unfortunately, it usually takes an hour or so for my wife to join me. Sometimes I will just turn off the lights and go to bed, but usually I elect to read for half an hour, which will almost certainly put me in a narcoleptic mood. The same cannot be said about my wife, a natural night owl who only shuffles bed around eleven p.m. because she has to get up early in the morning.

Tonight out here in BWI’s hotel alley, I anticipate another very restful night of sleep. It is odd that I find a strange bed to be more restful than the one I share at home, but that’s just the way it is. I can see why older spouses often migrate into separate bedrooms, simply because they realize that being able to snuggle at night, however pleasurable, does not surpass the greater joy of a good night’s rest.

I will not need earplugs tonight, as I enjoy my last night at the Linthicum Heights Comfort Suites, but doubtless I will reach for them tomorrow when, home again, I slip back into my own bed.

My second home

I am back in Denver again. More specifically, I am back in Golden, Colorado, which hugs the Denver metropolitan area’s western edge. As usual, the group of us out here on business together is staying at the same hotel. Actually, we rotate between two hotels. One is a Courtyard Inn. Just across a street is a Residence Inn. Since they are both owned by Marriott, they are effectively one hotel.

Usually when we come to town to do testing or training, we cannot all fit in one hotel, so we spill over into the other hotel. The testing that we will do this week is smaller scale. Only about a dozen of us will be participating in this test, so we are all in the Courtyard Inn. That is a bummer, for many of us have been here many times before. And although the Courtyard Inn arguably offers a better breakfast, the breakfast at the Residence Inn is complementary, as is the Happy Hour at 5 PM. Therefore, we generally prefer the Residence Inn where the rooms are also larger and the amenities nicer.

This is my fourth year coming to these hotels. I figure this is my eighth stay. This is my third stay this year alone. The hotels and the surrounding neighborhood have become so familiar by now that it is starting to feel like a second home. How do I know? I remember the last time I stayed at the Courtyard Inn in January, and the plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies placed in the lobby in the evenings. It is now Pavlovian. I expect the cookies to be there and they had darn well better be there because I am salivating for them before I walk in the lobby in the evening.

The clerks behind the counters do not know me by name yet. I do not know their names either, but gosh darn are they looking familiar to me. There is the blonde haired woman who services us in the morning at the Courtyard. When I stay in the Residence Inn, there is the Fox News Channel blaring away in the dining room of each morning. (I did complain about their preference in “news” networks, but it has not seemed to have worked.)

I remember things I should not remember. I know that, toward summer at least, Wednesday is hamburger and hot dog night at the Residence Inn. The Happy Hour there can be bountiful or frugal, but many of us figure it is enough calories to suffice for dinner, so why go out to eat? I know how they will dress down the beds in the Courtyard versus the Residence Inn. In the Residence Inn, they are into pillows. If there are not at least six of them on your bed, they figure you may not have enough pillows. At the Courtyard, they do not believe in blankets. If you get cold, you fish one out of your drawer.

I have had a couple days where I have woken up and for a minute, I did not know whether I was at home or in the hotel. Maybe this is a sign of age. On the other hand, maybe this is a sign that Denver is becoming something of a second place of residency for me.

I do not need directions to the pool, or the hot tub, or the exercise room. I have been to all of them repeatedly. I find I like the exercise room in the Courtyard better than in the Residence Inn: they have a useful weight machine. I know exactly where the icemakers are. I have learned that when staying in the Courtyard, to ask for a room facing the mountains, so you do not have to hear the traffic from Route 6 all night.

I am sure all this familiarity is good for Marriott’s bottom line. I would not say that I am loyal to this hotel, since someone else is making the reservations. I do sometimes wonder what all the other hotel experiences around here are like. I suspect I will never know.

It is not just these hotels that are becoming routine but the same traveling experience is repetitious too. I often end up on the same flight from Washington Dulles to Denver. I know I will fly United because that is our contract carrier. I know which flights offer the wide body aircraft. I know that when I arrive at Denver International I will be deposited on the B Concourse, because that is where United rents space. I know that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant is on that concourse. I know where the money machines and the restrooms are. I think I even have memorized the recorded speech on its people mover.

The flights are becoming the same too. I have eaten the same identical United Airlines $5 snack pack on the last four successive flights. I know that I can listen to flight chatter on channel nine. I know the flight west typically takes three hours and fifteen minutes, and the flight back two hours and forty-five minutes. I have learned how to pack my liquids. Denver after all is a mile high. If I leave the cap on the shampoo bottle on too tight, its contents will burst (which is one reason I put liquids in a plastic bag). There is an art to tightening a travel bottle enough so that it bleeds a little with the air pressure, but not enough so that it leaks any of its contents.

I have learned how to accommodate jet lag gracefully. I try to nap on the trip east. I try to arise a bit early on the day I fly east. When I follow this strategy, I usually do not notice the time change.

I am not bicoastal, but this flying to and from Denver is so routine now that it is almost second nature. It is almost a reflex.

Why am I flying here so much? Our training center is in Denver, and that helps a lot. In addition, Denver is a good deal. The agency I work for (The U.S. Geological Survey) is very spread out since we do our work in the field. This means that we must also come together regularly. Denver has some strategic advantages. It is big enough where even if you live in a small city you can usually get to it in no more than two hops. In addition, there are plenty of airlines that fly in and out of Denver. This means you are likely to get a decent airfare. The cost of living is modest, at least compared to Washington standards. It is also reasonably in the middle of the country, if you include Alaska and Hawaii. No one has to endure much in the way of jet lag in order to do business.

So Denver it is and Denver it will likely mostly be until I retire. There are times when I feel that maybe our agency should invest in some time-share condominiums out here. With all the traveling we do in and out of Denver, it must be cheaper to use leased condominiums than pay even modest hotel rates. Until that time, I have a feeling the Courtyard Inn and its next-door neighbor, the Residence Inn here in sunny Golden, Colorado will continue to feel more and more like my second home.

Welcome to the Matrix

The 21st century is taking some getting used to. It seems to me both familiar and strange. In some ways, it is more fantastic than my wildest fantasies growing up in the 1960s. True, we do not have men on Mars. Nor are there giant space stations in earth orbit serenely rotating to the tune of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube.

Still, it is an amazing new world that I inhabit. We’ve come a long way baby. I grew up in an age when the space program was just starting. The ordinary life I knew growing up was incredibly low tech. Only governments, banks and very rich companies could afford computers and they were housed in their own buildings. A typewriter was something of a luxury; most of us wrote out our letters by hand. Most office systems consisted of a typewriter, carbon paper and a card file. Air travel was largely only for the rich. I was 23 years old before I took my first commercial airline flight. The idea of a personal computer was ludicrous. Most of us drove cars with manual transmissions. Lacking power brakes, we had to push down hard on the pedals to stop the car. We owned cars that many of us could repair ourselves.

I am not sure when my world changed. Nevertheless, this new world I inhabit still seems surreal. The feeling comes back whenever I take a business trip. This week it was two nights and three days on the north side of Atlanta. It was a high tech experience all the way. It started when I inserted my electronic key into my hybrid and drove it to the long-term parking lot at Washington Dulles International Airport. A bus picked me up and took me to the terminal, but automated announcements kept me company the whole way. The driver did not have to say a thing.

Once inside the terminal there was no need to interact with a ticket agent. Like all the airlines now, I simply inserted a credit card into my airline’s electronic agent machine. Within thirty seconds, I had a boarding pass in my hand. Getting through the security screening was the most labor-intensive part of my airport experience. Even so high tech machines sniffed and examined my carry on luggage. Many moving walkways and frequent escalators carried me quickly to Concourse B. At the gate a solid-state monitor, supplemented with many recordings, provided basic flight information and informed me of the weather at my destination.

Inside the airport, it seemed that everyone is talking to themselves. No, I was not looking at them carefully enough. They are yakking into their cell phones, informing their significant or insignificant others about every minute aspect of their journey. CNN blared above my head. Within easy walking distance were restrooms with automated toilets. A nearby Starbucks was ready to provide a quick caffeine jolt.

At least the MD-80 I was on is an older aircraft. The flight attendants were forced to do their safety briefings the old-fashioned way. However, many passengers were tuned into their MP3 players or wholly zoned out. The more adventurous on this ninety-minute flight booted up their laptop computers once we hit 10,000 feet and kept working. Time is precious in the 21st century. It must be filled with something. Only the old fashioned like myself take time to look out the window. For most, a jet is merely a quick way to get between two distant points, not a journey to be savored.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a lot like Washington Dulles, just much bigger and feeling its age. More escalators and moving sidewalks whisked me where I needed to go. At least this airport has the now nearly compulsory automated subway linking concourses to the main terminal. Washington Dulles will not have it for a few more years.

At the Alamo car rental, of course my reservation is already in the computer. I was told to take my pick of any of the compact cars. I picked a bright red one on the assumption it would be easier to find. I handed my rental contract to the gate agent who scanned it. Within seconds, I am on the open road. Forty-five minutes later, I am at a Homewood Suites near the Cobb Galleria Centre. It is here that I encounter the only electronic hiccup of the day. While I am in their reservation system, the system cannot seem to assign me a room. The application, written in Visual Basic (I can tell from the error message) repeatedly bombs. Some old fashioned human ingenuity is called for. The clerk unassigns someone else’s reservation so I can select theirs. The electronic room key is quickly encoded. Within minutes, I am relaxing in my second floor suite.

How suite it is. It was hardly a year ago that I was bemoaning the lack of high-speed internet in hotel rooms. Now it is pervasive. This hotel has the now standard high-speed internet service. In a minute, I am online, reading my email and surfing my favorite web sites. I may be five hundred miles away from home but with my government furnished laptop computer, it is as if I have never left. My virtual office and me. My suite and me. For suite living is the way to go. Moreover, this is the first suite I have stayed in that actually felt like an apartment. Even sweeter, it is a quiet room. While next to the Cobb Parkway, I do not hear road noise at all. This hotel is below the road surface and behind a berm. The comfy bed and lack of noise is itself a bit surreal, but allows me to get a deep sleep I can rarely get at home.

I have wheels but I do not need them that much. I am a couple hundred feet from a Schlotzsky’s Deli. Cobb County may be in the intellectual dark ages when it comes to teaching evolution, but everything else is high tech. Gleaming office buildings, hotels and convenient retail abound. There is a movie theater across the street (I took in Syriana while I was there.) A mall up the street made a convenient place to buy some Christmas presents. However, mostly I prefer my cozy room. It comes with a fireplace, but no wood. (Do they expect guests to bring their own firewood and matches?) It has a stove, refrigerator and dishwasher but no food. (I used one glass and found the next day that the maid ran the dishwasher to clean it.) Generally, I do not like to travel alone. Yet if I must this is the way to do it: a nice quiet and comfortable suite with a fireplace I cannot use, two TVs and a convenient high-speed internet connection to distract me.

The Cobb Galleria Centre is a half mile up the road and the destination of my trip. It is beautiful, immaculately clean, quiet and plushly carpeted. In other words, it is like every other convention center in which I have ever been. It is the sort of place that had I stumbled upon it in the 1960s would have been breathtaking even without its many high tech features. Aside from the self-flushing toilets and urinals, each conference room has its own electronic board informing attendees about the current and future seminars in the room.

I am here to talk about the groundwater data in the system that I manage. I attend a committee meeting. In the afternoon I do an hour-long demonstration of the system I manage to passers by out by the registration area. The following day I give a half hour speech that is well received, then listened to more than three hours of similar speeches by others. At the conclusion of my business, I do it all in reverse, arriving back in Washington Dulles three quarters of an hour late. My flight left a rainy Atlanta shortly before sunset. I was treated to a surreal but stunning picture of a fingernail sun on the horizon dancing off the top of an endless carpet of dark stratus clouds. It was all just for me. For none of the other passengers seem to care. The guy next to me was methodically thumbing his Blackberry.

Although all this technology is so convenient and ubiquitous, the only real part for me is looking out the window and marveling at our complex planet from a height that would have astounded humans only a hundred years earlier. The rest of the journey feels surreal and artificial. I ache for something that feels more concrete. That is why business trips like the one I took last month to Helena, Montana turn out to be so much more fun. Arriving a day early to spend a day hiking mountains makes me appreciate the hotel’s Jacuzzi and the end of the day. Clean mountain air beats the persistent press of cars and humans. For all its glitter, a dazzling convention center is no substitute for a mountain, raw and exposed to the elements, and a path to take me to its summit.

Although I make my living in the world of technology, I know the time will come when I will have had my fill of it. I will not give it up altogether. I will doubtless keep a computer and high-speed internet connection. Nevertheless, I do hope that retirement finds me somewhere far from the omnipresent press of gadgetry and civilization that is this newer, more crowded 21st Century. I will want a place with a view of a moose outside my window instead of a Hooters. If I miss a café latte, I will buy a machine. If a Barnes & Noble is not around the corner, I will order my books online. Someday again, nature will be around the corner instead of hours away. Someday I shall buy peace and nature.

In the Airline Twilight Zone

When all things are optimized our nation’s airline system is still quite a marvel. Yes, airlines may be cutting costs left and right. Yes, the security is a frustrating hassle. But it’s still a marvel that much of the time and you can get predictably from point A to point B. However when things are not optimized then airline travel quickly goes from marvel to frustrating Chinese water torture. Like the spouse who is usually sweet and sunny but goes into a manic phase every now and then, the same is true with our nation’s airports, airlines and air traffic control system. Sometimes they conspire together to produce the perfect storm.

And that was my unfortunate situation. The way that things should have worked was I would have caught a 12:40 nonstop flight out of Denver yesterday and arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport around the dinner hour. I would have the evening to unpack, reconnect with my family, eat a healthy dinner and vegetate on the computer. Oh how I wanted to vegetate. My cat would be purring contentedly on my lap while I read my email, caught up with my forum and hit my favorite web sites. And then I would be leisurely off to bed. Because I’ve been on business travel all week I have been largely denied my comforting activities. I ache for my mundane daily hobbies.

But the usually sunny Denver was beset by rain and thunderstorms. I don’t begrudge residents of Colorado the rain. In the dry west you can never get enough of rain. But I do begrudge United Airlines for sloppy communications. My flight was canceled for mechanical reasons. I can understand that. Still I was a bit piqued that I was never notified. Although I was signed up for a service that should have notified me by cell phone of this flight cancellation I received nothing. Nor were there any notices in my email inbox. I got to work (in this case the Denver Federal Center) but before dashing off to a meeting I did a quick flight check on the web. And that’s how I found out that my flight was canceled. Of course I immediately started trying to reroute the colleague I was traveling with and myself. I was offered a connecting flight through Indianapolis. That seemed acceptable: arrive around 9 PM instead of 6 PM. Not ideal, but acceptable.

But after making the reservation changes my phone starts to ring. Now I am getting automated voice mail from United Airlines. It informed me that my new flight would leave an hour later than scheduled. And that meant that I probably wouldn’t make the connecting flight. So I call the airlines again and ask for what seems to be a more promising connecting flight through Minneapolis. We were booked on it.

But rain and thunderstorms caused flight delays at the Denver airport. It’s not a good sign when pilots cannot berth their aircraft because the gate crew is not allowed to go out and direct them in. So we left the gate about a half hour late. But we had ninety minutes between connecting flights. I figured we’d make the connection.

But of course just because we were pushed out of the gate didn’t mean we were actually anywhere near being airborne. No, we sat there a couple hundred feet from the gate.

And sat. And sat. In a driving rain. And we hear thunder. We get murky reports from the pilot on how long we were going to be there. But he’s decided it will be a while so he turns the engines go off, along with the air conditioning. The heat inside the aircraft builds. We start to sweat. Man, I hate sitting on the tarmac. You are effectively in prison. You cannot get out. You cannot go anywhere except possibly to use the bathroom. And you have no idea if you will be there for five minutes or five hours. Well at least we were allowed to use our cell phones so I can phoned home to complain. About ninety minutes later we were somewhat mysteriously allowed to leave. A 12:53 PM departure was actually 3:30 PM.

But at least it was smooth flying to Minneapolis. It was good to see the sun again. Of course because we were late getting out of Denver we missed our connecting flight. We snagged a friendly United Airlines employee and followed some passengers to a booking room in the United First Class Club. Our one hope was to get on a US Airways flight to Charlotte, and then hop on a commuter flight into Washington Dulles. It should get us home at 12:05 a.m. We discussed spending the night in Minneapolis. But there was no guarantee we could get out in the morning. All flights were booked.

So we grabbed it. At least we’ll be 250 miles from home instead of 800. United Airlines was helpful in working with US Airways. They pulled our bags from the plane and moved them to the new plane. It was a bit frantic but we made the flight. But there was no time to grab any dinner. And of course there was no dinner on the flight. This is after all de riguer for American airlines in the 21st century. Even so this plane left the gate about a half hour late.

The weather in Minneapolis was partly cloudy but there were thunderstorms all along the Eastern half of the United States that were causing traffic delays. So again here we were pushed off from the gate and we found ourselves sitting on the tarmac. And waiting. This pilot though was more communicative but his estimates were still way off. We actually left at 8:20 PM for a flight that was supposed to leave at 6:45 PM.

I purchased a snack box for $5 on the plane. It had to suffice for dinner, although this sure wasn’t health food. Chips. Salsa. Pretzels. Candy bar. Guzzled down with apple juice. We arrived in Charlotte at 11:10 PM. Even before we left the aircraft we were informed that our connecting flight had already left. So we could either sleep in the terminal or opt for a discount hotel. In either case we could not get a flight to Dulles until early afternoon the next day. We opted for the hotel room, which turned out to be a Ramada Inn five miles from the airport. We were one of many disgruntled travelers in the same boat. But the airline flat refused to give us our baggage. I was out of clean underwear. And the hotel was not free. Weather delays were not their fault, US Airways said, but we could get a discount rate of $53 by calling this toll free number. We used pay phones to rebook our flight and took the packed courtesy van to the hotel.

This is a faux three star hotel that maybe qualifies as a two star motel. The driver of the courtesy van informed us that there is a gentleman’s club next door is open until 3 AM. This gives us an inkling that maybe this isn’t a top of the line hotel. We arrived at the hotel after midnight. It was steamy outside and inside. Music from a club in the hotel was loud and annoying. Barflies wearing what looks like lingerie passed us by on their way to the club. I’m thinking: this is the exciting nightlife in Charlotte? I’m wondering if a swingers’ convention booked most of the hotel. I strongly suspect that this is the sort a place where I could easily find anonymous sex for the price of a few drinks. Fortunately my radar kept me far away from these tramps. And all I really wanted to do was sleep.

The hotel smelled musty and unclean. The hallways were hot and stifling, likely because they have no ventilation. The plastic key they gave me was coded incorrectly, so I had to trudge back down to the lobby and get it replaced.

I was given Room 4334. The room was not hot but it was icky. Curious: a previous occupant had children. There were Goldfish cracker crumbs under the bed. The maid couldn’t be bothered to clean them up. The couch had crumbs on it too. The bathroom counters and tub were chipped. The sink stop was broken. I washed up and climbed into bed. Ick again! These sheets were not fresh! Someone had slept in them before me. But it was past 1 AM and I was too exhausted to do anything about it. I tried to sleep but the bed was not comfortable and smelled funky so I only managed about four hours of sleep. I woke up around 6 a.m. wishing, but unable to get back to sleep. I could not tune out the smell of the unclean sheets. I took a shower and washed my hair. I missed things that were in my suitcase, like a comb for my hair. But I felt reasonably clean even in day old underwear.

We found a nearby IHOP for breakfast. My companion is from India and a vegetarian so it was particularly challenging to find food he will eat. We arrived at the Charlotte airport with more than two hours to spare. Both of us were selected for intrusive “special screening”. Grrr. Another happy result of the Patriot Act: ordinary people like me get to be shaken down like we were suspects. Every item in my overstuffed computer bag is carefully examined. Happily our flight to Washington Dulles airport was only fifteen minutes late. But when I added on the time it took to find our suitcases it was 3 PM before I was home. In short, I had arrived home 21 hours later than scheduled!

No moral to this story. This was just another bizarre adventure in the airline Twilight Zone, probably similar to some many of you have taken too. While it was not exactly hell it sure did feel like some form of purgatory.

Suggestions for Hoteliers

It amazes me that with competition for hotel rooms so brutal that hoteliers are missing some very obvious features that would bring back repeat customers.

The number one annoyance I have in a hotel is noise. I’ve slept in more than a few four star hotels and noise has been as big a problem there as in the two star hotels. Maybe I’m a bit different but I’m used to sleeping in relatively quiet surroundings. When a door slams in the middle of the night I usually wake up. When lots of doors slam in the middle of the night I wake up a lot. This makes for a broken night of sleep. There are solutions to the problem. The doors themselves could be insulated with heavy sound proofing material. But there are more obvious things that could be done. The doors could have resistance hinges so they don’t slam shut. The doorknobs could be engineered so they don’t make so much noise opening and closing.

And I still hear much more of my neighbors than I would prefer. My recent stay at a Courtyard Inn proved as much. It’s not quite as bad as some apartments I’ve lived in. Hotels are usually built these days with lots of concrete between floors. This is good because I don’t usually hear people above or below me. But Wednesday night I was inadvertently entertained/annoyed by a very noisy couple in the room next to me engaged in what Bob Eubanks (former host of “The Newlywed Game”) called “whoopee”. It might have been more titillating at half my current age and at an earlier hour. And I’d rather have been the one getting the whoopee. Given my druthers though I’d rather not have heard it. Sex happens. Sleep sometimes doesn’t.

Pipes can be annoying too. I almost always hear water running in rooms next to me. I can tell if it’s the shower or the toilet that’s in use. I’m sure today that pipes can be insulated and made reasonably soundproof. It shouldn’t make much of a difference in the cost of a hotel anyhow so why not just do it during the construction of a hotel?

Hotel rooms don’t have to be bland. In appealing to the least common denominator hotel rooms become wholly uninteresting places to inhabit. Why not have 10 percent of the rooms done with truly decorative or offbeat colors, or with something other than Early American furniture? Given the choice I’d likely go for the decorative room. I might even pay a few dollars extra. And I’d be more likely to remember the place.

Beds should be something hotels get right by default. But I am amazed by the variations out there. I had a king sized bed all to myself at the Courtyard Inn I stayed in this week. But I am six foot two inches. The standard king sized bed is a bit more than six foot in length. That meant that my feet were sticking out. I guess I could have slept sideways in the bed but that’s ridiculous. And sleeping diagonally feels weird.

And why not use fitted bottom sheets? I can understand there may be an economical reason to avoid fitted bottoms but I’ve rarely slept in any hotel room where tucked in bottom sheets didn’t pull out overnight. The bedding is almost always too dense (multiple blankets and/or a heavy comforter) or too light. In the latter case my legs often end up exposed and cold when I arise.

The mattress should invite deep sleep. I prefer firm mattresses but there are some mattresses that are firm but snug and meet even my wife’s picky standards. Whatever mattress was used at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando met my seal of approval. It was as comfortable, if not more comfortable than the high-density foam mattress I have on our queen size bed at home. It’s very rare to get a hotel bed that is conducive to deep sleeping. I’d say only one in ten hotels meet my high quality standard, and I almost always stay in three star or better hotels.

Then there are annoying interior room noises. The most obvious one comes from the air conditioner/heater unit, almost always built into the wall. These suckers are usually noisy. They abruptly cycle between on and off throughout the night. These noises are not always something I can sleep through. I prefer a hotel with central heating and cooling for that very reason. But as long as I am dreaming, how about humidity control in the room? Most hotel rooms become too dry for my taste. A couple days in most hotels can leave me with eczema.

Curtains should not only offer privacy but also actually keep out the light in the morning. Some of us are very light sensitive and this time of year the sun is up early. That doesn’t mean I want to be up early. It doesn’t take much sunlight creeping above, below or between the curtains to wake me up. And while we’re on the subject of annoying light, how about doors that are low enough so the light from the hallway doesn’t come streaming into the room during the night?

There is almost always one annoying thing in a hotel room. This week it was that my sink did not stop completely. This is not a hard problem to fix. You would think that someone would go through all the rooms in a hotel once a month checking for things like this. But apparently they don’t or they figure we don’t care.

Non-smoking rooms are great and I always ask for them. Nonetheless there are still hotels that haven’t figured out that a whole floor should be nonsmoking, not just a few rooms at the end of a hall. And if the air is controlled centrally a hotel defeats its purpose if smoke from adjoining rooms comes into my room via the ductwork. This isn’t rocket science. Just do it! When possible hoteliers please put the smoking and nonsmoking rooms at opposite ends of the building.

Okay enough of the whining. I am sure I could find more things to complain about. And yes I am aware it could be worse. Most of the hotels I sleep in these days are very clean. The staff is very professional. The maid service is usually excellent. Most hotels routinely add a continental breakfast in the morning. Not only is it convenient but also it saves me a few bucks. It’s been years since I have found a bug in my hotel room. So the good news is that the three star and up hotels are ninety percent there. Why not go the extra mile and show all your customers that you say you care about that you really do care about them? It’s not hard: give us an environment conducive to a good night’s sleep. Upgrade the mattresses, cut the noise and make sure the room can keep out exterior light. If you do you can bet if I have to visit your city again I will be coming back to your hotel.

Life in the Courtyard

In sitting here in my hotel room. It happens to be at a Courtyard Inn on the north side of Raleigh, North Carolina. I am here on business of course, and I won’t wend my way home until Thursday. During the day I head a few blocks north and hang out with three hundred or so party hearty hydrologists. Yes, hydrologists from across the eastern United States have come to Raleigh to trade notes, listen and have a good time. I’m here mainly to listen and observe. I am no hydrologist but I have to learn their lingo and have an appreciation for the work they do. “From the gage to the page,” is what I have to learn. My business is to serve the data collected from thousands of points across the United States, much of it in real time, to the public over the Internet. The Internet part I understand pretty well. But how the data gets from a gage stuck in a well or in the middle of a stream and makes it within minutes to the World Wide Web is something of a mystery to be explored in intricate detail. So that’s why I’m here.

Part of the good time of this conference was a barbeque and Bluegrass party tonight. I was okay with the barbeque, but nix on the Bluegrass. No offense to my good neighbor Steve (who loves Bluegrass) but Bluegrass music makes me itchy. I’m not a huge country music fan anyhow, but all that banjo picking, high-pitched male voices and endless songs about Jesus is about as welcome as a couple hours of rap music. So I wisely opted out. It was perhaps not the politically correct thing to do since my boss, her boss, her boss’s boss, and one of my employees were all going. But we all have limits. We’ll all do dinner tomorrow night.

So tonight I revel in the mundanity of my hotel room, Room 268 at the Courtyard Inn. It’s not a bad experience. I got out for a little food and spent some time loafing at a Borders bookstore down the block. After listening to presentations and chilling with Susan (my terrific boss) all day I don’t really mind spending the evening by myself.

I stayed at this very hotel back once before in 1998. Then I was here on business too, but for another employer. I’m beginning to feel my way around this city a bit. Raleigh like many cities in North Carolina is growing by leaps and bounds. However, the growth is not downtown. It is in the northern and western suburbs. I got a little lost finding my hotel because I got on the Raleigh beltway only to discover they had added an outer beltway since the last time I was here. My atlas is a bit old.

Raleigh is both a city and a state capital. But it doesn’t strike me as much of a city. It’s five miles or so from the inner beltway to the center of town. There are a couple buildings that look like they are twenty stories or more, but that’s about it. I drove into downtown tonight just to look around. It is one of these downtowns that must close up promptly at 5 p.m. Actually I doubt the place ever gets crowded, unless the legislature is in town. There’s not much there there in Raleigh. Much of the action seems to be in nearby Durham, or on U.S. 70 that connects the two cities.

One thing that is new this trip is that my hotel room now has a high-speed Internet connection. That was the reason I chose the hotel. I hope it is not much longer before this feature is universally available everywhere, including all the Motel 6s out there. I’m sorry but a dialup connection just doesn’t cut it anymore. I need high-speed Internet wherever I spend a night. And although I’ve gone through some annoying connection hassles it was worth it. So really I don’t need an evening social life: the laptop is my social life. I am virtually at home here in my soon to be forgotten hotel room, doing pretty much what I would do if I were at actually at home, like reading my personal email, checking my favorite political sites and blogging.

There are admittedly some dubious side effects to having high-speed Internet access while on a business trip. For one I feel I have to read my work email. I don’t really want to do it. But I get such a volume of email that I feel like I can’t let it wait. Otherwise when I get back to work on Friday I’ll be inundated, and I need to do real work on Friday, not read email. So I’ll spend an hour or so hurriedly going through it and sending most of it into the bit bucket.

While I like the high speed Internet, I can see why Marriott needs to offer it. That’s because there are choicer lodgings just down the street. There is a Hampton Inn next door, and two extended stay suite hotels just past it. Here I just have a plain room. Granted it is a nice and clean room, but it’s just a room. Courtyard Inns are a ubiquitous way station for the business traveler. You know exactly what you are going to get. I do find it curious though that when I look out into the swimming pool I never see anyone in it. We are the business class and the business class doesn’t take evening dips in the pool. We work on our laptops in our rooms, we make calls, and we may watch a movie on HBO if we have the time. In the mornings we pay $7.95 for the hotel breakfast bar and studiously ignore each other. Instead we feign interest in the McPaper (USA Today) placed outside our door every morning.

I am glad I am not boarding at a Motel 6. I love the high-speed Internet access in my room. But really there should be more to business travel than this. Yet this is more fun than the known alternatives. Crabtree Mall is only a few miles away. I could kill some time there. But it is nothing special. It has all the same stores I have 250 miles away at home. From sea to shining sea, America seems eternally bland to this business traveler.

I’ll be glad to get home.