On The Road
November 15, 2005
The Suspension Of Disbelief Personified
My hotel bed is a King. It is enormous. In Seattle a plot of land this big would cost $300,000. At one point last night I woke up to discover that I had shifted around so much that I was sleeping parallel to the headboard without discomfort.
In the first session of my convention, one of the speakers gave an example of how his software could be used. Before he began he gave a lengthy and belabored disclaimer, assuring us that the scenario he was about to describe and enact was completely hypothetical. In it he used the word "fictitious," like, a dozen time. Then, as he walked through the example, he paused every three minutes to remind us that everything we were seeing was wholly invented, and had absolutely no connection to reality whatsoever. Someone should totally hire that guy to stand next to Bush and do the same thing whenever the President gives a speech.
November 14, 2005
I'm in Washington D.C. this week for a conference, though not one of those fun ones where "convention" is shortened to "con" and prefixed with "Comi" or "Manimal."
I took the laid-back approach to travel, this go-round. Sometimes before a trip I will agonize for days before my departure, making lists of everything I need to bring, packing three days in advance, and spending the hour before my departure doublechecking to ensure I haven't forgotten anything. Other times I drag out my suitcase the morning of my flight and just leave it on the dinning room table in the hopes that it will, epiphyticly, absorb clothes and toiletries from the atmosphere. Whenever I happen to walk by the luggage carrying a clean pair of socks or whatever, in it goes. Several hours later the taxi arrives, and I close the luggage without a review of its contents and hope for the best. Remarkably, this system tends to work for me more often than not, although I always run the risk of suddenly realizing -- halfway through my flight, at an altitude of 30,000 feet -- that I have not only neglected to pack any pants, but that I'm not even wearing any at the moment.
When I arrived at the Sea-Tac I marvelled, as I always do in the airport, that such an enormous building can eb entirely populated by people who don't want to be there. People waiting for their flight to depart so they can get out of there, people waiting for a loved one to arrive so they can get out of there, people waiting for their shift at The Six-Dollar Cheese Sandwich Emporium to end so they can get out of there, etc. I think airports are the closest earthly approximation of purgatory, a huge holding cell for the unhappy. And why are people always dressed so nice? I don't even bother to comb my hair before travel, but the airport is always packed full of men in suits and women enveloped by make up and Wonderbras. Is everyone flying to some prom that I was not invited to? Or perhaps the airport is just one of the few places in Seattle where you can see large groups of people who are not from Seattle, i.e., people not perpetually dressed like they are an extra in a 90's-era Mudhoney video.
My flight was uneventful. As as was boarding I could see, hovering over the space next to my assigned seat, a black leather cap festooned with shiny steel buttons. I expected it to be atop a stereotypical gay man straight out of the Village People, but when I arrived at my seat I discovered it actually contained an ancient woman, ninety years if she was a day, sitting by the window and clutching a copy of "The Christian Traveller's Journal." We exchanged some pleasantries before the twenty-something girl who got stuck with the middle seat arrived and filled the space between us. At several points during the trip the old woman, in a quavering stage whisper, told the girl that I was delightful young man and she was lucky to be married to me, while I stared at my book and pretended not to hear. The third time this happened the girl stopped correcting the woman and instead said, yes, married life is grand.
After we arrived at Dulles and had taxied to our gate, everyone leapt to their feet and began wrestling bison-sized carry-on items out of the overhead bins. Suddenly the entire vessel lost power and we were plunged into complete darkness. "Better now than ten minutes ago," someone observed. After a minute or so the captain came on the intercom, assured us that the problem would be solved momentarily, and suggested that we "not go anywhere." As they hadn't yet opened the doors to the plane "going anywhere" wasn't really an option in the first place, unless someone was planning to crawl into their luggage for a quite jaunt to Narnia. When the lights came back on I was nearly overcome by an urge to give out the piercing, womanly scream and shout "My pearls! Someone has stolen my pearls!!"
The shuttle from the airport to my hotel was entirely too crowded, though this seemingly worked to my advantage. All the back benches in the shuttle were full when I arrived, so I took the shotgun seat up front. That was pretty sweet, until I later realized that being next to the driver allowed me to watch in horror as he simultaneously exceeded the speed limit, tailgated, and devoted both his thumb and his attention to punching text messages into his cell phone for the duration of the trip. For most of the journey I felt the way was I did during the final 20 minuets of The Blair Witch Project.
Anyway, that's how I wound up in D.C. Technically speaking, I'm actually in a small town called "Church Falls," although, judging from what I saw on the ride out here, I'd estimate that for every church that fell at least four rose to take its place. (Aw shit -- I just looked at the hotel stationary and discovered that I'm actually in "Falls Church." Joke = ruined!)
Anyhow, if my posting is sporatic this week, that's why. Although, to be honest, for my posting to become any more desultory than it has been in recent weeks I think I'd have to post on Leap Days only. So if you don't notice any difference, I'll understand.
December 01, 2003
Texas Trip: The Final Frontier
The Queen and I flew to Texas on Frontier Airlines. Never heard of it? Neither had I, and I found this vaguely disconcerting. I don't like flying under any circumstances, and I wasn't exactly psyched to be on an airline less well-known than your average brand of salad dressing. But I ordered our tickets on one of them Internet Ticket WWW sites, and my insistence that we receive the lowest possible fare resulted in Frontier.
Frontier, it turns out, is one of those bargain basement outfits like "Southwest." We figured this out even before we got to the gate. Standing in line to hand over our luggage, we saw that three different airlines inhabited this section of check-in counter. On the wall behind them, Delta had a fancy, digital readerboard that displayed up-to-the minute information about the arrival and departure times of its jets; Horizon's had a plastic-and-magnets affair that clerks had to manually change to show ETAs and ETDs; Frontier had a four dollar Wal*mart whiteboard and a couple of dry-erase markers.
Frontier's slogan is "A Different Animal," another element of the airline that was apparently designed to make me feel ill at ease. When it comes to, say, video games or fruit juices, I find the prospect of something completely new intriguing. But when it comes to large, heavy machines improbably traveling through the ether, I'm not really in the market for an innovation. If the architecture of regular airplanes is modeled on birds, what "different animal" am I to assume Frontier is emulating? Bats? Bees? Golden -- god forbid -- Retrievers?
It turns out that the "Different Animal" tagline is just part of a marketing strategy targeting the lucrative "six year-old girl" demographic. Each Frontier jet, we discovered when we arrived at the gate, has a picture of some Lil' Baby Critter on its tail wing, each looking like it had been ripped from the pages of the "Adworable Widdle Animals 2004 Wall Calendar." The Queen and I jokingly wondered if you could special-request a particular mammal, like asking for an aisle seat. "My wife is pregnant," you'd say to the check-in clerk, "so it's imperative we receive an ocelot."
"We have some great news!" someone gushed over the PA system at our gate, moments before we were to board. "We are very please to announce that we will be featuring DirectTV on this flight!" (They said this like MacGyver had just been on board, rigging up the system with paperclips and gumballs, but I've since discovered that Frontier always has DirectTV on their flights.) Basically all this meant that every seat had a small television set embedded in its back to ensure that, even on a cross-continental flight, no one will have to forego the sweat, sweet nectar of televised soma for even a moment.
But the TV cost money, as with everything on Frontier. They didn't even have meals on the flights -- you had to buy your own $9 ham sandwich at the airport commissary and bring it on board with you. During the preflight instructions I expected the stewardess to say that, in the event of a sudden depressurization of the cabin, an air mask would drop from the overhead compartment, and all you would need to do is swipe a major credit card through the reader in your armrest to purchase 3 minutes of oxygen for only $10.
Some folks, including the man sitting next to me, ponied up the $5 for the DirectTV headsets. The Queen was mesmerized by the guy two rows ahead of us on the opposite side of the aisle; she kept elbowing me and saying, in a tone of sheer wonderment, "That guy's been watching Animal Planet the entire trip! He paid five bucks to watch Animal Planet!"
About halfway through the flight I glanced at the TV belonging to the man to my left. On screen were two sock puppets, conversing. The man, sensing my gaze, frantically jabbed at the channel changer until he found a basketball game.
November 18, 2003
Texas Trip: Hello Beaches!
So, yeah: The Queen and I went to Texas. No one is more surprised about this turn of events than I.
We haven't taken a trip in a long time, and this month was now-or-never time. By our reckoning, once The Squirrelly makes his debut, the era of the noun "vacation" habitually preceded by the adjective "relaxing" is probably over. More specifically, The Queen is wrapping up her second trimester, and we'd heard that most major airlines prohibit women in their seventh-eighth-ninth month of pregnancy from flying (although a little post-vacation Googling revealed this to be, for the most part, an urban legend).
In deciding our destination, I only had one requirement: I wanted to go somewhere. The Queen, on the other hand, had two: she wanted to be warm, and she wanted to look at plants. (This might be explained by the fact that she's a professional botanist. On the other hand, I'm a professional programmer and I had no desire to go somewhere and look at machine code, so maybe it doesn't explain anything.) Anyhow, I let The Queen pick the city, and somehow Corpus Christi came out the winner. I think it was the new "Texas: Now With More Republican Legislative Districts Than Ever!" ad campaign that it won her over.
We stayed in the Corpus Christi 'burbs, which was notable for containing one retail outlet for every single chain store in America. It was ridiculous. We even turned it into a driving game, where one of us would say "I haven't seen any Krispy Kremes yet!" and then the other -- usually with 20 seconds -- would shout "found one!" and point it out. We saw a Circuit City, a Best Buy, and a third enormous electronics store all on a single block. We saw a Wal*Mart half a mile from a Target.
In a way, the dismal, generic landscape worked to our advantage, because it drove us out of our hotel room bright n early every morning and out to the Gulf Coast. [11:00 am constitutes "bright n early" while on vacation -- ed.]
The first day we went to the Corpus Christi Botanical Garden, which was quite lovely despite the fact that nothing was in bloom. Fortunately for The Queen, she doesn't need no stinkin' flowers to enjoy plants: she can identify them all by their leaf shapes and stem colors and, I dunno, nodes or stamen or whatever. Hand her a piece of bark and she can tell you a tree's social security number. Fortunately for me, there were plenty of spiders and frogs and lizards and raptors to keep the 7-year old boy in me happy.
The next day we went to the beach. And once The Queen got her tosies in the sand it was beaches from that point on. First we went to Padre Island, which was beautiful but lousy with Portuguese man-o-wars -- iridescent jellyfish renowned for their painful stings. They were about every ten feet up and down the tideline, and the question "if this is how many washed up, how many are still in the water?" deterred us from swimming.
When we later went to Mustang Island, though, we discovered there are worst things you can find on a beach than man-o-wars: junk of all types, specifically. Bottles, diapers, syringes -- you name it, it was there. We'd seen signs at Padre Island (a nation park) telling us the beach was cleaned every day, but we didn't understand the need until we visited Mustang -- apparently state park aren't as meticulously groomed. But I did find an enormous washed-up TV -- score!
More details to come.
You need to add the third reason I wanted to go to Texas: the Mexican food in Seattle is really, really bad, and, since I've been pregnant, I fantasize about burritos all the time.Duly noted.
March 06, 2003
DC Notepad: Movin' On Up
I've always felt sorry for Charles Seeberger, inventor of the modern escalator. I don't know a thing about him, but I've come to envision him as a wide-eyed idealist, a benevolent visionary who thought -- like the early proponents of television -- that his new-fangled gadget would change the world for the better. "Just imagine," I hear Mr. Seeberger whisper in tones of wonder, "Now people will be able to ascend stairs twice as fast as they could before. Utopia is just around the corner."
And then, in this mental fantasy of mine, I imagine the horror and revulsion Seeberger would feel if he were to visit any modern America mall, and see how his gift to the world has become a force of evil. Because people do not walk up the escalator, as Seeberger and God intended, and therefore reach the top of their climb no faster than they would using non-motorized stairs. Instead they stand immobile on the escalator, like tourists at the Mount Olympus Zoo's gorgon exhibit. Instead of improving the world, the escalator has instead just become another contributor to the lazification of Planet Earth.
These were conclusions I had drawn after living most of my life in Seattle, where folks wouldn't walk up an escalator if it burst into flames. And although I haven't visited many large American cities, I assumed this phenomenon was constant throughout the nation, a conception that was reinforced last summer when Slate published an article describing how Economists at the University of Rochester had observed the same thing (i.e., the average American walks up an escalator about as often as Bob Dole plays tetherball).
Now, this wouldn't be so bad if you has the option to walk up the escalator if you wanted to. But you don't -- not in Seattle, at any rate. When I was in Europe, I noticed that while not everyone opted to stay in motion while on an escalator, at least the stationary folks kept to one side so that those wishing to climb were able to do so. In Seattle no one ever stays to one side -- even those riding alone insist on occupying the exact center of the path -- and asking someone to move over so you can pass is considered about as polite as inquiring if you can stab them with a pike.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Washington D.C. citizens walk up escalators or stand to one side to allow others to do so! What the hoohaw?! Is this unique to DC, or is Seattle the only hotbed of not-to-the-side-escalator-standers in the nation?
No seriously, I want to know. The comments are open.
March 04, 2003
DC Notepad: The West Wing
While in D.C. I strolled by the White House. My first reaction, upon seeing it, was "that's a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be".
My second reaction was "What are you, nuts?" Because, in truth, the White House is huge for a residence, and it must have been considered even more so when it was (re)built in 1901. But, I dunno -- somehow I expected something that, in typical American fashion, would be Completely Over-The-Top Huge, like the Mall of America, or the Cadillac Escalade or, according to obesity statistics, the average American himself.
As I returned to my hotel, I wondered what it was about American society that conditioned me to expect Bigger! Bigger! Bigger to the point where finding the White House to be just Moderately Huge was a disappointment.
Half an hour later I was sitting in my room, watching a press conference in which the skyscraper selected to replace the World Trade Center was unveiled. During the sppech by the architect, the CNN newscasters kept breaking in, breathlessly reminding viewers that the proposed edifice would "be the tallest building in the world".
March 03, 2003
D.C. Notepad: Bookends
I spent last week in Washington D.C. (How do I end a sentence with "D.C." -- with two periods in a row?) I'm entirely too lazy to write a full narrative of my assorted adventures, but I did have the presence of mind to jot down some notes.
I was certain that I was going to be searched repeatedly in Sea-Tac airport. After all, the last time I flown I'd been subjected to more scrutiny than a pretty girl in a bar, and that time I'd been (a) clean shaven, (b) armed with all my necessary documents, and (c) accompanied by The Queen. This time I was a disheveled, unshaven, single male with an "e-ticket," a new pair of thick-soled boots that had ample room for explosives, and a face full of irritation owing to a lack of morning coffee.
But at the check-in counter they were unfazed by my badly frayed driver's license, and let me turn in my luggage without having to endure a search. No one glanced at me twice as I waltzed through the metal detectors, even though every third person was getting pulled aside. By the time I actually boarded the plane -- again, without attracting any attention whatsoever -- I began to wonder if I'd become invisible.
Or maybe ... Maybe I didn't get searched because I had mentally searched myself. So sure was I that I would get patted-down and wand-waved that I had examined myself from head to toe, categorizing everything about my appearance and demeanor that could be interpreted as "suspicious" and preparing appropriate explanations and excuses. Maybe the airport staff could sense that I had done their job for them, and had therefore opted to let me go without comment.
Maybe the FAA had a hidden agenda. Maybe they had taken Socrates dictum "The unexamined life is not worth living" to heart, and all these elaborate "security measures" were, in fact, a covert way of forcing Americans into self-evaluation, giving us the opportunity and motivation to to view ourselves as we are seen by others. Maybe the government, like the Oracle of Delphi, is simply taking the opportunity to say unto us "Man, Know Thyself."
Or maybe I hadn't had enough coffee and was borderline delusional. That was also a distinct possibility.
And Back Again
An hour into my return flight a stewardess came over the intercom system. "I'm going to begin the short video feature," she announced. "We will follow that with the in-flight movie in about an hour or so."
An hour passed. No video was seen.
Just as a second attendant was asking me what I wanted to drink, the voice of the first stewardess echoed through the cabin again. "Whoops!" she said. "I ran the short feature, but I forgot to lower the video screens. Sorry about that! Anyway, we'll start the movie in five minutes."
The stewardess in the aisle rolled her eyes, handed me a Pepsi, and whispered conspiratorially "We just got a pretty face with that one, I tell ya."