Some Thoughts, #4a

Topic #4 – The Car (Part One)

So Bill was supposed to make a blog entry during our trip about the car we drove. And he didn’t. But he did leave behind some notes. I stole those and without his permission I’m going to make The Car entry instead. It’s a little windy so I’m posting it in two installments. Sorry this took so long.

As a father, I have worried myself into knots over, you-name-it but what probably freaked me out more than almost anything in parenthood was the prospect of my kids driving. The thought of my progeny loosed on the road, navigating a gauntlet of inexperience, hormone poisoning, incompetent fellow drivers and plain bad choices kept me awake at night before our first baby was even conceived. Because life expectancy behind the wheel? Newly hatched sea turtles probably have a better chance of surviving their first year. I wish that were funny.

I know this particular child raising obstacle causes concern for every parent but it provoked me to unusual anxiety and still does. And I think I know why.

One of the many oddities in my life was learning to drive. I’m pretty sure my Dad had some early instinct that I might be a little bit slow. At least compared to my older and ridiculously accomplished siblings. And he might have had reason for concern. I remember, for example, getting pulled out of school in the third grade and being sent for a couple of days of “testing”. Uh oh. That didn’t go unnoticed.

So imagine my old man’s situation. He’s in his mid fifties. He suddenly, or gradually realizes he’s been dealt a weak hand in an accidental fourth-born who spends all day fanning through the Sears catalogue. A weird little dude whom the school system is having serious concerns about stewarding. He’s worried. He should be.

But my dad was an engineer – a problem solver. His parenting approach with me from the point where he identified a defect was basic. Old school remediation. Compensate for lack of natural ability with repetitive practice. I think he had in mind something like mastering activities of daily living. Tie your shoes, button your shirt, do your laundry, cook an egg. And, for God’s sake, learn to drive a car. So what does he do? The moment I am tall enough to see out the windshield and engage the clutch all the way at the same time? He teaches me to drive. I am nine.

As it turned out, my Dad was an amazing driving instructor. Patient, deliberate, and very ahead of his time. We practiced almost every day. And we’d do weird stuff. Like doughnuts in a local parking lot every single time it snowed. For an hour. Or we’d take two cars – I’d follow him alone in one – and he’d make me chase him around that same empty parking lot. In Reverse. Then he’d signal for me to follow him home. Again, backwards. In the right, driving lane. My car pointing first out of the driveway in the morning. On nights after those outings it would often take me hours to fall asleep after bedtime. WTF did we do? Crazy. Stupid. Perfect.

But that was just the preamble. After I had the hang of it, he let me solo. Regularly. On weekends, for example, my job was to drive, alone, to the top of our street, make a left on to the main drag, then another left into a convenience store parking lot. There I’d pop in for a gallon of milk and the Sunday paper, then return home. Round trip was maybe a mile. I don’t think I ever got into third gear. It is hard to describe how thrilling an adventure that was because it was so stunningly irresponsible, not to mention illegal. But it was something I looked forward to like a jail break every week and it never got old. And it made me feel uniquely special. Because I was pretty sure no other kid my age anywhere on the planet was allowed to do that. Much less knew how. I was the little Mozart of driving.

So – I love to drive. And I’m a decent driver. Not a great driver. Not Mozart, as it turns out. But imagine what I’d be like if not for my old man. If you’ve shared the I-95 corridor from Baltimore to Maine with me any time in the last thirty years, my dad may have saved your life. You’re welcome.

And – shockingly – I taught our kids to drive more or less from the same playbook. Are you nine? Can you plunge the clutch to the floor mat and still see through the windshield? Yes? Time to drive stick. That’s the short version. This is a public blog so my kids can fill in the details. But that’s pretty much how it went.

There was a time a couple of years back when we had seven cars. One each for Audrey and me, one each for our three kids, then a 1993 F-150 pickup truck that I run to the dump and back on weekends and a 1973 Karmann Ghia mouldering in storage. Emma moved to California and registered her car out there. And the Ghia found a much better foster home. So now we’re down to five.

Of those five there were only two we could possibly have taken on our xc roadtrip. Both are Subarus. One is mine, a 1998 Legacy wagon with 308K miles on it. Bill’s is the other, a 1999 four door hatchback with 210K miles. Both have the same amazing 2.2 liter engines and same 5 speed manual transmissions. Mine is on it’s third timing belt, suffers from some minor compression issues (like its owner), leaks oil like state secrets and has a pretty sloppy shift linkage. And the clutch slips. Bill’s is in slightly tighter shape except for a nagging ignition issue at slower speeds. His machine’s main defect is structural – it’s not waterproof any more. Driver gets wet when it rains kind of thing.

When Bill and I first latched on to the idea of driving across country the early plans were considerably more romantic, impractical and dangerous than the more conservative version we ultimately adopted. Which is to say we thought about driving one of our cars. Saddling up either of these antiques would have put our trip in another category altogether. Like covered wagon territory. We considered a couple of options. One was trying to nurse my car out and back. Maybe eight or nine thousand total miles. But that seemed harsh somehow. A llittle like making the favorite old family lab lead dog in the Iditerod. So then we considered taking Bill’s car as far as it would go before unscrewing the plates, prying off the VIN tags and leaving it somewhere discreet. That second idea actually had some legs until we realized that our trip would then be defined by warning lights, makeshift roadside repairs and unplanned overnights waiting for parts. Not to mention Greyhound rides to fill in the uncompleted miles.

So in the end, we traded exotic and exciting for practical and predictable. We decided on a one way trip so we could see as much as possible in the three weeks we had. And we decided to rent a car to improve the chances we’d actually get to some of the places on our list in relative comfort. And with a lot less anxiety.

Some Thoughts, #3

Topic #3 – Time and Space

When I was a little kid, I used to play a game where I’d plan elaborate voyages from my home in New Jersey to some distant spot on the map, taking with me only what could be ordered from the Sears catalogue. If you don’t remember that famous bible of mail order, it was pretty amazing. About the size of the Boston phone book, with tissue thin pages, it put a price on almost everything. There was a time you could even by a house from Sears – they’d deliver the materials and instructions to your little plot of land in Wherever, USA and the rest was up to you.

So the game went like this: I’d map out the route using a big atlas, then make elaborate, detailed lists of the stuff I’d need to bring. Camping equipment, fishing gear, clothes, first aid kits, guns (lots of guns), ammo, tarps, rope, tools, transistor radios, etc. It was actually a lot of work. And I wouldn’t stop until every single last contingency had been addressed. At least to the satisfaction of my fourth grade mind. Here, probably, was the genesis of my packing problem. And the first, unmistakable signs of what would become a magnificent and life defining OCD. Undiagnosed, I should add but…I report, you decide.

Anyway, almost everything. But not quite. There were some gaps in the Sears bible that complicated my game to the point where it sometimes got nearly impossible. I remember, for example, not being able to find a boat big enough to transport me and all my imaginary purchases to an island in Lake Huron. So I ended up selecting two aluminum skiffs, “lashing” them together with my imaginary rope, then agonizing over how I was going to sync the necessary second outboard motor to a uniform throttle. The strangest boy in the world. Until Bill was born.

These mostly harmless diversions were informed by what I then had available to me: an Atlas of North America, the world’s most eclectic mail order catalogue and brain damage. My choice of destinations were usually of the close-your-eyes-and-point variety. And because I grew up in New Jersey, the most densely populated state we have – then and now – traveling almost anywhere else presented very good odds of encountering many fewer people per square mile. I counted on that. And also, always, on traveling alone. A one man moon shot.

So…on the day we barreled West through Minnesota and South Dakota and put behind us all the places I’d ever been before, I suddenly started thinking about that super weird little kid and his trips to the moon and it began to dawn on me that he’d actually done it. That goofy little misfit had actually packed a function of the whole Sears catalogue and left. And, as it turns out, all the planning and worrying I did for this trip left me as unprepared as if I’d put that fourth grader in charge.

Because I had no idea. About this place. At all. The United States is enormous. And it is almost otherworldly to someone like me who has spent his whole life on cheek-by-jowl, quarter acre lots on the East coast. The scale of everything changes as you head West. On our first day we drove from Collinsville, Connecticut to Cleveland, Ohio. That was roughly 575 miles. If we had aimed North instead that day we would have ended up so far into Quebec that there would have been a good chance we’d never have been seen again. Much less had an expensive steak dinner the first night. And the farther from home we got, the less the total mileage seemed to matter. We were covering some pretty crazy distances some days without seeing much in the way of civilization as we knew it. Or sometimes even changes in the topography. The liberal Interstate speed limits (which Bill liberally ignored) contributed to my disassociation from an old reality as did the time of day, which was consistently on our side as we crossed from Eastern to Central to Mountain, etc. I finally stopped thinking about my watch. And the utter vastness of the landscape started to seep in and alter my perception of my place in it.

And that got me to thinking about how the landscape shapes the way we think. My trip didn’t change my views on the urgent necessity of revolutionary gun control or the folly of an unsustainable profit-only economy based on poisonous, non-renewable extraction. But it did help me understand how other people could easily have developed a completely different perspective on those issues. If you live in rural Wyoming, where you can literally drive for an hour without seeing another car, it might be hard to understand why anyone would care if the government leases your back yard on the cheap to Exxon-Mobil so they can drill for gas under it. Because your back yard might go all the way to Utah. And the oil companies are the only employers within a hundred miles anyway. Or where the fuss about guns comes from. In that part of the country, people go hunting on their way to work. There could very well be an average of two firearms inside every pickup truck West of the Missouri. And these are nice people. Lovely people, most of them. Simply living the life in front of them. They’re just over-represented in congress.

And a word about my own inexcusable ignorance here. How is it that I was so amazed by this place? How did I get this old without knowing…anything? I watch the History channel and Discovery. I read a lot. None of that spoiled the surprise, apparently. It was embarrassing, actually. Embarrassing that everybody was so nice. Embarrassing that everything was so beautiful. Embarrassing that I had to find things to complain about so my posts would be more interesting. I had a lot to learn, as it turns out. And now, a lot more to think about.

One random tangent – because I’ve been thinking about this too.

Now that we’re home, it is clear to me that it was Bill who actually made this thing happen the right way. The guy who packed in five minutes and planned ahead each day thereafter with about the same accidental deliberation. But who needed and appreciated and enjoyed this trip every bit as much as I did. Who kicked us over the Missouri river. Who drove our rental car like a pony express rider – hard, but not too hard. Who broke rules so gently that they were re-formed behind him. Who instituted and enforced the daily exercise requirement. Who drove and hiked like his life depended on it. Who coordinated all the music. Who was thoughtful and patient and hilarious company. Who called me on my OCD exactly on schedule – twice daily. The gentleman on this trip. If he’s the best man at your wedding, you’re in good shape.

Some Thoughts, #2

Topic #2 – Shaving.

I had not originally intended to address the topic of grooming on this blog because, honestly, I didn’t give it much thought while we were away. But my wife sure did. Every trip picture with me in it that got posted on Facebook, regardless of the stunning backdrop or the interesting sign I was standing next to or the scary cliff I was navigating, all drew exactly the same feedback from her. S.H.A.V.E.

My wife is a beautiful woman. She’s also smarter than I am. So I married up. By definition that means she did not. It also means she had to make allowances when she agreed to this union and, let’s be honest here, some of them were pretty significant. I have a tendency to speak my mind. At the wrong time. I am inpatient. I have a bad temper. I am moody. I am stubborn. I am depressive. And I’m not beautiful. Not even close. And that’s the short list. That she overlooks these shortcomings, and has for over thirty years, is nothing short of a tiny miracle in my life and something I think about almost every day. And I try to compensate in little ways to smooth out the disappointments for her. I clean the house. I do the laundry. I make the bed. I change the oil in her car. I mow the lawn. I painted her office last summer. And I shave regularly. Mostly.

Let me acknowledge here that I know this is a stupid topic. But I’m fielding it because one of our friends, whom I ran into today, said this to me. “I hear you grew a beard on your trip but Audrey didn’t like it so you shaved it off.” It was funny and confrontational in a who-wears-the-pants kinda way. But I didn’t flinch. I told her she had it exactly right. Here’s what else I told her.

There are three broad categories of beards, in my opinion.

The first is the kind that make you look distinguished. I’ll use my go-to guy U.S. Grant as my favorite example here. Full, groomed, and absolutely necessary. Couldn’t have smoked a cigar or won the war without it. Or Edmund Gwenn in A Miracle on 34th Street. Can’t play santa without that bathmat. Awesome.

The second kind makes you look badass. A number of hollywood actors rock this type for effect but they look good anyway. Like George Clooney. Or they look so badass anyway that even a bad beard doesn’t screw it up for them. Put Ryan Gosling’s mess on me and I’m asked to leave the restaurant, for example. But that’s not really what I mean. I’m thinking badder-ass than that. Like prison bad-ass. Like the goateed dude stewing in solitary for eviscerating his cellmate with a bedspring. Who tattooed himself. In the other guy’s blood. With that same bedspring. That kind of beard.

The third kind is hard to assemble into a descriptive category but let’s start with depressed and jobless. The I-don’t-remember-when-I-stopped-caring-about-myself beard. Patchy. Calico. Should shave it but I’m not even showering now so…why bother.

That third one? That’s the one I had when I came home. Now it is true that I am depressed and jobless, but that’s not why I grew the beard. I grew it because I had three weeks away from my wife to air it out. I’ve never had the opportunity before to go that long without shaving and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

Actually, it was Bill who suggested we go Jeremiah Johnson on this trip. But he got so itchy by the end of the first week that he caved and shaved. I toughed it out. It did get uncomfortable after about ten days and I found myself checking it for snack residue a couple of times. I also will not include a complete description here of the dried mucus in my mustaches episode except to say I only discovered the damage after I’d finished the Grand Canyon hike. So not only was I presenting a portrait of hiking agony to my passing trail mates and looking depressed and jobless in the process, but I had also besnotted myself. Oy.

So when I returned, it had to go. I actually kept it for a couple of days after we got home just as a litmus test of sorts to see if Audrey still loved me anyway and…she did not. Boom – off it came. A small sacrifice.

A quick thought on my previous post. If people were almost uniformly nice to us the whole trip, it was in spite of my beard. Two possibilities here. First is that folks were so cool they overlooked my obvious disfigurement. Second is that I tapped in to some kind of sympathy vote – patient son and his special needs father kind of thing. That is a new angle I had not considered. More study required.

Some Thoughts, #1

So I sat on this trip for a week in full expectation that some transcendent thematic material would percolate through my memory and render me an essay-worthy wrap up to the trip. And…nothing. Except that I eventually came home and how great that felt. But given what Bill and I accomplished, which was really pretty neat, I feel like that punctuation of this adventure is kinda cheap. Or inadequate somehow.

Maybe I expected too much. Like a unification theory that ours and all past and all future road trips would bind into some original proof. Of what I don’t know and the fact that nothing revealed itself means maybe our trip wasn’t really that special after all. Certainly it was unforgettable to the both of us. Not in a life altering way but perhaps close. It was, by definition, unique. But not especially original, or even that compelling if I’m honest about it. A fifty something, unemployed, middle class nobody and his footloose son rent a car and make a run for it? Meh. We didn’t even get arrested. I had a screenplay in mind for my brother to write but we’d have to embellish the characters and invent too much drama or plot complication for it to be interesting.

At least I took some notes. I had hoped they would inform my pulitzer prize speech but there’s no sense hanging on to them now. So I’ll share them here. A consolation prize maybe.

Topic #1: Americans

This is the hardest item on my list for me to write about so I’m tackling it first to get it out of the way. And I apologize in advance for the next paragraph.

I’m a terrible American for lots of well documented reasons but largely because I have almost always harbored a dim view of them. Er, us. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about using a local archetype. Tiny blond thirty something Avon, Connecticut mommy on her way to morning Bikram wearing yoga pants and a baseball hat with her pony tail sticking through the rear band, driving a fifty thousand dollar SUV with a Life is Good sticker on the back window, talking to her life coach on Bluetooth and about to make a detour to drop off her four year old’s sweater vests at the dry cleaner’s. There, even though it is well after ten, she will slap her hand on the counter for same day service because Little Man’s French tutor (such a find) will be swinging by to pick up the togs and deliver them with the lesson to Yoga’s eight bedroom McMansion that evening so they will be pret-a-porter at Sister-In-Law’s Disney themed bounce house party first thing tomorrow. GHW Bush once famously bragged that the American lifestyle is not negotiable. This is what he was talking about. A ninety five pound monster. Why we fight. We suck.

Some baggage? You bet. I’m overpacked – there’s a theme I missed. So imagine my surprise when, on our three week trip, we met…nobody like her. Anywhere. Not even close. Instead, nothing but the nicest, most helpful, honest, friendly, shirt-off-their back characters. In gas stations. In toll booths. In restaurants. In motels. In stores. In ballparks. Everywhere. National Parks employees, with one unique exception at the Grand Canyon, were perfect. My cup runneth over. I wouldn’t say it completely changed my tune about Americans (we took a fairly small core sample after all) but it did make me think maybe we’re not quite as bad a collective mess as I thought.

To be fair, we were predisposed to think the best of people. We were on an adventure. We were on vacation. We had endorphins pumping. It is possible we met a whole slew of assholes and didn’t even notice. There was Las Vegas. And Hollywood. And the TSA. But those fell more into the category of statistical anomalies. And even in those experiences there was a kind of merciless honesty and plenty of warning about what to expect.

So good for you, American Core Sample Alpha. You live in an amazing place. You work really hard. You are generous. You are friendly. You are kind. You are my kind of folk, if I may be included.

Home

In 1804, Thomas Jefferson commissioned an expedition to explore and map the Louisiana Purchase, establish trade and relations with the native inhabitants thereof, and chart a navigable passage through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Who takes that stupid job? Meriweather Lewis. Who immediately and brilliantly taps his sturdy buddy William Clark as his second in command. Together, they lead a thirty-odd man Corps of Discovery mostly West from the Missouri river on one of the greatest camping trips in recorded human history. With apologies to the Jews fleeing Egypt, Christ in the desert, etc. So, maybe just the greatest in English.

A trip across the country, whether coast to coast or just a big chunk of it, is a big deal and undertaken for lots of different reasons. For some, like my oldest daughter, it was a four day blitz from Connecticut to California to start a new job three years ago. Not a lot of leisure for sightseeing but plenty of wheel time. For others, like the retired couple from New Jersey Bill and I met at Mt. Rushmore, the trip was proscribed by overnights with family along the way. A sequence of pot luck suppers, long lost cousins and nights on the pullout in the den. There are destination travelers whose route is drawn by the geographic sequence of specific landmarks or cities or wonders they want to see. I guess that was sort of our category. There are the professional freight haulers who navigate it back and forth and up and down via our interstate highway system. God bless all the long haul truckers – seriously – every single one of you is a hero to me after this trip. And then there’s the daredevil contingent – the ones who bike or hike it. Lewis and Clark would have set the standard for that crowd I suppose. Apologies to anyone I left out.

Whatever the motive, a cross country trip is a great narrative generator. Nobody can travel so far, through such a vast and beautiful and majestic and (sometimes) dangerous landscape without experiencing an alteration in perspective that makes him/her need to talk about it. And, of course, the big roadtrip has spawned some of the best reads ever. By Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Cormack McCarthy, Bill Bryson…it’s a very long and wonderful list.

So, I’m stalling here. I have no great secret to share about this trip. No epiphany, really. Maybe some little ones, but those are sort of silly. I’ll blog about them later anyway because I took notes and…I’m thorough. And I certainly have no great narrative. I waited a week to let our trip sink in and percolate into magic but it didn’t happen. Or it did, but not the way I expected.

At the end it was all about coming home. We got in really late, everybody was asleep. Connecticut smelled like wood smoke and late frost and wet and sunburn all at the same time. Only in May. I crawled in to bed as quietly as I knew how. Audrey stayed asleep but our cat found me like I’d never left; she crawled up and fell asleep on my shoulder. I woke up to hot sun and fresh coffee and my wife and youngest about to leave for work. Two more beautiful people it would be hard to recruit for breakfast. They look amazing in the morning. And otherwise. Home.

Luckiest man on earth.

Flying Home

Monday, May 27th

A sad day leaving Emma and Nic behind and also marking the end our our three week gentlemen’s tour of the partial United States. Five thousand two hundred sixty four total miles driven through twenty states. We made a dent anyway. And here’s the really remarkable thing. No serious problems. The rental car was virtually hassle free and we had remarkably good luck with traffic, weather, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. Nobody got sick. Food and lodging were uniformly decent and so was the company. Bill and I traveled really well together and took turns with the driving and amusing each other. I did overpack, of course and I could have been in better shape for some of the tougher hikes. But I only drank too much once and neither of us got so much as a speeding ticket. So, really? The stars lined up for us. A pretty wonderful and, dare I say, unforgettable trip.

But then there was the flight home. I hate flying. As far as cross country aviation goes, our experience was above average in that we didn’t miss our connection and our luggage arrived at our final destination at the same time we did. That’s how low the bar is these days. And we were even twenty minutes early in the end.

But it was still typical of air travel in the United States. Which is just lousy. So because I don’t have anything else to complain about, I am going to take this opportunity to focus on and whine about a couple of petty annoyances at the end. Just because they contrasted so dramatically from the rest of the trip.

So the first issue is really my own fault because I packed like an idiot. I know a checked bag costs twenty five dollars and we had two so, that’s fifty (General Grant!) and that sucks. But pretty much everybody charges the same nowadays so…can’t really complain about that. Problem? Mine was eight pounds over the limit. Surcharge? Ninety bucks. I should have thrown away eight pounds of clothes and bought new stuff later. With my wardrobe it would have been cheaper. Or bought another bag somewhere, split up my crap and checked the new one for another thirty five. Which option the guy at the counter actually suggested to me and for which he earned my ultimate curse; may you have that exact same job forever. Including in Hell. Instead I was too anxious about getting on with the return so I paid the full penalty. Eleven twenty five a pound. I could have bought a lot of good steak for that. Now I’m mad at the gate agent and myself. But…onward.

Then there was the standard, degrading and unnecessary TSA nonsense. All I can say about U.S security is go travel in Europe. You get to keep your shoes on, they don’t confiscate your shampoo, the whole screening process takes less than two minutes and you don’t feel like any minute you’re going to be rendered off for an undocumented waterboarding session. On this continent the encounter with security seems geared to making you feel like either a victim or a perpetrator. Perhaps to soften you up so that the monumental discomfort of modern air travel will seem like a relief by comparison. Oh, and thanks for the x-ray machine cancer. Had to get it somewhere I guess.

So after that buzz kill, we boarded the plane in SFO and – Huzzah! – a little entertainment screen on the back of the seat in front of me! With movies and TV shows and games and music! Yay! I could feel the four and a half hour leg to Detroit melting away! Until I discovered that one had to pay for almost all of the content. Games? Five bucks. TV sitcoms? A dollar per twenty minute episode. Movies? Six bucks. Much hatred thereby engendered. Much, black hatred. They also had WiFi – twenty bucks for three hours. AYFKM. But I was already down ninety on the bag and dehumanized by Homeland Security so I went for it. So I could blog from thirty three thousand feet about what a chickenshit operation Delta Airlines is. Shame on them. Deep, burning shame.

And here’s a revealing feature of Delta’s in-flight entertainment. The music was free. I listened to three complete Beethoven symphonies (One, Two and Nine) for zero dollars. It says something about a vendor’s cynicism and a civilization’s priorities that there was a greater value placed on a single episode of the Kardashians. The sun cannot explode soon enough.

The plane for our first leg from San Francisco to Detroit, a 757, was packed tight. Three seats on each side in coach. Bill had window but swapped with the lady in the middle so he goes to heaven and her trip narrative is brighter than mine, probably. She was a lovely seat mate and now they’re facebook friends. I had the aisle but stuck out a good three inches into traffic. Over the course of a four hour flight I got hit in the right elbow and shoulder by the passing beverage cart several times. Pretty hard. I even stopped it cold once. Our passive aggressive flight attendants wheeled that goddamned thing up and down like an ore car in a mine shaft. No warning, no “excuse me sir, mind the cart”. Just wham. Nice. But, Beethoven was free and it didn’t hurt much so I didn’t complain. When I finally, actually wanted something to drink, and wasn’t getting slammed with the cart to remind me it was my turn to ask, I waddled back to the galley to petition for some black coffee. Where I found all three stewards splayed out in the prep area. I mean lying down on the floor. One did arise and poured me two cups not quite full. And then told me to be careful carrying them back or, what with unexpected turbulence, I might “be wearing them”. You mean you won’t just send the freight car down my way? No, really, I’ve got it. Just stay put. Sorry you had to get up. Jesus. And the coffee sucked too, of course.

And then there were the two hipsters directly in front of us in seats 40B & C. As soon as the plane was airborne they put their seats back all the way – Flag. We all know there is a reclining feature on seats in coach. And we also all know that option is only to be exercised on occasions so rare as to be virtually unheard of. As in never. For example, If you are pregnant and your contractions are less than one minute apart, you may invoke emergency recline. But even in that case, only half way back. If you are in end-stage labor and your baby is crowning, you may recline back all the way, but only until the baby is out. Then straight back up, please. And nobody that pregnant should ever be flying in the first place so…never. That’s how often a seat should go back in coach. QED. Anyway, the seat recline foul exacerbated my aisle exposure which magnified my cart target profile which increased the strike ratio…you get the idea. Misery.

We had a pretty substantial tail wind and were making nearly six hundred mph ground speed which got us to Detroit early. So we circled for awhile before landing. In the terminal, Bill made a bee-line for the outside so he could smoke and I went in search of alcohol. I located it in a little Irish pub facsimile a couple of gates down from our next departure. Bill found me and we killed an hour with dinner and a couple of surprisingly good local beers. And Red Wings v. Black Hawks on the telly. Original Six playoff hockey and beer – the cure for what ails you. Thus refreshed we boarded our next flight to Hartford, a little commuter job about the size of a syringe. Cozy. No inflight entertainment or internet larceny on this one. But the stewards were really friendly and when one of them gently moved my arm as the cart came through, I fell instantly in love with him. That’s how vulnerable I was by hour seven in transit.

And then we were home. Bill’s friend Chris dropped off a car for us in short term parking so we didn’t have to drag anybody out at midnight to pick us up. Our bags showed up – always a little miracle when that happens. Mine had been thoroughly rifled of course but nothing seemed to be missing (as opposed to last summer when an entrepreneurial inspector snagged forty bucks out of my shaving kit). Whoever rearranged my underwear this time left a nice note behind explaining why certain things might have been removed and turned over to the authorities and why they might have had to break in to my bag to do it. So comforting. And I felt so safe. Covenant Aviation Security, LLC. One of the myriad sub-contractors tapped in to the war on terror money vein. God Bless America.

But, home. Safe and sound. Home to a spotless house, a mowed lawn and the other half of our family whom we have been missing sorely. Now time to process this trip and see what the two of us have gleaned from it. Lots to think about and a lot of pictures to sort.

Random thoughts from Monday: See above.

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…and pass the ammunition

Sunday, May 26th

Last Sunday, on Pentacost, Emma, Nic, Bill and I spent the late morning and early afternoon gambling, smoking (Bill) and drinking at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Classy. So it will perhaps seem like a form of redemption that we spent this Sunday morning at the gun range. No smoking or drinking allowed. If there was gambling, it was not sanctioned.

So here seems like the place to toss out some stray facts about myself which I do at my own peril and for no particular reason except, maybe, for context. They may unmake me some friends and I will not try to reconcile any inconsistencies. It’s complicated. So here goes.

By some very well established and traditional measures, I’m not a very good American. I have very strong socialist tendencies. I flinch and chafe at almost all forms of authority – uniformed in particular. Memorial Day makes me angry at the jingoistic, reflexive and unexamined celebration of our military, and heartbroken at the ghastly death and waste it marks every year. I hate war. I especially hate our newest, “endless”, for-profit war. I hate the NRA. I’m not a big fan of hunting unless it’s for food. I fly a peace flag in front of my house. I’m that guy.

Except for one little wrinkle. I love guns. Really love them. And I love to shoot. There’s almost nothing, in fact, that I’d rather do given the opportunity, than target shoot. I have no idea where that comes from but I’ve been like that as long as I can remember. But that itch doesn’t get scratched very often because I don’t own a gun, because I don’t know very many people who do, or who know enough about shooting to help me do it safely.

Here’s a more interesting fact. Nic is a Marine. Not in the active duty sense, but in the “once a Marine, always a Marine” sense. Eight years in the Corps, two tours overseas, etc. He’s the real deal. Semper Fi. He owns guns. And he can shoot. Boy can he shoot. And he does it the right way.

So we spent a good chunk of the Sabbath on the range. A long drive out to the middle of nowhere (allegedly Petaluma California) and on to some guy’s private land. We stopped for ear plugs on the way and arrived around an hour before noon to find the place packed. Gun church. There were three general shooting areas lined up against a berm carved out of a hillside. Each had separate concrete shooting stations (table and a seat) and were protected by both a roof and a sloped wooden awning that provided eye shade for the shooters and helped prevent misdirected supersonic projectiles from angling up over the earthen backstop.

The pistol station had targets set at fifty yards. The long gun stations had targets at one, two and three hundred yards. And there was a separate area for skeet shooting on the opposite side of the dirt parking lot. Shooters pay a flat fee, then stay as long as they like (or their ammo holds out). Shooting sessions last twenty minutes. At the end of each, a cease fire is called, shooters are required to unload, open the breach of their weapon, put the safety on, and step back from the shooting tables. Then (and only then) does the range manager allow folks to retrieve targets and set up new ones downrange. The guy calling the shots was super crabby and absolutely no-nonesense. He wasn’t the slightest bit afraid to bark at anyone who was even a little bit out of line. The whole thing was very structured and pretty safe. At least as safe as a farmyard full of men and women armed with mostly semi-automatic weapons can be.

Nic brought a Glock 9mm handgun, a .22 cal AR-15, a .308 hunting rifle with a folding bipod on the barrel, and a beautiful 12 guage over/under shotgun for skeet. We shot them all. A lot. Pretty awesome. Nic was an excellent teacher, very patient, calm, and completely in charge. And we actually did pretty well as a group for a bunch of beginners. We finished around one in the afternoon, with sore shoulders, reeking of gunpowder and with fingers stained by brass shell casings. Never happier.

Then a long drive back to Sonoma with a stop for lunch and a well deserved beer, and then another detour for groceries. Nic and Emma invited some friends over to our guest house for a cookout so as soon as we got home they started prepping for our party. I took that time to clear out the rental car and pack for our plane ride home the next day. And before I knew it our guests were arriving and I was eating and drinking again. Hmm.

Emma and Nic’s friends are wonderful. Almost all of them we met were also employed at Hanna so they have that bond in common. Great company and really funny. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. I finally faded off toward bed and left the younger crowd to their own. And woke this morning early to find the house cleaned and all the dishes done. Wow.

Random thoughts: So that’s it. Trip over except for the flight home from San Francisco. Perhaps a last entry later on that with some general musings on the whole thing if I can find a theme that makes sense. And maybe something too about our rental car – but that’s on Bill. Final totals we rolled up were 5,264 miles driven hitting 20 states in 21 days and burning about 160 gallons of fuel. No mechanical problems other than a faulty oil pressure warning which we ignored.

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