Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Three air flights but only two horror stories

ITHACA, New York - The day started out badly when the cab that was supposed to show up to take me to the Ithaca Airport was 15 minutes late and I only had a one-hour cushion at best to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight. Still, I got there in time, only had a few surly ticket counter people to contend with and got aboard a propjet to fly to Philadelphia.

The flight attendant, however, made up for the benign experience in the terminal by telling me I couldn't use my IPod while we were flying.

No kidding. No IPods, no computers.

And lest you think it was my ponytail, she told the same thing to other folks on the 25-seat aircraft who likewise wanted some tunes for the ride to Philly in the dark.

Why she cared, I'm not sure, because as soon as we were airborne, she curled up on the front two seats and promptly fell asleep until our wheels touched down.

Asleep, as in out cold, as in practically snoring. (If she did snore, you would never have been able to hear it over the roar of the engines anyway.)

Did I report her to the airlines? Nah. I figured one of these early morning runs, the plane will land with a giant thump and down she will go off the seat and into the bulkhead - a tough one to explain to the main office.

In Philadelphia, the counter folks were bored, not rude, and we loaded onto one of the big United Airlines Airbus carriers. It was almost as comfortable as my flight to France several years ago on a British Airways jet.

But the loveliness of that airbus experience was shattered two hours later when I climbed onto a small United Airbus - like the one in the photo - for the last run from Chicago to Sacramento.

Sardines in a can are more comfortable, but what-the-hell, it's only a four-hour flight, right?

Wrong in this case.

We left gate right on time and taxied out onto the runway apron, then abruptly taxied to an area well away from the terminal, prompting more than a few people to wonder if there was some threat - or if the police would show up, sirens blaring, to haul someone off.

Finally the pilot came on - after about 15 minutes - saying we were going back to the terminal to check out a grinding noise from the front wheels of the plane.

A grinding noise!

And, like every car I have ever owned, when we got back to the terminal and two very bored United mechanics came out to take a look, well, there was no noise to be heard, even as they rocked the plane and banged with what sounded like claw hammers.

"The mechanics think everything is fine, so we'll taxi out again and see what happens," the captain announced an hour later.

See what happens?

What happened that time was we made two huge circuits around the Chicago's O'Hare airport, testing the brakes and the front wheels, which were apparently quiet.

And so nearly two hours after we were supposed to take off, we did, roaring off into the sky, my seatmates already complaining of serious leg cramps and as cranky as children who have been in a playpen too long.

Mercifully enough, the flight attendants on the flight didn't have any problem with people using IPods or computers and so I rocked across the country, listening to some music I intend to put in the next Fox-Fitzgerald rockumentary: Kate & Steve, a Hectored Romance.

Almost exactly four hours later, the smoggy skyline of Sacramento heaved into view as we made our approach, my seatmates reminding me that the reason we were late (and I was going to miss my first class of the afternoon) was because of a grinding noise in the front wheels.

A grinding noise.

And so as we dropped down, the north winds buffeting us from side to side, I noticed that the flight attendants were buckled in very tight in their little seats, exhibiting none of the cavalier behavior most attendants do when their plane lands.

We landed with a decided thump, but no terrible screeching noise or sudden lurches were evident. And it was at that moment that I remembered that the United Airlines mechanics were forced to take a wage cut in their last contract negotations, a fact I was glad I had forgotten when we were in Chicago listening to them bang on things like they worked for Jiffy Lube. (Nothing like a pay cut to make people responsible for things like maintenance want to do a really good job.)

Still, I'm comforted to be home safe - and the earliest air flight in my future is probably Christmas when it would be nice to get out Sacramento's fog and to the warmth of Mexico.

But given what's happening to fuel prices, even that trip is probably in jeopardy.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The great Hobie disaster & summer's over

Hobie Cat up and over
Originally uploaded by Brite Lights photos.
VALOIS, New York - The very last time I went downhill snow skiing in California, I decided that after a whole day of hitting the slopes to take one last run down the intermediate slope.

One last run.

That last run ended with me head-first in a huge snowbank well off the course, with just my skis and ankles showing, my sunglasses mangled. The ski patrol girls were very kind and pulled me out and got me down the hill.

I wore a back brace for, oh, about a month after that adventure.

So yesterday, when I shoved my borrowed Hobie Cat off the beach and out into 10 knots of wind, I knew it was the last run of the season, but I wanted just one last run.

One last run.

The wind, which had been brisk, as sailors say, got very brisk in only a few minutes and the mainsail, always a sticky darned thing, would not go all the way up the mast no matter how hard I tugged. And while I tugged, the Hobie was racing downlake like a rocket, away from dock where Admiral Fox was going to come down to, carrying the beer and drinks and cooler for the one last run of the sailing season.

One last run.

I didn't flip the Hobie, though when I was forced to gybe the boat in about 20 knots of wind, I went up on one pontoon and probably looked a little like the photo with today's entry. Then I sailed straight for the nearest shore - two miles away - and ran that Hobie Cat up on the beach like a Jamaican surfer.

After about a half-hour of trying to figure out how-the-hell I was going to get the boat turned around, the sail up and back up the lake to my dock, (where the Admiral was waiting), I was reminded of why I married a 'lake girl.'

While I sat with waves washing over the Hobie, I spotted a red aluminum skiff making its way towards me, bouncing high in the waves and sending spray up 10 feet.

A rescue boat! And it was Admiral Fox, who had pushed our 16-foot tin can off the shore, cranked the 18-HP Evinrude and came down to help when I didn't come back. She also had seen me racing towards the shore and the sudden stop at the beach.

The rescue effort, like all rescue efforts, wasn't simple though, and the Admiral ended up towing me back to the dock, sails removed, a long, sloppy, wet affair. And today I'm sporting bandaids all over my fingers from the blisters and enough black and blue marks on my legs to look like I was playing field hockey, sans shin guards.

But, by God, I got that one last run.

And although I swear today I learned my lesson about pushing the limits, I can't swear that next summer I won't do same thing.

But no downhill skiing this winter, for sure. My twisted knee (from doing the Twist July 3) will keep me off the slopes, I'm sure.

At least I think so today.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Selling healthy food at schools not enough

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The state's lawmakers are all aghast at the latest state report on child obesity that says - gasp - kids are ballooning up even more than they were just a few years ago.

The San Francisco Chronicle carried a good story this morning that details it out.

  • Our kids are GROWING

  • So, why do lawmakers care if the kids are carrying around extra pounds? It's the potential health care costs down the road. If they're 20 pounds overweight at 12 years old, you can bet they will be closer to 40 pounds at 24. That all translates into diabetes and heart trouble and knee problems and, and, and...

    As is noted lightly in the story, selling kids bottles of Evian and giving them celery sticks at school for snacks will hardly fix anything. Just as we found with teaching honesty and ethics, schools are a tiny sliver of what kids see and deal with. Parents - and probably TV and other media - are a helluva lot more important.

    But the battle of bulge for kids, I think, has a lot more to do with the sedentary lifestyles that the parents and kids are comfortable with. Most public schools have cut out rigorous physical education. And beyond that, when children come home from school, they are unlikely to go grab a basketball and shoot a few hoops, or zoom around on their bicycles (though certainly some do).

    No, they are more likely to plop in front of the television - or computer - while they wait for mom and dad to come home with the extra-large-jumbo-cheese-pepperoni pizza for dinner and the free gallon of soda that comes with every double order of bread sticks.

    Even if the parents understand the need for the kids to, well, just run around, the constant drumbeat about how unsafe the world is just outside that door is hardly an incentive to doing what my mother did - boot us out the door (even in the snowstorm) to go play.

    The California Legislature can spin around and talk about the evils of Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut for the next 10 legislative sessions. But until MTV makes celery sticks seem sexy and parents trade soccer balls for the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, the pounds will probably just keep on packing on.

    In the meantime, pass the breadsticks, will you?

    Sunday, August 21, 2005

    Going hi-tech with a radio for the boat

    Boat radio
    Originally uploaded by Brite Lights photos.
    VALOIS, New York - I almost tossed out an old AM-FM radio with a box of stuff destined for the Salvation Army. There's tons of such prized possessions in the house, the collection of a lifetime of my mother-in-law.

    But I rescued the radio, when I realized that you don't need an fancy stereo sometimes, just tunes.

    And it reminded me that I had a radio quite similar when I was tooling around Lake Chautauqua in my ski boat 40 years ago.

    Forty years... Could that be true?

    We were at the mercy of the local DJs in those days. Whatever they chose to play (or were paid to play, remember payola?) we listened to, thought was cool and went careening down the lake with the radio turned up as loud as could be.

    Our outboard engines were loud and we blew out more than one radio speaker.

    I haven't figured out yet how to strap the little radio onto the Hobie Cat for what is likely to be the last sailing adventure of this season. But given that the radio was destined to be given away, we won't be risking all that much if it get a splash of water. A bigger trick will be finding an all-oldies station among the forest of country music that seems to be the most popular around here in the hills of upstate.

    I'll bet my new amigos out on the lake two days ago - the May-September couple - could have used just such a radio to smooth their waters.

    Friday, August 19, 2005

    A wild day on the Hobie Cat? Well, not quite

    VALOIS, New York - After wrestling with the intracacies of a California Appellate Court case for the morning,(and trying to write 500 coherent words for a legal audience) I took to the lake yesterday afternoon aboard my borrowed Hobie Cat, out seeking adventure.

    I would like to report that I spent the afternoon racing the two young ladies aboard the Hobie in the photo here, my boat tearing up the lake just they are.

    But, well, this is real life pilgrims.

    In real life, you get the boat stuck in a weed patch rigging the sails, lose your life jacket overboard, forget the beer cooler on the end of the dock and watch your Teva sandals fly off into the lake - and drift directly back into said weed patch.

    Still, once the overboard items were retrieved (and the beer cooler safely stored aboard - can't get dehydrated), the Hobie soared back and forth across the lake for two hours until God played one of her little sailor tricks and shut down the wind machine.

    Shut the wind machine down as in zero knots.

    A Hobie Cat will move in wind so light you can't feel it on the back of your sweaty neck. But even that kind of breeze was hidden as I bobbed around on a glassy surface.

    A small Snipe-like sailboat got marooned about the same time about 50 yards from me, with a May-September romancing couple aboard, the September half of which (the guy, of course) had his life jacket cinched so tight his face was red as a beet. His May companion was cheery and quite a bit cooler in the black bikini she was sporting. We exchanged sailor talk for awhile though September was probably praying for wind just to get rid of me.

    Whoever's prayers were answered, a zephyr of wind came up just as I had drifted close enough to their vessel to offer the other crew my last cold beer, which they turned down.

    Well, September turned it down and earned a look from May that made me wince to witness it. When I last looked back at them, May was diving off the boat and might have been swimming towards land.

    That teasing bit of wind lasted just long enough to get me within a half mile of my dock, when some kind teenagers (Is that an oxymoron?) came by in a ski boat and towed me the last bit into shore, fouling their propellor in the weed patch - their reward being good Samaritans, apparently.

    No good deed goes unpunished, right?

    The wind is up big time this morning and the temptation is almost overwhelming to shove the boat off the ramp again and head out for adventure, with more beer, a paddle, and a cell phone to call for assistance this time from one of the cousins should I get stuck, sans wind again.

    Almost overwhelming, pilgrims.


    Wednesday, August 17, 2005

    Out of a cannon will go Hunter S. Thompson

    WOODY CREEK, Colo. - I'm still more than a little angry at Hunter S. Thompson for his suicide. The man was so talented and his voice still so clear - maybe more clear than in the 60s & 70s & 80s when it was supposed to have been fogged by his legendary bouts with alcohol and drugs.

    Those legends were largely self-created, part of the myth that made the guy so attractive to other writers. How much of it was ever really true, few people know - except maybe people like author & artist Ralph Steadman who will be in attendance Saturday when, as he wished, Hunter's ashes will be blown out of a 150-foot tall cannon/scuplture at Owl Creek Farm where he lived since the late 1960s.

    What HST did for young writers is the stuff of legend, if only to goad them to push outward from whatever strictures their particular school system strangled them with when learning to write. I'm not complaining about students being dragooned into learning to spell or punctuate properly. Hell, it's a gripe of mine that will surface like the Loch Ness Monster in a couple of weeks when I'm back in the classroom. Misspelled words drive me bonkers.

    No, the strangling I'm talking about is the kind that stifles ideas in favor of form, cuts out strong language and puts in euphemisms, and substitutes mechanics for originality.

    That paragraph sounds just like the kind of mouthful of academic crap, by the way, that would probably make HST throwup, though he was a meticulous writer and very careful in what he put down on paper. He hid that side of himself pretty well, preferring the public to think of him as a maniac. It sold more books, though selling books wasn't his goal. He wanted to be heard.

    And that's why I'm still pissed off. (There, Hunter, that more the language you would prefer.) I'm totally pissed off because your voice is silent, but still had a lot to say.

    And I'm totally pissed off at myself, that in the last few years of your life, I ignored what you were writing because I listened to the critics who said you were washed up and irrelevant and I didn't read what you were publishing.

    They were wrong. I was wrong. You were doing some of your best work.

    We'll have our own little salute to HST at Seneca Lake Saturday - I'm not exactly sure what just yet - though it probably won't involve any cannons.

    Can't guarantee it though. There's more than a few cannons lying about and more than enough madmen & lunatics running about this place with gunpowder and the know-how to touch a cannon off. If a cannon can't be found, maybe a 21-shotgun salute. Every pickup truck seems to have at least one weapon handy for discharging.

    Vaya con dios, HST.


    Sunday, August 14, 2005

    Off the sailboat races and off to the blenders

    HECTOR, New York - Saturday was the annual Peachy Dandy party on Hazlitt's Beach, which featured a sailboat race that wasn't quite as exciting as the one in the photo (a file shot of some Snipes in a late fall race. Note the crew attire).

    But it was fun, even if we did tie for dead last. (So much for our racing prowess...)

    Seneca Lake, which has featured nothing but hot sunny weather for the past month, and generally had great sailing winds, decided to bring up some thunderstorms, make the wind clock around about four times and finally just quit entirely as we were 100 feet from the finish line.

    We still might have made it if we hadn't been hauling around a ton of seaweed wrapped around the keel and rudder - a fact we discovered when we tied to boat to the dock.

    But the real purpose of the party was to celebrate the annual peach harvest with a rum concoction called a Peachy Dandy, a lime juice, rum and sliced peach drink whizzed through a blender.

    Had Jimmy Buffet been a fan of these, Margaritaville might not be his signature song. Good Lord they are tasty.

    It's very quiet around Casa Valois this morning. No talk of peaches, dancing, sailing and definitely not a word of discussion about who should have figured out about the seaweed.

    Friday, August 12, 2005

    Spraying for mosquitos the traditional way

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The mosquitos will not win this round in California and West Nile Fever will likely disappear, at least until next summer, when the descendants of the ones not killed this year rise up out of swamps with a fierce resistance to whatever poisons are being sprayed.

    But the spraying that has been going on in Sacramento County has awakened a long-dormant environmental conscience in the community, a conscience with lots of memories of the DDT mess and what happens whenever you fool with Mother Nature.

    The insectide being sprayed kills a lot more than mosquitos, of course, and while I'm content to see a few of the spiders that live in my backyard go to that big silky web in the sky, I wonder what will happen when the fly population (also as risk from the raining poison) makes its spectacular comeback and the spiders (who have a much slower rate of reproduction) are still just getting around to mating.

    Well, I suppose that will bring out the legions of private pesticide control people to spray for flies, which will kill more spiders, too, which will... well, you get it. Capitalism! It works...

    In California, planes are zooming overhead at night and people are huddling inside their homes, windows closed, air conditioners turned off to avoid an insectide that the mosquito control people say poses no danger to humans. But, they say, as a precaution you should huddle inside, keeps windows closed and don't run airconditioners.

    In North Carolina, where the photo with today's blog comes from, a small-town mayor drives her tractor up and down the streets with a donated spray rig to get rid of those pesky skeeters.

    No hiding inside for her.


    Wednesday, August 10, 2005

    Back home from the wilds of New York City

    HEWLETT, New York - I took a quick almost-swim in the Atlantic Ocean Monday off Long Island's Long Beach, part of a whirlwind 48-hour sojourn to New York City, for a drop-off-some books-and-return-to-the-lake tour that has my driving muscles tied in knots, my back sore and my butt, well, forget about that.

    But when I got back and checked my email (187, thanks y'all), I had this cartoon passed along from a friend (as well as some other good ones) that I will be emailing.

    The cartoon made me laugh, and happy that the most dangerous wildlife in Seneca Lake are the zebra mussels, which stay on the bottom and pose no threat unless you step on one in bare feet.

    We had dinner in New York City at a posh restaurant. (Sorry, the name of the place escapes me, but the young lady who showed us to our table was Elise and had a wonderful European accent if that helps.) I wore long pants - the first time in weeks - and real shoes, not running shoes. But, being a real class act, I did not wear dress socks with the shoes. (Ok, they were not REAL shoes, they are boat shoes.) An act of defiance? Nope, just forgot my socks and it was too late to find a sock shoppe by the time we arrived at Central Park west to go to dinner.

    But these country cousins are back at the computer with deadlines looming for Friday and next week.

    Which is why I'm writing this, instead of tomes about education, stem cell litigation, and a profile of a Sacramento restaurateur.

    I have my priorities.

    Friday, August 05, 2005

    Two reasons the country is in a bad mood

    WASHINGTON D.C. - So the big news is that Robert Novak, the tough guy who let Judith Miller go to jail without bothering to comment on her plight, got his knickers in a twist on a CNN talk show, muttered "bullshit" and walked off the set.

    He's been suspended, which is a nice was of saying fired. CNN should have dumped the cranky old guy a long time ago.

    Bye-bye, Bob. Maybe you can get a guest shot with Tucker Carlson on his new MSNBC program, a program which is so hideous, they are using it at Guantanamo to torture suspected terrorists.

    Tucker, you might remember, got his head handed to him by Daily Show host Jon Stewart one night in a verbal exchange and got bounced from CNN, taking his bow ties with him.

    Novak, (on the right, in case you have trouble telling old-white-male conservatives apart), and his buddy Karl Rove, (who seems to have grown some chin in this photo), have demonstrated that they really believe there are no rules that apply to them, but are quick to ensure that there are plenty of rules for the rest of the country - rules than ensure the rich get richer and the poor, well what's your point?

    Novak can go shill for Tucker Carlson or go on some right-wing nut job program somewhere. Fox News will probably scoop him up so they can balance out all those liberal commentators they have been flooding the airwaves with.

    But what about Rove? Where will his pudgy butt go when Dubya leaves office? (I have a countdown calendar on my computer looking toward for that fine day.) Maybe Karl will become a commentator, too, joining with Novak.

    And if they add Tucker Carlson, well, it would be almost as amusing and Curly, Larry & Moe.

    But who could watch it and keep their dinner intact?

    Thursday, August 04, 2005

    Poison Ivy? Who's afraid of Poison Ivy?

    VALOIS, New York - The admiral wanted a fire pit, and she wanted it overlooking the lake and that led me to one spot, a nearly flat, 10-by-20 ledge with a cliff that drops 60 feet straight down, but it has a beautiful view of Seneca Lake.

    The brush had grown up over the years, some it actually small trees, so with an assortment of implements of destruction I attacked it for two days, sawing, hacking and pulling.

    And it was just about the time this photo was taken that I realized that all that sawing, hacking and pulling was right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy.

    Yup...just like the song...which I have had stuck in my head for several days now.

    At that point, there wasn't much to do except saw, hack and pull, hoping that my resistance to that creepy vine was high enough to ward off an attack.

    I sit typing right now sans symptoms, extremely lucky that I'm not on massive doses of benadryl and typing by braille.

    The area is clear, a fire pit dug and last night we had our first fire-by-lakeside, which almost turned into forest-fire-by-lakeside when the dry wood I had stacked sent sparks 50 feet into the air and the dry tree branches nearby.

    That's two bullets I dodged with the fire pit project.

    The third - having someone step off the cliff and drop to the rocks below in the dark - I plan to handle by building a railing, after I clear just a little more brush to set the posts.

    You guessed it...

    The area where the posts need to go is covered with poison ivy, too.

    But who's afraid of a little Poison Ivy?

    Wednesday, August 03, 2005

    Time for the next water toy - the Hobie Cat

    HECTOR, New York - The Hobie Cat at cousin Roger's beach hasn't hit the water in two seasons but this afternoon, provided the thunderstorms circling us don't hit, we will launch the vessel and do some lake sailing.

    If we get the boat up on one pontoon, as in the photo, listen carefully for the screaming.

    We spent most of Tuesday afternoon rerigging the boat, manufacturing a makeshift plug from a broom handle and trying to find all the pieces for the rigging and sails. It's amazing how quickly everything gets lost when you put something like an 18-foot sailboat away for the winter season, and then don't use it again for a couple of years.

    This Hobie has a long tradition of winning sailboat races on Seneca Lake and in years past has ferried me back and forth across the lake many times.

    In about a week we will be entering it in an informal little racing affair, an annual party at a beach a mile away, the entry fee a bottle of rum. The rum is consumed at a beach party that starts when the race does and goes on until the rum runs out.

    Race day, we will get the boat up on one pontoon, I bet, as long as we don't spill any rum.