Thursday, May 31, 2007

Living in US Airways airline hell – Part Deux

– Bumping up to first class was definitely a good idea, as the seats are infinitely more comfortable, the bathrooms a lot more accessible and I think they serve food.

Not great food. Maybe not even really good food. But food – something better than the stale peanuts or animal crackers that seem to be standard put-something-in-the-passenger’s-mouth airline fare.

Whoops, the attendant just came by with a basket full of – you guessed it – stale peanuts and animal crackers. “Short flight sir, this is all we have.”

Jaysus. Forget the whole business about the food.

But did I forget to mention the free alcoholic beverages in first class? That’s what happens when you mix margaritas and wine at 36,000 feet. The Merlot right now is icy cold – just the way most Napa Valley vinters would pitch a hissy fit over. But it smooths out the in-flight bumps and so far has made the obnoxious ticket agents we dealt with earlier just bad memories.

They will be memories at least until we hit the ground and see if any of the three bags we checked makes it to PV – and in what shape. A little Xango juice spilled in a suitcase full of luggage goes a long way. Two-liters worth of spill might be spectacular and spark an international incident.

Xango juice
Xango bottle at rest

My earlier entry from Phoenix was written in a big hurry, as we had only a short time to hop onto the now-infamous earlier Puerto Vallarta flight. In Sacramento, we were told the flight was overbooked, but that our bags could be placed on the plane. And in the unlikely event that we did get a seat, we would arrive with our bags. Otherwise they would simply go ahead and be waiting for us.

Not so, said the agent in Phoenix, whose favorite word is ‘no’ and favorite phrase, “I’m not allowed to do that.” His second favorite phrase is “OK, but I am not liable for any of this.”

He also swore my guitar case would not fit in the overhead bin and wanted to check it into the cargo hold – despite the fact it did fit fine in the overhead bin on our flight from Sacramento to Phoenix on a sistership Airbus 319. He’s not much of a music lover, I suppose.

But in the end, we boarded the earlier flight with only faint hope the bags would make it. Most perplexing ultimately is that the Phoenix agent (the not-much-of-a-music-lover guy) said if any of the three bags didn’t catch up with us, they would be on the next plane.

“But didn’t you said that ‘no unaccompanied luggage’ is allowed?”

Damned journalists. We just ask too many questions.

Bumping to first class was also good because, what-the-hell, this is the first day of our retirement, we are flying to Puerto Vallarta to celebrate son Dustin’s 27th birthday, and then will spend nearly two weeks in our adopted towns of La Manzanilla and Tenacatita. Nice to start that adventure off with a bang, even if the first bangs were to our psyches in the airports. (A third bang worth mentioning was grabbing for my guitar when it almost slid off the security conveyor belt, thoroughly wrenching my already thoroughly wrenched left shoulder. I winced bad enough that a female TSA agent came over and asked me if I was all right. A TSA agent! Asking me if I was all right! I should have asked for wheelchair assistance right then.)

We’ll have to see what the highlight of this flight is (aside from frozen margaritas, Merlot and food-like substances) but if I can pull it off, there will be a retirement photo of me published with this entry, thanking the very able captain of this flight for giving us a fine ride to Puerto Vallarta.

She looks like she could the sister of Edie from the television series, Desperate Housewives, but with a much more friendly - and less menacing - smile.

To quote world-adventurer Roger Beardslee – Arriba, mon capitan, Arriba!

British pilot
She got us to PV safely

Later today I'll write about another surprise on board - and the fate of three pieces of luggage and two bottles of Xango.


First day of retirement - living in airline hell

- The first day of retirement has found us already acting like cranky retired senior citizens.

The first incident was our fault - trying to take two one-liter bottles of Xango juice in a carry on bag. (Whoops!) But after an intial triggering of a Orange Alert in the airport, we got through the whole episode by repacking a carry-on with the juice and checking it through. I hope the people whose bags are near it don't mind a little Mangosteen smell if the bottles shatter when the cargo hold pressurizes.

But the second incident - when the crankiness started - was believing a gate agent in Sacramento who send he could send our other bags ahead of us and that the bags could travel on a different plane. We wanted to get on an earlier flight, which he said was overbooked, but that we could try in Phoenix to get on. "Don't worry, your bags will beat you to PV if you miss the flight."

Not true, they say here in Phoenix, where another not-very-helpful gate agent said it was unlikely we could get on the plane, or that our bags would ever arrive.

A quick offer to upgrade to First Class seems to have changed his mind about most things, except for the bags which are hopeless snarled in an airline that is famous for its $%^%&#^ ups.

More on all this later when I am safely on the ground in Puerto Vallarta, bags or no bags.

US Airways on way to PV
US Airways - are your bags aboard?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A night out with the revamped Prosper Magazine

TO, Calif. - The end of the semester - particularly the last week - is an almost hellish time with university deadlines crashing all around, innumerable term papers to grade, speeches to give and enough end-of-the-semester parties and 'receptions' to challenge even the most iron of iron stomachs.

Still, when Prosper Magazine invited the Admiral and I to an unveiling of their redesigned magazine - and at arguably one of the swankest joints in town - I decided it might be worth the effort, even if it meant suiting up in city clothes one more time.

Gawd, it was worth it.

The downtown restaurant is called Spataro's, one of several owned by local restaurateur Randy Paragary and the whole place was turned over to Prosper for the night. Trendy (and loud) music boomed, three bars kept the party goers from getting dehydrated, and the appetizers were so good I had to move closer to the kitchen to ensure getting a shot at them.

But the real fun of the evening was talking with some former newshounds, now given into new careers and also seeing who the new 'in crowd' in Sacramento is. The new editor of the magazine flitted around the room like a new father - a difficult task for a guy as big as Jeffrey Young. In the end, when the new magazine cover was flashed on the screen and thick copies handed out (thick with advertising and stories), the hype was justified. It's quite a magazine.

Open cover
Prosper cover for June

My connection to the magazine goes back to practically its first issue, when I started writing short pieces for former editor Carol Chamberlain. I wrote about a fellow who built - and flies - a tiny airplane, people who gave up lucrative careers to open a B&B in the mountains, and a group of inventors who latched onto the IPod and created a new earphone system that was all the rage, at least for a few months.

According to my IRS 1099 form, I apparently wrote a lot more, too, but who the other stories were about escapes me for the minute. Too much stimulation, Zinfandel wine and perhaps those mushroom appetizers have dulled my brain.

That or the stack of term papers I just finished reading.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sabbatical to take a voyage to the South Seas

LAMEDA, Calif.
- The long cruise of Sabbatical - with the Admiral and I at the helm - is coming to and end, at least for now. Former owner (and builder!) of the ship, Don Tiffin, will be coming in sometime this summer and reclaiming his creation to take to Australia, where he is now anchored aboard his boat Aquavit, a nice Tayana 42.

A good boat, Don says, but definitely not Sabbatical.

Don has asked to buy Sabbatical back several times. This time, we realized, that with everything else going on (retirement from the university, possible new careers, building houses in Mexico), Sabbatical needs someone who will sail her, not just leave her tied to a dock.

And Don will do that.

The beginnings of this happened last fall when Don flew in to help us to the haulout on Sabbatical. He and Sabbatical Chief Engineer Scott Noble did a fine job getting the boat ready for more cruising. But since we brought the boat back from Mexico, I've logged only a couple of overnight cruises and very few daysails.

That will not happen with Don back at the helm.

Incidentally, if anyone reading this wants to take the voyage of a lifetime, contact me, as I know Don will be looking for crew to help him cross the Pacific, sometime this summer. Sabbatical is about the only vessel (short of a cruise ship) I would consider taking on that trip.

Scotty & Don
Scotty & Don trying to fit a new propeller on Sabbatical

Close readers noted that in the first paragraph I said "at least for now." That's because we've offered Don his own hammock at Casa Admirale when he finally gives up the sea and, of course, we will be happy to take Sabbatical back into the family at that time. We always said we thought that we didn't really buy Sabbatical - it was an adoption.

We bought the ship in 2001, eventually leaving for Mexico in the fall of 2002, delayed by my neck problems. We sailed down the Baja coast, crossed the Sea of Cortez cruising as far south as Zihuatenejo before returning to San Francisco more than a year ago. Along the way we encountered sometimes wild seas and weather, incredible sea life (whales, dolphins, rays, and a few sharks), met hundreds of great people cruising and fell in love with one spot where we anchored many times in Mexico - Tenacatita Bay. We kept returning to that bay as we traveled the Costa Alegre from Zihuatenejo to Mazatlan.

When Don gets done cruising, we hope he takes us up on the offer of moving into Casa Admiral in Tenacatita.

We'll anchor Sabbatical right behind the house.

Sabbatical to head back to U.S.
Sabbatical leaving the U.S. in 2002 for Mexico

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The song, 'What About Now?' and retirement

- The most frequently asked question (FAQ) about our impending retirement (19 days from today) is "How did you know it was time?"


Well, some people go to retirement planners - but I have never been that organized.

But what I did do about two years ago was create a file (on the computer and on paper) which we named Project Escape Velocity. PEV (not the best acronym, but what-the-hell...) consisted of retirement benefits projections, records of long term (and short term) debts, and potential post-university income.

Not being a graph or spreadsheet guy, I used my calculator every few months and looked at the debts, watched the potential retirement income go up, landed a few more writing contracts and finally in March we fed all the data into an analysis system I learned when I was a newspaper editor called SWAG


SWAG said: You have escape velocity.

Escape velocity
Retirement liftoff

But besides all the $$$$ issues, there's lot of questions about leaving careers, even though we will be doing guest cameo teaching every fall here.

Which brings us to the headline: What About Now?

I've always been looking at the horizon and wondering what's beyond it. In 1970, I packed up a VW van and headed west from upstate New York. I would have done so on a motorcycle, but with a wife, a three-month-old baby and a cat, balancing would have been a helluva trick. I guess I could have considered a sidecar, but that would have seemed so, well, dorky.

And, of course, all the boats! I had thought when we sailed off to Mexico on Sabbatical in 2002 we were very close to escape velocity. But close is just that.

So in addition to making a file Project Escape Velocity, I started collecting music, much of which I put together on a CD for my amigos Ric Brown and Rosemary Papa, who, like us, are escaping Sacramento and headed for great new opportunities. The CD is called "Catch Us If You Can," with the first song an updated version of the Dave Clark Five song by the same name from the 60s.

But another tune that has been ringing through my brain for weeks (on and off, though mostly on) is by Lonestar called "What About Now?"

Lonestar - country singers without cowboy hats

The pulsing music of that song is almost enough to give you escape velocity:

What About Now

The sign in the window said for sale or trade
On the last remaining dinosaur Detroit made
Seven hundred dollars was a heck of a deal
For a four hundred horsepower jukebox on wheels

And that road rolls out like a welcome mat
I don't know where it goes but it beats where we're at
We always said someday, somehow
We were gonna get away, gonna blow this town

What about now, how 'bout tonight
Baby for once let's don't think twice
Let's take that spin that never ends
That we've been talking about
What about now, why should we wait
We can chase these dreams down the interstate
And be long gone 'fore the world moves on and makes another round
What about now

So, with the rockets roaring in the the background and the music on the CD, it's 19 days to retirement and Mexico. Fittingly, on our first day of official retirement, we will be flying to Puerto Vallarta where I hope by lunchtime to be toasting el futuro at the Cafe Tacuba with its owner Victor who serves tequila shots with every order he serves.

Followed by a siesta, of course.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A visit to a castle and journalistic dream

- As the tag-a-long, luggage-carrying husband to the now-past president of the California College Media Association (aka, Admiral Fox), I've gotten to visit some interesting places in the past two years, but the Hearst Castle in San Simeon is the topper.

Once the home to the late William Randolph Hearst, whose name is still attached to his media empire, the castle is now a state park.

Hearst speaks to his reporters
Hearst speaking to his reporters

My impression of media mogul Hearst had always been fairly negative. He is credited with helping launch the Spanish-American War by using his newspapers to stir up the nation. His famous quote: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war," is one every journalism student learns. His newspapers are credited with demonizing marijuana, perhaps in good part responsible for the continuing war on drugs that siphons off so many public dollars.

But after taking the tour and listening to the tour guide's rapid patter, I've shifted ground and think that perhaps Hearst, like all visionaries, isn't so easily pidgeonholed. A fairly recent biography of Hearst is making its way to me through is just the kind of innovation Hearst would have loved, I believe. Of course, he would have created a competitor and tried to run Amazon out of business. He loved journalism - but he also was a businessman.

The castle grounds are fabulous, though it wasn't planned as a castle. It was Hearst's love of art (and acquiring it) that made the place turn into the huge expanse thousands of people see each week on tours. The famous architect Julia Morgan designed most of the place over a period of many years.

On the Hearst castle tour
On the Hearst Castle tour

Hearst Castle pool
Pool drained for maintenance

The tour was part of a package of events for 120 journalism students from all over the state at the CCMA annual awards convention. At the awards dinner held at the Hearst museum, the chatter at the tables was about the awards, of course, but more than a little Hearst history was also being discussed.

But the film Citizen Kane (based on Hearst's life) was not shown and is considered by historians to be more of a cartoon than biographical film. Orson Welles, who portrayed Hearst in that movie, never met Hearst.

So no, there's no mention of 'rosebud' at the castle.

Waiting for results
Students waiting for results of judging

General Excellence winners from Notre Dame de Namur College