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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pan Am

My father-in-law is a retired Pan Am flight engineer.  In honor of him and tonight's premier of the "Pan Am" television show, here's a vintage promotional video from the airline.  Enjoy travel the way it used to be: Lobster, smoking and "powder rooms."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Last Saturday Tim Haywood posted a hilarious entry about “free stuff” on his blog “Shallow Pond.” In keeping with his theme I want to thank him for so helpfully sparing me the burden of originality. It’s not stealing, honest. It fell off a truck.

Tim’s description of people giving out free product samples on Seattle’s streets reminded me of my utter inability to resist anything handed out by anyone. Every year I come home from the Auto/Flower/Home/Remodeling/Boat show with one shoulder permanently lowered due to schlepping a bag full of free tires/potting soil/composite shingles/tide tables. I have no use for any of these items. Why do I take them? In the words of the late mountain climber George Mallory, may his mummified remains rest in peace on Everest’s frozen slopes, “Because it’s there.”

But the ne plus ultra of swag remains Costco. While my husband wanders the aisles gazing lovingly at generators, drill bits and 500-packs of AA batteries, I circle in the holding pattern around the the food-sample stations. Like a cheetah stalking a Thompson’s gazelle in the Serengeti, I crouch in the underbrush of tall customers, shopping carts piled high with flank steaks, underwear and 50-gallon vats of mustard, and strollers with sleeping babies. Narrowing my eyes at an opening, I spring through and snatch a toothpick-speared chicken nugget, retreating back into the crowd to devour my prey.

I repeat this process for the entire afternoon. Steve finds me at intervals. “Look! These Dockers are five pairs for $25!” “Mmmph,” I reply though a mouthful of cheesecake, my attention entirely focused on a plastic-gloved server whose pizza rolls are just about ready to come out of the toaster oven.

I’ve tried interesting Steve in this bounty, but he resolutely turns up his nose at my proffered samples of camembert and Kashi. “Let me know when there’s beer,” he replies.

That evening, while we’re unloading pallets of cat food and toilet paper, Steve asks what I want for dinner. Strangely I’m not hungry.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Never be Chicken of the Sea

Although I had a perfectly good job in the early 1990s as a technical writer at Boeing, I felt strangely unfulfilled. Sure, I enjoyed the challenge of my Jane Goodall-like existence, patiently earning the trust of of shy, docile and uncommunicative engineers, learning their culture and bringing my findings to the world. But still I needed more. Day after day in a cubicle farm with people who ate lunch in their cars was doing nothing for my social development.
The Boeing plant where I worked is situated on the south shore of Lake Washington. In the 1930s the company had expected to win a lucrative military contract for a large flying boat called the Sea Ranger. The plant was constructed with huge hangar doors opening directly onto the water in anticipation of a substantial production run. Alas, only one plane was ever built, and it was known forever after as the “Lone Ranger.” But the plant remained, rolling out World War II bombers, early airliners, and by my day 737s and 757s. All of which are forced to make an awkard turn outside the factory doors to avoid a trip to Davy Jones' Locker.
But Boeing’s real estate problem was my benefit. Adjacent to the plant was a lovely waterfront park. On summer afternoons I would go jogging along the lake after work, dodging strollers, skateboards and flocks of grazing Canada geese.
One day I spotted a little flotilla of sailboats maneuvering erratically inside a logboom. After a few inquiries I learned that it was a local sailing club offering introductory small-boat sailing classes.
Having sailed with my family since I was a teenager, and lacking a boat of my own, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to expand my social life.
The club turned out to be populated mostly by more Boeing engineers, though they were older than the people I worked with, had families and seemed able to speak in complete sentences. But they retained the thrift and practicality I had come to know and love in my workplace. The instructional dinghies were 14-foot C-Larks that had been donated by some benefactor during the Carter administration. The pulleys used to raise and lower the threadbare sails were chipped into square-ish Flinstones-looking wheels. We spent our off season in the members' garages lacquering layers of duct tape over the steadily diminishing original fiberglass in the hulls.
My least favorite vessel in the club fleet was the committee boat. Now this term may conjure up images of gleaming white-and-teak cruisers, navy blazers and Bloody Marys on the afterdeck. But this was a working class town, and no Boeing engineer worth his or her subscription to Aviation Week would be caught dead in such froufrou. I secretly dreaded the afternoons when it was my turn to putter around in the decrepit 10-foot skiff, shouting at students “No, pull on the other rope! No, not that one, the other other rope.” As tepid lake water seeped through “The Spirit of the City of Renton” ’s rotting plywood hull, I bailed with one hand, using a halved Clorox bottle helpfully supplied by the club for this purpose. At the same time I tried to keep the sputtering outboard from stalling, while keeping the stern pointed toward passing harbor patrols to hide the bow’s registration tags that had expired in 1987.
Much more fun was sitting in the instruction boats with the students. Many were reluctant wives whose husbands had just purchased a sailboat for the first time and had packed them off to our classes for instruction. The other club members decided that since I was the only female instructor the wives should be my responsibility. Ignoring the sexism, I made it my mission to break down as much of the mystique about sailing as possible. While the male instructors loved to bombard their charges with arcane nautical terminology from the outset, I told my students to turn left or right, pull or let go of ropes, and pull the tiller toward them or push it away. There was plenty of time later to learn about port and starboard, sheets and lines, and “helm’s alee.”
My proudest evening occurred several weeks into one session. My group of fledgling seafarers was maneuvering calmly along in a light breeze. Ahead of us, two boats full of male students, each with a male instructor sitting in the bow and facing backward so they could bark orders at their charges, were steaming toward each other. The students were too intent or intimidated to say anything. I yelled, but we were too far away. The instructors instructed, the wind blew, and sure enough nature took its course as the two boats rammed each other forcefully enough to unleash a flock of startled blackbirds from the nearby cattails. Loud curses flew from the the boats. But behind me, I heard a giggle. “Men,” said one student. “They just have no feel for the water.” We sailed on.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Lap of Luxury

Image from Wikipedia

This is the first in a series of stories about a trip to Asia my husband and I took for my fiftieth birthday last October.
Part 1: A Cycle of Cathay
Ten hours in, the absurdity of lying flat on my back 35,000 feet over Kamchatka was overwhelming. While the air behind me boiled into contrails at 600 miles per hour, my flight attendant “Cora” gently replaced the copy of the South China Morning Post I had accidentally dropped and asked if I needed anything. But nothing, not Cora’s graciousness, nor the three large meals, significant quantities of alcohol and two chopsockey movies I had consumed over the last half-day in the air could put my anxious mind at ease. What, in the name of Rick Steves, was I doing here?
The brief answer: A Great Circle Route. A flight “across” the Pacific from North America to Asia is actually never far from land. The shortest distance from one point to another around the Earth may pass near the poles, a journey that looks curved on a flat map but perfectly straight on a globe. From the marshes of the Fraser Delta, arcing north long the spine of Vancouver Island, over the maze of Southeast Alaska’s inlets, across to Kodiak, east along the Aleutians and finally south down the Russian coast, cutting across Japan and the East China Sea, down the China coast past Shanghai and finally to the Pearl River Delta, our flight circled the northern half of the Pacific to close the 6,386 miles between Vancouver, B.C. and Hong Kong.
The long answer: Foolhardiness.
I had decided years earlier that I was going to have a “big” trip for my fiftieth birthday. Finances and a personal low-key inclination had always dictated “steerage” class airline tickets and accommodations skewing toward the smelly and noisy end of “quaint.” But for decades I had harbored a secret and perverse fascination with the glossier end of the travel spectrum. Leafing through heavy, expensive magazines full of pictures of Balinese hotels with rooms biggers than my law-school apartment and fashion-model-fringed infinity pools, I nutured a hidden but undying curiousity totally at odds with my outward travel persona. Over time, this strange bubble-world of luxury travel grew in my mind into a destination in and of itself, a world as exotic and mysterious as any village in New Guinea. Now, as fifty loomed, I was determined to see this terra incognita for myself. After many budget trips to Europe to visit family, I was going to turn left in every sense of the word: Left in the sky across the Pacific, and left when boarding the plane.
So I saved up. Several years' worth of tedious meetings, late nights, working weekends and harrowing “learning experiences” were at last distilled into two precious Business Class airline tickets to Hong Kong and Indonesia, as well as reservations at suitably glossy resorts in the latter.
On cold rainy nights I studied Cathay Pacific’s website like my Irish ancestors reading and re-reading crumpled letters home from relatives who had already sailed to America. A golden experience awaited. There was an animated video demonstration of the Business Class “capsules” from the perspective of a gorgeous woman (you indicate your gender on the website before the video starts) settling in, doing a little work on a laptop, ordering a soft drink from the flight attendant who calls her by name (I wondered, “What if her name really isn’t "Miss Lee?”), then reclines the seat into “bed” configuration, the video winking out just as the tops of her delicate little Chanel ballet flats come into view.
For six months I laid out different outfits on the bed,aiming for a look of casual insouciance that said “I’m not a rube, I do this all the time, but I’m nice and approachable.” Mostly my outfits screamed “Idiot who’s trying to pretend she does this all time, but is nice and approachable.” The cats watched with disdain from the opposite side of the bed, occasionally flicking their ears and launching stray hair on to my outfits lest the clothes appear too pristine and professional.
Finally the fateful day arrived. I gulped a huge cup of coffee, steeled myself and hit “send” on Cathay Pacific’s website. Instantly the money from the trip account dissolved into a cloud of electrons and shot from my bank account to the airline’s.
Seemingly at that very moment, the world economy began to collapse like the buildings in the movie “Inception.” Day after day I watched with mounting horror as jobs vanished, savings evaporated and house values plummeted. Every day I trudged onto the ferry to work shrinking inside from a growing burden of survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that I had just spent a huge amount of money on something as emphemeral and frivolous as a vacation.
“What’s done is done,” said Steve as I sobbed in bed. “It’s already paid for, we have the time off and we’ve booked the cat sitter. Where’s that big spirit of adventure? Wasn’t this going to be your life-changing moment? The trip where you’re finally going to see Asia so you can really call yourself a world traveler? It’s never a perfect time,” he said, giving me a hug. “Let’s do this.”
So we did.
The flight really had been everything I had hoped for. Years earlier at Boeing I had been one of a staff of writers working on a 75-anniversary corporate history project. One of my assignments was an article about the famous Boeing 314 Clipper, the flying boat of romantic 1930s transpacific routes frequented by movie stars, diplomats and business tycoons. While Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A-340 didn’t have dressing rooms or a bridal suite, it occurred to me that my trip was the closest modern-day analogue. We had choices of fine French wines, a dinner of slow-cooked duck or roast salmon, a cheese course, tropical fruit, chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce, and snacks like tomato-basil soup, fresh berries and steamed chicken with red dates, all served whenever the passenger wanted rather than at set times. And of course the lie-flat seats.
As I nibbled on my duck while “Ip Man” used his Kung Fu skills to defeat six attackers flashing across my video screen, I stole surreptitious glances at my fellow passengers. With visions of the China Clipper in my head, I made up stories about who they might be. That young man with the spiky haircut and angular glasses has to be an architect. That older couple snoozing two rows down must be business owners heading home to visit family. And those two preteen girls with stuffed-animal backpacks and ipod earbuds tucked under their long glossy black ponytails are surely a diplomat’s daughters.
The hours and the night droned by. The plane crept around the circumference of the earth. The flight attendants moved quietly among the passengers, who one by one they fell asleep.
So now I was lying awake on the plane. Finally, as readout showed us crossing over into the Sea of Japan, I decided I needed to quit worrying, embrace the experience and for once in my nearly-half-century of life try to live in the moment. I pulled up my down comforter around my ears, wiggled my toes in the complimentary Agnes b. socks, and watched Hong Kong slide closer on the monitor.