Saturday, July 26, 2008

Flathead Lake and deep summer


No disrespect for Wichita, Kansas, but there are better places to be at the end of July. Surely the best of them would be here on the west shore of Flathead Lake, watching the placid water under a dome of pale blue sky, the mountains a somewhat darker blue in the distance. The morning air is as smooth as a silken pillow, cool as the underside of it.

This is why those lucky enough to own a piece of the Flathead shore are mostly millionaires now. When I was a kid, we'd come to the lake all the time in summer, splashing around a place we called Sandy Beach in Somers. It's where I taught myself to swim. Now Sandy Beach is someone's private paradise and my rare visits to the lake depend on the hospitality of friends. That's fine. If you lived here, you'd probably take it for granted. Or you might begin suspect ulterior motives when friends and family started dropping by in the summer months.

Some things it's better not to own: this view, these friends, this fine morning. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Out on the open road


Today I drove through Kansas and Colorado and much of Wyoming. Nothing like a road trip, even with gas north of $4 and the knowledge that each dollar I spend is not being replenished by a regular paycheck. Hey, this is why we save our money in the good times: so that in the bad times we can still brave through a thunderstorm outside Douglas, Wyo., sheets of hail horizontal across the pavement and visibility limited to the erratic taillights on that 18-wheeler just ahead.

Brief weather tantrums like that can kill you if you're driving I-95 from Philly to New York, or I-76 from Philly to Harrisburg. Back East, there are just too many drivers on the road, and they all become aware of peril at precisely the same moment, so that even minor problems reach critical mass in nanoseconds. One minute you're shouting your exact location into your iPhone and the next you're skidding sideways into a dozen jerks in Volvo SUVs who braked abruptly to ogle somebody changing a flat.

Western weather can be cruel, but the roads are forgiving. There's a car about half a mile ahead and another about the same distance behind; you could drive with your bare ass out the window and it wouldn't distract anybody. Even getting in that position wouldn't pose much of a problem -- you've got both lanes, baby, and nobody's worried if you swerve a bit.

I elected to keep my ass in the seat, and was able to log 800 miles for the day without undue discomfort. It's about the same as driving 150 miles on the I-95 corridor. Now I'm ensconced in the last available room between Cheyenne and Sheridan, here in beautiful Casper. FYI: if you come to Wyoming in July, you might want to look into when Cheyenne Frontier Days is scheduled. It's the reason it took four stops tonight to find a vacant room. Evidently it's popular enough to fill up rooms in a 150-mile radius.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jolie-Pitt twins resemble neither parent

Here are the photos of Angelina Jolie's new twins. I could have sold them for millions, but money means nothing to me and information should be free. That's Billy Bob at the upper left, Jennifer at bottom right. I know, it's been reported elsewhere that the babies were named Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline, but Mr. and Mrs. Jolie are not idiots and they only put that out there so they'd know who the mole was. I guarantee you that as we speak, some staffer at Nice Matin is having his chestnuts roasted over an open fire.

And look: if you were doing a search using the terms "Jolie Pitt twins and their stupid names" don't blame me if it brought you to this blog. I can use the hits, sure, but the last thing I want to do is waste your precious time when you're mining the Web for the latest celebrity news. For the record, the only star I care about is Chuck Connors. And I'm pretty sure he's dead.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sure wish I'd thought of that

As a writer, my problem is this: When I have a good story, I can never come up with a good title. And when I have a good title, it always seems to arrive without the story.

Well, that's one of my problems. The others include writing at about the same pace as the Ice Age and producing prose that is frequently less lively. But we must all do the best we can with the tools we have.

I love good titles, so much that I've bought many books just on the strength of them. The latest of these is This Night's Foul Work, by Fred Vargas. I assume it's a line from Shakespeare, just as her earlier Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, but if there was ever a title to grab a mystery reader by the throat, this is it. You've got to love the Bard, and you've got to love Fred Vargas. I'll post a small review after I've read it.

This Night's Foul Work, by the way, is the first of hers that Random House has published in hardcover. Maybe we'll start seeing some of her stuff at the big chain stores here in the U.S.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A bit of heaven, a bit of hell

Tess likes to observe that the bigger the room rate, the fewer things you get for free. Which is one reason we ended up at the The Latham Hotel in Philadelphia's Center City. We got a great rate (about $130 a night), free Internet and every amenity that matters. Also, the maid service was the best I've seen anywhere. We'd leave the room at 8 or 9 each morning, and it was invariably made up by the time we'd wander back around lunchtime. I hate coming back to an unmade bed, because you just know that the maids will come knocking soon -- but there's no telling when.

This is a boutique hotel, with a small lobby and small staff who do not hover around smirking at your shoes and waiting for tips. It's clean, it's quiet and it's tastefully appointed. It's also within walking distance of all the city's sights. No need to pay for a cab. Comparing it to similar places I've stayed in New York, it's definitely a bargain. Highly recommended.

Not recommended: the Atlanta airport at 1 a.m., after a lot of flights have been canceled and all standby seats have been claimed by those less deserving. You stand there unshaven and sweating and try to come to grips with your choices: ride out the night in Concourse D with floor waxers shrieking by like taxiing 747s, or stampede to the exits with the other maddened beasts and try to find shelter in the urban jungle of greater Atlanta.

Option B, assuming you raise somebody on one of the sticky courtesy phones and extract from them a vague promise of accommodation, isn't for the timid. Outside where the hotel shuttle buses come by, everyone's clamoring for one of the Titanic's few lifeboats, reaching for the skid on the last helicopter out of Saigon. All pretense of courtesy vanishes; people are grasping and cursing and shoving their overstuffed bags into a van that in all likelihood is not the one they want.

This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with naked self interest and a desperate battle to get aboard the last bus to the Sleep Inn. It's not unlike one of those Heironymous Bosch paintings, except the airport people are mostly fatter, and, thankfully, fully clothed. My next trip will be by car.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I got them old airport blues


It's futile and tiresome to complain about the wretched state of air travel in America. You might as well complain about the law of gravity. But since our flight out of Philadelphia appears to be canceled, and wireless Internet access is free here on the weekends, allow me to hold forth for a few paragraphs.

When you drive around a big city, nothing inspires sorrow and rage quite so much as the sight of all the taillights in front of you suddenly lighting up. It means that traffic will soon slow to a full stop, and that whatever plans you had at the moment must now be reconsidered. You get a similar feeling in an airport, when you arrive three hours early for your flight, and clear security without difficulty, and enjoy a nice lunch in a far concourse, and at last wander down to your departure gate to find a long line has formed. The line keeps getting longer because it's not moving. It's not moving because the two women at the gate are powerless to do anything but tap at their terminals as though at work on the middle chapters of a Norman Mailer novel. So the line stretches away past Yummy Pretzels and Chickie & Pete's and everyone waiting tries to simulate forward motion by shifting their weight from one leg to the other. Occasionally they will think of someone else to notify by cell phone that their plans have inevitably come undone.

The good news is that we had a nice time in Philadelphia. The bad news is that our stay here will extend beyond the time frame we considered optimal. We can blame thunderstorms in Atlanta, the PA informs us, which means that we can't blame Delta. Which means that, should I be forced to bide overnight in Atlanta, it will be on my own dime.

Ah well. They say Atlanta is not so lovely this time of year. I'm inclined to believe them. But at least the temporarily free Internet access here at PHL lets me vent to the ether, as opposed to the harried women at the Delta counter. All part of life's rich tapestry. And more evidence for my evolving theory that air travel in 2008 is more trouble than it's worth.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Holiday weekend in Philly

Happy Independence weekend from Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, the City of Brotherly Love, the City That Loves You Back, and shoves you back if you walk around with a chip on your shoulder. I'm at the Latham Hotel, at 17th and Walnut, a short walk from the place where a bunch of guys got together 232 years ago and hammered out the foundation of the nation we enjoy today. Tomorrow the city will mark that day with the solemn rites the founders doubtless intended: a raucous parade, and many thousands of dollars worth of fireworks, and quite a few drunken fat guys running around shirtless.

Center City hasn't changed much in the last two and a half years. The traffic is as dense as ever, the sidewalks are still crowded with slim hipsters in black and denim, conversing on cell phones with identical people a few blocks away. With the exception of one new skyscraper, the skyline remains quite familiar. It's not like Montana, where every time you go back there are new mansions crowning old hillsides, to the detriment of one's view and one's memories. It's not like Kansas, where the center of every city has withered away and one Wal-Mart looks much like another. The charm of an old city like this one is its past and permanence, and the shadows cast by its massive structures. You get used to the fetid aromas rising from the subway vents.

Still, it can feel odd walking around a place you used to live, seeing it as a tourist rather than resident. You're not quite so footsure at crosswalks, you feel slightly rubish to be carrying a camera. You realize that your clothes do not project sophistication. Sitting in a bar, you are reminded that drinks here cost about twice as much as they do in Wichita. And so does everything else. It has a way of moderating your consumption.

Tonight we dine with friends, taking the train out to leafy Chestnut Hill where we used to lived. Tomorrow, a long walk in the Wissahickon, where the wife and I logged many miles preparing for the annual Broad Street runs. This isn't really a sentimental journey -- we haven't been gone that long -- but it's interesting seeing our old haunts with new eyes.