Archive for July 2003

Sky-high Again

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Plane Talk

I’m back on the frequent flyer treadmill. I’ve worked the week in Milwaukee, and am flying to Detroit today for a day’s visit with my parents, then off to Seattle from Detroit on Sunday morning. As I’ve noted earlier, I’ve been a frequent flyer on a major airline for the past 5 years. There are three tiers for frequent flyers on most airlines - “silver” at 25,000 miles in a year, “gold” at 50,000 a year, and “platinum” at 75,000 in a given year. Privileges vest in proportion to your metal status. My status has been “gold” for that period, and it has entitled me to early boarding (big deal - I get to spend MORE time on the plane?) and, most significantly, upgrades to first class sometimes, even if I’ve paid $250 for a trip from Seattle to Detroit to Charleston, SC, to Houston, to Seattle.
This is a structure of privilege that is doomed, eventually, by the financial straits of the major airlines and the onslaught of the bargain carriers such as Airtran, Southwest, etc. There has been a steady erosion of service in first class since 9/11. Gone are the hot towels, linen tablecloths and warm cookies & milk on landing. This sort of contradicts Patrick Smith’s (Ask the Pilot - Salon) class-war troll about how conditions are actually diverging between first class and coach. The example he spends most of his time on, Continental’s apparently sumptuous dinner menu, is probably the result of some bad timing on Continental’s part - they rolled out a “Congress of Chefs” program just before the industry turned to shit, and probably have to continue featuring it rather than trashing their investment. For the most part, I think, domestic first class involves a roomy seat, free drinks and a slightly nicer dinner service.
I think the best point Ask The Pilot makes is that it is a shame that coach class has become such an unpleasant experience. Being on the smaller end of the scale, I don’t suffer that much physically in a coach seat, but the continued squeeze in space makes it nearly impossible to open a laptop and actually type (this requires that your elbows extend away from your body, which usually places them in either the soft, firm breast - or, more likely, the sweaty, hairy beergut - of your seatmates). And the biggest letdown, in my point of view, is the decline in customer service and basic people skills. I realize that the current downturn has increased the workload and shattered the morale of all airline employees, but, golly, if you’re going to remain a flight attendant or gate agent anyway, it doesn’t take that much effort to make us feel wanted, and to make the experience of flying just a little bit special.
The business purpose of the frequent flyer programs was to attain the loyalty of business customers through the “golden handcuffs” of the metallic tiers. To attain the privileges inherent in Gold or Platinum status, a traveler has to book primarily or exclusively on the same airline. This made sense for the airlines when business travellers paid a premium for most of their flights - booking the day before, or the same day, no weekend stays, etc. I once paid $1,800 for a Seattle - Atlanta round trip in coach, and passed it on 100% to my client, during the 90s boom times. However, business travelers are now seeking the same bargain fares as leisure travellers, because their clients and employers have become extremely parsimonious, and the fare premium that justified the extra amenities is no longer there. Since almost no one actually pays for it, I expect to see domestic first class all but disappear as the major airlines either go bankrupt or develop business models that can keep them flying. And don’t expect that to improve our experience in Coach.
In the meantime, please move quickly and quietly through the first class cabin as you make your way to the back of the plane, ensure that your children, if it is completely necessary to travel with them, do the same, and try not to impede the flight attendant as he/she serves our preflight drinks.

Reminiscence II - Ohio Bicycling Chic

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Bike Tails

I followed Mike Needs’ Ohio Odyssey bicycle trip with interest. Of course, I’m the better part of a month late commenting on it, just like I’m late with everything, but still. I first took up serious cycling by availing myself of the network of long, flat, lightly travelled rural roads of northwest Ohio as a form of exercise and, because it was the early/mid 70s, to reduce my use of autos and oil. It became more of an obsession when I moved to Bowling Green and ended up working in a bicycle shop.
There I met perhaps the closest male friend I’ll probably ever have. He had my perfectionist’s tendencies in spades, and, since he had been working on bikes since his teen years, had an encyclopedic knowledge of top-end equipment: the sew-up tires, balsa-filled rims, Campagnolo Record running gear, Reynolds 531 double-butted frames, all well before the “bike boom” made bikes with this kind of gear de rigeur for yuppie wall hangings all across the country. We proselytized the 10-speed catechism, pushing Peugeots, Gitanes, the occasional Cinelli, and scoffed at Schwinn and Huffy (although grudgingly allowing that Schwinn put out a high-quality, if misbegotten, product We drove our employer nuts by meticulously assembling even the cheapest Peugeots before delivering them to customers, sometimes regreasing the wheel or crank bearings if we didn’t like the feeling of them. She was enough of a businessperson to quickly switch us to piecework.
M. was an incessant talker, something I’d never been, and his indefatigable patter finally broke down my reticence and preference for one-line zingers, and we gabbed constantly. M. was single and I was mere months away from marrying my high-school sweetheart, so I eagerly soaked up his stories of pursuit and conquest, obscuring with knowing knods and eyerolls my comparative paucity of adventure tales.
We rode my first “century” (100 mile) ride, the Trotwood (Dayton) covered bridge tour, followed later by the Hancock (county) Horizontal Hundred and Hill-less Half Hundred. We grumbled when we had to cross freeway overpasses and actually shift gears. And we did the apotheosis of Ohio riding at the time, TOSRV , the 2-day Tour of Scioto River Valley (which seems to have been the extent of Mike Needs’ training before embarking on his tour).
My marriage in the spring of 1974 didn’t split us up, but my move to Seattle in October of that year did. We corresponded fitfully, didn’t call much owing to our respective pauper’s circumstances. The following spring he wrote and said he and a buddy were embarking on a cross-country ride culminating with their arrival in Seattle. I received a post card the day they left Bowling Green, and heard nothing more for 2 weeks. I began expecting to hear that they were crossing the Rockies and bearing down on the coast, but instead received a post card from Portsmouth, ME saying that they had ridden for 2 days, and had been so discouraged by the prevailing westerly winds that they had turned around, his friend to abandon the tour entirely and M. to head (still by bicycle) for the east coast, where he was waiting for an opportunity to crew on a ship in exchange for passage to Amsterdam.
That began, for him, a multi-year adventure that included bicycling around most of Europe, lighting out with a German paramour across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express to land in Japan, where they secured jobs teaching English. All these adventures he chronicled to me on sheafs of that old, pre-email blue aerogramme paper, and once again it seemed he was my surrogate for worldly adventure. In 1981, he finally arrived in Seattle, broke and possessed of an Australian wife and desperate to get off the road for awhile. They were grateful to camp out in the frigid and rain-washed house we were remodelling. After collecting his wits and a little cash, they headed to Bowling Green, where he finished a degree.
Over the ensuing years, we would exchange cards and occasionally visit, but I had completely lost contact with him the last 4 years, an ironic circumstance considering the relative ease of email compared to that aerogramme correspondence. I had a phone number - I could have called - but I began to fear the worst, and couldn’t bring myself to call and have that foreboding confirmed by a widow or an ex or by a phone company recording. Insomniac curiosity did lead me to Google the papers in his area for obituaries one night. After reading Mike Needs’ tour notes, however, and indulging in a nostalgia for Ohio bike riding, I finally picked up the phone and called. He answered on the first ring, and we burned through my remaining Verizon allocation of minutes for July.
So, I have Mike to thank not only for reuniting me with my friend, but also for a passing good tale in the bargain.

Eby’s Landing

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Edgewater Hotel

Weakened Warriors

A picture named 125-2592_IMG.jpgMy weekend was a bit short, as I had to fly off to Milwaukee on Sunday. The weather has been picture-perfect in Seattle the last week or so, and I blew off work on Friday to go up to Whidbey Island and take one of my favorite day hikes at Eby’s Landing, just west of Coupeville.
Saturday we kayaked around Elliott Bay in downtown Seattle, sort of an urban water experience on a day that couldn’t have been more conducive. It’s an interesting perspective on the city. The parasailor in the picture looks like he might have hired the ride in order to get a high - REALLY high - colonic enema from the fireboat that was practicing nearby. At Pier 67, a crew was doing a soundcheck for that evening’s Doors concert (Morrison’s DEAD, for god’s sake, and they were still asking $75 bucks a head!). Later, a cruise ship (boo!) set off to befoul the water between here and Alaska. And at the Edgewater Hotel, immortalized in a Zappa song called The Mud Shark, while no one was fishing out the window, folks were hanging out on their balconies and staring at the inscrutible deep.

Devil Must Go, Jeff Davis can Stay

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From an article appearing in the Seattle Times, officials in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, to appease Christian superstitions about what is probably a misreading of Revelations, will rededicate U.S. Route 666 to a different number. From the looks of the landscape in the picture, however, the original designation seems most appropriate. If you look closely, that glint atop the volcanic plug in the background is the sun reflecting off of a steel anvil with an “Acme” label, and that dust cloud moving on the horizon is a fast-approaching Road Runner.
While superstition can get you a highway renamed in the red states, officials in supposedly more progressive Washington state can’t bring themselves to remove the Confederate traitor Jefferson Davis’ name from U.S. 99. It is unclear how the Daughters of the Confederacy got enough clout in a state so removed, culturally and geographically, from Dixie that they got away with dedicating a highway. Even more inexplicable is why a Democratic state senator in the year 2003 is finding good things to say about Jeff Davis. She’s from Christopher Key’s county. Any word, Christopher?

Hedonism IV

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Life is but a dream…Hedonism as performance art

Hedonism III

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More aquatic excess