Bear, Them There Hills, Etc.

Early 21st century communication patterns:

Outgoing text message: At a bbq watching a bear

Incoming text message (respondent 1): A real man would kill it for sport
Incoming text message (respondent 2): @ Pat Park watchin a hooker score fix
Incoming text message (respondent 3): Do u think u could send it to eat my [family member]?

Two observations: (1) amazing how easy it is to keep in touch these days and (2) yes, we were at a barbeque, watching several bears, in fact. Possibly even within the Missoula city limits, no less – I’ll have to check a map.

We were in the back yard of a colleague of A.’s, a department head who hosts an annual pot luck to kick off the school year. I was on my way back from the buffet table, where I had just scooped up a little of the salmon I’d missed earlier (they were being brought out in seven-pound slabs, the poor card tables whimpering with the weight of them, and then the crowd would swarm in…).

I noticed A. gesturing and hurried back to our chairs in the middle of the lawn, and, as I did, I noticed that everyone was looking in the same direction, at the steep ridge on the far side of the road. There, about half-way up – maybe three quarters, what do I know about these things – was a big black dot trailed by three small dots.

We all watched, mostly transfixed, until the group climbed out of site. A bear still a bit of a wonder, even in this jaded age, and deer leaping up the hill besides.

As the man at the grill announced the availability of some more freshly barbecued venison and elk, I had the sense that I was no longer in Baltimore.

Fear of Flying

1. Fear
It is night time and the stained sidewalk and roadway are soaked with rain. Exhaust fills the air. This concrete cavern outside the doors marked “Ground Transportation” echoes with engine noises and shouts and the occasional honked horn.

The Budget Rental Car shuttle pulls away from the curb and I sink into my seat with a profound sense of relief. But this feeling is hard to untangle. What’s in it? Rationally, I know I am in more danger on the shuttle – and will be in even more danger behind the wheel of our rental car – than on the plane just now from Chicago to Philadelphia. And yet the feeling is so strong that I am grinning. No more flying, I am thinking. (For the next 36 hours, anyway.)

On a plane, yes, I am a little afraid of dying. I think about it, anyway, every time. I know that, statistically, I am very safe. But every flight, before takeoff, especially if I have not flown for a while, I find myself making my peace. On the plane from Dulles to Pittsburgh a few weeks back, I found myself thinking about how I would be remembered. I decided I would eulogize pretty well: just married, a life ahead of me, striking out on my own as a freelancer with decent prospects and a good chance of making it work. People might speak of the “unfairness” of it all, this bright candle snuffed out, but then, so it goes with eulogies: no one so awful that someone can’t at least say, well, he always had a smile.

At least I won’t have the chance to fail, I thought.

Then I thought about what the wing would look like as it tore away from the fuselage and came sailing past my window. How many minutes of animal terror would we have to endure before the end?

But I am not really afraid that flying will kill me. If I actually believed I were about to die every time I stepped on a plane, I hope I would stop doing it. There is a thread, though, that unites what fears of death I have and flying: this being made into an animal, something that does not matter, a lump of matter who mainly represents a logistical problem, the same logistical problem as a million other lumps of matter, and who cares what we dream of in the last hours before dawn.

You can’t help but start to feel as if your humanity is in question when the 4th heavy-browed polyester-shirted official in as many days screams in exasperated tones that passengers must show their boarding passes as they walk through the metal detector. The sensation of being treated like cattle grows pronounced when a mumbling young woman in a uniform sweater vest suddenly cuts you from the herd for a special inspection (this new explosives sniffer that blows puffs of air at you, like the glaucoma test at an optometrist’s office), your wife left to walk, alone with the cat in its sack, thirty yards further down the corridor and out of sight, and no explanation of what’s going on. (Repeated use of the word “sir,” which begins to sound like an epithet.) At the Chicago airport, we watch a young couple try to impress a stone-faced airport employee with the justness of letting them and their wheelchair-bound grandmother buck the long line that is waiting for a shuttle to another terminal. “They been waiting, too,” shrugs the guard, gesturing at the restive crowd. The younger woman asks for the guard’s first and last name, everyone’s face twisting into snarls, snapping at each other like animals. I fantasize about standing up and asking the waiting crowd if anyone would really mind if an old woman in a wheelchair were allowed to go ahead of them, but I fear what the guard can do or have done to me. A whisper into her walkie-talkie is all it will take to summon thugs to break my arm, as happened to the musician Valery Ponomarev in Paris when he expressed reluctance to check his trumpet; at the very least she can cause me to miss my flight, out of the same kind of pettiness that inspired the mean girls to trip the fat kid in the lunch room back in middle school. Our current security fetish has promoted too many dim bulbs into penny-ante commandants who think you care about their problems, their problems, when you have paid something like two week’s wages for this trip, and all it gets you is the privilege of being herded, and shouted at, and condescended to.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve been to the cockpit and gotten my wings; a plane used to be a place to dream. The soaring was not just physical. I remember poring over my Smoky-the-Bear coloring book most of the way from D.C. to Seattle, and then excitedly pointing out smoke curling up from the forests below. “Those are just clouds,” our seatmate started to say, before my mother hushed him, indicating my coloring book and urging the churl to let a child imagine. We were in the right place for it, after all.

I remember waiting for a delayed Singapore Air flight to Germany as a college sophomore, on my way to a summer study-abroad program, the summer of 1994, a summer of poetry and plays and walks at dusk from the Heidelberg Castle down to the river and midnight, drunken pilgrimages to the ape statue by the bridge. As we waited for an update, the courtly flight attendants filed off the plane into the waiting area, silent and ethereal in their kimonos, and poured us orange juice from chilled carafes, and the orange juice was crisp and fresh and who could tell what adventures awaited.

2. Nausea
I am pacing the walkway that connects two parts of B terminal at the Denver International Airport. A. and Zuzu the cat and I have just missed our flight and been told by an unhelpful United employee that, basically, we shouldn’t have, and I am taking a walk to try to cool down. The rage and frustration are wrapped tight around my chest like a fist; I just want to go home, but I am realizing I have no control over what will happen next, like being in prison, except without the knifings and rape. (Actually, I don’t even yet realize how bad it will get.) I am having to try very hard to keep from screaming, or crying, or smashing things. I feel so agitated that I am even worried someone will point me out to the authorities, that frantic man, pacing, sweating. Looks nervous. This is where it will come. The shouted, misunderstood instructions. The cop with an exaggerated sense of the stakes. “War on terror,” indeed. The hail of bullets. The cold, clear-eyed public consensus: it’s too bad what happened, but we’re at war, mistakes will be made, he should have done what the cop said.

The windows give a view of the tarmac, of planes nosing up to the angled jetways like pigs at feeding time, or maybe more like worker insects in a hive, bloated, larval, underdeveloped, wings not fully grown (for can these things really fly?). Under one of the windows, an ashen fat man lies groaning, clutching his stomach. Two custodians stand nearby, bemused, gloved hands draped on their wheeled trash cans. There is a pile of sawdust on the carpet near the man’s head. Looming over him, a woman in the navy blue dress and jacket of a United employee murmurs into a walkie-talkie. The man looks up at her.

“Can we go somewhere else?” he asks. “Please?”

“Please just stand by, sir,” she says. “Someone is coming.”

3. Loathing
Even two weeks ago, if you’d asked me what I thought about flying, I would have expressed a neutral opinion – not the best way to spend five hours, but it had usually gone pretty well for me up to that point. Now, though, I’m thinking that those of us interested in human dignity need to band together and refuse to fly until the whole enterprise turns back into something with a human touch, or until the oil runs out and it’s a moot point anyway, whichever comes first. (Want to place a bet?)

My parents are the first to join my movement: for their visit in October, they are taking the train from Cumberland, Maryland all the way out to Missoula, and then on to visit my brother in San Francisco – looking over their itinerary, it felt like 1920 and I wanted to buy a fedora and trench coat to wear when I loom up out of the steam to meet their train, not that there’s steam anymore, unfortunately.

I do not really think the wing will come off, although I can’t help but think about what it will look like if it does. But – there is no other word for it – fear now fills me at the thought of flying, and I cannot imagine it any other way for a long time to come.

Send More Peanuts


Is it just boring at this point to report that this morning’s flight to Missoula is delayed one and a half hours (so far)?

Tell you what. From here on out, I will only post if our flight is on time. Otherwise, assume we are experiencing what now appears to be “the usual.”

At least we are in the terminal, not on the runway.

Send Peanuts, Update 2

12:40 p.m.

From the flight deck: “ATC is aware of our situation [i.e., that the pilots will need their milk, cookies and naps soon] and we have priority over other flights on the east coast.”

The crew’s “flight day” runs out in 50 minutes. Maybe the actual flight time doesn’t count as part of the “flight day,” since a computer actually flies the plane between takeoff and landing, otherwise it’s not clear how we could still fit in a flight to Chicago within the next 50 minutes.

Perhaps they are simply keeping us calm. Perhaps they have no intention of launching this aircraft and would take us back to the terminal right now if they could, but ground traffic is too backed up to allow them to do so any time soon. Rather than risk open revolt by announcing that we will be returning to the terminal in 50 minutes, they will wait until they can actually start rolling that way before doing so.

Just a theory.

Also, one curious detail. On the Flight Stats page for O’Hare, the following text appears:

Ground Stop – This airport has issued a Ground Stop affecting flights departing to it between Aug 19 03:11 PM UTC and Aug 19 05:00 PM UTC due to WEATHER / THUNDERSTORMS. Flights are being delayed an average of 116.8 minutes.

Ground Delay Program – This airport has issued a Ground Delay Program affecting flights arriving between Aug 19 08:00 AM and Aug 19 10:59 PM due to WEATHER / THUNDERSTORMS. Flights are being delayed an average of 137.7 minutes.

Delay – This airport is experiencing departure delays of 60 to 75 minutes due to Weather:Thunderstorms since Aug 19 10:11 AM.

Now, the flight crew has said that this flight is affected by the “ground stop.” Does the fact that the ground stop was issued for all flights departing between 11 p.m. last night (UTC, or Greenwich Mean Time, is currently four hours later than Eastern Daylight Time) and 1 p.m. this afternoon mean that the ground stop was issued before 11 p.m. last night, meaning, in turn, that United has known about it since then? I have heard that planes delayed on the tarmac do not count as “delayed,” in the absurd calculus by which airlines avoid having to behave like actual businesses. Did they pack us on the flight and get us out here, even though they knew we would be delayed or even canceled, to avoid being tagged for a delay?

Just another theory.

12:52 p.m.
The pilot restarts the engine to power the air conditioning. A relief, but what implications does this have for our fuel?

Send Peanuts, Update 1

12 p.m., EDT

No word from the flight deck yet, but the delay has allowed A. to complete the rabbit she was knitting for Grace’s christening present.


Actually, she still needs to finish the tail, but that require scissors, which, of course, no one is allowed to have on a plane.

At least, however inconvenient this is, we are safe from scissors-wielding maniacs.

Also, the baby behind us isn’t crying. Much.

Send Peanuts

Plane photo

As I type, A. and I are sitting on United Flight 487, which in turn is sitting on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport. Our destination is O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where we had hoped to attend our niece Grace’s christening today. We actually planned to be a little late, but a member of the flight crew just announced that – due to “some weather” – it looks like we will be very late. O’Hare is “ground-stopped,” meaning that nothing is landing and nothing is taking off. Meanwhile, ominously, our flight crew is “running up against the limits of [their] flight day,” meaning that we could conceivably be delayed long enough that they will need to be replaced before we can take off. (Pilots are notorious weaklings who cannot be expected to remain awake for more than a set number of hours each day without napping with their blankies; in the world of ships, you simply stay awake, for as long as it takes, sleep when you’re dead, etc. Guess this is why the Air Force is known to the rest of the military as the Chair Force.)

We are promised an update in an hour and twenty minutes.

We hope everyone who has some hope of our visiting them in the near future will understand our refusal to board a plane for the next several years, by which time the world should be mostly out of oil anyway and there won’t be any more flying at all for non-millionaires.

Settling In

Smoke from fires in Idaho blew into the Missoula Valley yesterday, tinting the sky an evil, sulphorous yellow and leaving a pinkened sun to squint weakly through the haze. Somehow, according to this morning’s paper, the Idaho smoke helped the firefighters battling the local blazes (less oxygen for our fires?). Either way, it was the perfect atmosphere in which to view the demolition derby at the county fair last night: the sense that the world was on fire anyway seemed to further justify smashing three dozen cars to pieces, with the smoke from the oil burning in their shattered crankcases and the dust kicked up by their spinning tires rising to mingle with the dark cloud squatting down from on high. Cars caught fire, and rough-looking men in orange t-shirts sauntered out into the muddy track with fire extinguishers while the audience looked on almost disinterestedly placidly. The easterner in me wants to write that the crowd of 5,000 or so spectators, crammed onto aluminum bleacher-style seats in the fairground’s grandstand, cheered savagely with each new crushing impact, but they actually seemed oddly calm to me. Beer was available in a separate area, down a tunnel under the bleachers and past a phalanx of Missoula County deputies who now, under a recent court ruling, must actually receive law enforcement training before being set loose with badge and gun. And the founder of the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival passed away a week ago Sunday at the ripe old age of 64…

This place is going to take some getting used to. Everyone is so nice, for one thing. We went to Staples on Saturday so I could order some business cards, and it was like I was Michael Bey in the Armani outlet on Rodeo Drive. The printing-services clerk spoke to me in soothing, supplicative tones, laying out all of my options and apologizing every time any other customers diverted his attention from me for more than three seconds. In Baltimore, in the same situation, the clerk would have been angry at me for even walking in, and the help would have been limited to his saying something like “let me know when you’re done so I can charge you.” We moved on to the Verizon store, because my phone wasn’t reliably turning on. It was nice enough to learn that Verizon actually supports its phones and could give me a new one under warranty without requiring me to renew for a thousand years first — not exactly the sort of corporate helpfulness one expects these days, frankly — but the interaction with the salespeople was also utterly absent the skeezy, lip-licking pushiness I’ve come to expect in such stores. The same thing happened at the Vann’s Outlet, where Vann’s — a sort of Best Buy-like appliance and electronics store — sells its scratched and dented goods. We purchased a mismatched washer and dryer set for about $500, which, again, would have been nice enough even if it had required negotiating with Dick Cheney himself, but the salesman was so endearing there was the risk that we would start throwing hundred dollar bills at him on top of that nice price, just for treating us like human beings. The stereotype holds that the easterners from the big city should be tough sells, suspicious, hard, and flinty. But I’m finding myself just melting in the presence of all of these smiles and hearty greetings.

When I’m not wondering what sort of scam these people are trying to pull, that is.

A. and I are getting used to being used to each other, slowly but surely. It’s strange not to wake up and immediately calculate how many more mornings there are before we must separate again. (About 250 at this point, actually, but I’m not really counting yet.) On Friday we drove to the Village 6 movie theater, which is proud of its recent switch to an all-digital projection system with “millions of colors” (I guess they’re holding off on cleaning the carpets, though) to see Knocked Up. We’ve been spoiled by the Charles Theater in Baltimore, where the previews are kept to a minimum, so it was with increasing irritation that we had to sit through about twenty minutes of not only previews but commercials, which I guess most everyone else must be used to by now. I was especially tickled by the segue from an ad for some sort of hair-straightening appliance (“one handed!” “gets the frizz out”) to a recruiting pitch from the National Guard that mainly featured footage of guardsmen rescuing American flood victims although it did briefly allow as how sometimes you might get sent on a “foreign deployment.” But the women don’t have to cut their hair off in the military (only men are liable to get lice, I guess), so maybe it wasn’t such a contradiction after all. Then there was a weird moment of dislocation when the preview for Hairspray came on, and I realized that “Baltimore” probably sounded like some incomprehensibly exotic locale to everyone in the theater but us. I felt a sort of pride that I had some connection to this place that probably no one around me ever wants to visit, but then I remembered that they didn’t even film the damn thing there anyway. As for Knocked Up, it’s pretty funny once you get past the first half hour of wondering why on earth any living female would give this guy the time of day, much less, well, you know. Also, there was this weird crudeness that seemed to go too far sometimes. Scenes would be funny enough already, and then one of the characters would descend into a level of scatalogical excess that felt out of keeping with the semi-realistic way in which most of the interactions played out, and it felt like the writers were just trying to shock. (Let me just say that there is a scene of scatalogical excess in 40-Year-Old Virgin that made me laugh until I cried, and which I think does work, so it’s not like I’m just easy to shock or something.)

The U-Pack trailer is supposed to get here “late Thursday morning,” according to the Montana dispatcher, which is a bit of a disappointment given the original promised Tuesday arrival and the fact that I need a suit from out of that trailer in time to get on a plane to A.’s friend’s wedding in Pittsburgh on Friday. But we “can pretty much bank on it,” according to U-Pack, so we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed. Nothing else has worked smoothly on this move, so why should this? At least we’ve found a local company that will supply a couple of movers or “lumpers” as I believe I understood them to be called who can help us unload for $15/hr/man. I had to ask for this price to be repeated, sure that it should have been $50, not $15. But no, I’d heard it right the first time.

It will be nice to have furniture. For now, we are sleeping in the living room on a much nicer air mattress than the one we abandoned in Baltimore. We eat leaning against the wide, bar-style kitchen counter or picnic style on the floor, taking turns using the one folding camp chair. A more varied wardrobe would be nice, too, although I think I may finally ease up on the collared shirts. Everyone else out here seems to affect a sort of “rafting casual” look at all times, and as you all know it’s absolutely vital to me to fit in, so maybe I’ll have to invest in a pair of these weird close-toed sandal-shoe thingies. But no flip-flops, although — from the looks of things — I probably won’t enjoy much success out here in my ongoing campaign to get men to stop wearing these things, men’s feet rarely being anything anyone wants to have to look at. Besides, what if you had to do something or take action, and then later you had to admit, “well, I could have helped/stopped it/run for assistance, but I was wearing flip-flops?” But if you can live with that, go for it, I guess…

So, yeah, sandal shoes. Must fit in, at all costs…

The Long and Winding Road

This was it, the move to Montana from Baltimore. We loaded the U-Pack trailer over the weekend, spent a sleepless night on a leaking air mattress, and got up Tuesday before dawn to catch our 7:30 a.m. flight from Thurgood Marshall-Baltimore Washington International Airport. I called a cab while A. drugged Zuzu the cat and stuffed her into the carryon pet bag.

According to our itinerary, we would be in Missoula around noon, western time, after one stopover in Chicago.

At the BWI United check-in counter, we learned that “thunderstorm activity” in Chicago had delayed our first flight two hours, which meant we would miss our connection. The United clerk’s solution was to put us in a cab to Dulles for an 8:05 a.m. flight that would get us back on track.

The cab pulled away from BWI at 6:55 a.m.; though the flight we were trying for was eventually delayed until 8:25 a.m., we did not arrive at Dulles in time to catch it. At Dulles, another United clerk suggested a new itinerary, with layovers in Pittsburgh and Denver, that would get us to Missoula by around 1:00 a.m. that night. But we were worried about the effects of keeping Zuzu drugged and confined for this long, and so we decided to spend the night in Denver — at our own expense — and catch the final flight to Missoula the next morning.

We reached Denver uneventfully (except for a medical emergency on board, which was dealt with handily by the emergency-room doctor who happened to be among the passengers) and spent the night at the Red Lion hotel, giving Zuzu a hotel towel on the bathroom floor for litter. The next morning, trying to minimize the time that Zuzu would spend sedated, we arrived at the Denver airport only an hour and a half before our flight, but — because Denver International Airport puts all passengers through one security line, instead of having a separate line for each of its three terminals — this was not enough time to make our flight, despite our mad dash along the half mile to our gate at the far end of B terminal, wheezing in the mile-high air, shouting at people to get out of our way. (Punch the words out in a deep voice, from the diaphragm, and they veritably leap to comply, I note with interest.)

Because missing this flight was “our fault” in the larger scheme of things or at least the way airlines think about such matters, we could never again be “confirmed” on a Missoula flight on these tickets and would instead have to wait on standby for any empty seats. But because such small planes (and so few of them) serve Missoula, and because the order of standby — we learned — is determined not on a first-come-first-serve basis but rather by the number of frequent-flier miles a passenger has, it gradually became clear that we were not likely to ever receive seats on one of these flights. “Customer-service” representatives were not moved when, later in the afternoon, I pointed out that keeping our cat sedated and confined to a bag for days on end might hazard her health, nor could they even be bothered to express sympathy when, simply making conversation, I pointed out that we had indeed arrived at the airport 90 minutes early, as recommended on the United ticket envelope for customers taking domestic flights with checked baggage.

“Really you just need to be here on time to get on the plane,” snarled United clerk Marjorie Gray, a horrid little goblin about whom I will only say that I hope she is as unhappy as she seemed.

Desperation set in. We considered flying to other airports and driving to Missoula, but the fact of having a cat with us complicated this, as airlines restrict the number of pets that can travel carry-on on a given flight. We considered renting a car and making the 12-hour drive to Missoula, but none of the five rental companies whose Bangladeshi reservations staff I reached by cell phone from the crowded, noisy waiting area had cars available that afternoon. A. was in tears and I felt like I was losing my mind from the forced passivity of the situation (yes, yes, I know, control is an illusion, thank you, John Edwards and also the Buddha) when I saw a woman I had earlier heard identified to another passenger as a United supervisor. I decided to make one last effort to get the hell out of Denver. Somehow I managed to convince the supervisor of the direness of our plight (lots of eye contact, quavering voice, vague reference to the back story and to a sobbing wife and near-death cat), and she was able to confirm us on a flight for the next morning at 8:25 a.m. after five minutes or so of tapping away at a computer terminal. A. restrained me from going back to the desk of unhelpful people from earlier to tell them that I thought they were bad people and that I hoped their children would one day realize this.

We retired to Timbers Inn (Red Lion was full) for our second night in Denver, and when I say “retired” I mean waited in the hot, exhaust-choked curbside area for more than an hour for the hotel shuttle. Weirdly, my brother, who is as I write driving across the country on his way to San Francisco, arrived in Denver that evening, and he and I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant while A. went to bed early with a headache. Earlier I had walked along the highway to a gas station convenience store and bought a tin of tuna for Zuzu, who continued a remarkable run of well-behavedness in all of this (even deciding to do her first business of the evening in the tub, for convenient cleanup), until sometime in the night, when she climbed onto the room’s desk and urinated on one of our duffel bags. (Urinating on duffel bags is a predilection of hers; I believe this was number three.) We discovered this little surprise before dawn, as we prepared to check out and catch the 5:30 a.m. airport shuttle. A. piled into the shuttle with our luggage while I loped through the dark parking lot to the McDonald’s next door and threw the duffle bag into the dumpster.

This time we were at our gate more than an hour before boarding, with time for breakfast at the New Belgium Brewing Company, served by a wonderful bartender called Meatloaf whom we had first met the day before, when I had realized I either needed to get a little bit drunk or I was going to kill someone. Meatloaf runs easily the most pleasant bar I’ve ever been in — not the most pleasant airport bar, mind you, but the most pleasant, period — and demonstrates what an amazingly healing service a bartender can provide simply by listening to your troubles, taking your side against the world, and cracking some jokes. On the Pittsburgh flight the day before, after the ER doctor had finished helping the old man who had fallen ill, I heard him thank her with a heartfelt quaver of gratitude in his voice; it was a similar emotion that I felt toward Meatloaf, who may very well have saved my sanity simply by offering a friendly face.

We boarded the plane without a hitch, fearful all the while that some final complication would stand in the way, but the flight was trouble free (other than the vomiting woman in the seat behind us). As we circled in over smoke-shrouded Missoula (according to today’s Missoulian, “Montana is the epicenter of this year’s firestorm”), we dared to hope that we were close to finally reaching our destination, though of course we knew that some catastrophe might still divert us. And then the tires bit the runway and a little while later we were walking up the jetway, squeezing past the Army Ranger hugging his wife and kids. Incredibly, our checked bags had even made it to Missoula as well, though they were not on the carousel and we had to ask for them at the United counter.

We collected our car at row F in the long-term parking lot and drove out the gate into sunny, smoky Missoula.