Friday, June 27, 2008


Yesterday I received a letter from our quasi-Cruise director, cousin Cheri (daughter of the guests of honor, Ed and Rae Dell), and found among the fun and news an enthralling, cryptic paragraph:

"There are forty-nine in our party, plus our mascot, which will be revealed on board. How fitting, to have fifty of us for a fiftieth anniversary cruise!"

(There will be an additional twenty-seven friends, classmates, and distant relatives on board.)

But the mascot! What on earth? I've mentally gone through all the pets in our arsenal and found none that would be welcome on a cruise ship. I've tallied up all the inflatable/posable/customizable prank characters we've inducted into our family, human and otherwise, and none seems fitting as our mascot (least of all my beloved five-foot inflatable human skeleton, Jack, who's seen many a family party). We all have a set of plastic Billy Bob teeth from another event; so that's been done. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's been asked to pack a wig or a polyester leisure suit. Everybody's already accounted for. I can't even recall anything suspicious or fitting from Ed and Rae Dell's wedding album, which I just perused last weekend.

What in the heck?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Out from Under

These are the days I longed for, and they do not disappoint. Last Friday morning I took my kayak out to the glassy, glittering, deserted reservoir and rowed around for an hour and a half until the wind picked up. Since it's inflatable (don't knock it, it'll still do Class III) it has a hard time with choppy water. Or I do, maybe. Instead of cutting through the waves, it bobs. Not good. I found a little cave beneath a bluff and made a mental note to tell Cordale about the crayfish, lobster-sized monsters scooting around on the shale in the shallows.

Everybody's favorite chemical vendor rep called the plant last week to schedule a July visit and we got to gossiping. I mentioned our new guy and she said she remembered we'd hired one, asked, "Is he cute?" which I thought was odd, since she's recently married to a DirecTV employee with the same name as a dead comedian. I said, too quickly, "Um, no." She laughed and I tried to explain that he's not really my type, that wild orange hair and freckles, glasses, a brotherly goofiness. I prefer dark men, brunette like Brent, a little grumpy and dignified. But I was quick to reassure her that he's a gem.

And he is. We were lolling in the control room this week after a particularly stressful two days, having switched to the river again from the reservoir. This always causes problems, no matter how many bases we think we've got covered. Jeff was daydreaming about horses, flossing his teeth with a folded Post-it, and Robbie, our new guy, was texting his wife, who had sent a video over the phone of their tiny daughter (who has the name of a fabled Russian princess and her father's violently red hair) sliding into home base and knocking over the tee ball tee, winning the game. Travis spent the week at home and Bud was making copies in the corner. And I thought, omigosh, all that fuss for nothing. Remember all my woe about our delicate dynamic being shattered? Forget it. Robbie fit in like a good-natured rookie in the dugout, clever but not obnoxious, jolly and giant and willing. I should have trusted Bud and Jeff to pick someone who would be just right.

He took a lot of the pressure off me, somehow, and boosted my confidence; when he started asking questions, I found I had the answers. And he comes to me more than the others, probably because I'm new enough to all this not to make him uncomfortable about what he's lacking and because if I don't know the answer, we'll find out together. Our team is still intact, and Robbie found a niche in it that I didn't realize was vacant. Bud keeps threatening to retire, but he's still here.

I've been devouring books, as many as five a week, sometimes three at a time. It's been a while since I felt like reading, over a year, and now I can't get enough. I've been tanning and walking a lot (how it helps my thinking, and my writing! Perhaps it's a good thing that power surge scrambled my VCR/DVD player's brain). We've had family outings, like the wonderful weekend picnic at Weeping Rock, just Mom and Morgan and I (and one dog, Molly), skipping flat rocks on the mossy Green River just below the Fontonelle dam. It was a cold day but wonderful. We took Henry's metal detectors out to an old man camp in the sagebrush and laughed at the baby-like squeals they made when we ran over a buried bottle cap or a rusted bolt.

I'm getting the Cadillac ready to sell, no point putting it off any longer. Both Tricky and Monte have sat since December when Puck arrived, each with their own problem; an $11 battery cable for Monte and an $89 starter for the Caddy and they're back in business. The Caddy needs a muffler, too, but she's been to San Diego and back and to Salt Lake at least five times since we discovered that, so it's clearly not pressing.

I got my first avocados of the season, glossy, thick skins, big as pears, $1.29 a piece but so rich and firm that I don't even care. I don't spend much on groceries anyway. I'm cleaning stuff out of closet, drawers and pantry. I don't want to have to do it all when I move, hopefully this fall. But before that there's The Cruise; you can hear the capitals when we talk about it. I've been mentally packing for two months already and it's a month and more away, inland passage Alaska with 50+ family and 20+ friends, an extravagant 50th anniversary fling for a pair of favorite cousins. When filling out the passport application I got to the space labeled "Emergency Contact," and they requested someone not accompanying you on your journey. For a minute I thought, there's no one. Everyone will be going. But there are a few of you staying behind. Sorry.

And before The Cruise there's The 4th, one of my two favorite holidays (why can't Halloween come four times a year?) and Brent will be here for a short weekend, just to tide us over until that long August vacation up north. And I still need to shop.

I feel like I've been cryogenically frozen since the end of November. I love this summer world, lilacs and peonies, lethargic flies and printed moths. I can't spend another winter here. I'll go nuts. So after The Cruise it's time to buckle down and make my way out of here, find a warmer, kinder world that's close enough for all of you to visit. But in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy this summer like nobody's business. Even at work.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

You'd Be 98 Today...

... and still as spry and wicked as your expression in this photo suggests. The three years you've been gone have passed like the blink of an eye, perhaps because it's so easy for me to pretend you're still around. I talk to your belongings, things I inherited: your paring knives, a square of homemade apron, worry beads, your diamond ring, the shoe trunk your father gave you when you went to college and the rope of square glass beads he gave you when you turned 18. 80 years ago.

On the way home from Mom's I almost always have to remind myself that there's no pulling in to the uncharacteristically bright and cheerful nursing home to find you musing beyond the open door of your room, reading the same headline over and over and clucking at the date. "2003!" you said. "It just can't be." You were born in 1910. It blows my mind to think of all the things you saw pass. Flight. Automobiles. Wars.

We like to reminisce about how tough you were on us when we were young, but it was good for us, and by the time I found my way back home you were an ally, a best friend; Morgan and I camped out on the floor of your room at the home on an air bed one summer. (What kind of people thus invade a nursing home? But it was your home. The staff was so thrilled with our family.) I told you my fears and hopes. You always talked sense to me, even though you weren't quite yourself anymore. You were, in fact, a little more sympathetic by then than you were when I was 10.

It's not sad to fasten bricks loaded with bright artificial flowers to your headstone, the one you were so appalled to find
one year at the cemetery, having forgotten you had ordered it decades before. You had a good long life and the end, when it came, was so easy. You were so tired.

So today would be your birthday, and you would be tickled to have cake and frivolous gifts, sweet-smelling lotions and fancy paste jewels. And Mom would have the Christmas tree we left up in your room year-round decorated with summer things, plastic sunglasses and feathered doves and pink fabric tulips. June would bring you a vase full of your favorite peonies, if they are blooming; it was a very late spring. And what wouldn't I give for those easy evenings to be back again? For another chance to wring stories and Slovenian words from your monumental memory?

Happy Birthday, Gram. 39 and holding.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fractional Odyssey

Six months, six thousand miles, each simultaneously fraught with peril and delight, each redolent of new car smell.

This winter was excruciating in so many ways, but none more than those where my new car was concerned. I was afraid to drive Puck on ice or through blizzards. (Obviously this didn't stop me, and we got to know each other.) I was paranoid about what the road salt would do to him, often finding myself at the car wash in below-freezing temperatures, bending over to spray out his undercarriage and wheel wells. I've seen the way vehicles age in Wyoming when not garaged, and it's not pretty, so I sighed with regret every time I parked him in my gravel driveway to face another bitter night exposed. I worried about starting him at 15 below or leaving him plugged in all night, cooking off the oil. And I couldn't use the sunroof.

So I couldn't really begin to fully enjoy my new car for the first five months, even though I never regretted the purchase for an instant. I was never going to buy a new car. I agreed with Dad, who had many good reasons, including the fact that you can get a good running vehicle for a few thousand bucks so why purchase a new one that requires full coverage insurance, but chiefly because if you have a car payment, you have that much less disposable income to spend on gas and a big, big problem if you lose your income altogether.

However, by the time I really, really needed a more reliable vehicle and had a few thousand to plunk down, he was gone, and with him the magical ear that could merely listen to an engine turn over and tell you whether or not it was sound, and what needed done if it wasn't. Also, there was the cautionary tale of Morgan's poorly Pontiac, which she came by used at a dealership and which should have been a great car but turned out to have a few Californian skeletons in its attractive, black-lacquered horizontal closet. I couldn't afford a used car like that. So I researched and agonized and finally made a choice, and with each passing mile I believe more and more in fate.

When driving Puck off the lot on December 17th, 2007, instantaneous depreciation was the furthest thing from my mind. I was terrified. I can drive most anything with four wheels, but it takes a while to really get to know a car, and the alien feeling of the springy new clutch (I had test-driven an automatic) was appalling. I expected to instantly meld with the new car like chocolate chips in cookie dough. In fact, the first time we tried to move forward, I killed him. I couldn't hear the motor to know if I was giving him enough gas. Too quiet. Too new.

I got to know and love the satellite radio and mp3 jack right away. I like the driver's position, high and forward and firm like an SUV, love that the shifter is right at my wrist, got used to the blind spots (and learned how to see around them) and the tight, pushy clutch (we never jerk when we shift now), and I worship the heaters (blowers and seat), which are hot enough to melt lead. I love the keyless entry even though the key is huge and blocky. The cruise works great, the radio controls on the steering wheel are superfluous but fun, the stack controls are simple and inoffensive, the hatch and tonneau cover are handy for laundry, luggage, and groceries even if the door is a little hard to close due to new and stiff hydraulics.

I chose the car for the very female reason that I loved the way it looked on the outside, but I also love the simple, clean interior in warm and welcoming shades of tan and creamy beige. There are soft, rubbery plastics in nicely understated textures, and the goofy fake-brushed aluminum center stack can be easily recovered with a wood grain kit from Mopar if I ever get tired of it or scratch it up. I don't stick to the cloth seats, which really do repel stains rather miraculously, and the dog and cat hair vacuums right off. The two generous glove compartments are excellent and the arm rest slides neatly forward and back and the air conditioning blows cold and subtle, although the vents don't swivel quite as wide as I'd like; I can't point them directly at my chest, which is where I want the cold air to hit (otherwise it makes my joints ache). But seriously, if the vents are the only design flaw I have to complain about, I'd say the car is gold.

But even if Puck was horribly disfigured and uncomfortable inside and sounded like a train and had a face only a blind man could love, he'd still be my second mechanical soul mate (lest ye forget, first there was Monte). Once we got into our groove, and once spring removed some of the apprehension (there are still idiotic teenagers and rock-flipping trucks and idiotic deer and rainy asphalt to hydroplane on and rock slides on the Fontonelle causeway and next winter to consider if I'm still stuck in this wasteland), then and only then did I get what my cousin Garrick was talking about when he said, regarding his brand new gunmetal Charger, "You stare at it and think, 'I just want to drive you.'" And it's true. I love to drive my car.

Above all Puck's cosmetic charms there's the fact that he's surprisingly zippy for an overweight, underpowered station wagon. I got the very basic 1.8L four cylinder engine, after all, to save on gas mileage, which it does, oh does it ever. I get the high end of 28-32 on the highway, 22-26 in town, now that he's pretty well broken in and had two oil changes. He takes corners like a barrel racer, dives downhill like a bird and drifts uphill under his own momentum, very much like a roller coaster, and cruises as comfortably as the Caddy without sashaying all over the road.

He fits into even the most ungenerous parking spaces but feels cavernous with the sunshade open, whether the sunroof is open or not. But, oh, when it is it's just divine. On a miraculously sunny day in March I drove all the way to Mom's with the sunroof open and the heater blowing and the stereo blaring in a wanton waste of energy just because it felt so nice to have that connection with the sky, because to me an open road ahead is just heaven and to be able to drink in every facet of that road, every sight and sound and smell, makes every mile a blissful adventure.

And it's miraculous to have found a car that combines all the best beloved features of every car I've ever driven, plus things I never dreamed of, all in a sparkly black package that sort of makes my heart melt when I see it down the street or from a window, and if history repeats itself (and we all know it does), I'll only love him more with each passing mile as his clear coat turns cloudy and his floor mats get stained. My first Dodge lasted 20 years and 240,000 miles and I expect no less of this one, so here's to another 114 months at least of hitting the road together, Puck. I'll take good care of you.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Science of Napping

I love naps. The very first nap I remember, although I know I must have taken a few as a toddler, I was lolling suspended a few feet above the ground in a sheet Morgan had secured to two parallel cables of the clothesline like a hammock in the backyard on Sorensen, 50 miles from here. I must have weighed next to nothing, brown skin stretched over flexible child bones, topped with a crop of white hair. I remember being surprised at having fallen asleep. What had I missed? Because of that fear I rarely napped, although I remember dozing after being commanded to "pretend to nap" by Morgan and Carrie, in their "house", the wood shed in June's backyard that was just torn down this month to make room for more snap peas and carrots, 50 miles from here. I remember the dirt-caked pink and white plastic of the Easy-Bake Oven and tiny Tupperware mugs. I was supposed to be playing "the baby" and I must have been all of four years old.

I remember napping on June's trampoline with her cocker spaniel, Shamrock, smelling green onions and honeysuckle in the garden nearby. If you wanted him up there with you, you had to get on your hands and scabby knees in the grass so Shammy could use you for a jumping block to get on the tramp. I forever had great long welts on my back from his claws. I may have scars. You knew it was going to hurt, but you did it anyway. Napping with a dog who isn't restless is pure bliss. Ditto napping with cats. These days we nap on blankets in the sun on June's familiar plush lawn whenever we have a family get-together.

I remember napping in a tent at Bear Lake, 50 miles from here in another direction, the soft sloshing of its miniature tide and the buzz of boats and flies. I remember napping in Grandma's yellow bedroom with afternoon sunlight pouring in the west window, holding her hand. Napping on the bus on the way home to San Diego after a field tournament with my high school's marching band, folded up in my seat with my knees wedging me in place, my head on someone's shoulder, Mom's or Kym's or Rob's. Drumsticks beating on the seat backs, muted. I remember napping the morning after a night shift at the cab company, snoozing on my twin bed in my apartment on 13th street in Imperial Beach with the palms shushing outside the window and the ocean a distant growl. If you looked out the window you'd see blooming poinsettia and bursting white orange blossoms. The birds always sounded very distant there, and before I came completely awake I felt I was in a jungle.

I used to nap on the beach with the gulls shrieking and the waves crashing; this is also how Mom got so sunburned on one vacation in San Diego before we moved there that she had to wear a mu mu for a week. I napped one afternoon on a solitary drive from Wyoming to San Diego after I was living there alone, tipping Monte's front seat back, a cradle, windows open, doors locked, at a rest area in the desert where women from a reservation were selling bright bead and stone jewelry laid out on blankets in the sand. I will never forget how the polished silver caught the sun.

Napping in this house is like napping in a war zone, what with the noise from upstairs and music from the basement and the kids next door, laughing and screeching outside my open kitchen window. You have to feel safe to nap. You have to be trusting. It's different at night when the whole world's asleep. When napping by day, the whole world goes on around you.

I fell asleep after work while waiting for Mom this winter, she herself napping between her tax appointment and her drive home; I was curled on Morgan's gloriously overstuffed couch with my face to the back, buried in pillows. Although asleep, I heard Morgan typing and the click of her mouse as she worked at her computer, drafting in her office down the hall. I heard Mom's gentle snoring and a radio playing quietly, jazzy commercials, and the pine tree whistling outside the plate glass bay window. I felt Daisy press an insistent, wet Lab snout into the back of my head (which is why you face the back of the couch) and heard car doors slam across the street and at some point I felt Kelly carefully cover me up with a blanket. Even with all this activity, I slept better than I had in months, however briefly, completely at peace with the world.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the Rocks

I like cocktails that involve milk. It's my thing; maybe I feel like I'm getting some nutrition out of it, not just empty calories. But then, I also just like milk. Mostly I prefer skim milk over ice with a generous splash of something sweet, Brendan's or creamy Tequila Rose or any brand of coffee liquor, like the stuff I picked up at Smith's Tuesday. I didn't pay attention to the brand, only to the price, which was right in the middle of the pack lining the top shelf. But when I got it home I glanced at the label, a great gaudy confection of fake, blocky Aztec symbols (it's made someplace in Missouri), and read, "Chapala Coffee Liquor." Chapala. Chapala. Where have I heard that before?

Bam. Memory assaults. A gauzy August day in the heart of Mexico, just south of Guadalajara. A body of water, or what's left of it. A vast, dry lake bed with a muddy pond at the center, shoeless boys playing fútbol in the acrid dust, creating a haze of steamy dirt. There's so much distance between the edge of the water and the stone walls around the covered picnic areas that it looks like the earth has been stretched, the bare dirt is a scar. The thatched roofs of the shelters are covered in bird droppings, but I don't see any birds. I'm shying away from the first cicadas I've ever seen. They leave when the smoke from the carne asada envelopes us.

I'm playing poker with round, blotchy Uncle Nacho (a diabetic doctor) and his equally rotund son, the only other person here who speaks English. I don't enjoy talking to him. I wish Betty's smiling husband, Cesar, was here. His English isn't nearly as good but he prefers to sketch for me bits of the conversations around us instead of talking about himself and his job making shoe soles at a factory, which is why he's not here. I love saying Betty's name. In Mexico it's "Bet-tee," not "Beddy" as it is here. She is busty and motherly and sisterly, with wide, smooth lips and white, round teeth. Her younger sister Amelia is an all-out tearing beauty, the kind of face on Mexican movie posters, long shiny black hair and liquid eyes framed in lush lashes and glossy, pouty lips. She does a lively dance in the courtyard in Guadalajara, in bright layered skirts, with a teacup balanced on her head, bouncing without spilling the cold tea.

After this we drive to San Blas, a little town way north of Puerto Vallarta, outside of Tepic, the capital of Nayarit. The Pacific is lukewarm here and we grill fish and vegetables on the beach, pick mangoes off trees. I sunburn, burn so badly my skin boils and Betty pats Maizena, corn starch, onto the worst places, my shoulders and chest. It's a glorious relief because nothing sticks to the inflamed, oozing skin. We stay with family in town, sleeping on comfortable mats in the living room. I wake up one morning to find a large iguana leering at me from under the couch. It's not a pet. The windows have no glass, no screens, no curtains. The entire rear wall of the house is constructed entirely of concrete blocks with club-shaped holes in them. The breezes in the kitchen are heavenly. Most of the cooking is done outside unless the meal doesn't require heat, like my first genuine ceviche. The fish is soaked in lemon juice for hours; the acid cooks it.

In the backyard is a pool, a concrete rectangle in the ground about four feet deep, maybe ten feet long and five feet wide. The surprisingly cold water (replenished from the garden hose) feels like heaven on my sunburn even though the smell from the pigs, wallowing just a few feet away in an enclosure in a little ravine, occasionally drifts through the strong citronella stink from eight candles burning in tin buckets. The pigs don't smell awful, just very much alive. I spend a lot of time in the unchlorinated pool with Betty's three small children: Cesar, Jr., eight, Armando, three, and Katia, two. Cesar conquers his fear of jumping into the water and then can do nothing else. The pool is under a huge tree with long leaves that occasionally fall into the water. Floating ants use them as rafts. We ferry them from side to side.

Nights are still hot, so we soak under the stars in the reeking candlelight, hearing the contented pigs. The stars are nautical stars, close and bright with no light from a city to dilute them. The kids run in and out with candy and sweet crackers filched from the little store at the front of the house. Trying to sleep, I listen to the hum of the cooler that holds carbonated Jarritos and non-alcoholic Sangria. I see them in the aisles at Smith's now and laugh. Sometimes I also browse the selection of candy from Mexico, hot chili-encrusted mango and watermelon and elotes lollipops (these are an acquired taste, but I love them, having lived on them in high school), Duvalin, a compartmented package of chocolate and vanilla cream to be eaten with a little plastic stick, de la Rosa, a crumbly peanut marzipan, plastic syringes filled with sour tamarind paste, sugar skulls with sequins for eyes. I still drink tea made from hibiscus flowers and Ibarra mexican hot chocolate.

Dad used to bring us cones of brown sugar from Tijuana before I was old enough to go there alone, coming back across the border in San Ysidro with a few bottles of Mexican vanilla for family in Wyoming, maybe a leather bag bartered for on
Avenida Revolución, American CDs bought cheap, Mom's prescription drugs concealed under my seat with whatever alcohol Lenny bought, or requested if he was too lazy to come along. Before I had my driver's license I went with Dad to pick up a car he was having painted to sell, and he had me drive around the block repeatedly (I counted ten second-floor dentists' offices) while he talked to the garage foreman in broken, completely unaccented Spanish, my father a blonde, blue-eyed gabacho towering over the little Mayan, who remained complacent and eventually did a very good job on the car for a good price. Dad had lived in Mexico City for a short time as a toddler; his stepfather (my beloved Grandpa Cooks, Merril Farnsworth) and mother were missionaries, I believe. I don't think he remembered that time fondly.

And I hardly remembered Chapala, until this bottle. I hardly remembered the fruit-strewn beach or taking speedboats up the river to see the what remained of the set of the movie "Cabeza de Vaca," tattered thatched huts on stilts, which I eventually saw on screen in the graphic and gory account of the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. I understood none of it (it was in Spanish with no subtitles), but it's ridiculously exciting to recognize a place you've been when watching a movie. What should have been more exciting was swimming at the mouth of the river, a jungle spring, in deep pools roped off with flimsy net to keep the crocodiles out. Eight feet long, they slithered onto the shore and boys poked them away with sticks. They made me think of snippets of poems.

I had forgotten the alligators, along with most of the rest of those long weeks in Mexico, the glass and metal artisans in Tlaquepaque or the blank evening after watching the agave harvest in quaint little Tequila (which is, of course, where it comes from, and yes, it was incredibly good, and yes, that really is a worm), or the picnic at the prison. A grassy field surrounded by razor wire (don't ask what we had to submit to just to get in) held covered picnic tables where we ate fried chicken and tamales, while the prisoner we were there to visit painstakingly embroidered my name in silver wire onto a black leather headband. He spelled it "Adriana." I never wore it. I came to hate it. But I did ask what the canvas tents set up all along the fence were for. "Visitas conyugales," said the prisoner, with a straight face. "Conjugal visits." I was sorry I asked.

That is not Mexico in a nutshell. That is a tiny area of Mexico in the summer of 2000, when Oscar's family pulled out all the stops to show me the best and worst of their country and themselves. There's a lot more to it. A wax museum. Waking up to the gas truck every morning ("El gaaaaaaaaaaas, HOOOOOOONK, bow, wow, wow") and heating water from the cistern to fill a bucket for a soaping-up of sticky skin. Avoiding the gigantic, reeking kettles of chicharonnes, ears and tails and unrecognizable pig parts bobbing in boiling oil, every Sunday on the way to market. The hamburger cart around the corner in the evenings. Acid rain. A fakir at a fair who was buried ten feet down, a pretty girl in a tight chamber staring up through a Plexiglass shaft to witness my horror. Refusing menudo. Accepting churros. Cheating at Buenas, a card game similar to Bingo, at which I was very good. Making tortillas. Giggling uncomfortably with Amelia at the bus stop, where men stared at us because she was so beautiful and I was a rubia, luz pelada. I learned to understand Spanish fluently. I rarely desired to speak it. I rarely remember these things. I think I got rid of the photos.

But I remember Chapala. And I like the coffee liquor.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bird's Eye View

I liked this picture of me...

... but he liked this picture of him. So you get them both.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What Goes Up

I love flying, but I don't do it often. Whenever I do I have to wonder how many times a pilot takes off before, if ever, he loses that sense of wonder when the bulky, trundling can he's controlling impossibly breaks free of the ground. I am always a little apprehensive, a little giddy. And I always think of this poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:

High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
My layover on the way to Kansas City is in Vegas, and I have to stop for a moment in the accordioned tube and breathe the desert in. To stand at the window (conspicuously wrapped in a huge gray sweater; I am always cold in airports) and look out across the tarmac at the palms and the marbled stone peaks at the western edge of the city. I have to stuff a $5 bill in a slot machine but I seem not to have inherited Dad's luck, or rather, his patience. I got his love of Las Vegas, the look and feel and energy of it, and that's enough.

Flying away from Vegas with the sunburned, hearty tourists, I look down and recognize the toothy rim of the Grand Canyon. The woman behind me orders an overpriced Bloody Mary; when it arrives I can smell the tomato and vodka in the confined space and decide that flying is a very intimate, ceremonial activity, a communion of ginger ale and peanuts instead of wine and wafers and the requisite Sermon of In-Flight Safety. If this plane goes down, I'll die with this stranger's knee touching mine.

The decidedly non-clerical Southwest staff is getting ever more saucy. After reciting the Seatbelt Psalm, our pretty crew chief rhymes, "Give your neighbor a hug and your seatbelt a tug, this Boeing is going!" She thanks everyone who listened to her spiel and wishes everyone who didn't good luck, which makes several people chuckle. On
one of the flights on my way home I'll encounter a flight attendant who was simply born to do this job, a gently flamboyant gay man who looks like a short, pudgy Clinton Kelly. He's efficient and firm and politely detached, even with the 10-year-old triplets from hell who are flying alone to Utah to see Grandma (they beg for extra Cheese Nips and continually push the call button, and I want to strangle them for him), and yet somehow he makes the passengers feel as if our comfort is his highest priority. He's entertaining and gracious even as his eyes betray intense concentration on the tasks at hand, and I enjoy watching him treat the female crew members with an offhand affection and respect they obviously appreciate.

Flying over the lower Rockies I see dirty cakes of snow still clinging between the peaks, bleeding cold rivers that spill onto the plains in dirty streaks. In the foothills are the puncture wounds and flat, bare scars of oil wells; I know these. The sheer number of them boggles the mind and I'm convinced if I connected the dots I'd get the word "greed." Onward, over the prairie, over the plains and polka dot fields in various shades of green growth or blandly fallow. In one place there are small, puffy clouds that seem to be entertaining themselves by casting shaped shadows on the earth as they scoot overhead, like a toddler pleased with the effect of his fingers in a flashlight's beam.

Our tailwind gets us there 30 minutes early, but we spend it on the tarmac waiting for an available gate. It makes people restless, and just like in church, they squirm and fuss impatiently and irreverently and I remember why flying, like organized religion, has the ability to make me utterly miserable.

But still I love it, if only for the moment when gravity gives up to the whining Pratt & Whitney turbines and roughly 50 tons of fully loaded 737 follows its fuselage into the sky. I love waiting for the momentary sag, the audible sigh of the engines when the aircraft reaches its cruising height. I love the sudden sense of lightness when it begins the drop back down to earth. I love the bump and the sheer, shrieking physics of stopping the thing once it's back on the ground, hurtling down the runway as if pursued. And I love the tense moment right before the choreographed orchestra of clicking seatbelts and sudden bustle after the final chime. I even love stumbling stiffly up the stupid tube.

But the best part of flying is, of course, whoever is waiting at the other end.