Friday, May 21, 2004

Loaded for bear

We leave tomorrow morning on our vacation/photo expedition to Colorado.
My wife and I each have a Nikon D100 digital SLR and an insatiable appetite for taking pictures. We also have a Nixvue Vista image tank, which is a portable 30-gigabyte hard drive that looks like one of those little pocket TVs that they sell at Radio Shack. It has a 2" monitor to display function menus and images and I've freed up 25 gigs of space, which will accommodate about 7,500 of our highest-resolution photos. That oughta see us through the week.
Back in the old days when we shot film, that would be the equivalent of nearly 210 36-exposure rolls. The processing cost, even if we just got negatives to scan and had no prints made, would be ruinous. With digital, we can shoot til our fingers bleed and not spend a cent, unless you count the minimal amount of electricity needed to keep the Nixvue and camera batteries charged, and we get that free from wherever we stay.
Digital photography is supremely liberating and, with the instant feedback, you know right away if you got the shot or what you need to do to make it better.
I love my Nikon F5 film camera - it makes such a satisfying chunkatachunka sound when I trip the shutter - but digital is supremely practical.
In case I haven't mentioned it, we have a stock photo business and market our photos through an agency called PAI Networks. You can visit their site at www.painetworks.com (the PAI stands for Photographers, Artists and Illustrators, rather than being part of a reference to pain). Do a search with the keywords "Amish" and "Indiana" and you'll see a whole bunch of our stuff - they're the pictures where you can actually see people's faces. One of my wife's brothers became Amish a couple of years ago and has no problem with his family being photographed, which gives us unique access to that scene.
Those are my photos of Janis Joplin, too.

How old is old?

I will be 59 on July 14.
That's one year short of 60. My friend Doreen Tracey, one of the original Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketters, turned 60 a year ago in April.
The idea of being that old absolutely blows my mind and I can only think about it a few minutes at a time.
It seems like only yesterday that I was a rebellious young journalist, angry about the Vietnam War, angry about the way the Democratic Party crushed Eugene McCarthy's presidential chances with a police riot in Chicago and mistrustful of anyone over 30.
I remember how shocking it was when Bob Dylan turned 30. He'll be 63 on Monday, fer Chrissakes!
I was born on the day J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of physicists and engineers hoisted the first atomic bomb to the top of a 100-foot-tall steel tower in the New Mexico desert. They detonated the world's first nuclear explosion two days later, so that makes me two days older than the Atomic Age.
Someday, perhaps, I can regale my grandchildren with tales of life before TV and computers and cell phones and CDs and DVDs and even videotape. There were no interstate highways, cars didn't have seatbelts and gas station attendants pumped your gas, cleaned your windshield and checked your oil.
I can tell them how it felt in the autumn of 1962 when President Kennedy faced down Premier Kruschev over Soviet missiles in Cuba. And what it was like to stand all night in the cold waiting to file past Kennedy's casket in the Capitol Rotunda a year later.
When I was a kid, I still had aunts and uncles who lived in the country and used outdoor toilets and hand-crank telephones. We lived in town, but it wasn't until my seventh-grade year that we got dial phones. Up to that point, you picked up the receiver and the operator at the phone company downtown said, "Number please?" Our number was 68. Yeah, that's right. Two digits. My dad was an insurance agent and his office number was 88. But if you said it too fast, the operator might think you just said "8" and connect you with the railroad depot.
I've lived during the administrations of 11 U.S. Presidents and my lifespan represents about one-fourth of the history of the United States. I was looking through my stepson's U.S. History book the other day and was impressed to see it was new enough to include the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. When I was a kid, we ran out of school year before we got to World War II. I also noticed his history text is superficial as hell and is very politically correct when it comes women and minorities.
So, if I'm so incredibly ancient, why don't I feel like it?
Other than occasional transient aches and pains, I feel physically fit and energetic.
I remember my father when he was my age - that was back in 1969 - and he wasn't nearly as active as I am today. The idea of him taking off on solo transcontinental motorcycle trips is inconceivable, but I've been doing it every year for more than a decade and I just bought a new bike last year with the intention of doing it well into the future.
I went to my 40th anniversary high school class reunion last year and found myself wondering, "Who the hell are all these old people?" I told some friends it was like walking into a room full of our parents.
There are a few of my generation who, for whatever reason, have given up, stopped enjoying and are ready to cash in their chips. I have a cousin, an obese woman a year younger than I, who recently disposed of most of her furniture and moved into what amounts to a rest home. I ran into her at her mother's funeral and I was filled with horror and disgust. I can't begin to understand someone who is ready for the old folks' home at 57.
But the big difference for most of us, I think, is we didn't have the Depression and World War II to kill our sense of having fun. Quite the contrary, our parents were dedicated to the idea that we would have all the things they were denied. And, damn, did we! And most of us are having so much fun, we're not about to let a little thing like time stop us.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

U.S. 50

It started in the winter of 2000-2001 when my motorcycling friend Rich suggested it might be interesting to ride U.S. 50 – all of it.
U.S. 50, he explained, runs from Ocean City, Md., to Sacramento, Calif. One of the old east-west federal highways, Rich pointed out, U.S. 50 retains a lot of its original character.
The romantic old U.S. 66 is gone and much of the character of U.S. 40, the old “National Road,” has been marred by failed motels and other businesses that went under when I-70 was built.
Having recently taken an early retirement, I found myself with no shortage of vacation time in 2001 and it sounded like a great idea.
Besides, I was planning to ride west in July anyway to the BMW MOA International Rally in Redmond, Ore., and to visit my son in Portland. The ride to Portland and other points west has become an annual thing for me since the early 1990s and I’d pretty much exhausted all of the obvious interstate routes, so this U.S. 50 project got better the more I thought about it.
We decided to do the western portion of U.S. 50 in July, then pick up the eastern segment over a three-day weekend in the fall.
So, at 6:35 a.m. on Saturday, July 14 I kissed my wife goodbye and rode out of the driveway.
I met Rich at the McDonald’s at I-465 and Ind. 37 on Indianapolis’ southwestside. He looked ready for the ride in his new red-and-black First Gear Kilimanjaro riding suit.
So, after a cup of coffee, we followed Ind. 37 southwest to Bedford, where we picked up U.S. 50 and began our journey in earnest.
Rich is a geologist for a coal company so whenever we ride together, I get to see the landscape through his geologist’s eyes, adding another dimension to the trip experience.
We gassed at Vincennes and I bought five packages of beef jerky as a ready source of protein in the coming days. I discovered a couple of years ago how handy beef jerky is for a snack or a lunch on the fly. Carbohydrates make me drowsy and cause blood sugar fluctuations, but the protein in jerky knocks down the hunger pangs for extended periods.
Taking the Red Skelton Bridge over the Wabash River, we crossed into Illinois.
This was Southern Illinois coal and oil country, an area where Rich worked several years in his youth. He led us to a barbecue joint in Carlyle, Ill., and a splendid barbecued pork steak lunch.
We made a mad dash across the south side of St. Louis. I gave up trying to keep track of the U.S. 50 signs and put my attention on keeping Rich’s red R1100RS in my 11 o’clock position. He suddenly noticed U.S. 50 exiting the freeway and made a late dive for the ramp. I reacted instantly, like a fighter pilot’s wingman, and swerved to stay in Rich’s 4 o’clock position. There was no time for my obligatory head-check of the lanes to my right and I hoped nobody was overtaking me on that side. Luck was with us and we made the ramp without incident, but I spent the next few miles wondering how close to disaster I came with my “blind faith” maneuver.
Missouri was a slow slog with abundant heat and humidity. Rich pulled off at a rest area somewhere west of Jefferson City and we took about a 15-minute nap – Rich on the shady grass and me stretched out on a picnic table.
Somewhat refreshed, we pressed on and, as we approached Kansas City, the terrain began to open up and look more like the prairies of Kansas farther north and west. We gassed a last time at Knob Noster at a station that shared a parking lot with a topless bar, a tattoo parlor and an antique store. I slammed down about a liter of water and tried to psyche myself up for the run across the south side of Kansas City and into eastern Kansas. There were a couple of carloads of teenage boys at the station – new drivers out for some Saturday night fun, judging from their demeanor and their competence with a standard transmission car. One kid flashed the nude layout in a porn magazine in the car window as they sped past me into the muggy Missouri evening.
I was glad to have my new Schuberth helmet with its flip up/down sun visor as we stared into the setting sun while weaving through traffic south of Kansas City.
U.S. 50 follows I-35 southwest from Kansas City and darkness fell as we rode on to Ottawa.
After some fumbling, we rode through Ottawa and found a Day’s Inn at the west end of the city. We were fried from a 660-mile first day on the road and were glad to stop at 9:30 p.m.
We got on the road the next day a little after 7 a.m. The Weather Channel showed a well-defined line of showers about 30 miles to the west and we figured it was just a matter of time before we got hosed.
Riding out of Ottawa, we met an old guy on a /5 BMW with a Luftmeister fairing. He wore a baseball cap and his headlight was off, but somehow I felt he was perfectly safe on his early Sunday morning summer putt.
We were pleased to see U.S. 50 break away from the interstate at Emporia where we gassed at a Flying J and had a leisurely breakfast, hoping the rain might pass us by while we sat in the comfort of the truckstop restaurant.
By the time we resumed our ride, the rain had still not found us. We rode through an area that looked like it had just received a good soaking rain – puddles everywhere and water in the centerline reflector depressions – but we only felt a couple of sprinkles.
The sun was out and it was getting warm by the next gas stop at Kinsley, Kans. Rich led us through Dodge City on the U.S. 50 business route past Boot Hill and all of the cowboy touristy stuff. This being the route of the old Santa Fe Trail, it felt more like the Old West than does the country along I-70 up at WaKeeney and Hays.
We had a late lunch at a Burger King in Garden City, noticing that Anglos like us are a minority in this heavily Hispanic community.
U.S. 50 follows the Arkansas River through western Kansas and eastern Colorado and there are a lot more towns and villages here than up on I-70 or U.S. 36. By the time we entered Colorado, the bank time and temperature signs were reading 95, 100 and 101 degrees.
I was leading into Lamar, Colo., when I spied a Conoco station and convenience store on the right side of the street. I signaled a turn and dived for it. Rich entered the station via the sidewalk wheelchair ramp on the corner and pulled up on the other side of the pump I was studying.
I swiped my VISA card and pushed the button for premium gas, but nothing happened. I finally figured out that I had to lift the pump nozzle before selecting the grade of fuel – something not in the pump instructions. I was pumping gas when Rich’s helmeted head popped out from the left side of the pump.
“I’ve had it with this fucking station and this goddamned fucking pump! It’s rejected one credit card and I can’t get the other one to work!” he said, his eyes flashing fire.
Rich, normally calm and unflappable was coming unglued in a confrontation with a recalcitrant computer chip, bad instructions and an hour of 100-degree heat.
I showed him what I’d figured out about the pump and he got gas flowing into his tank.
I went inside the air conditioned convenience store and drank about a quart of Gatorade.
Rich stayed outside the station, drank water from his cooler and calmed down.
Hoping for mountain coolness, we set our sights on spending the night in Cañon City, Colo. and rode on west.
Rain forced us off the road at the east edge of Pueblo, where we took a much-needed break and let the storm blow on past.
The sun was setting over the Rockies as we cut through Pueblo and rode up the slope to Cañon City.
We found the Sky Valley Motel – and overpriced mom-and-pop place on the east end of town, unpacked and rode a short distance down the frontage road to a sub shop for a late dinner.
We covered 599 miles before bagging it at 7:30 p.m.
We gassed the next morning at Cañon City got on the road about 6:55 a.m. U.S. 50 led us up into the mountains on this chilly, bright morning. I had the liner in my jacket all the way to breakfast at Salida.
We crossed the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass and stopped for a breathless photo in the thin air to commemorate the occasion. Coming down the western slope, we encountered a road construction project that held us up for a few minutes. Down on the flat, Rich led me to the spot where a mutual friend, Archey, got nailed 11 months earlier. Archey and some companions got caught in an intense hailstorm and pulled off the south side of U.S. 50. As Archey sat on his bike – a twin to my pearl silver '91 K100RS – a good six feet off of the traveled portion of the highway, an eastbound car skidded out of control on about 2 inches of hailstones and slammed into the rear of his motorcycle. Archey was hurled over the roof of the car and landed on his back. Although his bike was destroyed, he suffered only minor injuries. Rich and I scanned the roadside for familiar-looking debris and I picked up a couple of fragments of Archey's red plastic taillight lens.
After swooping past the lake and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we gassed at Montrose and considered our goal for the day. We decided to have a late lunch at Green River, Utah, and make the decision then.
U.S. 50 joins I-70 at Grand Juction and we were soon out on the sun-blasted desert of eastern Utah. We picked up a strong crosswind from the south that seemed to bother Rich a bit more than it did me. I ran 90-100 mph most of the way as I led us on to Green River.
After a Mexican lunch at Ben’s Restaurant, we decided to try for Ely, Nev. I phoned in a Motel 6 reservation and secured it with my VISA card.
We gassed at the Texaco station on the west end of town where the lady at the counter told me about the trips she and her husband used to take on their motorcycle.
The crosswind continued until we got into the canyons west of Green River and gained some altitude, which also brought the temperatures down. I led to Salina, where we stopped for water and chatted with a guy from Reno who had just come across the desert from Nevada on a Honda ST1100. He was headed for Virginia and reported it was hot and very windy between Ely and Delta.
I took us to the Chevron station at the north end of Delta, struggling with crosswinds. I insisted on a strawberry-banana smoothie – the reason I chose this station, based on previous visits – before we saddled up for the hot, windy run to Ely.
Keeping an eye out for cattle and deer, I led out across the desert. The setting sun blinded us off and on until we put a mountain between it and us. Again, the Schuberth’s internal sun visor was a welcome addition to my riding gear and I flipped it up and down as needed.
A short distance into Nevada, we stopped for a break at a bar/restaurant/casino/motel and took photos of the bikes in the descending darkness.
Inside, some grizzled locals at the bar tried to scare us about the night ride to Ely. They warned of deer and elk on the road. One old guy warned of herds of elk in the passes.
“Those elk are the toughest ones,” he admonished, conjuring up an image of elk spoiling for a fight with hapless motorcyclists.
I took the lead and rode cautiously through the night across expanses of desert and brushy mountain passes. I wove from side to side occasionally to give my headlight a wider sweep of the scene ahead. I remember glancing up and noticing how bright the stars were. I could only spare a second at a time to look, but I was struck by how this is a detail the average car driver would never catch as he sped across the desert.
Finally, the lights of Ely came into view, but it soon became apparent that distances are deceiving in the desert at night. We were still more than 20 miles out.
About six or seven miles east of town, I spied a deer on the left side of the road, but it made no move to cross. Rich said he never saw it, even though he noticed me tap my brakes to alert him.
We found the Motel 6 easily and noted several BMWs in the parking lot as we unloaded. We were clearly on one of the preferred routes to the BMW MOA national rally.
The day’s ride ended about 10:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, but our nervous systems were still on Mountain Daylight Time where we had started this morning, making it feel like 11:30 p.m.
We covered 685 windy, hot, dusty and sometimes scary miles and were ready for a good night’s sleep. Realizing we’d missed dinner, we finished Rich’s flask of vodka with motel Cokes and dined on the cache of cheese crackers Rich carried in his cooler.
We’d hoped to make a reservation at a Motel 6 in Sacramento the next morning, but nobody in the office knew how to handle our request.
As we rode out of the parking lot, we passed an older couple in a car. The woman had her door open and was smiling and waving to us excitedly.
She seemed to know something about the adventure of seeing America on a motorcycle.
We gassed and checked tire pressures in Ely, then tore off across the Nevada desert.
I was leading at about 95 mph when a group of 11 BMWs flashed past us. I fell in behind them and we cruised at 100-110 mph until we reached a mountain range. This was terrain with brush that could hide a deer, so I slowed and let them run on.
We overtook them at Eureka where they were stopping at a café for breakfast.
I considered joining them, but Rich suggested we keep going, since they would doubtless overwhelm the kitchen and servers of the place and make for a prolonged stop.
Instead, we decided to ride another 75 miles to Austin where we gassed and had breakfast at another small café. After breakfast, I used a nearby pay phone to make a motel reservation for the night.
We made quick work of the remaining desert, blowing past the Loneliest Phone and a brothel before stopping for refreshment at a Baskin-Robbins in Fallon. We gassed again at Carson City, then rode past Lake Tahoe and into California.
The Sierras were magical and there were some heartbreakingly beautiful views of the American River as we descended into the Central Valley.
After Placerville, U.S. 50 became a hellish rush-hour freeway and we rode to its end at the west side of downtown Sacramento We celebrated at a Mexican bistro where they drove us out with cold stares and a loud jukebox.
Our obligation to U.S. 50 met, we cruised south to our Motel 6 in Stockton, then a rode the Pacific Coast Highway south through Big Sur the next day. Vowing to do the eastern leg of U.S. 50 in the fall, we split up at Paso Robles – Rich stopping to visit a cousin there and me heading north for the ‘MOA rally in Oregon.
We completed our U.S. 50 trek the third weekend of October. We were blessed with a true Indian summer weekend with lots of sunshine and warm temperatures when it counted.
Since we had too many miles to cover in just two days, we blocked out a Friday-Saturday-Sunday ride.
We picked up U.S. 50 at Seymour and soon settled into the rhythm of the two-lane highway that winds through the undulating southern Indiana countryside, interrupted every few miles by a small city or town. It was still early enough that there was commuter traffic on the road and I followed Rich as we leap-frogged around the slower cars and trucks.
As we made our way east, past farms and through towns and villages, I was struck by how many folks were flying American flags. This was just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and the flag was everywhere – fluttering from flagpoles, hanging from porches, lining driveways in miniature form, displayed in windows.
I’ve heard visitors from other countries comment that we Americans seem inordinately proud of our flag and that such displays just aren’t seen in most other nations. In fact, there are laws prohibiting such private displays of the national flag in India. I’ve long been aware of this peculiarly American trait as I’ve ridden around the country, but clearly things have intensified since the events of Sept. 11.
Soon after crossing into Ohio, we caught sight of the Ohio River to our right. The U.S. 50 approach showed us a seldom-seen side of the city where rural fades into a mix of residential and industrial development. Somewhere along the way, we caught sight of yet another American flag image – fashioned from colored Styrofoam cups poked into a chain-link fence.
Also, it seemed that everyone who had a sign with moveable type was displaying a patriotic message. There was “Pray for our country,” and “United we stand,” and a few others, but the overwhelming majority proclaimed, “God bless America.”
Some mixed the sentiment with advertising and it was a café announcing, “God bless America Chicken Fricassee” that sucked us in for a late lunch shortly after refueling at Hillsboro, Ohio.
I couldn’t recall exactly what “chicken fricassee” looked like, but I ordered it anyway out of a sense of whimsy. It turned out to be the sort of chicken stew-ish stuff you’d expect to find inside a pot pie. I opted to take it over rice, rather than a biscuit. It made a decent lunch, especially when followed with a second cup of coffee and hot cherry pie a la mode.
By the time we got back on the road, the overcast had dissipated and we were in sunshine with temperatures in the 60s. This part of southern Ohio reminded me of the rolling hills of southern Indiana, where the glaciers left untold tons of earth and rock scoured from the northern parts of both states. I’d not seen this part of Ohio before and now understood why so many of my friends enjoy riding here. We took a break about 100 miles down the road, a little east of Athens, then forged on toward the Ohio River and West Virginia.
We entered the Mountaineer State at Parkersburg, fumbled our way through evening rush hour and rode east on a swoopy U.S. 50 four-lane freeway. We watched the setting sun in our mirrors and gassed again before the four-lane ran out at Clarksburg. East of Clarksburg, U.S. 50 gets narrow and twisty as it threads its way into the mountains, through forested hollows.
Night was falling and, in the half-light where our headlights seemed as feeble as the fading illumination from the sky, we strained to see details of the road. Complicating things, it seemed every curve in the otherwise smooth road was well-sprinkled with gravel. I watched with concern as Rich braked in odd places, reacting to surprises from his back tire.
Down in the hollows where direct sunshine is limited, it was cold and getting colder. Approaching a gas station/general store, I flashed my high beam to signal a stop and Rich seemed more than ready to pull off for a bit.
Our room at the Mohawk Motel in Winchester, Va., was still hours away. We took a few minutes for a comfort stop and I bought a bottle of Aleve to quell the nagging little aches and pains of a day in the saddle. I also peeled down to my denim shirt and added a Gerbing heated jacket liner to my layers of protection. Expecting a long cold ride, I also donned my Gerbing electric gloves.
By the time we got back on the road, night was upon us and our headlights came into their own. I was running a Blue Plasma H-4 bulb that had a low beam intensity equal to most high beams. The high beam is absolutely blinding, so I held it in reserve as I followed Rich’s taillight through the Appalachian night.
The night reduced our field of view to the cone of light projected by our headlights. Without the distraction of the roadside, I found myself fixating almost exclusively on the taillight of Rich’s R100RS, glancing occasionally at the road surface to check for gravel. It was like flying through space, the wind and engine noise muffled by earplugs and my upper body encased in a heavy warm cocoon. “This is like an exquisite video game that can kill you,” I thought.
Many of the tiny mountain communities we passed through were completely blacked out, as if abandoned. Others were full of life, especially around the taverns and roadhouses. I recalled that this was a Friday night and I hoped we’d be off the road by the time the drunks lurched onto the highway in their pickup trucks.
Cresting a hill, I was startled to see a “Welcome to Maryland” sign. I hadn’t studied the map closely enough to know that the serpentine state lines hereabouts interpose a seven-mile notch of Maryland into our route before U.S. 50 crosses, again, into West Virginia.
Finally, with less than an hour left to go before we reached Winchester, we stopped at a 7-11 in Romney, W.Va. Realizing it was after 8 p.m. and we hadn’t had dinner, we split a submarine sandwich in the parking lot.
We were more than ready to quit when Rich signaled a left turn into gravel driveway of the Mohawk Motel on the western outskirts of Winchester. I’d covered 605 miles this day – a real handful, considering how much of it was non-freeway riding.
The motel office, which linked with the manager’s living quarters, reeked of cigarette smoke. When Rich went looking for the ice machine, he discovered the ice had to come from the manager’s kitchen refrigerator. The resulting ice-maker cubes also smelled strongly of smoke, adding a murky character to our Sprite and whiskey nightcaps.
I awoke about 6 a.m. to the sound of Rich opening the motel room door, trying to get a little cool air into the room made intolerably stuffy overnight by the radiant ceiling heating system.
We stumbled around, showered and packed, all the while keeping an eye on the Weather Channel for today’s regional forecast. The news was good – we were headed for Washington, D.C., where temperatures were expected to run 6 degrees above the seasonal normal high, making for a high in the upper 70s.
But it was still in the cool 50s as we rode into Winchester with the rising sun in our eyes. We settled on a Waffle House breakfast, a ham and cheese omelet for me with lots of cheesy hash browns and whole wheat toast and coffee, while we waited for the day to warm and the sun to climb away from the horizon and out of our field of view.
As we descended to the plains of Virginia, we found ourselves in gorgeous horse – and money - country. We crossed the historic Shenendoah River and rode past the entrance to the Shenendoah Valley Balloon Festival. The two-lane road was flanked for miles by picturesque stone walls, including one that ran for about 5 miles with a screen of trees that partially hid spectacular country estates. The villages along the route exuded history and character and the streets of Aldie were choked with visitors looking for a good time at the Aldie Harvest Festival.
After pausing for a restroom break in Fairfax, we rolled on into Washington, D.C., crossing the Potomac and finding a shaded parking space on the south side of Constitution Avenue a short walk from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This was my third visit to Washington: my parents brought me here around 1951 – Dad was a big admirer of then-President Harry Truman – and I returned in November 1963 for the funeral of Pres. John F. Kennedy.
I hauled out my Nikon N90S and we strolled down to the memorial. If you haven’t been there, I’m sure you’ve heard enough about it to know this is an emotionally charged place. While there were plenty of youthful gawkers who had no recollection of the Vietnam War, there were also many family groups and individuals searching the black granite panels for the name of a loved one. As I walked down into the cleft, I was struck by how connected – yet disconnected – I am to this place and the men and women it honors.
So far as I know, none of my friends or classmates died in Vietnam, so I’m not sure I’d recognize a single name on that 246-foot wall. Nonetheless, these honored dead are my generation and, had it not been for the fateful intercession of three U.S. Air Force doctors who authorized my medical discharge after 41 days of USAF basic training, I could have ended up in ‘Nam and had my name among the more than 58,200 engraved here.
We paused to watch a group of young girls strike Spice Girl-like poses in front of Frederick Hart’s sculpture of three U.S. troopers south of the Memorial and then made our way back to the bikes.
The day was warming and I stripped down to my denim shirt and bicycle shorts to remove the Gore-Tex lining from my pants and jacket before we got moving again. We continued on down Constitution to the Capital Building, rode south behind it to Independence Avenue and back west to complete our circuit of the government/monument area.
We followed U.S. 50, getting lost briefly and then picking it up again to head east out of town. We spent a sweaty half-hour crawling through a construction zone in 80-degree heat, waiting our turn to creep ahead as barricades pinched four lanes down to one.
The air felt deliciously cool once we broke into the clear and got moving again, now well into Maryland and headed for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Rich was in the lead and picked up the $2.50 toll for both of us.
We soared up and over the smooth waters of the bay. On either side of the span, we could see the blue waters of the bay sprinkled with white sails and power boat wakes as Saturday sailors reveled in the perfect late October sunshine and salty breezes.
“What a picture!” I thought as I looked in vain for a place to pull over and shoot some photos.
In a few minutes’ time we were back on land, this time on the Del-Mar-Va peninsula. As we rode south through farmland with ready-for-harvest fields of soybeans, I wondered about the geological origins of this piece of land.
When we pulled over for a late lunch at a farm market/deli in Easton, Md., Rich explained the peninsula is part of an ancient coastal plain, rather than some prehistoric pile of sand built up by the Atlantic Ocean.
“The East Coast is sinking and the West Coast is adding land,” Rich said. “That’s why, because of the erosion of rivers and streams, the subsiding East Coast is where you find more marshes and wetlands.”
Although not the fastest or most direct route to Ocean City, Md., U.S. 50 is a four-lane divided highway all the way down the peninsula and it made for a relaxed, easy ride.
We arrived at Ocean City in late afternoon, crossing the causeway to the spit of land that holds the resort attractions, boardwalk and beach of this town at the end of the road.
Overhead hung a sign marking the beginning of westbound U.S. 50 announcing, “Sacramento CA 3073 (miles).” A similar sign listing the same distance to Ocean City stands at the other end of U.S. 50 just west of downtown Sacramento.
We parked near the boardwalk and hiked up and over to the beach to dance with the waves and wet our boots with the waters of the eastern sea, just three months after we dipped them into the cold Pacific in Big Sur.
Rich had appropriately worn his “I survived U.S. 50” T-shirt and we found a camera-savvy Maryland guy, vacationing down at the shore with his family, to take a few pictures of the two of us grinning into the golden afternoon sun.
Up the beach, we noticed a girl helping her boyfriend into a Santa Claus suit. We suppressed our curiosity and adjourned to a boardwalk Italian café for iced tea and Aleve.
The sun was setting and we still had a few hours to ride to our room at the Red Horse Motel in Frederick, Md.
Since we had once again discharged our obligation to U.S. 50, we charted a more direct route back to the bay bridge, following U.S. 113 north into Delaware, the Del. 13 and Del. 404 back toward Chesapeake Bay.
As we crossed into Delaware, I did a quick mental inventory and concluded that this was the only state in the lower 48 I had never visited. Now only Alaska and Hawaii remain in my lifelong personal tour of the United States.
I also reckoned that I’d ridden a motorcycle in 39 of the lower 48 states and realized that I was only a day away from picking up Pennsylvania, raising my state count to 40.
We were surprised to discover there was no toll charge for westbound traffic on the bay bridge and in fairly short order we picked up I-97 north at Annapolis and headed toward Baltimore. Somehow, I had envisioned Baltimore being 100 miles or so ahead of us, so I was startled and delighted to see a white-on-green sign reading, “Baltimore 25 mi.” Almost before we knew it, we were on I- 695, zooming around the southwest side of Baltimore and looking for I-70 west.
Again, I expected a long, dark, cold slog to Frederick, only to discover it was just another 33 miles down the road.
Tonight was certainly a different experience than last night’s epic ride through the mountains of West Virginia.
Rich led us to the motel where we found the night clerk watching the Who performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as their part of the benefit concert for New York. It was inspiring to see an aging Pete Townshend – actually he and I are the same age – windmilling his way through those familiar old power chords.
Rich and I checked into our room, secured the bikes and strolled next door for a steak dinner, washed down with Beck’s Dark Beer, to celebrate our conquest of U.S. 50.
Back at the room, we watched the rest of the New York benefit concert and bagged it about 1 a.m. local time.
We took our time about getting up and out Sunday morning, enjoying the decadently powerful shower spray. It was a bright sunny day and we decided to get some miles down before breakfast.
We followed I-70 about 50 miles north and west. A few miles east of Hancock, we noticed a line of Chevrolet Corvettes streaming onto the Interstate. They were traveling in convoy and I counted more than 30 of all years and descriptions before we reached the head of the line.
About that time, Rich signaled a stop at the first Hancock exit. Checking my mirrors, I noticed the ‘Vettes were following us. We pulled over at a truck stop café and I watched the seemingly endless parade of Corvettes roll past as I filled my tank.
After a cheap but indifferently-served breakfast, we rode down Hancock’s main street, passing a restaurant swamped with the Corvette crowd, before regaining the freeway at the west end of town. I-70 shoots north from Hancock to become the pothole- and traffic-ridden Pennsylvania Turnpike, so we picked up I-68 and continued west along the neck of Maryland.
Rich had warned me he wanted to make a photo stop west of Hancock for an unusual geological feature.
A few miles on, we passed through a cleft in the rock at the crest of a high hill where the road builders had blasted their way through.
Rich explained the road cut exposes a section of folded rock strata.
“In geological terms, this particular type of structure is called a ‘syncline.’” He said.
“What makes this particular site remarkable is how completely the structure is exposed by the road cut, as well as the symmetry of the structure. It’s also unusual because it is a synclinal hill. It is more typical for a hill to be underlain by an ‘anticline,’ that is strata that are draped over the axis of the fold.”
Ignoring “no stopping” signs, we pulled over. Rich fumbled with his saddlebag, pretending to be dealing with some mechanical emergency, while I dug out my camera and photographed the syncline. I also shot a couple of frames of Rich, just for good measure.
At Morgantown, W.Va., we picked up I-79 for the run up to I-70 at Washington, Pa. This was the first time I’d ridden a motorcycle in Pennsylvania, so my total of motorcycle states jumped to 40.
Night fell as we made our final gas stop at Dayton, Ohio, and we crossed the Indiana state line at Richmond about 7 p.m.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Semper Paratus (No, this is not about the U.S. Coast Guard)

Semper Paratus, for those who have forgotten whatever Latin they might have learned, means "Always Prepared." It's also the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard, but that's not why I bring it up.
This has to do with my 17-year-old stepson and my efforts to educate him about what responsible, aware people carry with them when they leave the house.
If left to his own devices, the boy would leave for school every day with empty pockets, except for maybe a little money for snacks.
This is a kid who doesn't wear a watch, carries his wallet intermittently and has to be brow-beaten to carry a house key.
He seemed utterly amazed when I told him I've been wearing a wristwatch and carrying a wallet pretty much every day since I was in the first grade.
I grew up in a small town in the 1950s when no one locked their doors, so there was no incentive for me to carry a house key. Nevertheless, I soon got into the habit of carrying keys - car keys - once I started driving.
I suppose the wallet and watch thing was just me wanting to be like my dad, since that was part of his essential walking-out-the-door equipment.
My stepson's father disappeared from his day-to-day life when he was about 8, so that probably explains the lack of paternal modeling.
I haven't made a huge deal out of the watch issue as long as he's on time.
The wallet has been lost a couple of times in the rat's nest he calls his room, which I chalk up to not having formed a habit of always putting it in the same place every night. Whenever it goes missing, he searches the entire house before he does a thorough examination of his room. The last time it happened, the wallet turned up in plain view on his desk. That was after a couple of weeks of having written it off as gone forever.
Early on, when he found himself locked out of the house, he took the burglar route in - through a window. Worried about screens and woodwork and what the neighbors might think, I took to locking windows.
I grudgingly offered a backup plan for when he forgot to carry his key - putting a spare in the garage.
That worked alright, except for the times when he would use the garage key, then leave it somewhere in the house the next time he went out.
We've lived in this house three years and I estimate he has lost close to a dozen keys.
That said, I concede that things are getting better.
The boy went through a Great Awakening about a year ago - he got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant, got into a construction trades class at an area vocational school and became more responsible about his work in his regular classes.
It's been months since we had a lock-out incident and he's kept track of his wallet for nearly an entire school year.
So there's hope.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

What's on my desk

I don't know about you, but I can't keep a tidy desk.
Years ago, when I worked for a real newspaper, our political editor - a crotchety old guy who fought in Italy as an Army colonel in World War II - had a typically cluttered desk topped with a sign that said, "A clean desk is a sign of a frightened mind."
I always liked that sentiment and, for the most part, my observations of other people's desks bore it out.
But every once in a great while - like every couple of years or so - my desk gets so loaded with stuff that I have to make a serious effort to clear it. It always yields up some amazing, long-forgotten stuff.
Just gazing at the surface stratum of my desk, here's what I can identify without actually picking anything up to examine it:
Versalite flashlight by Pelican
Can of Diet Coke (cold and ¾ full)
CD-ROM installation disk of Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0
sunshade for a Nikon 12-24mm wide angle lens
Charging cradle for my SONY MiniDisk recorder
Dazzle FlashCard reader
Pad of yellow Highland brand Post-It style notes
Small scratchpad from Amazon.com
Unidentified CD-ROMs
USB hub
SpeedStream DSL modem
D-Link wireless router
Nikon Coolscan IV negative/slide scanner
Box of 12 Uniball gel pens
Mamiya 5X loupe
Keypad for headset telephone
Spray bottle of Endust for Electronics
3M dusting cloth
2 boxes of Johnson & Johnson Accuvue contact lenses
2 Family Radio Service communicators
Five music CDs
Miniature Motorex oil drum holding about a dozen pens and pencils
Yellow highlighter
Box of 500 business cards
Set of color negatives of one of my younger son's jazz gigs
Spiral-bound pocket notebook
Newspaper section cover with a photo I shot on primary election night
Computer print-out of primary election results for my county
Various receipts
A couple of Sharpie pens
Replacement battery for Nixvue image tank
Black & white photo of Black Jack, the riderless horse that was in John F. Kennedy's funeral procession (I was there and shot the picture)
Black & white photo of me and 5 friends in front of the U.S. Capitol Building after JFK's funeral
Paperweight made from a hull section of the U-505 German submarine that's a permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago
TV remote control
Nazi Party member's lapel pin in a small display case
Small spray bottle of eyeglass lens cleaner
SONY Walkman headphones
Printout of my family tree rolled up in a mailing tube
Framed 55¢ postage stamp from Turks & Caicos depicting the BMW K100RS motorcycle (I put 160,000 miles on one)
Panoramic photo of me on my BMW K100RS just south of the Big Creek Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur
1895 Indian-head penny
Triangular Motorcycle Safety Foundation reflectorized sticker
User's manual for Canto Cumulus software
Auto Insurance ID card

And that's just the surface layer. God knows what's lurking beneath.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Toilets and democracy

I spent the core of my day - from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. - involved with the installation of a toilet in my late parents' house that is now a rental property.
The plumber was supposed to show up between 10 a.m. and noon, so I left home about 9 to drive there. Naturally, he didn't show up until about 1:15 p.m., so I got to sit in my car in the driveway and listen to CDs and curse myself for not remembering to bring the biography of Josef Stalin I've been reading and think about all the other stuff I need to get done, but I can't because I'm stuck here waiting for a fucking plumber. So my banking and picking up my new contact lenses and getting the oil changed on the Subaru and figuring out why the hot tub isn't working will have to go onto tomorrow's agenda.
I did, however, get home in time to prepare a photo presentation for tonight's town council meeting where my wife and our neighbor and I made a case for the town cutting down the three maple trees that are in the alley that also serves as our driveway.
A windstorm on April 18 dropped a huge limb onto our roof, denting the gutter and crashing down into the driveway in exactly the place where we normally park a car. Fortunately, our new (4 days) Subaru was parked elsewhere.
Most of the councilmen seemed amenable to the idea of eliminating this liability, but one dipshit wanted to argue the point. The concensus seemed to be with us, but they wanted to confer with the utilities manager first. I pointed out that as of tonight they have been made aware they have a liability problem, so they can no longer plead ignorance of the threat if one of the trees crushes our house or car in the next 24 hours.
The town attorney, who is a good guy and agrees with us, smiled in approval of my tactics.
So, I am guardedly optimistic that we can make those trees go away and with them the rain of birdshit, leaves, sticks and maple whirligig seedpods.
So there.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Ok. now for the manic moodswing...

I'm home from the second day of the two-day defensive pistol course and I'm very pleased with my performance. In retrospect, I think I was just waaaay too tight yesterday afternoon.
I resolved to be looser this morning and I was pleasantly surprised at how tight my shot groupings were and how much easier everything seemed.
We shot about 300-350 rounds yesterday afternoon and today and I am now confident that I'm a greater danger to bad guys than I am to myself.
The instructor - a captain with the local sheriff's department who is also an instructor at Jeff Cooper's top-ranked combat pistol school, Gunsite, in Arizona - is a superb teacher. I kept seeing parallels between this course and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's RiderCourse in terms of coaching tips and range exercises.
If I were still teaching the MSF course, I'd borrow heavily from this experience, including the idea that, "In a crisis, you don't rise to the occasion. You default to your level of training."
It's an insightful corollary to the idea that self-taught is not taught at all.
Anyhow, I have a much clearer idea of my capabilities with a handgun and a better understanding of how far I have to go to be really proficient. Fortunately, one of my cop friends lives within a mile of my house and has invited me and my wife to shoot on his range anytime we like.
I ended up with about 200 rounds of .45 ACP left over, so I'll probably take him up on his offer soon.
I was also pleased to find that the custom molded earplugs that I bought for motorcycling do a splendid job on the firing range, eliminating the need for bulky headphone-style hearing protectors.
My wife spent this afternoon at a baby shower for my daughter-in-law. She just phoned me from the road to give me all the details on how badly my ex behaved. I'm glad I had a good excuse not to be there.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Frazzled

I spent today in a defensive pistol course put on by the local sheriff's department. Four hours of classroom in the morning and four hours on the range this afternoon.
I discovered that I'm not nearly as handy with my Colt .24 Combat Commander as I imagined I was. I'm having major problems with the surprise break trigger technique, which causes my shots to go low.
Granted, almost every shot I sent downrange at the body silhouette target would have inflicted serious injury, but my shots weren't landing nearly as precisely as I want. I saw some small improvement over the course of the afternoon, but I have far to go.
So I came home somewhat bummmed out and wrung out to discover that my rental house needs a new toilet, which will probably run me $300 or so - parts and labor.
And we're still waiting for child support payments from my wife's ex that were due Friday and the Friday before and the Friday before that.
I'm going to be soooo ready to put all this crap in my rearview mirrors when we head for Colorado next week.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Going through the motions

I'm blogging just to be blogging this afternoon because I can't get motivated to do much of anything.
It's 70 degrees and drizzling and the weather radar shows a rather substantial thunderstorm headed this way. It'll probably be here within the hour, so this won't be a protracted screed. I always shut down the computers when there's lightning about.
I won a $2,100 judgment yesterday against a former tenant in the house I inherited from my parents, so I should be joyous. But I have a feeling she's going to resist paying and I'll have to go to court again to garnish her wages.
The short version is that I left my mom's old washer and dryer in the basement of the house because I had nowhere else to put them and figured the tenant might have a use for them. The were not used as an inducement to rent and there was nothing in the lease to require me to maintain them.
A 100-year rain hit late last June, putting an unprecedented two feet of water into the basement and killing the washer, dryer and water heater. I replaced the water heater, but told the tenant I couldn't afford to fix or replace the washer and dryer and pointed out there was nothing in the lease that obliged me to do so. Even so, I felt sorry for her and, after determining from an area newspaper that a good used washer-dryer combo could be found for $200 or less, I offered her a one-time $250 (I threw in another $50 for transportation and hookup) discount on her rent so she could buy the appliances for herself. I told her I didn't need to see a receipt - if she found a set for $1, she could keep the remainder and the appliances would belong to her.
Her response was to sue me in small claims court, seeking the maximum of $3,000 in damages. She said she didn't want to own/be responsible for a washer and dryer.
When we appeared in court, I summarized my defense with, "Your honor, I'm being sued because I offered this woman a free washer and dryer."
His ruling a month later, in essence, told her to take my offer and move on.
Unfortunately, 10 days after our day in court, she secretly bailed out of the house, giving the keys to a couple she hoped would be my next tenants. I learned she was gone when I got a call from the prospective new tenants inquiring about my vacant rental property. They were a bad financial risk and it wasn't until three months later that I got a suitable tenant in the house and got the cash flowing in the right direction again.
I sued the first tenant for lost rent and expenses last week and recovered most of what she had cost me.
I'm sure she went apoplectic when she got the judge's order in the mail this week. At least I hope she did. Her refusal to accept a $250 asset turned into a $2,100 liability.
Her payment will go into our vacation fund and I plan to send her a postcard from some glamour destination thanking her for enhancing our leisure time.
But as I said, I fully expect to have to fight to get her to pay up and that takes a lot of the pleasure out of winning in court.
And, my wife's ex is now three weeks behind in his child support payments.
Yeah, I know that's no big deal considering how many dirtbags never pay any of the child support they owe. It just pisses me off to be taken advantage of.







Thursday, May 13, 2004

Still not looking

I'm staying away from the Nick Berg snuff video because I'm already running out of non-violent ways to vent.
My rant from the other day ran as a guest column in my wife's paper this morning. The public relations director of the local college e-mailed my wife to say:
Damn, he should be a weekly writer for the paper. He got his column - our collective sentiments - exactly right.
For the last three days I've tried to put into words - in a journal, in a diary, in anything - my feelings on the subject and I've been unable to muster a cogent thought. He did it for me. So I'll clip his column and paste it in my journal at home, and be glad he took the time to put pen to paper, fingers to keys, to publish in public what so many of us think and feel.
Tell him I said "thanks."


I just got home from a wildly divergent pair of errands. I went to a quilt shop to get my wife some fabric, batting and thread she desperately needs to finish a baby quilt in time for my daughter-in-law's shower on Sunday afternoon.
And I bought 500 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition and a spare magazine for a defensive pistol class I'm taking this weekend. The local sheriff's department is putting it on. My wife took it last fall while I was motorcycling in Colorado and insists that I take it too. I'm cool with that. I'm one of those guys who believes the best definition of "gun control" is being able to hit what you're aiming at.
Insert sharp intake of breath here.
Yes, small wonder that I'm against the efforts of the Clintons and other misguided people to render us personally defenseless. I won't take the time to explain or defend my position. Just go to the National Rifle Association website and read their arguments and you'll know how I feel. I practically never go out packing a gun, but I have the proper permit and I enjoy having the option of not being a sheep.

The wife and I are making plans to load our Nikon D100s and various lenses and other equipment into our new all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester and head for the Colorado Rockies in a week or so on a much-needed vacation and photo safari.
We have friends - retired postal workers who got out before they went postal and who live at 10,500 feet near Breckenridge. They're out traveling until June 1, but have offered us the use of their home. We'll feed their birds and squirrels, photograph the fox who visits their deck daily and listen to the wind whisper in the pines.

I never in a zillion years expected to own an SUV, but it's amazing how quickly things can change. My wife was driving down the street on Wednesday, March 31, when the driver of an oncoming car tried to make a left turn in front of her at an intersection. Both cars entered the intersection under the green light and my wife said she had absolutely no time to react. All she saw was a big white car, the hood of her blue car coming up and the airbag that nearly broke her nose, blacked her eyes and gave her a mild concussion. She had her cell phone with her and called to ask me to meet her at the ER. While I was waiting for the ambulance, I met a woman who said she just got word her mother-in-law had been in an accident and was being transported to the hospital.
Oh?
She went on to tell me that her mother-in-law has macular degeneration (a kind of hardening of the arteries of the retina that destroys your vision from the center out). "We've tried to make her stop driving, but she insists she can see well enough to drive," she told me.
Yes, this was the woman who hit my wife. Torpedoed by a blind woman.
We settled with our own insurance company on the car damage - my late mother's '92 Buick LeSabre was a write-off - but we have two years to settle on the medical stuff and we're in no big hurry.
Since the accident, my wife has experienced headaches, dizziness, disorientation, loss of short-term memory and, most recently, a painful tightness in the throat that her doctor says is clearly stress-related.
We were mildly surprised to get mail from two different personal injury attorneys within a week of the crash. The obviously have people reading accident reports and scouting for business. We haven't called either one, but I expect we will.
So what's all that got to do with a couple with a Honda del Sol, an inherited Buick and a couple of BMW motorcycles getting an SUV?
We started out looking at Subaru Outbacks because my wife has 17 miles of - in the winter, anyway - snowy road to traverse twice a day and AWD sounded like a good thing. Then we started looking at Foresters because of their splendid crash test results. Since the collision, we're all about safety.
So that's how we got seduced into SUVland just as gasoline prices were heading for the stratosphere. The good news is that we're getting about 27 mpg in the Forester with a mix of city and highway driving, which I consider to be something we can tolerate.

Not looking

I've been given two URLs where the Nick Berg beheading can presumably be viewed in its awful entirety.
I've not visited either one and I still don't know if I will.
If you have the stomach for it, here they are:
www.ogrish.com
www.thememoryhole.org/war/berg_killing.wmv

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Message in a bottle

This really is the electronic version of putting a message into a bottle and heaving it into the sea. In most cases - certainly in mine - all of this is done with little or no expectation that anyone will ever read it.
When I check the list of recent postings and browse the titles, I'm struck by the sheer volume of blogs. In a way, it's like finding hundreds of bottles - each with a different message - bobbing in the water within easy reach.
Which to uncork? Which to ignore?
Did my blog title catch someone's eye?
Is anybody out there?
If you don't mind, add a comment. I'm curious to know.

Bad acid flashback

I just got a call from a former coworker - a woman I got hired at the suburban news bureau where I used to work. She was on her way home, having received her annual performance review, and needed to vent.
Before I go on, let me say that in the past decade this newspaper has consistently made the stupidest possible decisions with regard to hiring and promotion. They consistently promote the dullards and the affirmative action hires, leaving the talented, perceptive reporters to toil in the trenches.
I'd been a professional journalist about 30 years when I was subjected to my first performance review in 1997. It was administered by the bureau chief, a guy more than 10 years my junior, who had been farmed out to the bureau because he was in the way at the main office downtown. He took me to lunch, so as to have a modicum of privacy that we would not have had at the bureau.
To say it was excruciating would be an understatement of epic proportion. It was particularly galling because I'd been running a bureau for the smaller sister paper for 10 years before our papers were merged and I got folded into a larger combined bureau. I was the one who drove this bozo around the suburbs, explained to him the players and the issues and kept him from making horribly embarrassing mistakes in print on a daily basis.
I astonished myself with my capacity for forbearance and aplomb that day.
So when my friend called this evening to screech her indigation at being upbraided by a bureau chief whose idea of management is making lists, I listened patiently and sympathetically.
And I remembered how delicious it was to tell the company that had mismanaged my paper into oblivion to stuff it.
I remember one evening when my bureau chief was agonizing over some idiotic order from his superiors, how shocked he looked when I said, "You know, (name), we don't have to do this. No one is holding a gun to our heads and making us work here." I'd just presented him with a thought he could not think and it terrified him. I found it liberating.
I think my departure in October 2000 helped him understand that we're only stuck if we think we are. In less than a year, he quit to take a public relations job arranged by one of his former employees.
Living well really is the best revenge.

Not quite the MMPI

Here's how I rank on the following online personality test:
http://www.4degreez.com/misc/personality_disorder_test.mv
Disorder Rating Information
Paranoid: Low
Schizoid: Low
Schizotypal: Low
Antisocial: Low
Borderline: Low
Histrionic: Moderate
Narcissistic: Moderate
Avoidant: Low
Dependent: Low
Obsessive-Compulsive: Moderate

With no Highs and only three Moderates, I come off as pretty boring. Maybe it's the Wellbutrin.

I've decided not to hunt for the unexpurgated Nick Berg beheading video online. It would just make me angrier.
My response to the killing is to wear my "Nuke and Pave" t-shirt today. Really.
Getting a lot of smiles and thumbs-up.
And my rant from yesterday will be published tomorrow as a letter to the editor in my wife's newspaper. Not a lot in the way of avenging Mr. Berg, but at least I feel like I'm adding my drop to the ocean of American outrage.


Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Crap

I had a pretty good day going today.
I took my '94 Honda del Sol in to get the muffler replaced. The dealer did it in about half the time estimated and didn't charge me a dime because the previous muffler was a Honda replacement that carried a lifetime warranty. I hadn't dared to expect such a good deal. I figured they'd at least charge me for labor and probably pro-rate the warranty based on the number of years of use. All my experiences with that dealer's service department have been positive, which is a relative miracle in the world of car repairs.
Then I went to lunch with my wife and her coworkers and we had a delightful time.
It was when we got back to their office - a newspaper newsroom - that my day turned to crap.
That's when we noticed the breaking story on CNN about the beheading of Nick Berg by Islamic extremists.
Like most of the civilized world, we were stunned and horrified.
Suddenly, I had the same awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that I got on Sept. 11, 2001 when I watched people raining down from the upper floors of the World Trade Center.
The fact that this comes at a time when the news media is focusing the nation and world's attention on our treatment of Iraqi prisoners makes it all the more instructive.
It's a reminder of the deranged savagery we face.
Ever since 9/11, I've worried that we're not nearly angry enough. We've treated the 9/11 attacks like some bad television show. The "show" ended, we changed channels and we're moving on with our lives. Those were real people, most of them Americans but a lot of other nationalities too, who died that day. That was a real person - a 26-year-old American who wanted to help rebuild Iraq - whose head got hacked off in that video released today. There are thousands, maybe millions, of fanatical fools who are willing to give their lives for a chance to do the same to me and to you and to your family and all of your friends.
Never mind that we just liberated Iraq from a cruel dictator who ruled through torture and murder. Never mind that we brought freedom to Afghanistan. And in both instances we did it with the greatest precision and regard for civilian casualties in the history of warfare.
What these people obviously don't get is that, up to this point, this has been us being nice.
Perhaps they forget that only one nation in the entire history of the world has ever used nuclear weapons. Us. And we did it twice.
At the risk of sounding like Toby Keith, they provoke us at their great peril. They don't ever want to see us not being nice.
I, for one, am tired of us worrying about what the rest of the world thinks of us. Let the spineless Spaniards worry about that stuff. And the cowardly French and the rest of continental Europe. It has become increasingly obvious that when Europeans emigrated to the U.S. in the previous two centuries, we got all of the strong, adventurous, bold and able genetic stock. The cowards, the lazy and the sheep stayed behind and gave rise to the present generation of Europeans.
I can only hope that Nick Berg's hideous, cowardly murder makes us stop whining about a few thugs being subjected to the equivalent of college fraternity hazing. These poor abused Iraqi prisoners are the same beasts who brutalized, raped, tortured and murdered their neighbors for decades. Yes, it's not nice to bruise their inflated macho Arab egos, but it's hardly worth the ink and airtime it's getting, especially considering how they'd treat our people if the tables were turned.
We got a good look at that on Sept. 11, 2001 and again today.
End of rant.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Motorcycling

I got into motorcycling as a kind of mid-life crisis thing.
I almost bought a motorcycle when I was in college in the mid-1960s but my parents and my girlfriend (later my first wife) talked me out of it. Probably a good thing. That was an era when hardly anyone wore a helmet, what helmets there were were not very effective and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's courses of instruction were still more than a decade in the future.
But I never quit thinking about motorcycling. I remember how fascinated I was when I ran into an Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity brother some years after college and he reminisced about his motorcycle experiences. A fellow reporter had bikes and occasionally rode over to my place and I was extremely envious.
Then, in 1978, I persuaded my wife that I needed to buy a moped - a cheesy little 50cc Tomos moped from a nearby bicycle shop. It had an automatic transmission, got about 100 miles to the gallon and could do all of 30 mph with a good tailwind. Nevertheless, I rode the hell out of it, even using it to commute the 7 miles from our house to my downtown office.
Then a wonderful thing happened. Someone stole it from our garage. I remember dozing in a back bedroom early one morning when I heard a familiar sound that I couldn't quite place. By the time I floated up to full waking state of consciousness, I realized it was the sound of the centerstand coming up on the moped. I peered out the window and saw wheeltracks and footprints in the dewy grass, leading to the back alley gate. Sure enough, one of the little neighborhood dirtbags had stolen my moped.
It didn't take long for me to realize this was my opportunity to step up to a motorcycle. I cashed the check from the homeowners insurance claim for the Tomos and put a few more dollars with it and bought a 1977 Kawasaki KE-175, a dual-purpose single-cylinder two-stroke bike. I bought a cheap polycarbonate helmet from a discount store and somehow managed to keep from crashing while I learned to ride, kind of...
Fate intervened again a few months later when a guy who was spearheading the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's rider education effort in my state contacted the newspaper looking for someone to write about the MSF's Rider Course. Naturally, my coworkers steered him to me and I signed up for the course.
It was held over a weekend in an auto dealership about a mile from my house and by Sunday evening I had become an MSF-certified trained rider. I was astonished at how much I had learned and horrified at how little knowledge and skill I'd had in the months I rode before taking the course.
A few weeks after taking the course, some hosehead pulled out in front of me and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I reflexively did a controlled stop, using both brakes. I did exactly the right thing in those 2 seconds before impact would have occurred and, in that instant, decided this was probably the most useful course I'd ever taken.
So I became an MSF instructor the next spring and ended up teaching the beginning rider course to about 1,000 students over the next decade.
I stepped up to my first BMW - a '71 R50/5 in 1981. I bought a '78 Kawasaki KZ650 a year or two later and rode it and the aging Beemer until 1985 when I sold some Third Reich militaria (we'll get to that later) to buy a graphite gray '81 BMW R100RS - a serious sport touring machine that was to change my life. (Of course it was forever, but I hate that cliche.)
But now I must shut this off to meet some friends for dinner.

On the subject of money and how I got here...

I think I'm starting to figure out how this thing works. At least I have the illusion of understanding.
So back to me.
One of my central preoccupations, probably due in part to the fact that I'm a Cancerian and love my stuff, is with money and cash flow.
I was plugging along in my newspaper career, doing my best to keep a good attitude in the face of management changes that had pretty much sucked the fun out of my job, when my mother died in October, 2000. She had lived independently since my dad died in 1997, but was becoming increasingly forgetful and more and more dangerous to herself. Finally, in the spring of 2000, she injured herself in a fall, which gave me the motivation and emotional leverage to intervene and install her in a retirement home about 10 minutes from where I lived at the time. She hated being away from the house where she had lived since 1953 and constantly begged to go home. I guess she got her wish that night in early October when she died in her sleep.
Anyhow, two days after the funeral I was driving to work for the first time since her death and I called my wife (then my girlfriend) on my cell phone and announced, "I think I'm going to quit today."
Bailing out had been on my mind a lot that year, especially after a major newspaper chain bought the paper and set about making all of the old-timers like me utterly miserable. The aim, of course, was to get the expensive people the hell out of there.
"You don't have the nerve," she taunted.
Oh, yeah?
When I got to the office, I picked up my phone, called Human Resources and said, "Cash me in. I'm quitting today."
It turned out that, since I had turned 55 a few months earlier, I was eligible for early retirement with a reduced pension.
Ok, so I'm retiring.
To the amazement - and envy - of my editor and coworkers, I cleaned out my desk, said goodbye and walked away.
The managing editor, who was one of the reasons I had come to hate working there, was furious. That made me very pleased. As it turned out, the new owners didn't have much use for him either, and he was gone in a matter of months.
So my girlfriend and I bought a big old (100 years old) Queen Anne Victorian house in the small town where she lived, threw a ton of money at it, got married and moved in.
The problem is, it's become increasingly obvious that she/we aren't making enough money to support us in the fashion to which we've become accustomed.
We've been drawing down my resources - she had practically none - at an alarming rate and I'm starting to get very nervous about how to maintain our standard of living without going broke.

Fumbling, fumbling

For a guy who's been online since the Prodigy days of 1991, I'm appalled at how baffled I am by this whole blog process. Oh, well. I'm a quick study and I expect I'll figure it out soon enough, but I hate feeling stupid.
For a professional journalist, I've got a poor track record as a diarist. I kept a journal regularly through high school and a few months into college, but all subsequent attempts have faltered in the face of expediency and a lack of committment.
Consequently, this may be the only entry I ever post here.
I'm a 58-year-old retired newspaperman, divorced and on my second marriage, living in a Midwestern farm town of 1,500.
My wife and I will observe our third wedding anniversary this weekend, although we've been together more than eight years. She's 19 years my junior, but advanced for her years. That's a good thing, since I refuse to feel my age. She's a newsie, too, and is assistant managing editor of a medium-size daily paper. Together we do freelance writing and photography.
I have two grown sons. The 36-year-old is a musician and has a recording studio in a major city in the Pacific Northwest and is getting married in September. His 33-year-old brother is a professional jazz musician whose physician wife is expecting their first child (and my first grandchild, since this is all about me) in late May or early June. It'll be a girl, a fact that was discerned by my ex, who is an ultrasonographer.
My wife has two kids from her previous marriage - a 19-year-old girl who just completed her freshman year of college with a dean's list GPA, and a 17-year-old boy who lives with us and is wrapping up his junior year of high school.
We also have a dog - a tailless mixture of golden retriever and Australian shepherd and God knows what else - who is the smartest animal I've ever known. Considering that my other dogs were not especially bright, that's not saying much, but she is startlingly intelligent and wonderfully good-natured.
So this is the cast of characters and a glimpse of my history. Now to wrestle with the graphic layout of this thing...