Sunday, November 10, 2013

Much has happened and unfortunately in some cases, not happened since my last post.  Shortly after I published my August remarks I was on a plane to California for my almost annual reunion with old friends at Winesong. . .the fundraiser I have attended for more than 20 years in Fort Bragg, CA which, for the uninitiated in California geography, is a small town in Mendocino County on the North Coast.

I flew out at an ungodly hour of the morning, long before daylight broke in late summer in Asheville.  Since it was unfair to ask anyone to take me to the airport before 5:00 in the morning I drove out and left my car in long-term parking but had made arrangements with my friend Ben for him to pick it up later in the day.  This meant having enough presence of mind to note where it was and to send him an iMessage letting him know.  Wandering around parking lots looking for cars is no fun and while it is true that Asheville Airport’s long-term parking isn’t like Atlanta, it still is big enough that finding my car could have taken a little time.  In spite of the early hour, I managed to send Ben the message and then got on the expected tiny plane to Chicago.

This went without a hitch.  That is an unusual remark about flying these days, which I have come to loathe but the first brief leg of this trip really was trouble free.  The plane left roughly on time and in spite of its small size, with an aisle seat and a flight of less than two hours it wasn’t so bad.  We got to Chicago with plenty of time for me to make the casual stroll between terminals to catch my flight to San Francisco.  That was, by the way, the end of the part of the trip that was trouble free.

When I got to the departure gate there was no plane yet but that isn’t particularly unusual these days.  It seems that as the airline industry has figured out ways to milk every last penny out of these flights, one of the things they have decided to do is cut down on the turnaround time they allow.  I am certain this puts additional pressure on already grumpy personnel not to mention most passengers who now almost universally hate air travel.

When I arrived at the gate for the outbound flight I was very disturbed to discover that United had elected to change aircraft from the 737 that was listed for the flight when I booked it and selected seats to a small Regional Jet.  It seated 4 across so everyone had an aisle or window but once again it was very small and this time very uncomfortable.  Because the airline now arranges your boarding based upon whether you are on a window or an aisle, my aisle seat had me getting on in the last group.  There had already been a delay because a member of the flight crew was quite late arriving at the gate but once she arrived they hurried us on.  I was slowly shuffling up the aisle toward my seat when I noticed a morbidly obese man sitting part of the way back in the window seat and thought to myself “please don’t let that be my row” but sadly, my wish went unfulfilled.  I arrived at the row in which this unfortunate man was sitting and realized that I was his seatmate.  This was in the truest sense since his enormity wouldn’t fit in a single seat and a substantial portion of him had lapped over the armrest into my seat. 

As I deposited my extra clothing and carry-on in the overhead I analyzed how I was going to wedge myself in next to him and decided just to sit down and see how it could all work.  Not well was the immediate answer.  In fairness I don’t think there was anywhere he could move any of his bulk but I ended up with my right upper arm and shoulder wedged behind his sweating back fat for the entire trip to San Francisco. 

In spite of his having trouble breathing, he fell asleep before the flight left the ground.  I was very uncomfortable immediately and while we were still at the gate but with the door closed I asked the flight attendant if there were any other seats unoccupied on the plane but she shook her head.  Clearly the only spot that I would be able to occupy without being underneath this beast was the toilet, and they won’t let you spend the entire flight there.

We took off and I sat virtually pinned to my seat with my shirt soaked from this man’s perspiration but I decided that once we achieved 10,000 feet I was taking out my iPad and would do what I could to co-exist.  Unfortunately for Big Guy every time I did something on the iPad the movement of my right arm disturbed his sleep as we were in constant contact for the 4 hours it took to get to San Francisco.  It was particularly unpleasant when I took out the bagel I had bought on the concourse to have a snack partway across the US.  Every time I brought the bagel to my mouth for another bite he groaned.  At a certain point I was so uncomfortable and frustrated since I felt like he was trying to make me feel bad for disturbing his sleep that I was close to letting him know what I thought about grossly obese people who couldn’t fit into a single coach seat being allowed to buy only one.  I vacillated between being angry with him and at the airline for allowing behemoths like this one to occupy more space than they pay for.  Besides, I am not at the point where I have to weigh my check bag before I leave home just to make sure I won’t end up being one of those people sitting on the airport floor desperately trying to stuff items from their checked bag into their carry on in order to not be charge for overweight.  Really?  If my luggage weighs 53 pounds I will get charged an extra fee on top of the outrageous amount they get now for bags anyway, but this blimp doesn’t pay a penny extra to occupy about 20% of the seat I have paid for.  Does this make sense or seem fair?

The flight, mercifully, arrived early in San Francisco and for some odd reason my luggage was already there.  I guess it went on an earlier flight than I did so at least I didn’t have a long wait wondering if my bag was lost between Asheville and SFO.  Unfortunately, in keeping with United Airlines seemingly infinite ability to screw up everything, their website had indicated that the flight was 45 minutes late rather than about 40 minutes early so Faye and Jay had stopped to pick up snacks rather than come straight to the airport to get me.  Consequently I found myself waiting at the curb for almost a half hour but the weather in San Francisco was beautiful and at least I wasn’t underneath Big Guy any longer.

Faye and Jay eventually arrived and after packing me into their SUV we headed for the Golden Gate bridge.  On a Friday you don’t want to be in afternoon outbound traffic on the bridge or the first 60 miles or so of highway 101 headed North.  The amount of Bay Area traffic that heads up to Napa and beyond every Friday is simply staggering.  Even though we were on the bridge shortly after noon it was already quite crowded so once on we drove to Petaluma before stopping for a bite of lunch.

After a sandwich and a brief break in the sunshine we got back in and headed up 101 to 128 through the Anderson Valley.  This is a really beautiful if somewhat neglected part of the Northern California wine scene and is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest drives between highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway (1).  Faye wanted to make a stop at Breggo Winery to taste a few wines and buy a bottle or two so we had a little afternoon treat on the way up to Ft. Bragg.  The day was still sunny and gorgeous and already I was past the horror of the trip out and was really enjoying the company of my good friends and the lovely late summer feel of Northern California.

We finished up at Breggo and headed over to the coast and then up PCH to Ft Bragg.  Faye and Jay and I were all staying at our friends Rick and Louise’s house in Ft Bragg so we had only one destination.  We arrived at around 5:00 in the afternoon and fairly soon other people from the group that gets together for this event pretty much every year started drifting in.

Without belaboring a description of Winesong weekend, since in past years I have covered this event with some detail, suffice it to say it was wonderful.  There were a few regulars missing and a few newcomers.  The albacore, salmon and abalone at Rick and Louise’s were, as usual, spectacular along with all the rest of the food that constitutes this annual orgy of consumption.  The weather at the Mendocino County Botanical Gardens where the event is held every year has never been better and all in all it was a terrific start to my visit to California.

On Sunday morning after a somewhat leisurely start, Jim Sundquist and I headed out for our trip to Sacramento.  It was an easy drive and we arrived in town at a perfectly civilized hour and I, once again settled into the guest room at Jim’s.  I have formed a somewhat odd relationship with this room.  This is, I believe, the only place that I designed where I have spent so much time as a guest so it is starting to feel a bit like home away from home.  I have occupied guest space at Ann and Bowers’ beach house in Florida as well and at Rick and Heather Degen’s place in Truckee but in neither of those have I spent as many days and nights as I have at Jim’s.  I am actually starting to know where to look for things like kitchen utensils and I am pretty good at doing laundry and ironing there.  Now if I can only learn how to be a decent pool player. . .

The time in Sacramento was a whirl as it usually is.  With about 10 days or so to spend there, San Francisco, and Lake Tahoe and lots of people to see, it was a busy time.  I spent a day or so in Sacramento and then headed to San Francisco to meet Josh and Lanny and to catch up with a few people I had missed when I had to cancel the SF portion of last winter’s visit.  It was great fun and I particularly enjoyed getting to show Josh and Lanny a few things in the Bay Area as they had never been there before.  SF virgins are always fun to initiate in to the pleasures of the Bay Area.  This included the Cliff House, Golden Gate Park, Mt Tamalpais, the view point on the North end of the Golden Gate, and some yummy food.  I also got to spend time with Ingrid and Larry and with my very old friend Risa, whom I hadn’t seen in several years.  Again the weather cooperated quite well in San Francisco, as it did everywhere in California while I was there.

After a brief couple days back in Sacramento where I got to see John and do a little business, I was off to Lake Tahoe for a weekend with Faye and Jay.  Again it couldn’t have been nicer.  Jim came along and Rick and Louise came up for the second part of the weekend so it was almost an extension of Winesong weekend from a week earlier.  The scene at Tahoe was as good as it gets.  I have never understood how so many people leave the lake in September when it is as beautiful as it ever can be.  The lake was largely still and the sun was out almost 100% of the time.  We didn’t accomplish much other than eating and cruising around the lake on Faye and Jay’s boat but that was fine.

Then it was back to Sacramento with a stop at Boeger Winery on the way down from the mountains.  It is always nice to pop into this fabulous place to see Greg, Sue and Lexi and/or Justin when they are around.  Sue provided a terrific lunch and Jim, Greg and I hung out in the tasting room long enough for me to decide what I needed to replenish my red wine supplies.

In Sacramento for the rest of the week I mostly caught up with a few old friends and had a couple meetings with lawyers and a landscape architect as favors for friends who had asked me to participate in projects for them.  I tried to keep things low key since I have concluded over the years that if I am in town for only a few days I have to limit who I see and just accept that it is impossible to catch up with 33 years worth of friends in a few days.

From Sacramento I flew on to Denver on Saturday to attend the wedding of Ben Barefoot, my eldest nephew.  I had never met his fiancĂ©e (now wife) nor any of her family so this was one of those events where one doesn’t feel particularly strongly connected to the goings on, but it was really nice to see my family and to see Ben cementing this relationship which is clearly important to him. 

I also got to make a brief visit to Boulder which I hadn’t seen in probably 30 years, and to Red Rocks which I had never visited before.  Boulder has changed significantly since I was last there.  The University seems bigger than I remember and downtown is filled with slick new buildings and pedestrian shopping areas that attest to its emergence as one of the trendier spots in the US.  On the whole I think I would still rather be in Asheville but Boulder definitely has its appeal and is worth a visit if you have never been.
Red Rocks, on the other hand, a brief drive West of Downtown Denver, is spectacular and demands the short trip out of town if you are in the vicinity.  This is a small but beautiful park with a fantastic outdoor performance venue built into the sandstone monoliths for which the park is named.  One cannot exaggerate the beauty of this spot and I can only imagine what it must be like to attend a really great concert there at night with the lights of Denver off in the distance.

After three days of hectic wedding events I flew home to Asheville with considerably less discomfort than on my outbound trip.  At least United is flying full-size planes between Denver and Chicago so, while still uncomfortable in coach seating, it wasn’t the misery of the flight to San Francisco.  Besides I had more than three hours to kill at O’Hare where Wicker Park, my all time favorite airport restaurant is located.  This is a very good sushi place that is located between concourses that I have been frequenting for probably 3 or 4 years now when I have to fly through Chicago.  The space is actually quite pleasant, the service is attentive and friendly, and the sushi is almost universally superb.

When I got home I dealt with all the kinds of things that one deals with after a 3 week long absence.  I had a delinquent bill or two and some issues around the house to attend to but on balance it wasn’t so bad.  There was the frustration of one of my rentals being empty again but I guess this is simply something that happens when you own rental property.  I actually hate having these houses but the timing is not right to get rid of them yet so I just have to grit my teeth and deal with them.

The biggest thing I was hoping to do when I got home was firm up my puppy plans including a trip up to Boston, North Conway, NH and Ithaca (to see my niece and her husband who both teach at Cornell) with a drive home via Radford VA to pick out a puppy from the women I had met in August.  I called and emailed a couple times and eventually talked with Janet, only to find out that the breeding of their female Pyr had not worked and there were apparently no puppies to be had.  I feel a bit foolish for having gotten myself emotionally so attached to the idea of a puppy that didn’t exist yet and will try not to make that mistake again but it has now been more than 13 months since I lost Abner to cancer and I really miss him and miss having the companionship of a dog.  The house is just terribly quiet and empty, and hiking and all the outdoor activities I have enjoyed all these years with Abner seem pointless without the company of a dog.

At this point I have begun the process of looking for other alternatives but have not been able to settle on any.  There are possibilities from a couple of litters on the West Coast but transporting a puppy from California or Oregon isn’t a simple process.  Many airlines no longer allow them at all and some, like Delta, inexplicably have a restriction on taking them after November 1st if they don’t qualify to fly in the cabin.  It seems odd that the airline would be concerned about the impact of cold weather on the ground since the temperature for the 4 hours you would be at high altitude would be about 65 below zero.

I am still hoping to do the visit to New England in January to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and go snow shoeing for a few days in New Hampshire with Rob.  It would appear that seeing my niece isn’t going to happen because she will be out of town until the end of February.  I have hopes of having something firmed up on getting a puppy before any of this traveling occurs so it is possible that these plans will change, or at least the timing might.

Fall in Asheville is very pleasant.  The sun shines most days and the weather has, for the most part been mild.

I was visited by Jake Leineke (huge surprise) Eli Rose and Tracy Borneman, and Dave and Carla Frenznick all during the month of October, which made the month go by quickly.  Eli and Tracy had been here before but only briefly and the others were newbies to Asheville so I have been playing tour-guide a lot.  I am once again intimately familiar with the inside of Biltmore House.

I have also had new nubby tires put on my bike so I have started doing a little off-road biking.  Asheville is hilly and old with relatively narrow roads so limiting oneself to the terrain you can do with road tires doesn’t really offer much use of a bike here.  It will be interesting to see how much I can handle with this new setup.

I have also been playing bridge with a couple groups of people at the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute.  This is a facility for seniors on the campus of UNCA that used to be called the Reuter Center for Creative Retirement.  I never joined it when it had that dubious title but somehow it seemed more palatable with the new name.  So far the only activities I have opted for there are a couple bridge games but I am considering signing up for Spanish classes for the winter semester.  We’ll see how that goes.

Now that we seem to be past the bulk of the fall tourist season things will start to get quieter here.  I have no scheduled visitors at this point and probably will do little or no travel prior to the trip up North in a few months.  I am going on Medicare in a few weeks so the process of shopping around for supplemental plans and getting everything set up has taken some attention but that is now all settled and I am looking forward to having this great coverage.

I am also more than two months into lifestyle experiment.  I am living without cable TV.  Actually I have no broadcast TV of any kind.  I have a couple streaming services that I am subscribing to and watch the occasional program using a tiny Roku device attached to my television but for the most part I have to say I don’t miss it.  I committed to myself that I would try this for a minimum of 6 months before making any decision pro or con.  I had really felt ripped off by Charter Communications, the cable provider here.  For almost 9 years, in order to get HBO and Showtime, which were almost the only channels I watched, I had to pay for more than a hundred channels I never watched and it finally seemed like an inexcusable waste of money.  If they are unwilling to offer a la carte pricing I am no longer willing to pay for a bundle of channels 95% of which I don’t want.  I suspect with the increase in what is available through these streaming services, the cable companies will have to either modify the way they price their services or they will fold.

So that brings you up to today.  I think I will eat something and then go ride my bike.
 Above is the view of Faye and Jay's dock and the boat awaiting us but missing its swim step.  Below is one of the monoliths that flank the performance venue at Red Rocks outside Denver.

 Tracy and Eli getting wet at Looking Glass Falls

 Above are Dave and Carla at the highest point East of the Mississippi.
 Matt and Amy and I did our 3rd Segway tour at Biltmore only this time we ventured over to the West Side.
 Biltmore House above from the West Side and one of the barn and silo complexes at Alta Vista farm on the West Side.

 Jim Sundquist and Faye Stone resting after a long day of consuming at Winesong.  Below is the morning view of Lake Tahoe from Faye and Jay's deck at Rubicon Bay.

 These are all mixed up but the above shot of the stage at Red Rocks shows you the setting.  Off in the distance you can see Denver.  The photos below are various scenes from the hike I did with my brother Michael at Red Rocks.

 The above shot just was classic Asheville.  I saw this repurposed hearse in an Ingles Market parking lot.  The poor raccoon below was kind of a shock on a recent hike Matt and I took.  There was no visible harm done to the poor critter but he was definitely dead.  Neither of us could come up with a plausible explanation as to how he found himself in this spot.

 The above shot is the view of the French Broad River as you cross from the East to the West Side of Biltmore Estate.  Below is a shot of some of the vineyards that surround Long Lake.

 The shot above was probably the only decent one I got at Ben's wedding.  Ben and Elizabeth clearly are getting married at this point and the two people with varying degrees of white hair to the left of where Ben is standing are his parents.

Below is another of the amazing monoliths that dot the landscape at Red Rocks.

 Cocktails at sunset at Rick and Louise's house in Ft Bragg.  Below is another early morning shot from the Stone's house at Lake Tahoe.

 This is one of the more remarkable early 20th century structures near Camp Richardson at Lake Tahoe.  Below are two shots of Faye and Jim looking pretty content during our Saturday on the lake.