Wednesday, July 22, 2009

And the Whirlwind Is in the Thorn Tree

Tempted though I was to spend the recent Independence Day holiday at home, contemplating the various meanings of liberty in the company of hot dogs, EFU had expressed a desire to travel to Florida to see my father. I had expected my ex-wife to pick YFU (who had been with me a month earlier to Florida) up from camp and then take her directly to New Jersey for the weekend, but she said that I should take both girls. I was wary of making the trip at all because my sister would be there with her husband and her three excessively energetic sons, and while they (the sons that is) are bearable in small doses, I worried that the increase in my father's morale brought about by the presence of so many uncontrolled grandchildren would not be enough to make up for the inevitable exhaustion. But my mother said we should all come down, so I booked some flights on Southwest.

Which, we all know, is an airline that does everything in its power to offer low fares. The typical one-way ticket from BWI (roughly forty minutes from home) to Tampa International (roughly an hour from my folks' house) runs anywhere from $129 to $189 (or more if you fly business class, which, I believe, just means you're sure of getting an A boarding pass), plus fees. But even with only a week's notice, if you're willing to fly a more, shall we say, circuitous route, you can fly for $59, plus fees, each way. So our three round-trip flights, including all fees, cost me only $450. And, really, who needs to get to Tampa in two hours and twenty minutes when you can do it in four hours and fifteen?

Anyway, for the trip out, I managed -- by camping out on the website -- to get boarding passes B04 through B06, and after waiting for YFU to be deposited back (late) from camp, having her hurriedly pack a small carry-on and a personal item with (dirty) clothes, rushing to the airport, and parking, we reached the gate half an hour before it was time to board. And then our flight (which had come in from Buffalo, and probably some place before that) somehow ended up with one more person than there were available seats, and we waited twenty minutes for the situation to be sorted out. And then we were aloft!

It was a beautiful day for flying.

But it seemed we had barely taken off when we were setting down in Norfolk, Virginia.

I felt a bit nostalgic, since I had spent much time in the Norfolk area as a child. I have many relatives in the area, but I have not been back there since my grandmothers died ten years ago. I suppose that I could have gotten phone numbers from my mother and called some of them from the plane to say, "Hey, I'm waving. Do you see me?" but I didn't. We were on the ground in Norfolk (where we'd arrived late, due to the earlier seating SNAFU) longer than expected because when all of the people for whom Norfolk was the final destination (presumably just for that day, but one never knows, right?) had departed the plane, the number of people remaining did not agree to the expected number, and this had to be sorted out. It never really did get sorted out, and, for that matter, neither did the earlier misunderstanding, which might have lead one to worry that the extra person on board was someone intent on doing us harm, but, really, I can't imagine that the terrorists have that much patience. It reminded me of the time that I was at a work function, and the husband of one of the partners started to tell me how he was extremely worried about cyber terrorism, and I replied, "Hmmm. At some point, one of the terrorists is going to have to call Verizon customer support, and that will surely stop them in their tracks."

Anyway, the plane was, eventually, loaded with an acceptable number of passengers. The next leg was to Jacksonville, Florida, and it was somewhat longer, so there was plenty of time for the fauxhawked individual in front of me to recline his chair aggressively.

I have, I'm afraid, no patience for anyone with a fauxhawk (I am, however, a big fan of the mohawk). Anyway, it was still a beautiful day to fly.

I may, once or twice, have thought that such a nice day would be better spent somewhere other than inside a plane, but I kept the thought to myself. YFU slept for almost the entire flight, and EFU and I alternately read and played cards, so the time passed pleasantly enough, and before long, we had landed in Jacksonville. At this point, EFU noted that the pilot's landings were about as smooth as Southwest's passenger counting practices. I was forced to agree.

The plane again emptied out, and this time there was no numerical discrepancy.

There was a brief shower. It did not delay us, but the raindrops on the window caused the autofocus on my camera to capture them instead of the very attractive member of the ground crew that I was hoping to photograph. Such is life.

We were soon back in the air, for the final leg of that day's flight. The plane had mostly emptied, but we had no particular desire to separate, so we stayed put, and we soon approached Tampa.

Where the terminal floor has some attractive mosaics.

We had not checked any luggage, so we were able to proceed directly to the rental car counter, where, alas, we came in about halfway through an argument between a rental clerk with the patience of Job, and a Fred Flintstone look-alike who continued to insist that under no circumstances would he accept a Grand Marquis, even though such was the only car available in the class he had rented. We weary travelers in the line listened to them go back and forth for several minutes, but when Fred said, "Do not try to fight with me, because I WILL WIN," my patience was exhausted, and I could not help saying, "OH SHUT UP!" Fred ignored me, but my compatriots in the line nodded wearily at me. Anyway, Job eventually refused to rent any car to Fred, and a manger was summoned. Fred was still waiting for the matter to be settled when I had completed my transaction with a counter person who was not Job (but who, nonetheless, was very pleasant, and who was, in fact, named Florence, just like one of my grandmothers) and had left the rental area to proceed to the fourth floor of the parking garage to retrieve my PT Cruiser.

A PT Cruiser would not have been my first choice, but I mostly view cars as delivery vectors, and I would certainly never abuse a car rental clerk because I was displeased with my vehicle.

EFU had been worried that she would not be able to play her iPod on the car's stereo, so she had decided to make some mix CDs. I had requested that she bear in mind that we would just have spent many hours flying after not enough hours sleeping so that the music should be something that would not further disrupt bare nerves. I think she did a pretty good job:
When the Man Comes Around - Johnny Cash
Beast of Burden - Rolling Stones
Happy Together - The Turtles
Runaround - Blues Traveler
Piece of My Heart - Janis Joplin
The Distance - Cake
Let's Fall in Love - Ella Fitzgerald
Dream a Little Dream of Me - Cass Elliot
Talking Shit about a Pretty Sunset - Modest Mouse
Hey Joe - Jimi Hendrix
Sons and Daughters - The Decemberists
A Spoonful of Sugar - Julie Andrews
Jump in the Line - Harry Belafonte
Heroes - David Bowie
What a Beautiful World - Louis Armstrong
Bike - Pink Floyd
Inside Out - Eve 6
Reach Out I'll Be There - Four Tops
All Fired Up - Interpol

It turns out that no nerve is so frayed that it cannot be mended by a little Johnny Cash. I would not have chosen the Julie Andrews number (mostly because my two-year stint as a stay-at-home dad suggested me to repeated viewings of most of the Disney oeuvre), but I'm sure that EFU just wanted to give me a jolt to keep me from falling asleep at the wheel and driving us off a bridge and into the Gulf. I had, after all, refused the additional insurance, despite Florence's repeated warnings.

When we arrived at my parents' house, I saw that there had been some construction. Apparently, my father had decided that he wanted a flagpole. I am not overly familiar with the psyche of the soon-to-be-no-longer-quite-so-terminally-ill (I just today learned that my father has flunked out of hospice. I imagine that knowing he has longer to live helps him to deal with the shame.), but it seemed an odd request, especially given that I had never once heard him express any sort of flagpole-related desire during the many years that I lived with him. In any case, my sister and brother-in-law had dug a big hole and filled it with concrete and the flagpole holder. One assumes it has a more technical and/or colorful name.

My sister and her family had acquired, along with yearnings towards concrete, a new animal.

It was still a kitten, but it had no problems being picked up and carted around by their youngest son, who strikes terror into the hearts of many, including me.

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived, and my sister's brood had spent the entire day at the beach. They were somewhat improved by exhaustion. We had a quiet evening. The next day a flag was raised.

The discussion around the breakfast table turned to something called the Red Barn, and when I mentioned that I had never visited this establishment, my patriotism was called into question, so we hastily arranged a trip.

Words really do no justice to the Red Barn, but I can but try. We parked behind the outdoor food stands. My mother wanted green beans and a watermelon.

The indoor (sort of) section has a wide variety of quality merchandise.

And many establishments.

You can buy used books there, but I found the choices somewhat uninspired.

I mostly haunt used book establishments for cookbooks. That one had an ample supply of American classics (Betty Crocker, etc.), but I already own at least one of each of them. I might have been tempted to acquire a third copy of Joy of Cooking, but they didn't have any of those.

I was sorely tempted by the vast array of $9.95 watches at another establishment.

Especially this one.

But I ultimately decided that it was too plain and left it behind with only mild regrets. I did buy YFU a purse. She was impressed that I got a lower price ("Whoa. Dad's a haggler."), but I probably could have gotten it for less. I bought a large Diet Coke for myself. Later, I bought a half-pound of wasabi peas. Evidently, I have poor impulse control.

We returned to my parents' place, where we roused EFU, who had slept well into the afternoon, as is her wont. We decided to take a late afternoon trip to the beach. We passed some typical Florida signage on the way.

Bradenton Beach is very pretty.

The sand is very fine, and the water is warm. It's not especially clear though, and as I was out swimming in it, I found that my trip to the Virgin Islands has made all other beaches seem second rate. These days, I literally roll my eyes when people speak favorably of Rehoboth. Anyway, back in Bradenton, many straight people were sitting under rainbow umbrellas. I was a bit put out. But I got over it.

I saw a heron.

I took way too many pictures of it.


too many

pictures. Though some of them may have gotten snapped partly due to other elements.

On the way back from the beach, we stopped at a drive-through Starbucks. I went to take a picture, and EFU said that she thought taking the picture was a little creepy. Oh well.

We were all too tired to get organized to go see fireworks, so I made dinner.

The priciest acquisition from the Red Barn had been my mother's purchase of a puppy.

The purchase struck me as irresponsible, but the puppy was pretty cute. As far as I know, though, my parents are straight; accordingly, their acquisition of a Shi Tzu left me a bit put out. But I got over it.

There was a lively debate over what to name the puppy. I insisted that a male Shi Tzu needed the most masculine possible name to compensate, but both Thor and Gunther were immediately shot down. One of the nephews proposed Mittens. A cat name! YFU came to my assistance and proposed that the puppy be called Spike, with the understanding that his real name be William. Nobody except YFU, EFU, and I got the reference, but we called him Spike consistently enough that we may have exhausted the people trying to call him Boots or Walter or Oscar. No, really. But who knows what happened after we left. Poor Spike.

After dinner, we spent much time playing card games. My father likes to play something called Up and Down the River, a game that is notable mostly for its length. My brother-in-law didn't join us for the first game because he was watching a recap show featuring the 100 greatest fights from some mixed martial arts organization. Every time one of the featured fights included someone called George St. Pierre, my sister, who was at the table with us, would say that Mr. St. Pierre was very pretty. "Pretty" is a very subjective term, but I agree that he is not unpleasant to look at. Especially when he's not covered with blood. But you can judge for yourself.

My brother-in-law spent a great deal of time flipping between the Food Network and Spike. Television for men.

The next day, I managed to get EFU out of bed in time for breakfast by making a large bowl of cheesy grits. I used to get annoyed at northerners who turn their noses up at grits without having sampled them or after having only sampled an uninspired version. Nowadays, though, I just pity them. My mother thought that I was making too large a quantity of grits, but I laughed at her. EFU is the great devourer of grits. They didn't even see it coming.

Later in the day, I needed to acquire something, so I made the required trip to the store that represents all that is wrong with America.

Fortunately, in the parking lot, there was a couple in a pick-up truck arguing loudly, so I at least got some entertainment to go along with my support of oppressive labor practices.

I had brought along YFU but no one else. EFU had opted for a nap, and I had needed to escape the constant noise of the three boy children. Later, my sister told me that I had hurt the middle child's feelings by not taking him along. I made an excuse.

The kitten didn't believe me.

When we got back to my parents' place, the boy children wanted to go either to the beach or to a movie. I asked my sister whether her four-year-old had had his nap, and when she said he hadn't, I said that I worried about his ability to withstand either activity without adequate rest, but she didn't seem too concerned. The girls weren't very interested in the beach, and the boys had been there a lot already, so it seemed a movie was in order. There was nothing playing that I wanted to see and that was appropriate for children, but the $1.50 movie theater was showing Land of the Lost. My brother-in-law thought that it wouldn't be any good, but when his thirteen-year-old son (who spent most of his time texting his friends in Texas) said that his buddy had found it "freaking awesome," so off we went.

We arrived at the theater long before the movie was due to start, so I took EFU to look at the pet store next door. There were many birds, without cages.

There were many other sorts of animals, as well. Including prairie dogs.

I may have agreed to a future purchase of a rabbit for EFU, provided that she takes it with her when she returns to college at the end of August. Oops.

"Freaking awesome" turns out to have been something of an overstatement, but at $1.50, it's hard to be too annoyed at a weak movie. Or perhaps it was a very good movie with some weak parts, and the weak parts were the only ones I didn't sleep through. Who can say?

We returned home where my worst fears about my four-year-old nephew's failure to have a nap were realized. He whined about not being able to watch what he wanted on television, so my brother-in-law took him to a local electronics store and bought him a portable DVD player. Which he then proceded to lose and/or hide where neither he nor anyone else could find it. It had not been recovered by the time we left the next day. I gave thanks, and not for the first time, to the universe for seeing fit to give me girl children.

We had an early flight the next morning, so we left my parent's house shortly after 7. Everything went smoothly with rental car return, and we had A boarding passes, so we had no trouble getting a row to ourself for the return flight.

It was another gorgeous day in the air.

Most of the passengers slept on the first leg of the flight, but I read and looked out the window. I may also have eaten some wasabi peas.

The return flight stopped at Raleigh Durham.

Behold: North Carolina.

The plane was not entirely full, and there were no problems with counting the number of passengers. The landings were still rough, but one can't have everything. We were soon aloft again.

And then back at the always lovely BWI.

Where it was still a beautiful day for driving on the highways of home.

I gave thanks to the universe, and not for the first time, that I live in Maryland. And, more to the point, that I don't live in Florida.

I would enjoy the citrus, though.


  1. Funnily enough, TED, not long after I read about your travels on Southwest, I came across this story:,0,4140457.story

  2. Were the flight attendants not at all annoying on your SW flights?! Maybe only on those flights west of Mississippi River.

  3. Well, you know, if you fly out of the Southwest, you're going to pick up the occasional pest. Also, the occasional scorpion.

    The Southwest flight attendants are all -- regardless of age, gender, or actual home state -- tough Texas matrons. They are not the sort of people I would be foolish enough to fuck with. By and large, I prefer flight attendants from other airlines, but I'm always aware that being a flight attendant is a tough, tough job.