Monday, February 25, 2008

The romance of flight

For some cockeyed reason, I still enjoy flying. Even when I'm crammed in like a sardine on one of those huge buses with wings, the little kid in me can't help but grin when I look down from the skies and see the earth in miniature. Taxi-ing around the tarmac, I'm drawn to the most mundane inner workings of a busy airport. I wonder whether those guys who guide the planes to the jetways get a secret thrill at edging huge aircraft into their parking spots just minutes after they've crossed the continent or the Atlantic.

That's not to say I enjoy the process of getting to the plane, or dealing with nasty people or any of that. I love the concept of flight, and the romance of it. When I can block out the garbage, I can mentally drift away to a time and place when air travel was still kind of exotic and people wore nice clothes to get on the plane. Don't get me started about prop planes -- make me climb up into the cabin on a drop-down staircase, and I know I'm itching for an adventure.

Despite myself, I get nostalgic at some of the older airports. Lindbergh Field (a.k.a. SAN, San Diego) looks nothing like its past but was the home field, of sorts, to the Spirit of St. Louis. The couple of times I flew into Washington National (DCA, now Reagan) I half expected to see Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith, striding purposefully down the corridor.

Now, Newark (EWR): that was a glamorous airport. Once the East Coast terminus of the Air Mail, it was the busiest landing strip in the United States for a time in the late '20s and early '30s. It eventually had a beautiful WPA-style terminal and administration building with an observation deck where you could watch the planes take off and land. And it was a regular stop for the pioneers of aviation as they traveled to other places. Names of fallen flyers like Earhart and Post are memorialized by some of the access roads within the airport fences.

Needless to say, the airport's gotten a lot bigger over the years, and virtually all of the vestiges of its early glory have been obscured. Unless you know where to look, that is.

Years ago, as my plane taxied to its gate at Terminal A, I gazed down at the tarmac to see the word LINDY in bold yellow letters outlined in black. Charles Lindbergh had taken off and landed at Newark many times, so I assumed that history-minded airport workers had painted his name on the pavement. For whatever reason, perhaps the tradition still persists.

What I never noticed was the other tribute. If you take a close look at this photo, pulling the image up so you can see what's beyond the bottom edge of the original frame, you'll see two lighter strips of pavement, with planes parked on them. On the right one, you'll see "LINDY," clear as day; another is obscured by the plane parked above it. On the left, you'll see the name "AMELIA" painted twice, for Amelia Earhart. While her aviation skills are still in dispute, it's pretty neat to think that someone's keeping the faith.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I live within ten miles of the North Jersey coastline. No, not the Jersey Shore, the Jersey coastline. Up by me, that means the thin estuaries that wind between and among our own coastline, Staten Island and a bunch of smaller islands in between. It's complicated -- you might want to look at a map.

The Dutch, who were the first to settle in New York (and that's a cool story for another time), called the waterways the Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill. "Kill" means, more or less, 'deep trench between steep banks,' or a navigable estuary. The word is a fairly common part of many places in the region, particularly in the Hudson Valley of New York. Plattekill and Fishkill are just a few examples.

The old line about the Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull is that they were aptly named because the condition of the water there would kill anything that attempted to make either one a home. Located, as they are, in a very industrial part of the state, the waterways became dumping grounds for all manners of chemicals and trash. And more than a few people who crossed La Cosa Nostra slept with the fishes there, if any fish were there to begin with. Adding insult to injury, refineries downstream befouled the water with oil spills periodically. Cost of doing business, eh, Exxon?

I'd heard that things were on the upswing and that birders were actually seeing some notable waterfowl at a new park off of Elizabethport. Grabbing the camera, cell phone and binocs, I was on my way, with a vague idea of how to get there.

After wandering through an industrial area full of ancient factories, I came upon a small parking area leading to a short pier looking out into the Kill. A clutch of Hispanic men were standing around, eating lunch, salsa music blaring from their cars.Beyond the pier, a paved walkway stretched alongside the water, so I took a stroll down a bit. What struck me was the smell: that briny odor that comes from salt water and seaweed. No putrefaction, no funky industrial stench. Seagulls and ducks plied the waters; the geese that are omnipresent in New Jersey were surprisingly absent. In the distance was the Bayonne Bridge, the Newark skyline and the container cranes of Port Newark. The worst thing I could say was that the phragmites had choked out any spartina that might have been there.

Still, I was a little freaked out about the lack of people around, and I noticed that a couple of well, Tony Soprano-looking guys were milling around the pier area, so I made my leave.

A bit farther down the road, there was a larger parking area and marina next to a new development of market-rate townhouses. Traffic was a bit denser and friendlier; a Slavic man posed his wife and recalcitrant son on the boardwalk to take their picture against the backdrop of the remote reaches of Staten Island.

The small marina nearby was tidy, with a few craft still in the water and more in dry storage. Apparently, boating on the Kill was a real option, as most of the boats didn't look as if they were cut out for seafaring. Perhaps the future residents of the new townhomes would have their chance to motor out on the waters to enjoy a nice evening cocktail and watch the sun set over Elizabeth.

They certainly wouldn't be fishing. While the blue crab and some fin fish have returned to the Kill, it's unclear whether they're still picking up the residue of the nasty chemicals that were dumped there for so many years. It's a shame, too. Judging from the warning signs in Spanish and Portuguese, the locals have been fishing off the piers. It'll be quite some time before they'll be able to bring dinner home from a day at the Kill.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Damaged goods

About a year and a half ago, I had a bit of a scare. When I went in for my annual mammogram, the radiologist saw an irregularity on the films for my left breast. A set of enlarged images were inconclusive; an ultrasound was ambiguous, so the doctor gave me a referral for an MRI at the hospital. I joked that they'd taken enough pictures that they could spare one for me to post on my refrigerator door, but when I left the place, I fell apart. I thought, this kind of stuff doesn't happen to me, as if I should somehow be exempt.

When I had a couple of hours to reason it through, I concluded that being referred for an MRI didn't mean I had cancer. People get them for hangnails these days, for Pete's sake. My logic told me that if I didn't have good insurance, the radiologist would have just told me to come back in six months for another round of uncomfortable squashes.

I had to wait about ten days to have the MRI, which, of course, gave me plenty of time to think, read up and rehearse all of the worst case scenarios. I figured that even if it came to cancer, they'd caught it early enough, I'd make it through okay and had plenty of years ahead of me. It was other stuff that got to me.

I wasn't very concerned about potentially losing the breast or having disfiguring surgery, despite the fact that many men have made much of that specific part of my anatomy. One of my friends long ago had even referred to the line made famous by Teri Hatcher in an episode of Seinfeld -- "they're real, and they're spectacular." I considered that there was a serious possibility that the statement would become only half true, but okay, that just meant that I'd have another funny line to toss out there from time to time.

I did worry about becoming damaged goods if the worst case scenario came to be. People I mentioned it to immediately assumed that it was about body image, but it wasn't. I wondered if anyone would want to be with someone who'd have the needs I'd have. I wasn't in a relationship at the time, and I doubted that anyone would want to get involved with someone who needed to be taken care of the degree I envisioned. Heck, I have a hard time asking a boyfriend to bring over a carton of orange juice when I have a cold. Who'd sign up to hold my hair back while I vomited from the chemo treatments?

Some people are actually seek out the prospect of being involved with someone who is in need of care. I find it both creepy and demeaning that someone would find me more attractive because I was sick or handicapped. I don't need a hero. Besides, I'd always suspect that it wasn't me they wanted -- it was the feeling of rescuing someone. And let's face it: that could be anyone.

And, I guess, I was looking at it from the other perspective. Until fairly recently, I've never been all that great about 'being there' for sick friends; I think I've always assumed that I'd be imposing on them, that I wasn't close enough to insert myself into such a private situation. Pretty selfish of me, huh? I suspect I might have actually lost a friend because of it.

I had the MRI (not the most comfortable experience, but tolerable), and it turned out everything was okay. In fact, my next mammogram was totally normal, and I'm half convinced it's due to a healing chod I attended, performed by Buddhist monks. (or as the radiologist joked, "Boobist.")

Still, though, it's made me think more about the concept of damaged goods, and the implications. Some people's grave limitations are visible in a handicap. Others don't manifest themselves until you've gotten to know the person well and you come to realize he or she has a serious emotional or mental problem. Having limitations and being able to attract others -- as I feared I wouldn't be able to -- is all in how quickly and easily other people can see the problem.

The irony of it all is that many times the people with the physical limitations are the healthier ones, the more positive ones, the ones who aren't going to create all kinds of head games.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Credit where credit is due

Anyone who's gone to school or had a job has had the nasty experience of someone else trying to take credit for their work. I can remember it happening as early as the third grade, when one of my classmates took my work out of the teacher's in-basket, erased my name and scribbled their own in its place. As if.

Apparently this phenomenon may be deeply rooted in animal instinct.

A friend tells me that when she was a child, her mom regularly walked their mutt Lady with a neighbor, who was absolutely nuts about her poodle Pierre. The purebred couldn't do anything without being praised to the sky, including, uh, taking a dump. He'd dutifully trot to the curb to do his business, and as he squatted, she'd kvell over him as if he'd just won the Nobel Prize. My friend's mom never commented on anything Lady did. It was enough to give the poor dog a complex.

At a point, though, Lady caught on. Desperately seeking approval and praise, she would stoop over other dogs' droppings whenever she found them. She'd look up with pleading eyes, waiting for someone to notice and lavish her with kind words. It never worked, because the droppings were usually old and dessicated. In fact, if her human were convinced they were Lady's, the poor dog would have been in for an enema.

So, what's the point of the story? Well, I guess it's that if you're going to stoop over someone else's poop, all you're going to get credit for is shit. If that.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I'm reminded lately of the presidential inauguration in 1993, when the keys to the White House went to the other party for the first time in 12 years. Being that we worked for Democratic lobbyists/fundraisers who were hobnobbing in Washington that day, my coworkers and I figured we had carte blanche to watch the swearing-in on the boardroom TV.

Sitting in the room with us was our lone Republican lobbyist, a major fundraiser for the elder Bush. He was a good guy (for a lobbyist, at least) but obviously wasn't in the jolliest mood, so we stepped lightly around him that day. As the bunch of us scanned crowd shots to see if we could find our bosses, one of the guys said to the Republican, "Look at the bright side, Bill. You guys had a good run. It was just time for a change."

Another of the junior staff chimed in: "Yeah. Presidents are like bedsheets. After a while you have to change them, or they get moldy."

Who knows. If things get weird enough in this election, you may actually see that on a bumper sticker.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Mondays I usually have an appointment after work and don't feel much like cooking dinner. Tonight was no exception, so I called my local Chinese take-out on the way home.

The place where I go is always in disarray. The kitchen looks clean, but the small customer dining area is overrun with soda crates and cardboard boxes. Thus, there's nowhere to sit and read a paper while you wait. Usually I just zone out, but tonight I noticed some folding red tissue dragons hanging from the ceiling. Ah, it's that time of year -- Chinese New Year!

After three or four minutes, the counter girl came up with my order and we transacted our business. As a parting note, I wished her a happy new year.

You'd have thought I told her she won a million dollars. "You know my holiday?" she exclaimed, smiling.

"Yes, of course! Who doesn't?" And off I went, smiling.

That had me grinning from ear to ear all the way home and halfway through my shrimp chow mein. Sometimes it doesn't take much.