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I get around

Oh boy! A romantic rendezvous!

Just as a change of pace, Kris and I decided to do San Diego this past weekend, but with a twist. She would fly in as part of a trip that would take her from LAX to Atlanta and then back to San Diego for two nights (before heading out to Minneapolis and then back to L.A.). At the same time — Friday — I would take the train down to SD and meet her at the Westin, a reasonably groovy hotel a scant two blocks from the train station (gloriously depicted below) and right near the wharf. Very cool. She did, I did, and it all worked well. Minimal sunburn and zip heartburn.

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But the real story here is the magnificent Santa Fe Station, or Depot, or San Diego Union Station, or some approximation of both (or all three). You can check out the history on the Web, but briefly, the station has been a local landmark for almost a century, and I swear you can feel that history as you walk though the waiting area. Over the years many changes have been made to the world outside, including high-rises that loom in every direction. Yet the architecture of the building remains as striking as it must have for all those years. And you can fairly hear the footsteps, the laughter and the shouts of thousands of American soldiers and sailors as they moved to and from one of the nation’s largest military facilities during World War II.

In our own time, of course, only dim echoes are still there, but more than a relic, Santa Fe Depot is the key transit center for the city. Within its shadow, I arrived and departed on the Amtrak for Los Angeles, and both Kris and I made good use of the local MTA to do some touring in other parts of town. Example: You can take one of the “red cars” to any part of the metropolitan area for a buck-twenty-five, one way. Then again if you’re the shiftless type and choose to take advantage of the existing honor system, you can travel for free, and if checked by local authorities, claim that the ticket dispenser was broken. On the way back from Old Town we hung on to our out-bound tickets and hoped for the best.

Among the optimists for high-speed rail, San Diegans would like to see the Santa Fe have a part in a future system. They could certainly do worse.

More bux

You can look it up. I did when I saw in the Times this weekend that California is in the happy position of actually having more money than it needs to run the state. California, which has the eighth largest GDP of any country in the world! There’s more money here than Brazil! The caveat, of course, and known only too well by those of us who have lived here for untold decades, is that these things do fluctuate. Only a couple of years ago, the state government seemed about ready to put up the capital buildings for sale to the highest bidder and board up the state parks. But now the whole situation has been reversed, with no small thanks going to the taxpayers who agreed to an increase. Now the new budget will go to the governor at the end of the month with high expectations that he will sign it forthwith.

It’s all good. You may not agree with any number of programs that will now be re-activated or the many ways the money is spent, but you have to find it refreshing to see how these kinds of things can be accomplished sans the bickering that’s been an agonizing part of what is loosely called governing in Washington. One party does control the basic functions of running the state, and given your own preferences, you may not be a fan. But we are spared the craziness of politicians axing a program simply because they don’t like the man in charge, even if it happens to be beneficial to the public at large.

While recognizing the reality and the need for diverse opinions, a certain amount of pragmatism in running a state or nation must prevail lest we find ourselves completely shackled and unable to move. Then too — and as wiser heads than mine have asserted –you don’t budget for a state — or nation — in the same manner as you do when you consider household expenses. When you hear a politician use that kind of metaphor, watch out, because there’s so much more involved, including those diverse opinions, as well as diverse needs.

I have my own ideas as to things that California could do to improve my sense of what might constitute an enhanced life for us all. As I have said here more than once, I would love to see the state finally build a high-speed rail system in the European manner, and that China managed to create in just five years, but I’m not holding my breath. If I want to sail down train tracks at 180 miles per hour and go from Brussels to Paris in less than two hours, it looks like I’ll have to go there to do it. Similar passage from Los Angeles to San Francisco would seem to be 20 to 30 years away. Shoot, I’d like to see at least one lane added to the north-bound 5 so I could make the trip to downtown in less than 90 minutes during rush hour.

Don’t count on it.

But again, progress in Sacramento is happening, incremental at best, to be sure, but happening nonetheless, so I’m applauding those small favors. And more than anything I’m applauding the absence of posturing politicians who find it necessary to say “no” to movement and growth, for whom the word “yes” has no place in their lexicon. Whoever said that this country can’t do amazing things and new things, and somehow made it stick? This country who’s GDP is three times more than the nation that’s in second place (Japan)? It just may be that in California we’re beginning to take a more forward approach.

What stays in Vegas

Vacation days are over. Sorry about the delay.

Meanwhile, there’s this…

I don’t have any idea what you may or may not think of the adult playground called Las Vegas. My conclusion is that if you’re not hooked on the craps table or any of the other vices that Vegas sponsors that are calculated to separate you from your house payment, or you consider $100 an outrageous amount of money to pay for a show — plus tip for a decent seat — the city is among the most boring places ever to spend time. It really is. “Been there, done that” most have been invented there.

Then again, if you pretty much foreswear those pretenders for excitement and perhaps entertainment, it can be a worthwhile venue for just kicking back. From time to time we do exactly that, oh, say once a year. Last week it was that time.

Kris was to fly a charter to Germany, and nice guy me decided to book us at the Mirage where we could rendezvous after her return flight that would bring her to Las Vegas. My thought was that she would have spent days flapping around Europe and would really enjoy relaxing for two or three days closer to home.

She liked the idea.

So I drove over on Wednesday morning, checked into the hotel and met her in the lobby at about ten that evening, she ending more than 14 hours in the air.

Now here’s the thing: If you’re contemplating just hanging out in Las Vegas and don’t place a premium on seeing pricey shows, nor proving once more that the city was built on the contributions of losers at the tables, check out the fees for hotel upgrades, and I do mean serious upgrades. Some years ago I discovered that you can get a rather plushy suite for one-third to one-fourth of the going weekend rates if you book for the middle of the week! Seriously. So we picked up snazzy digs — that normally cost in the neighborhood of $900 a night on Friday and Saturday — for just 200 bucks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Credit lean times in Sin City for most of that, with lots of empty tables in the casinos. In a way, that’s a bit perplexing. The golden years for the movies were in the Depression, made so by people who escaped their hard times in the dark, cool of a theater. You might expect such a reaction in the playgrounds, but it’s still not in evidence. There’s mostly people like us who can enjoy a bargain on our own terms.

For us, one thing we like to do is ramble over to the New York, New York Hotel and plop down at “The Times Square Bar,” there to sing along with two guys who bang out songs on pianos for a crowd of perhaps a hundred fans. Fun stuff. You order up and let ‘er rip, flat or sharp.

And this time, we got a bonus.

We took a cab from the Mirage to New York, New York, and less than 50 yards from our hotel the driver asked what we’d be doing at New York, New York.

“We’re going to sing,” Kris offered.

“Really?” the cabby said, and he immediately cranked up a genuinely awesome stereo in the cab and cued up Neil Diamond. “Let’s do it!!”

And we did. The three of us. Windows down, and us belting our hearts out, with much of “The Strip” as our audience, and with our driver leading the way, waving his arms and punching the brakes in time to the music.

“Sweet Caroline,” BRAKE-BRAKE-BRAKE!

“(coming to) America,” BRAKE-BRAKE-BRAKE!

On and on, with as many of Neil Diamond’s songs as we could cover in the 15-minute drive.

Mercy. It was, without question, the best cab ride anybody ever had in that city while still keeping his fly up.

We loved it, and ironically, we only stayed for a single session at the bar with dueling piano players. We’d already been to — and been — the best show in Las Vegas.

Boy author

How many times have you sat in a movie and said to yourself, “Shoot, I could write a better story than that!”? Me, too, and more often than I can remember. Likewise, how many times have you worked your way half-way through a book before giving up and setting it up on the top shelf, there to gather dust for a decade? Right, we’ve all done it and were on the side of the right to do so. Ah, but how many times have you steeled yourself and actually jumped in, pulling your chair up to your typewriter or computer and set to work on the Great American Novel? Notwithstanding that my aspirations are slightly less grand, I’ve made the move.

Please. No applause. I bring this to your attention only to note that there turns out to be far more to the adventure than I initially imagined. I thought I’d give you a look at the process — just in case the writing bug bites you — that goes well beyond dreaming up a good story and the discipline to see it through. A process that reveals me to be a bona fide rookie.

First, the discipline part is very real, defined by the knowledge that some writers can burn up years turning out just one tome, while others can turn out a half-dozen books in a couple of years, some with machine-like proficiency that is dazzling. For the most part it’s a matter of the kind of schedule you set for yourself that can be re-calibrated according to success or the lack of it. In my case it’s a word-count per day, which typically amounts to between 500 and a thousand words a day when I can get myself off the couch. Somebody once said that Hemingway turned out 400 words on an average day. Again, the trick is actually doing it; I sometimes delude myself into believing that simply thinking about what I might want to say is legitimate.

As a first step –even as I work toward completing a larger work by this summer — I’ve pulled together 40 posts from this very blog as a sampler that’s now an ebook called Zephyr Again! and is available on Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and others. If you have an interest in reprising those oldies but goodies one more time for $2.99, please be my guest. Add it to the library on your Kindle. I’d be honored.

Anyhow, we’ll see how it goes. As much as anything I wanted to go through the whole action to see what’s involved…and it turns out that there’s a lot. One of my colleagues in the authoring biz says that selling a book is five-percent writing and 95-percent promotion. I’m not so sure about those percentages, but I am finding that marketing what you write is a major undertaking, primarily because no one knows you’re there. So you have to find ways to do that and then keep at it, almost daily. The light at the end of the tunnel, of course, is finally gaining name recognition that sticks, based on a reliable product that people look for and are rewarded in their search with a good read.

So again, there is a learning curve. I seem to have a fair idea of how to create a coherent sentence or two, which is based on several decades of writing in the corporate world, some of it promotional copy, much of it as speeches for the movers and shakers in aerospace. The notion is to bend those abilities into words that tell a story. Once more, we’ll see.

Who knows? I could end up doing a book-signing at a store at your local mall. Just be sure to bring your own pen, and at least buy the book!

One of a kind

If we ever needed a laugh, now would be the time. So let’s take a look at one of the great comedians of our times, Jonathan Winters, who left the planet last week, and revel in his amazing abilities.

Over his long career he demonstrated that he could get a side-splitting response with almost any prop, as you’ll see with this clip from YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=For2X31-x-M) — to say nothing of the peerless characters that he created. The clip runs about 15 minutes.

Share it with a friend.

John K.

Into the air

We’re big fans of Huntington Beach, a small city on the very edge of the Pacific, so we get over there — about 25 minutes to our west — as often as the spirit moves us. Parking is easy and the subsequent walk to the beach is a matter of two or three blocks past several dozen restaurants and shops. You live there and your wardrobe can be complete with just one back-up pair of flip-flops. And more, there is almost always something going on in terms of events and celebrations. Given that HB is one of the surfing capitals of the west coast, you can pretty well count on big time competitions four or five times a year. And if you get lucky with your timing you can arrive in time for a kiting festival.

We were, and we did. Recently, we were in town on a Saturday and noticed dozens of kites being flown down on the beach, and resourceful me asked a guy who appeared like he could tell us more. “They’ll all be back tomorrow,” he explained. “Today is a practice day. Tomorrow is when the competition happens.” Good, I thought. Tomorrow we’ll come back armed with our cameras.

I won’t verbalize the obvious here. The brief collection of pictures will give you the idea, the exception being the final two shots: One is of Kris learning to do what she tells me to do on occasion, complemented by what she was guiding through the air. Truly, ya shouda been there.

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Papa due

No disrespect intended, but did you ever suspect there would be a pair of popes at the very same time? Don’t feel bad: neither did anyone else. We certainly had no idea that two pontiffs would be doing lunch together either. It’s probably a decent thing, given that both men live in same neighborhood, although you’d have to guess that neither is claiming that the place is going to hell in a handbasket — if at all, given the circumstances.

Still, it’s strange, and absolutely precedent-setting, if a thousand years of history mean anything. First, here was Peter and now there’s Francis, one man at a time. Clergymen of several stripes consider it wise, and at least in good taste to spring from the area when a new guy takes over the local pastorate (one example comes to mind). It’s a matter of turning the flock’s attention away from the departee to the new blood, who thereafter will be tending to matters. Along with that, I’ve always thought, was the confusion of having two bosses at once — just like at the office — and the potential for conflicting advice and counsel.

There’s a church a couple of blocks away that was founded less than a generation ago, which then built a whole new structure, as churches will. Two or three years ago, that church was searching for a new pastor, an opening that drew at least 500 candidates. Nifty place to live, so I can understand. The problem, however, is that the founder of the church and long-time pastor has, and will continue, to take his seat near the back of the sanctuary each and every Sunday. Yikes. Consider a couple of thoughts that run through the mind of the guy who will now stand behind the pulpit.

Consider the thoughts of the new pope as he endeavours to guide and inspire a billion and a half congregants around the world with his predecessor just down the road. So wouldn’t you think that there’s a nice, quiet schloss back in Bavaria for #265, with marginal phone service, to reflect for his remaining days?

Strange business.

Yet in this country we address former presidents and many lower officials by the same honorific, right up to the day they summarily croak. And wouldn’t you like to just once see a former office-holder rebuke a suck up for not simply sticking to “mister?” It just seems rather strained to call Bill Clinton “Mr. President,” even though it’s been almost 15 years now since he held that — or any — office.

Even more strained is the title of emeritus — which one local television reporter pronounced, standing in front of the Vatican, no less, as am-mer-eye-tis. I almost choked on my chicken sandwich on that one. But emeritus is now the preface for pope when it comes to Benedict XVI, meaning, you can assume, that he is not the pope, but is still a pope.

Notwithstanding, I like the new guy, if the bio is anywhere close to factual. He stands for the poor and disenfranchised, and has done so for many years. Plus, he has not gotten along all that well with the current leader of his Argentine homeland, which has promise — and whom he gave a kiss when she showed up as his first official guest as pope. That’s all pretty much biblical right there.

But true, all popes have presided surrounded by some of the priciest artwork in the world, and the Roman Catholic Church will never be hurting for cash, despite the impending lawsuits for the sex scandals (our local Cardinal Mahoney can speak to that).

So we’ll have to see. New man with a fine resume, and he did get off to a fine start by paying his hotel bill in person. Now if that emeritus guy who’s not that far away can simply allow Francis to run the show.

Close calls

An ardent Angels advocate and I once again exchanged views recently on the whole business of instant replays in baseball, here just a couple of weeks prior to the opening of the season. No consensus, of course. That would ruin everything. My friend is of the school that favors electronic participation in several parts of the game, including close calls on the bases and those that determine balls and strikes — with umpires, I’m guessing, either serving in an observer capacity or gone altogether.

Call me a traditionalist, but I completely enjoy the human element that the men in black add to the game, even to the extent where mistakes are made. It essentially makes the endeavor what it is.

Imagine relying on cameras and gadgets of one kind and another to make every call in the action, with accuracies down to hundredths of seconds and inches. Each and every play would be the province of a computer far from the field, with decisions displayed on one of the grand boards above the cheap seats. There would be a slight delay, of course, and then on we go.

Behind the plate and the catcher — or perhaps in a more precise position — would be a camera that gauges each pitch and declares it a ball or strike, and could conclude its deliberations with the announcement of a walk or a strikeout, should the turn at bat go that far. These decisions would also made from the Grand Umpire out in center field.

Meanwhile, watched carefully from yet another camera, a runner at first base attempts to steal second, and the result of that action is also announced from the GU.

Precise? Sure. Accurate? No question. But in a game among fallible humans? Hardly. The fact is, humans making and enforcing the rules of the game is what makes it, well, fun.( Remember what football used to be like before the instant replay came in? The play, as determined by the referees, stood, with no consultation that involved a computer.)

Frankly, I even dislike the use of second-guessing balls and strikes by means of a simulated strike zone on televised coverage. Prior to that, we decided for ourselves whether the pitch was a ball or a strike. Batters, away from the electronics, learn what any given umpire’s “strike zone” is after an inning or two and adjust accordingly.

Again, it’s a physical game among boys, not a pastime on a computer screen.

And more, if a manager was less than pleased with a “call,” to whom would he tender his complaint? Would he kick dirt on the computer that was secured within the bowels of the stadium?  Would the crowd scream something on the order of “Pull the plug!!” (Would you add a modifier or two?)

Or try this on for size: A runner waits on first base. The batter hits a high fly ball that the second baseman can easily catch — even as the computer tries to make up its mind whether or not to invoke the infield fly rule. The guy on first waits. Both managers wait. The crowd waits. Finally, the second baseman lets — we think — the ball drop, picks it up and throws it to the shortstop now covering second base, and who relays the ball to first base. Double play — even as the computer finally calls it a fly to right field.

Six guys from the crowd go looking for the subterranean computer.

The story in the paper the next day…not even worth talking about. Oh, I don’t know.. something about trashing the mother board?

Sad stuff, and really not a difficult leap from the computer-based game that six-year-olds can now play on their iPads. Me, I happen to prefer the roar of the crowd and the always — as it should be — controversial participation of those ubiquitous men in black suits. Because truly, they are “players” as well, and they do care.

I’m reminded of a time I was up north of the city watching the dreaded Lancaster Jethawks at play. We had scored seats just four rows right behind home plate. And two rows behind me a guy was already expressing himself regarding the umpire’s calls. I turned around and looked at the guy, laughed, and then yelled, “Tell him what you think, pal, because he sure can hear you!” The umpire nodded his assent.

In the mail

Did you ever get one of those brochures in the mail for a European river cruise? Around here it’s a once-a-month matter, and for the world I can’t figure out why us? It does sound like fun, yodeling along the Danube on a long, multi-story boat and downing all the strudel you can handle. Book one of the cool suites and it is a plush way to spend a week. But have you seen the prices? Climb aboard at the western border of Austria and paddle all the way to Budapest in Hungary and you’d have to cut a check for upwards of $14,000. Yikes! Meals are free, and I suppose if you have a taste for beef, you get your own cow. But two grand a day?

You can do a river cruise for less. Considerably less. And I have, but many moons ago. Mine was down a portion of the Delaware River, back in a small town where I grew up in the 1950s. It was me and my old pal, Billy Holland, and it was an instance where we recognized an opportunity and made the most of it. There was this fully inflated truck tube that somehow ended up in the back yard. The tube was large, about the height of a standing 12-year-old boy, and for a while served only as an item for lounging on a warm summer day. But, we noted, it would also float, and more, just might work as a raft if some kind of a platform could be devised.

One was, using a framework to which were nailed a few boards and rounded-up inserts from a table. We found clothes lines that could be used to attach the platform to said tube, and then it was off to a small tributary of the Delaware River that slowly ebbed through the town.

The West Branch, or the “Little Delaware” as it is called locally, is one of two sources that rise inauspiciously in the middle of New York state, gain more prominence as they roll southward and eventually combine to form the major river that passes by Philadelphia and on to Delaware Bay and the Atlantic.

Generally speaking, the Little Delaware begs the description of a bona fide “river,” given that its depth exceeds six or seven feet only in the most obscure places, and for the most part is on the order of four or five feet. Certainly that was the case when Mr. Holland and I decided to supplement the fiction of Mark Twain. Along with hand-made paddles and the “deck,” we rolled the tube down the backyard of a friend on to the edge of the river. Then we tied the deck to the tube and launched our raft into the water, climbed aboard and set off to the middle of the stream. Basically, there was no current to speak of, so progress was made by paddling and prodding our craft along.

We made the local paper – the Delaware-Republican – that week, with references to Tom Sawyer et al. At nearly any point of our short voyage we could have stepped off the raft and pulled it to shore, and in the end, we did. But for the most part we stayed on board, Billy having announced after we set forth that he could not swim. Oh. That one excursion was our last.

Still, reservations were no problem, the travelers in the next cabin were never a nuisance, and we sailed exactly on time. Oh sure, the food wasn’t much, but then neither of us got seasick, and the weather was great. We declined the invitation to go on a tour of the local village.