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Down Under Diary 12/23/03




Dave Argabright - Down Under Diary

DOWN UNDER DIARY December 28, 2003 WILL ROGERS STATE BEACH, Santa Monica, California - Sunday, Dec. 28, 3:52 p.m. PST - In terms of distance, we're about a quarter of the way between home and away. It is a sleepy, sunny Sunday afternoon here in southern California, and Sherry and I find ourselves in the middle of a 12-hour layover at Los Angeles Intl. Airport (LAX). Rather than sit in the stifling boredom of an vast commercial airport, we decided to grab some wheels from Avis and pass the day as enjoyably as possible. So we drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway, and even on a Sunday the traffic was heavy.

We found a parking spot here at the park, thirty yards from the gentle surf of the Pacific. Yet, because of the constant roar of traffic on the PCH, just 20 yards to my left, this is not a tranquil place. In a nutshell, this spot defines southern California: develop virtually every square inch of property, leaving only a tiny sliver of beauty to perhaps make it livable. But I can't complain. Is this better than sitting on a hard bench at LAX, with the loudspeakers announcing the arrival of flight 995 from Las Vegas and would the person in the blue Mustang please move his car from the curb immediately? Oh, yes, it is much better. So we will savor our brief (alas, I wish it were more brief) layover by visiting the beach.

There was very little sleep last night. It was in the wee morning hours when we finished packing...well, no we didn't; you're never really finished packing, because there are always a few things you think you're forgetting, so it's really a matter of at some point having to load the car and drive to the airport, ready or not. This trip has brought lots of anxiety to me. The fear that I would forget to pack something very important; the fear that something will go wrong at home while we're gone, with me 10,000 miles away and unable to fix the problem. What if the kids get sick? What if the furnace breaks down? What if the mailman bites the dog?

When Jack Hewitt and I were writing his book together a year ago, Hewitt's Law, we were up against our deadline and trying to kill the beast and put it out of its misery. Sending a book to the publisher brings stress and pain and anxiety that is hard to describe; but it's a little bit like childbirth, because if the baby is beautiful you immediately forget about all the hardship. But at one particular moment I was in emotional knots, trying to chase a million details, with another million things that might go wrong. "I'm not going to worry about it," Hewitt told me one afternoon. "Because I know you'll worry enough for the both of us." That was an eye-opening moment for me, because it made me realize that I do indeed worry too much. I wish I could be more like Hewitt (wait, I can't believe I said that...I meant, I wish I could worry less, like Hewitt). His ability to worry is right up there with a five-year-old kid. Something went wrong? Oh, well, it'll blow over. That's a beautiful attitude, really. He'll tell you it's because he just doesn't give a shit; maybe that's right, but it sure works for him. And he'll probably outlive all of us.

Things didn't go as planned this morning. When we booked this trip, our greatest challenge was getting from Indianapolis to Los Angeles to catch our 11:55 p.m. flight to Auckland, New Zealand. Everything-and I do mean everything-was oversold and overbooked. We finally booked a 7:00 a.m. Frontier Airlines flight through Denver, which meant a 12-hour layover in LA. But they had no seats for us on the Frontier flight, so they arranged a couple of seats on a Northwest flight through Memphis. Our bags had already been checked on the Frontier flight, and there was no time to pull the bags. "They'll be waiting for you in LA," we were assured (they were). That meant another trip through the security checkpoint at a different terminal (the first took 15 minutes). Having no checked bags is an major red flag for security; Sherry and I were immediately pulled aside for a more thorough examination of our persons and our carry-on bags. The scene at such checkpoints can only be described as chaos. Shouting, people milling about, sensors screeching in protest, the thud of bags on and off the x-ray belt, with tension at a razor edge among passengers, who just want to get on the airplane and go.

As we were examined (I couldn't help thinking of Arlo Guthrie's words in Alice's Restaurant: "inspected, detected, neglected, and selected), an elderly man behind us was also singled out. It was a sad scene. He had difficulty hearing their questions; they were patient, but the man was clearly upset and confused. Impeccably dressed in a camelhair coat and sweater vest, he stooped over his cane and tried to comprehend what they wanted him to do. "Which ones are your bags? Raise your arms, please! Unbuckle your belt, please!" "Take off your shoes, please!" I'm not questioning the need for security. Nope, you just never know when a cunning and calculating 80-year-old white guy with a cane and Dexter soft-sole shoes is going to take down an airplane, do you? Perhaps it's true that security is a hard, thankless task. But Sherry said it right as we talked of that unfortunate older gentleman: "Makes you wonder what kind of world we live in, doesn't it?"

Whatever happened to the fun of flying? We were packed tightly in our seats, with barely an inch to spare in any direction. The rows of seats are so close together, your knees rub the back of the seat in front of you. The overhead space was full. The service, while very friendly and pleasant, was sparse. If Greyhound could get a bus to 30,000 feet, it would be exactly like this scene right here. No glamour, no joy, just basic transportation at 500 mph. From Indy to Memphis my row consisted of a woman in her early 20's-I'm pretty sure it was a woman, but I didn't think it appropriate to inquire on such a specific matter-with her entire right arm covered with body art tattoos, who seemed to lack some basic hygiene skills (her coat carried a little button that said, "I'm a little stinker." No doubt she was unaware that it had a literal meaning).

Next to me was the kindly older gentleman whom we had watched struggle through the security checkpoint. Nobody spoke; before we had left the runway, I was nodding off, as was Sherry in the seat across the aisle. From Memphis to LAX we were stuck in the very back row of the cabin, and our seats would not recline. So it was four hours and 15 minutes of discomfort, eased somewhat by our new portable DVD player and the musical, Chicago. The sun is nearly touching the ocean to the west, and the shadows are growing long. The air is remarkably clear, and the bright sunshine brings great depth to the color of the surroundings. The ocean seems more blue; the white hair of the older couple holding hands as they walk along the beach seems more pure; the bright red and blue helmets on the children skating along the sidewalk is more striking. It will be time to go soon, as darkness comes and the park closes. We will find a dinner spot, and enjoy a final meal in America before boarding tonight's flight.

Several people have cautioned us that the beef in New Zealand and Australia is "different" than what we are accustomed to, especially in the Midwest. "Just doesn't measure up," one friend insisted. Time will tell. Just in case, though, Sherry and I have decided that tonight it will be steak, a piece of meat so big that has to be delivered on a cart. So heavy that it makes the wheels squeak as the cart approaches the table. So imposing that the waiter will give an audible gasp as he lifts it to our table. That kind of steak. Then we will give the car back to Avis, meet the wonderful people of Qantas (I'm being cautiously optimistic), and leave the country. Sherry and I are very much hoping-is desperate too strong a word?-that our seats are more comfortable than those of the Memphis-LAX flight. Ahead of us lies many thousands of miles and 12 hours of 747 living. I can't say I'm looking forward to the flight; but I am certainly willing to endure it in order to see the land that sparkles in my imagination in every sort of way. That's all for today. G'day, mates.

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