How I Misspent My Summer Vacation, 2011 Edition: Day 1

“Spokane. Shit. I’m still only in Spokane . . .”

I can’t think of the last time I took a (planned) weeklong vacation. (Last December’s northeast-blizzard-enforced stayover at my in-laws’ in Louisiana doesn’t count.) Typically, Amy can only get away for a few days, so we tend to take long weekends instead. But now we had a full week: Thursday to Wednesday. Off to the Pacific Northwest!

We’d been thinking of taking a trip to Vancouver for a while now. Amy’s parents had been there years ago and loved it. Then one of my work-pals in Spokane, WA invited us to his wedding, so we decided to make a Seattle/Spokane/Vancouver week of it! (Seattle, because the fares to fly into Vancouver were insane, and I have a ton of friends in Seattle.)

The summer’s been weirdly rough for me. After working very hard on my July/August issue through the month of June, I found myself beset ever since by a combo of ennui and anxiety: ennxiety? anxui? Regardless, I’ve been uninspired and frazzled ever since wrapping up that ish. Amy, has been pretty burned out by work too, so we were hoping the change of scenery would be restorative.

I set up flights, hotels, a rental car and a dog-sitter, and put Amy in charge of finding us some nice restaurants. I was, of course, filled with anxiety about leaving the dogs with someone for a week, but the sitter offered to stay at our place, so the boys wouldn’t have to deal with a new environment while we were away. Added bonus: this made us clean the house (somewhat).

Speaking of anxiety, I expected us to be at the airport late, then delayed en route to Seattle, where I’d set up an 80-minute layover to connect to Spokane, and/or to die in a smoldering wreck smack-dab in the side of a mountain. We got through Newark security 85 minutes before the flight, arrived early in Seattle, and had smooth flying throughout. No, I’m not fun to travel with.

While the not-morbidly obese mom in the denim skirt so short that her vag was scrubbing her seat in the row ahead of us was punching the DirecTV unit because it refused to recognize her credit card after no fewer than fifty swipes, Amy & I countered the lowbrow vibe by watching, Public Speaking, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz on my iPad. I’m tired of telling people about great stuff I’ve read or watched, but this is really a blast, and it’s only about 80 minutes long. She’s seen a ton, loves New York, and, in her words, “is always right.” Plus, she’s a great speaker.

(The mom and her mulleted progeny were headed on to Alaska, as were a multitude of other passengers in tube tops or Zubaz sweatpants, several of whom found it acceptable to use the airplane toilet barefoot.)

The flight was almost 5.5 hours, but I just didn’t have the head to read. Sometimes I feel like I’m letting some recording angel down if I watch movies or TV instead of reading. I also watched Howl (nice, not great, and way too ACTED in the courtroom scenes), and The Social Network (second time around, watching mainly for the David Fincher Moments, and also to figure out why this role of Jesse Eisenberg bothered me so much less than his other ones).

Arriving at SeaTac, we had to claim our big suitcase and go back through security, so there was a good opportunity for my anxiety to flare up, since the security lines were pretty long. But then they said that there’s an express area for Seattle-Spokane flights, so I was stuck just being at ease. Boo.

We grabbed lunch at the Seattle Tap Room in the airport, where I was served one of the worst burgers ever made. I grabbed some Starbucks by the gate (when in Seattle…) and was gratified to discover that they don’t serve it at the heat of a thousand blazing suns. On the short flight to Spokane, I watched the last episode of season 1 of Spaced. Still no reading.

But all this preamble and ramble, and we’re not even in Spokane!

So we landed in Spokane, got our suitcase ($20 charge on Alaska Air each way; from now on, we will travel with two roll-aboards), and took a cab to our hotel, the Davenport.

This wasn’t my first trip to Spokane. In February 2002, I was invited by a local economic development council to check out all the great biotech-y stuff in the Spokane metro area. One of my magazine’s major advertisers was in the city, so I figured it would be fine to take the trip and see them. I convinced the EDC to fly me out to Seattle a few days early, so I could hang out with friends there. That schedule reduced the airfare significantly (Saturday night stayover), so they were amenable.

Not knowing anything about Washington’s geography, I had no idea that Spokane was quite so climatically different than Seattle. February in Seattle means dreary rain and mist and 50 degree temps. February in Spokane means whiteouts and temps of — no lie — 4 degrees. I was, to put it mildly, unprepared for the weather. To put it more bluntly, I have never been so cold as I was on that jaunt.

Still, I had a decent time in Spokane in ’02. Two weeks before the trip, the organizers mentioned that they needed me to give a speech about the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry before an audience of local businessmen and other interested parties. (Go here and search for “Roth”; turns out they were charging admission for my speech!) I felt that it was a little unfair to spring that on me so late in the game. I’d never really done any public speaking, and was convinced that I was going to be exposed as a fraud. As you can see, this anxiety thing is nothing new for me.

The night before my speech, I sat at the desk in my lovely room at the Davenport and filled 3 pages of a hotel notepad with observations and topics for the talk. The next morning, I got 2 or 3 lines into the notes before I said, “But really, to understand that, you need to understand . . .” and proceeded to ad lib for another 25 minutes. I’d been working in the pharma-field for fewer than 3 years, but it turned out that I’d internalized a great deal of info and trends and — surprise — was capable of threading everything together for a coherent talk, as well as a Q&A. I don’t remember much of the speech, but I did get a big laugh by blaming that period’s pharma R&D drought on Hillary Clinton.

I didn’t get to see too much of Spokane on that visit. On the first day, I was spirited around to industrial parks, hospitals, and universities. After my speech on the second day, a bigwig at my Spokane-based advertiser took me on a little tour before bringing me over to the company’s manufacturing building.

His name was Rick, and he died early this year from lymphoma. Driving me around the city, he told me that it was quite a change from his home back east. I asked him how he was getting along in such an isolated region. It’s not to knock the city, but it’s out of the way in comparison to, say, Philadelphia.

Rick drove me by his house. It was quite the spread: 3 stories high, plus basement, atop a valley overlooking the city. It was beautiful site. He said to me, “This house cost me $250,000. I’ll get over not being in Pennsylvania.”

So here I was, 10 years later, back at the Davenport. It’s a wonderful old (restored) hotel, and it possesses The Most Comfortable Beds of Any Hotel Ever. (They sell ’em, and my wife is seriously considering ordering one behind my back.)

Amy & I cleaned up, unpacked some (enough for 2 days in Spokane) and headed out to meet my work-pals (and the groom-to-be) for dinner.

Let me note here that “work-pals” doesn’t mean I don’t like ’em as much as regular pals. It’s just to denote that I met them through work. That usually means we only get together during trade shows, when we’ve all been traveling and spend much of the day on our feet in convention center exhibit halls. We talk about our “civilian” lives, but rarely do we encounter each other outside of this work-travel environment. Ironically, work-pals only get to see me in suits and nice clothes, so they have no idea how ratty I can look.

However, my Spokane pals are different than my other advertisers. Amy asked me if I have as much fun with people from other companies as I do with these guys. There’s one other work-pal I consider a great friend, but most everyone else is business-first: like ’em, but we don’t hang out during my vacation.

So what makes the Spokane crew different?

Piss-taking. I’ve never seen a group of people so mercilessly goof on one another, yet stay friends and remain productive. Amy got to see a little of how they interact when we took out a bunch of ’em during a conference in New York last March. Our first night in Spokane, when they took us to dinner at Clinkerdagger (?), she got the double-barreled experience.

(I think they were on good behavior in March, but eventually concluded, “If she could be married to Gil, she can’t possibly be offended by, um, anything!”)

So, over a nice dinner (most everyone ordered a surf & turf, while I went with a tuna ahi dish), my pals proceeded to demolish one another and, of course, me. It’s infectious. I never mind getting blown up by this crowd, even though I tend to bristle at that sort of thing in general.

We were also treated to a great “It’s a small world” anecdote. The guys were telling us about how great Spokane is, and how people from even outside the area all seem to know each other. Then John B. told us, “Back in the ’70’s, my in-laws went to see Gordon Lightfoot once. They said it was the worst show ever, because he was obviously hammered. He could barely stand up on stage, and didn’t even finish the show that night.

“Well, years later, I’m working here, and [a slightly older member of our dinner party] tells us the story about how she and her husband once hung out backstage with Gordon Lightfoot when he was in town . . .”

“. . . And we got him so wasted and high before the show that he couldn’t stand up!” she chortled.

“I never told my in-laws that my boss wrecked their evening 30 years ago.”

If it weren’t so goddamned cold in wintertime, we’d consider moving out here.

After dinner, Amy & I walked through Riverfront Park to get back to the Davenport. It was dark when we left, but I’d never heard talk about the mean streets of Spokane, so I figured we were pretty safe. We did manage to walk through a shooting-gallery-esque block of teenagers, but no one gave us any crap.

And that was the first day of our vacation.

Coming up in day 2: The Mean Streets of Spokane!

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