How I Misspent My Summer Vacation, 2011 Edition: Day 3

Saturday, Aug. 13: Discovery Park & the Cosmic Cube

I loosened the lap-band of the seatbelt, slid my hips down the seat slightly, and repositioned my left leg. The van driver had both hands on the wheel, but I knew I’d only have a second to react if he reached for a weapon. I was close enough to kick his hand from my position in the first row, middle-seat. If he pivoted toward us, I’d likely be able to hit his chin instead. No, I thought, better to go for the weapon.

He had taken us on such out-of-the-way roads, I could only assume that he was driving us to the local Motel Hell for murder and/or cannibalistic fine dining. My right hand creeped closer to the seatbelt buckle, so I could quickly free myself if I needed to dodge a knife-thrust.

Beside me, Amy looked out the driver-side window. I kept my sunglasses on and cursed myself for wearing my Sperry’s; the top-siders had nowhere near the heft of my blue-suede oxfords.

His left hand dropped out of sight for a half-second. I tensed. The turn signal began to click and the sign ahead read “SPOKANE AIRPORT – 1/2 MILE”.

He changed lanes. I relaxed. I hadn’t even started the William Gibson novel yet.

* * *

We had a mid-morning flight back to Seattle, so I spent my morning reading Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art on my Kindle over coffee at the Davenport (purchased at Brews Bros. around the corner, home of the way-too-cheery baristas). Reading all 12 books of A Dance to the Music of Time — one a month — is my Dilettante Improvement Project for 2011. Last year’s DIP was to try a new (to me) boutique/artisanal gin every month. Let’s just say I exceeded my goals:

My Year of Gin

It’s funny, but I still don’t know how to answer my wife when she asks me if I’m enjoying the Dance. I am, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone in my life. It’s a veritable soap opera of the intertwined lives of some British schoolmates, from around 1918 to maybe the mid-60’s. (The last book was written in 1972, but I’ve deliberately done zero research into what any of the books cover.) I say “veritable” because the narrator, Nick Jenkins, manages to leave out lots of aspects of life that might make for good reading: like the birth of his first child or almost any depiction of his relationship with his wife. But Powell still creates a pretty fantastic tapestry of the social web that ties the four men and their extended friends together.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, back at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, reading an e-book and drinking coffee. That’s my idea of a vacation. Amy refused to leave the bed for a while. I don’t blame her.

* * *

At SeaTac, we picked up our increasingly heavy suitcase quickly (now with heavier shoes!), and headed over to the rental area. The plan was to pick up our car, have lunch with a pal, drop him off at another pal’s cookout, and zoom on up to Vancouver for 3 nights.

No one was at the Hertz desk, so I had to use a touchscreen kiosk to go through the entire rental process. I got a little frustrated at the repetitive inputs of some of the screens, but my wife cheerily said, “Look on the bright side: you don’t have to talk to anyone!” and I perked right up. Gotta love a woman who knows that her husband would get his hair cut over the internet, if he could.

We got our run-of-the-mill maroon Altima and headed to downtown Seattle to pick up my pal Finkelstein. I was filled with dread. Not because I hadn’t seen Fink in 4 years, but because I had to drive on Seattle’s highways. On our last trip here in 2007, the highway signs were so terrible that we repeatedly missed turns, despite having a GPS unit in the rental. This time, either the signs were improved or the GPS systems have learned to adjust, the way players on the Nuggets learn to deal with the altitude.

We picked up Fink at his office building, as he’d gone in to work for a few hours on Saturday.

“What does he do?” Amy asked.

“Dunno,” I said. I’d never thought to ask. When I met him, he was working in The Smoke Shop in Annapolis, MD. He’ll probably tell you that was the happiest job of his life. I think that’s why I don’t ask him about his gigs.

I don’t know if it’s in the nature of Seattle or of Fink — he grew up there, so it could be both — but he directed us through a bazillion neighborhoods during our Escape From Downtown. We eventually reached our lunch destination: Chinook, a seafood restaurant overlooking Salmon Bay in the Magnolia neighborhood. Fink is enough of a regular at the place that he could banter with the waitress a bit. An ardent reader of Amy’s blog, I think he felt pressured to come up with a really good restaurant. I’m glad my wife’s rep precedes her, when it leads to awesome meals.

She’ll get around to writing about the fish we had for lunch sometime. I will instead tell you about the dessert. Fink & Amy elected to split some sorta shortcake, in which she ate the fruit and some cream, and he had the crust. That’s because she’s on a gluten-free diet. Since I am most assuredly not on a gluten-free diet, I ordered The Bread Pudding.

Amy has photographic evidence of what arrived on my plate, but the lack of depth in the shot doesn’t do it justice. I was served the Cosmic Cube of Bread Pudding. It was about 5″ on each side, and was so dense it should have come with a reinforced fork. I thought the table would tip over, like the Flintstones’ car.

I said, “Clearly, I’m an honored guest, or they wouldn’t have brought me all of the bread pudding they have. It’d be rude not to eat it.”

“And with your family’s history of diabetes, there’s no point in forestalling the inevitable,” Amy pointed out.

“Wait: is that custard or the accretion disk?” Fink asked.

There was some question as to whether I’d fall asleep before I could finish it, but I rallied. Also, the hyperdensity of the pudding caused time to bend. Fink and Amy aged a full week while the bread pudding and I were cruising along at relativistic speeds.

After lunch, it was obvious that I needed coffee, between the incipient caffeine withdrawal and the dwarf star I was now carrying in my belly. We walked over to a nearby cafe and chatted for a while as I refueled.

Seattle’s the first place I ever had coffee, on my summer 2001 trip here. It was some mocha thing my pal Shari ordered for me, and I thought the chocolate-component was somehow necessary for coffee. It took me quite a while before I settled on my perfect coffee: a cup of goddamned black coffee. No milk, no sugar.

I tried ordering that this time, but they said they were out of drip. They’d make an Americano instead, which made me feel a teensy bit like George Clooney in that Anton Corbijn movie he did last year. Amy didn’t notice any Clooneyness about me, sadly.

Conversation: I’m not very good at characterizing what Fink & I talk about. We met almost 20 years ago and have fallen out of each others’ lives a bit in the past decade, but there’s still no one on earth who can grok my thought-processes the way that boy can. I think I wrote about this after our 2007 visit, but it’s possible I never published that, for reasons that I won’t publish now.

So we rambled on our paired wavelength, and Amy seemed alright with the sections that weren’t relatable. I recall us talking about Dylan, Rush, Gillian Welch, the Yankees’ pitching staff and that Fran Lebowitz documentary (he hasn’t seen it yet) before we hit the road. He figured it was early enough that we could stop at a park for a bit before going to his pal’s cookout.

I always forget that he’s not great with time, which is ironic, because he’s a drummer.

We drove on to Discovery Park, a pretty area that looks across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. That’s where I took this picture:


Amy hung back and took pictures while Fink & I kept talking. I told him about reading The Most Human Human recently. There’s a chapter on chess, which was one of his interests. The writer, Brian Christian, explored the ways in which opening theory had, in a sense, damaged chess by turning it into a game of memorization. That is, if you recalled enough openings, you could keep to a script and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. That sort of approach falls into the non-existent hands of computers, which can be taught to recognize most any opening pattern and weigh the best means to match them. It’s here that Christian makes one of his best points in the book. See, the history of philosophy has been filled with attempts at branding man as “the animal who . . .”, to show that some aspect of our minds are what separate us from beasts. Now, we find computers impinging from the other direction, mastering activities that we considered most human.

So Fink told me about chess and opening theory issues and we hashed out some notions of cognition that neither of us bothered writing down. And we sat on a bench and watched the cruise-liners head out through the Sound. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and starting to get late, but I figured the cookout was nearby, and we’d be okay.

I could not have been more wrong. Fink apparently wanted to show us all of Seattle in a single drive. If we had intercutting dialogue and multiple uninteresting storylines, it couldn’t have been more like Altman’s Short Cuts, except that no shortcuts were involved.

But what’s to gripe? We popped in the new Mad Mix CD I assembled, “Wyvern & Kobold, LLP,” and drove. We made a booze-stop so he could bring something to the cookout, and eventually made our way to the home of Eric S., proto-blogger extraordinaire. (Boy, that sounds gross.)

About that mix CD: Fink was irate that I put The Golden Age by Asteroids Galaxy Tour on it, but was cheered that it was immediately followed by the Eurythmics’ For the Love of Big Brother. It’s a weird mix. If you ask, maybe I’ll burn you a copy.

About the cookout: I’d corresponded with Eric for years, but this would be our first get-together. However, it was already 6:15 and we had no idea how long a wait we’d have at the border crossing into Canada that night. I was in San Diego once with a pal and he showed me what the Friday afternoon traffic to get into Tijuana was. The sign said “5 hours.” I figured Vancouver on a Saturday night isn’t as much of a draw.

So I made apologies to Eric almost instantly upon arrival, although I initially too-exaggeratedly berated him for never having watched the Coen Bros.’ A Serious Man. Then I blamed Fink for our tardiness (as opposed to, say, my talking Fink’s ear off), and asked him, “What are you reading?”

This is just about the only question I care to ask anyone, btw. No one really answers, “How are you?” with anything more than politeness and, unless I know of some dire condition affecting your family or friends, I won’t ask about them till I’ve run out of questions about books and art. I think I’ve always been like that, but I’m becoming more honest about it in my middle age.

Eric was working his way through W.G. Sebald, in order of (German) publication. I’d only read WGS’ On the Natural History of Destruction, and didn’t have any good observations about the work. Boo, me. We rambled for a little bit, although I was conscious that we were the only members of the cookout who didn’t really know anyone there, and I didn’t want to keep the host from performing his hostly duties.

We made a date for Tuesday evening, when Amy & I would be back in town for the last night of our vacation. And then we hit the road.

Fink had given us directions back to I-5 that I couldn’t possibly have remembered, but was sure would take us in the wrong direction. The GPS gave us an ETA in Vancouver of a little more than 2.25 hours, not including border-crossing delays. I asked Amy to call our hotel and let them know we’ll be arriving late.

We hit the road, immediately regretting not bringing a headphone cable with us to connect the iPod to the car stereo. Fink had taken the new Mad Mix, so we had to resort to terrestrial radio. At best, we got to hear lots of classic rock. Closing in on Canada, we started to hear DJs talking in that mongrel French they speak up there. For some reason, I hadn’t thought of Vancouver as particularly French-Canadian. Don’t know why I thought that. Maybe I should’ve done the slightest bit of research before this trip.

One thing I did read up on was the drive up to Canada on I-5/Rt.99. It was supposed to be gorgeous, but Amy & I were both unimpressed. Maybe it was the dusk-hour, the overcast skies, or the fact that we live near some pretty great hills and wooded highways, but it just wasn’t as pretty as we’d heard. Still, it was nice to be out of a city and cruising on open roads.

The border crossing signs said it would be a 35-minute wait to enter Canada. They were correct, down to the minute. Near the end of our wait, I got nervous that I’d somehow failed to bring some token that we needed to cross. I mean, I had our passports, but I thought maybe there was some bureaucratic form that everybody knew about but me, and that we’d be laughed at by the border guard and turned away. Maybe everyone knew that it’s illegal to cross the border in a rental car. I don’t know. I imagine this shit all the time.

I am, as I’ve said, no fun to travel with.

Our passports were just fine, but the border guard was a douche. He looked at us suspiciously as he checked our information, then asked, “What were you up to?”

Not “What brings you to Canada?” or “Are you on vacation?” or “Do you like indy comics?” but “What were you up to?”

I told him, “We’re on vacation. A friend got married in Spokane and now we’re headed up to Vancouver for a few days to see the city.” I was irate at getting glared at. I wanted to say, “I pay your salary!”, but I don’t. Still, I worried, if they’re this weird entering Canada, how much worse will the U.S. guards be on Tuesday?

He waved us through, and we zoomed on another 35 or 40 minutes to the hotel, the Metropolitan. We checked in, greeted by the person Amy had phoned when we first hit the road. She was of Asian descent and had a French-Canadian accent. Maybe it was just a long day, with hours of driving and a 40-minute flight and a lump of bread pudding and everything else, but I literally stopped understanding her while she was greeting us.

She was talking and talking, and I realized the words weren’t sinking in, so I just looked at her mouth for at least 15 to 20 seconds. Amy, realizing that my brain had shut off, chimed in, “That would be great, thanks!”

The girl broke out a local map and drew a bunch of Xs in one area and told us, “Don’t go down this street. It’s the only really bad area you have to watch out for.” I understood that. We took our key-cards and headed for the elevator.

It was around 10:00 p.m. as we got to the room, unpacked, considered the minibar, and slumped into bed. The bed was awfully nice (albeit not as wondrous as the Davenport’s).

Amy said, “I meant to ask: did you have ANY idea where that taxi-driver was taking us this morning?”

“No, but FBI agent Burt Macklin had everything under control, Ms. Snakehole.”

“Call me Janet,” she said, mock-cigarette holder between her fingers.

Coming up in Day 4: Granville Market and Lavender Gin!

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