Looks like the desert, doesn't it? The vast romantic expanse. It's actually the landscaping at a country club golf course. Underneth the "A" in the word BLEAT there was a faux rock whose perforations concealed a speaker. It played jazz. The more I looked at that cactus, the more I thought, well, same to you, Jack.

Let's rewind to Christmas Day.

Airport, 5:15 PM. Every journey begins with a single step, minus your shoes. And your belt. And your gels and liquids, which have been put into a Ziploc bag whose mysterious properties neutralizes all explosive residue.

Why do we have to take our shoes off? Gnat asked. The answer would reveal a world of evil beyond her ken, so I tell her it’s to make sure they’re clean for the plane.

Really? she says, unsure.

We breeze through security in five minutes, and head to a place where food and central-nervous-system depressants can be secured. We’re on schedule - my schedule, that is; my wife is one of those run down the jetway and throw your bags into the door types, and I like to show up well in advance so I can have a bite, watch the people, have a margin built in should they move your flight from gate A1 to gate G26. It’s a holdover from my old drink-to-fly days, where I required a few belts to sit on my fear of flying until it stopped shrieking and merely whined and tried not to wet itself. While I’m eating my overpriced taco the PA system makes an announcement: someone has left a package of lefse at security gate B. Laughter all around: yes, we’re in Minnesota. “How about the lutefisk?” someone shouts. After that we're running low on distinguishing regional cuisine, though. I'm sure a lot of people considered a hotdish-related rejoinder, but the moment had passed. We head to the plane, strap in, and it’s up and off.

Good flight. Some “light chop” for 30 minutes or so, which I hate. Even in the old days when I was a scotch-soaked sack of quiescent slosh, turbulence penetrated the mood with ease, and I’d have a horrible realization: I am not drunk enough to keep the plane from crashing.   Gnat loves it, as usual: whee! Me, I cross my legs and frown. I consider a drink for old-time’s sake, but this flight had been stocked by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; as part of the general initiative to make flying as unpleasant as possible, cocktails and wine are unavailable. The plane has only coffee and soft drinks. I am surprised to find we earn a bag of dried snacks, and more surprised to learn the pretzels have small grains of salt. Surely they could have saved a few dollars by eliminating the salt. Or the bag. Just get a few large sacks of Doritos and dump the contents in the aisle, like a trough. Suuuu-eeee! I tell today's Younger Generation about the old days, when you could smoke on a plane and eat a steak with a knife, and it's like describing life aboard a zeppelin. Of course, everyone stank from cigarettes at the end of the flight, but in those days everyone ended up stinking of cigarettes at the end of the day for one reason or another.

I watch some of the middle of the Office 3rd season, which was underwhelming, and listened to some murky music that puts me to sleep on the plane. I have a nice nap, and when I wake I check the iPod to see how long I’d been out: five minutes. Sigh. Well, time to start a book – which never works, frankly; I can’t start a book on a plane. There’s something about the act of being strapped into a chair hurtling though the air, interrupted by the occasional BONG that signals it's time for MORE LIGHT FREAKING CHOIP, and put on your seatbelt so you're not thrown from your seat and dashed against the bulkhead - well, it drains me of the mood required to crack a fictional realm. If I've started the book, it's not a problem. But don't expect me to sympathize with a medieval monk when I'm sitting in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the eart, feeling blood clots form in my legs. I bail on books quickly – they usually have ten pages in which they must not irritate me, and if they pass I keep going. “Irritation” usually arises from any of the following: gorgeous tall long-haired heroines who are nuclear biologists or genetic archeologists or any other such trade; if said heroine also has a father figure who’s very wise and kind and smart but Strangely Mysterious about a period in his life 30 years ago, I’m gone. Books with big type and cardboard characters have a chance if something interesting happens quickly, and but one bad figure of speech or amateurish writing (“this is like a war zone,” Johnson thought as shrapnel exploded all around him, “or a zone in which war was only a nightmare, passed along in hushed voices by parents who dared not speak in the daylight hours of the things they had seen when the darkness, as it always must, fell.”)

I always end up with a Michael Connolly novel, because he has a good main character and an understated style that’s perfectly paced – it’s like listening to someone saw wood with even strokes. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it’s what makes me read the books instead of watch them. (I should explain, since I wrote that without thinking what I meant. If I’m reading a book with Crackling Action I stop reading the words and start to float above the text, moving faster the letters so I can see what happens. It’s part boredom, part impatience; I just want the nonsense to conclude so I can finish the book and curse the author for making the first ten pages so good.)

So I read a magazine. And then we were descending. I put on some “descending” music on the iPod, against all regulations – frankly, if an iPod in row 24 can crash these planes, then it’s a flaw that needs to be addressed, and if I'm the man to expose it, and the subsequent regulations are known as "Lileks' Law," fine. Somehow the plane finds the runway during the song; there's the usual drama with the braking, then everyone stands up as though informed Pope George W. Elizabeth II has entered the cabin.

This was my first experience with USAir, and I was pleased. More or less. The carpet needed sweeping. There were half-eaten items in the seat pouch. But the flight attendants were all cheerful and funny, which goes a very long way to making your trip a pleasure. Sometimes you get these sour old pills who treat your request for a pillow as though you’d asked them to climb out on the wing and bring back a bucket of rivets. When we landed the flight attendant asked us to keep our seatbelts on . . . then took the mike a few minutes later to tell us she was looking at a board that showed who was still buckled. “Thirteen of you have taken off your seatbelts,” she said – in an English accent, I should note, with a delightful mock-scolding tone that promised a riding crop across the buttock, albeit lightly – “and those who do not put them on will be put to work cleaning the plane, starting with the aft lavatories.” She also told us to check around our seats for our belongings, especially if we brought children, since children hated to be left behind. 

Once off the plane we head into the warm perfect Arizona air, which was . . . cold. Then the long ride to the house along dark new freeway, and into the casita off the east wing of my in-law’s compound. Meet the dog – he’s grown! He’s a snickerlabrodoodle. Meet his adjunct, a solemn little bison friche that looks like a 1/10 scale model of the snickerlabrodoodle. Join the party: everyone’s here, all the kids and cousins and grandparents and in-laws, ready to eat gigantic slabs of meat as red as Santa’s nose. Huzzah!

I end the evening with my brother-in-law and his son, talking about the kid’s college computer systems (I asked if they throttled back torrents, and he had a moment of surprise: you know of these things, greybeard?) and the Early Days of the Internet; he feigned interest well. He'll go far. Then back to the casita for the first of five nights on the couch. I remembered last year, and wondered how it would go – will I feel the same gnawing need to be here, to do something different?  I remembered how I’d come into the casita and smelled a certain smell that summed up Arizona – it turned out to be a Yankee Candle infuser, and I’d bought the scent when I got back home, installed it in a spare room. It seemed wrong and too strong and I’d removed it: blasphemy! Thou shalt not have the aromas of Arizona until thou makes the great life-breaking move. But the casita was missing the smell this time. I laid on the couch, listening to the new sounds – the furnace, the gurgling sound of the water heater on the other side of the wall, the tick . . . tick . . . .tick of the wall clock. Got up. Removed the battery. Stopped the clock at 11:59, as it turned out. Silence. Sleep.

Woke the next day: ahh. Vacation. Now what? Flipped open the laptop, connected to the household network, hit Instapundit.


And so my vacation began.


Continued tomorrow.