Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

25 February 2010

(Wo)Man V. Mammal

Look, it's called a KILLER whale, okay? KILLER. They're not our friends...not our pets...not cute, little (big) playthings that we can train to give us piggyback (whaleyback?) rides.

What part of KILLER WHALE did you not understand?

CNN Story

24 February 2010

The Expectation of Contact

Around Christmas I was at a dinner party (nothing fancy, no tuxedos). At one point, I heard the cell phone buzz of the guy seated next to me. He fished it out of his pocket, looked at the message, then put it away. It was a girl friend of his (not even a girlfriend, just a gal he knows). “I’ll call her later,” he muttered. In a minute or two, it buzzed again. Same drill. Then it buzzed a third time. This message was clear and insistent: “WHERE R U???” Curiosity got the better of him; he excused himself from the table and left the room to call her.

I’ve seen this happen numerous times since then. We all have cell phones now. And if someone wants to get a hold of you, they assume they’ll be able to. People have what I call the Expectation Of Contact. Whether it’s a text message or an actual call, nowadays there is no reason to not be able to get a hold of someone. There is no excuse; the assumption is that you can and will respond to a text message or answer your phone. And if you don’t, people will keep trying and trying until you do.

I shouldn’t be surprised. People looooooove to talk.

I have a favorite pastime. When I’m sitting at a stoplight or in heavy traffic, I’ll watch the cars going by in the other direction and count how many drivers are talking on their cell phones. Let’s call them “cell phone talker-drivers” or CPT-D’s for short. It varies depending on the time of day, but the number can be as many as 60%, a figure I found astonishing.

Do people really need to talk that badly? Evidently.

Anecdotally, I’ll note here, and it will probably not be popular to say this, but the vast majority of CPT-D’s are women. I know that sounds sexist, but it gets worse. Here in Pensacola, black women CPT-D’s far outnumber whites. If you see a black woman driving a car in this town, I’ll guarantee that she’s talking on her phone. Or is about to. Or has just hung up.

I’m just sayin’.

I was in the Pensacola Airport one day, waiting for Air Tran’s 6 o’clock departure to Atlanta. Across from me sat a very pretty, and very young black girl in her crisp Navy white uniform. While we waited for the flight to be called, this girl spent the entire time on her phone - on two separate calls. Realize, this was 5:15 in the morning. Of course, she might have been talking to people in the Eastern Time Zone, which would have made it 6:15 for them. Still, pretty early. She talked incessantly, non-stop about some inane crap (those around her couldn’t help eavesdropping, as the terminal is pretty quiet at that hour of the morning). She talked all through the boarding process, and even as she got onto the plane when I lost track of her.

People do love to talk.

The Expectation Of Contact works both ways. People simply cannot be out of touch. There is a neurotic need to be able to be contacted. Most of my friends now have these super-neat iPhones or Blackberry’s. The internet in your pocket! Oh, if it would only stay in your pocket… When we go out - to eat, say - the phone gets placed on the table, face up so the owner can see any text messages or Facebook posts that come in. Because God-forbid someone might send you a message and you not receive it for an hour or so! The phone is consulted regularly, and many people I know think nothing of saying, “Hold on, I have to answer this,” and then responding to a text message.

The phone has become the third-party...the uninvited guest. When I first started noticing it, I used to get royally pissed-off. Now I shrug it off. It is what it is. In my opinion, people have become horribly rude and inconsiderate.

And there is nothing you can do about it. If you call to their attention how rude they’re being, they’ll simply deny it. To them, it is not rude at all. We live in the age of the Expectation Of Contact. Simple as that. The phone is not an intrusion anymore, it is a great societal benefit! Now, you don’t have to be separate from your friends and family merely because they’re not in your presence. They can still be here! At any gathering of people these days, cell phones are always out and always in use.

I must be old-fashioned. I leave my cell phone in the car when I go out to dinner or even to a bar. There is nobody that needs to get a hold of me that badly that it cannot wait. There is nobody I might suddenly, urgently need to call or text while I’m with other people. I don’t have to check Facebook that often.

I know that technology has brought us all kinds of tremendous devices that we simply cannot live without. And I know I’m being a Luddite, but sometimes I wish that cell phones had never been invented.

14 February 2010

Humor Me

I understand that everyone's sense of humor is different. And people do not always "get" mine. Pilots are not exactly a humorless bunch, but for the most part we take ourselves pretty seriously. You don't often hear a lot of joking around on our radios. ATC frowns on such frivolity. Controlling airplanes is serious business, and when the frequencies are crowded (as they can sometimes be), there simply is not any room for joking around. Thus, we speak in that clipped, "Roger, wilco" shorthand that people make fun of. (I was going to add here that we don't use "wilco" - will comply - anymore, but I do still hear it, along with a ton of other jargon.)

Recently, I was in the helicopter and had to stop for fuel at the small airport in Monroeville, Alabama. Since there's no airline service and not too much general aviation (i.e. non-airline) traffic, there's no control tower at Monroeville. Everyone just uses what we call "unicom" frequency, which is a sort of party-line channel on which we announce our intentions and whatnot.

I checked-in on the frequency as recommended, saying I was 10 miles south, inbound for landing. There were a few other airplanes flying around, making their appropriate radio calls. One guy who was preparing to take off keyed his microphone, and called the FBO (fixed base operator, or "the guy who pumps the gas"). He mentioned that there were some deer on the runway down at the end where he was, and that he would be delaying his departure until they were clear.

I couldn't resist. I keyed my mic and said, "Do they have that human-in-the-headlights look on their faces?"


After a bit, the original pilot goes, "Ahhh, they're clear now. They've moved off to the west." As if deer would linger on an asphalt patch of land on which AIRPLANES were regularly taking off and landing. Actually, they might stop to graze in the grass adjacent to the runway and suddenly dart out in front of an airplane, so the risk...to airplane drivers...is real. We helicopter pilots don't care; I usually just land right close to the terminal.

But nobody got my joke! Or at least, if they did they chose to ignore it. Probably the latter.

12 February 2010

In Praise of Betty White

The above picture was taken from an episode of the defunct tv series, "Boston Legal." It appears on many websites in many forms with many snarky captions, mostly concerning old people and the need to not piss them off. I'm sure you can come up with a few of your own right off the top of your head. It's great because it so goes against our image of Betty White. The wholesome, innocent Rose Nyland. The animal lover. Mrs. Nice Guy.

It seems like Betty White has been on television forever. And she's always been funny. She's so great. You've just got to love her. She's even a good sport. There's a commercial for Snickers candy bars with her and Abe Vigoda. Watch...

Such a fantastic commercial! Even if you pause the video it hard to see how they did it. Clever editing. At least let us hope they really didn't tackle Betty White. But God love her for letting herself be portrayed like that.

I found another commercial for Snickers that's pretty good too. (You know how I am about tv.)

Yes, that's really Aretha Franklin and really Liza Minnelli.

06 February 2010

Don't Stop

If you wake up and don't want to smile,
If it takes just a little while,
Open your eyes and look at the day,
You'll see things in a different way.

Don't stop,
thinking about tomorrow,
Don't stop,
It'll soon be here,
It'll be better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone.

Why not think about times to come,
And not about the things that you've done,
If your life was bad to you,
Just think what tomorrow will do.

Don't stop,
thinking about tomorrow,
Don't stop,
It'll soon be here,
It'll be better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone.

All I want is to see you smile,
If it takes just a little while,
I know you don't believe that it's true,
I never meant any harm to you.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” may just be the happiest, most optimistic song I’ve ever heard. It’s impossible to listen to it without succumbing to its infectious, upbeat sentiment. I don’t know what Christine McVie was going through when she wrote it, but it must have been profound. (Upon further research I find that it was apparently written either during or just after her divorce from Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie.)

I know some people for whom life is not going very well right now. Tough times, hard times, full of uncertainty, worry and doubt. In times like these it’s hard to remain positive…hard to believe that things can or will ever get better. I see the pain in my friends’ eyes. I encourage them to hang on, to have faith...to know that things will get better if they just believe they can. It’s usually not an easy sell.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Yesterday’s gone. Yesterday’s gone.

05 February 2010

Fog in the A.M. / Rain in the P.M.

When last we left off in my aeronautical adventures, I had gotten halfway through a day of bad weather. The morning flight to our destination had been hampered by fog. As I waited for the Boss to be finished with his meetings, I knew that lots of heavy rain was moving in from the southwest. The overall weather was not going to be too bad, but if you were stuck in an area of heavy precipitation, things could get ugly.

The Boss had promised that his meetings would not run long. Of course, as I predicted, he called around 2:30 and said he’d be ready to go at 3:45. But he’d obviously been watching the weather too.

“Are we going to hit any rain on the way back?” he asked.

“Ohhhhhhh yeah.”

And we did. It began shortly after picking him up. The further west we flew, the worse it got. From deviating around fog banks in the morning, we went to deviating around bad rain showers in the afternoon. As we got south of Montgomery, Alabama I began to have serious doubts as to whether we’d make it all the way. Montgomery was still a good option, as was the airport in Selma. But they were both in the wrong direction.

As a pilot, it’s always good to have Plans B, C, and D in your back pocket. Too many pilots are killed by an affliction we call “Get-home-itis." They become so focused on getting to the destination that they allow poor decision-making to cause them to crash. I do try hard to get where I'm going, but I don't really care if we can't. (And by "try hard" I mean that I use my collected experience and judgment to see if I can make the flight work.)

I don’t like flying in bad weather, but I’ve learned how to do it. And in a helicopter it’s simple: Be prepared to land. Wherever you are...just land. It's not that hard. And it has saved my butt more than once.

Twenty miles from the camp, things were not looking good. I had circled well to the north around a band of heavy rain, trying to out-think and out-maneuver nature, contemplating my next move, thankful that I had topped-off the fuel tank at the last stop and was only one-hour into my 3.5-hour endurance. (I hate being low on fuel.) It was getting towards sunset. Curse these short winter days! If I could, I was hoping to get to the Alabama River. It meanders back and forth crazily, but from Selma downstream there are no wires or obstructions to worry about. I knew I could get within its high banks and follow it right to the camp if necessary.

It wasn’t. We were just about at the river when we found the back side of that nasty cell. It was still raining, and the visibility still wasn’t great, but things were good enough for us to proceed. The problem with flying in bad rain is that you have to slow down. And when you do, the rain doesn’t streak off the windshield very well like it does at normal cruise speed. And no, we don’t have windshield wipers. Few small aircraft do. I could see out to the sides great! But out front, not so good.

We turned to follow highway 41 southbound, not because we had to, but because it would take us right to the dirt road that leads down to the camp. Going this way allowed me to make sure I’d miss the big, unlighted tower on a hill on the edge of the Boss’s property. We passed the tower, then the "Big Field." When I saw the shooting range, I started a slight deceleration. When our barn/heliport came into view I was at the right speed and on the right approach angle. All I had to do was reduce power and land. Almost like I knew what I was doing. The original plan was for me to just drop the Boss off and then head for Home Base.

He looked at me. “You’re not going to try and take off in this.” It wasn’t a question.

“Oh, noooooooo. I'll be staying here tonight.” Fortunately, staying at the “hunting camp” with our gourmet chef from tv's Hell’s Kitchen program is not exactly a hardship.

By the time I got the helicopter shut down and secured, it was pouring down rain again and fog was forming on the ground. The first thing I did was pop open a cold beer so there wouldn’t be even the slightest temptation to leave if the rain slacked off. But it didn't. It was too close to sunset anyway. And you know how I feel about flying at night.

Back when I worked in the Gulf of Mexico, life was simple. If we didn't have a good 500 foot ceiling and three miles of visibility, we just didn't go. Offshore, "500/3" were our company minimums for "cross-country" (meaning non-local) flying, and the higher-ups generally did not question you if you said it was below those values. I thought that "500/3" was quite "bad weather" at the time. But those offshore weather minimums seem awfully generous now.

Don't get me wrong - I fly on a lot of good-weather days too! They're just not as exciting and/or challenging. And the bad-weather days are a whole lot more "work." Lately, we've had some beautiful days where I can climb up to altitude, trim the helicopter up for cruise, and then just sit back and enjoy the ride. I've seen some stunning sunsets and some gorgeous sunrises from the helicopter, which is...at least to my mind...the best way to view them. I prefer those days. But in flying, you take the good with the bad.

04 February 2010

Calling All Friends

The way we hear and buy music is forever changed.

I was watching “Cougar Town” on tv last night. Towards the end, they played a song under the last few scenes, as tv shows do these days. It was a catchy melody with tight harmonies…something about “calling all friends.” Since my laptop was handy (it always is), I jumped on iTunes and keyed in that phrase. I was immediately rewarded with the result: A group called Low Stars. I had the album bought and downloaded before the episode ended.

It used to be, we’d hear new music on the radio. When I was a kid, we listened to Top-40 AM radio because that’s all there was. Artists recorded albums, and then released 45-rpm “singles” – songs that they and the record company hoped would be popular and spur sales either of the single itself of the whole album from which it came. Each week, the radio stations would introduce one or two of these new songs. Then they ranked them in terms of popularity (although sometimes it was just arbitrary on the part of the station).

In the 1970’s, “progressive rock” FM radio stations began playing a wider range of artists/bands, as well as more songs from the albums than just the singles.

In the 1980’s, MTV gave us videos to go along with the songs. We now got to see the bands, who could increase their popularity/sales if they were video-friendly (think Duran Duran)...and sometimes even if they weren't (Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister springs immediately to mind).

Vinyl records gave way to 8-track tapes (briefly), then cassette tapes, then CD’s. But we still had to go out to the record store to buy the music and see what else was on the album.

The internet gave us Napster, a “file sharing” (really: music swapping) network I never got into. But a couple of years ago Matt gave me an iPod as a gift. I’ve been downloading music ever since, and cannot remember the last time I went out and bought a music CD. It's just not going to happen anymore. In fact, I hardly listen to the radio anymore either. It is certainly not the first place I’d go to hear new music.

Television producers have figured this out. They began including music as an integral part of the show, not just as background music but often to set a mood. Maybe “Dawson’s Creek” (aimed at teenagers) was the first to exploit this. Other shows have followed suit. "Grey's Anatomy" is famous for it. Which brings us to last night’s episode of “Cougar Town.”

Actually, “Cougar Town” wasn’t the first use of “Calling All Friends.” ABC used it as the theme song for a short-lived series called “What About Brian” back in 2006. Obviously, somebody at ABC likes the group.

The Low Stars have been around since 2005 or so. According to Wikipedia, the founding members were sitting around on the porch, singing and playing. Someone from inside the house heard them and remarked that she missed that type of music. “That type of music” being harmonies like The Eagles, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. (I hear more than a little Poco in there as well, but that’s not surprising.)

Anyways, here’s Low Stars doing a “live” version of the song…

They look like they're having a good time, no? Although there are officially only two guys in the group, the lineup is variable, it seems. It grows and shrinks, depending on what they're doing at the time. They are intertwined with other artists, like Roseanne Cash and the Counting Crows. Their so far one-and-only self-titled album was released in 2007. A new one should be out this year.

If you like this sort of guitar-driven rock that’s not too heavy/not too light, then you might like the Low Stars. Personally, I love the album. Every cut is good, and some are outstanding. The slower songs are good too, but check, “Just Around The Corner.”

It is true that this music is a throwback. Just goes to show that even if the technology and means by which we access the music changes, some genres really are timeless.

02 February 2010

TV Commercials - The Good and Bad and the Really Great

As you know, I am fascinated by television, especially the commercials. Most of them are crap, of course, but when they're done well, they are awe-inspiring.

I honestly don't watch a lot of tv. When I do there are many things that catch my attention, both good and bad. And oh, there is plenty of bad! The current series of AT&T "3G coverage" commercials are dreadful. The guy they have in them is extremely annoying. Kit-Kat's new spot is just god-awful - the one where they bite, crunch and break the candy bar to the beat of their legacy, "Give me a break" jingle. Ugh.

Back in October, I lambasted Mass Mutual Insurance for their unoriginal, uninspired, and unimaginative overuse of Donovan's "Catch The Wind" song, which had already been used more effectively in two other commercials. We needn't rehash that mess.

On the other hand, there are some really good commercials. Target stores always has unique and innovative commercials. This past Christmas, they ran one for their electronics department. A father is trying to hook up a video camera to their big screen tv, which he has crouched down behind. His three sons are in the room, and one of them has the video camera zoomed in on the father's butt, which is displayed larger-than-life on the tv. The father keeps asking if they see anything, and the boys say no. Check out the kid on the couch with his face buried in the pillow. Even the mom is in on the fun. A wonderful, hilarious 15-second spot!

Speaking of good commercials, one of the best ones I've seen is for Travelers Insurance. Bear in mind, Travelers' logo has always been a red umbrella. Knowing this, the commerical makes more sense.

The 60-second spot is amazing. We see random scenes (mostly outdoor) on a beautifully clear day. They're almost still-life shots - there's hardly any movement within them. However, the camera pans slowly and continuously, never stopping, giving the spot a laid-back, slow-motion feel. As they cut from shot to shot, we start to see a bunch of floating red umbrellas - gradually at first, but they increase in number. Music is playing, a mid-tempo, pretty, piano and guitar thing. A male singer begins...

If you got worries
Then you're like me
Don't worry now
I won't hurt you...

The umbrellas settle onto various objects: the sorts of things that Travelers covers.

Finally, 47 seconds into the spot...almost at the very end!...the sponsor's voiceover begins. Very quietly, the appropriately deep-voiced announcer says, "When it comes to protecting the things you care about, leave nothing to chance. Travelers. Insurance for auto, home and business."

See for yourself.

The song is called "Worries" by a 29 year-old folk singer by the name of Sean Scolnick who calls himself Langhorne Slim. Letting them use his song for this commercial may possibly be the best thing Scolnick could ever do for his career.

I've watched this commercial over and over. Maybe it's not quite as good as the one for the VW Cabriolet I'm so fond of, but to me, the Travelers spot is just outstanding: simple, effective, memorable - a great combination of images and sound to get their message across without beating you over the head with it. Kudos to Travelers (and their ad agency) for putting the effort into making such a wonderful commercial.