Saturday, December 30, 2006

What The...?

This was the picture that greeted me as I woke up this morning:

Are you ready for 15 inches of snow, up here in Enchanted Hills? Across town, they recorded over 20 inches.

I'm happy I was able to witness a real, live snowstorm in New Mexico, before I head back to Dallas. The storm will delay my trip back by at least a day, now set for Monday... which means I won't be able to spend New Years Eve with my friends Monk and Quinn, for the first time in FOUR YEARS. On the flip side... another day to spend with family, yay.

It's been a good trip. I've spent a lot of time with my folks -- although much of it has been spent with me typing on the computer, finishing up End-Of-Year preparations for Aero-News. I was also able to secure a tour of Eclipse Aviation's facilities around the Sunport. I took Mom with me. She loved it... and got to see a little of what her little boy does for a living.

I've also gotten to see all my friends back here, and actually spend meaningful time with them. Well, except for one: the snow Friday kept me from having lunch with my friend Sebastian, who flies for America West. As I just saw him last month out in Dallas, that wasn't too bad... but we were supposed to meet at Sadie's, that most quintessential of all New Mexican restaurants. 
Rats. No green chile fix again.

Other news... I called ahead this week to get the results of my CT scan, the first one since the lung scare. All was normal. Phew.

Need I say I hope this year is a bit better than the last one? At least 2006 is ending on a positive note.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Devil's Car?

It hit me yesterday, when I called the local Mazda store to make a service appointment for the New Car. The 'Check Engine' light has taken to flashing when it's cold outside... totally unacceptable in a car with only 3,700 miles on it.

"What year is your car?" 2006

"Make?" Mazda, duh. I'm calling a Mazda service department because I hear you guys do great work on Lexuses, and all that lush carpeting, leather furniture and free champagne in their service departments all struck me as a bit gauche. I want Formica and laminate tile, damn it!

"Model?" 6. That's either a really cool name for a car, or a really stupid one. Haven't decided which. (An entirely new post could be devoted to 'remember when cars had actual names?' Technically, it's referred to as a "Mazda6," one word. Which is even cooler. Or dumber.)

"Engine?" V6.

A pause. "That's a lot of sixes," the advisor says with a laugh.

I'd never really thought about it... but yeah, three sixes, all in a row. Cue ominous music. I silently begged the advisor to ask what kind of transmission it has, so I could emphatically shout "6-speed automatic! Yeah! FOUR sixes! The Curse is lifted!"

Actually, I find this entire exchange highly ironic. For starters, I don't buy into the whole "Devil's Number" thing... although I do suspect George W. is the Antichrist (although I would think Satan would have picked someone smarter. And more likable. And did I mention smarter?)

I've also referred to the 6 as something of a good luck charm -- only partly joking -- because the news on the medical front started getting better as soon as I got it. I know there aren't really such things as "good luck charms" and omens, but still... I got the same feeling when, after I got home from a doc appointment back in early October (I've forgotten which doctor it was) I heard an odd sound overhead. I looked up just as a Piaggio Avanti came buzzing overhead, to land at Addison. I was heartened by the sight, and took it as a positive sign. And as far as I know, it worked.

I've taken to looking for signs. No, that's not quite right. I'm SEEING signs everywhere... and they're making me feel very hopeful.

And as for owning the Devil's Car? Well, the devil you know...

Thursday, December 7, 2006

I Wish The Weather, And NASA, Would Make Up Their Minds

Just a quick post as I listen to the NASA TV broadcast of the countdown for the launch of the shuttle Discovery, in about 45 minutes from now. Contrary to the best guesses of nearly everyone, the clouds and winds that have plagued the Kennedy Space Center all day appear to be lifting.

As a reporter and a space fan I'm happy to see it... I can't begin to say how juiced I get watching these launches... but as a TIRED reporter, I was kinda hoping to put this story to bed hours ago with the headline "NASA Delays Discovery Launch Due To Clouds, Rain". Instead, I'm providing ANN REALTIME UPDATES on a launch that appears will actually happen (now in 40 minutes... it took me five minutes to type one three-sentence paragraph?)

I promised an AOPA Expo update in my last post. In an odd bit of kismet... and a stroke of timing... just as I had recovered from the biopsy, my boss went down with the worst case of the flu I have ever seen (him too.) That meant he couldn't attend AOPA Expo... meaning the entire three-day affair was The Rob Show, assisted by His Merry Band Of Aero-Fools.

And it went... well. I had great writers (one of which has since been let go... drat) and I also put in three days of solid work, both in writing and in managing a six-person staff. Everyone had nice things to say about the job I did. I also had the chance to speak with some big names in the industry, most notably AOPA president Phil Boyer.

I also did an extended audio interview with Alan Klapmeier, the very affable co-founder of Cirrus Design. The topic of the interview was safety... but he started out by telling me how his father had suffered a bout of histoplasmosis, as well, about 10 years ago. How we got on that subject is another story.

Something I noticed... last year, AOPA was the second event I covered after just being hired F/T by ANN. Being the staff newbie in more ways than one, I spent most of that show being told what to do, and looking up at the grown-ups Who Knew So Much More Than I Did. This year... I wasn't looking up to them. I was looking them in the eye, asking questions that I expected answers to. It was an awesome experience.

(Rats! The weather just tanked at KSC once again... this is gonna come down to the wire.)
I'd better get back to work... one way or another, I'll need to do a lot of fast writing in the next few minutes.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand, Six Hundred Minutes

"525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes -- how do you measure, measure a year?
"In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.
"In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
"In 525,600 minutes -- how do you measure a year in the life?" -- from "Rent"

One year ago today, just after noon Central time, my life changed forever. I didn't really know it at the time... but I kind of did, too. That lingering voice that tells you, "your worst fear is no longer what you thought it was."

A year ago today, just after talking on the phone with an acquaintance in New Mexico, I took a shower... and noticed something wrong "down there." The actual diagnosis would follow six weeks later, after I'd made one trip back to Omaha, two trips to Albuquerque, and had two different doctors say it was probably nothing to worry about.

But one year ago today, the first evidence presented itself that I had testicular cancer.

You could give me nothing that would make me want to relive the last 365 days. Nothing. I wish every day I hadn't gone through it, and that I didn't have to face the uncertainty for the rest of my life that something may crop up yet again. Yeah, I know the odds of that are about the same as they are for everyone else out there... but I've gone through it already, and I have to face the question "what if it comes back?" every month as I get another x-ray or CT scan, and have to hear the results from Dr. B.

If this sounds pitying, it's not meant to. It's meant to sound angry. Pissed. Resentful. But at the same time, I also want to rub the devil's nose in it. You tried to scare me, and succeeded. But I'm still here, and everyone tells me I'm healthy. For two days out of every month, I'm scared... but I do all I can to live my life as usual for the other 28 (or 29... or 26 in February, except on leap years...)

The past three months, in particular, made me question a lot in my life... including the very question of whether I wanted to continue on this path, period. The uncertainty and fear from the news "we see something on your lung" made me feel every emotion under the sun... and for every moment I felt confident, there are three where I wallowed in fear and self-doubt.

But I still woke up every day, I still did my job, and I still managed to laugh at jokes and cry for reasons other than my own situation. There is a victory in that, a big one. And without realizing it, somewhere along the line I think I grew up a lot more than I ever had before.

"I was scared, not only because of what you were facing, but also I was scared how you'd handle it," my friend Lee told me this weekend. "You'd call and sound so depressed, and then I wouldn't hear from you for days... but just when I would say that I was going to find a reason to be in your neighborhood, just so I could drop by and check on you... you'd call to let me know the latest. And you always sounded stronger."

"I've seen how you've handled adversity in the past," Lee said. "Not very well." (OK, so there was that ONE time he rescued me from Fresno... and he's also seen me in the aftermath of three other breakups... yeah, he has a point.) "But this time you faced it, and you handled yourself very well."

That floored me... but not as much as something my Mom told me, the night before she went back home last month.

I didn't want Mom to go back home, but I knew there was really no reason for her to stay here. I was recovering from the biopsy well, the incisions were healing nicely, and I was due to go to Palm Springs in the next week.

But for the moment, I was little Robbie Finfrock again, who didn't want his mommy to leave him at kindergarten alone with the other kids. This time around, I wasn't crying... on the outside, anyway... but I also felt less than confident I could resume life as normal.

I will never forget what my Mom told me, as I grabbed a drink from the refrigerator while pretending to be a lot more self-assured than I really felt.

"You're my hero."

She could tell I was about to question her by the look in my eyes. "Throughout all of this, I know you've been scared. I know there were times you cursed God, and felt sorry for yourself, and felt so depressed you wondered why you should go on. But you've also shown how strong you can be. You have handled all of this so well, Rob... better than I ever could have. I'm so proud of you... and you're my hero."

I don't think I'll ever be able to tell that story... or type it on a computer screen... without my eyes welling up. They are now. Both of my parents have never failed to be supportive of me, to be there for me. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to say that.

And I know that, had I gotten cancer two years ago... I don't think I would have been able to handle it the same way as those around me say I have handled it now. The same way I know I've handled it today.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes ago... my life changed forever. And in the minutes since, I proved to myself... and to those I love... that I could handle it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


One year ago this Thanksgiving, I moped around the apartment all day. I declined invitations to two Thanksgiving celebrations, claiming illness. By the end of the day, I had something close to a migraine headache... so you could say it was self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess. Or, in hindsight, it could have been something else.

I am very aware of the chain of events that have anniversaries coming up. Tuesday marks one year since I lost my Grandpa. One week after that, is the anniversary of the day I first noticed "something wrong down there," two days before Mom and I went up to Omaha for my grandfather's funeral mass. Six weeks after that day -- all Tuesdays -- I was diagnosed with TC. Winter was very cold last year.

And here I am... one year later. It's a beautiful day in Dallas, sunny and 70 degrees. It was cold and rainy last year. In the year since, I have become a strong believer in signs, and in harbingers. For the record, today... I feel great.

Soon I'll be heading over to my friends' brand new house, to watch football and gorge myself on turkey. I'm bringing a green bean casserole I made, using Grammie's recipe. She can't be here this year... and I couldn't be up in Omaha, or with my Mom & Dad in Albuquerque... but we're all together in spirit.

You see... this family has always been stronger than distance. I've really come to realize that in the past 12 months... especially in the past three.

It's the truth.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

# 3 Clipper Cut, Trim The Sideburns, Block It In The Back

There's a phrase I really didn't think I'd be saying so soon... as I really didn't expect to still have hair. But I had to say it today, when I got a haircut before heading to the airport to catch my flight to Palm Springs for AOPA... which is something else I didn't expect to be able to do, if you'd asked me a month ago.

I'm still living in a surreal quasi-state between what is real, and what I feel like I'm watching in a movie. It's like the last two-and-a-half months happened to someone else. The apartment is starting to feel like "mine" again, meaning I'm adjusting to living alone after having Mom and Abby stay for the past three weeks. I took Mom back to Amarillo to meet Dad last Saturday.

And it all still feels rushed. No one was expecting Mom to be able to go home so soon -- no, strike that. She maintained all along this was a False Alarm, "it looks like cancer but I don't think it is," "we've crossed the main hurdle already." This, as my oncologist had planned to start me on chemo.

The good money was on me being on chemo right now. It's a bet Vegas would have taken.
But the odds have been defied. I'm not the kind of person who usually does that. The doctors say I've won the battle. It's Not Cancer. The gun wasn't loaded. The grenade didn't go off.

I can't describe how good -- and how unreal -- it felt to walk into Great Clips this afternoon.

"Number three clipper cut, trim the sideburns, block it in the back... same as last time." And the same as next.

Monday, November 6, 2006

30 Days

It's not cancer. If only Abby could have told me that...

After the initial scare, after the weeks of waiting, after the moments of hope followed by the moments of fear... after meeting Mom and Dad in Amarillo to pick Mom (and Abby!) up so she could stay with me during the biopsy and recovery... and after receiving cautionary good news that, amazingly, didn't change... it's not cancer.

My God. Amen.

Instead, I picked up some kind of respiratory bug sometime this year... and it managed to do a pretty good impression of cancer on the CT scans and PET scan.

I had the biopsy done October 17. The docs collapsed my left lung and everything, to remove the growth. A frozen dissection of the swollen lymph node showed it was reacting to the lung growth, and wasn't itself cancerous.

The surgeon -- who told me before I went under he suspected it was nothing more than "fleas and ticks," as he put it -- confirmed that suspicion to my Mom in the waiting room, after my two hour surgery. "It's nothing. He'll be fine. Fleas and ticks."

We're still waiting on the definitive answer of what, exactly, I managed to catch. Turns out the hospital didn't draw all the necessary blood to run a second set of tests, to identify what breed of fungus I managed to breathe in (I won't get into the creepy, morphine-fueled dream I had in the hospital the night after they told me, where I had mushrooms growing on my arms.)

But the docs aren't very concerned... people breathe in these things all the time. Sometimes, they make us sick... most often, we never really think anything of it. This appears to be one of those "bugs" people talk about having, that they can't seem to shake, but live with for awhile without very much further thought. The difference is, most people don't get regularly-scheduled CT scans.

Dr B, my oncologist, was downright giddy at last Monday's follow-up appointment... which was originally scheduled to start me on the chemo he expected I'd have to go on. Instead, he did a cursory exam, before more or less tossing me out of his office with the blessing, "go live your life. Oh, and did you ever get that car?"

So it's back to normal. Mom and Abby went back to ABQ Saturday... even with everything going on, it was great having her here, and it was a very nice visit. And later this week, I'm flying to Palm Springs, to cover the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Expo show.

I gotta tell you... one month ago, I did not expect this to be the way things would turn out.

Wow. And Amen

Monday, October 23, 2006

What Kind Of Year Has It Been?

Or, When Coccidioidomycosis Is The Least Of Your Concerns

One week ago, I went under the knife to finally -- as in, after close to two months of anxious waiting -- determine what had caused a nodule to swell up on my left lung, and one of my lymph nodes to go through the roof inflammation-wise. As I wrote here many times after my initial "uh-oh" following a CT scan in August, the fear was that my cancer had come back. TC typically hits the lymphatic system... and while the lungs are less likely to metastasize, it's been known to happen (as it did for arguably the most famous testicular cancer survivor to date, Lance Armstrong.)

So, after weeks of tests and various stalling procedures by Blue Cross Blue Shield, I had my biopsy done Tuesday morning. I woke up in the recovery room four hours later, doped to the gills on morphine and barely aware of, well, anything, except the nurses coming in every two hours to take my blood ox level and heart rate.

But the preliminary news was encouraging.

"Your lung nodule was definitely an infection, and not cancer," my oncologist said with a cheer in his voice Wednesday. "And so far, everything shows your lymph node (which was located near the affected lung) was reacting to that. You're doing OK, my friend," Dr. B added -- the first time he's ever called me that.

More tests, more doctors before I was discharged Thursday at noon -- with all of them saying more or less the same thing. "It looks like an infection." "The frozen dissection of the lymph node was reactionary, not indicative of a tumor." "Maybe it's mold."

So... what is it? Well, we don't know for sure yet -- and there's still a chance some oblique test may show a trace of Something Bad -- but the infectious disease doctor who came by to see me Thursday morning seemed VERY interested in the fact I was from New Mexico, and had just been back in August -- right before the CT showed the swellings.

"You may have valley fever," he told me. Which isn't a walk in the park -- it's a fungal infection, common in dry, windy locations -- but it's not cancer, either. It's also not contagious, and only rarely life-threatening. So far, it seems my body was doing its job in combating the infection... and it's likely I never would have noticed anything other than a croupy cough, except that I get CT scans done every three months as part of the observation regime for TC. It probably would have gone away on its own.

So... good news. I'm still scared, of course -- a trait I've determined will follow me for the rest of my life -- but the news is a LOT better than we could have hoped for a week ago at this time. I haven't allowed myself the luxury of relief yet... that comes when ALL the tests are back... but I have noticed my blood pressure has dropped noticeably in the past seven days.

But, I mean, wow... what a difference a year makes. If you would have told me then...

Friday, October 13, 2006


Well, we finally have movement on the medical front. The PET scan last week showed two areas of concern: the lung nodule (that lit up "lukewarm" -- may or may not be a big deal) and an inflamed lymph node (that showed "hot" -- meaning it is likely cancer, although there remains a chance it's not). 

My biopsy -- the surgeon will remove both nodules -- is scheduled for Tuesday at 11:30 am. I'm driving to pick up Mom (and Abby) tomorrow, so she can stay with me through whatever may come. We don't have a return date yet.

All in all, I was having more fun last week. Although the shadow of "the scan showed two areas of possible metastasis" -- there's a truly ugly word -- loomed over me, I was still able to kind-of get away from it all and escape to Galveston for a weekend retreat. I admit it... for 36 hours, I ran away from my problems as much as I could.

I spent most of the trip in the car... driving to and from the coast, driving around Galveston, driving onto and off of the ferry between the Island and Port Bolivar. I've always been very respectful of water -- I still don't know how to truly "swim," although an ex of mine taught me enough to fake it, and not drown in a pool -- and there's just something about looking out over an open sea, and not seeing land anywhere. I also saw about 30 dolphins. It was humbling, vaguely spiritual... and just what I needed.

If only I could have stayed.

I'll probably need to go on chemotherapy. I don't yet know how bad that will be. Dr. B reassured me it won't be as bad as I've heard... yes, I'll lose my hair, but it will grow back as soon as I'm off it. I'll also feel weak, and nauseous -- although "very few people puke their guts out anymore," he tells me (that's an altogether weird and unexpected statement from my usually reserved, very proper Indian oncologist. It was also appreciated.) In the meantime, I'll miss two trade events I wanted to go to -- X Prize Cup in Las Cruces next week, and the AOPA convention in Palm Springs next month) but at least I should still be able to work through it all.

Here's to having a job I can do from home... on my back, if necessary, working on a laptop computer.

Yeah... last year at this time was a lot more fun. Saying my goodbyes from my former coworkers at AG, the Triumphant Hero going off to His New Career. I've played the "what would I have said then had someone told me here's where I'd be in a year" game... and I don't have an answer, other than benign resignation.

It wasn't too long ago I wrote that I considered cancer an almost-fair tradeoff for the good that's happened in my life this past year. Well, now I don't know anymore. At the same time, though... I'm looking forward to what next year might bring, when I'm past this.
Sometimes, that's almost enough.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Month In Hell

Goodbye, September. Eleven months before I see you again will still be too soon.

This has been a month in hell for me. The worry, the fear, the doubt, the sleepless nights, the phantom pains, the ever present anxiety, the placing of my entire life on hold. The tests, and the waiting for the results. The questions, and lack of answers. The bureaucratic mess and heartless decisions that delayed Blue Cross/Blue Shield approving a test that could have answered many of those questions by now.

I will not cry when you leave, and the calendar turns to October. With that turn comes a new month, and new concerns. My PET scan is scheduled for the 3rd... but at least I can carry into the month with some hope now, and an optimism I did not have on August 31st, when the calendar changed and this goddamned farce began.

I had my consult with Dr. B today. There is a lot of potentially good news to report... the lymph node growths that are of concern have remained the same size... one has gotten smaller... since the August CT scan. Tumors don't shrink... they can remain the same size for awhile, but TC usually grows quickly. So, PGN (Possible Good News) #1.

PGN #2: No tumor markers are present in my blood.

PGN #3: All other scans are clean.

That's the good news. Here's the questionable stuff --

There remains one area of concern: the nodule on my left lung has grown from 8 mm to 13 mm. That could be a tumor... or, it could be scarring from some kind of respiratory infection. My allergies - or something - have been kicking my tail since heading back to NM, and this could all be from that. Dr. B prescribed an antibiotic to see if that clears the congestion up... if it does, then that could be another sign that this is, well, nothing.

I finally have the PET scan scheduled for next Tuesday, 3 pm. If that shows anything amiss, then all bets are off and we start thinking cancer again. But even Dr. B saw this as good news ("with qualifications"), which is a sign to me that maybe, just maybe... this has all been much ado about nothing.

I hope and pray.

I'll be awake when September ends... because I want to change each and every one of my calendars to October as soon as I can.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

...And God Spoke

Today is D-Day. Today is the day I find out the results of the bevy of tests I had this week (is two enough to warrant a "bevy?" I'm saying yes here). Those tests will tell me and my oncologist -- or at least give a decent idea -- whether or not my cancer has returned. My consult is at 1:00 pm.

But this isn't about that, really. It's related to it... but this post is really about an unbelievable bit of reassurance and comfort I received Thursday, in the most unlikely of places. I was not expecting it, and I did not ask for it... but it was exactly what I needed, without even knowing it.

And as pithy and self-righteous as the title of this post may sound... for the life of me I can't think of a better way to sum up what I'm feeling right now.

First, some background. As I mentioned in recent posts, I recently bought a new car -- a Mazda 6. I first went to the dealership last month, two days before I found out that my cancer may have recurred. It took me three weeks -- three tough weeks -- before I decided I was of clear-enough mind to go ahead and buy the car, with all that was going on. I haven't regretted the decision; I love the car (although I still miss the GA... and the GA's sunroof.)

Anyway... yesterday, I took the new car back to the dealership to pick up my new license plates. I also had a detail coming to me (although I've washed the car three times since I've had it, waxed it once, and it wasn't really 'dirty') and I was waiting in the dealership's showroom for that to be done when one of the sales managers walked up to me. I'd chatted with him a few times during the buying process, and I shook his hand as he asked me how I was enjoying the new car.

"Hey, got a second?" he asked me.

We chatted a bit about the new showroom fixtures being installed at the dealership, as per Mazda dictate ("I think it's all just a way for Mazda to sell furniture," he quipped) and then lowered his voice.

"Just so you know... I went through what you're now going through about 10 years ago."
It took me a second to understand what he was talking about... and it hit me just as he said, "TC. I had it, and had my last round of chemo right before my 35th birthday."

He told me about his experience. How he discovered he had it, and how it affected him. He told me about the "fucking asshole" urologist who had told him "he had good news and bad news"... where the good news was it was treatable. And he answered my questions... all of which were much more personal than the typical "car salesman/customer" relationship normally allows.
He told me about his experience being on chemo... the hair loss ("I looked like Grasshopper from the Kung Fu movies"), the sickness, the smell.

"And here it is 10 years later -- I got testicular cancer before it was 'cool' -- and I'm doing fine. It's never come back."

It never occurred to me to ask who told him I was going through this -- I'd told the salesman when he called me the day I found out, August 28, to let me know they'd agreed to the numbers I'd wanted -- and it never occurred to me to be at least a little pissed that my health was the subject of gossip at a car dealership.

Fact is... he didn't have to say anything. It's not a story a lot of men would feel comfortable sharing with a relative stranger. But he chose to share his story, because he felt it would help me. And it did.

For the first time this month... first time this year... I was able to talk to someone who had gone through what I am going through now, and reassure me in a way no one else I know could right now. At a car lot. What are the odds?

We talked for about 15 minutes, before the salesman came back with my now-even-cleaner car. I shook his hand again -- a grateful wringing -- and thanked him for telling me.
"No problem. And if you ever need to talk, or have any questions, you know how to reach me here."
I left the dealership feeling... heartened. And with a sense of reassurance I haven't had in the past month. For the first time, I felt I really knew, and believed, that even if the diagnosis is bad... it's not the end of the world.

I can't begin to describe what I'm feeling now, as I write about this. I am still scared... terrified... and I still expect the worst today. But there's also this feeling of genuine hope now... of optimism... and, of gratitude, to both my fellow TC survivor and also... well, you know.

And God spoke, and sent me a sign even I... not the most religious person, especially lately... believe to be heaven-sent. 

Sunday, September 17, 2006

My Birthday Gift To Me

Sometimes, you just have to say "what the hell, if I'm going to have to go to the hospital I might as well have fun getting there." 

Tuesday is the day I go in for my PET scan. It's also my 31st birthday... and this weekend, I decided to treat myself, by purchasing the car I had my eye on the weekend before I found out about the possible cancer recurrence.

Well, this isn't the same car, per se... as that one was "Dark Cherry" red, had a moonroof, spoiler, and ground effects, and cost $2K more. For possibly the first time ever, I willingly moved downmarket to a) save money, and b) because I honestly liked this car better than the earlier one. This one still has the good stuff, though - 6 cylinder, a six-speed (!) automatic transmission (with manual shift control), ABS, traction control and airbags galore.

And it is seriously fun to drive. To quote Ferris Bueller: "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." Granted, he was talking about a 1961 Ferrari, but still.
I picked up the car Saturday night... and proceeded to drive around DFW for the next few hours. Sunday morning (before football) I drove back up to the dealership to get these shots of the New Car with the Old Car, my beloved Grand Am (and I seriously did love that car, flaws and all.)

There's a saying -- don't change horses in midstream. Well, here I am up to my neck in fast-moving water, lamenting how I never learned to swim... and I decide to get a new horse. I admit, there is little logic to it (except for the possibility that, should she need to come down here to stay with me during my treatments, my mom can drive the Mazda as it's an automatic).

But ya know something? Life isn't about logic, I'm rapidly finding out.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Happy Thoughts... And The Lessons You Learn

Update... the 19th is the date for my PET scan, with the results likely known the next day or Thursday. So, the birthday week will be an interesting one. I'm starting to REALLY understand why "may you live in interesting times" is considered a curse.

This week has been spent throwing myself into work, as I fight off increasingly common panic attacks. Nerves have taken their toll -- I registered a BP of 162 over 91 Tuesday on the tester at Kroger's down the street, after a particularly stressful series of phone conversations with doctors' offices, health clinics and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Which still hasn't actually approved the PET. But I need it anyway... and sooner is better than later in this case. It will either be a $400 bill for me.... or $4000. Funny how money stops being a paramount concern in times like this.

While she's forgiven me, and said she understood, I still feel bad that I cursed at my oncologist's PA on Monday when I called. "You told me last month, 'we think you may have cancer again... come back in three weeks and we'll tell you for certain.' That's fucking heartless, Kathy." I immediately told her I was sorry, and I knew it wasn't her fault or Dr. B's. This is just the way it's done with insurance companies... and, fortunately, mine is not the highest-priority case out there. Even if I do have cancer, and it's spread in the past three weeks... this kind expends most of its energy in growing, and relatively little in sticking around. That's why drugs kill it quickly (a relative term.) Anyway, she said she understood completely... odds are, I'm not the first person to say that.

Through all this, a thought has entered my mind that's been kind of hard to squelch. Last year at this time, as I was on my high from preparing to leave AG for Aero-News (I put in my notice in one year ago today)... someone fairly close to me was going through Something Bad, and I turned a blind eye to it. A part of me knew something was up with this person... but I ignored it, because I was so focused on My Happy Life, My New Wondrous Adventure.

Events later showed that something WAS up... and we haven't spoken since. We probably never will again. If there is one thing the ordeal these past nine months has taught me, though, it's a greater sense of empathy. I always thought I had it... but you never really know how callous you can be to those you care about, until you experience a little of the pain they go through yourself.

And so I say to this person, if they happen to read this... I understand now what you were feeling... at least more now than I could have before. I know what it's like to live in fear of something inside you rising up, no matter how you may try to suppress it, impossible as that can be. I know now how you were able to hold it together to those around you... while inside you were terrified, and completely convinced no one else could possibly understand what you were facing... until you simply break down in despair. Only then can you start to rebuild yourself, and become strong.

To my once-friend... and someone who I still think of quite often... I am so sorry I fell down at being your friend when you needed one.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Waiting Is The Hardest Part

I haven't posted anything new since I was told that my previous cancer may be back, this time in two swollen lymph nodes in my chest. Alas, that's because here we are, two weeks later... and I still don't really know anything new.

I have talked with the surgeon who would perform a biopsy, if one is needed. He recommended I first undergo a PET scan, which is like a CT scan but using a glucose-based solution (instead of iodine contrast) and that it is a full-body scan, unlike a localized CT. He recommended this step for a couple reasons. One, should the nodes prove to be suspect (the glucose causes them to light up -- show "hot", if you will -- if they're cancerous), the PET will give him a better idea which one to go after for the biopsy -- as neither is in the most accessible location (damn ribs and internal organs).

The second reason is one I'm trying not to read too much hope into. There's a chance... actually, a fairly good one... that both nodes will show up "cold", meaning it's not cancer that caused them to swell but instead something else. There are many things that could cause that to happen -- normal body stuff, for one, or perhaps an infection or inflammation of some kind. But we won't know for sure until I undergo the PET scan... and hence, the wait.

As it is an expensive test, we're waiting for insurance to approve it. Welcome to the modern healthcare system. As the request was submitted after Labor Day, it will likely take at least a week for an approval to come back. My doctor only performs PET scans on Tuesdays... which, unless something miraculous happens today, means my next chance falls on the 19th.

Happy fucking 31st birthday to me.

As you can tell, I'm bitter. I had a lot planned for the rest of this year, including at least getting my sport pilot ticket. Now, as occurred in January when this whole ordeal started, I'm in a holding pattern again. Except back in January, I had no time to be scared -- everything happened so fast, I had little time to contemplate everything until it was already over.

This time... I've had plenty of time to contemplate the various worst case scenarios (which, it's worth noting, are still better than many diagnosed with cancer can claim.) Chemo. Hair loss. Possible sterility from the chemo -- my oncologist is recommending the sperm bank again. (Gee, yeah, THAT'S what I feel like doing right now.) And, yes... my own mortality.

God, I wish they'd approve this damn test. Even bad news is better than none.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's Back. Maybe

Just when life starts to return to normal...

Last week's CT revealed two small growths: one on a lymph node in my chest, and another on my left lung. The lung could be anything -- TC doesn't spread that way, and I don't smoke -- but the small (1.8 mm) shadow on my lymph node is of concern. I found out Monday; I am still awaiting word if it will need to be biopsied. It probably will... and while people can develop growths like this for a multitude of reasons, many of which are completely benign... my past history points to it being cancer.

Worst case scenario: it's chemo time. Which means this year will end with me losing my hair... ALL my hair... and shedding some major weight. As you can tell, I'm choosing to focus on the positive. Best case is the biopsy reveals it to be nothing, after which point my normal observation regiment resumes, with a wary eye on the lung growth.

In an ironic twist, I was THIS close Saturday to buying a new Mazda 6. The numbers weren't where I had wanted them, so I walked away. Then came Monday... and with the news of a possible recurrence of cancer, comes a cheery call from the dealership saying "okay, you win... come in and sign the papers."

I have changed my mind at least eight times on whether to go for it, despite everything. I'm currently in the "don't" phase... but when this is all behind me, that's the first place I'm going.

It had better be soon.

Friday, August 4, 2006


Wow... I had to be reminded by my good friend Monk that it's been two years (and now five days) since we arrived in the land of the Big D. As usual, Monk expressed his concern with the appropriate measure of discourse -- "DUDE, What Is Your Problem???"  With friends like these...

Thing is, I actually have been busy... recovering from Oshkosh (not the same experience as it was last year... but still very cool) and preparing to head out to Albuquerque to spend a couple of weeks with the folks... and at least a few days off from ANN. It will be my first vacation this year that won't involve surgery, and I intend to enjoy it.

I also just finished reading Jimmy Buffett's "A Pirate Looks At Fifty" -- I'm becoming quite the Parrothead lately, as I discover he's a surprisingly good writer of both books and songs -- where he starts by summing up his life in 400 words... and then proceeds to spend 300 pages expounding on those 400 words. Well, as I don't have the time to write a book (as it's taken me 10 years to write the one I'm working on now) I think I'll follow his example and sum up the last two years as best I can, as succinctly as I can.

Arrived in Dallas. Got lost on way into town. Banged on steering wheel of U-Haul in frustration. Monk will never let me live this down. Found apartment. Unloaded truck in half hour. Pissed off other movers. Lost wallet. Followed Quinn and Monk to their new house. Discovered wallet lost. Drove back across town. Found wallet on floor of apartment. Truck was unloaded by time I returned to M&Q's place. Started old job in new city. Cramped office. Same vibe. Goodbye, Focus -- hello Grand Am. Moved to new office. Crappy cubicles, no privacy. Still able to check out Internet often. Restarted flying lessons. Stopped speaking to a friend. Solo again. Wrap up shooting on skating vid with Monk. Friend Jen visits from ABQ. Parents come down for Thanksgiving, cook real meal for the first time. Parents watch as I biff a landing. It ends well. Christmas in ABQ. Discover upon return that Dallas is already feeling like "home." Non-speaking friend apologizes. Life goes on. Sprain right wrist playing hacky-sack at work. Go out for St. Patrick's Day anyway. Can barely drive manual-transmission-car home. Wrist heals. Friend stops speaking to me again. Head to ABQ for vacation, have interesting experience in Las Cruces. Arrive back in Dallas. Cop a ride on the company Piaggio Avanti (above). Way cool. Send in resume to Aero-News for stringer job. Wait patiently for response. Give up on hearing back. Plan summer trip to Albuquerque. I hear from Aero-News! Plans change, heading to OSH instead. Burn out from the customer service gig at AG. Switch to traffic. Have a blast in Wisconsin. ANN offers me a part-time job. Life changes forever. Apologize to non-speaking friend when I return. Other friends promoted. Start weekend editor job. Plan my escape from AG. Get a handle on traffic job. Friend stops speaking to me again. Second verse, same as first. Apologize again, resumes speaking to me two days later. It won't last. Finally get firm date on F/T job with ANN. Put in notice at old job six weeks early. Boss is not surprised, wishes me well. Turn 30. Start feeling old. Leave AG on great terms October 29. Friend makes herself absent when I say goodbyes. And so it goes. Old boss drives me to airport to start new job. All my life's a circle. AOPA, NBAA, back to Dallas. Find I missed it. Lose my grandpa. Discover something "weird" with my body December 6. Ignore it. Head to Omaha for funeral, then ABQ for Christmas. Have to return home hurriedly due to computer problems. Head back out in January. "Weird" thing gets diagnosed. TC. Mom rushes to Dallas, has to fill a gas tank by herself for first time in 25 years. Does so for her little boy. Have surgery. Single scariest experience of my life. Good news -- cancer seems limited to what was removed, on observation for next three years. "No lasting effects." Phew. Still scared. Start shooting second skating vid with Monk. Put on brave face at Sun 'n Fun in April, find still tired. Recovery takes longer than expected. Folks come down for Easter. Finally start feeling "normal" in May. Hire weekend editor, lose weekend editor, hire weekend editor, lose weekend editor. Pay off final residual debt from Fresno. Decide to stay in Dallas for another year. Apartment feels like "home," doctors are here. Others find Dallas to be "home", too. One even buys a new house. Never thought I'd see that. Miss friend. Life seems about right for most people in my life.

Here's to another year

Friday, July 21, 2006

Life's Been Good To Me (So Far)

I should be working right now. I have literally 7,000 words to write in readying sponsor "thank you" messages to run starting Sunday night, thanking them for ponying up the bucks it takes to send 15 people -- myself included -- up to Oshkosh for the week. That, in addition to posting the site... and posting ahead, so nothing is missed while myself and others are on airplanes these next few days... and assorted other OSH-related projects I've been assigned. It's been a fun week... and I have to run to the airport in three hours.

Again, I should be doing it all as I sit here, writing this instead... but here's why I'm not.

I just got back from having lunch with a good friend of mine, Sebastian. I first met him in the summer of 2002, while I was working at DMC. As a lot of you know, that job is pretty much responsible for introducing me to flying... as that August, the company sent me up to Farmington, NM to cover a ground route. I rode in one of DMC's clapped-out Cessna 310s to get there and back -- N591DM. Sebastian was the pilot.

It was Sebastian who introduced me to flying... who first let me take the controls of an airplane (and who then proceeded to show me what a C310 could do -- "you don't have to be so ginger on the controls... see?" he asked, before kicking the plane into a 50 degree bank). I didn't realize how hooked I was, until later, after I'd been back on the ground for awhile... and realized that boy, do I want to be able to do all that myself.

That flight was the proverbial butterfly in China, that kicks up a hurricane in Tampa. A friend of Sebastian's, John, had just gotten his instructor's rating... and was looking for students. John was my first flight instructor, I was his first student, and his training has stuck with me to this day... and will be there for the days to come. He took me through my first solo flight... and would have led me to my checkride, had we both not moved from ABQ a short time after -- him and his wife to Florida, and me, of course, to Dallas.

My flights with John in N9566H, N12341, and... later.... N62507 reinforced my initial interest in flight. Yeah, I could learn to fly a plane... it really isn't that hard... and it didn't really faze me to do it. I was (and am still) easily spooked in the air -- turbulence is an entirely new experience in a small plane, versus an airliner -- but I know enough to realize it isn't a serious threat to my safety. And I've learned when to stay on the ground, when my gut tells me not to takeoff. Of course, that lesson was learned after I had already taken off... but John's training allowed me to salvage the experience, and do so safely.

More important than all of that, though, is that John also showed me how much fun flying... and all things airplanes, really... can be. John never failed to let me know how much fun HE was having on our flights, as well, even as he was doing less and less of the flying as my training progressed. His smile was as big as mine on the morning I first soloed... July 24, 2004. Two years ago, this coming Monday.

And wow... what a trip these past two years have been. My old job relocated me from Albuquerque... and actually set me up pretty well to start another phase in life in Dallas. Working at AG indirectly contributed to my continued pursuit of flight... as well as my job now, with ANN. It's been a weird, wonderful, scary trip... all of it.

"This has been a weird year," I told Sebastian over pancakes at IHOP this morning. "It started out bad, finding out I had cancer. And yet here I am now, seven months later... talking about planes with you (Sebastian is now a First Officer for America West, flying right seat on 737-300s as a reserve pilot. He and his wife also became parents for the first time last month -- so he's living something close to his ideal life, too) lamenting I have to catch a commercial ride in six hours to go to Oshkosh. I feel fine, things are going well... and I'm loving every minute of it."

I then smiled, as I took quick stock on my life today... and I realized, really, that I've got it pretty damn good. A dream job. Bills paid. A comfortable, contented existence, that is just interesting enough to keep me on my toes. Not a whole lot of drama.

"Funny thing," I told Sebastian. "These last few years, I wouldn't want to change a thing. Even cancer. If that's the price to be paid for all this... then OK. Even if I get sick again... which I shouldn't... but if I do, then... well, not OK, but I know I've still be pretty lucky."

And I really mean that. It's a feeling that's been building in me for awhile now, that I finally put into words this morning at breakfast. God, Grandpa Darmody, Tina, Mandy... whoever is up there listening to this... I think I get it now.

And while I can't begin to define what "it" is... yeah. "It's" there. So... thank you, God, Fate, and everybody. I'm doing OK... for possibly the first time ever in my life

Sunday, July 9, 2006

The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful

Well, the last entry was done at an airport, and so it shall be with this one. As I type this, I'm heading into my fourth hour at SeaTac, with another hour and a half or so to go. Fortunately, I've had plenty to do... post the site for Monday, grab a light lunch (I've lost five pounds on this trip!!) and do some planespotting. I've deliberately resisted taking the book I've been reading -- "A Salty Piece of Land", by Jimmy Buffett -- so I can save it for the plane ride home.

After a cloudy and rainy start (which I loved, but sadly dragged the show down) the Arlington air show lived up to its billing by the weekend. On Friday the clouds lifted, the skies turned from blue to gray and, low and behold, the sun came out (I think my order of events there is slightly off, scientifically.) Pilots and crowds alike responded, too... with the pattern full of aircraft all day, and the empty spaces along the field disappearing rapidly under a sea of RVs, Cessnas, Seabees, Pipers... there were a LOT of planes there.

Arlington is no Oshkosh... which was perfect in this case. As we were heading home Saturday, Jim turned and asked me "so, do you now know why we (meaning ANN staffers) love this show so much?"

"Because it's where you can recharge your batteries and reconnect with why we love to fly, before Oshkosh," I replied.


No news is made at Arlington. No new planes were introduced while we were there, no really cool new products were unveiled. Instead, I got to talk to a lot of pilots, most of them from the Pacific Northwest (hard to believe) and immerse myself in airplanes. I got to fly a plane, a new Zodiac CH601light sport plane... which doesn't look like much on the ground, but is an amazingly stable aircraft in the air (much more so than the StingSport I flew at Lakeland in April) that's also a joy to toss around with abandon -- which meant I also got to take in the Puget Sound area from 1000 feet AGL. It was religious.

I figured coming up here that I'd fall in love with northwestern Washington, and I was right. Mountains + trees + ocean = everything Rob likes in a landscape. Yeah, the rain would grow tiring after a while (so does sunlight in ABQ, for that matter.) And traffic was truly awful -- worse than Dallas, despite having fewer cars overall on the road. It's also a million miles from everyone I care about.

But maybe later... yeah, I can see eventually settling down here, or down south around Portland (another city I love.) I love it.

But it helps when the weather is nice.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Terminal Overload

Well, here I sit inside DFW's marvelous new Terminal D, the international terminal, for a flight to... Seattle. Washington state has apparently seceded from the union while we weren't looking. Smart move, I think.

Even after the protestations of a full 1/4 of my regular readers -- Monk -- I have still been unable to post anything here for awhile. Things have been VERY hectic in the last few weeks, as ANN gears up for our coverage of the Arlington Fly-In (where I'm heading now) and, later this month, Oshkosh. I have seven distinct projects in my "to-do" pile right now, and that's in addition to posting the site, oh, pretty much EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN DAY. More on that in a minute.

I must begin the tales of my current exploits, though, with the story of how I somehow managed to order two computers from Dell. As is the case with a lot of situations like this -- and most nuclear families -- only one of them was planned. As the old Dimension 2200 was starting to slow down just a little with the added workload it's had to perform these past seven months (not bad at all for a computer I ordered from work, back in ABQ, with no prior knowledge of How These Things Worked) I decided to splurge on a new E510 with megamemory and an updated graphics card.

This had nothing at all to do with wanting an uprated machine for Flight Simulator... nothing at all. It's all for work, really... as far as the IRS knows.

ANYWAY, after building several machines online, I finally ordered my new $1600 computer. It arrived promptly, and set up was a breeze. All was well... until I decided to order new ink cartridges for my (old) printer, which I'd forgotten to do.

Somehow... and even Dell doesn't know how this happened... one of the machines I "built" -- and then erased -- got put onto the printer cartridge order. It wasn't there when I clicked "send order," I swear.

Of course, all this happened on a Saturday -- when customer service, such as it is, couldn't access the order or do a damn thing about it... so first thing Monday morning, there it was in my email... "We'll debit your account for $17XX.XX NOW and send your NEW Dell Computer -- you lucky guy! -- in 3-5 days. We're already building it, even!!"

Or something like that. The exact specifics (redundant, I know) elude me, as I was back on the phone to India to rip some poor haj a new one.

Finally, after about an hour of linguistic loop-the-loops, the order was cancelled... but not before sapping my bank account AGAIN. Fortunately... and search me how this happened... the balked transaction did not mess anything up financially for me. No checks at all cleared during the 48 hours it took for Dell to give me my money back. Good news.

Other news... I mentioned earlier that I'm pretty much posting every single day for ANN again. That's because our most recent Weekend Editor sacrifice -- er, new hire -- managed to talk himself right out of a job within two weeks, by attempting to set policy before his time. I understood and supported the decision... while fighting back tears. I'm also pretty sure my hair is even grayer now than it was before.

So... does anyone reading this want a part-time job? My boss isn't THAT bad, I swear... just ignore the whole "tried to base jump from the WTC and, oh yeah, pretended to be a doctor in the 70s" thing.

Wow... typing this only took about 15 minutes. I still have another hour-and-a-half to go before my flight... I swear I'll post again sooner than last time... like, say, 14 days from now instead of the 20 last time.

Don't hurt me, Monk!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Weekend Musings

Hello from a cloudy and surprisingly rainy Dallas. After 38 straight days of sunshine, we actually got a pretty nice storm last night (notice, once again the rain came at night.)  Booming thunder... driving rain... and all at 3:30 in the morning. Absolutely perfect... still nothing like waking up to the sounds of a storm. I slept content the rest of the night.

Not much on the agenda for this weekend. Today's the day we try out the new weekend editor. He should do well... great writer. That also means I mostly have the weekend off, although I'll still be on Sunday. Due to the new guy's schedule -- he can't work Sundays -- we're going to try something new, that should benefit everyone: My sked will be Sunday-Thursday, same as Pete's, which means he and I can hash out the podcast script together (I crib a lot of site content from this script). This also means the 20+ stories I do per day will post sooner on the site... with about 15 for the next day, and room for 5 or so in Real-Time. My mornings will then be more open... with the majority of my workload in the afternoon. I can live with that.

More importantly... I will now have two REAL days off... albeit Friday and Saturday (which has its advantages... Friday evenings are now free of job obligations). So, a victory.

Spent the morning paying bills. As always, it feels good to write PAID on bills and stuff them in the Tax drawer... I guess that comes from the post-Fresno days when I stuffed bills into a drawer WITHOUT paying them. I also celebrated the complete payoff of one of the January medical bills by buying a Dell DJ Ditty MP3 player... I figure it will come in handy on the upcoming airline flights next month -- SEA for Arlington July 5-9, and OSH July 24-30. (At least these flights aren't on Northwest...) I'm listening to Billy Joel's "12 Gardens" concert album as I write this.

Next up on the agenda... didn't I say three paragraphs ago there WASN'T an agenda this weekend? -- is housecleaning. With the warm, dry (for Texas) weather has come the closest thing to a bug infestation I've ever seen here. I killed my first cockroach this week -- a Texas-sized one, ugh -- the first one I'd ever seen here in almost two years. As this apartment is by no means a dump, I chalk it up as a (hopefully) rare, weather-related event. Lots of what look like potato bugs have found their crawly ways inside, too.

Tomorrow morning brings another filming mission with Monk, this one in Fort Worth. We haven't filmed in two weeks... and hopefully, we'll get it off without being rained out. Now that I think about it, we've shot a lot of footage under cloudy skies... which looks pretty good, as far as cinematography, but I'm hoping we can get some more "sunny" footage in, too, before the project is done. We're talking about heading to Austin to film, when Monk's wife goes down there for her massage therapy exam in September... that'll probably be the wrap to the project.

Let's see, what else... still fiddling with the digital camera, as you can see by the pics of the model plane I shot this morning. I'll probably head to Addison this afternoon (if I'm feeling adventurous, I may bike there) to try and catch the B-17G "Liberty Belle" that flew into Cavanaugh this week. It's been VERY cool, hearing and seeing a B-17 fly over the apartment... and while I'll see several of them next month at Oshkosh, it's especially cool having one so close, outside the airshow environment.

Not much else to write about... unless you want to hear about taking the GA to get its oil changed this week. So I'll wrap up for now.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

East By Northwest

Phew. Nothin' like being on four airline flights in less than 48 hours to get your hackles -- and, evidently, your blood pressure -- up.

This weekend was an enlightening one. The ANN senior staff -- read, pretty much ALL ANN staff -- got together in Charlotte, NC for a powwow before Oshkosh. We have A LOT of neat stuff planned for the air show (which will also mark one year since I cast my lot with this crazy band of yokels... and I say that with affection) including expanded Aero-cast (podcast) segments. We've also tripled the number of staffers for this year... which means I will be doing less "on the field" duties, and more "in the office" editing and posting. I understand why the decision was made... but it will also suck that I'll mostly be in the office.

The good news is, my individual workload will be more clearly defined... and we've also built in time off for everyone to just go out and enjoy the show. THAT is a good thing... it will give me a chance to enjoy the Biggest Airshow On Earth, without necessarily Having To Write About It. (Although I probably still will.)

While the meetings went well -- and, from what I could see, Charlotte seems to be a nice town, with A LOT of trees -- the trip out there and back, well, sucked wind. I don't inherently dislike airline travel... but after writing about the travails of several major carriers these past several months, including bankrupt carriers like Delta and Northwest, I admit (here) some prejudice against operations that, in all honesty, have already proven to be incompetently managed and ill-suited to the needs of travelers. Which means I carry a chip on my shoulder in regards to both of those carriers... especially Northwest.

If only there had been enough room for said chip on the flights out to Charlotte Friday night... but there was little room for ANYTHING on the CRJ-200s Northwest sees fit to employ on those routes. These aircraft, to be blunt, are total shitcans: 50 passenger max, in a 2+2 seating configuration that gives passengers NO elbow room, and little legroom.

Oh, and to drive home the point that these 30-year-old Canadian planes are NOT designed with ergonomic considerations in mind, there's a large heating duct that runs along the lower cabin walls on both sides. Which means if you're stuck at a window seat, you have to bend your outer leg inward in order to rest that foot on the floor. Which means you can spend an entire flight sitting crosslegged, with little room to adjust.

I'd blame this on the fact the CRJs are regional jets... were it not for the fact that Brazil's Embraer sells RJs, too, that offer the same pax-carrying capabilities and equal (or better) efficiency for carriers -- while also offering something approaching comfort. Wisely, Embraer decided to forgo cabin width for length, which means a 1+2 seating configuration that offers just enough extra room to make the flights livable. Case in point, I flew an American Eagle E-145 last year, nonstop, to Milwaukee for Oshkosh. Three-and-a-half hours, on the right window seat (which meant I had someone sitting right next to me) with nary a cramp at the end of the flight. In comparison, by the time I landed in Memphis after 55 minutes Friday, my right leg wasn't speaking to me... and I STILL had one more miserable CRJ flight to go.

Things were slightly better for the flight out of Charlotte -- I was on one of Northwest's ancient DC-9s. Northwest operates the largest fleet of these Forest Lawn-aged airplanes around -- 148 of them, at last count, the newest of which was built while Reagan was still president and coherent. Age is not necessarily a bad thing with airframes, so long as they are maintained (the window I was seated next too had "6/2005" etched on it, so the plane had been in for heavy-line maintenance fairly recently)... but efficiency is, and these ancient "Mad Dogs" (named for McDonnell-Douglas, the company formed after McDonnell bought out Douglas Aircraft, original maker of the DC-9, in the early 80s) use equally ancient, loud, smoky, fuel-guzzling engines. Northwest can barely afford to fuel its own planes... but it can't afford to buy newer planes, either (the DC-10 trijets the carrier still flies transatlantic are even older than the DC-9s)

On the positive side, the DC-9 was A LOT more comfortable than the CRJs, and the flight to Detroit was something approaching enjoyable. Yes, I said Detroit -- a flight from Charlotte, NC to Dallas, TX was routed through Detroit-Wayne County Metro, in Michigan. It's Northwest's largest hub (Memphis is another, much smaller one) and, due to the realities of the hub-and-spoke routing system employed by most domestic airlines, meant I travelled nearly 1,300  miles for a trip that, point-to-point, is just over 800 miles.

Fortunately, I didn't have to actually SEE Detroit -- instead, we came in over Lake Erie, which was really cool and very pretty in the late afternoon light (woe is me that I left my camera in my bag, stuffed in an overhead bin five rows ahead of me). And, surprisingly, from what I saw of DTW, it's a very nice airport. Very clean, modern... very unlike it's host city.

Notice I haven't really said anything to justify my dislike for Northwest so far, however. OK, let me interject here what I saw on my four flights on this beleaguered carrier: baggage handlers throwing bags -- literally -- onto the ground while unloading another RJ in MEM; flight attendants, still haggling with NWA over their new, payroll-gouging contract with the bankrupt carrier, that acted like they worked for a bankrupt airline, and gave no smiles and little assistance to speak of on all four flights; and three out of four planes weren't just unkempt -- they were truly filthy, inside and out.

(A passenger seated behind me on the DFW-MEM run -- in the CRJ -- summed it up perfectly: "Welcome to Yokum Air." To which, snarkely, I added "We're bankrupt, and we show it. And if you'll look off to your left, you'll see a beautiful Continental 737 that you could have chosen to fly instead. Thank you for flying Northwest Airlines.. but may we ask why?")

The exception to most of those issues -- except for the grumbling FAs -- was the last leg of the flight, back home to DFW, in a fairly new and clean Airbus A319. Before that flight, I'd never been on an Airbus plane -- just Boeings, and various McDonnell-Douglas planes -- but I'd heard Airbus planes, as a rule, offers slightly wider cabins than their American counterparts (Airbus is a consortium between France's EADS and Britain's BAE Systems.)

They do. Whereas my shoulder rubs the wall when seated at the window of a 737 -- be it for Southwest, American, United, or AirTran -- I actually had about an inch of space between the seat and the wall on the A319. That made the plane feel positively cushy, although legroom was pretty tight. The trip home was by far the best flight of all of them. It was also the most scenic -- I got to see several other airliners sharing the skies with us (including an AirTran 737 that passed above us at 39,000 feet -- an RVSM-approved 1,000 feet higher than us. We even got bumped slightly by its wake turbulence.)

It wasn't all brickbats for Northwest, though -- they did manage to do a few things right, too. Three out of four flights were right on time, or early (the Airbus was delayed by 30 minutes for a maintenance issue) and Northwest has hit on a good thing by offering a snack box for $3. While I still feel you should at least get a bag of peanuts or pretzels when riding on a commercial flight, I will say that for $3, you do get a full meal... albeit one of snack food. Still, all the five food groups are covered -- raisins, meat, cheese, crackers, and... um.. Oreos. Yeah, those are the five.

Other news... Monday's appointment went OK, all is well.. except my blood pressure shot up since my last visit. Not sure why... weight is probably the reason, or added stress. Hmm... can I blame Northwest for that?