Monday, April 30, 2012

New Reasons To Hate Air Travel

While flying to and from Florida last week, I had several revelations.
I used to love flying with the airlines.  Then 9/11 happened, the federal government responded with invasive, almost torturous security measures, and the TSA (which according to popular jokesters stands for "Touchin', Squeezin', Arrestin'," "Taking Scissors Away," or my favorite, "Tough Sh** America!") became the new way to fly.
Over the years, I've reconciled my hatred for the TSA measures and the inane security checkpoints, and have even developed a sense of humor about it.
When my daughter was getting the full body patdown on Sunday, I tried to offer the bright side.
"Just think," I told her.  "At a Vegas massage parlor, this would cost you $99."
Then you have the new full body scanners, where you have to perform the TSA version of "The Hokey Pokey."  You start by playing hopscotch, making sure your feet land in the exact position indicated by the shoeprints painted on the mats leading to the device.  Once inside, you have to make the "touchdown" signal.  (For you St. Louis Rams fans out there, that's when the official raises both arms over his head.  I know you haven't seen it for a few years, but I'm sure you've heard about it.)
I usually get patted down every time I go through the scanner because my suspenders set off the metal detectors.  I console myself by remembering that it's way less embarrassing to have a stranger grope me in public than the alternative, which is for my pants to puddle around my ankles in front of a long line of people when I raise my arms.  I can also tell it's time to lose some weight when it takes an entire team bigger than a NASCAR pit crew to pat me down.
I believe the TSA checkpoints also make a wonderful training ground for budding comedians.  One of the requirements for being a TSA Patter Downer is you must have your sense of humor surgically removed.  There are even some fondle stations that have signs which specifically forbid joking about things like bombs, terrorists, or hemorrhoids.  If you can make a TSA agent laugh, you're ready to perform at the Improv.
But on this trip, I realized that it's time to get rid of the security checkpoints.  Instead, the TSA should implement intelligence testing.
For starters if they were to start using an airline version of the Wonderlic test and bar anyone with an IQ less than 12, they could reduce the long lines at the ticket counters by at least 30%, because I learned that there are some people who are just too stupid to fly.
On this trip, I sat behind a woman who thought her seat on the plane was a ride at Gilley's.  Her seat bucked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth (repeat this phrase 18,000 more times) as she continued to adjust the tilt non-stop through the entire flight.  If you ever read the manual, you'll learn that the seats only have two settings: "uncomfortable," and "in the upright position with tray tables stowed."  For the passenger behind one of these airline seat rodeo riders, the settings are "headrest smashed against your face" and "headrest smashed against your chest."  Unfortunately for me, this bronc buster managed to stay on for the full eight hours.
Then when it was time to get off the plane, we wound up behind one of those Good Samaritans that you want to strangle, set on fire, and beat with one of the 42 golf clubs the jag-off in seat 9C insisted was carry-on.  For starters, her ears had more piercings and holes than a big box of Krispy Kremes.  When she went through the metal detector, she must have set off alarms loud enough to be heard in Taipei.  Apparently, all that stainless steel in her head must have interfered with her internal navigation system, because she couldn't seem to find her own "forward" button after jumping up and into the aisle with the first screech of the landing tires.  This brain lock caused the line behind her to back up like Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam.  The first 20 rows emptied before she started to move, leaving those of us in the Rosa Parks section of the plane with nothing but a prayer that our connecting flights would be "on time," which in American Airlines parlance means "45 minutes late."
During one leg of our trip, we also received a Berlitz crash course in Mandarin Chinese, because the eight landlords from Beijing in the middle of the plane insisted on yelling a three-hour conversation across four aisles at a volume that made the Boeing engines seem like a distant, gentle hum.  During the lesson, I learned there is no English-to-Chinese translation for the word "manners" or the phrase "shut the hell up."
To be fair, Americans haven't mastered the art of politeness either, especially those who breed then want to unleash their demon spawn onto the public. 
While standing in line waiting to board (a process that seems to take longer than an SAT exam because gate attendants just can seem to master that whole "row one-row two-row three" algorithm), one particular rugrat was doing laps around the waiting room chairs and kept scaling our carry-on baggage like it was a rock-climbing wall at the gym.  The mother, who thought it was cute, explained that she liked to let junior "burn off all his energy" before he got on the plane.  I applaud her thinking, I just didn't enjoy serving as one of his lap pylons, or watching her miniature Schwarzenegger use our underwear carriers as his own personal Nautilus.
I know these annoyances and the blatant rudeness aren't limited to airplanes.  You can find bad behavior like this at any Walmart in the country.  But it's different when you're trapped in a sealed aluminum tube at 30,000 feet, with no recourse but an indifferent untipped airborne waitress who has all the authority of a cineplex usher.  And if you dare to say anything to the offending parties that might cause a scene, you'll be Alec Baldwined so fast by sky marshalls it'll make your handcuffs spin.
So until the TSA starts checking intelligence quotients with the same vigor they check crotches, take my advice when it comes to flying across the country:  Don't!  Whether it's rude airline passengers, brain-dead parents of hyperactive toddlers, or the TSA's training program for future Catholic priests, it's just not worth it.
Stay home and watch reruns of the History Channel's "Only In America With Larry The Cable Guy."
The sanity you save just may be your own.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Getting Gouged To See My Own Lake

Man-made government-paid Lake Powell,
back when it was actually full.

A few years ago, I sold my car.  Every once in a while, I still see it tooling around town.  The next time I see the new owner driving my old car, I'm going to flag him down and ask him to give me another $15.  Then every time I see him on the road, I'll hit him up for another $15.  Yes, I know he already paid me, but that doesn't matter.  Because I see it again, I'm entitled to get paid again.  Right? 
Well that's what my government thinks.
I was reminded of this lesson recently during my first visit to Lake Powell.
While on my way to the Lake Powell Resort (an obscenely overpriced excuse for a Motel 6), I had to drive through a federal toll both.  In order to go onto the BLM-owned land on the edge of the lake where the resort was located, the government charges $15 for the visit.
Let's think this through.
The government originally obtained all the land that is the Lake Powell watershed more than a half-century ago .  If you believe that work of fiction called the U.S. Constitution, then the land is actually owned by the people of the United States.  You.  Me.  Your neighbor.  10 million illegal aliens.  You know, Americans.
The U.S. government started work on the Glen Canyon Dam in 1956, which turned that section of the Colorado River into a backed-up lake.  To build the dam, they used federal money.  Taxpayer money.  So in essence, the American people paid for the lake.
To get to and from the lake, the government built a road.  Again, using taxpayer money.
And of course, you can't have a five mile stretch of federally-owned road without a few thousand signs outlining all the things you can't do on YOUR federally-owned land, so there is naturally a cost for that which has to be passed along to the America taxpayer.
Then in quintessential government-think, what good are all the "no" signs unless you hire a few hundred government employees to serve as park rangers and BLM law enforcement officials to make sure visitors become intimately and economically familiar with the phrase "no means no"?
So to visit that five-mile stretch of pavement which parallels one small arm of Lake Powell, it costs $15. 
Let me put it to you another way:
The American people already paid for the lake, paid for the land, paid for the roads, and paid for the signs with their taxes, but have to pay another $15 every time they see their lake from their road.
It's like asking for 15 bucks every time I see the guy who paid me for my little red car.
For those suffering from some rare neurological disorder that forces them to inexplicably defend an indefensible government, who might claim that the $15 is for upkeep, I would invite them to actually save up their pennies and go visit Lake Powell.
What upkeep?
It's some of the ugliest, unkempt land you'll find south of Overton Arm.  It's like the whole place is being administered by a Harlem landlord. 
And to be honest, they must really suck at maintenance, because the lake is down about 60 feet from its normal level.  Even the manager of a third-rate Super 8 can figure out how to plug a leak in the pool.
The government is blaming a drought (ignoring the fact that the lake is right smack dab in the middle of the desert, where "drought" is actually the norm) for the lowered levels.  But the fact remains, the lake didn't have these shortfalls back before they started demanding a $15 cover charge.  (Using normal economic logic, the fact that the lake is down by a third means the visitors fee should at the very least be lowered to $10).
Then when you visit the Glen Echo Dam Visitor's Center, the government is proud to tell you that they've received nearly $2 billion over the last 30 or 40 years from the electric companies that pay them for the electricity the dam generates (you know, the dam that the taxpayers already paid for).  If my government is getting kickbacks from utility companies for the byproduct of a dam we paid for, why aren't they sending each of us a yearly check instead of gouging us for 15 bucks every visit?
Of course, anyone who has paid the $25 cover charge to drive through Zion National Park would agree with me.  The gub'ment didn't even build anything to create the mountains like they did with Lake Powell.  The mountains and features were already there.  But somehow it's okay for the feds to swipe $25 for the privilege of seeing mountains the government didn't build.
Maybe I should just shut up now before the feds snatch this idea as their latest revenue stream: charging people for things they DIDN'T build or do.  Although, seeing some of the disastrous projects our government has come up with in the last two decades, maybe we would be dollars ahead to pay them NOT to do something.  (Hubble Telescope, anyone?)
For now, my advice to all Americans is to avoid any national park that charges an entrance fee.  If you're desperate to get gouged and ripped off, come to Las Vegas (where at least you can still look at the water for free at the Bellagio, the Venetian, and Treasure Island).
Or you can do this:  Fill up your bathtub, then pull the plug and let about a third of it go down the drain.  Spend 30 minutes admiring the water, enjoying the peace and serenity (if you don't have three kids pounding on the door screaming that they have to go number two).  Stick your hand or foot in the water.  Then write a check for $15 and send it to me for the privilege.  Yes, it's your house, your tub, and you've already paid for the water.  But I'm talking about the new American Way.
If I receive enough of these "visitor fees," I'll be happy to update this story with a report on how much they charge to visit national parks in Maui.

Monday, April 16, 2012

LookAtMeLookAtMeLookAtMe -- What Are YOU Looking At?

When raising children, particularly teens, there are plenty of debates over what substances are required to keep kids alive.
When I was just growing into my pimples, Sugar Pops was one of the basic food groups.
But parents have been wrong all along about what serves as the necessary kid fuel.
From watching television (which is still my favorite multi-media encyclopedia), I have learned that food isn't needed at all.  
You know what every teenager desires and demands, and is the most critical staple for their continued existence?
Also known as "drama."
I know this because my youngest daughter watches endless amounts of MTV, which is the arbiter of all things young.
However, this shouldn't come as news to any parent, regardless of the era.
In the 1960's, teens let their hair grow long, figured out that being able to count to two on their fingers was a cool talent, and basically embraced anything that could be deemed "weird." 
In the 1970's, we traded in the beads and sandals for stacked platform shoes, perfectly coiffed hair, and white doubleknit leisure suits.
Then the 1980's arrived, with girls dressing up like prostitutes who weren't sartorially equipped to pass muster on skid row (thanks to obsessions with "virgins" like Madonna).
In the 1990's, guys lined up to get buzz haircuts with interesting messages and designs carved into the sides (thanks, Vanilla Ice).
Every generation has its own outrageous method of screaming "look at me!"  And because there are more people on the planet with every passing crop of offspring, the screams have to get more and more obnoxious to be heard above the din.  Idiots in the fashion world (which is redundant) refer to the social annoyance as "style."  Okay, if they say so.
The funniest part of all these extremes comes after a kid pierces every visible patch of skin on his or her body (and a whole bunch of pieces we don't get to see, and don't want to see), gets the oddest tattoos on places that were never intended to be inked, combs its hair with a garden rake, and then irons his or her clothes by throwing them in the middle of the street so they can be run over by garbage trucks and UPS semis; then, when they go out in public and a shocked elder (anyone over age 25) dares to look at them in wonderment, the sixteen-something fires back with "what are YOU looking at?"
Trust me, odd little human, we don't know either.
Unfortunately, these aberrations now have an international forum to give them credibility and an even bigger audience to answer the "Look at me!" call.
It's called "reality television."
MTV shows a variety of these half-hour train wrecks, including "Teen Mom," "16 and Pregnant," and "True Life."  The fact that "Music Television" now shows a steady diet of these inane 30-minute instruction manuals on what NOT to do with your life instead of music videos is an admission by MTV that there simply ISN'T any music left worth showing on television.
The sad part is that teens just don't get it.
They see these disasters from the shallowest end of the biped gene pool and embrace them as heroes instead of cautionary tales. 
Once upon a time, when asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, teens would respond with "president" or "fireman" or "doctor" or "astronaut."
Today all over America, there are 13 year olds going "when I grow up in two years, I want to be gay, pregnant, addicted to kratom, and in an abusive relationship while battling an eating disorder."  Or in other words, "I want to have my own reality TV show."
And who can blame them.  Reality TV stars make big bucks to go with their dysfunctional fame.  For example, cast members on one show that features nightly bacchanals of binge drinking, wanton sex with multiple, faceless partners, and high-drama ER-bound arguments in fractured English over who left the lid off the ketchup bottle, earn more than $100,000 per episode.
Maybe I'm just jealous.
If MTV offered me a chance to star in my own reality show featuring all of my weaknesses and peccadilloes, I'd jump on it.
I'm just not sure fans would tune in to watch a fat guy muting farts in a recliner while eating high-cholesterol foods in front of a TV set showing Family Guy reruns.
Now if I could become anorexic, develop an addiction to Restless Leg Syndrome medication ropinirole, and begin lusting and having impure sexual thoughts about dining room furniture, I suspect the producers from MTV, A&E, and Bravo would be lining up outside my hoarded door.
Sometimes, I just hate being normal.

Monday, April 9, 2012

I Wouldn't Stand In That Line For $650 Million

I don't like standing in line.  For anything.
When saying "no" to standing in line for tickets to a show or event, I've been known to exclaim "I wouldn't stand in that line if it was Jesus himself performing live in concert at the Hard Rock Cafe."  That's why, when visiting Vegas, I'll wind up at a magic show featuring a third-rate prestidigitator named "Bean the Wienie" instead of third row center at Blue Man Group.
Now I have a new disclaimer when it comes to lining up for anything:
"I wouldn't stand in that long line for $650 million."
Unlike the Jesus remark, this one is verifiably true.
A couple of weeks ago, Mega Millions lottery fever overtook the country as people queued up for a crack at winning nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars.  There were reports of lines at 7-Elevens winding around the block like it was a premiere of "Harry Potter and the Vanishing Puberty."  Just as always happens when a Walmart opens at 2 a.m. for "doorbuster sales" on Black Friday, fights broke out and people forgot how to behave.  And I don't blame anyone for a single punch thrown.
Standing in line brings back too many bad memories for most people, beginning with the requirements that you had to stay in line when traveling the halls of your kindergarten.  That trauma was increased exponentially when the demonic teacher required everyone to hold hands when heading to the cafeteria or library and you happened to be in line next to a girl (yuck!).
Later in school I remember standing in line to have my arm permanently scarred by an inoculation against smallpox (a disease which causes permanent scarring), another terrifying childhood memory involving a line.
Then you have the shared recurring nightmare of standing in a long queue for inedible food, referred to as the "lunch line" in most public schools.  I still have vivid recall of a concoction at Havre de Grace Elementary called "chicken a la king," a mixture that I'm certain contained the leftover white paste that the second-graders refused to eat that morning. 
The emotional damage from that daily ritual is probably one of the reasons I won't eat at a buffet if there are more than five people ahead of me waiting for the woman at the cash register to find her reading glasses.
As an adult, most bad things that happen to you involve standing in line.  If you don't believe that, you haven't visited the DMV lately.
So my refusal to stand in line for anything is justified.
That's why I feel no remorse in telling my wife "no" when she insisted I buy some lottery tickets during that historic week that ended with three new American multimillionaires.
Oh, I had every intention of tossing away seven of our hard-earned dollars.  It wasn't the money.  I think seven bucks is a reasonable price for the hours of in-home entertainment spent discussing America's most popular dilemma.  No, not a debate regarding ways to fix the economy, or words exchanged over solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even verbal speculations over which brainless celebrity Kim Kardashian is sleeping with this week.  (Yes, in some social circles, that is a real topic.)  During that week, the burning question being bandied across millions of dinner tables in the U.S. was "what would you do with $650 million?"
I didn't mind the waste of seven dollars to add a little juice to that question. 
I went so far as to drive the eight miles to Arizona to buy tickets from our favorite lottery purveyor, the Dam Bar (a place in Beaver Dam, Arizona, so you know I'm not making that up). 
It's a little hole in the wall that shares a dirt parking lot with a convenience store that has been offering the same two cans of Spam on their shelf since before Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman. 
The first hint that something was amiss came when I noticed cars parked along both sides of the road leading up to the store.  We're talking about Beaver Dam's downtown district, where the only other business operations are a Navajo woman selling jewelry from under a tent and a lady offering $8 haircuts from a 1978 Winnebago.  (Again, anyone who has visited the Dam Bar can confirm that I'm not making this up.)
In the distance I could see a mushroom shaped cloud rising into the sky.  Instead of a nuclear blast from a nearby Nevada test site, it was simply the dust from dozens of cars circling repeatedly while trying to find a place to park in the overfilled unpaved lot. 
Winding across that lot were two lines of people.  One line spewed out of the entrance to the convenience store, winding back and forth along a walkway, continuing across the parking lot, and finally snaking west down the highway.  The other line was like a mirror image coming from the Dam Bar, only ending in a line heading east along the same highway.
Using the crowd-counting skills I had honed estimating gatherings while covering events as a reporter, I determined that there was somewhere between 400 and 27,812 people waiting in line.  I was pretty sure they weren't there to purchase the vintage Spam.
I took one look at that line and turned the car around to head back to Nevada.  I was not going to wait in ANY line for three hours.  Not even for $650 million.
I took great delight that night when the Mega Millions numbers were drawn.  Out of the seven sets of numbers we were prepared to play (our "lucky" numbers, the ones that have cost us hundreds of dollars over the years in losing tickets), we matched three: one number from one set, and two numbers from another set.
I felt vindicated.  And, in a strange way, very lucky.  Because if our numbers had popped out of the ping pong ball machine after I had refused to line up for a winning ticket, I'm pretty sure my wife would have me standing in another long Las Vegas line by the end of the following week...waiting my turn for the initial hearing at divorce court.