Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Unfriendly Skies

As we prepare for our trip to Italy next week, I am dreading all the annoying distractions that have now become a part of getting on an airplane. Flying used to be pure fun. Airlines truly competed with each other over who could provide the best service and most amenities. Meals were served on all flights, drinks were complimentary, and flight attendants (called Stewardesses when they were still young and attractive) couldn't be nicer to you. If United's "friendly skies" were not so friendly, you simply switched to American, TWA, Pan Am, Delta, Braniff, Continental or any of a dozen airlines who were happy to have your business. Now there are few airlines around, and many are newcomers like Jet Blue, who have their moment in the sun and then, like People Express Airlines, fade into the wild blue yonder.

My first flight ever came when I was 18 years old and, thanks to the U.S. Army, was reporting to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I was so excited to be boarding the Braniff airplane (remember them with the splashy colorful paint jobs) out of Idlewild Airport (later renamed JFK) and heading to the exotic state of Texas, further away from home than I had ever been. In those days there were no real terminals to speak of, we simply walked out on the tarmac and up a flight of stairs lowered for the purpose to board the aircraft. Planes flew pretty much on schedule back then; terminals were built later when flight schedules got to be a joke and people needed a place to doze and eat bad food while enduring their six-hour delayed departure.

Having never been on a plane before, I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to find the cabin comfortable and bigger than I thought it would be. I was in my Army uniform, but certainly not prepared for the fuss made over me by the flight crew. Two lovely Stewardesses welcomed me aboard and asked me where I was headed. They told me they often stayed in San Antonio and that it was a fun town, very accommodating to soldiers from nearby Fort Sam. (If I was a little quicker on the uptake, I probably could have scored a phone number at that moment, but I was still a shy kid and missed the chance.) They escorted me to my seat and asked me if I'd like a drink. I asked how much and they said "free". I was beginning to enjoy flying.

Our takeoff was smooth even though this was in the pre-jet era when planes were propelled by, well, propellers. My next surprise came when lunch was served. I was unused to eating in restaurants, so any meal served to me looked delicious. True it was in those little compartmentalized airline trays made for quick heating while in the air, but I didn't care...I ate every scrap on the plate. Later, the beautiful and charming Stewardesses (God they smelled good) sashayed down the aisles cheerfully dispensing coffee, soft drinks, or hard liquor in tiny bottles. With a full stomach and a couple of beers under my belt, I dozed pleasantly to the steady drone of the plane's engines.

We touched down in San Antonio in late afternoon. As we exited the plane down the stairs to the broiling Texas tarmac, the still smiling Stewardesses bid us farewell and thanked us for flying Braniff. My first experience turned out to be a most enjoyable one for me, and for many years to come, I always looked forward to going to the airport and getting on a plane. It's different now...between the lack of competition in the airline industry, the replacement of lovely Stewardesses with cranky flight attendants, the post-9/11 security measures, the substitution of a bag of pretzels for in-flight meals...well you get the picture.

Final thought, my days in the army were mostly a lot of fun, (View "You're in the Army Now") but its surely no fun for American soldiers today stationed in scary places like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They left their families and the safety of America to fight for what our country has always stood for...freedom, democracy and human rights. As bad as the airline experience has become, I'm sure they would welcome that flight home to all they left behind. Say a prayer for their safe return.


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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mad Men

There is a great show on AMC called "Mad Men". The show's title is a reference to the advertising geniuses who, from their offices on Madison Avenue in New York City, built the industry that raised selling to an art form. Set in an ad agency during the 1960s, Mad Men captures perfectly how different life was like back then, not only in business, but in general. Attitudes toward family, smoking, drinking, gender roles, and the workplace were so far removed from how we think about these subjects today. Younger viewers laugh at the show thinking the writers have exaggerated the plot lines for effect, but that's really how it was.

Women were just entering the workplace in numbers during the 1960s. Their place was primarily in the clerical and secretarial ranks. Female managers, much less executives, were rare, as were women in non-traditional jobs such as police officers, fire fighters, and construction workers. Secretaries were expected to make their male bosses coffee, do their shopping and run their errands. Today, if you tell a woman in the workplace she looks beautiful, ten suits from the office of EEO pounce on you for sexual harassment. Back then, the woman simply said: "Thank you" and went on with her day feeling a little uplifted.

Virtually all modern-day businesses have a policy against drinking on the job. As seen on Mad Men, drinking was not only permitted, but encouraged as a way of relaxing clients or just winding down at the end of a rough day. The three-Martini lunch was commonplace, and businessmen were crushed when the IRS clamped down on writing off this perk as a legitimate expense. Office Christmas parties were out of control, with hard liquor flowing freely by 10 am. Not much business got done on those days, as workers unaccustomed to drinking and unable to handle their booze were too busy trying to Xerox their bare asses to the accompaniment of much hilarity.

Everybody smoked. Offices and conference rooms had ashtrays and matches on every table. Cigarette vending machines were in every lobby. Smoking was considered sophisticated in those days, a notion perpetuated by the boys on Madison Avenue. Movie stars, athletes, even doctors were featured in cigarette ads extolling the virtues of smoking cigarettes. A haze of smoke hung over every meeting, and no morning could begin without that hot cup of coffee and the first cigarette of the day. Ahhhh. In today's "smoke free" business environment, smokers are treated like criminals. You see them huddled together, freezing in the cold outside offices all over the city, sucking down those Marlboros like haunted junkies.

The manner of dress was another story. In offices, women wore modest dresses or blouses and skirts. Nylon stockings, sensible shoes and minimal jewelry were mandatory. Makeup was lightly and tastefully applied. If you showed up looking like Elvira, you were simply sent home. In offices, men wore suits and ties, period. In some companies, like the anal IBM before they collapsed, men were required to wear certain colors of suits, and only white shirts and conservative ties. Snap-brim fedora hats, shined wing tip shoes and black dress socks completed the uniform. They never heard of "Casual Friday" but if they did, it would mean men were free to go wild and wear striped neckties!

The workplace of today may be safe, sober and offer equal opportunity for all, it just doesn't look like much fun.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stupidity Alert Level Is RED

The Department of Homeland Security has so many color-coded alerts that nobody understands when they say: "Today's security alert level is ORANGE". WTF does that mean?? While it's true that the world has become a much more dangerous place since 9/11, having the government scare poor citizens is nothing new. While the Cold War with Russia was at its height back in the 1950s, the Wizards of Washington were finding novel ways to alarm the public. I'm not saying they shouldn't warn us of imminent threats, but some of the ideas they were peddling back then were just plain dumb.

In 1949 President Harry Truman made it publicly known that the Soviet Union had detonated their first atomic bomb, ushering in an era when the United States was no longer the only 800 pound gorilla on the planet. Public response to the report was an upsurge in interest in fallout shelters. The Eisenhower administration distributed information to educate Americans about how they could protect themselves. Survival literature was written primarily for a suburban audience, since it was assumed that cities would be targets and most urban dwellers would not survive. First, who could afford to build and stock such a structure? Wouldn't any air from outside be contaminated? What about waste disposal? ("Bobby, it's your turn to empty the bucket".) This idea never got far off the ground.

In the summer of 1961, Kennedy asked Congress for more than $100 million for public fallout shelters. I guess the Wizards realized people could not afford to build private shelters so they began looking at ideas for shelters where large numbers of people could assemble. They selected basements of large office buildings and subway tunnels as places to shelter from the blast. We began to see signs in public places pointing to the nearest Civil Defense shelters, but I think we were whistling past the graveyard. A nuclear (or nucular as W. pronounced it) blast would atomize anything within miles. I love that scene from Dr. Strangelove when Slim Pickens was riding that atomic bomb as it fell from the sky, while in the background a choir was singing: " We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, but we'll meet again some sunny day".

And then there was my favorite, the "duck and cover" drills they had us little kiddies doing in school. For some reason it was believed that a school desk would be sufficient protection against a nuclear holocaust, so we dutifully slipped into the cramped space under the desk and waited for the explosion. My wife says the nuns in her school instructed the children to swallow their Miraculous Medals in the event the godless Russians ever invaded New York. (Actually, this was a groundless fear....if they ever got as far as Brooklyn their tanks would be stripped and sitting on four cinder blocks before they could say, "Das Vadanya")

American's uncertainties about "the bomb" quieted during the mid-1960s. As arms-control talks and a limited nuclear test ban proceeded, tensions eased. Plans for building additional public shelters were postponed. We dodged a big matzoh ball there.


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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pet Peeves, Chapter 3

Well, here I am again complaining. It's not that I sit up nights thinking of stuff to bitch about, it's just that the world right outside my door is filled with people who need to be euthanized. I know that sounds a bit harsh, but I'm tired of having to share the planet with these pinheads. Here are a few things I've had to endure in only the past few weeks; you decide if these people should be put down.

I'm not really a pet person, that distinction belongs to my sister in spades. It's not that I dislike pets, I think they're fine if you enjoy them. One thing I will never understand is pet lovers who lose sight of the fact that Fluffy is a dog. I am tired of people who pamper these mutts to the point of absurdity. In Long Island City where I work, there is a Doggie Lounge. I thought it was a bar when I first passed it, but au contraire, it is a lounge fitted out with cushions, scratching posts, and a treat bar where dogs can come in and hang with other dogs. Their owners sit around sipping green tea while Fluffy frolics. Patronizing the Doggie Lounge is one of the fifty sure signs that you have too much money.

Let's stay on the dog theme as long as we're here. How many times do you see people driving with Fluffy in their laps? Talking on cell phones and texting are bad enough, but driving with a frisky canine scrambling all over your steering wheel is the mother lode of distracted driving. I have seen men do this, but ladies, nine out of ten times it's YOU! Buy cute little coats for the dog, feed him prime cuts of meat, even sleep with the hairball if you like, but for God's sake when you get behind the wheel, put the @#$%&* dog in the back seat.

I try to give blood three or four times a year. I've done it for a long time and maybe it will be one of the few things on the plus side of the ledger when I get to the big accountant in the sky. Every time I go, I fill out the same multi-page questionnaire requesting the same information. Why can't the Red Cross, once they verify that I am who I say I am, just ask me if there have been any changes in my answers since the last time I donated? The questions are funny too. My favorite is: "Have you been paid money for sex in the past year?" PAID? I can't give it away for free!

My wife refuses to go to the movies any more with me. I'm sorry, but for ten bucks a ticket, I want to hear the actors, not the morons behind me. There are the obvious jerks...noisy candy openers, loud talkers and seat kickers, but my special button-pusher is the guy who repeats the punch line of every joke to his humor-challenged wife, and then hee-haws loud enough for me to miss the counter-punch line that follows. I sit there like a cartoon Elmer Fudd with smoke coming out of my ears while Bugs Bunny behind me does everything possible to ruin the one movie a year I get to see. At this point I turn around and say the kind of things that made my wife stop going to the movies with me.

This one's a real nit pick, but I'm on a roll and thought I'd throw it in. I drink red wine and order it by the bottle when I go to a restaurant. Some waiters have no idea how to present and serve a bottle of wine. I'm no snob, but I do know that a red wine needs to be savored. That means filling the glass about 1/3 to 1/2 full, no more, especially in the fish bowls that double as wine glasses these days. This way the drinker has room to swirl the wine around before sipping; a technique that brings out the full bouquet of the wine. Instead, the waiter sometimes fills the glasses nearly to the brim like he was pouring a "Big Gulp". I know they do this to encourage you to drink more, but it's wrong. I usually ask to pour the wine myself, which makes them get all pissy, but for me, that's part of the fun.

Well, thanks for listening buckaroos, this was cleansing for me and a whole lot cheaper than seeing a therapist.


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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Small Town, USA

If you're a Seinfeld fan you might remember the episode when Kramer decided to recreate the feeling of small town USA in his New York City apartment building. He installed a screen door on the hallway entrance to his apartment to create his "front porch". He then sat there sipping lemonade and lighting a sparkler to simulate a genuine Fourth of July celebration in small town USA . Kramer is a certified whack job, but in his own loonie way, he captured the secret dream of all harried city folk who long for the simplicity and peace of small town life.

My daughter Laura and her family live in Portland, Connecticut, a small town just south of Hartford. Having grown up in a big city like Brooklyn, I was surprised at how different life could be in the country. This is not to suggest people in Brooklyn were unfriendly, it's just that in Portland, life seems slower and more relaxed. Storekeepers know your name, the librarian, postal clerk and police officers greet you politely, and neighbors are always ready to help. The friendliness isn't pushy, just there if you want it. Brooklynites were friendly enough, but tended to mind their own business. A polite question might draw the response: "What's it to you?" They didn't mean to be hostile, they were just letting you know you were crowding them a bit.

Another thing I like about Portland is the diversity of the population. Walk into a diner and you might be sitting next to truck-driving, gun-owning, blue-collar guys, or BMW-driving, frappucino-sipping Yuppies. I think it's important for children to grow up meeting all kinds of people. It's too easy to stay with your own kind and see your child's character formed by a narrow set of beliefs and values. Better to broaden their sphere of influence and let them see and hear from a wider variety of people. My judgemental, opinionated views are proof positive of the truth in this theory.

This past weekend we went to the Haddam Neck fair a few miles from Portland. It was a typical small town affair with rides, games of chance, animals on display, and lots of food. My daughter Laura, her daughter Ava and I were at the booth where you shoot a stream of water into a clown's mouth to win prizes. There was another woman playing and she won. I never saw her and started yelling at Ava that we had won the game. As I reached into my pocket to play another round, the operator of the booth motioned to me to put my money away. "This one's on me" he said.

This time Ava and I played against just Laura, and of course we won. Normally, the winner could choose any small stuffed animal on the lower prize shelf. The man said to Ava, "Pick any prize in the booth", signalling that this offer included the really big stuffed animals on the top shelf. Ava was thrilled of course, and picked out a giant black and white teddy bear that she carried around with her for the rest of the day. I was really touched by this man's generosity and eagerness to please a small child. (Ava tends to bring this out in people.)

The bottom line...there are good people Brooklyn and in small town USA. It's nice to be reminded of that once in a while.


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