Seven tips for improving your next flight

Flying metal tube of doom!

An uncounted number of stand-up comedians, both the successful and the ones who continue to toil away on the circuit to scattershot laughs, have worked the quirks and foibles of air travel into their routine at least once in their career, for the simple reason that it’s a universal experience that no one has less than a strong opinion about.  The old saying about how God would have given men wings if he had been meant to fly encapsulates the concept that the sky will never be our natural home – why else would we have to design and build these garish winged steel cylinders to get us above the clouds?  It seems too, of late, that fiscal austerity has conspired to make the experience as miserable as possible for the vast majority of passengers.  Even those of us who are just old enough to remember getting a full meal with actual metal cutlery on Wardair can cringe at stories about airlines reducing leg room yet again to cram in three more rows of chairs.  Airline advertising to the contrary, getting there isn’t half the fun, it’s just something you have to endure.  But as passengers, we make it worse for ourselves.  Expecting that the trend is not likely to change on the airline’s side in the near future, there are still a few things that could be adjusted to make the trip moderately more enjoyable, and none of them require the airline doing a blessed thing.  It’s just a question of some additional personal responsibility:

  1. Pre-boarding.  When the gate attendant advises that passengers with small children or those requiring special assistance in getting onboard the aircraft can come up first, why does it seem like everyone else in the damn departure lounge assumes they can as well?  Unless you are carrying three screaming terrors or are so elderly you can barely stand, wait for your turn.  What perplexes me most is that there’s no prize for getting on first – you don’t get to leave earlier and you certainly don’t get a lapdance from the stewardess or even an extra bag of peanuts.  You are trading in a precious few more minutes in the wide open lounge with its ready access to expansive, clean washrooms for the claustrophobia of the passenger cabin and the smelly steamer-trunk sized toilet.  Just chill and stand up when they call you.
  2. The “fresh air vents” above the seats.  I have opened these exactly twice during my history of air travel.  Both times I have come down with horrendous, hacking coughs and colds.  The problem is that when the outside temperature up above the clouds is about -40, real “fresh air” would freeze the plane.  So the dirty secret – pun intended – is that this so-called fresh air is just recycled cabin air, which means you’re inhaling every filthy little germ that has had the temerity to sneak through security to make the journey with you.  You are basically asking to get sick by opening these things.  If you don’t know the person you’re sitting next to, do them a solid and keep your vent closed, no matter how much you want to feel any semblance of breeze on your face.  Their lungs will thank you, and so will yours.
  3. On the subject of germs, personal hygiene.  I don’t care if you think you’re one of those people who can get away with bathing every other day.  You’re about to inflict your natural odor on dozens of strangers who, stunningly enough, won’t find it as sexy as you think your partner does.  When you know you’re going to be flying within the next six hours, please, shower, slap on that Speed Stick and keep your arms at your sides at all times.
  4. Reclining seats.  I have noted above the progressive decrease in the amount of leg room available on each flight, and while you at five-foot-two may see nothing wrong with kicking back after the seatbelt sign has been turned off, the gentleman behind you who exceeds six feet (eg. me) doesn’t relish feeling like the proverbial sardine for the next three and a half hours.  The very least you can do is ask.  I might be in a good mood and have absolutely no problem with it.  But if you just arbitrarily decide to force your seat back into my face without asking, I reserve the right to shove it back upright with equal discourtesy, and you shouldn’t act shocked.  And let’s be honest, these aren’t exactly La-Z-Boys – the amount of extra comfort you’ll achieve by reclining those three entire inches is infinitesimal at best, particularly when it compares to my level of frustration at having your seat back under my nose for the whole flight.  Stay vertical and keep the peace.
  5. Freaking out audibly at every little bump.  I get that it can be a little unnerving, but let’s just try to accept that air is mobile and constantly changing and the same forces that give us the rain we need to grow things for us to eat and keep our lawns green are what cause our planes to rattle around sometimes.  There are thousands of flights all over the world every single day and the media’s propensity to hype the hell out of the odd one that goes wrong has led average people to believe that they have something like a one in three chance of actually surviving a flight through rough weather.  The airline has nothing to gain by killing two hundred of its customers, so they don’t fly through this stuff if they don’t think they can make it.  Just pretend you’re on a roller coaster.
  6. Clapping when the flight lands.  This has made me roll my eyes since my very first flight.  I get that it’s ostensibly a way to thank the pilots, but the clapping always sounds like it’s less out of gratitude and more out of white-knuckled relief – like it’s somehow a God-ordained miracle that the plane arrived safely, and the same thing didn’t actually happen twelve hundred more times across the world that very same day.  I know this isn’t likely to change, but while we’re on the subject of the end of the flight, can we perhaps not all jump up at once the instant the seatbelt sign is off and perhaps just file out in a little more orderly fashion – again, recognizing that between Customs and the wait for your bags you still won’t get out of the airport any faster?
  7. Complaining and acting as though the airline has engaged in a massive conspiracy specifically to screw you.  We are all in the same damn flying metal tube of doom, brah, and what’s happening to you is happening to all of us.  None of us are getting where we want to go any faster or any more comfortably.  I was flying home from Calgary once and what was meant to be a short stop in Edmonton turned into a two-hour stay on the tarmac while a thunderstorm moved overhead (ground crews aren’t allowed out if there’s risk of lightning).  While we sat there, hot, frustrated and increasingly impatient, the drunken douchebag next to me felt it necessary, every five minutes or so, to exclaim with great erudition and wit, “Get this f—in’ thing in the air!”  Hearing this, the pilots sprang to action and revved up the engine and… well, no, they didn’t do anything other than continue to wait for safety clearance, as they would have had this assbutt remained silent – the only difference would have been a much calmer, more congenial atmosphere in the cabin – manna for some very tired and upset passengers.  You’re not being funny, or any kind of hero by expressing what we might be thinking.  You’re just being a dick, and as I think the Emperor Constantine once observed, no one likes flying with a dick that isn’t theirs.

So there you have it – seven easy tips that will cost you absolutely nothing, require the airline crew to expend zero effort, and may result in a much more pleasant trip for all involved.  What the airlines themselves can do to ameliorate the trip is a much longer list, and is more of a pipe dream in terms of it possibly happening in my lifetime.  But there is one thing – during the safety presentation, I think we can agree that at this point we all basically understand the general principles of how to operate a seatbelt, right?

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

Of faith and learning

A friend directed me to a recent piece in The Toronto Star about how Ontario schools have seen a surge in parents requesting that their children be excused from classrooms when the subject being taught conflicts with their religious beliefs (eg. evolution).  This follows the incident several months ago involving a Catholic school board leader who was pilloried in the press for breaking Godwin’s law while trying to explain why her board refused to permit gay-straight alliance clubs on campus (she infamously and quite stupidly said “We don’t allow Nazi groups either”).  This is one of those areas where there seems to be no middle ground; you either believe these parents are standing up for their faith and their most cherished values against offensive secular indoctrination, or you think they’re utter ignoramuses trying to shield their poor kids from truth and consequently crippling their ability to function in the real world.

If you have to pin my belief system down to a single philosophy for the sake of reference, I’m probably closest to what’s called a secular humanist.  I like to know how things work and I’m unsatisfied with the explanation that life functions as it does because of the will of an insubstantial being who decided my fate long before I was born.  Yet I acknowledge that there are numerous things I don’t understand and never will – and I’m okay with that.  Rather like how not knowing the ending encourages you to keep reading the book, I’m happy for the continuing mysteries of the universe, because they keep me asking questions, keep me exercising my intellect in pursuit of truth.  I recognize that I will never know everything, but I can always learn more.  A man does endless reps on the rowing machine not because there is an acme of idealized muscular strength he needs to reach, but because he wants to make himself ever stronger.  That’s the most wonderful thing about learning; there will always be something new to learn, and, if one is to extend the metaphor of the gym, simply working your chest and avoiding the leg press will only make you look like Donkey Kong.  Shutting out the acquisition of knowledge because said knowledge fails to dovetail with ideology results in a state of imbalance – an inability to complete the equation or to advance the cause of truth.

Faith is not an easy journey.  Whether it is faith in God, faith in one’s fellows or faith in oneself, it requires strength.  Where extreme believers such as those who demand little Johnny not hear a peep about Charles Darwin fail their children in teaching them that lesson is in sending them the message that their faith is so brittle it cannot stand challenge.  Unchallenged faith is no faith at all – it’s blind obedience, and I also suspect that the vast majority who consider themselves spiritual do not like to think of themselves as mindless followers.  I have also never understood why some can’t accept the precepts of science while continuing to keep faith, that every word of the Bible has to be literally true for any part of it to have any weight.  After all, scientific thought built the iPad on which you’re tweeting your screed against the evil atheist school system.  It would seem to me that anything as universal as “God” cannot and should not be codified in human language, that the very concept defies the limits imposed upon it by the twenty-six letters of our alphabet.  It remains an unanswerable question, but one that demands pursuit.  Faith, then, is the sense that there is an answer worth going after – and if one is to approach understanding, then you can’t arbitrarily discount the information that might help you get that infinitesimal step closer.  Deciding that my mind’s made up and I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears when someone says something that contradicts it, is sacrificing that most precious gift of free will, the most important quality that guides our brief journey across life.

I’m not saying that what I believe is what you should believe.  Everyone deserves the chance to figure it out for themselves, because that’s the only way it’s going to work.  It’s our mandate as human beings to not abdicate our responsibility to learn all we can while we’re here, otherwise life is truly Shakespeare’s poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the tale told by the idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.  Let the kids learn about science in school.  Let them learn about God in church.  And most importantly, let them learn enough to be able to make up their own minds.

The American politics of Canadian health care

Scary! Screen cap from the ad featuring Shona Holmes blasting Canadian health care.

She’s back.  Shona Holmes, the Hamilton, Ontario native who became a poster child for the American right wing in 2009 as the debate over health care reform roared to life, is starring in a new Koch Brothers-funded Super PAC ad warning voters about the pitfalls of socialized medicine – and not only that, she’s hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte all week and available for interviews.  Given all the talk about the tidal influx of corporate money into the American electoral process since the Citizens United decision, if the best spokesperson the Kochs can come up with to star in their $27-million fear-mongering campaign against the ACA is an outsider whose complaints about her native land’s health care system have been thoroughly debunked, that’s some pretty weak-ass sauce – or, dare I say it as I put on sunglasses, unhealthy?  YEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!  Can you imagine the reaction on the right if an Obama-supporting Super PAC ran an ad featuring Canadians demanding higher taxes on the rich?  Cries from the Fox News cabal about filthy foreigners tampering with the sacred trust of American elections would be positively deafening.

The message of the ad is essentially that because the Canadian health care system allegedly failed Ms. Holmes, Americans should run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.  This one Canadian (out of 34 million) claims she had a bad experience, so let’s stick with the disastrous version we have now rather than pursuing a model that is so treasured by the Canadian people because of its success that no party dares broach the subject of changing it lest they suffer massive electoral blowback.  I find the right wing’s approach to attacking programs they don’t like (read:  they haven’t figured out a way to make money off) amusing in that it’s always the all-or-nothing gambit.  They’re always looking for the insignificant opening into which they can bludgeon the moneyed weight of their angry wedge.  A single slip-up, to them, warrants the dismantling of an entire organization – just as the appearance of a couple of bad apples in a malicious, heavily edited, out-of-context amateur video was grounds for taking apart ACORN (the real reason being that ACORN was instrumental in getting a lot of Democratic voters to the polls).  It’s as facetious and flimsy a position on which to build an argument as suggesting that if a single brick in the Great Pyramid of Giza cracks, the entire thing might as well be dynamited.  But it’s all you have when the only reason you can offer for being against something is that you don’t happen to like it very much.

It’s telling indeed that Shona Holmes is the only Canadian the Kochs could find to speak against Obamacare, and that she would be dragged out again three years after her initial appearance on the scene.  They probably couldn’t find anyone else.  For Canadians, what is almost as universal as our health coverage is our pride in our system – and our gratitude that getting sick in Canada doesn’t mean a financial death sentence.  Several years ago I was hospitalized for a serious lung condition, requiring X-rays, painkillers, and finally an intercostal tube drainage treatment.  My total bill for my week-long stay:  $12, for the optional phone at my bedside.  Everything else was covered by the program I pay into with my taxes, and nothing required was withheld because it wasn’t on my plan or whatever other spurious reasons the private companies invent to deny care in the U.S.  And my experience is not unique.  As to the myth of Canadians dying as they wait for needed surgery, it’s just that.  The Canadian system is based on triage – urgent cases go to the front of the line and everyone else is placed in priority sequence.  Decisions about who goes first are made by medical personnel (with apologies to the ex-Governor of Alaska, not once has any Canadian been forced to file a request with their local Member of Parliament before calling their doctor).  In the case of Shona Holmes, she was diagnosed with a benign cyst and panicked, and rather than waiting as recommended by a doctor she chose to cross the border and pay over $100,000 to the Mayo Clinic to have it removed immediately.  And with respect to her complaints about being attacked for expressing her opinion, if you are going to become a shill for U.S. corporate and political interests by spreading specious half-truths to every camera in sight because you didn’t get your lollipop right when you wanted it, you can’t be that shocked if more than a handful of folks decide to disagree with you.  Free speech goes both ways – that’s how the concept works.  (People shouldn’t have been calling her home to yell at her of course, but that’s just more proof of how passionately Canadians support and believe in their system of health care.)

It took an incredible effort on the part of President Obama, the Democratic Party and its supporters to overcome the blockades thrown up by Republican obstructionists, corporate lobbyists, lawsuit-happy state attorneys general and Tea Party zealots to get the ACA passed, half-baked half-measure as it may seem to many liberals and progressives who were longing for something more transformative.  Building on this act to craft a truly fair health care system where no one ever needs to fear getting sick in America ever again is going to take even more, and unfortunately the political damage borne by the Democrats for taking it on has made the issue something of a third rail.  But it should provide some comfort to those Americans dreaming of a single-payer program like Canada’s to know that the side fighting to keep the status quo has no real argument to make.  They may have more financial resources, more members of Congress in their pocket, but at the end of the day, it’s all smoke and mirrors – their hand is empty.  They just don’t like health care, and if you’re looking to win the conversation with the people, truth and facts are a much better starting point.