31 December 2009

Terrorism and Saline Beach: A plan for the New Year

Terrorism is no joking matter. But still... .

I alternately chuckle and fume over the airline security body scan controversy: A terrorist almost blows up a U.S. airplane with 289 men, women, and children aboard, and the ACLU insists that body scans that might have prevented him from getting aboard are an invasion of privacy. Some knuckleheads (a majority, yet) of the House of Representatives agree. Ignored are the facts that the face of the scannee is obscured, and the "voyeur" scan operator cannot even see the traveler. So what's the beef? An anonymous TSA employee is going to learn I have a penis? Are we afraid that teenage boys will abandon their explicit Playboy magazines, find a way to hack into the TSA's scanning software, and spend their days and nights ogling chalky breasts passing through JFK? The ACLU argues TSA should give people with colostomy bags and penile implants the option of a pat-down. Anybody who thinks that is less invasive than the electronic scan has never been patted down properly. The Nigerian terrorist had the explosive powder under his testicles. Think a TSA guy is going to go there? Or the TSA woman is going to make a thorough "feel" of the analogous area on female passengers? Or check the contents of a colostomy bag? Get real. Wanna know what a real pat-down is like? Travel to Israel on El Al. A guy with hands the size of catcher's mitts checks every freckle. Privacy? Hah.

But for those people who still feel strongly about the issue, I offer four possible solutions:

1. All adults who contemplate air travel must first spend six months of basic training in the United States Army at the old WWII barracks at Fort Dix, NJ. The "latrine" was one large room. Shower heads coming out of the wall at one end, then a row of unpartitioned toilets opposite a row of wash sinks. By the third week, all notions of privacy were permanently altered. It is a life-changing experience. (And that is but one of the many unsung advantages to universal military service.)

2. Properly train the TSA pat-downers, and then create an airline trial period: one out of every three flights on a particular route will have no electronic tushie-scans. Travelers so inclined can choose those less secure flights. Let's see how many ACLUers and whackadoodle congress persons choose the less secure, more invasive pat-down alternative. It will take only a short while before the less secure flights are eliminated from the schedule because no sentient person would fly on them.

3. Forget mandatory health insurance: Congress should require all citizens to go to the gym every day, and abide by a rigid calorie-restrictive diet. In six months all the women will have bodies like Uma Thurman and men will have pecs and abs like the guy who plays the werewolf in New Moon, and everybody will be proud to parade around LaGuardia airport naked.

4. The Saline Beach option: All travelers must undergo an orientation period of two weeks sitting on Saline Beach in St. Barths. Trust me, there are no hidden weapons or explosives on the bodies of the local denizens. I have made observations. All clear. What's more, even those of us who keep our bathing suits on become less certain that a lightning bolt will strike us down if someone sees our behinds: Just watching the naked kids and their parents play on the beach is a permanent cure for the obsessive American need to protect against someone getting a glimpse of our not-so-private parts.

Duh, I know that options 1, 2, and 3 are impracticable.

So come on down!

A happy and healthy New Year to all.

A bientot.

22 December 2009

The Miracle Flight

JetBlue 363 departs LGA at 7:35 a.m., Gate 16. Destination: West Palm Beach.

We were in for a number of surprises, start to finish.

The cab dropped us at the airport way early and we were at the gate almost an hour before departure. I don't mind early. I hate late. Early means sitting in a chair at the gate with a cup of coffee and an extracurricular blueberry muffin, reading the Times in peace. Hah. Not on this trip.

I need to be careful here, and not disrespectful of the elderly and infirm, but funny is funny, and this was funny:

The first thing one notices upon arrival at Gate 16 is the switchback line of about 20 wheelchairs, all occupied by white sneakered older white people. The men's faces are uniformly tan, the women's not. All wheelers have carry-ons in their laps, all are wearing grumpy faces.

Obviously this parade of wheelchair travelers is a regular thing on this flight; the airline had cordoned off a wheelchair corral. Why did that scene tickle our funny bones? I am not sure. Think a Larry David/Mel Brooks collaboration, think the "Wheelchair" episode in "Curb", think the "walker" dance number in "The Producers." Think Sid Caesar, George Burns. Now you are at Gate 16. It was simply unlike anything I had seen before. I kept waiting for the music to cue up and the wheelchairs to start peeling out of their corral and spinning into their dance routine. Never happened, though.

Pinks and are just terrible people, I guess. Neither of us said anything but neither of us could stop giggling. I am ashamed. Well, really more "should be" than "am".

The second unusual aspect of our arrival at Gate 16, was that even an hour before scheduled flight time, every seat in the gate area was occupied, and the place was packed with standees. I guess earlybirding can be habit forming. These folks had had their visits with the children and grandchildren who wouldn't or couldn't come to FL to visit, and they now were hurrying back to the warm.

Forty minutes before the scheduled departure time, a squad of blue shirted attendants entered from stage left and started the process of releasing the brakes and, one at a time, wheeling the corralled passengers down the jetway. On board, the wheelers were mostly in seats up front. I think the airline reserves a batch of seats up front for these passengers because the wheelchair is too broad for the aisle of the plane. Anyway, when we got on, there they were, settled into their seats, belts tightened, luggage secured overhead, but still not a smile in a planeload.

But I get ahead of myself. After the wheelers were safely tucked into their upfront seats, the gate agent made the usual announcement inviting all people with small children, or others needing special assistance, to "pre-board." Yikes! Stand back! The in-need-of-special-assistance crowd for this flight must have attended the Lawrence Taylor school of airplane boarding. We are talking flying elbows, shoulder blocks, hip checks, the gamut. I saw no outright tackles or below the waist down field blocks, but a zebra would have had a field day throwing yellow flags. It reminded me of skiing in Austria. In the United States, skiers line up in a corral and get onto the lift by following the person in front of them. In Austria, the lift "line" is a funnel, and you will not get closer to the small end without figuring out how to move ahead of the person to either side of you. The accepted method, I learned, is to stand on your neighbors' skis.

It is more than possible that some who did not need special assistance in boarding incurred a change of status as a result of the pre-boarding scrum. I had this vision of the cleaning crew for this gate area coming by later and sweeping up an occasional shoe, hairpiece, dental bridge, you name it. In the movie I plan to do with Larry and Mel, I also see perhaps a girdle and a six-inch long hatpin.

There was one woman who came to my attention early in this process. Standing at the perimeter of wheelchair corral, tall, slim, very white skin, well-coiffed short curly white hair, wearing a black ski jacket, warm-up pants, and carrying a small black duffel. No wheels of any kind for this well put together lady. She came to my attention because she argued with the gate attendants about something, was rebuffed, but nevertheless pushed her way to the front of the rest of us ambulatories, and at the announcement of pre-boarding for people in need of special assistance, she was the first passenger to walk down the finger onto the plane. No, I did not see a limp.

Unscarred, Pinks and I boarded in turn and settled into our precious emergency-row seats, 11D and 11F. After a few minutes, the cabin attendant came down the aisle and asked Pinks and me if we knew we were in an emergency row and were we capable of rendering special assistance to other passengers in need of same. We said yes, and the attendant turned to the right and put the same question to the passengers in 11A and 11C. The guy by the window said "sure" and the tall, slim, very white skinned, well-coiffed short curly white haired, black-ski-jacketed lady in 11C said, "Of course." (Later in the flight, she leaned across the aisle and asked if she could borrow my New York Times. I hesitated a fraction of a second, and said, "No, the paper is heavy and I would not want you to hurt yourself.") I wish.

During the completion of the boarding process, my personal auditory space was brutally invaded by the woman in the row behind me. Standing in front of her seat, leaning on my seatback, she issued a string of non-stop instructions to people on the proper way to proceed down the aisle, secure their luggage in the racks above, find their seat, and she constantly complained to Harold, her traveling companion, (for his sake, I hope not her husband, though he seemed beyond caring in any event) that she had spied a woman with two carry-ons when the rules allowed only one, the airline should revise all boarding procedures, people with carry-on luggage should go first, or last, I am not sure, she was going to write a letter about this and lots of other problems. She had one of those super-piercing voices that reminded one of the days of defective chalk on blackboards. Upon reflection, I realize now that the only reason Harold hadn't strangled her long ago is that Harold is deaf.

Now comes the Miracle. (Credit for the "Miracle Flight" title goes to my sister and brother-in-law who were our gracious hosts for three days in Boynton Beach.) When our plane arrived in West Palm, the Purser announced that all wheelchair passengers should remain in their seats and they will be helped off the plane after the other passengers have debarked. But when Pinks and I made our way down the aisle to the front exit, we saw that most of the seats earlier occupied by wheelchair-bound Floridians were now empty! Behold, the disabled have risen! They have taken their luggage and boogied! Cured! Isn't God great? She made JetBlue 363 into a Jewish Lourdes!

My brother-in-law insists he once saw a woman who got on JetBlue 363 via wheelchair in LGA, and upon arrival in West Palm, walked off the plane, and once in the terminal, sprinted across the concourse to meet someone or make a connection!

Hey, ya gotta have a sense of humor, right? On the flight home, sitting in front of us was an elderly woman, small, frail, spoke English with a heavy Hispanic accent, traveling alone. She was a wheeler getting on and off. At the end of the flight she asked the young cabin attendant where she needed to go in the LaGuardia terminal building to get to Belize. The young cabin attendant was alarmed. Belize? She responded that JetBlue did not travel to Belize and she was quite sure no other airline flying out of LGA did either. As the conversation proceeded, the elderly woman's anxiety escalated. She just repeated "Belize, Belize", each time with greater urgency. Finally the cabin attendant managed to mollify the elderly passenger by assuring her that when she got off the plane, the wheelchair attendant would take her anywhere in the terminal she wanted to go. The woman instantly calmed and said quietly, "Oh, good, then he take me to where the bags come out and I get my Belize."

See, this little story has a happy ending.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Good health to all. And bring the troops home.

A bientot.

18 December 2009

Blind Sided

Some years back, I read an interesting book, "Liar's Poker", by Michael Lewis, a former Solomon Brothers bond salesman. Even then he knew the Wall Street geniuses were anything but. He followed up with an eclectic string of books about baseball ("Moneyball"), computers and the internet ("New Thing"), and he has just written one about being a father. He is an intelligent, articulate guy, who writes simple declarative sentences that are i) sequentially related, ii) informative, and iii) interesting. Hence his success.

I loved "Liars Poker" and "Moneyball", and when his book "Blind Side, Evolution of a Game" was published in paperback 2-3 years ago, I was eager to read it. It did not disappoint. The book was heavy on football tactics. The title related to the fact that almost all quarterbacks are right-handed, and therefore turn their heads and shoulders to the right when cocking their arms and throwing the football. Defensive ends and linebackers who rush the quarterback from his left, his "blind side," are in a position cause him much grief. So the game evolved, and coaches recognized the need for a big, fast, athletic offensive left tackle to defend against those blind side marauders. The job calls for a highly skilled athlete with muscle, speed, agility, and football smarts. As shown by the coach's diagram of x's and o's on the cover, the offensive left tackle needs to be prepared to block the defensive end who rushes from his outside (to his left) as well as the defensive tackle who makes an inside move,(to his right). And that's if they come straight in, no stunts. Hence the need for speed and smarts, as well as beef and power.

Lewis's book is about a homeless black kid, Michael Oher, who was taken in by a white southern family, and tutored so he could get passing grades and play football in high school. The family also helped him get a football scholarship to Old Miss, and upon graduation, Oher was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. A great football story, woven into a great human interest story of selflessness and courage on the part of the white family who took him in. The book had it all.

I was really eager to see the movie, starring Sandra Bullock as the good mom. I love Sandra Bullock, and admire her smarts as well as her tush.

Pinks and I saw the film the other night. We each did our thing: I watched while Pinks slept. I need a role reversal.

The film is a rip-off. That ain't the book I read. Not even close.

There was indeed some football in the film but this is far from a football film. This movie has nothing to do with the "evolution of the game", unless the "game" is suckering book-readers into seeing the film. The lead figure is, duh, Sandra Bullock. Michael Oher is portrayed not as a fast, skilled, athlete, but just an overweight giant. For the male football fans who were misled by the title and assumed the film tracked the book, there was some compensation: we got to see a lot of Sandra Bullock. And I mean a lot. The views of her from the back are every bit as interesting as the views from the front. And when Ms. Bullock leaves the room or walks away from the camera, you can believe that camera stays on her. All the time. Everything she wears is skin tight. Everything. Talk about physical conditioning. If Michael Oher went to the gym as often as Sandra Bullock, he would have been drafted as first pick instead of twenty-third. While I did not clock it, I would estimate Ms. Bullock is on screen 75% of the the time, be it in bed (with her handsome husband, of course), lunching with the ladies, talking down to school and government officials, threatening to shoot armed and dangerous ruffians, sitting in the stands making cellphone calls to tell the coach what plays to run, walking onto the field telling the coach how to run practice sessions, etc. Her three inch spike heels never sink into the turf, her shoes do not get dirty, and nothing she does, nothing, ever produces so much as a wrinkle in the revealing sprayed-on clothing. And on the field or off, never a hair out of place. Fantastic.

At bottom, this is an annoying chick-flick. The fact that it is the highest grossing current film in the U.S. shows how little I know about the movie biz. I am sure I would not have been so disappointed had I not read the book. Gotta cut that out.

On the other hand, had I not read the book, I would not have dragged Pinks to see the film. Oh, well. Where do I go to get my money back? Staggering economics at play here: many hours of pleasure reading the book, at $8.95, hour and a half of fidgeting in my seat while I watched the movie and Pinks slept, at $25.

Btw, "New Moon", the vampire chicklet film, was number two in box office receipts last week. I sure can pick em. But I will recover. In three weeks, we return to Paradise.

There, I have saved you another $12.50, unless it is too late. Sorry about that.

In Paradise, I never go to the movies. There is no movie theatre on the island. Once a week they project a french language film onto the side a building in L'Orient and people watch while sitting on plastic chairs on the adjacent tennis court. Not my thing.

A bientot.

01 December 2009

NYC Bytes

In St. Barths, our entertainment schedule is easy: cocktails on the deck, dinner out at an open air restaurant or at home in our open air dining room, then stare at non-working tv set for 20 minutes (it's a kind of meditation-- instead of saying "Ohmmmm" or some other word of choice, one just settles into mindfulness looking at an unmoving screen with a message inside a rectangle that says "Trying to connect with Satellite, Chill"), then to bed where one reads the same paragraph one has been reading for a week and instantly awakens to blue skies, sun dappling the blue-green bay, and the breeze riffling the palm fronds.

In New York City, the schedule is a little more complex. Take the Thanksgiving weekend, for example. Pinks spent five days cooking thirteen dishes while I submissively ran errands or hid out in the office where my cell doesn't work and I can push the "do not disturb" button on my desk phone (or would, if I could figure out how to do that on a phone so high-tech I cannot figure out how to answer it). The easy part for me was Thanksgiving Day proper, when fifteen people, ranging in age from four months to 81 years, gathered in our living room (about half the size of our tiny plunge pool in Paradise) ate all thirteen of Pinks' delicious dishes while I sliced turkey. Unlike the scenario in so many holiday movies, the relatives, siblings, grandchildren, and friends all played nice. Piece of cake. Pies, actually. Four of them, not counting the cupcakes.

Then came Black Friday. No, we did not go shopping, but our darling 12 yr. old granddaughter Emily was in from Ohio, with her mom and younger sister Hannah. Emily was eager to see the Twilight movie called New Moon which had set afire box offices across the country the previous weekend. I checked the schedule. Ugh. No way out. It was playing just about every hour at every other theatre in Manhattan. I am a good grandfather and I had already put my foot down about joining Pinks and the girls for an umpteenth visit to the current Broadway production of Mamma Mia the following day. Even grandfathers have rights.

But on this one I was trapped. New Moon it was, and I accompanied Pinks and the three girls to the movie. Me and one thousand females of all ages. Pinks had no trouble sitting through the previews and then slumping down in her seat, putting her head on my shoulder and sinking immediately into a drooling in rem sleep for the next two hours. Perhaps I too would have slept were I not so uncomfortable because of my wet shirt.

So let me share my New Moon experience and save you twelve dollars:

A moody teenager falls in love with a vampire who thinks he is channeling James Dean. She is eighteen and he is two hundred and nine, but she abjures age discrimination and wants him to bite her. But before he became a vampire he was a guy, so even now he is unable to commit. While he dithers, she acts out by taking her first-ever motorcycle ride at 50 mph, the bike skids, she soars through the air and lands with an unprotected-head first impact on a conveniently placed trailside boulder. Any mortal would be dead, and the as yet unbitten Miss Moody certainly qualifies. No such luck. Even this catastrophic crash fails to end her misery. Or mine. Instead, our heroine incurs but a wound so minor we see only a slim trickle of blood coming down from her scalp. Her motorcycle instructor races to the scene, and instead of calling 911, he (gasp) rips off his filthy t-shirt, and ineffectively blots some of the blood trickle. Yuck. But this is not House or ER and sepsis does not set in. This is an important scene because when he takes off his shirt, we see that the motorcycle guy is really Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing a younger guy's head. She stares at his six-pack and instantly recovers. She must have kept his sweat stained schmatte because the re-capitated Arnold walks around shirtless for the remainder of the film. Well, not exactly always, because sometimes he wears a heavy brown fur coat, but only when he is wolf. (You mean you didn't know he was a werewolf? Darn, I've spoiled it for you.) Finally, Arnold runs off though I am not sure whether it is because Miss Moody prefers to be eaten by a vampire rather than a wolf, or because Arnold loves her too much to eat her himself. (Btw, did you know that wolves can kill vampires, but not within a prescribed territory set out in a treaty?) In the end, Werewolf Arnold runs off, Vampire Dean runs off, and we are left with this pining, whining teenage girl who is in desperate need a good shot upside the head. Get over it already!

Oh, in an obvious effort to maintain the suspense over the next decade of Twilight films, the writers (!) of this film do not tell us whether Vampire Dean eventually bites Miss Moody. Not to worry, I have impeccable sources: Emily has read the book seven times and assures me the Vampire gets the girl every time.

I can hardly wait till Christmas.

A bientot.