Monday, January 19, 2009

On Air Travel

Flew up to Edmonton to check on my Mom (I was worried about her having been relocated within the nursing home) and to check on the renovations done to Doug's place, and to arrange for renovations to begin on the next condo, and so on.

On the plane up from Calgary the flight attendant asked if I would be willing to switch places with the guy sitting next to the emergency exit because he didn't want to be responsible for opening the door if it came to that. (He looked sick, so maybe he felt he was too weak to do the job.) "There's more leg room in that row" the Stewardess told me, by way of providing me with an incentive. I shrugged and moved rows because, what the hey. So she does her training spiel, which I've heard maybe 12 times this year, and on the Dashes, the emergency door really is not that complicated. But I'm feeling put out about having to go up to Edmonton in the first place, so when she asks if there are any questions, I reply by asking, "Is there a discount for sitting in the exit row?" Without missing the beat, the Stewardess leans in close and whispers, "Only if we have to use it."

Which seemed pretty funny until I got to the apartment and saw footage of the jet in the Hudson river.

Especially when a commentator pointed out that one reason that everyone survived is that no one panicked and opened the emergency exits prematurely. "They followed procedure for that kind of plane and only opened the forward door – if any of the rear emergency exits had been opened, the plane would have sunk much faster." Which made me wince, since I had spent half the flight up to Edmonton telling myself, "If something happens, I not going to freeze up like I usually do, I'm going to pull that lever like she showed me and shove that door out the plane before it even stops rolling!" Apparently you're supposed to await instructions before opening that sucker. (The other half of the flight up, I'd been thinking, "If it is just that easy to open this emergency door, what's to prevent some drunken idiot or sacrificial terrorist from opening it mid-flight? That can't be good!)

But it raises the question: when your plane goes down, do you get a full refund? It's the sort of question Larry King never gets around to asking the survivors. So did they give them just another flight to that destination, or do they throw in a couple of freebies to make up for the trauma of it all? At least an up grade to 1st class? (With Air Canada's recent attitude, I'd suspect they might say "Well, you can't expect a full refund! After all, we got you half way there!") Personally, if it were me on a flight like the Hudson river ditching or the Gimely Glider incident, I'm thinking Greyhound vouchers might be the way to go.

Still, I appreciate that my flight attendant had kept her sense of humuor when this has not been a good couple of months for Air Canada. I'd spent five hours in the Lethbridge airport last Thursday, for example, waiting for a flight that never arrived. When it became obvious that I wasn't going to make the last possible connection in Calgary and I had asked that my flight be switched to this week instead, the desk clerk had said "Certainly! I'm sure there'll be no problems next week at all!" with such hysterical enthusiasm you knew she was being facetious. Clearly, she considered booking any flight out of my local airport during Dec - Feb an act of pointless optimism.

The recent air travel problems are particularly aggrevating for folks like us in the smaller airports. When Toronto and Vancouver had their respective storms/problems, the airlines' solution was to give priority to long haul passengers, because they could bring in a couple of 747s and fly a 1000 folks out at a time. Which works okay if you're going Toronto to Vancouver, or Toronto to Halifax, but if you're like us and have to connect through Calgary, you're always the lowest priority, because Calgary to Vancouver is always considered a short haul connection, even if you are making a connection there to somewhere else entirely. Indeed, almost by definition, anyone living on the Pariries or Atlantic Canada is screwed by this policy, since going from your home airport to your hub connection is necessarily 'short haul', while going from Toronto to anywhere is, well, a long haul priority. Hmmm. Does this pattern look familiar to anyone? So no wonder that paririe assengers were often left stranded in airports for days at a time -- unless they were on WestJet, of course.

And what, the consumer may ask, has been Air Canada's response to the debacle of the last two months? Has it relented on the downsizing that left Air Canada so thinly staffed that if a plane misses its connection, there's no aircrew available to man the next leg? Has it hired sufficient staff to man the desks and telephones to keep people informed and to help them rebook? To hand out hotel bookings and meal tickets? Nnoooo! It's to introduce a new service called "On My Way", which -- for an extra $35 per travel segment -- will provide you with the all stuff the Transportation Ministry says is every passenger's by right. In one fell swoop, Air Canada simultaneously pockets a bunch more cash and shifts the blame from themselves to the consumer. "Well I'd like to help you re-book your arbitrarily canceled flight, but you chose not to purchase our "On My Way" protection, so I can't." By paying the $35, the folks at the airport still won't help you, but they'll give you the number of a call center that will actually answer the phone. "Priority access to our team of specially-trained Air Canada On My Way agents who are available around the clock to assist you with all your unexpected travel needs." And, get this, "Automatic flight information notification/updates sent to you by email or SMS." They'll actually tell you that your flight is delayed or canceled, if you've paid the extra extortion fee. In contrast to what we observed the last few months where the Air Canada staff would simply turn off the flight announcement monitors and leave their desks so people couldn't complain to them or ask them questions.

So the rich and the desperate can pay what amounts to a third-world-style kick-back to Air Canada for them to actually supply the services for which we contracted, while the rest of us schleps are left to just cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Or, take WestJet.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Grocery Lists

I'm not sure what it says about the state of the world, but I'm often fascinated that there is no topic on which someone or other has not published. There are, for example, two books available on lost grocery lists:

Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found (Hardcover)

and the even more interesting A la Cart by performance artist Hilary Carlip.

These are second only to "The Barbed Wire Collector Magazine" (the only remaining magazine on the topic, we are told, which suggests there used to be competitors) as most surprising demographic.... Who are the subscribers here? And what, after over 30 years and nearly 200 issues, is there left to say about Barbed Wire?

Walking the Dog

We love our new dog. Okay, we're a bit ticked that she ate our couch, three pairs of shoes, Tigana's prize hat, three Barbies, the electrical cord off the vacuum cleaner, four Christmas ornaments (why couldn't she have eaten the ugly ones?) a monopoly game -- indeed, everything within her surprisingly high reach -- except of course for her chew toys -- but one has to expect a 'settling in' period. We're good!

But the other night, Mary came in a bit shaken up because, while out for their mid-evening walk, Jackie had gone completely nuts. She had slipped her collar and taken off after a woman in a yellow coat with two tiny dogs. Mary managed -if only just - to restrain Jackie by hugging her tightly until the others were gone, but was completely taken aback at this uncharacteristic behavior. Jackie mostly doesn't bark, and when she does, it is a polite greeting to other friendly dogs, or a warning growl at some wildly barking manic dog as we pass by their yard. Nothing out of the ordinary. Pooka at 18 barked more. But on this occasion, Jackie went completely ballistic, insane with the need to attack either those two little dogs, or their owner.

Mary didn't get that good a look at the owner, but complained that the woman completely ignored Mary's problems, and rather than crossing the street or turning the other direction, as any normal dog owner would have in that situation, just proceeded on her way without breaking her stride.

Tonight I was walking Jackie, admiring Jackie's progress in learning how to walk in an urban setting (sidewalks good -- middle of the road, not good) when once again, the woman in yellow materializes a block away with her dogs, and Jackie goes completely psycho. I managed to hang on to her leash, but she pulled and jumped and howled and pleaded and went hysterical like nothing I've ever seen in any dog, ever. I abandoned any attempt to walk, and just got her to sit until the woman -- taking no notice of us whatsoever -- merrily continued on her way past us. At one point, as the woman had passed us and was receding into the distance -- Jackie was so crazed she actually turned around, and bit at my arm to get me to let go of the leash! Jackie?!

Once the woman had completely disappeared and Jackie calmed down, we continued home, where I told Mary what had happened.

"That's the same woman, alright" Mary confirmed. "But why is Jackie so insistent on attacking her dogs -- or her?"

"Alien Cyborgs," I explained.


"Well, it's obvious, isn't it? Jackie is desperate to attack that woman because Jackie can tell that those aren't dogs, and she's no human."

"Alien Cyborgs?" Mary asks, starring at me with that way she has sometimes.

"Dogs can always tell," I say. "I think it's the unearthly smell that gives the cyborgs away."

"Cyborgs?" Mary asked again. (I think she has trouble with her hearing sometimes.)

"Alien Cyborgs" I confirm. "Clearly, Jackie was trying to protect us, warn us against these alien invaders. It must drive Jackie crazy to be able to see the danger so clearly, and for us to be just oblivious like that."

"Or, maybe Jackie just really doesn't like that woman for some, you know, more mundane reason."

"Didn't you see how that woman just kept going? Like she was programmed? Robotic.... Obvious Cyborgs, really, once Jackie identified the intruders!"

"You're not going to do anything,,,um...drastic, are you?"

"I don't see alternative, I'm afraid."

"Oh, Robert, no!"

"Yes, I'll have to move Jackie's walk up an hour."


"Well, if the cyborgs go for their walk at 6:00, I'll have to take Jackie at 5 or so. So we don't run into them again. Great thing about alien cyborgs: creatures of habit. Or programming, I should say. Very predictable."

"Uh, huh."

"It's their greatest weakness, really. Always leads to their downfall. That, and watchful dogs, like Jackie!"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Back to Lethbridge, and Winter in Alberta

We left Lethbridge in a week when it was -40, so we really appreciated Hawaii. Unfortunately, the return home was correspondingly traumatic. We went from this:
Sunset at our condo on Maui

to this:
Our patio furniture in Lethbridge

But we quickly discovered that there is no sympathy available for "jet lag climate syndrome".

"You had two weeks in Hawaii?! We were stuck here in 40 below and 3 feet of snow the whole time! I had to shovel for three hours to clear my driveway, and I still couldn't go anywhere because the streets weren't plowed." And so on. One of the worst winters in Lethbridge in a long a good time for us to have been gone.

But we've discovered that our kids don't really understand cold. In my generation (I'm old, so think two generations ago), kids walked to school. (Okay, okay, I lived across the street from my school, but other kids walked up to 15 blocks to school). Today, we drive our kids to school, even though Tigana's school is only two blocks away. And since Mary and I pretty much hate cold and winter sports, we haven't exactly encouraged tobogganing or etc. So my kids don't really get that -40 is not just a number, it's a death sentence if you're out there too long. We found Tigana and Kasia out in the backyard one evening in their pjs. "What the H___ are you doing?!" Mary shouted out at them (having no intention of going out there herself). "What?" Tigana asked innocently enough. "We put on our socks!" There followed a round of hot chocolate and a two hour discussion of what would have happened if Mom hadn't discovered them within 30 seconds of their setting out. "Flesh freezes in 2 minutes at that temperature. People die at that temperature. It's different than 20 below."

It reminded me of my life growing up in Edmonton. At least once each winter, somebody would be found frozen to death because they'd just worn a 'car coat' from their heated house to their heated garage, and the car had broken down on some deserted road before they got to their heated destination. People forget how cold -40 really is, and that you can't take chances in this climate. I know my brother twice saved people's lives because he stopped and picked them up when they got themselves in trouble. One was a native man whose car had broken down on Connor's Hill, and no one would stop for him -- perhaps 'cause they thought he looked menacing, though how menacing is a guy shivering to death? I doubt he would have made it to the top of the hill if Doug hadn't picked him up when he had. Another time we were half way across the High Level Bridge when we saw a guy stumble on the sidewalk. Doug stopped and we pulled him in. He was a grad student I knew vaguely from UofA. He had crossed the bridge dozens of time on the 'short' walk from his apartment to campus during the fall, and hadn't fully appreciated what -40 meant. He'd worn a light fall coat, but being from Nigeria, he thought that was a winter coat. Walking that distance in Nigeria, piece of cake. Walking across the High Level Bridge in the middle of a blizzard -- exposed to the wind blowing full force down the North Saskatchewan -- pretty much suicide.

And my own story: My first Christmas in Lethbridge I was still working on my dissertation, so going into work on campus over Christmas. Winter, I had been told, was much milder in Lethbridge, but it turned out to be a particularly bad one -- worst I can remember until this year. I had been working late, and came out to find that my car had frozen solid. I'd forgotten they'd turned the plug ins off over Christmas holiday, since no one was supposed to be working that day. I tried to go back into my office to phone for a cab or tow truck (this was before cell phones), but the building's outside door was now locked, it being after hours on a day campus was officially closed. So I started the long walk up the hill towards home. About a quarter-way to the main road I knew there was no way I could make it all the way home in this cold. So I changed course for the gas station or the Dairy Queen on the corner -- slightly out of my way, but a lot closer than home. Even getting there was going to be touch and go, but I made a determined, tough Northerner heroic effort. When I finally got close enough to see the buildings through the blizzard, I realized that they were closed -- because of the blizzard. So I turned around and set for home again. There are no houses on that road until I would be almost home, but I'd already decided I would knock on the first door I got to, if I made it that far. I was sure I had lost my feet for good when a car finally drove by -- and fortunately for me -- pulled up and offered me a lift. The guy earned my undying gratitude (I still shop at the store whose logo was on the car) and the moment I got home I immediately put myself in the bath, so in the end, only had mild frostbite. I was very lucky. But another man died that same evening trying to walk across the bridge leading to the road I had been on.

I'd been in full winter regalia at that. So finding the kids had ventured out in night gowns, pretty much blew our minds. "Don't you know how cold this is?!" But how could they? Aside from recess, they're never outside, and they don't go out for recess any more once it hits -20 C. If you've never experienced -20, how can you possibly imagine -40?

We'd tell people in Hawaii that it had been -40 when we left Alberta, and they'd look at you as if you were insane. "What's that in Fahrenheit?" is the inevitable question.
"It's the same -- the scales cross at -40."
"Then why would you -- why would anyone -- live there?"
A question my five year old keeps asking us, and one we're having a hard time answering. I'd move to Hawaii tomorrow if it weren't that (a) we're Canadian and Hawaii is American (why we didn't think to buy it from the British when we had the chance, I'll never know) and (b) the salaries at UofHawaii are about 1/3 what I currently make. (Supply and demand, I guess, and there is pretty much a steady supply of profs wanting to work in Hawaii.)

We like Hawaii so much we thought we might see about going in the off season when it would be cheaper -- only there is no off season. We had assumed that summer would be cheaper, since who wants to leave Canada in the summer? But of course, our summer is exactly when people from Texas and Arizona go to Hawaii to escape the heat....
I hear +40 is hot enough it can kill you if you're not prepared.