Friday, September 2, 2011

Air Travel III - Thin Atmosphere Reading

People will sometimes ask me how long it takes to fly between Tokyo and New Jersey. My answer usually elicits a contorted expression and a syllable or two of pained commiseration, reactions I personally would reserve for someone in truly insufferable straits – a diehard Glee fan, for example. Or someone with a full-time job.

I don’t know why people consider thirteen hours in the air something akin to torture. First of all, in my case, I’m flying because I want to, unlike the poor saps up in the front of the plane who have no choice but to fly off to another meeting somewhere. Second, what’s so bad about being able to sit around and watch movies while people bring you food? If you’re flying with an Asian airline there’s the added bonus of free beer and wine. Plus the flight attendants are still selected in step with the time-honored tradition of chauvinistic arousal. Are you kidding me? If demurely beautiful women in flattering silky garb are bringing me free beer I’ll fly for weeks on end.

Continental offers neither free beer nor chauvinistic arousal. They compensate, however, with an almost comical overload of movie selections and an in-flight magazine that is worth its weight in glossy paper – though probably not in a way Editor in Chief Mike Guy and his team intend. I’ve long had an unabashed affinity for in-flight magazines – the travel articles, even the boring ones, in their own way, are good fodder for future adventures; the crossword puzzles make me feel smart (unlike the sudoku); and the fiction pieces inevitably reassure me that I really can be a writer someday.

The magazine on my most recent flight, however, was an altogether new experience. There was no fiction (unless you count the open letter by the CEO on page 11). I didn't even get to the crossword (I was mentally trashed after the sudoku and didn't want to risk what little self-esteem I had left). And my appetite for travel didn't have the opportunity to be whetted what with the distractions on almost every page.

The August 2011 issue of Continental's Hemispheres features (i.e. displays in the biggest letters on the cover except for the word Hemispheres) an article on Stockholm. I visited Sweden once; I spent three hours in Malmo, a short ferry ride from Copenhagen. This was quite possibly the most amazing three hours of my life, for reasons I will get into momentarily. Suffice to say I was eager to dive into whatever 'Three Perfect Days' in the Swedish capital might hold. (This despite the letdown I experienced from a previous Three Perfect Days piece of rubbish.) But we would be somewhere over the Kamchatskiy Peninsula before I'd even get a glimpse of the bar at Matbaren. Really, page after page, it was time-consumingly confounding.

The first three pages sent a crystal clear message: I am not the target audience for this magazine. On page two was an ad for a thousand-dollar Bang & Olufsen speaker dock thing - the Beowolf 8 or something - for an iPod, iPhone or iPad. If I gave up traveling I might be able to afford one of these doo-hickeys eventually, though I’d have to give up something else to get an iProduct to go with it and my wife insists the kids eat every day.

Before this though was a two-page spread for Wellendorff, maker of the finest German jewelry (and the most incongruous-sounding name for a jeweler) since 1893. The ad centers around an actual letter from a woman in Latvia who describes in pristine, poetic English how she lost everything in a fire except her ring, made by the elves at Wellendorff. Somehow, according to the Fuhrer at the Dorff, this is a reminder for all of us that 'the true value of jewelry' is 'to offer joy and protection.' Joy? Perhaps. But I don't see jewelry offering protection to anyone outside of Wonder Woman. Entschuldigen Sie bitte. No sale to the guy in 43-D.

This, by the way, is Continental's self-proclaimed first annual food issue. Accompanying the table of headlining articles is a picture of fresh-baked kanelbullar, or cinnamon rolls, found at a restaurant at a museum inside a zoo on one of Stockholm's fourteen islands. That they are so hard to find makes the mid-flight plastic-wrapped microwave tamale that much more disappointing. Or less, I'm not sure. Heading the second page of content listings is a photo of a covered wagon amid the great American West. I just recently drove across the country but I could never get enough of the west and had to turn immediately to page 42 – only to find a one-column overview of an upcoming PBS mini-series and a close-up of a lizard colored like an Easter egg. (Likening lizards to eggs; this food issue thing is apparently having an effect on me.)

In this month's message, United Airlines President & CEO Jeff Smisel talks about 'the world's most rewarding loyalty program'. True, my wife and my four-year-old will both be flying to the States for free this month; yet my wife, loyal mother that she is, refuses to smuggle our one-year-old onto the plane in a carry-on. Instead she will hold him on her lap for the duration of the flight. For this level of loyalty Continental-United is charging us $400.

To their credit, Continental-United (C-U from now on, I'm already sick of typing it out) seems to be trying to put on a personal, approachable face. To wit: page 12 is dedicated to Customer Service Representative Mary Brown, who has been overseeing the evolution of the usability of the check-in kiosk system. Actual quote from the article: 'I've learned to think like the machines,' she says with an empathy that extends beyond customers to the kiosks themselves. Just a hunch: Mary had R2D2 bed sheets when she was a girl. Mary’s manager offers further insight: She comes in early, sometimes at 2am, to make sure the machines are working and coming on all right. Meanwhile her kids are at home, punching buttons on the mom-kiosk in the kitchen for a glass of water and a virtual hug before going back to bed.

The people article on page 14 features 'Ten Million Mile Man' Tom Stuker, an automotive sales consultant who has flown United close to 6,000 times, including more than 200 hundred times to Australia. Now, I'm no automotive sales consultant expert, but if this guy has to go back and repeat himself 199 times maybe it's time for a personnel change on one end or the other. To celebrate this achievement, this mega-miler joined United employees...his immediate family, friends and United executives at a special event held at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Which was so much fun he missed his flight.

On the next page, an ad for The Ritz-Carlton Residences building offering one to three bedrooms and penthouses from $1.4 million, shows a woman with perfect hair, a smashing dark blue silk dress and diamonds on her ears, wrists and shoes – diamonds that probably don't offer much protection from the pit bull she's nuzzling noses with. My guess is if this woman stepped out of her $1.4 million pad dressed like that and saw a pit bull sitting in the lobby she's not going to get cuddly, she's going to have someone shoot it. (Note: The fine print at the bottom reveals the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has nothing to do with this building except that someone paid them a lot of money for the use of the Ritz-Carlton name.)

Next page: 'The Original Hawaiian Slipper Pendant with Diamonds, various sizes from $199'. Chain sold separately. Matching earrings available for those who wish to walk around looking like a shoe rack.

The short, spirited piece on page 18 covers Barack O'Bama's recent visit to Moneygall, Ireland where his grandfather's grandfather lived before escaping the famine in 1850. Obviously the President has his Gaelic going on: he weathers the rain, he sips Guinness, and he's got that national bankruptcy thing down pat.

From the photo on page 19, it seems the ostentatious beachfront Grand Solmar Spa and Resort in Cabo San Lucas does not actually offer guests a way to get down to the beach – not that they might want to.

Another short article features an interview with Perry Farrell, founder of the genre-mixing music festival known as Lollapalooza. (Coincidentally the interview takes place in Perry's suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. No indication if this is a real Ritz-Carlton or another name-renting gimmick.) This year is the 20th Annual L'pooza will include a 'Kidzapalooza tent' where 'seven-year-old kids with sprayed Mohawks,' as Farrell describes them, can get temporary tattoos before going to see Eminem. (Suddenly I feel an urge to get my kids interested in Justin Bieber.)

After a useless bit about four good hotels for star-gazing (one features a photo of the windowless hotel bar) there’s a full-page ad for the 'China Cultural Tour 2011' which consists of an image of a Chinese opera actress superimposed over mist-shrouded bits of the Great Wall – and nothing else, save for the China National Tourist Office website. I'd say the Party hasn't gotten their dictatorial heads around the whole marketing thing. Back in Tiananmen Square they throw up a few posters like this and the hoi polloi are scrambling for tickets for fear of their children going missing or their homes be ransacked if they don't attend. The rest of us are going to need a little more than a woman in a gaudy kimono and a hat that Princess Beatrice herself would refuse to wear.

On a related note, the Party recently advertised their new high-speed trains as 'not from Japan.' This is evidently enough, in their minds, to convince their subjects to keep buying tickets for a train system whose performance truly makes it non-Japanese.

On to Cotswolds, England and 'Russell's, a restaurant with rooms.' If that isn't enough to make you run for the British Airways counter consider that this restaurant, already so forward-thinking it actually includes rooms for people to eat in, is housed in the former workshop of a furniture designer named (quite coincidentally) Russell who 'drew his aesthetic inspiration in part from his experiences on the front lines during World War I.' Table in a trench for two please. One dish on the menu at Russell's consists of roast Cornish pollock with clams and something called 'samphire emulsion' – which I can only imagine is the saucy precursor to the delicacy known as Rocky Mountain Oysters.

Which leads me to an ad for Tempur-pedic, a mattress company whose slogan is, simply, 'Ask me.' Half the page is taken up by a group of smiling people with words floating in the air over their heads. The plain-looking brown-haired woman on the left is inviting you to ask her how fast she falls asleep. The guy on the right says 'ask me about staying asleep.' The sixty-ish couple in the back suggests you ask them about the twenty-year warranty (after which they'll have to settle for whatever the old folks' home offers). The attractive blond, front and center with a devilish grin on her face, has no words above her head – her apparent mattress-related invitation being 'Just...ask me!'

Page 35 presents a picture of what appears to be a suspension bridge missing half the suspension – which seems not to deter any of the hundred-odd people driving across the bridge. This is San Francisco's new Bay Bridge, $5.5 (check that - $7) billion worth of erector set parts 'nearing completion'. Yes, those people are indeed driving over an unfinished bridge. The article is comprised of three main points, none of which lend any added comfort. (1) So emergency vehicles can use the bridge in case of a big earthquake, engineers 'designed non-essential parts of the bridge to fail.' Wait a minute, what parts of a bridge, exactly, are non-essential? (2) Rebuilding the Bay Bridge required a construction schedule that would have a minimum effect on the flow of daily traffic – some 280,000 vehicles a day. The only factory that could conform production to this extremely tight schedule was in Shanghai. I think it's safe to say China built a factory specifically to win this contract so (a) they would own the bridge once it is done, and (b) they would have something to take people's minds off the non-Japanese trains that keep derailing. (3) The humble Bay Area lawmakers demanded the bridge have something called 'icon status' – so the engineers added these tall poles to (I guess) provide aesthetic balance in place of the bridge's half-missing suspension. These fifty-foot steel rods, sticking up like those traffic light things at the drag races, must be the 'non-essential' parts of the bridge designed to fall off in a big quake. They are very logically placed between the east- and westbound sides of the bridge, so no matter which way they fall they will crush whoever is driving across the bridge at the time.

Fairmont Heritage Place in something called Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco calls itself a Private Residence Club. No kidding. In the fine print at the bottom of this ad for luxurious fractional home ownership, offering an extensive ownership world-class benefits program, it reads: This is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation to buy to residents in jurisdictions in which registration requirements have not been fulfilled, and your eligibility and the resorts available for purchase will depend upon the state, province or country of residency of the purchaser. In other words, if we don't like your zip code stay away or we will sic our pit bulls on you. My advice: go with those Ritz-Carlton posers in Chicago, their $1.4 million apartments are easily available via the Equal Opportunity Housing laws.

The W.M. Keck Foundation has donated $150 million to the USC Medical Center, adding to a previous gift of $110 million. This is fantastically generous when you consider just how many non-medically-insured illegal immigrants this will support.

Advertisement for Tito's Handmade Vodka. Tito's Handmade Vodka is gluten-free. Um...still no.

This brings me to the meat of the magazine – no pun intended. For the first feature, a guy was paid (I assume) to travel to northeastern India, hang out, take a bite out of a bhut jolokia, the world's hottest pepper, hang out a little more and go home to New York. I think I could do that. For the second article a different guy got to go to Singapore and eat for five days and then write about it. Excuse me, what exactly is the application procedure for this type of work? This piece starts out by illustrating just how goofy and crazy Singaporeans are: one guy, an aspiring chef, decided one day to put cheese on his braised pork belly dish, and so he did it, and...well...that's it. His restaurant is very popular. It's called Wild Rocket, named, apparently, in honor of the guy's favorite salad. 'Some people will think of the salad, some people will think of the spaceship,' he says of his restaurant's zany, no-holds-barred moniker. The writer eating his way across Singapore then tells us that this idea of mingling of food and spacecraft is a perfect metaphor for Singapore, a nation-state bent on cleanliness and efficiency while maintaining a love for food. Sorry buddy, I don't get the connection. Not surprisingly, the article is cut off, continued on page 128. Here the overload of dish names and their ingredients makes me feel like I'm reading the Cliff Notes version of The Joy of Cooking. The guy does point out two interesting things – neither of which bolster my admiration for Singaporeans. First, they love to eat yet they thumb their noses at anyone so low as to work in the culinary trade. And second, for all their economic and social achievements, Singaporeans are bent on eating mounds of durian, a fruit so stinky it is banned in all hotels and on all public transit. Give anyone caught chewing gum a good caning, but encourage the masses to walk around smelling like...well, stinky fruit. Brilliant culture.

Ah, finally, here we are in Stockholm. I might have skipped right to page 78 here, but the preceding pageant of ill-literacy should make this trip to Scandinavia an even fresher breath of fresh air indeed. The two-page introductory spread shows a detail of wooden boats floating on blue waters and the back of a guy, presumably a castle guard, with a silver helmet so shiny it manages to momentarily disguise its overwhelming silliness. As I mentioned before, I once spent three hours in Malmo, Sweden. In these three hours I (1) saw the most incredible, most beautiful tall blond woman my twenty-three-year-old eyes had ever seen; (2) I put a few crowns on double zero at the roulette wheel in the lobby of some hotel and hit; and (3) saw that woman again. I read this Three Perfect Days in Stockholm piece thoroughly, but the guy makes absolutely zero mention of blonds or roulette, going on and on about cafes and museums and charm and Stieg Larsson. He does get points for renting a bicycle for a half hour, but loses them and more for staying in plush hotels instead of making friends and crashing on their couches – or ending up with a tall blond woman. Everyone has his own idea of perfect I guess.

My reading adventure is winding toward the entertainment listings at the back of the magazine, but Mike Guy and his staff manage a few more stupid human tricks. The head of the Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey has a noticeable double chin. When in Denver, try indoor skydiving. For easier, more confident traveling, here is a diagram of Guam International Airport's one terminal, which consists of a single straight hallway. The Brown hand Center considers four locations in Texas and one each in Phoenix and Vegas 'nationwide'.

And, at the bottom of the last page, this modest pronouncement: We are proud to recycle aluminum cans, newspapers and plastic bottles on eligible flights. On all other flights, CEO Smisel will explain in his next letter, loyal frequent flyers will not be charged $400 if they take their recyclables home with them. Women with babies on their laps will automatically pay as C-U has recently set a new policy in place that deems carrying babies and recyclables simultaneously unsafe and is therefore not allowed.

I bet Mr. Smisel has a $1.4 million pad. Perfect, I have a pit bull, let's have some fun.

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