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Archive for July, 2012

Flying Not for the Faint-Hearted

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

In an earlier age, I wrote a weekly travel column for newspapers in which the theme, stated and unstated, was simply this: the airlines are not your friends. It was drawn from the fact that no matter how cheery their advertisements and seeming inducements to fly, their mission was to get as much money out of your wallet as possible while offering — for most travelers — less and less. Now, some statistics provided by The New York Times show us things haven’t changed very much.

Last year, according to reports in the Times, passengers paid $12.4 billion above basic fares to the six largest domestic airlines. That comes from a rapidly growing assortment of fees and penalties, some of which you may know about, others of which may surprise you. Did you know, for instance, that Spirit Airlines charges you to put a bag in the overhead bin? Did you realize that many families are having to pay extra just to sit together in the coach section of their flight? And surely you are already aware you can now pay for priority boarding or for an uncomfortable seat that is a couple of more inches roomier than your other uncomfortable seat?

No, you may not have been all that cognizant because the airlines don’t exactly advertise that. Instead you see their ads for fully reclining beds on international flights, superior wine service, etc. And they do indeed offer that — if you can afford pay thousands of dollars for your ticket or you already spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to get priority status with your favorite airline.

That isn’t me. Maybe it isn’t you. We’re the ones sitting in the back of the plane in seats so tiny and cramped they should be illegal. (The more seats you can cram into a plane, the more revenue you make; capitalism at work, but hardly a “friendly” approach.) Service is negligible; I have as much admiration for the poor understaffed flight attendants who have to put up with this arrangement as I do the passengers who endure it. More and more extra fees. And the Times reports that the airlines have imposed four consecutive fare increases this year, with more likely before we get to 2013.

So exactly how much do you love your airline? How much fun is it to have to get to the airport hours ahead of time for a flight? Interestingly, flight delays have been ever-so slightly reduced lately because airlines have quit stacking so many arrivals and departures at the same time, and because they’ve cut back on their flights. That ensures more crowded passenger cabins, higher fares and less convenience, so exactly why now are they your friends?

(And in an updated development, a US Court of Appeals ruled for consumers to require airlines to publish the TOTAL air fare in their ads and not just a fare that excludes extra fees. The ruling also would give consumers who make reservations at least a week ahead of time a 24-hour window to change their plans without penalty. The “friendly” airlines were opposed to doing that.)

I used to fly often. Then occasionally. Now hardly ever and only when I can’t avoid it. As a result, I’m enjoying more pleasant travel experiences along with expenditures that are not too out of line with air fares and fees. Certainly doing without all the hassles of flying these days is worth far more than it ever used to be.  In fact, I’m coming out ahead — I can now write this blog without grinding my teeth.

Thirty for Thirty

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Many of us have compiled book lists over the years. You know, lists of books we want to read, books we have read and liked, books other people have read and liked, books to avoid, etc. Putting together lists can be addictive, and so can reading those lists. I’m afraid I collapse comfortably into both categories, compiling and perusing. So when I came across a web site with a listing of “Thirty Books Everyone Should Read Before They’re Thirty,” I couldn’t resist sharing it. Agree or not (and I have a few disagreements), these books are packed with wisdom, understanding and maybe an occasional provocative edge:

1. “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse: A powerful story about the importance of life experiences as they relate to approaching the understanding of reality and attaining enlightenment.

2. “1984” by George Orwell: Still widely acclaimed for its haunting vision of an all-knowing government which uses 24-hour surveillance tactics to manipulate its citizens.

3. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee: A controversial story of race and class in the Deep South, a moving story that delivers a profound message about fighting for justice and against prejudice.

4. “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess: A nightmarish vision of youth culture that depicts heart-wrenching insight into the mind of a disturbed adolescent.

5. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway: A short, powerful contemplation on dealth, ideology and the incredible brutality of war.

6. “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy: A masterpiece that connects the lives of multitudes of characters in Russian society during the turbulent Napoleonic era.

7. “The Rights of Man” by Thomas Paine: Written during the era of the French Revolution, the book was among the first to examine human rights from the standpoint of democracy.

8. “The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A masterful book exploring the significance of human rights within society.

9. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A compelling book that uses unconventional narratives to portray a clear message about the importance of remembering cultural history.

10. “The Origin of the Species” by Charles Darwin: Few books have had so significant an impact on the way society views the natural world and the genesis of humankind.

11. The Wisdom of the Desert” by Thomas Merton: A collection of thoughts and meditations offering insight into what life is like to live simply and purely, dedicated to a greater power than ourselves.

12. “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell: The author looks at how a small idea or concept can spread and spark global sociological changes.

13. “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Graham: A short novel for young readers can help anyone appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

14. “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu: Old of the world’s oldest books on military strategy, it is also a successful examination of strategies for business as well.

15. “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien: One of the most popular and influential fictions, a epic story spread over a vast scale.

16. “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens: A story that lingers on the topic of attaining and maintaining a disciplined heart as it relates to an emotional and moral life.

17. “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot: Probably the wisest prose of modern times, written during World War II and still entirely relevant.

18. “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller: One of our great literary works which argues convincingly that what is commonly held to be good may be bad, and what is sensible may in fact be nonsense.

19. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: A memorable tale set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s that unravels a cautionary view of the American dream.

20. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger: A literary icon for the ups and downs of teenage angst, defiance and rebellion.

21. “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A captivating novel of a young man living in poverty who succumbs to criminal desire and the impact this has on him and those around him.

22. “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli: Observations on power and statesmanship, from politics to the corporate boardroom.

23. “Walden” by Henry Thoreau: A book about seeking freedom from the pressures of society, about living deliberately with only the essentials.

24. “The Republic” by Plato: An enduring work on the philosophy of how life should be lived, justice should be served and leaders should lead.

25. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov: A complex story of conflicted feelings of love, life and corruption, at once both devious and beautiful.

26. “Getting Things Done” by David Allen: The quintessential guide to organizing your life.

27. “How to Win Friends and influence People” by Dale Carnegie: The granddaddy of all self-improvement books, a guide to business and personal relationships.

28. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding: An alarming look at the possibilities for savagery in a lawless environment.

29. “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck: A deeply touching story about the survival of displaced families searching for work during the Depression era.

30. “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov: The anticommunist masterpiece novel about a clash between good and evil in human nature.

There’s more, and you can read about it at www.divinecaroline.com. I’m grateful to the folks there for putting together such an intriguing (and arguable) list. Feel free to make your own additions and subtractions.

Highway Horrors

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Everyone has their own special highway horror story. And writing around the time of a holiday weekend, with so many people taking to the roads, reminds me of mine, which I’ll share with you in spite of its having absolutely no connection to literature. I think.

My special hell is Interstate 81 in Virginia. It’s the worst road on the East Coast, bar none, unless you include the city of Boston with the rudest, most aggressive drivers in America. (Feel free to demur.) Anyway, I-81 is beset with problems. First, it’s endless. It goes on longer than an Adam Sandler movie. It goes through the lengthiest part of the state, so it seems to last forever, whether you’re heading south or north. The mileage posted on the signs to Roanoke (going south) and Winchester (heading north) never seems to diminish.

Second, and most annoying, are Virginia drivers, who drive about as fast as the Old Dominion used to desegregate its schools: V-E-R-Y deliberately. And they accomplish this mostly in the left lane of what is almost entirely a two-lane interstate (two in each direction, mercifully).

Thirdly, because this interstate is packed with herds of semis — who likewise seem to enjoy the pace in the left lane — progress for motorists trying to navigate their way out of the state is slower than the Georgia legislature passing ethics bills. And, lest you imagine all this crowding in the left must make the right lane an open avenue, think again; That’s where the SLOW Virginia drivers drive.

Ranting, of course, does genuinely make one feel so much better. I now feel better prepared to deal with 100-degree-plus weather. But then that’s mostly because I’m not back on I-81. For a little while, at least. If you have your own tales of road nightmares, feel free to share. Or to tell my why I’m wrong. Only I’m not.