My own personal “7 Circles of Hell”

My own personal “7 Circles of Hell”

It’s been a really long week.  One of those weeks were it’s easy to sit back and focus on just how stressful and infuriating life can be sometimes.  I had to fly cross-country, so I had plenty of time to sit on planes and think.  I was crammed into seat 37E between a morbidly obese Panamanian woman and a John Waters look-alike who smelled like Doritos and Band-Aids, when I had an epiphany somewhere over New Mexico.  As trying as my week had been, it could have been far worse.  I could have had to deal with some of the things that really annoy me.  I could have been put in one of those situations that really set my teeth on edge.  I could have been trapped in one of what I call, “My Own Personal 7 Circles of Hell”.

#1:  Having a cashier ask for my credit card after I’ve already swiped it through the reader

Automation can be a good thing (just don’t tell Obama…).  It allows companies and businesses to be more efficient.  It can speed up simple transactions and save you valuable time during your day.  It can also drive you crazy.

One of the biggest changes at retail in the last few years has been the ubiquitous addition of credit card terminals at the register.  They’re everwhere – Walmart, Kmart, Carmart, Stuffyoudontneedmart – everyone has added the ability for you to swipe your credit card and pay your bill.  Put like that, it sounds great  – and in most cases it is.  Most, but not all.

Here’s what chaps my recently slimmed down posterior.  If they are going to give you an automated machine to swipe your card through, why do they still insist you then hand them your card for inspection.  If I’m going to hand it to Skippy the cashier anyway, shouldn’t he just go ahead and swipe it himself?  Why even give me the illusion of control over my own destiny?  It’s like a cruel joke: he allows me to swipe my card, put it back in my wallet, put my wallet back in my pocket, and THEN Skippy needs to see the card – or I can’t buy my fresh vine ripened tomatoes, can of turpentine, and Kittens with Mittens sticker book.

Really?  You just have to see the card? You just have to let me have one brief moment of retail freedom, then bring it all crashing down on my head like a twig house under the onslaught of Ye Olde Big Bad Wolf?  Thanks for nothing.  Just keep your credit card machines and false promises of manifest destiny in the hair care products aisle.  It’s almost enough to make me start using cash…

#2 – Being on a plane with the Flight Attendant who thinks the PA system is Open Mic Night at the Improv

I’m not a very friendly flyer.  I’m the guy who gets on the plane, puts in my ear buds, then puts a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones on top of them, opens up a book, puts on my sunglasses, and proceeds to pretend the sweaty first time flyer from Des Moines sitting next to me does not exist.  Flying is one of the most solitary group activities I take part in.

The only thing that makes flying less fun than sitting next to a chatty middle-aged woman coming home from her first trip to the national Yarn Expo is a chatty flight attendant.  It’s really just pouring salt in the wound that is flying these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everything flight attendants do and I value their essential role in the safety and security of our modern airline system.  But that doesn’t mean I have to listen to them, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean I have to like their jokes.  I’m sure it’s boring, stuck in a metal tube, day in and day out, telling people to put their seat backs up and turn off their electronics.  It’s boring for me and I only do it once a month or so. But that doesn’t give them license to use us like the captive audience we are.

These aspiring comedians like to make jokes about “hitching a ride at 30,000 feet” and always say, “I sure hope Akron is where you’re going, cause that’s where the plane is going”.  It’s rarely funny (okay, it’s never funny), and this amateur hour attempt at humor only serves to make an already dreary day all the drearier.  Inevitably, there’s some group of drunk, travelling screwdriver salesmen who laugh uproariously at the routine, which only serves to encourage the would-be comics to subject the NEXT planeload of unfortunate souls to the same torture.  Don’t feed the animals folks.  For all our sakes.

#3 – Being on a plane with the Flight Attendants who think the flight is their personal audition room for The History Channel

The second group of flight attendants I can’t stand are the historians.  They feel the burning desire to share what meager knowledge they have on the history of aviation, the history of travel in general, or even the history of America.

Let me be very clear on one point about these particular soliloquys – I don’t care.  If I want to learn something, that’s what TV and the Internet are for.  Travel time is my time.  Generally I’m on my way to a business meeting or returning from one.  Either way, I have neither the time nor patience for absorbing extraneous information from an aspiring Paul Harvey.

What really gets me is – sometimes they draw you in, in spite of yourself.  I flew back and forth from Arkansas to Georgia fairly frequently a few years ago.  One day the flight attendant regaled us all with a history lesson of the route we would be flying that day:

Now, the journey we are taking today would have taken us 15 days back in the late 1800’s.  We would have likely been part of a large caravan, wagons and horseback riders, all trundling along roads which where no more than ruts in the fields at the time.  We would have…”

I was mildly interested at first, but then he went on for 20 minutes.  20 MINUTES. We pushed back from the gate, taxied down the runway, took off, reached a “safe cruising altitude”, and he was still going.  It was only slightly less mind numbing than watching Al Franken preside over a session of the Senate.

It was a painful, if mercifully short, flight.  Two weeks later, I was making the same trip.  I boarded the plane, sat down, and was getting my headphones out, when I heard over the PA:

Now, the journey we are taking today would have taken us 15 days back in the late 1800’s.  We would have likely been part of…”

It was the same guy, and the same speech – word for excruciating word.  All told, I heard that particular history lesson 11 times that year.  I’m not sure what happened to Henry the History Buff – he just stopped showing up on my flights after a while.  That was fine with me, although I do sometimes wonder what happened to him.  I imagine he’s somewhere on a park bench, enlightening an unlucky stranger on how long it would have taken to walk from Poughkeepsie to Carson City at the turn of the Century.  Riveting stuff, I’m sure.

#4 – Sitting at a Movie/Concert/Show in front of people who like to talk loud

Here’s a very simple rule for everyone to follow.  If you are out in public at an event, any event – a movie, an elementary school play, a taekwondo graduation, a dance recital, a concert – LEARN TO WHISPER.  It’s a simple skill, really.  One even my five-year-old daughter has mastered.

I don’t need to hear your conversations from three rows away.  No one cares about your aunt Lisa’s bunion surgery.  No one cares about how your neighbors burn trash in the back yard that has a funny, medical odor.  No one cares about how cute your child is when he draws pictures of his poop after every visit to the potty.  No one cares about your impressions of each and every dance performance, and which kids you thought were cute.  NO ONE CARES – least of all, me.  I’m usually there to witness the event in question, not listen to you yammer on about your sorry excuse for a life.

Unfortunately, it never fails that I get stuck next to these people.  The ones who have no filter, no volume control, and no clue about the world taking place around them.  They blather on and on; regardless of the stares I give them, or the polite requests to keep it a little quieter.  No, they just sit there flapping their pie holes, filling the air with useless bits of irrelevant information (which also kind of reminds me of Al Franken presiding over a session of the Senate.)

Oh, and one more piece of advice for these future Jerry Springer guests – if I have a video camera out and the little red light is on – it generally means I’M TRYING TO RECORD SOMETHING IMPORTANT, LIKE MY KID.  I don’t need to preserve your discussion about the merits of Crocs versus flip-flops for posterity. Why don’t you do what it appears you do for the other 23 hours a day – stuff a Twinkie in your mouth and shut up.

#5 – Watching a “Pop Star” lip-sync a performance

It’s just the nature of the world we live in.  With technology today, anyone with a decent working knowledge of a Mac and Autotune can turn even the worst singer into something resembling music (You’ve seen Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, right?).  These manufactured stars invariable stumble onto a hit song that captures America’s attention and lands them as the featured performer on “American Idol” or closing the Tonight Show for Jay Leno.  That’s the point at which it all goes horribly wrong.

Here’s the thing.  If you’ve relied on studio magic and a great producer to apply a veneer of talent to your otherwise cringe-inducing vocal abilities, a live performance is not a place you really want to find yourself.  So what do you do?  Why you open up a can of Milli Vanilli whoop-ass on the show and throw down your best lip-synced performance. You also squander what miniscule interest I had in you and your “hit” song in the first place.

Some will argue there’s a time and place for a lip-sync performance.  I call BS.  If you can’t recreate that pre-packaged studio sound on the stage – don’t put the song on the stage.  If you can’t possibly sing an entire song live because you are too busy leaping through a flaming silhouette of Don Knotts while riding bareback on a trained ostrich, and juggling 7 glasses full of tequila shooters – maybe you should give it a whirl without the ostrich.

Don’t patronize your audience with a pre-recorded track.  Don’t waste my time playing the song directly from the album and dancing around on stage in time to the beat.  I can see 123,924 teenagers doing the same thing to your song on YouTube – and usually doing a better job with the lip-syncing.

Either learn to sing, or learn to run a cash register.  You’ll find that those who do actually perform are the ones who are successful.  Look at Lady Gaga.  I’m not even sure I like her music, but watching her pour her heart into a performance where she’s actually out of breath a bit, is something I can’t not watch.  The Black Eye Peas on the other hand – well, I’d sooner watch a rerun of the “Cat-Mania” hour on the Home Shopping Network than be forced to watch them again.

#6 – Being stuck in a restaurant where the waiter/waitress can’t keep my glass full of water

For someone who seems so high maintenance, I’m actually pretty low maintenance.  Yes, I have my quirks like everyone else, but in general I’m pretty easy to please.  That’s why it sets me off when a person can’t deliver the most simple of restaurant services without problems – keeping my water glass full.

What’s the first thing a server does after they seat you at a restaurant?  They put a glass of water in front of you (followed shortly thereafter by a basket of assorted breads and/or other snack foods – because who wants to eat dinner until they’ve had a snack, right?  But I digress.)  At any rate, they lead the service off with a glass of water.  To me, that establishes the glass of water as a pretty important part of the meal.  It’s what they’ve chosen to lead with after all – it’s the first impression the server makes.

Last year, I gave up diet soda to get away from Aspartame.  I feel much better, and it’s made my drinking habits while dining out far easier.  “I’ll have a water please.”  That’s it.  That’s the sum total of my drink interaction and decision making with my server.  No 20 minute perusal of the wine menu, no convoluted half-café double back swirled non-fat ice frappe-mocha-chocha coffee creations, and no flipping through 47 pages of colorful adult beverages with equally colorful adult names (“I’ll have Buttery Nipple please”, “I’ll take a Tahiti Two-Way on the rocks.”) – just water please.  Simple, right?

The first glass is never the problem.  After all, everyone gets a glass of water to start with, whether they want one or not.  No – it’s 10 minutes later when I’ve finished off my water that the problems begin.  The server is never around, or is too busy texting in the kitchen to pay attention to their customers.  When they are on the floor, they seem incapable of seeing an empty water glass on the table.  I can rattle the ice, I can loudly slurp the straw, I can wave my arms like a desert island castaway hailing a passing cargo plane…nothing.  If, however, my dining companion’s $11.50 “Orange you Limber” is even halfway empty, the server will immediately appear, whisk it away, and have another one (for only $11.50) there in under 20 seconds, complete with paper umbrella.  Here’s an idea – why don’t you put down your phone and stop texting the “architect” you met through and come fill up my water?

It really frosts me.  I get it – my water is not making the restaurant any money.  What the servers don’t get is that their lack of attention is also not making them any money.  I’m not one who subscribes to the 15% automatic tip just because I had the good fortune of sitting in your section for dinner.  I actually believe you earn a tip, and I have no compunction about leaving a big fat nada for a server who doesn’t understand that demanding to be called a “server” instead of a “waitress”, sets a pretty high bar.  You actually have to “serve” the customer.  In my case, all I want is a little water.  Then you can get back to texting your future ex-husband.  Is that so much to ask?

#7 – Trying to get through the packaging and to the toy on Christmas morning

Christmas is one of my favorite times of year.  I love the holiday spirit, I love the decorations, I love spending time with family, and I love seeing my kids’ faces when they open their presents on Christmas morning.  What I don’t love is the moment after unwrapping their new prized possessions, when they turn to me with wide eyes and ask “Daddy, can you open this for me?”

When I was growing up (fair warning – this is where I REALLY start sounding like an old man), packaging for toys was much simpler.  They came in a box.  Period.  All you needed was your fingernail and 7 seconds and you were playing with your new toy.  Today?  Well today, everything comes tied down to a card with industrial strength bailing wire and wrapped in an NASA-grade impregnable polymer only slightly less impact resistant than the bumper of a 1972 Chevy Impala.

We’ve all had to deal with this packaging.  You can’t work your fingers into the edges and pull it apart.  You can’t slice it open with a pocketknife without severe risk to life and limb.  You can’t cut it open with normal household scissors.  After struggling to get to your kid’s new Barbie, you have to seriously begin asking yourself – “Why don’t they construct prisons out of this stuff.”

Let’s say you do somehow get through the plastic outer shell – then you have to deal with the 82 miles of hardened steel wire securing the toy to the colorful cardboard backing.  It’s twisted and looped back on itself – and sometimes so sadistically hidden you can’t even find it.  The toy seems conjoined with the cardboard as if by magic.  I’ve seen fewer bindings used in a magician’s big escape finale in Vegas.  What are the toy manufacturers afraid will happen – the toys will free themselves from the box and begin their program of complete world domination?  Here’s a news flash – “Toy Story” was just a movie.  It was all make believe.  (Or was it…? Insert sinister musical cue here…)

Things have gotten so bad, I had to purchase a special made tool just to open toys wrapped in plastic.  That’s right – there is a tool made specifically for prying items from the clutches of that evil plastic prison.  A “Jaws of Life” solution for toys everywhere.  I happily plunked down my hard earned money for the tool, just to make it easier to get into the toys I had happily plunked down my hard earned money for.  The only real problem was – the tool came in a clamshell package.  And who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

So there you have it, my own personal “Seven Circles of Hell”.  The next time you see me and I’m in an exceptionally foul mood, you can reasonably assume that I’ve just spent time in one of my circles.  My advice?  Just steer clear and give me a few minutes to cool down.  Oh – and if you have the time – bring me a glass of water.  Gracias.

© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.

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