FROM THE STOOL

HARDER AND HARDER

It may be a factor of aging but it seems that virtually every aspect of modern life, be it travel, entertainment or shopping, is becoming more difficult and aggravating.

Airport security, while a necessary evil, heads the list. In fact, airports are a universal nightmare. Most are under construction, located outside of the major population centers they serve, difficult to reach due to traffic congestion and multiple detours.

While the quality of service in fast food restaurants is generally poor, airports set the standard for mediocrity. Whether Starbucks, McDonalds, or the Berghoff - the highest prices, poorest quality, and greatest amount of employee rudeness and sloth. It's hard to feel good about standing 10 minutes in line to be insulted trying to spend 5 dollars for a cup of coffee and a raisin scone.

Ticket agents while generally smarter seem to derive the greatest satisfaction from denying, dismissing, or ignoring the customer's request. Virtually all flights are oversold, and once on board, little legroom and no food service are the norm. Closets are reserved for the crew, exponentially increasing the probability that garments will be crushed, or checked bags will be lost or stolen. Few flights take off or land on time.

As people continue to get bigger, due to better nutrition, medical care and exercise, the space allocated for our bodies by the owners and operators of planes, cabs, busses, subways, trains, theaters, nightclubs and restaurants continues to shrink.


The better the restaurant the less likely they are to honor their reservations, expecting all but a handful of special customers to accept, without argument, a long wait at a crowded bar. The higher the average price of an entree the higher the multiple of reasonable for an undistinguished bottle of wine. Four to five times the regular retail price is normal for a pleasant bottle of Sonoma Valley Chardonnay or cabernet - outrageous as most restaurants receive volume prices unavailable to the general public. Does ambience/atmosphere justify an 8-dollar cocktail, a 10-dollar bib lettuce salad, or a 28-dollar veal chop? Add a creme brulee and a 20% tip, and for the cost of an elegant 3 hour dinner enough quality food can be purchased to prepare a weeks worth of fine dining without having to pay for parking or suck up to a surly maitre d.

We are a nation of shoppers. How else to explain the excessive amount of retail square footage per capita? We are the global leader in shopping center development with more regional malls, strip malls, outlet malls and free- standing stores than most of the rest of the civilized world. We enjoy an unlimited selection of merchandise in every venue from Neiman Marcus to flea markets, and from Wal-Mart to Restoration Hardware. Our major department stores, from Sears to Saks, slice and dice the demographics and customer profiles so that there is literally nothing that a person could need, want or lust after that is not available under a myriad of different brands. There is only one ingredient missing - someone to help you find the shoe department, find your size, and take your money.

There are countless little high and low-tech irritations which we encounter daily. The childproof Advil container - the salad which arrives with unwanted alfalfa sprouts - the seatbelt/shoulder harness which makes it impossible to reach change in a pocket for the toll machine - the sub woofers which blast rap music in the kid's car stuck nearby in traffic - the quality of toilet paper available in public restrooms - boom boxes on the beach - sailors smoke-free ballparks - bottled water carriers - voice mail trading smoke-free bars - 55 mile an hour speed limits - meter maids - the inaccuracy of big city maps - warm beer - no cigars and pipes - low sodium V8 - bumper to bumper traffic - The Christian Coalition - fat free mayonnaise - smog.

A steady diet of this routine annoyance, over a long period of time, often leads to stress related disorders, workplace problems, clinical depression, sexual dysfunction, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. It's hard enough to really enjoy life when successfully coping, but almost impossible if one gives up and succumbs to the pressures.

Perhaps the best solution is to seek out high quality inexpensive restaurants, cigar friendly bars, courteous flight attendants, spacious cabs, helpful sales clerks, considerate meter maids - efficient security guards - and understanding IRS agents. Invite them home for dinner. Treat the exception as the rule. Avoid any place that serves alfalfa sprouts. Shop small independent retailers who only survive by being helpful. Disconnect voice mail. Get off the highways. Avoid airports. Drink real V8. Eat real mayonnaise - better yet, Miracle Whip. Enjoy a real martini. Smoke a great cigar. Live long and prosper and your shadow will never grow less.