FROM THE STOOL

IRRITATION

Jeffrey Deaver in his new Lincoln Rhyme novel, Empty Chair, hypothesizes that the only reality is the immediate here and now. The past exists in increasingly less reliable memories, and the future is nothing but an imaginary forecast.

This indisputable observation may explain why so many people, perhaps the majority, are perpetually irritated. It may help to think that conditions were less stressful in the past, or will be in the future, but the unvarnished realities of the present are a monumental, inescapable pain in the ass.

As we have dealt with all aspects associated with air travel in past columns, except crashes, we will exclude airports and airplanes from this discussion in spite of the fact there appears to be little relief from the agony of getting to and through airports.

The inability of most urban places to provide enough good roads to keep up with the number of cars makes driving in and out of our cities a daily ordeal. Long Island is to New York City as Cape Cod is to Boston Ė the closest and most desirable beach resort and vacation destination. Less the handful of super rich who own their own planes, the only way for most to get there is by car which creates hundred-mile-long parking lots every spring, summer, and fall weekend, substantially diluting the benefit of a couple of kick back days near the water.

National Public Radio for many commuters is an addiction, providing commercial free, in-depth news coverage, market analysis, and a large number of special interest features. It also, however, forces its audience to endure weeks of fund raising drives, which create an unequaled standard for aggravation and annoyance in an already highly aggravating situation.

Imagine the young suburban breadwinner after a tough day in the office, a grueling commute, and a NPR fund drive, getting home just in time to chaperone his or her sonís Little League team at McDonaldís or even worse to suit up for his or her role as scoutmaster. Add to the mix a dozen unsolicited telemarketing calls and the conditions are perfect for alcohol abuse or acute depression.

Many of lifeís most annoying situations develop behind the wheel. Late leaving for the airport, unusually heavy traffic, road construction, a fender bender, a punk rocker crawling alongside with windows open and rap music assaulting the car like howitzers, a relentlessly escalating need to empty the bladder, low fuel warning light coming on, no off ramp for twenty miles Ė coronary inducing circumstances for the healthiest among us.

Notwithstanding DVDís, videos, home theaters, movie channels, and pay-per-view, the real movie business is booming. While single screen neighborhood theaters have all but disappeared, multi-screen multiplexes have literally erupted in regional malls, strip malls, and throughout our cities and suburbs. The typical complex features anywhere from ten to thirty films appealing to every taste from artistic to erotic, comedy to horror, natural action to supernatural action to animation.

Relative to almost any other form of entertainment, movies are cheap. Seniors and those who attend weekday afternoons receive discounted prices, often enabling a couple to see an Academy Award winner for less than $10. Two small buttered popcorn, two small diet cokes, however, $21.75. Add nachos, candy, hot dogs, or pretzels and the cost approaches two dinners at an above average restaurant. While movies have become the vehicle for theater owners to hold popcorn lovers hostage, almost without exception the people dispensing their primary source of profit are the poorest trained, least responsive, and slowest moving members of the work force. Even if competent there is rarely enough knowledgeable help to enable the customer to be suitably raped for a large box of Mason Dots and be in his or her seat for the start of the film. Very irritating.

Modern multiplex theaters boast large, well-lit, multi-stalled toilets. There seems to be an industry-wide conspiracy to equip these toilets with a narrow, transparent paper dispensed by machines that swallow up the loose end, making recovery impossible. Add electric hand dryers in lieu of paper towels and it makes the $9 hot dog even more annoying.

People are becoming oblivious to the needs of those around them, expecting others to suffer silently for their approach to life. Tollbooths provide an excellent illustration. Having the driver in front approach the exact change lane without checking to determine if he has it until there is no way out, is almost as infuriating as the guy who throws his change and misses. In either case a long and irritating wait. And then thereís the guy who limits access at a manned booth by asking the keeper for complex directions, acting like there is no one inconvenienced by his lack of preparation.

Dog lovers and their dogs, in spite of ever stricter leash laws and the development of tax payer funded canine comfort stations, continue to set the standard for rudeness, particularly in major cities. Unless muzzled or sedated, any dog confined to a high rise apartment will spend some part of each day barking his brains out. Dog owners, while somewhat more sensitive to large turds left on sidewalks and streets, for the most part will let the chips fall on any park, playground, or grassy area with no remorse for the hazards created for the public at large. Virtually all dog owners feel comfortable letting their pets pee anywhere they choose to lift a leg, be it a front door, parked car, tree, mailbox, or swing set.

Sophisticated, modern day, mass production has produced extraordinary benefits by providing high quality products like TVís, cell phones, personal computers, and automobiles at affordable prices. This same approach to food preparation has obliterated many of lifeís greatest pleasures. Itís difficult to remember how a real, filler free, high-fat content, grilled burger actually tastes. We have all but succumbed to the tasteless, juiceless, quick-frozen, cereal-filled gaskets dispensed on every corner by the giant multinational burger factories.

There are only a handful of places left like Lou Mitchellís in Chicago where the orange juice is freshly squeezed, the thick Greek toast made on the premises, and a turkey sandwich or chefís salad is made with real pieces of real roast turkey cut off the carcass by the chef. For the most part even in high-end restaurants, turkey and ham are of the processed variety where the only resemblance to the real thing is color, if one doesnít look too closely.

Leaving a new car with a valet almost guarantees a scratch. Checking a coat or a bag anywhere is a real crapshoot. Wondering around unfamiliar neighborhoods at night encourages muggers. Voicemail has become a substitute for real conversation in spite of the fact that most people have phones on their person, in their cars, offices, and homes. Try to catch a cab in the rain or when itís unusually hot or cold. Cabs are only plentiful when ideal walking conditions exist. Special fares to faraway, exotic places are only available when the weather stinks.

After spending the trip of a lifetime in Aruba during the one week a year that it rains, attending a first Springsteen concert at which Bruce cancels at the last moment for personal reasons, a first PGA Tour event where Tiger comes up lame, a special dinner at Ruthís Chris after they have run out of choice filets, helps to explain why the salad oil spilled on the new silk tie, gabardine suit, or pale linen skirt, can induce chronic depression.

The frenetic pace of 21st century life seems to be making everything harder. How else do we explain the massive overuse of tranquilizers, diet pills, sleeping pills and Viagra? Therapists now outnumber bowlers, teachers, and filling station attendants combined. Virtually nothing is easy when all trains, planes, busses, subways, highways, even bicycle paths are overcrowded. While much of the population carries bottled water where it shows, drug and alcohol consumption continues to escalate where it doesnít.

Seventy-seven million American women work outside the home largely to provide quality housing, education, transportation and entertainment which two incomes make possible for their families. This means both breadwinners arrive home tired, often frustrated, with none of the dinner preparation that at another time would have been handled by the homemaker. An imitation meatball sub on imitation bread from Subway or a Papa Johnís double stuffed pizza never completely replaces fresh fish, fresh vegetables, a Caesar salad and a fine bottle of wine.

Add to this mix, mosquitoes, bees, fleas, ticks, flu, AIDS, SARS, psoriasis, lower back pain, allergies, rashes, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, cancer, crippling accidents, gastric distress, heartburn, diarrhea, seizures, strokes, hiccups, apnea, acne, plantarís warts, international terrorism, nuclear blackmail, and the entire global conspiracy to prohibit cigar smoking, is it any wonder that the healthiest and best adjusted among us are perpetually irritated?