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Notes From a Trip (Part 1 of 2)

(During his month away The Curmudgeon traveled with his bride and stepson to San Diego, where various members of Mrs. Curmudgeon’s side of the family gathered from three cities across the country. The following are some observations from that trip. This is part one; part two will appear here on Thursday.)

The Curmudgeon isn’t much of a traveler, especially if that traveling involves flying. Ironically, the parts of flying that bother most people – take-offs and landings – don’t bother him at all. What he dislikes is the whole flying experience: navigating through the airport, dealing with airline, government, and airport personnel, security checks, the unpleasantness of air travel, and the manner in which airlines treat their customers – that is, with near-total disdain. Flying, he must admit, brings out the worst in The Curmudgeon, on occasion transforming his usual low-key public demeanor into a surly, obnoxious, occasionally loud jackass whom he barely recognizes himself.

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The Lyft car showed up a little early – 5:50 a.m. and not 6:00-6:15, as scheduled – so The Curmudgeon didn’t have a chance to eat breakfast at home. Once the family settled at its gate in the airport he went off in search of a muffin and found instead a cup of yogurt with about three tablespoons of granola.


Welcome to Philadelphia International Airport.

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Sometimes it makes sense to keep your mouth shut about the prices. On the way home The Curmudgeon ordered a muffin for himself and coffee for Mrs. Curmudgeon at a concession stand in the San Diego airport and was told the cost would be $6.29.

“You have to be kidding,” he suggested.

“I’ll check again,” the cashier replied and then took a closer look at the register tape.

“No, you’re right, I was wrong.”

The Curmudgeon smiled.

Prematurely, it turned out.

“It’ll be $6.67.”

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Mrs. Curmudgeon flies often enough to make it worth her while to invest in TSA pre-check (five years for $85). For your money you get to skip the ridiculously long lines that are a living, breathing testament to government incompetence in favor of shorter lines and a less rigorous screening in which you don’t have to surrender your shoes and your belt – and along with them, your dignity. The help there is nicer, too. An unexpected but welcome benefit: anyone flying on the same reservation as the person with the TSA pre-check is treated as if they have TSA pre-check, too.

Call it a marriage dividend.

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Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to do a cavity search, officer?

Alas, The Curmudgeon spoke too soon about not needing to surrender his belt: on the way home he was asked to do so. It was all he could do to refrain from his pre-9/11 practice of, when feeling harassed by airport security personnel, unbuttoning his pants, starting to lower them, and asking if they’d like to perform a cavity search.

The Curmudgeon is a joy to fly with, no?

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As the plane sat at the gate well beyond the scheduled take-off time, The Curmudgeon turned and could see the air being piped into the cabin. Surely that was not a good sign: one is not supposed to SEE air.

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When you pay $300 or $400 or $600 to fly across the country, don’t you think the airlines could at least give you the whole bottle or can of water or soda or juice instead of rationing you to about five ounces?

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This flyer’s best friend

Another reason The Curmudgeon isn’t a happy flier is that he suffers from two pretty serious in-flight maladies: motion sickness and ear pain during take-off and especially during descent. For years he suffered from the drowsiness caused by the Dramamine he took for motion sickness, until a travel agent told him about ginger pills: two ginger pills every 75 to 90 minutes offer the same benefits as Dramamine without the drowsiness, glassy eyes, and general loopiness. For five years after The Curmudgeon started using ginger pills in this manner he insisted on bringing Dramamine with him, just in case, because he feared he was benefiting from a placebo effect that would wear off in mid-flight and leave him suddenly heaving in the aisles. It never happened: the ginger really works.

The Curmudgeon has long suffered from motion sickness. As a child he once discharged his recently completed dinner over a white dinner jacket his father was wearing while mom and dad were driving the kids to their grandparents’ house so they could attend a formal affair. So bad was The Curmudgeon’s motion sickness, in fact, that his grandparents, who already had all of the furniture in their home covered by those awful clear plastic slipcovers, actually had plastic slipcovers installed on the back seat of their 1969 Chevy Impala.

The ginger took care of the motion sickness but there remained the problem of the ear pain. When this issue first arose The Curmudgeon visited an ear, nose, and throat specialist whose first name was “King” – his parents no doubt had big plans for their boy – who said that one trick he often performed for pilots and flight attendants who had the same problem was to – get ready for this – put a slight pinprick in their eardrums.

“It doesn’t affect your hearing,” King insisted.

After The Curmudgeon described the unusual meteorological conditions that would be necessary for him to agree to such a procedure, King recommended a less invasive approach: a regimen of Sudafed, starting 24 hours before take-off, and a saline nasal spray every hour while airborne. He also taught The Curmudgeon how to pop his ears. It helped, but only to a limited degree, and descending was still quite uncomfortable.

This flyer’s second-best friend

Then The Curmudgeon discovered a product called Earplanes, which look like earplugs that you screw into your ears. The Curmudgeon uses the word “screw” in its literal form: the devices have threads, just like metal screws, and you literally screw them into your ears. Between the Earplanes and the ear-popping, The Curmudgeon gained a good measure of relief, even if he kind of repulses the unfortunate people seated near him on his flights.

No, you do not want to be seated next to The Curmudgeon when you’re 30,000 feet above terra firma. Think: Felix Unger honking.

But to this regimen The Curmudgeon has added one more trick of his own to help stave off ear pain while descending.


Yes, Skittles.

This flyer’s third-best friend

You probably know about the benefits of chewing gum during ascent and descent but what you may not realize is that it’s the swallowing when you chew that gum, and not the chewing itself, that provides all the benefits. So anything you put in your mouth that produces more swallowing than chewing gum will help you more than gum. So The Curmudgeon experimented.

M&Ms? Not enough swallowing.

Red licorice nibs? Pretty good, a worthy alternative to Skittles, but not always easy to find.

Nuts? Too many calories and they don’t last very long.

Starburst candies? Not bad.

But in the end, the best gum alternative proved to be Skittles, which The Curmudgeon had never even tasted until this little experiment. Skittles proved – not to get all technical on you or anything – to have a higher ratio of swallows per minute than any other food he tested.

Your results may vary.

So why the long discourse on in-flight ear pain?

Because for the flight from Philadelphia to San Diego, The Curmudgeon forgot his Earplanes.

Oh, he bought them, all right.

He even recalls taking them out of their little cardboard box on the morning of the flight.

But he left them on the table at home.

A discovery he made only when the plane started to back out of the gate.

Ascending wasn’t much of a problem, but descending, well, that was one pretty painful experience and all The Curmudgeon could do was keep nibbling his Skittles and popping his ears, nibbling and popping, nibbling and popping…

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Since you can no longer bring your own beverage into an airport terminal for fear that someone may blow up a 747 with a Diet Dr Pepper, passengers are held hostage to whatever the rip-off airport vendors feel like charging for their wares. The Curmudgeon recalls an effort by Philadelphia’s mayor in the late 1990s to attempt to compel airport vendors to engage in street pricing for their merchandise, but if what The Curmudgeon encountered on this trip was street pricing then that street surely must be Rodeo Drive.

$3.29 for a Diet Snapple, anyone?

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And the lines move very slowly at airport stores, too, because for reasons The Curmudgeon cannot fathom, more people than not are using a credit or debit card to pay for that $3.29 Diet Snapple.

Seriously, people?

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Of course, The Curmudgeon would have been grateful to find even a $3.29 Diet Snapple in the San Diego airport. Four stores, no bottled or canned iced tea of any kind.

Way to go, San Diego!

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One of the benefits of standing in those slow-moving airport concession-stand lines is listening to fellow passengers talk about their purchases. At one point The Curmudgeon noticed a woman ahead of him looking at Dramamine but then she put it down and picked up a package of Benadryl and then a package of Nyquil. From a purely medical perspective, you don’t need to be a doctor to know that just doesn’t make sense. She then engaged another woman in line on the subject and The Curmudgeon realized that people buying these products at the last minute aren’t looking to fight motion sickness or colds: no, their objective is to find the concoction that will be most effective at helping put them to sleep for as much of their flight as possible.

P.S. She went with “The nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, aching, coughing, stuffy-head, fever, so you can rest medicine” even though the sun had just risen an hour earlier.)

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Speaking of sleeping through the flight, The Curmudgeon’s stepson slept for four-and-a-half hours of the five-hour flight. He spent nearly half of that time turned toward his mother and with his forehead on her shoulder. The boy is nearly 17 years hold and more than six feet tall and has a beard that calls to mind Scooby Doo’s sidekick “Shaggy” and if you think that didn’t elicit a lot of “isn’t that adorable?” looks from the other passengers you’re sadly mistaken. The Curmudgeon made sure to take pictures, and the one with the boy sleeping with his mouth wide open will make an excellent poster-sized birthday present.

The Curmudgeon, for his part, is a terrible sleeper, and it’s getting worse with age. He can only sleep at night, in bed, under the covers, and in the dark, and even then, he now considers seven hours of sleep a moral victory and takes comfort that seven hours appears to be all he needs. So when his stepson finally awoke, The Curmudgeon told J that he considers the boy a sleep god and bows down to his greatness.

(more on Thursday)