Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More Stupidity, LIRR Style

Last night we got four inches of snow.

Naturally, this was a pain in the backside which cried out for the complete and utter failure of the snow plow infrastructure to get in gear, so that the trip to the radiation clinic that now forms part of my morning commute took almost 45 minutes instead of the normal 20 as idiots tried to get vehicles monumentally unsuited to the task to move in a controlled fashion on roads completely clogged with inches of snow. About halfway through this ordeal by snowstorm it began to rain, revealing a nice coating of ice polished to a high sheen by the morons I was sharing the road with who don't ever seem to get the point about not spinning their wheels for the sake of it.

By the time I got to the station a fine sleet was coming down. I drove to the small side street I now park on, and was truly impressed by the number of idiots determined to see how quickly they could lose control of their expensive vehicles. I decamped and walked to the station through an increasingly bitter icy drizzle. As I did so I narrowly missed being run over by one of the Long Island Panzerführen.

This one was a doozy. Back and side windows obscured by at least three inches of wet snow. Lights completely covered by same front and rear. Small patch of windshield scraped "clear" but the hood and roof retaining their nice deep cover of snow for camouflage purposes.

Which made it all the more puzzling why the idiot driving the Deer Park Fire Department vehicle, for such it 'twas, had bothered to turn on all his blue flashing roof lights. All that trouble to avoid detection by the other motorists was jeopardised by the bizarre need to light the blanket of snow from beneath with what looked like three watt blue bulbs.

I ducked into the station house, where the nice new computer display informed me that the next train was on time and was due in at 9:33 am. Mr Casio Wristwatch, now synchronised to Jamaica time, informed me that it was now 9:33 so I left the warmth of the station house and made my way down the packed snow and ice which coated the entire platform until I reached the aluminium shelter erected about halfway down. I usually don't ride in the front of the train to avoid noise from the train's klaxon.

No sooner had I completed this journey, all of about 60 seconds of travail, than I was privileged to hear a recorded announcement that the train was now an estimated eight minutes late. In the space of one minute, the train went from being "on time" (though nowhere in sight) to eight minutes late. Magic.

I passed the chilly time by observing the LIRR crew who had invaded the platform with snow shovels in the quest for a snow-free environment and passenger safety. They were very busy, shoveling like madmen, which is why I found it so utterly perplexing that they had chosen to begin work at the extreme East end of the platform. Since the station house is at the extreme West end of that same platform and passenger turnout was almost certain to be light at this time in the morning compared with the period from 6:30 to about 8:15 - not to mention the effect the weather was having on getting people to just stay home - this pretty much guaranteed that they would have no chance whatsoever of clearing any of the platform people would actually be using to board that next train unless it was really, really late.

The train pulled up a few minutes later and we all tramped out to the doors so we could board. We stood and we stood as freezing rain soaked us through, but at no time were we in any danger of being forced to get on the train. In all I estimate we stood around getting drenched for about 45 seconds before someone got a bleeding clue and pressed the "open door" button. By then my coat was soaked through, still is as I type in the early evening, and the change at a very windy Jamaica was pure misery as a result. At least I had the reason for the train being late.

There wasn't a single person on board the thing that knew how to work it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Funny Thing, Irony

Probably one of the most debated coffee-house topics is that concerning what does or does not constitute irony.

Poor old Alanis Morrisette fell afoul of this one when she wrote a song about it. "It's like rain on your wedding day" she sang, and people said "No it's not. That's just annoying."

I don't know so much.

From where I sit, irony would appear to be a matter of context, which in turn demands knowledge of the culture in which the reference is being made. This would seem to argue that not only is irony not absolute, one man's annoyance could very well be someone else's irony.

Rain on your wedding day could be seen to be ironic in the context that your archetypical American Girl spends vast amounts of her young life dreaming about her wedding day, and when the actual thing hoves into view it therefore tends to be stage-managed to the nth degree in order to make everything comply with the vision of what it should be like. Given that the young girl's dream undoubtedly includes the entire day, the one uncontrollable thing going totally nails-up could very well be interpreted as irony.

At least, that's how it seems to me.

This thesis is born out by the scene in the movie Con Air, in which some convicts seize control of the aircraft in which they are being transported and begin partying hard while Sweet Home Alabama booms from the radio. Steve Buscemi leans across to another character and says that this defines irony: a bunch of people on a plane singing along to a song performed by a group all-but wiped out in a plane crash.

Well, yes and no.

It is ironic if you consider that the last thing these guys want is to crash, and you happen to know that Lynrd Skynrd were involved in a plane crash that killed half the band and put the rest in hospital, I suppose, maybe, although it's a stretch even so. But if you consider that only a small fraction of the English speaking world contemporary with the film's release would know that, well, it pretty much fails the test as badly as Ms Morrisette's song did. That is why the writers felt the need to have one of the characters tell everyone where the irony was of course.

Which is a round-about way of saying that I'm rarely sure I've correctly identified irony when I've encountered it.

Changing the subject: This morning I raced to catch my train, the 8:53 from Wyandanch (Pearl of the East) to Penn Station (change at Jamaica for trains to Brooklyn). I am usually on this train these days, which gets me to work at the extreme end of my "flex time" window and requires that I work late and miss my only straight-through train home, since I have the honour of driving Mrs Stevie each morning to her radiation treatments.

This drive is now made in silence since her voice is no longer audible. Many's the time I've begged for a halt to her shrill admonissions of my good self, but for some reason there's no sense of satisfaction in being able to get a word in edgeways when she's so ill, just a mood of crushing sadness tempered by the sure knowledge that the cancer is in retreat. No doubt I'll regret not making the most of this time once she is back to ordering and nagging at the drop of a hat. I digress.

Snow had been falling since about 5 am and was blowing around and covering up the windows and headlights of the cars most inconveniently. Once again the elusive Long Island Panzerfüren hit the streets in force. This year there seem to be flocks of idiots in white cars who do not see the point of cleaning the snow from their vehicles nor of turning on their headlights. The resulting montage pretty much defines the art of camouflage. White car, covered in irregular heaps of snow (yes, even on the hood/bonnet), small slot scraped in snow-covered windshield, producing a very good simulation of a mobile snow bank. Add in a swirling snowstorm to help in further breaking up the outline of the cars and you have the perfect hide from which to snag caribou or snap candid photos of penguins at play. Whoops, I digress again.

I got to the station with about a minute to spare, but I needn't have worried. The Long Island Rail Road was having one of it's "days" and the train dawdled for another eight minutes before showing up, allowing the would-be passengers just the right amount of time to synchronise their bodies to ambient temperature conditions. I've believed for years that we, the paying customers of the LIRR, have been the unwilling subjects in an unannounced and inadequately overseen series of experiments in human cryogenics performed by the rail road, and today was proof enough for even the most hard-nosed skeptic. We staggered aboard the train, snapping icicles from out earlobes and noses and greeting the train crew with the traditional curses and threats, thinking the ordeal was over.

A sad mistake.

The train proceeded as far as the next grade crossing, about a hundred feet down the track, then stopped for about ten minutes. It them crept to the next crossing and did the same thing. then it did it all over again. And again. And again.

In a mere twenty minutes we had arrived in Farmingdale, about five minutes west of Wyandanch by sedan chair. Another fifteen minutes saw us in Bethpage, where we were so late everyone seemed to have lost hope and gone home. Would that I had done the same.

There were periodic "announcements" by someone doing a fair imitation of Mrs Stevie. I heard the word "signals" but nothing else was intelligible. Each crossing was guarded by a convoy of MTA Police vehicles, lit up with flashing lights like so many full-sized Hess Trucks, leading me to believe the automated circuitry that raises and lowers the booms had gone bye-bye. What was most galling (as it always is) was having to watch the off-peak east-bound trains get priority over our west-bound peak train.

By the time we reached Hicksville we were 47 minutes late. This was so late that there was no-one there to board the train. Hicksville is a major hub for commuters1. Finding it empty was more than a little surprising and a good indication of how badly screwed up everything was. The doors opened so we could all sample the cold air from the elevated platform, unshielded from the wind by so much as a single tree, about the time I should have been boarding the Brooklyn train at Jamaica.

By the time we reached Jamaica, we had missed all the connecting trains and I realised I could either ride to Manhattan and use the subway to get to Brooklyn, or I could wait for forty minutes on the unsheltered platform at Jamaica for the proper train. I stayed put.

Sometime around 11am, an hour after I was supposed to be at my desk, we pulled into Penn Station and I started getting ready to debark. It was then that I actually took time to read the many flyers littering the seats2, which were from the LIRR propaganda arm and were trumpeting their on-time performance.

I'm pretty sure that was irony.

  1. and a source of a particularly gittish species of commuter too, but that's another story
  2. I am currently re-reading my collection of Jack McDevitt "Hutch" books and had brought along Cauldron, the latest in the series. It was very engrossing, much more than whatever the LIRR was trying to make me believe

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Scrawled In The Empty Spaces Of The Pages Of "Brass Orchids", Pub. 197? by Roger Calkins, Bellona

Mrs Stevie had to visit the Oncology Surgeon last Friday.

Yes, once again she had to deal with the infrastructure of Long Island Jewish Hospital, including the clueless front desk and Chauncy the Fbleepkwit, and they hit the ground running by not returning her initial call made to schedule her appointment. She gave them a couple of hours, then called back. Then did it all over again, giving them a slightly shorter time to do nothing.

By the time I got home she had called them six times and still had no idea if and when they would deign to let her see the surgeon. That's the one person in this whole sad, sorry house of cards that actually does something useful for the patients who are, lets remember, all suffering from some form of malignancy in their ears, noses or throats and might actually benefit from a bit of coddling.

She got so fed up that she eventually called Doc Teaspoon, the ENT who dealt so effectively with my ear infection and who did the initial medical work-up on her tumor and who is a very effective communicator in addition to being good at what he does1, to ask him if she could she him instead.

Doc Teaspoon was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with the distressed Mrs Stevie, talking her through the reasons why she really needed to see the surgeon, but also offering to get in touch with him and alert him to the fact that his front office were not representing his best interests. It seems they were at ENT school together or something.

So the appointment somehow got made for last Friday morning, and I took the morning off and drove her to Long Island Jewish Hospital so they could begin the process of annoying the living crap out of us.

The first act started when we drove in the front gate and Mrs Stevie instructed me to turn into a small car park just before the large multi-storey one I was aiming the car at. I wrenched the wheel over and we made a hard left turn, tyres and Mrs Stevie screeching, into the short driveway next to the ENT clinic where I brought the car to a halt in front of a yellow lift-arm type barrier.

Which didn't lift.

I sat there for a few seconds, then I noticed a sign on the card-reader next to my door which said: "Press button for assistance". Winding down the window I confidently pressed it, but was perplexed to feel no movement in it at all. It seemed to be a dummy plastic casting, painted to resemble a bell-push type button, which had been glued to the card-reader as a sophisticated car-park joke. I snarled at Mrs Stevie and started to put the car into reverse so I could back out into heavy traffic driven by distracted people looking everywhere but at the road while they tried vainly to figure out where they were and where they needed to be in this nightmare of a place.

I'm not joking here. There are few signs in this benighted den and some of the ones they do have point to places that have been dug up in some sort of hospital-wide renovation project that involves demolishing random roads and stringing chain link fence at random with no regard for roads, sidewalks or large sandy pits. I tried to remember Mrs Stevie was very, very ill and therefore excused bad judgment (she clearly didn't know as much about the car parks hereabouts as she insisted she did) and began to reverse.

Which is when I noticed the old lady who had pulled in behind me.

And the person optimistically signaling her intention to join us as soon as we would stop messing about and enter the car park, and who was therefore creating a reversing issue for the old lady.

I looked frantically for a sign of some sort that indicated whether or not I was, as I suspected, trying to get into some sort of staff car park where card-entry was the only way of passing the barrier or someone I could ask, but there was only the roads, holes in the ground and the traffic. I pulled forward enough that I could get out of my car and tried again to use the call button on the card reader by hammering it with Kung-fu like jabs of my finger, then my thumb and finally my clenched fist smashing it hammer-wise while shouting morale-boosting phrases.

Definitely fake.

I walked back to the elderly lady, tapped on her window and explained I couldn't proceed. Before I could ask her if she knew whether there was a secret knock or something, she had backed her vehicle smartly into the road, narrowly missing my foot, and departed for the multi-storey car park. I keep forgetting that the elderly frewuently had prior careers as NASCAR and Demolition Derby drivers.

As I walked dejectedly back to The Fabulous Steviemobile, an Osamamobile pulled up to the exit barrier. Before the driver could depart the scene I hallooed her and asked her if this was in fact a staff-only car park. She explained that no, it was in general use but probably hadn't opened for business yet, and suggested I visit a hitherto unseen security guard post in the multi-storey car park to see what was up. I blubbered my thanks, and ran across to the booth, only to be told that someone was already coming to help and that I should go back to my car.

In due course a well-dressed Indian gentleman arrived in theater waving a key. He was quite cross.

"The car park does not open until nine o' clock!" he snapped.

I could see by my watch, synchronised to Jamaica LIRR time, that it was a couple of minutes past nine. My first instinct was to complain about the late opening, but I had a second thought that a more constructive suggestion might save the situation from deteriorating into nastiness. "Well, if there were some sort of sign to that effect..." I began in a neutral tone, smiling to show I was being helpful rather than pointing out the bleeding obvious.

"The car park does not open until nine o' clock!" he snapped again.

"And if I had been made aware of that in any way, shape or form we would not be having this discussion. However, as you can see there is no indication of when the car park opens or what to do if you've already pulled into the entranceway before that time" I said, still trying to stem my instinct to go for the jugular.

"The car park does not open until nine o' clock!" he snapped, in tones of one trying to communicate with shirt-thick morons.

At this point Mrs Stevie let loose with a stream of dockyard invective that set the headlining of the car on fire. Mr The Car Park Does Not Open Until Nine O' Clock was saved from the worst of it by the simple fact that her voice was completely gone due to the effects of her radiation therapy. I just shook my head and said "Thank you. Think of me each time you have this conversation." and drove into the now-accessible car park.

We entered the clinic and got a second pleasant surprise. Chauncy the Sbleepthead was manning the desk.

I promptly began a holding action in which I distracted Mrs Stevie from her building rage by reminiscing about our early married life, and our first few months in the company of the Stevieling, who could charm the birds out of the trees at three months. Of course, this only served to remind Mrs Stevie of the time we had all gone to Florida for a big family reunion.

We had taken everyone to Disney, and on one occasion at the MGM park I volunteered to wait outside with the three month old Stevieling while everyone else went into the Muppet Theater2. You may not know this, but July is the off-season for Florida, being so hot no-one would want to go there usually, and hence it is awash in Brazilian tourists who are used to the heat, know a cheap airline ticket when they see one and who have no concept of personal space. I generally avoid them whenever I can, and it was just bad luck that Mrs Stevie emerged from the attraction to find me surrounded by about two dozen young Brazilian women, all somewhere between the ages of 18-25 and all possessed with the sort of dress-sense that dictates the dental floss bikini as sensible Disney park wear and all in skin-to-skin contact with yours truly while they crooned over the "bella bebo" in Portuguese.

Needless to say this went down like a lead balloon, as did the accidental trip into the memory of it all while attempting to preserve morale under fire. Anyway.

During this, Chauncy wandered over and announced that we would be seen by the doctor soon. He apologised for the delay and explained that it was because of a surfeit of doctors crowding out the examination rooms. This spontaneous display of helpfulness was so shocking it completely derailed Mrs Stevie's line of attack. We just looked at each other in amazement. Clearly, someone had "had a word". He even got her surname right.

The surgeon eventually hove into view and took a butcher's at Mrs Stevie’s mouth. He blinked in surprise and said that the "primary site" appeared to be completely free of cancer. He owned to being very surprised at the rapidity of the remission and said he was impressed that she was responding to treatment so well. He confirmed that the swollen lymph gland was half the size it had been when she was referred to him (something she had not believed when I had told her, nor when two radiation oncologists had told her). I saw the weight come off her shoulders and she visibly brightened.

We were brought back to reality when we attempted to schedule a follow-up appointment though.

"What time did you want to come in? Eight thirty?" said the suspiciously helpful Chauncy.

"The car park doesn't open until nine" I parroted.

"Oh, that's right! Okay nine it is. What day? he responded.

"How about Friday?" I said. "I have meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays."

"The doctor only has Thursday hours" he replied.

Mrs Stevie made a warble of puzzlement, but I saw where this was going. "Thursday will be fine" I said, and steered Mrs Stevie for the door.

"That's absurd! she rasped in her Rod McKuen voice as I helped her into the car. "It makes no sense whatsoever!".

"I know. Don't get upset about it. The world won't end if I miss one meeting" I said.

"But they were the ones who dictated the day we came this time! It makes no sense! How can they say the Doctor only has Thursday hours when..."

"...Today's Friday" I interrupted. "Yes, I know. This whole place is some sort of demented mental equivalent of an Escher drawing. Every time you try and make sense of something here, the definition of "down" changes and the whole picture abruptly changes. Don't get upset. At least we got out of the place in under three hours this time."

"Just thank Azathoth you don't have to be admitted" I added as I gunned the engine and made a break for the exit.

  1. Judging from personal experience
  2. One of the best Disney creations ever IMHO