Saturday, January 25, 2014

Trains and Riches

We’ve all heard of that old morality tale about the runaway train. It’s bearing down the tracks toward some helpless people, but you’re standing by the switch that can divert the train to another track. Flip the switch, save the people. Don’t flip the switch, the train grinds those poor imaginary people to death.

There is a certain type of person who would just stand there and watch the coming train wreck. “It’s not my fault those innocents will die. The train’s doing the killing; it’s nothing to do with me.” Our legal system even bears this concept out. This reprehensible person couldn’t be charged with murder. They didn’t technically DO anything to kill anyone, even though most of us wouldn’t be in a really big hurry to invite this fictional knob over for supper.

That’s the image that sprang to my mind when I heard Kevin O’Leary spouting off about the free market economy. Wages and prices are determined by the market, he says, mimicking the mating call of all Green-Striped Capitalists everywhere. “I don’t decide; the Market decides.” (I presume the Market is treated as a proper noun, as is the way with any important object of worship.)

This sort of moral cowardice makes me to mad. Maybe it’s just because I recently read the collection of rants by Rick Mercer and so my fur’s all up, ready to get furious. For those who don’t know him, Kevin O’Leary is a diehard capitalist, a frequent feature of CBC programming whenever they need to air someone who is morally repugnant and wholly without pity for anyone without a seven figure back account. Here’s what he looks like:

Smug, isn’t he? He has, to paraphrase the late, great Douglas Adams, a face that inspires you to punch it. Regardless, however, he made the news a little more frequently the last week. After the recent Oxfam report found that half the world’s population has wealth equivalent to the richest 85 people, Kevin publicly called this wonderful. “It’s a great thing,” he proclaimed.

Why is it a great thing? Well, because nothing inspires the poor and downtrodden more than realizing just how much ground they have to cover to be one of the elite. The wealth gap, according to O’Leary, is a stupendously effective motivator. That’s really all poor people need, you know: a little motivation.

Of course, if a terrifying wealth gap were REALLY any sort of motivator, you’d think the poor would be doing better, wouldn’t you? It isn’t as though the gap between have and have not is a new thing. Instead of shrinking, it’s getting worse. It’s not a gap; it’s a yawning, terrifying chasm. It makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. Just mull it over again.

Eighty-five people own as much as three-point-five BILLION. That is not right. I don’t know how to fix it: I haven’t a clue, not the foggiest, utterly without direction on this matter. Claiming it’s a GOOD thing, though… yeah, pretty sure that’s not the case.

Nor did any little demigod called “The Market” decide to inflict destitution on the masses. Hosts of petty tyrants, all with the Kevin O’Leary mindset, did this. They started the train rolling, and they refuse to flip the switch.

Oh, and if they could, they’d sell tickets to the inevitable wreck, too.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Disney Part II

So just where do we stay when we go to Disney?

This time we roomed at Kidnai Village in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Resort. I really love this place, in spite of the flaws I found this trip. They have something called “savannah view” rooms. These have spacious balconies that allow you to watch, at any point in the day, a variety of African animals wandering the grounds. You wake up, you go outside into the morning warmth of Florida, and you take your breakfast while watching real live giraffes and wildebeests graze. (I assume they’re live. If they aren’t, they’re the best animatronics in the business.) It’s great. This is how I prefer my wildlife; easily viewable from the comfort of civilization.

The resort itself is done up in dark wood colours and decorated the way you’d decorate your house if you wanted to embrace your African heritage, but aren’t actually African at all. White person’s African, you could call it, though I doubt you’ll see that label appear any time soon in House & Home. When the sun was up, it looked really good. When it was night, though, the whole place looked gloomy and dim. Their lighting fixtures just weren’t up to the challenge in the dark hours.

I will say Kidani Village could do with one of those moving walkways you get at the airport. Our room was at the far, far, FAAAAR end of one of the two wings. I’m not used to hotels sprawling over acres of land, so the distance came as a surprise. Let me tell you, after eight hours walking through Disney parks with kids, the last thing I wanted to do was trudge the half kilometre from the lobby to my couch. (You think I’m kidding? I paced it out. Half a klick, people. And yes, I know that’s not a lot of distance in and of itself, but you try walking five football fields every time you want to “nip down” to the gift shop and grab a snack!)

(This length of distance was necessary because Kidani is designed with two winding arms stretched far out in order to maximize the amount of savannah view accessible by the rooms. I understand. I just don’t like it.)

Then we also faced the reality that the family restaurant at Animal Kingdom is in the OTHER resort building (Jambo House) another 700 metres or so down the winding road. So more walking. It was determined early on that I was clearly the weakest link in the family chain. I lagged behind, I found excuses not to eat; I think, in fact, I napped one day instead of joining the crew for supper.

In short, if you ever go to Animal Kingdom Resort as a family, stay at Jambo House: it’s more kid friendly. More importantly, it’s more ME-friendly. Whew.

(Jambo House has fewer rooms with savannah view. It does have a great kids playstructure, though oddly the pool at Kidani Village was better for the kiddies. Strange choice, really, to put all the kid stuff in Jambo and drop the ball on the pool. But these are, quite literally, the definition of First World Problems.)

Now let’s talk about Disney and the rampant face of consumerism.

Wow, do they know how to take your dollars. In 2013 they instituted a new program called “Magic Bands.” (Like McDonald’s, with their ever-present “McProducts,” everything at Disney is magic this and magic that.) The magic band is a plastic bracelet that snaps around your wrist, sporting the familiar image of the bulbous-eared Mickey and available in a variety of designer colours. You have to order the colour ahead of time, and we didn’t know about this program until we showed up, so our “magic bands” were an oddly-chosen dull gray. I can only assume they charge you for the colours, or why else use something so un-Disney as a plain accessory?

If you don’t like the colour of your magic band, they also have a plethora of covers you can purchase for the low price of $8 a pop. In the real world, 8 bucks for this little swatch of cloth is robbery. At Disney, where prices start at 20 and go up, it’s about the cheapest thing you can buy that isn’t destined to be eaten.

So already they’ve got you buying multiple 8 dollar band covers, but the real genius of the magic band is that with a simple swipe, you can charge ANYTHING to your room. It’s painless. Dangerously painless. You forget that you just dropped two hundred bucks on supper for the crew, and another hundred on shirts, and OH MY GOD, they have a Star Wars store! and LEGO! and such TAAASTY ice cream, and you get your hotel bill at the end of your stay and you realize Oh. THERE’S the pain.

In a way, it’s sort of sad we live in a world where you pay for things after you’ve enjoyed them. You go out for supper, you have a good meal, you’re sitting back and digesting, totally content, and then BANG! The bill. It sours an otherwise glorious experience.

Now I’m not saying getting the “Magic Bill” (they don’t call it that, by the way, though maybe they should, to ease the sting) spoiled the experience. It just is a crappy way to end a really great vacation.

Except that ended up being not true. The really crappy way to end your vacation is a thirteen hour travel day. When are they going to crack that teleportation problem? Jeez!

Now THAT would be a “Magic Express.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Disney Part I

Disney World. Ah, Disney World. Though geographically located in Florida, it’s really its own little collection of city states. In Florida, you are allowed to shoot someone dead if you feel threatened. In Disney, hordes of every-ready broom carriers snatch up the garbage your kid drops almost before it hits the ground.

Come back to your hotel, and a smiling greeter looks you in the eye and says warmly “Welcome home.” These greeters, it should be noted, are nothing like Wal-Mart greeters. None of them are retired or disabled. Disney is all about appearances, and in their magical world, no one ages or is born with Down syndrome, apparently. (Another note about their hiring practices: between the last time I went and this outing, a gap of three years, the visible minorities hired have vastly increased. The majority of them are black, though, not Latino, which surprised me. However, I was pleased to see some more colour being added to the Disney family.)

Garbage cans abound, but recycling bins were rare, which I thought was strange. The people picking up trash are given these cool grippy-sticks, so they can snatch refuse without having to bend down twelve thousand times a day. I wish they’d sold THOSE in their gift stores, cause I would totally have bought one. For a lazy guy like me, the ability to add an extra meter to my reaching distance would have been an awesome boon. Think how many times I’d be able to avoid getting off the couch! Anyway, though, the point is, Disney does its absolute best to keep their facilities looking clean and friendly. They do a good job at this.

They also have a whole system of shuttle busses that will take you from the resorts to any of the parks as well as the hotbed of Disney consumerism known as Downtown Disney. These motor coaches (as Disney calls them) are a welcome respite from having to fight traffic yourself on unfamiliar roads, then having to find a parking spot only slightly closer than the moon, then later having to find that same spot again when you’re tired and worn out. I love the bus system. The sense of profound relief I felt every time that bus pulled up to the curb never left me.

What I don’t love about it, though, is the constant Disney-voice blaring from the speakers. I swear I almost know the message by heart after a week. “Welcome to [wherever you are], home of [some kind of attractions]. Please stay seated while the motor coach is in motion. If you have to stand, please use the handrails above. Please stay seated until the motor coach comes to a complete stop, gather your belongings, and take small children by the hand.” Depending on your mood, the message could be humorous or irritating.

The Disney-voice, though, was a motif of the trip. Any time you had a spare moment to relax and sit somewhere, whether you were on a tour, a monorail, a train, or a bus, the Disney-voice (sometimes automated, sometimes coming from a real live person) would harangue you with “fun”  or “helpful” information. The Disney-voice, incidentally, was never an “inside voice” kind of volume. It made me feel like I was the guest of a person who secretly didn’t want me to stay long, and was saying “NO, PLEASE, STAY A LITTLE LONGER” at the top of their lungs in a passive aggressive way to get me to move on. Which, in a way, is what the Disney motive was, I suppose. They have a LOT of people to shuffle from Point A to Point B, and they can’t afford to have exhausted parents slumped in the seats, taking up valuable real estate.

And this brings me to the crowds. We went over Christmas, and everyone of our friends who has Disney Lore at a high level warned us the crowds would be crazy. Maybe because of this expectation, I didn’t find them too bad. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Disney parks were absolute THRONGS of people, particularly from about 12 noon to 3 pm, but we never really had a problem getting where we wanted to go, or doing what we wanted to do. Lines moved briskly, and the Disney people are experts at keeping things moving. They know what they’re doing, let me tell you.

I’ll give you an example. After a fireworks show, we were looking to escape. The park entrance was on the other side of the world from us, alas, so we joined the mass of people heading that way. At the first intersection, a Disney cast member with one of those flashlights ushers use, was directing people at right angles from where we wanted to go. He didn’t explain, and we were too tired to make an issue of it. Maybe a giant Mickey was blocking the way or maybe there was a surprise parade stalled in the road ahead. So we went where he directed. There was a whole line of these guys, sending people, hundreds of us, in what looked to be the wrong way.

Then we turned a corner, and found the staff had opened up a secret “employees only” route that led behind the scenes. We were suddenly in an open street, able to move at a full walk without being pressed on all sides by bodies. The secret passage funneled us back into the main roads near the exit, and just like that, we were out. Now, I don’t know how much time we actually saved in that move, but imagine the joy of walking swiftly when a moment before you’d been shuffling along surrounded on all sides by people intent on inhibiting your forward momentum. It was a genius move, and the whole week was filled with that sort of logistical mastery.

And on that note, an instance of a Disney triumph, we’ll end Part One of my journey.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Coming home

I went to Florida over Christmas this year. Not just anywhere in Florida, either, but to the Happiest Place on Earth! (Does Disney have that trademarked? I should expect a “cease and desist” letter from their lawyers any day now.) It’s my third visit to Disney World, and probably won’t be my last (I married a woman who is truly, deeply, bafflingly in love with all things Disney, and since I am a willow in the wind, I go where she goes). I’ve got a post or two about Disney and the vacation in general, but what I want to talk about first is the homecoming.

First, like all sane Canadians, I’m not a big fan of that mystical number where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales collide, namely 40 degree below zero (they do it again around 11 degrees, but no one gets excited about such a non-offensive number). Apparently we had decent weather while I was away, then we got plunged back into the deep freeze in time for my flight to land in Winnipeg. There was a plane-wide groan when the pilot announced the current temperature, let me tell you.

However, I will take the cold. There are compensations. For instance, I don’t have to turn my shoes upside down in the morning to get rid of scorpions, I don’t have to sleep under mosquito netting or risk malaria, our spiders never get bigger than something you can safely squish under a slipper, and no one around here ever lost their home due to a hurricane. And perhaps it’s the cold that makes us almost desperately friendly.

Oh sure, when you’re here every day, you don’t really notice it. Your mental “friendliness meter” gets set to the local social climate. But go away for a bit, and man, it’s obvious our local folks are awesome.

Case in point: airport security. (Yes, this is anecdotal evidence, so it has no scientific merit, but we all live in anecdotal worlds, so it counts for real human experience. Anyway…)

On our trip out, the American custom officer was grim-faced and threateningly somber. She asked how long it had been since we’ve visited the States. One of our party hadn’t been down in at least ten years, and said so. The immediate reaction? A blunt and terse “Why not?!” We were all a little stunned. I wanted to say “Cause your politicians are nuts and you loonies keep electing them” but thought that might end with a visit to a small white room and an unofficial prostate exam. When I answered “Where do you work?” with “I’m a house-husband” I got a serious stink eye.

Now come back. I gave the same answer to the Canadian custom officer. She smiled and said “Oh, I know what that’s about!” Both women. Both working the same job. Yet one made us feel like criminals for daring to spend money in their country, and the other acted like a human being.

Next I moved on to the parking attendant. I had misplaced my ticket, so he had no idea how long I’d been in the parkade. Yet I explained the situation to him, told him the car had been there for eight days, and he just nodded and took payment. He said if people lied, they usually claimed they’d only been there for five minutes. Still, he had no proof I hadn’t been parked there for a month or more. Instead of making my life miserable when all I wanted was to make that final marathon drive home, he let me go on my way with a shrug and a smile.

Basically, the first two people I encountered could have made my life a temporary hell. Instead they sent me on my way with as little delay as possible. You can’t believe the smile on my face for their tiny kindnesses. (Or maybe you can, if you’ve spent a day with two kids that started at 5 am and ended 12 hours later in an airport 3200 kilometres away.)

What’s the point? I love my country, and I’m glad to be home. The warm cockles of my heart are holding the frigidity of January at bay, at least for a bit.