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Carrying On – At The Airport

Neatstep parking comic - at the airport

They say, lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but whoever said that, obviously hadn’t been through security at our local airport. The last time I tried, my almost empty tube of toothpaste was confiscated. This time, they focused on my travel sets, including a nail-file and a mini-knife, so small that I couldn’t even use it to attack a politically correct dwarf – that’s one of those guys with the pointed hats that Snow White used to hangout with, before they were confiscated (the hats, not the dwarfs – well maybe the dwarfs too, because I haven’t seen them around lately)!

I protested that I wasn’t planning to attack anyone (except possibly the security guy if he didn’t return my property) and eventually he said, you can keep the nail-file but we’re taking the mini-knife. On our previous trip, the airline kindly provided us with solid stainless steel knives and forks onboard, so I was thinking maybe they wanted to give us some better implements on this trip too, but it didn’t happen. I suppose the idea is that next time they will confiscate my mini bottle-opener and after that the mini corkscrew, so they eventually have a complete travel set. I guess, there has to be an upside to every job!

I don’t really enjoy flying, but this time we had a direct return flight, so I thought, for once, we could purchase some duty-free liquor. I was wrong, of course. Our flight apparently had the lowest priority of all flights, so just getting to the plane itself was an adventure, never mind the duty-free. We arrived by rail at the International Terminal. Then we had to walk to Terminal 3 for check-in. From there, we were directed to the duty-free shop at the very end of Terminal 2. There we were told that, since our flight was leaving from Terminal 1, the duty free shop would not deliver any items to us and of course, in Terminal 1 there is no duty-free shop – surprise! I was not so happy. I hadn’t planned on a guided tour of SFO, I only wanted to get to my plane and organize some duty-free on the way.

On this trip, we had specially taken only hand luggage to save time and trouble, but we really shouldn’t have bothered. First, we had to carry our bags all the way around the different terminals. Then, for the final leg, we had to climb up and down various stairs, then onto a shuttle bus and up and down even more stairs to access the departure terminal. On the way, we did register some disapproval at the customer service desk, but our only satisfaction was that other people were having much bigger problems. When we finally landed, it had been raining so the airline announced they would save us the discomfort of carrying our hand luggage by delivering everything to the conveyor belt!

So much for the benefits of carry-on luggage! You can carry it “around” and you can carry it “on”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can carry it “off”! I think, next time, I will check-in absolutely everything I can. Then I’ll probably be flagged at security as a very suspicious person indeed!

Achtung – Everything is Kaputt!

Neatstep parking comic - failsafe technology

It’s been a long time since we last visited Germany so it was no surprise to find that, in the meantime, a lot had changed – some things for the better and some things, well… not for the better! The most obvious change was the extent to which automation has crept into every aspect of modern day life. Everything which could possibly be automated, has been automated, together with every other thing which should definitely not have been automated, but has been anyway. The results of this are exactly as could be expected…..

Germany is often late to the game because they traditionally wait to see how everyone else fares before jumping into something new. However, when they finally do join in, it is with an unrivaled enthusiasm which knows no bounds. After wrestling with the airport ATM’s which worked out surprisingly well, we headed for the airport train station to confront the ticket machines. All three machines were, of course, out of service and the repair guys pointed us towards the subway, where we found one machine and a long line-up. By the time I had figured out how it worked, our train had come and gone. Then the next train was cancelled and the station began to oveflow with people. I asked a policeman for advice. He said we should board any train which arrived and not wait for an emptier one because cancellations were a regular occurrence.

Our next brush with automation was when we disembarked at the central station. I had read that obtaining and registering a prepaid mobile phone card was a swift and painless process. It wasn’t! After more than two hours in the phone shop, watching the clerk wrestling with both his computer and our mobile device, we emerged exhausted. When we subsequently tried to use our smartphone, the automated system responded with, “Your available balance is zero. To speak with customer service, press 0”. There are no prizes for guessing what happened next. “Customer service is 30c per minute. Your available balance is zero!” Grrrrrr!!!

Our next challenge was the hotel, where internet access “should have been” but “was not” free. Getting access was complex and they wanted a separate paid account for each device. So, with no mobile and limited wifi access, we were beginning to really wonder about the usefulness of technology. The automated, energy-save system was free though. You insert the room key card into the slot behind the door – if you can find it in the dark – and then the light goes on – or not! At breakfast, I searched in vain for the coffee pot, but in Germany now, everyone has an espresso machine, so why would a hotel be different! These machines are great fun if you know which buttons to press. If not, then you end up like me, with an empty cup and a large pool of unspecified liquid.

If we thought the phone card process was exciting, we hadn’t yet experienced the rental car pickup. I had an online reservation and as I approached the counter, the girl said,”We have everything ready for you!” Being both a skeptic and a cynic, I was pleasantly surprised – too soon, as it turned out. The girl hacked at the computer and then compared my order form with the screen. “This doesn’t agree! The computer wants more money”, she said. She tried changing terminals, changing cars, changing everything, but the computer would not be beaten. Finally after an hour or so and a heated discussion with her boss (not to be recommended) the boss said, “Let me try!” and it worked first time (Ouch, that really hurt!) The car we got was not the one we ordered but we were glad to finally escape – out onto the congested highways.

The next challenge was the Autobahn service station where we had to navigate the futuristic washrooms (not advisable if you’re in a hurry!) You have to buy a ticket at the automated entry gate, then try using the automated facilities (if they are working) and then try to exit. It was not easy, neither were we impressed with the discount coupon for another visit (why would we want to go back there?)

Everywhere on our tour, we discovered that everything possible had been automated and the operational success rate was fairly discouraging. The famous German phrase, “Das geht nicht!” (that doesn’t work!) seemed to be following us around wherever we went. It left me wondering why nobody had come up with the idea of an automated repair company, but then, on reflection … maybe they have! Think about that!

Trains Versus Planes – The Amtrak Experience!

Neatstep parking comic - staycation beats vacation

Everybody wants to travel these days, but as Neatstep always says, “traveling is expensive and dangerous!” What people don’t tell you about their holiday, is usually much more interesting than what they do tell you. Having said that, we just returned from a family reunion in California. After a week in our favorite city, San Diego, we needed to get to our meeting place in San Francisco, a short flight away. That was before my wife had the brilliant idea of going by train…..

I did some research and all the online reviews confirmed my suspicions that this was a really bad idea. The average opinion was that traveling with Amtrak is not so much a journey as an adventure. We even met some people whose train never made it (but that’s another story!) After studying the timetables from every possible angle, it took me six weeks of valuable time to figure out how we could manage it. Even though I am an absolute train enthusiast, I didn’t fancy a 15-hour train journey, starting early morning. Then, I had the inspiration of breaking the trip into two days and staying at Santa Barbara en-route. The timetable suddenly fitted perfectly for us.

We collected our pre-booked tickets at the station and the clerk said, “Good job you’re not traveling today because all our trains have been canceled”. Fortunately, that didn’t happen to us a week later and our train was dead on time, all the way. We had traveled with Amtrak only once before, from Boston to New York, which was really easy. This is the West however and California Amtrak is a little different. Everyone had to wait in the main building until they were called to line up and follow instructions for boarding the Pacific Surfliner. It worked surprisingly well. In fact, it was a wonderfully relaxing first stage of our journey and the scenery was beautiful.

The next day, we boarded the Coast Starlight train for the onward journey, looking forward to some spectacular views. I had read online that one thing you should never do aboard Amtrak is change your seats. The conductors apparently don’t like it. As soon as we were shown our seats, it was no surprise when my wife said, “We’re moving over there to get a better view!” It wasn’t long before the attendant noticed. “Is there a special reason why you changed seats?”, she said. The correct answer would have been, “Because my wife said so!”, however, I wasn’t sure this would qualify as a special reason. “There’s a better view from this window”, I replied. The conductor was not impressed. “Are we okay here, for the moment?” I said, knowing the next station was three hours away. “For the moment!”, was the only response. All was well until the next stop when a passenger boarded and we had moved seats again. “Where’s my ****** seat?”, said the new guy. We quickly slid back into our old seats and the conductor, hearing the commotion chimed in, “That’s what happens when you people change seats!” We completed our journey and the train was right on time, only the restaurant seatings were getting later and later because the train was full.

The Amtrak experience was still fresh in our minds when we reached the airport for our journey home. On our inbound journey, the computer had surreptitiously changed our selected seats and dumped us at the rear of the plane on both flights. So, it was no surprise to find the same thing had happened again for the return journey. The only problem this time was, the computer had placed us both in the same seat. The check-in clerk said she had never seen that before (maybe it’s a world first!) however it didn’t matter because our flight was delayed anyway, so she would need to change everything and rebook our connecting flights. Everything seemed to be wrong with our booking and the clerk spent a long time hammering the keys on the check-in kiosk, breathing deeply and looking anxious. Then she announced triumphantly, “We got the last two seats on your connecting flights”. What do you mean “connecting flight(s)?”, I asked. “Well, there’s just one seat on one plane and one seat on another plane!” she said. Oh, well – maybe that computer was smarter after all, putting us both in the same seat on the same plane!

So it was, that the flight home took almost as long as the Amtrak journey and not nearly as comfortable. Would I recommend this Amtrak experience for others? Absolutely! It was wonderful!

Watch out! Be careful!

Neatstep parking comic - traveling is dangerous

Ever since we moved to our district, I always joked that little old white-haired lady drivers were the biggest threat to my existence. Unfortunately, I just discovered that this is not necessarily the case. We had recently returned home in my wife’s car when she complained about an engine noise. I left the car running, got out and flipped the hood open. Then I instructed her to get in and press the accelerator pedal whilst I take a look. She obliged. There are no prizes for guessing what happened next…..

Before I could shout, “holy smoke”, I felt a whack in the knees and was landing flat on my back in the driveway – ouch! Apparently, it was my fault (nothing unusual about that) because I had left the car in “drive” position and only applied the handbrake. My excuse is that I was really tired and obviously not concentrating. I’m pretty sure I won’t do that again (next time I will try something different!)

My wife and I are a perfect driving team. I remember the incident a few years ago when I drove into a service station to fill up with gas. I was really tired on this occasion too, having had a late night and driving several hundred kilometers. The car behind us was being really impatient, so against my better judgment, I quickly completed the fill-up and instructed my wife to pull forward, whilst I go to pay. Unfortunately, as she drove off, I realized there was one thing I had forgotten – to remove the nozzle from the gas tank. Too late – there was a snap and suddenly I was standing in an ever-increasing pool of gas. Not a good start to the day! The nozzle remained in my gas tank ever after as a rattling reminder not to do that again!

The moral of all this seems to be that a car is most dangerous when it’s standing still on the tarmac and you are not the one in the driver’s seat!

Rain, Rain, Rain

Neatstep parking comic - the value of travel points

I just looked out of the window and guess what – it’s raining again! That’s been the picture all along the West coast for months now. Fortunately, we had an interim vacation and managed to find some sunshine in California. Whilst we were in San Diego we even missed out on all the snow back home. How lucky was that!

Of course, traveling these days is not without its challenges, especially if you are flying. So it was no surprise when we had the usual excitement at the airport security check…..

There’s hardly any item these days which will pass unnoticed through airport security. I needed five separate bins to process all my belongings plus the things I forgot to remove and was ordered back for!

To combat the growing queues, airport security decided to fire-up their brand-new body scanners. Since neither the staff nor the passengers knew how to use these machines, the queues became even longer and the chaos was complete.

I now know, that when they say, “empty everything from your pockets” before the body scanner, they really mean “everything”. I was sure that paper tissues in both pockets wouldn’t affect the scanner. They did and security was not impressed!

In future, I think the best way to handle airport security will be to wear a swimsuit and carry everything else in a large bag. On second thoughts, maybe it would look too suspicious, since there isn’t a swimming pool at the airport. Perhaps they should provide one, so that passengers will have something to do while they are waiting!

The Smartest Guy in the Room

Neatstep parking comic - the smart phone genie

This year, I received an unexpected Christmas present from my family. They bought me a SmartPhone. I guess they were thinking, “This guy is so dumb, he needs some extra help!” The advantage of this new phone is, it’s bigger, it’s heavier and the battery drains much faster. Anyway, it’s a big improvement on my old phone, which was not so smart, mainly because I had dropped it several times and if you were dropped several times from a great height, you wouldn’t be so smart either, so there!

Now all I need is a Smart-Computer, because when I connected my Smart-Phone to my Not-So-Smart-Computer, it dumped all the contents of my computer onto my new phone. That’s not my idea of smart! I had to spend several days discovering how to remove all of this not-so-smart data from my SmartPhone and disable all the smart software, written by all those smart people, clogging up my not-so-smart computer!…..

Now that I’m much smarter, I can show-off a little. I went to the local food-court and there were two smart cookies at the next table with their smart phones, so I was able to brandish my extra-smart phone with a feeling of smug satisfaction. The biggest benefit of all, though, is that I can now send smart messages to my smart relative, who told me last year she’d bought an email-phone. When I asked, “What’s that?” she said. “I’m not sure. It’s kind of like a phone but you can get email on it. I think you can send email as well, but I don’t know how to do that because I forgot to ask!” A few weeks later, I suddenly received a message. It read, “Now I no how 2 snd msgs 2 U. ttfn!!!” So I wrote back and said, “WTF R U tryng 2 tel me? Ttyl.” I haven’t heard from her since!

I hope everyone had a smart Christmas and I wish everyone a very smart New Year!

PS. If you’re a music lover, I highly recommend this song: Dumb with a Smart Phone. I guarantee you will like it!

Rules are for Other People

Neatstep parking comic - rules are for others

If you are a person who doesn’t like rules then you would really appreciate our city. It didn’t take me long to discover that nobody here was following any rules except for me. Whether it’s motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, neighbors, or anyone else, the motto appears to be “rules are for other people”. One-way streets – which way! Red lights – I’m colorblind! Pedestrian crosswalks – only for dummies! No dogs on the beach – hey, my dog can’t read! No cell phones while driving – I’ll drink coffee instead! No cycling – hah hah! No parking – well, that’s an issue for Neatstep!…..

I was determined not to abandon my principles until, one summer day, I received a warning for illegal garden-watering . I phoned to protest and the clerk said, “Is that the house with the big tree?” How do you know? “It’s in the photo!” You took a photo? “The officer did!” I was just testing my sprinklers! “I’ll make a note in your file!” You have a file on me? This is getting worse!

I had followed every rule I could and here I was being targeted. So I’ve decided, “if you can’t beat them, join them!” From now on, there is only one rule for me – “rules are for other people!”

South of the Border

Neatstep parking comic - appearing incognito

We just returned from another eventful trip, which started with our usual pirate taxi (this time in Las Vegas), then snow in Arizona (not what we were expecting), some anxious moments in Acapulco and a bit of excitement on our Mexican Riviera cruise. Finally, our luggage was thoroughly demolished upon arrival, so now I know what it means when the airline asks, “how many pieces of luggage do you have”?

I filed a damage report and the clerk asked, “How many pieces of luggage do you have”? I said to her, “Did you mean before, or after the flight?”

Originally, I was given the choice of three trips. My fourth choice (stay at home and relax) was apparently not acceptable. So I opted for the least adventurous itinerary, or so I thought…..

We rented a car for our 2,000km journey from Las Vegas around the canyons, across Arizona and via Palm Desert to San Diego, California. Everything went smoothly except for the navigational disagreement which landed us at 9,000 feet on a mountain pass, in heavy snow with no traffic or snow-plough in sight. That’s when I discovered it’s not a good idea to deploy the windscreen washers if it’s freezing outside!

We finally made it to San Diego and onto the cruise ship for some much-needed relaxation. We went to the Captain’s reception and there was a self-service buffet but no waiter. The captain said, “Are you enjoying your trip?” I said, “Yes, but I just have one question. Whilst you are here with us, who is steering the ship?” He said, “Why do you think this buffet is self-service?”

Fortunately, we made it back home in one piece, unlike our luggage. The highlight of our trip was undoubtedly the Grand Circle canyon tour, through Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, Monument Valley and Grand Canyon. Even the word “spectacular” seems inadequate for these amazing natural wonders. I’m most definitely going to do this trip again – if I ever find the rest of my luggage!

Hot off the press

Neatstep parking comic - the local news

I was hoping for some publicity this quarter and it eventually happened. However, they do say “be careful what you wish for” so it was unsurprising that it wasn’t Neatstep featured in the local paper, but rather myself. I would have much preferred it the other way around but maybe Neatstep’s time will come!

One notable occurrence during this time was the local Comic Convention here. Amazingly, we do have such an event in our small city and it was very interesting. It’s good to see so many different artists and styles all coming together under one roof.

The other interesting occurrence was on the GoComics website where lesser-known comic artists have now been more fully integrated into the whole GoComics offering. This is a generous move which provides aspiring new artists with more exposure to a wider comic audience. Neatstep can definitely benefit from that, although I’m not sure about the readers!…..

Meanwhile, Neatstep continues to “Twitter” along with a gazillion other participants. So far, so good! As long as nobody “follows” me home, I think I’ll be OK.

It’s Summer Again

Neatstep parking comic - the bookworm

I’m not a bookworm, but recently I was reading a very funny book by Bill Bryson called, “I’m A Stranger Here Myself”. In the introduction, he writes “The thing about a weekly column, I discovered, is that it comes up weekly”. When I read that sentence, I knew immediately that I was going to enjoy the book. It’s a pity I don’t have this guy writing gags for Neatstep.

A lot has happened in the last quarter, during which time I’ve been very busy updating my comic strips with all the new characters. I’m pretty pleased with the results and with the increasing readership at ComicsSherpa. I’m not a great believer in technology, but not wanting to be outdone by all the famous celebrities, I have signed-up Neatstep for a Twitter account. I will be launching this service shortly with a couple of specially written comics on the subject of “social networking”.….

I spent the last quarter experimenting, not only with the character drawings, but also with producing some unique greetings cards for various special occasions. I also got sidetracked into creating an animated Neatstep sequence, which I will use on my website in future whenever I want to take a break.

With all those diversions out of the way, I can now concentrate on moving Neatstep up to the next level – whatever that may be. Meanwhile, summer has finally arrived, so I will be out and about downtown in search of likely situations for Neatstep to deal with!