An Open Letter to The Window Seat

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on June 21, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

Farewell, my lightly scratched and slightly fogged friend. Parting is such sweet sorrow. We’ll always have Paris. And Heathrow. And Chicago O’Hare.

It’s not you—it’s me. Like cigarettes and unlimited data plans, I can no longer afford you. Still, we had our moments, didn’t we? Remember when I could stuff my laptop under you? (That was when I could afford the extra bag.) Remember when I’d fall asleep on your plexi-glass shoulder? (That was before they charged fees for extra legroom.)

Remember when there was only one set of footprints? That was when I carried you—actually, your entire airline—out of bankruptcy in 2001.

Three weeks after the attacks of 9/11, Congress passed the Air Transportation Safety and Stabilization Act. It provided grants, loan guarantees and tax waivers valued at $15 billion to save the airlines’ bacon. Your parent airline never liked me, though, and now they’ve figured out yet another way to keep us apart: extra fees for window seats. Parents can be cruel like that.

In retrospect, ours was a relationship doomed from the start. It started as a fling, a one-flight stand on the red-eye from Orlando. I was just coming off a long-term relationship with the aisle seat, where my legs dangled carelessly in the delicious open spaces only flight attendants dared to tread. After an ugly breakup caused by overbooking, we were thrown together amid the chaos of coach. Accustomed to being shoehorned like crayons in a box on every flight, the comfort of your concave embrace was a revelation.

How could I resist you? From the protection of the window seat, there were no more glares as passengers tripped over my feet in the aisle. I no longer worried about falling asleep on a stranger’s arm on long flights; instead, I rested my pillow against your vibrating hull. There were no more bruised knees from the beverage cart; no bonks on the head each time someone opened the overhead bin; no getting up every time passengers with teacup bladders needed to use the bathroom.

Alas, your parents (like the Capulets and Montagues before them) conspired to keep us apart. They started by charging for my second bag, then charging for the first. Soon they were weighing my bags and measuring my carry-ons. Upset we were still seeing each other, they took away my in-flight meal and hid the blankets and pillows. I had to pay extra for using my frequent flier points, then had to pay fees for using my phone to book those frequent flier points. I had pay for the lousy movies after purchasing the lousy headphones. On top of all this, I had to pay extra for the fuel. The fuel! That’s like renting a tuxedo and being charged a fee for using the fabric.

Let’s face it: your parents were always looking for a better match and a larger dowry. It’s become common practice to overbook flights and leave the poor souls at the reservations desk to explain that a “reservation” is a tenuous promise at best (just ask the Native Americans). Quite frankly, at this point you’re too high-maintenance. The reality is I settled for you because I couldn’t afford dating your sisters in business or first class. Besides, I can’t handle the pressure of whether to leave the window shade up or down, and other passengers hate me for my indecision. My wife is jealous of our relationship and resents being relegated to the pinched purgatory that is the middle seat.

If anything, it should be less expensive to sit at the window. We’re the ones who alert the rest of the plane to the weird creature out on the wing in mid-flight. (Or do you have to pay extra for the wing seat?) My biggest fear is that you’ll get over our breakup too quickly. According to a recent forecast from trade group Airlines for America, flights will be packed this summer. Your parents should be very happy—they’ll probably add a fee on oxygen by then.

Mommy’s Meth Lab

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on June 7, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

My mom ran a meth lab out of her house for years without getting caught; she stockpiled enough simulants and inhalants to make Charlie Sheen weep. My kindergarten teacher (who shall remain nameless to protect her family) was even worse; she let her students handle so many drugs that it’s a miracle any of us managed to crawl out of there alive. However, after reading the news this week, I realize that my beloved Gammy was the worst of all: she used bath salts.

When I was growing up, glue sniffing was a phase that lasted about a day or two in elementary school art class. Trying to get high off a bottle of Elmer’s was like trying to suck a bowling ball through a straw: it could be done if you tried hard enough, but there wasn’t much of a payoff. Sure, you might hear a story about a model airplane enthusiast going off the rails every now and again, but who could blame them? When you gave kids glue, paint, contact cement, and small amounts of gas in a windowless room and expected them to spend hours fumbling over tiny details, it doesn’t take a Grateful Dead fan to figure out the first trip that plane is taking.

It was a time when parents had fewer “hidden dangers” in the house from which to protect their children—mostly things like paint chips, asbestos, or the accidental ingestion of cleaning products tucked away on the high shelves. Nowadays, more and more people are drawn to that very shelf in search of a cheap, readily-available high. Stealing a bit of dad’s liquor or stumbling upon an older brother’s “secret stash” has been replaced by something far more sinister: studying ingredient labels.

Stealing mommy’s Ambien is so 2011. These days, kids are finding novel ways to use household products in ways we never imagined. As a kid, I never looked at the felt-tip markers as a door to another world… I just used them draw doors. I never thought of spending my newspaper route money on paint solvent or correction fluid or contact cleaner. Unfortunately, these have now become common inhalants, both cheap and accessible.

By modern standards, my parents’ home warehoused a laundry list of mind-altering substances. The kitchen cabinets contained aerosol air fresheners, degreasers, whipped cream dispensers, peppermint extract, and nutmeg. The bathroom cabinets were full of hair spray, cough medicine, nail polish, ammonia, and toilet bowl cleaner. In today’s climate, my dad’s workshop stocks of spray paint, gasoline, and car wax would make him a suburban Pablo Escobar.

Regardless of where they fall internationally on science achievement tests, it seems our kids are developing a fatal interest in chemistry. Data from the 2011 “Monitoring the Future” study, an annual survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shows that 13 percent of 8th graders reported abusing inhalants in the past year. Most of these inhalants come in the form of common substances found around any household. Even worse is that 41 percent of 8th graders don’t consider the regular use of inhalants to be harmful, and 65 percent don’t think trying inhalants once or twice is risky. These ingredients create a recipe for disaster.

Yesterday’s pre-school glue sniffing did not involve the potency of the chemicals kids are experimenting with today. This isn’t smoking banana peels after seeing a Velvet Underground album cover—today’s popular “experiments” are exponentially more toxic and could irrevocably damage the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, nerves, and brain.  Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can induce heart failure and death. If our kids don’t yet understand the severity of this problem, we need to better educate ourselves in order to educate them.

When something as innocuous as bath salts can cause a person to cannibalize another as happened in Miami last week, it’s time to re-think our approach to drug education. For instance, last fall the Drug Enforcement Administration banned three of the chemicals used in bath salts (38 states had already enacted their own such bans) yet none of these actions prevented this horrific act. California coughers can offer an interesting precedent as to the efficacy of this thinking. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra and limited ephedrine to cough and allergy remedies because it was being abused as a weight loss aid. In 2009, the FDA banned over-the-counter phenylpropanolamine in cough syrup. In January of 2012, in an attempt to stem its epidemic abuse as a hallucinogen, California banned the sale of cough syrup to minors altogether.  In short, it kept banning individual ingredients until it eventually banned the substance altogether—there simply too many ingredients left that could produce a high.

It seems as if focusing on the availability of the substance alone isn’t enough. When the drug of choice can be found in something as unoffending as a can of Lysol, we can’t legislate the problem away. More focus on educating adolescents as to the dangers of these trends might yield better results, not to mention exploring the reasons they wanted to escape like this in the first place. That doesn’t mean we should stop taking dangerous substances off the market, but rather that we should start figuring out why people turn to inhaling cleaning fluid to numb their pain.

After all, our society managed to get along just fine with gasoline and paint and even nutmeg for centuries before children turned them into hallucinogens. Maybe we adults are as much of the problem as the substances these kids are abusing.