Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas traditions: the morphing of my holiday

It's been a lot of years since I had to travel at Christmastime, other than taking a train down into the City for various reasons, some related to fun and some to profit. And that experience had a curious charm, even with the necessity of riding on the crowded, dirty cars of Metro North's aging collection of rolling stock: sharing the proximity and the holiday spirit of the lumpy mass of my fellow passengers, all piled into the shabby seats; bundled up layers of wool and goose down jackets that made them look like a population of bourgeois Michelin men; and the snowy Connecticut countryside and towns rushing past the windows, holiday lights sprinkled over the passing suburbs like colored sprinkles on some kind of complex confection.

Yeah, I don't get to do that anymore. But that was different from the grim reality of what holiday travel means for most folks: the dreadful Bataan death march that is going by plane anywhere in late December, knowing, just knowing that sooner or later you will be shat upon by the transportation gods, sitting on the floor of some dreary air terminal, listening to harried gate agents making yet another announcement of yet another delay...

And that was precisely the joyous festival of frustration I got to experience this Christmas season for the first time in...oh hell, I don't even know how long...

Yep, this year, I'm on the road from yesterday though Christmas day. I writing this on a borrowed machine accessing a borrowed network, and now, things are ok. Yesterday? well that was another matter. The place in which the transportation gods decided to shit in my chapeau was in my second airport of the day, where I had to change planes for the last leg of my trip.

Things were delayed, people were piling up in the waiting areas, my flight got shifted to a different gate, which, OH JOY OF JOYS, REQUIRED THAT I GO THROUGH SECURITY AGAIN IN ORDER TO GET THERE...

...and as I went through the process of once again partially undressing and disassembling my kit, and lining up the trays with all my personal crap in them to be swallowed into the maw of the magic "personal crap inspection" machine, I observed ahead of me a couple with a toddler who was struggling and looking even more unhappy than all the rest of us combined...and the TSA gal running the new "hold up your hands and show me your goodies" machine looked at them and said,

"Miss, he's too young to have to go through this"

Without any major fuss or unnecessary theatrics, she pulled the barrier tape to close off access to the backscatter rig, politely opened a side gate, and took the mother and the child through the walk-through metal detector. Then she called over the woman's husband to follow through the same machine so he could keep up with his family and help them collect their gear from the baggage x-ray.

He looked pretty surprised.

Anyhow. after I got through security and reassembled myself, I went to wait with about 400 new friends who were packed into a space about the equivalent of modest-sized horse barn, and I noticed something.

Mind you, it had been a long time since I had traveled at the holidays,, but this trip I saw what seemed like a lot more young men and women in uniform than I was used to seeing in the past. In the first airport I had been in earlier that day, there had been dozens of army personnel in their washed-out looking desert pattern BDUs, lugging the old traditional duffel bag and wearing packs. And in the second airport de jour I saw marines in their blues and tans, and numerous sailors in their dress blue crackerjacks, peacoats and dixie cup hats.

It made me think of pictures of train stations in WWII...and it made me happy that these young men and women could be traveling in the uniform of their profession, and unlike a time I remember back when our society was more outwardly and unabashedly anti-military, no one gave them a ration of shit or gave them hostile looks. Instead, they were just fellow travelers, and if they got a look or a comment from anyone, it was a look of admiration and a word of thanks.

But then it struck me...oh, like into the third hour of my sitting there...that there were other uniformed people present who weren't getting the same kind reaction from the general public. I went back over towards the security area, and when the TSA crew supervisor came out to look at the nearby arrival/departure screens to see how the evening's total goat screw was progressing, I went up to her and said, "excuse me, Miss?"

I know what was going through her mind. Here was some crazy old bat in a G-1 jacket and mangy old FDNY ball cap, coming up dragging a dirty old duffel bag...and I think the gal showed great restraint in not instinctively reaching for her pepper spray. But seriously, I know she was expecting some new round of lambasting and idiocy. Nonetheless, she looked me up and down and politely replied, "yes ma'am, can I help you?"

...and I said, "Miss, I just wanted to say thank you. Your people are acting in a very professional and efficient manner, and being very thoughtful of the folks coming through...and well...I imagine you probably get yelled at a lot more than you get I wanted to say, good job, and it is appreciated."

She looked startled for a moment and then smiled.

"Thank you ma'm, I will be sure to tell the rest of my crew that. That is nice to hear."

I did eventually get where I was going, and you know what? I got there in part because the TSA folks are trying their best to do a thankless job.

You might feel like you want to piss and moan about the quality of TSA personnel, you may want to say that the system is not efficient and doesn't deal with the real problems and blah blah blah, and "invasion of privacy" and all that...and as far as I am concerned, you can just shut the fuck up.

Remember, I have personal knowledge of what happened when there wasn't the level of security we have now. I'll take inconvenience and frustration any day, over the alternative. Yes, the people and the system are not perfect, but they sure as hell improve the odds for us. You want a perfect security system that doesn't take up a lot of your time, and doesn't cost a shitload of money? I have a news flash for you, assholes: it ain't happening.

You want a guarantee? Wait for the next life, motherfucker, cuz it sure ain't coming in this one.

So I have decided, now I have a new holiday tradition.

In all honesty, at this point in my life's journey, I don't have a lot of Christmas traditions like some people do: I hate shopping; I haven't put up a tree in a number of years; I left the outdoor lights behind when husband number three's house got foreclosed on; my faith has evolved to the point where mass collective worship with a bunch of so-called Christians just ain't compatible with my personal way of trying to connect to the divine...and I am a fucking diabetic so baking crap made of over-refined flour and sugar is a source of unnecessary what I have to work with is limited.

Well, here's the new tradition: I will make sure that when things are at their shittiest, I will say something kind and positive to someone who is not having a good day, someone whose hard work is not appreciated, or who is getting nothing but one ration of shit after another from six different directions.

And I don't mean the obvious candidates--active military personnel, WWII veterans, firefighters...yeah, of course you should say "thank you" to folks like that, be decent to them. I mean that you should be decent to someone who is really getting excoriated on a regular basis: snow plow drivers, customer service people at Linden lab, taxi drivers, subway conductors, fast food workers...but especially TSA personnel.

In thinking on it, you should be like that all the time. There's no meed to be a mewling, pizzle-sucking douchebag with people who are just trying to do their job. But we should particularly try to do it this time of year when the stress and nonsense is particularly intense. If you want to be crass about it, think what life would be like without these people. If you have to whine and be an asshole to somebody, hey, that's what we have relatives for, right?


  1. That is a wonderful new tradition to embrace.

  2. Hey Emilly,

    I'm glad you think so. There is a part of me that is saying to myself, hey ye feckless ol' harpy, ye shoulda been doin' this all along, and ye should be doin' it year-round, to boot.

    Well, I suppose I will have to work up to that. The irony here is that deciding to do this is something that has been inspired in part by my time in SL. Belive it or not, my persona in SL is much nicer and open hearted than I allow myself to be irl. I am much more inclined to go up to someone I don't know in SL and say hello and share thoughts with a stranger, than I have been in a meatspace context.

    In short, I think I have had some good practice in SL being a more decent and sociable person, and I am starting to more regularly apply that in my non-virtual life.

    Emilly, I hope you have a happy and pleasant holiday season and a good new year.

  3. An extremely thought-inspiring posting.
    I am of a slightly different mindset regarding a couple of points, but I think the outcome should be the same. While I am not in agreement with the current policies of either the US military or the TSA, that is certainly my problem and not the problem of the folks who do an often dangerous and/or thankless job in carrying out those policies. My personal issues can remain unspoken, but "thank your for all you do" can sincerely be given.
    Thanks for the kick in the pants, ma'am :)

  4. Hey Fogwoman,

    Hon, first and foremost, let me say that I respect your reservations about the two institutions in question, and I really have my own reservations about the way they have been used in the last decade. Please keep in mind that I make a big distinction between the front line people who actually do the hard work and put their lives at risk, and the witless, profiteering jackanapes who set policy and called the shots.

    But then, the Dick Cheney's and Michael Chertoff's of this world aren't the ones who are taking commercial airliners at Christmas and sitting in crowded terminals waiting to catch a plane with crying babies on their laps, so I am not likely to run into them anyway.

    And also please keep in mind that how I look at TSA and its operations is colored by personal experience that has rendered me less than objective. But again there is a big difference between the folks at the operational level as opposed to the policy making level.

    So in a lot of ways, I am guessing we're probably not too far off in how we look at things, hon.

    And Fogwoman, I also wish you and yours a splendid holidays.

  5. I sympathize with your having to travel around the holidays - pretty much any holiday, these days - and even more so that it involves air travel. Despite logistical nightmares every year (that end up making no one happy, I might add), I am fortunate that I only have to endure I-95, and not the worst part of that godawful congested road at that.

    It's hard to argue that neither the boots on the ground in the army nor those in the TSA have been well-served by their respective high commands. Flying involves slogging through lines filled with clueless individuals, only to be subjected to invasive searches that aren't terribly effective in preventing the kinds of problems the searches are intended to prevent. One often feels tempted to take it out on the unfortunate soul patting one down, just as it's tempting to yell at the clerk who is unable to help because of a corporate policy. I suspect most of us suppress the anger less because the TSA agents are not responsible for the policies being carried out and more because the agents have the power to make your already-difficult travel a true nightmare.

    Still, it's useful to take a step back and reflect that, for the most part, these are people carrying out orders with which they don't necessarily agree and trying to make a buck, just like the rest of us.

    Safe journeys, Miz Dio!

  6. Thank you Rhia,

    And likewise safe journeys to you on I-95. You're a brave woman.

    In all honesty I'm not that woried about my safelty flying, even withthe limitations of TSA's capabilities and the fact that yes, they do in fact miss things they should catch with a certain degree of regularity.

    All the same I'm not inclined to go along with those who want to shoot the horse because he stumbles now and then. Yes, what they do in the terminals is not perfect, and it is not going to address much of what the international terrorists are working on as their next phase of attacks--it is always a race between the preventiaon protocols and the perps--the latter continually trying to invent new ways to defeat the strategy and tactics of the former--but that doesn't mean that once you have moved don to a new form of threat you can abandon the old tactics: you have to maintain those as well.

    No the real means of defeating the international terror-guys isn't at the tactical level at the passenger and freight terminals, it's in big picture stuff such as your intelligence operations and diplomatic activity.

    That said, to me the real current value of what we have put in place at the terminals is not necessarily related to the big international terror context--it's the domestic and individual dangers that are really being interdicted most successfully.

    White supremacists, homegrown religious extremists (think Westboro baptist Church with guns), mentally unbalanced individuals who are reeling from losing a job or a failed relationship--you know, the people who go into our workplaces, schools, and post offices with disturbing regularity and take a bunch of innocents with them as they self-immolate....these are exactly the kinds of loonies and knuckleheads who are foiled or at least discouraged by the current range of TSA tactical protections.

    And there are a lot more of those kinds of dangerous idiots out there than there are real ooga-booga terrorists.

    So anyhow, as I said--even with the imperfections of the system (and the appalling reality that certain people have benefited economically and politically from the way the system is equipped and managed--it does somewhat increase the odds in our favor.

    By the way, Rhia, I want you to know I appreciate the way you consistently read and respond to my puffed-up pontifications. A good Christmas and fruitful New Year to ya, hon.