Prejudice, Technically

I must admit that I received my first “smart phone” with more than a little trepidation.  It was going on a decade ago and I didn’t know my app from a hole in the ground.  What was this thing that was a telephone and yet so much more?  I carry it around with me, nevertheless, and I use it for the very occasional text, for a camera, and when it was younger, as a geocaching device.  My sense of distrust came from being a user of personal computers for many years.  There would be constant upgrades and renewals and each would cost you something.  You don’t buy just a smart phone, you buy a liability.  This Luddite screed arises from my attempts to get my boarding pass for my flight yesterday, with a special shout out to United Airlines.

Things change.  I’m cool with that.  Still, “checking in” for a flight has always meant your ticket was secure.  When I went to check in yesterday, for the first time ever United Airlines allowed it only through your smart phone and only via its app.  The app is free but my phone is of such an age that the app won’t work with it.  I received the confirming text stating I wasn’t checked in.  Wasn’t that exactly the same as the status at which I’d started?  Why then did I spend half an hour of my Saturday trying to select a seat and telling it I am a vegetarian?  (Vegans, it seems, are from another planet.)  At least I didn’t have to specify a non-smoking row.  I realized as I hung up that I was being shamed for not updating my phone.

You see, capitalism thrives on forcing the purchase of new things.  If you wear clothes that are out of style (guilty as charged!) then you aren’t playing by the rules.  If your phone is too big or too small (yes, size does matter), or if it flips open instead of being accidentally awakened when slipped out of your pocked, you’re a Luddite.  If you can’t afford an update (which no longer fits in the pocket of a guy my size) you deserve to be shamed.  You can’t check in.  You have to stand in line and proclaim to all, “I didn’t upgrade.”  I still use an iPhone 4S.  It does what I need it to do.  United Airlines doesn’t think so, however.  Most of the apps have ceased to work.  Now it is once again simply a phone, pretty much back where I’d started.

On a Jet Plane

So I’m heading to England.  Not for pleasure—this is a business trip.  Long ago, back when I worked for Routledge, I discovered that I dislike business travel.  Unlike vacation planning where the possibilities spread out beautifully before you—for this is free time and you decide—business travel is, like Peter was told, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”  Indeed.  Business travel is at the whim of the man, and you can’t really look forward to the sights, the relaxation, or even being given the choice of where to go.  You’re on assignment.  Or consignment, I can’t recall which.  The carefully honed routine with which you hold back the chaos of the world is blown apart.  It begins with the red eye.

You see, companies don’t like you to make your own travel plans.  You might chose a flight that’s pennies more expensive than some itinerary that routes you through Albuquerque at four a.m.  It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do, right?  And since you’re exempt, we’ll take your Sunday, gratis.  Where’s your team spirit?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a creature of habit.  The hour of the typical red eye is when I get up to write.  That can’t be done in an airport, or on a plane, where everyone can see you.  No, this is a private thing.  Everyone else must be asleep.  Most of them, preferably, in another house.  So I’m flying to London and catch a late-night bus to Oxford.

Part of my worry, dear readers, is you.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I’ve been in the habit of posting daily for many years.  Mostly at the same time—weekends and commuting days are exceptions, of course—and when you’re changing time zones you might do well to have Rod Serling with you.  I can’t figure them out.  British hotels, also, do not offer wifi in their rooms unless the boss wants you to pay extra for it.  And considering the mandated flight behavior, that’s best just taken off the table.  So, as I prepare to leave before sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, I don’t know if or when I’ll get to post over the next few days.  I won’t even know what time it is.  Like pay toilets, charging for internet access ought to be criminal these days.  But opportunities to take money are everywhere.  And those of us who travel for business always rely on the kindness of capitalists.

Final Leg

Travel is a form of education.  You won’t get college credit for it (unless some administrative footwork is involved), but it is a means of learning.  One of the things you pick up flying coast-to-coast is how exhausting a day on a jet can be.  Quite apart from jet lag itself, the weariness of occupying your minuscule allotted space in a pressurized cabin can be intense.  And like ocean travel by ship, you have to dock at a distance to use smaller and smaller forms of transportation to reach your destination until at last you walk inside.  This was the first year that such a trip ended by returning to a house rather than somebody else’s rental unit.  It’s an odd feeling.

Work starts again tomorrow, and since I’ve been pretty much unplugged for an entire week, I know chaos awaits.  I also have the task of learning what has happened in this off-kilter world for the last week.  And then I have to make an inventory of the books that were ruined in our own personal Noah event just days before our flight.  The changing of scenes feels rather like a jump-cut in a movie.  Suddenly you find yourself somewhere different, with circumstances that have their own set of parameters.  Vacation time, in a sense, is like a dream sequence.  None of the episodes from back home can reach your sleep-addled mind.  And then you wake up.  Bills are due.  The lawn wants cutting.  The unpacking must continue.

For all that, it feels as if something transcendent happened.  Like Elijah being whisked away in his own personal whirlwind, I was on a plane that took me to a different plane of existence.  A place where no matter what decisions were made the outcome would be pleasant.  Coming home involves what theologians like to call “metanoia,” a sense of transformation—memories that give you strength to carry on the quotidian tasks that make up the vast bulk of our lives.  Lakes in the mountains are all fine and good, but society demands its pound of flesh, and the way they get it is through productive employment.  Tomorrow it’s back to work, a chance to test just how successful the metanoia might’ve been.  This is the reason we traveled on a Saturday, for the sabbath should be a day of rest.  No one knows where that whirlwind set Elijah down, but it’s virtually certain that he had plenty to do once he got there.

Of Fancy

Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.

One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.

The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.

Flying with Strangers

TSAThe world is safe now. It’s okay—you can unlock your doors and windows at last. I have the proof right before me. Two weeks ago I was out of town. To get to my final destination I had to fly. I travel light. Seeing families at the airport with stacks of suitcases, I often wonder what people find necessary to take with them. It depends on the destination, I suppose. If you’re skiing you’ll need different gear than if you’re snorkeling. Or spelunking. In my bag there’s just the same old togs I wear at home. Never a clothes horse, I seldom update my wardrobe. I’m not into extreme sports, and for hiking, well, I can wear what I’m wearing right now. One thing is universal, I suspect. Underwear. We all have tucked away in our bag somewhere that necessary item of human social politeness. That’s why the world is safe, you see. I have in front of me a slip of paper informing me that the Transportation Security Administration has looked at my underwear and declared it safe. Go ahead and fly the friendly skies. Just make sure your underwear is clean.

Long ago I learned that if I fly alone I will be singled out for added security checks. I’m a bearded man. A non-conformist. My beard isn’t one of those consisting of trendy hipster stubble either. Just a regular beard. No fuss, no muss. My life is far too busy for me to spend extra time scraping off hair that will only grow back. I have enough pointless tasks as it is. But once you’ve seen the TSA agents looking you in the face and pointing you to the extra-search line time and again, you start to notice patterns. Especially since nearly every TSA agent in Newark parks in the same airport lot as I do and rides the same shuttle in. Sometimes there are so many of them that they ask if I’m lost. No, just looking for a restroom so that I can check my underwear before you do.

The truly ironic part—and I appreciate irony so I know that there’s no way that an agent can know this—is that I’ve been a life-long pacifist. The draft was reinstituted when I was just the right age to sign up. I was a conscientious objector. One of my uncles was too, during the Second World War. The very title of the conflict should’ve made the need for more objectors obvious. I wouldn’t knowingly hurt another person. Or animal. I step over worms after it rains and will yield to an ant on the sidewalk. Still, you’d better check my suitcase just to be sure. To me, it seems the world might benefit from teaching more people to respect those who are different. Bearded men and those whose skin tone differs are not evil. We just don’t have the time to get to know them before we throw their bag onto the conveyor belt.

Leaving Town

After grousing about having too little time, today begins a trip out of town. Changing time zones, forsaking civilization, resting at a mountain lake. And I’m thinking of all that I’ll accomplish without having to go into the office for an entire week. I made similar plans last year. I’d lined up all the projects that had been piling up and figured that being away for a while would be perfect for getting them done. On the flight across the country, however, my laptop died. Gave up the electronic ghost and died. I grieved, and I was in shock. Thoughts of buying a replacement came to mind, but then, I told myself, I justified buying all my past laptops because of teaching. I carried my PowerPoints with me to class. We’d become a two, then three, computer family. I remembered the sign-up sheets they used to use when you needed an hour on the computer in the library. I’ve practically become a single entity with my hardware, how would I survive without?

Last year, survive I did. Concerned family members kindly offered to let me borrow their laptops so that I could post my daily ravings here. I was surrounded by nature’s majesty—mountains, a pristine (or nearly so) lake, huckleberries, fresh air—and my thoughts turned to the Borg. I’d read about transhumans, and now, I could see, I was becoming one. I don’t want the internet plugged into my brain. In fact, sometimes I don’t even want it sitting on my lap.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying to the ether that my usual posting pattern may be disrupted. It was at the lake, however, that this blog was born. I’m sure that those who first suggested it are a touch disappointed at the way it has grown up. Initially it was supposed to be mostly podcasts. My servers for those casts, however, charged for the service of holding my voice bytes. I used to get paid for sending that same voice out over a classroom full of students only to fall on the wrong side of politics and economy. So it is that I await my flight to remote reaches—remote reaches with Wifi, if the elements allow. If you don’t see my usual musings at my usual time, this will likely be the reason. Although, this time around, with a new top for my lap, I hope I’ll remember to get outdoors every now and again.

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Best Prayer in the Air

With my current job I travel quite a bit. With all the attendant time hanging around airports, I have time to think back to pre-deregulation days when flying meant some kind of care in the air. It has been in the news the last few days that Alaska Airlines is removing the prayer cards from its trays during meals. When I saw that, the real surprise to me was—airlines serving meals? When did they start doing that? A couple years back I flew coast to coast on Alaska Airlines with nothing more than a sack of peanuts. I would have been happy to have had a prayer card to eat. I agree with those who pointed out to the airline, when it served these alleged meals, that paying customers shouldn’t be proselytized. You can get enough of that by watching GOP debates. And I certainly hope the message wasn’t that the plane only flew on a miracle.

I’m sure that some people will say there’s no harm in a little non-invasive sermonizing. Therefore I must make my own confession; I was a teenage evangelical. Although I never actually did tracts myself, I hung out with kids who did. Once, on the way home from a youth meeting, a carload of us stopped to get a bite to eat in a diner. Now, we were high school kids, not flush with money, but even I knew it was right to tip—waitresses have to put up with a lot for little pay. One of my friends told us that if we really wanted to help the young lady out, we should leave a tract as a tip. What reward could be better than salvation? Surely that would help to feed her family or buy her kids a new pair of shoes. Indoctrinated as I was (and I hadn’t even been to college yet, Mr. Santorum), it seemed like a good idea. Still, I felt bad when we left.

These two situations are not dissimilar. In both cases someone would rather print cheap words on cheap paper with free sentiments rather than giving a person sustenance. It’s been a few years since I’ve darkened a pulpit, but I do seem to recall Jesus insisting that the hungry be fed. I don’t recall what he said about tracts and prayer cards.

Religions have a way of focusing on the forgettable minutiae while overlooking the real need right in front of them. In November I flew from New York to San Francisco, subsisting on a tiny bag of peanuts and some airline orange juice. If old Deutero-Isaiah were sitting next to me he might have said, “why spend money on what is not bread?” But I was thinking that maybe the karma of that tipless waitress was simply coming back full circle.