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.

Saturdays Past

Feeling somewhat between a state of self-pity and that of a salmon who couldn’t find his way upstream, I turned to horror.  The weekend before Thanksgiving has traditionally been AAR/SBL weekend for me.  I missed the Annual Meeting a few times due to unemployment, but for the most part I have been there every year since 1991.  As the representative of a publisher it is an endurance-testing event.  I had half-hour meetings scheduled all day on Saturday, Sunday, and today, and even a couple for the much neglected Tuesday morning.  Then I found myself home, awaiting a suitcase delivery.  United Airlines couldn’t say where the bag would be, and it only arrived Saturday night.  My wife had to work all that day, and so I turned to my boyhood.  Saturday afternoon was monster movie time.

For my current book project I’m discussing the components of The Conjuring diegesis.  I’m also trying to do some traditional research on the films.  Airport-lagged (I hadn’t been on a jet, but at my age being awake so late and sleeping so poorly has its own consequences), I pulled out Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation.  I wondered what it would be like to see them in the order of their plots rather than their actual chronological order.  Would the story hold together?  Would I find anything new?  The films discussed in my books are those I’ve watched many times—what I like to call “guilty pleasure research.”  Or just a boyhood Saturday afternoon revisited.  I couldn’t leave the house since I was told my bag couldn’t just be dropped on the porch.

From the beginning the story of Annabelle, the “possessed doll,” takes many twists and turns.  The demon is invited into the spooky toy by distraught parents after the tragic death of their child.  It then takes over an orphan who is adopted by a couple that she murders, as their natural daughter, in the earlier installment.  The doll is possessed in that telling because the girl Annabelle had joined a Satanic cult, like Charles Manson’s, and her blood dripped into the doll as she lay dying.  After claiming another female victim, the doll is sent to a couple of nurses as a present, where she appears at the opening of The Conjuring.  The story shifts with each sequential telling, leaving the binge viewer dissatisfied.  I haven’t had time for a double-feature since moving this summer.  Thick snow still covered the ground and the sky held that solemn haze of late November.  My colleagues were discussing erudite topics in Denver, and I was home using horror as therapy.  If you’re curious for further results, the book will be out in a couple of years.  Be sure to look for it at AAR/SBL.

Righteous City

I’m a stomach sleeper, if that’s not TMI.  This began many years ago when I realized that upon awaking from nightmares I was always on my back.  I started doing what I knew was dangerous to infants, safe since I haven’t been part of that demographic for decades.  Terrazzo isn’t one of my favorite sleeping surfaces, however, and on my back on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport I realized I couldn’t roll over, for many reasons.  My glasses, for one thing, were in the internal pocket of my Harris Tweed.  For another, on one’s stomach one’s wallet is exposed in a way that’s maybe too inviting.  Before suggesting I could’ve placed my wallet and glasses elsewhere, let me write in my own defense that rationality isn’t my strong suit after midnight.

The night before

I found a spot next to a set of escalators where the constant thrumming alternately kept me awake and soothed me to nod.  I heard many languages spoken as I drifted in and out of consciousness for the few hours I had to wait for dawn.  And nobody disturbed me.  This is rather remarkable—a person asleep is a vulnerable being.  Doing it out in public with no private walls was a new experience for me.  I don’t sleep on planes, buses, or trains.  Or, until two days ago, airports.  It brought to mind the biblical world.  A town was considered a righteous place if a stranger could sleep unmolested in a public place.  The traveller—please take note, United—was in need of special consideration.  My situation revealed something unexpected about Newark Airport.

The morning after

It was full of angry, frustrated people.  I opened my eyes at five a.m. to find a very long line snaking down the corridor behind me—a queue that had been there when I first drifted off.  These were people trying to reschedule flights since United couldn’t bump that day’s passengers because they’d decided not to fly out the night before.  Despite the weariness and intensity of emotions, there was very little bad behavior.  We were biblical strangers, mostly in the same circumstances.  No creature comforts, no privacy.  An east Asian woman said the next morning that in her country the airline would’ve brought food, and blankets at least.  In the United States fiscal concerns reign supreme, however; do you know how much it would cost to care for all these stranded people?  When I opened my eyes the situation was about the same as when I closed them.  I couldn’t help noticing I awoke on my back.

Odyssey in Blue

Now I have the United bastardization of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stuck in my head.  This comes from listening to the same recording approximately a quarter-gazillion times while on hold.  I expected to awake this morning in Denver, but instead I learned a very valuable lesson about refugees.  It went down like this: yesterday’s east coast storm over-performed while United Airlines under-performed.  Seeing the forecast, I changed to an earlier flight to try to beat it out of Dodge.  I arrived in Newark only to have my flight incrementally delayed until it was cancelled around 9:30.  By this time all the hotels within 11 miles of the airport were booked solid from earlier cancellations.  Taxis were running into Manhattan only.  Access to New Jersey Transit was not possible.  I’d been awake since the 4 a.m. text alert from United that said bad weather was on the way.  Finally, around 1 a.m. I found an unoccupied piece of floor and slept next to total strangers.

The experience opened my eyes to the plight of refugees.  Weary airline employees (probably worried about getting home themselves) were not friendly and didn’t welcome questions.  The line for rescheduling flights was, by no exaggeration, at least 400 individuals long, one of whom told me this morning she’d waited 8-hours to talk to someone.  Since cancelled flight baggage is not checked, it had to be retrieved, and the line for doing such was equally as long as the rescheduling queue.  United was under-staffed, stressed, and not in control of the situation.  Nobody wanted to listen to you.  You were just another stranger with a sad story and all of us have problems, don’t you know.  The refugee has no place to go.  Nobody to care.

With my aging cell phone dying, my lifeline to those who cared was fading.  The shops closed, cutting off access to food.  Ground transportation was not responsive.  Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded, relying on their own wits (or in my case, lack thereof) to decide what to do.  I just wanted someone to say “Go here.  Do this.”  Instead I found myself wrapped in tweed, using my carry-on, Jacob-like, for a pillow.  I felt for the strangers around me.  They were suddenly friends as we were all in the same category—displaced people.  This nightmare lasted under 24 hours for me, but I am now keenly aware that it never ends for some.  Refugees need a caring glance.  A kind word.  And it would help if the powers that be would leave Gershwin alone.

Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

United We Fly

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I’m on a flight from New York to London. This wasn’t a trip I particularly wanted to take (what business trip ever is?). I don’t like flying, and changing time zones takes days off my life. Bowing to the inevitable, I dutifully checked in yesterday. However, that didn’t go quite as planned. I’m flying United. I generally take United since they offer many destinations out of Newark, and who wants to cross Manhattan to get to JFK or Laguardia? I’ve actually become rather fond of United’s snack boxes. Since I’m so 1990s, I decided to check in on their website. Two or three pages in, they stopped me and suggested I should use my cell phone. This is much preferred, I’m told. Well, I do have a cell phone, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to access it in the UK. Still, this is the way things are done these days. I had United’s app on my phone from a previous flight, so I happily typed in my confirmation number, to fly the friendly skies. Since this is an international flight, I have to scan in my passport. That’s a bit worrisome, but the app says to do it and who can argue with an app? Click. My passport is being encrypted and verified. I’m free to go. Then the message pops up. I can’t check in.

I’m old enough to know how to use a landline. I called United. The agent was very friendly, just like the skies, but clearly couldn’t comprehend the complexity of my issue. One, I couldn’t check in. Two, my passport had been sent to somebody, but who was it? United? Some foreign government? James Bond? I didn’t mean to make the guy nervous, but this is my passport we’re talking about! He said he would transfer me to tech support. The call was transferred. The cheery female robot asked me if I wanted a $100 Wal-Mart card. I should press one. I don’t support Wal-Mart so I didn’t press one. She cheerfully insisted. I resisted. She came back on and said that I could press any button for a Wal-Mart card. When I didn’t comply, she hung up on me. I called United again.

This time the agent assured me I would have a human response at tech support. I heard the two tones connecting me with a guy who sounded surprised to hear a voice from the outside world. It was like he was speaking from a dank basement somewhere. He had no idea where my passport scan went either. He suggested deleting the app and then downloading it again. Start the process over. Reboot, as it were. I know the reboot drill, but I was worried about my passport scan. Where had it gone? If his solution worked, at least one problem would be solved. I could check in and reserve my place on the flight (ironically, buying a ticket isn’t enough to do that). I confirmed the instructions with my light-deprived docent. I asked, in parting, what I should do about my missing passport scan. His advice was the very image of an ouroboros. “You might try calling customer service,” he said. I don’t like flying.

Flight of Fancy

I’m about fully recovered from my recent visit to Texas. Travel is perhaps the greatest form of education. After having my regular government pat-down, and hearing the airport loudspeakers warning me not even to joke with a TSA official, I was in a subdued mood as I awaited my flight. Airlines have learned to fine-tune human vanity. I know they are hurting for money, as many deregulated industries are, and there must be a marketing trick to get people to pay different prices for the arriving at the same destination at the same time. One of the most ridiculous is that of United Airlines’ Priority Access. Don’t get me wrong, I like United Airlines well enough. Their service has generally been on time, and they make being a human sardine as comfortable as possible. Some of the in-flight snacks, if you can afford them, are actually pretty tasty. But first you have to get onto the plane.

Of course, active duty military are free to board at any time. Tree-hugging pacifists, wait your turn. The part that really gets to me is that those held in special esteem by the Airline (i.e., those who can afford to pay more) are invited to board via the “Priority Access Lane.” This “lane” is created by laying a ratty carpet on the left side (or right side, for some gates) of an imaginary line composed of a couple of those retractable belt stanchions. To the left, sheep. To the right, goats. (Or vice-versa. We’re pretty hard to tell apart.) I’ve written about this before, but what caught my attention this time around was that a seeing-eye dog was boarded along with his human, via the “Priority Access Lane.” As I watched my canine brother sauntering towards the jetway, I was lost in thought. Not one sparrow falls to the ground. The privileged are boarding with a dog.

On my return trip home, at the ironically named George Bush International Airport, every few minutes a public announcement was broadcast about the interfaith chapel. Passengers were told that it was available 24 hours a day, and were given its precise location. Over the past couple of years I’ve had to fly a lot. I always notice the airport chapels, and I feel for those who are anxious about flying. I’ve never heard such a p-a announcement encouraging use of these chapels before. Perhaps I’m too fixated on how I never get to walk down the “Priority Access Lane.” I know my place; I was born among the working class, and when the plane goes down, I’ll be among my own kind. But I do feel sorry for the dog. He has no choice but to be classed with those who are, in the airline’s opinion, of higher priority than the common citizen. Next time I think I’ll just wait in the chapel, contemplating how god spelled backward is dog.

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