Unfriendly Skies

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In the latest episode of Sky Wars, an American Airlines flight attendant got belligerent with the mother of a toddler, wresting a stroller away from the woman and hitting her child in the process. This incident follows on the heels of the disgraceful United Airlines debacle, wherein a paying customer was seriously injured while being dragged off a plane. These days, the fear of a terrorist commandeering an aircraft has been dwarfed by  fear of the very airline employees who are supposed to keep us safe.

To be fair, being a flight attendant has become one of the less glamorous jobs in the world. In ever more cramped quarters, these airline personnel are expected to see to the needs of about 200 travelers, all the while making sure everyone is safe. And in fact, most altercations on airplanes are between passengers, not between customers and crew. So add to the flight attendant job description the need to be airplane referee, cabin librarian shushing loud passengers, and ersatz bartender cutting off belligerent drunks.

Air travel used to be a glamorous luxury. Passengers would be treated to full meals served by smartly dressed flight attendants in roomy airplane cabins. Travelers never felt the need to board a plane with more than a briefcase or handbag in tow. Unfortunately, this more civilized travel experience was costly, and few normal people could afford to fly.

As airlines stepped up the competition, ticket prices came down and inconveniences went up. Many of the formerly complimentary perks of flying have been removed. Now most airlines charge for checked bags and in-flight entertainment, for instance. And meal service for anyone not traveling in first class is nonexistent. Meanwhile, in desperate measures to cut costs, airlines keep squeezing in more seats, leaving less aisle space and leg room for already disgruntled passengers.

All of this is a recipe for disaster. With more passengers per square inch and everyone dragging aboard roller bags to avoid baggage fees, the potential for conflict and flight attendant fatigue has gone way up. On a recent flight, I witnessed a passenger holding up the boarding process for a good 20 minutes as he stood in the aisle trying to find space in the overhead bins for his oversized bag – all the while manhandling other passengers’ luggage and generally causing a ruckus. The Southwest flight attendants deserve awards for patience in dealing with this guy in a courteous and helpful manner.

The other reason for short tempers on the part of passengers is that, prior to boarding,  they have just suffered the hassle and indignity of having themselves and their possessions searched by TSA agents in this post-9/11 world. I myself have had my hands test positive for gun or explosives residue and been physically searched and manhandled at security. Whenever my husband gets a pat down, the TSA agent asks him if there are any sensitive parts on his body. He always answers, “Just my genitals.” The agent never finds that amusing.

The litany of travel woes in the world of flying is long: endless lines at security, tiny and cramped airplane cabins, overbooking situations, passengers eating smelly foods brought from home, minuscule airplane bathrooms that smell like the sewage plant, all manner of animals on board, babies crying, passengers watching shows on their laptops at deafening volumes, surly airline personnel.

Still, a method of transportation that can get an American from one coast to the other in less than 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at. It sure beats a tedious train trip or crowded bus ride – or a cross country family car trip with incessant potty stops and whining, “Are we there yet?”

Proportional Response

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a41f726b05591a56da4d18Politicians on both sides of the aisle are praising President Trump’s decision to bomb an airfield in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons against his own people. The air strike is being called a “proportional response” to the egregious attack on the part of the Assad regime. If anything, it’s significantly less heinous than the wholesale massacre of innocent civilians using a slow and painful method of murder.

While I’m not sure I join the pundits in praising this recent U.S. military action, it has gotten me to thinking about the idea of proportional response. This idea goes back to Biblical times, wherein Jewish law specified the so-called “eye for an eye” administration of justice. What many people don’t realize is that this law was not meant to incite violence but rather to contain it. Therefore, if someone took an eye from you, you were allowed only to go so far as to take an eye from him, not to kill him or his whole family.

In recent history, America has seen a decrease in tolerance for proportional response. Take, for instance, the recent assault on an innocent United Airlines passenger who refused to give up his paid for seat on a flight. Instead of trying to coax the man off the plane, flight attendants called the police to board the plane and forcibly remove him. He was yanked out of his seat, made bloody as his face was banged against the handset, and literally dragged on the floor out of the plane. The entire incident was caught, of course, on cell phone video and has been broadcast all over television and the internet. One would think United – and those officers – would know better.

Yet even with the installation of body cameras on police officers, incidences of  police abuse seem to be increasing. Routine traffic stops and minor infractions, such as illegally selling cigarettes on the street, are met with disproportional and sometimes deadly force. Why?

Certainly there has been a racial component to many instances of police overkill (literally, in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times). But whether dealing with individual suspects, performing house raids in the war on drugs, or even responding to street protests, the police have become increasingly militarized – using armored vehicles, assault weapons and grenades, and often going in guns blazing to deal with ordinary criminals. For instance, a Georgia toddler was severely injured by a flash grenade in a raid on the home of a suspected drug dealer.

The war on drugs itself has been responsible for mass incarceration and the creation of career criminals who, due to Draconian “three strikes “laws, are spending most of their natural lives in prison for minor drug infractions. Meanwhile, we are witnessing an epidemic of people addicted to opioids prescribed by their own doctors. Yet Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown indications that he wants to ramp up the “war on drugs” that has done so little to reduce crime, addiction, or the proliferation of weapons in our country.

I certainly believe in the right of law enforcement officers to defend themselves from armed criminals and to use SWAT teams in very dangerous, high risk situations. But the normalization of these military tactics and responses is a danger to innocent people who may be swept up in a raid or peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment right to assembly. More importantly, I believe that violence begets violence, whether we are dealing with military conflicts around the world or our own citizens here at home.

Our government, our laws, our military, and our law enforcement agencies should keep in mind the concept of proportional response in dealing with transgressions. They should seek to de-escalate conflict wherever possible. Such policies would increase respect for the men and women entrusted with keeping the peace and keeping us safe.

 

 

 

 

The Invisible Mom

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In the 1980s television series thirtysomething, the character Elliot Weston complains to his best friend and business partner Michael Steadman that they have become “invisible to teenage girls.” That remark really resonated with me as a new mother whose body was now a soft and nurturing landing place for my infant daughter instead of a curvy and sexy one men might find attractive.

That feeling of invisibility has changed over the years as my children have grown and I have experienced a different way of being invisible to teenagers. As a mom, I’m sort of like Mt. Everest – never-changing, solid, and just there. Immersed in their world of Snap Chat and Instagram, my kids seldom really notice me, except when they’re hungry or need money.

I’ve felt that same sense of invisibility in the hallways of the local high school. On the few occasions when I have been there during the school day, I will be walking down the hall and hear all kinds of profanity being shouted between teens who are blissfully unaware of the middle-aged woman in knee-length skirt and sensible shoes. It’s a bit jarring to hear, as is the sight of boys and girls canoodling in corners. This is their world, and I am just a vapor floating through it.

Still, there are some benefits to being invisible to teens. As frequent chauffeur for my kids and their friends, I have the ability to be a fly on the wall, listening to their teasing, gossip, and teenage patois, all while being perfectly unseen. The only way to break that spell of invisibility in the car is to interject my own comments, so I have learned to be the silent specter getting a glimpse into the teenage world.

On my recent visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, puppeteers did a skit depicting the story of a man gifted with a cloak of invisibility. Thus clad, the man was able to escape Death, who roamed the Earth ceaselessly in search of souls. Harry Potter himself uses the cloak to defeat the powers of evil represented by Lord Voldemort.

Invisibility can be both blessing and curse. It can hurt to be ignored by others because everyone wants to feel important, to feel recognized. I sometimes get annoyed or hurt by my kids’ seeming indifference. But invisibility can also be a gift, wherein one can be a spectator in life, observing, noticing, and learning.

I’m keeping my invisibility cloak handy for that next chance to gain insight into the world of my teens and their friends. Who knows what fascinations I may find?

No News Is Good News

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My daughter is on spring break this week, so we are enjoying the beautiful weather in sunny Florida. Yesterday, we spent the entire day at a theme park, away from real life and immersed in the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and King Kong. So it was jarring to come back to the condo and hear the news emanating from our television set.

When I am away, especially in a relaxing place like Florida, I forget about the outside world. The daily newspaper doesn’t arrive here, and I’m not in my regular routine. Instead, I am slathering myself with sunscreen and hitting the beach or pool with a water bottle and a good book. It’s a great, albeit temporary, existence.

My husband the news junkie never likes to be far away from the world’s events, so I make a conscious effort to avoid the TV and tune out the radio in order to take a break from the news. As much as I care about what is happening in my country and in the world, I sometimes need to get away from the constant strife that is the bread and butter of journalism. After all, I’m not the president, so I don’t need to deal directly with any major crisis that might occur.

Taking a break from ordinary life is restorative. Here I don’t have my mountains of paperwork, house to manage, school schedule to monitor. Relationship drama and family squabbles seem very far away. My biggest decision is what to choose from the restaurant menu. I am separated from home by a time zone, but more importantly, from a mental and emotional zone that, short of a life-threatening crisis, I can choose to ignore for a little while.

Still, there’s no place like home. After a week of lounging in la la land, I will start missing my bed, my neighborhood, my friends, the routine that grounds me, the news that sparks ideas for my writing. But for now, no news is the best news of all.

 

The Spectacular Now

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Chicago’s Art Institute recently announced that it will soon be displaying the world-famous painting known as Whistler’s Mother. The portrait, known as the “Victorian Mona Lisa,” features the simple composition of an older woman sitting in profile and looking ahead. While most portraits depict an individual head on, Whistler’s painting almost looks as if he were catching a glimpse of his mother in repose.

What strikes me when I gaze at Whistler’s Mother is her absolute stillness. While most mothers are busy doing, this portrait seems to capture a woman simply being.

In our modern age, it is a radical move to practice simply being. While life can only be lived in the present, human beings persist in either dwelling on the past or looking to the future. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it,

The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

Pascal’s statement reminds me of playing pretend with my siblings when I was young. One of our favorite games was called “Journey,” in which we pretended to be pioneers getting ready for a journey out West. But our play consisted entirely of preparation: collecting our stores, readying the wagon etc. We seldom, if ever, got started on our journey.

I am particularly prone to this future-leaning tendency. My mind is always scanning the horizon for what comes next. I need to plan. What items does my daughter need for school? What holiday do I need to prepare for? What am I serving for dinner? I make notes and lists for myself. Obviously, some planning is necessary. We can’t simply hurtle from one moment to the next without being aware of our schedules. But we tend to be so fixated on the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.

My family drives through Michigan on a regular basis to visit relatives in Detroit. Our goal is always to get there as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have often fantasized about getting in the car with my children and starting the drive, but instead of high-tailing it to the Motor City, we would stop whenever and wherever we wanted to. A detour to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or a winery or the now-closed Kellogg’s Company attraction, Cereal City: we would take our time and just enjoy being together.

What is more likely to happen nowadays on a trip with my children is that they will be submerged in their music and their smart phones, barely glancing up to notice natural scenery or the skyline of a new city. Last fall we brought my youngest with us to visit her brother in college out in California. We tried interesting her in the look and feel of the campus, but she was 2,000 miles away, communing with her friends back home.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have diversions, especially for young children on a long car trip. But I feel we have lost something in the process: an appreciation of the here and now. For my part, I would like to practice the stillness and “being-ness” of Whistler’s Mother. Perhaps her age-old wisdom would help me dwell in the spectacular now.

Do-Si-Don’t

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This morning my daughter informed me that her PE class was beginning a square dancing unit. Her comment brought back unwanted memories of dizzying circles, do-si-dos, and high school boys’ sweaty palms.

It has always amazed me that square dancing is a requirement in many high schools’ PE curricula. Why do we force boys and girls to learn an outdated and decidedly countrified dance form in the midst of suburbia? The answer can be traced back to Henry Ford, who thought that teaching square dancing in schools would help children learn social politeness and cooperation, as well as keep alive a cherished American custom.

Many state legislatures have passed resolutions naming square dancing the official state dance. So generations of American children have been forced to listen to recordings of a square dancing caller shouting out commands: “Swing your partner! Do-si-do! Allemande left!” I recall that when I was in high school, it was all we could do to stop laughing hysterically and actually follow the prompts.

Square and social dancing were the bane of my existence in high school PE. And that’s saying something, coming from a completely non-athletic and largely uncoordinated person. As a naturally shy girl, I was intimidated by having to hold hands with boys in gym class. Even more uncomfortable was the ballroom dancing segment, during which boys and girls were alternately expected to cross the gym floor and ask someone to dance. I’m not sure which was worse: standing on the sidelines waiting to be asked to dance or having to traipse across the room and ask a boy to dance.

Ballroom dance, at least, has some practical application later in life. At the very least, the mothers and fathers of the bride and groom at a wedding will want to be passable at slow dancing. I actually enjoyed my ballroom dancing course in college. I lucked into partnering with the best dancer in the class, so we consistently received high grades – until he asked me out and, when I refused, stopped seeking me out as a dance partner in class.

I’m all for offering interesting alternatives to dodge ball in high school PE. However, I fail to see the benefit of teaching our youth square dancing. I hope my daughter’s square dancing unit will be mercifully short so that she can move on to more interesting  topics. Zumba, anyone?

Facebook Fast

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As the penitential season of Lent begins, I as usual will give up my beloved sweets of all kinds: coffeecake, cookies, chocolate etc. But I have also decided to follow the lead of some of my friends and abstain from spending time on Facebook.

Facebook has been a blessing and a curse in my life. It has been great to reconnect with old friends, see photos of their families, and even get into some pretty serious conversations. I have learned so much more about many people I know than I ever would have in casual conversation at the supermarket or on the soccer sidelines.

But Facebook has had some drawbacks, and I feel the need to take a break from it. One of the most obvious drawbacks is how much time it can suck out of your day. There are many days when I spend little time on it, but others when I check it compulsively several times a day, adding up to hours spent on the social media platform.

There is apparently some evidence that spending time on Facebook can lead to depression. This does not surprise me. The reason given for this phenomenon is that it can be depressing to compare your life to all the wonderful things your friends are doing, what they are wearing, how cute their children are and the like. None of this particularly bothers me. I am not that competitive with others when it comes to social standing, looks, or just how much fun someone else seems to be having.

What I find depressing on Facebook is mostly the political divide that has become all too evident since the presidential election campaign began in earnest back in 2015. It is discouraging to see so much animosity on both sides and to realize that no matter how many meaty articles one posts or how well-considered one’s argument is, our friends on the other side of that divide are unlikely to come around to our way of thinking. Even the sheer exposure of current events that I see in my news feed every day, with or without commentary, can really get me down.

So I will be spending 40 days in the internet desert. I will still be posting on my blog, which automatically loads to Facebook. But I myself will not be scrolling along to see what’s up in cyber world. It is my hope that this Facebook fast will give me renewed energy, more time, and the chance to focus on my spiritual life, which is the purpose of Lent.