Airlines, TV World Dominance, and Benches

The Good

1. Cathay-Pacific Airlines – Wow. That’s all I can say. This was my first time aboard a plane which had nifty little video screens in the back of each seat, and a handset which allowed you to access any of about 70 movies. It makes the flight ten times nicer. I mean, can you imagine the freedom of being able to choose a movie that doesn’t suck vs. one that, well, does? I mean, I’m grateful for any in-flight entertainment, but being able to choose between something fun and, say, the live-action Looney Tunes flick? Worth every dime. Oh, the service was great, too.

2. Chinese stoicism – You’ve got to hand it to the Chinese sometimes. They can’t drive, customer service on the mainland is still at a level just one step removed from the Spanish Inquisition (What a show!), and the pollution right now is absolutely beyond the pale, but when it comes to dealing with frustrating situations, nobody tops them. The first part of my epic trip was in the Tianjin airport. Due to a Saturday night snow, and due also to the fact that salting down the runways apparently never occurred to anyone on the grounds crew, every flight was delayed seven hours. That’s right: seven hours in the very small Tianjin airport. Still, after each successive announcement of delays, the general response among the people was something like this: “Crap! Oh, well.” Even the angry mob that gathered around the service desk yelled itself out in about thirty minutes and proceeded to just crack jokes with the service people they’d been yelling at. The general attitude, and one which I never seem able to attain, is that when you can’t actually do anything about something, why even worry about it? Just break open the sunflower seeds and playing cards and have some fun. You have to respect that.

3. Spacious airplane terminals with benches – After missing my first flight from Hong Kong, I had to wait another 4 hours for another. I caught that flight and arrived in L.A. at 7:45 p.m., three hours later than the last flight to El Paso for the day. So I dragged my stuff back over to the international terminal. I debated food options for a while, and encountered the same resistance as always to prices. I mean, it could very well be that the airport Mexican restaurant made a mean chile relleno, but I’m not about to pay $15 to find out. I thought about eating at MacDonald’s, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think I could have gotten the same value by ripping a few handfuls of seat padding from the nearby benches and eating that. In the end I settled for a smorgasboard of other items. In such situations I tend to combine things that are good for me and things that just taste good, so my last meal of the day consisted of two Cliff bars, two bags of Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream potato chips, and a big bottle of water. Later on in the evening I also spent $4.99 on a box of truffles which were on sale because they’d been crushed by something heavy. I’m all about health food. Anyway, I managed to find a nice, long bench to sprawl out on, which is just perfect if you have to sleep overnight in an airport. I mean, really, as long as you’ve got a flat surface and something to pad it with (jackets, sweaters, and whatnot), what’s to distinguish an airport bench from a proper bed? Aside from the walking wounded, too slow to grab a bench, who pass your crumpled sleeping arrangements from time to time with the haunted, crushed look of refugees, thus making the entire tableau look like a Depression-era hobo encampment.

4. Actually getting onto standby flights – The “nice” lady at the Southwest counter in L.A. who informed me that the last flight for El Paso had left for the day proceeded to book me on the next available flight, but I had to go standby. Due to the increased travel volume, I had visions of me spending the next day in LAX, perhaps even the next several years, thereby compelling me to grow a long beard and wander with a hunched, sinister limp through the construction corridors of the airport. I would knit tasteful sweaters in shades of coral blue during my off hours. Trust me, if you’ve been on the go long enough, weirder things than that occur to you. Anyway, I had a nice sob story cued up and ready for the people at my departure gate, but without even asking questions they just took my standby ticket and gave me a seat assignment. The people in Phoenix did the same thing. As a result, I got home in only 32 hours. Or something. With the time difference I’m not even sure. It could be 2012.

5. Stille Nacht – My sister Karen volunteered to sing “Silent Night” in German (the language it was composed in) at my parents’ church on Christmas Eve. I got back in time to work up an accompaniment on guitar, and so for the first time ever my sister and I got to perform something together, and on Christmas Eve no less! No matter how much of a grinch I become (and more than five minutes’ exposure to the American commercial Christmas machine would sour Santa Claus himself), I still love the Christmas Eve service, especially the candles and the singing of “Silent Night.” It’s always wonderful.

The Bad

1. Holiday travel – I was told by the “nice” lady at the Southwest counter to come back the next morning by at least 4:30 if I wanted to make sure I made my 6:00 a.m. flight. I showed up at 4:20 a.m. expecting to just shoot right on through the checkout procedure. Ahem. Unfortunately, upon arrival there were already about 400 people in line. Seriously, the line went out the door. They got things moving along all right, but after twenty minutes or so, an airport security person noticed an unattended black backpack sitting against a wall. He asked in a loud voice if it belonged to anyone. No one claimed it, so he called his supervisor. His supervisor showed up and asked the same thing. Then he shouted louder and said this: “Look, if this is your bag you need to claim it, otherwise I’m going to have to clear the terminal.” Have you ever been in a crowd of several hundred people who all had the exact same thought? As soon as we were told we might all have to clear the building because of a black bag, everyone had the same thought about our helpful security personnel: “You might get the building clear, but you won’t get it done and still make it out alive.” Eventually, after another five minutes or so, a guy finally ran in from stage left to claim his bag. It was a pilot. I’ll repeat that. It was a pilot. Again, the same thought from the entire crowd: “If this guy comes five minutes later to claim his bag, he doesn’t make it to the parking lot.” (We were a violent bunch that morning. Crack-of-dawn holiday travel will do that to people.) Seriously, a pilot? I think there should be a law which says when a professional in a given field does something incredibly stupid within that field, all those who suffer from it should get some kind of appropriate reward, like free airline tickets.

2. Ghastly toys – Actually, although this is technically bad, it’s also incredibly funny. When I was wandering around the Hong Kong airport, I came across a toy store which had a Batman display. For those who haven’t already seen The Dark Knight, it’s a pretty incredible movie, but Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is about as toy-ready as The Donner Party. And yet there he was in all his tiny plastic glory. And in an absolutely wonderful twist, the display next to The Joker was. . .Elmo. For the needs of manic-depressive kids everywhere: a psychotic killer toy, and a plush puppet. I love it.

3. TV – Gick. How many reality shows can they possibly make? How many different kinds of people can they put in front of a camera? Dwarf families? Check! Women shopping for wedding dresses? Check! People trying to talk to dead relatives? Check! I think the final stage one day will be when they begin marketing special cameras for your TV so that you can watch yourself doing things. The last word in reality TV: your own reality.

I won’t get started on sitcoms.

4. Weather during the last 24 hours – When I got to El Paso it was about 65 degrees, with lows somewhere in the 50’s. Wow. I went for a run in shorts and a tee shirt. Wow. Still, the natives were commenting on how chilly it was. I was loving it. And then yesterday a front blew in, dropped the temperature into the 30’s, and dumped a thin layer of sleet on us. I was hanging out with my sister and some of her friends, and the native El Paso-ans grew very excited because they thought it was snowing. I assured them it wasn’t, but they didn’t listen to me. Anyway, it was really cold. Personally, I think it’s much worse when you’ve got mostly warm weather and have a few freezing cold days because you’re just not ready for them. When it’s cold all the time you just get used to it. When that front blew into Tianjin on Saturday night and the temperature plummeted, I went up to give my Russian neighbor Svetlana a Christmas gift I’d bought for her, and she had a window open. Because it’s just that cold in her hometown.

5. Forgetting Stuff – I’ve been on a roll recently. Starting with my time in the Tianjin airport, here’s my record: I forgot my keys in the security checkpoint (had to go back for them), paid for and subsequently forgot just-bought purchases on not one but two occasions (salespeople had to call me back), left my sunglasses at the check-out counter, probably lost another pair of sunglasses (the search is ongoing), and many others, but I can’t remember them exactly. You can add that to the list, too.

The Assorted (Not as dramatic as The Ugly, but I couldn’t think of anything)

1. Learning about other people’s travel habits – I promised I wouldn’t make them sound ridiculous, and I won’t, but I still have to mention it. I hung out at my friends Jenn, Molly, and D.B.’s place the night before they left, and listened with a mixture of amusement and befuddlement to their packing process. When I pack, I tend to just cram things into my suitcase, and whatever doesn’t fit gets left behind. I’m only strategic about my books. But apparently not everyone does that. I was especially amused by the consideration of travel attire. Molly assured me that they treated you better if you dressed nicer, though I’m skeptical. And for the record, I wore something a little nicer on the trip home this time (largely because my khakis are really comfortable and also because I didn’t feel like cramming anything else into my suitcase), and wound up sleeping on benches in two different airports. Class doesn’t matter too much when you’re crashed out on a pile of your own clothes. After that kind of treatment, even George Clooney would arrive at his gate looking like Oliver Twist. Anyway, there was some debate in the girls’ house about whether or not this sweater went with this, or whether this went with that, or whether one particular shirt, which was apparently a hideously faded blue (I wouldn’t know; I unwisely commented that it was vaguely “blueberry” in color, thereby subjecting me to ridicule because it definitely wasn’t blueberry; it just struck me that way at the time), should be thrown out altogether. It was an ongoing discussion, and the matter of which coat to bring back reached levels of sophisticated reasoning not seen since the dialogues of Plato. I guess I’m just a Philistine. My big travel hope was that my wool sweater wouldn’t make me itchy. (It didn’t.)

2. Food – My family and I went through this year’s dessert supply, which was scattered throughout the house on platters, like an avenging flame. What with gifts from relatives, things my mom made, and things we bought, things around here have been like an imperial banquet. And I haven’t even made the rounds of the Mexican restaurants here yet (although I certainly have eaten Mexican food since I got back). Life is good.

Merry Christmas to all of you! That is, if you made it this far in the E-mail. I hope you’re all having a good holiday.

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