Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stop the plane, I want to get off

They call you a "distressed traveler" when an airline cancels your flight and puts you up at an hotel. I was in deep distress when I woke up earlier this week at 7 a.m. in an Atlanta airport hotel, almost three hours after I had requested a 4:10 a.m. wake-up call that I didn't receive. The predawn wake up was necessary for me to make a 6 a.m. flight on which I had been rescheduled the midnight before, after my 9:15 p.m. flight out of Atlanta's large (and not particularly well-signed) Hartsfield Airport had been cancelled. The flight was cancelled because the airplane door wouldn't seal shut, which the crew didn't notice till we had taxied down a runway. I got home the next day after another reschedule and an hour's weather delay.

Think about air travel today: large groups of people are herded on and off airplanes that don't leave or arrive on time, afford precious little seat space, and can experience mechanical malfunctions. That's just the plane. Before you get into your cramped seat (where you will have time to sit and pray to the weather gods), you stand in a long line to check in at Generic Airport, or a short line to get rid of your bag (will you be using a credit card to pay for that?), or you shlep through the airport with a carry-on that you hope will fit in the overhead luggage bin and that contains -- properly packed -- the quart-size bag of creams and liquids (remember: 3-1-1!) that you need to remove from your bag for security scanning. Now comes the fun part: will you be having the body-scan or grope? You've got time in the security line to contemplate the prospect, while you take off your shoes. For this, we can thank the handful of wacky homicidal terrorists who changed the rules for us millions who are trying to peacefully get from point A to point B.

Even apart from weather delays, air travel is always a perfect storm of contingent things that have to go right in a coordinated way. Weather and machinery must behave; it is definitely preferable to fly on a plane on which all parts are in working order. People on the plane must behave, too, even if airlines can no longer afford to feed them, a quaint amenity that left the too-large terminal a while ago.

The ifs and inconveniences of air travel exact a price beyond the cost of the ticket. Minutes on the tarmac or in the terminal feel a lot longer than 60 seconds. We're all in this together; millions of people fly each week and routinely experience delay or cancellation by the planeload -- I was one of 50 people on my aborted flight. There's no point in complaining about the weather, nor any point in complaining about wacky homicidal terrorists. Complaining loudly seems to be working with TSA about its new grope-search. But there's no getting out of a security search; it's just a matter of degree.

For me, the air travel honeymoon is over, and I want a divorce. I do love having a bird's eye view of neat green fields, orange city lights at night, and astonishingly tall mountains. But I hate airports. I hate long lines, overpriced coffee and cocktails, tight seating, and waiting, waiting, waiting, inevitable lateness even if I get to the airport early. It's lost time and a lost cause. I give up.

I will be taking the train. I already have a few times this year. At least I know it will be late and I can plan accordingly. I won't get a bird's eye view, but I can see my country, up closer. I get space and time to work. No one will frisk me. Train food will never make the Michelin guide, but it ain't peanuts. I want the right scale of things, and I don't want to be subject to the whims of weather and terrorists with a box cutter to grind. I am bailing out of air travel and hopping on board the train.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Give her a gold watch already

Oprah begins year 25 -- the farewell season -- with not a lot of celebrities, which is appealing, and a trip to Australia for her diehard fans. As we say in Chicago, ubi meam (where's mine)? Seriously, folks, not a lot of people do the same job for 25 years and manage to keep their interest and their edge. Check out the Oprahification machine ; I can't bear to post my result. Some things really are better if private. So I'll stick with my book jacket.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eid mubarak

Submitted to the local paper:

I’ve been really troubled by the eruption of hostility toward Muslims in America that has been touched off by the proposal to build a house of worship and community center near Ground Zero in New York. I have a number of friends who are Muslim, and from them I’ve learned a lot about the world’s second largest religion, and also about the world. I’ve learned a lot about the value of regular prayer. I’ve learned a lot about charity, which is one of the duties of Islam. I’ve learned a lot about discipline. It takes discipline to fast for 30 days during the daytime, not even drinking water. I had the great good fortune to be introduced to the religion by a woman, an accomplished professional. I don’t think Islam teaches that women are subordinate any more than Christianity does. Cultures may get that wrong; cultures also get wrong the Christian teaching of nonviolence with distressing regularity.

Apart from whether there are rights or sensitivities at issue with respect to building the Cordoba Center, I see this matter mostly as unneighborly. Muslims aren’t them, folks - - they’re us, if “us” means Americans, neighbors, and local residents. Thousands of Muslims live in the western suburbs; I’ve eaten gracious Ramadan iftars – meals to break the fast – with some of them. I wish them all a happy Eid, the celebration that marks the close of Ramadan.

I work as a book reviewer and recently received a beautiful new edition of the Koran from the publisher Oxford University Press. To stand with, and better understand, my Muslim friends and neighbors, I’ll be reading my Koran on Sept. 11, not burning it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why it's hard to climb Mt. Whitney

We weren't surprised that there was snow on this 14,496-foot mountain in early June, but there's snow and then there's rotten snow. Rotten snow is the kind you sink into because it's soft and melting. That makes for slow going, what with stepping carefully and poking with your walking stick to see if the snow will hold your weight. And of course it also makes it harder to see the trail. This part of California got lots of snow this past winter, so there was more to contend with, and more to melt, swell creeks, and refreeze at night. We had to think a few minutes to plot a path across a creek just 20 minutes up the path: the water was stunningly clear, cold, and rushing downhill in a hurry.
Another factor is sheer height. As mountain trails go, this one is not forbiddingly steep, merely long; it becomes more doable under better conditions. We backpacked for five hours up to Outpost Camp, the lower campground (10,300 feet), where we had a tent back-window view of a snow-fed waterfall. The deciding factor, however, was that one of us got sick. When that happens in the wilderness, there's no running to the urgent care clinic. The first rule of safe mountaineering is know your limits, and there they were. Most people we encountered on the trail did not make the summit; most of them also looked to be in their 20s, with really strong legs. In a spirit of prudence and disappointment, we turned back. (The picture is a placeholder till I load ours.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The gospel according to Desmond Tutu

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Nobel Peace Prize winner Tutu. We talked about peace and reconciliation somewhat indirectly, as the subject was Tutu's forthcoming Children of God Storybook Bible, which will feature his favorite Bible stories and center on themes of reconciliation and forgiveness. But peace was certainly in the room. He has an infectious laugh and lots of personal warmth. I had read his brand new Made for Goodness, which answers the good question, " 'How do you keep your faith in people when you see so much injustice, oppression, and cruelty?' " The answer in the book takes more than 200 pages, so here is a summary that uses the bits I couldn't stick in the Bible story.
He said: "This is a moral universe. This is a universe where right and wrong do matter. When you look at the evidence of history, (Stalin, Hitler, and their ilk) end up being part of the flotsam and jetsam. At home in the darkest hours, that what's we used to say: 'the apartheid government has already lost. ' It's not just whistling in the dark. There is a heck of a lot of evil around. Where the heck is God in all of this? Yes, God is there. ... Yes, people are good and in the end that good will remain."
After spending only a brief time in his presence, I felt deeply encouraged. As much as his joy, his hope -- he doesn't consider himself an optimist, but does have hope -- is contagious.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Wee things

The temperature has gone beyond 80 degrees F in our cold frame and spinach, lettuce, and radish have all shown themselves, though not their true green leaves as yet. Word picture: spinach is skinny-leafed, radish is round-leafed, lettuce is little-leafed. What the camera sees -- they're the green things.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Imagine that

As a book reviewer and journalist who covers publishing, I sometimes think that everybody should read the same book I am, or, horrors, no one is going to be reading any books in the near future because they're all playing with their smart phones. Then I go to a Reading by a Famous Author -- Neil Gaiman as part of Naperville Reads -- and am seated in an auditorium with a thousand other people who like this author, and am enthralled to hear him read and it's all good. They sure sold a lot of books, too.
Gaiman reads his own work exceptionally well (OK, the English accent helps, but maybe he'll pick up a little ya-dere, hey-dere from living near Minneapolis) and is exceptionally able to write across media (scripts, prose, graphic novels) and audiences; he writes for kids and adults. In this day and age of narrowcasting to specific groups, he's broader than many and way more imaginative than most. Maybe the energy of his young fans was contagious, but imagination has energy too. A lot of us still and always love stories, never mind the form.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lettuce pray

The Nelson garden got a jump on the season with a new cold frame on our south-facing second-floor deck. Bill made the box out of lots of leftover materials, including leftover insulation. We started lettuce, spinach, and radishes and installed a thermometer (the one new item) to keep track of the temperature inside the frame. It snowed last night over the frame, and the temp went down to 40 degrees inside. No one is awake yet.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sto lat Irena Sendler

Sto lat is the song/greeting with which Polish people are feted on their birthdays or name days (the latter being more important). It means "may you live 100 years," and today would have been the 100th birthday of Irena Sendler, who was 98 when she died in 2008. Irena is a personal hero of mine; she was a social worker who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII and worked with the underground organization Zegota until she was arrested in 1943 and tortured, but she managed to escape execution. She was recognized as a righteous person by Yad Vashem in 1965 and lived in relatively obscurity until she was "discovered" by Kansas students doing a history project. Sto lat, sto lat, niec zyje zyje nam.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Eat food. Mostly plants.

Wish I had said that, but Michael Pollan, who was on Oprah today, got there first. I'm amazed at how rapidly and thoroughly food production has changed. I live near the line between urban and rural. When I was a local news reporter, it always amazed me to hear about city kids coming to a local dairy farm to find out where milk came from. They didn't know. The store, right? I lived through this once already, going back to the garden in the '60s, before highly processed food was king and when Wonder Bread was just that -- a labor-saving wonder. Is cheap food all that cheap if it's making us fat and chronically ill? I'm up for a change, starting in my own back yard. The next revolution will be in the garden.

Monday, January 25, 2010

RIP Union maid Stella Nowicki

I attended a memorial service for Vicky Starr, a union organizer in the 1930s on Chicago's South Side, mother of my husband's very good friend, and a subject (she's Stella Nowicki, her "underground" name) of the Academy Award-nominated 1976 documentary Union Maids. Time passes, and that's history. In attendance, all these white-haired folks, singing the chorus of Union Maid by Woody Guthrie (as sung by Pete Seeger). These used to be dangerous Commie agitators; now they've got white hair and walkers and have outlived chief FBI paranoid J. Edgar Hoover and are a little forgetful of who is listening to their stories. We listeners forget that cops shot union organizers; we forget a whole lot. Union Maids is a great little slice of history, showing how history is made: somebody decides to do something, and that somebody is not a hero, just a mom of someone you know. Vicky did her job with dignity. Amen and thanks.

Monday, January 04, 2010

What I'm reading

The Zookeeper's Wife. Diane Ackerman.

If Hitler had a hierarchy of hate, Poles were somewhat better off than Jews, but not by many rungs. Ackerman's book is a truly fresh perspective on the Holocaust, from inside Warsaw (85 percent destroyed in WWII) and from the viewpoint of Antonina Zabinski, wife of Jan, keeper of the Warsaw Zoo. Animal life took a beating along with everything else in the war -- the zoo was bombed during the 1939 invasion. In a beautiful twist, the mostly empty zoo became a place of shelter for 300 Polish Jews during the war years. The Holocaust and WWII are so overwhelmingly evil and destructive that I am compelled to understand the resistance to Nazis. It is documented at Auschwitz, and documented here; at the Zabinski home, Jews lived in hiding alongside Jan (who worked with armed Resistance forces), Antonina, their little boy Rys, a chicken, a hamster, a badger, a muskrat, a rabbit (those were among the various house pets.) A wide circle of species, interconnected, learning survival.