Friday, September 30, 2016

A Reprieve in Geneve

I spent most of last week in Geneva.  I’d gone to visit WIPO.  This is a pretty big deal, visiting WIPO.  As a Midwestern city girl, WIPO is much like Harvard or New York, one of the places on tv that doesn’t really exist in real life.  But it does, and like Harvard and New York, now I’ve seen it.

My three favorite things about Geneva were the roads, the silence, and the shutters.  The cheese definitely deserves an honorable mention.  And I mean the cheese at the grocery store, the big blocks of hefty, strong Swiss-made cheeses, and maybe a few of the soft French cheeses.  I could easily get by on meals of bread and a bit of cheese.  The cheese was priced about the same as American brands of cheese back in DC, so it was still a bit of a splurge.  (In DC, these are usually from Pennsylvania and Vermont and occasionally from Wisconsin.)  But of course, these types of cheeses would be imported back home and thus far more expensive.  My big find for the cheese was a tube of mustard that went splendidly with the Emmantaler and with fresh rolls and baquettes.  I wasn’t completely sure it was mustard, but “moustarde” and “Dijon” both sounded like mustard-y words to me, so I took my chances.  Boy was that a good gamble; it was so delicious!  Cleared the sinuses and woke you up really good too, perfect for a bright breakfast.

The skyline in Geneva is an odd mix of glassy new, blocky mid-century and quintessentially Swiss.  The different styles nearly all had some type of exterior window covering.  Some had awnings that could be dropped down, others had horizontal blinds that rolled down.  A few had metal doors similar to the ones on mass storage units in the U.S.  But my favorite were the shutters.  Real shutters that opened and closed instead of being silly ornaments stuck to the sides of windows for which they are clearly far too small.  I loved to walk down the streets and look at all the variety of shutter positions, latched open against the building, shut tight, flung open and hanging ajar high above the bustling roads.  Someday, I would like a home with shutters.

The streets were narrow and made of all sorts of different materials, sometimes pavement, sometimes brick, sometimes cobblestone.  I struggled to tell street from sidewalk from bike lane from tram line.  At first, this made me very nervous as I had no idea if I was supposed to be where I was in any given spot.  But then I realized, everyone was okay pretty much everywhere.  People were sharing the space, paying attention, deferring to others as needed.  Everyone seemed to acknowledge that others needed to use the same space.  It was so much nicer than the I-have-a-right-to-be-exactly-where-I-am-wherever-that-is-all-the-time mentality from back home.  Much less ground was needed to accommodate the movement of massive numbers of people.  And with narrower streets, it felt less like one was traversing a big city or long distances; it was easier to walk a mile surrounded by buildings and activity than across stretches of pavement and parking lots.

And with sharing the space and moving all those people came an immeasurably pleasant silence.  Oh, there was talking and laughter and engine rumbles and tram dings and the noise of a city, but there was no incessant automated yelling like one must endure on a daily basis back home.  No “STEP AWAY FROM THE DOORS!  THE DOORS ARE CLOSING!”  No “THE FARE FOR THIS BUS IS ONE DOLLAR AND SEVENTY-FIVE CENTS!”  No “THE WALK SIGN IS ON TO CROSS!  THE WALK SIGN IS ON TO CROSS!”  Even at the grocery store automated check-outs, no “UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA!  UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA!”  No glaring signs screaming at you to don’t do this or not do that, to stay away, to go this way and to not go that.  No we-must-put-warning-labels-on-everything-or-someone-will-sue-us-signs.  It was so nice.  So refreshing.  So amazing to be in a place where people were left to get by on their common sense; and you know what, they did ok.  Don’t want to get hit by a tram?  Move when the tram is coming.  People open the tram, bus and train doors themselves by pushing a button.  If the door is closing, push the button and it will open again.  And the people are so polite.  Not in the Southern or Midwestern smiling and speaking nicely polite.  In a very matter-of-fact way that said “I acknowledge your existence and your need to get where you’re going, too.”  And that was that.  It was so very pleasant.  I want to live in a world like that all the time.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

These are a Few of My Favorite Seats

Southwest heartMy favorite seats on the airplane are the front row.  As part of the insiders club (see prior post) of people who fly Southwest so much they know how to work the system, I’ve developed a strategy that gets me one of those seats about 90% of the time I fly.  Sharing that strategy puts it a bit at risk as it may increase intelligent competition for my desired seats, but I’ll do it anyway.  After all, there’s plenty of flights I’m not on, and it could help people on those, too.

The short version is: pack light and be nimble.  When you get on the plane, you have to act quickly and get out of the aisle.

As I said, I like the front row.  In order of preference, 1A, 1F, 1C, 1D, 1B, 1E---window on the left, window on the right, aisle on the left, aisle on the right, middles.  These seats are desired because they have tons of legroom, but they have downsides that temper this.  A lot of people don’t realize the  downsides until they try to take the seat.  If someone is attempting to go for one of my favs, I wait patiently until they are situated.  There’s a decent chance they will give up and move.

After a few flights, you start to see what prevents people from being able to sit in the front row. 

1) They don’t want to forgo a tray table.  I don’t mind this and I consider that I will not have a table when choosing what I want to do on the plane (knit, read, write, etc.). 

2) Their rollerbag does not fit in the smaller front bins.  I don’t carry-on a rollerbag.

3) They have too much luggage.  They may not have a rollerbag, but they have one small item and one larger item.  Both have to go up in the front row, but they often can’t find space for the larger bag.  If I do not check my luggage, I carry two small bags---my purse and a bag the size of my purse---that can both easily be tucked into small spaces left in the overhead bin.

4) They haven’t figured out what they want to use on the plane and aren’t ready to store both their bags, so they give up and go for a seat with under-the-seat-in-front-of-you accessible-during-flight storage space.  I choose what I want to do on the flight before boarding and keep that one item in my hands when boarding.

5) The aisle or window is more important to them than the row.  I’d rather have the middle in the front row than a window or aisle elsewhere.  Because middle seats are generally less desirable but are fairly high up on my list of preferences, I can often get a front row seat even if I’m boarding at the end of the A’s.

I make some decisions before getting to the airport, primarily whether I will check a bag or not.  This depends mostly on the speed of baggage claim at my destination and whether I will be leaving the secure area on a layover.  (I love layovers in Kansas City; hi, Alfred!)  I know that baggage claims at OAK and DCA take ages but that it’s relatively quick at MKE and MCI.  If I’m flying into MKE or MCI, I may check a bag so I only have my purse to carry on.  If my trip will involve flights into OAK or DCA, I try to avoid checking luggage. 

I also have backup seats in mind in case the front row is full.  I consider the likelihood of needing to go to these at two points, when I get my boarding position the night before and when everyone lines up for boarding.  Having to go to backups depends partly on my boarding number but also on where the plane has come from (likelihood of large number of through passengers), number of preboarders and their ailments---preboarders are likely to take the front row, especially if they have leg injuries or canes.---, the number of Business Select passengers (boarding spot 18 can actually be boarding spot 3 if there are no Business Select), and the amount of rollerbags in front of me, which as discussed above generally disqualifies people from the front row.  I know that a flight out of MKE is very unlikely to have many Business Select passengers unless it’s going to LAS; every flight to Vegas seems to have lots of Business Select people, as if they’re saying “hey, I’m already throwing away a ton of money on this trip, let’s go big all the way!”

Considering all these things, I pack for the goal of the front row based on my calculated likelihood of getting it.  If I’m in the B group on a flight with a layover or stop in Vegas, I’m going to pack for not getting the front row and probably just pass it up even if it is available.  But B group and flights going through Vegas are rather rare for me, so I’m in pretty good shape for getting a nice front row seat where I can stretch my legs.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Democracy of Southwest Air

southwest seats (3)

When Mr. Trizzle dragged me on my first Southwest flight, I hated it. I didn’t understand the system, it made me feel like a cow being led to slaughter, I panicked about what seat I would get. I hated it. Over the past nearly-decade, I’ve come to love Southwest. (Now I have all those feelings, including the cow bit, on other airlines.) I’ve also realized something about Southwest. Southwest is the quintessential representation of how a democratic society actually works in practice.

Theoretically, every passenger on a Southwest flight is equal. Every chair is the same, every section of the plane receives the same service. Everyone has an equal opportunity to obtain the spot that is best for them. No seats are assigned; everyone is free to take any seat once they board. You board in the order of check-in. Check-in opens to everyone at the same time. Anyone can have any seat. Theoretically.

Whether you can get your ideal seat depends on a number of factors, the two most important being how many other people are vying for that same seat (competition) and your spot in line (your starting point in the community).

Spots in line, starting positions in the society, are determined by check-in. Everyone can check-in for the flight beginning 24 hours before departure. The sooner you check-in, the closer to the front of the line you are. Everyone has an equal shot. Except they don’t.

Within that theoretical equal playing field of checkin, there are a number of factors that give people advantages. At the most basic level, those with the free time and the best support networks have the best shot at a good starting position. checking in right at the 24-hour mark. These are the folks who can make themselves free in a location with internet access on a computer or phone exactly 24 hours before their flight or who can call on a friend or relative to be so. Those who do not have easy internet access or who do not have the flexibility in their schedules or people available to help them out are at a disadvantage. I.e. there are certain basics the society takes as a given and those who do not have those basics start off a bit behind.

Then there are groups with actual advantages, those who get better starting positions because they have something beyond the norm. Some of these advantages are obvious, some less so. First, there are those with money, those who can buy their way to the top, whose money gets them special privileges and access to places ahead of others. These are the Business Select customers who pay a premium up to 3x the regular fare for the first 15 spots in line. They also get a bonus of special treatment in the form of a free alcoholic beverage.

There’s also the slightly lower-class-trying-to-be-rich folks who don’t fork out the full amount for a Business Select ticket but can pay a small premium for the airline to check them in before people can start checking themselves in. These are the folks who purchase Early Bird Checkin.

These moneyed privileges are well-known. The privileges and how the privileges are obtained are obvious. Theoretically, anyone can join these groups. Everyone is offered a Business Select ticket; everyone is offered Early Bird Checkin. Just as anyone can buy a ticket to that fundraising dinner or purchase that season ticket next to the big-wig they want to meet. What matters is not that the privilege is offered, what matters is that the conditions on which is offered make it accessible only to some.

But there are additional ways to obtain advantages, privileged groups that are less apparent. These are the insiders.

First are the folks who have earned special treatment, the equivalent of folks with connections. These are those who have achieved A-List status (this is where I am now and holy cow is it fabulous!). In some ways, this is purchased because it requires earning a lot of points, which means buying a lot of plane tickets, but it is not an extra cost beyond the plane tickets. A-List members are checked-in automatically without purchasing either the very pricey Business Select or the premium Early Bird Checkin. In fact, they are checked in before the Early Birds, getting the best non-Business Select spots possible. (And I imagine this connection gets even greater when you obtain A+ status and certainly when you earn the companion pass that allows someone to fly free with you on every trip.) These people are so connected to the system, by virtue of their flying with Southwest so often, that the system works for them.

Second are the folks who know the system so well they know how to work within it so that it works for them without outright privileges being given. These are the folks who move through the relevant parts of society so frequently, who fly Southwest so often, they have learned the tricks to getting their ideal outcome. They know their routes. They know the planes; they know what’s likely to benefit them. I have been in this group for a long time, but I will save my strategy for a later post.

Lastly, there are the protected classes. Those who might otherwise be run-down by the masses if the system did not offer them special protections. On Southwest, these are the Preboarders: the elderly, handicap and young children travelling alone who board the plane before everyone else. At first glance, they may seem privileged, but being a protected class comes at a cost. There are seats in which they are not allowed to sit, there are places within the system they cannot go, and they must wait for assistance from the system before they can do anything, before they can board or deplane.

Southwest’s egalitarian boarding system puts everyone on equal footing, except for those that have the money, connections or insider information to give themselves a better chance of getting what they want. In this case, it’s just a seat on an airplane. In society, it’s quite a bit more.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fighting Racism

The other week, I wound up in two separate altercations with angry black women.  The problem is, I saw them as angry black women.

They were being stubborn, and as I saw it, incredibly illogical.*  There are three things that get me super upset, illogicalness, inefficiency and being called a liar.  These two were pushing the first two buttons.  They yelled and swore at me.  Somehow, I managed to stay polite and not do either of those things back (which for anyone who knows me is a big deal and a long-fought-for small achievement).  But even though I was somewhat proud of myself for staying relatively calm, there was this nagging extra anger. 

When I was upset, agitated, riled up, my mind immediately went to racial stereotypes.   The fact that I did that made me even more upset.  At them.   At the women for perpetuating the stereotype.  I was like, here they are, making things worse for… fill in any of the black females in my life.  I was mad at them for being black and angry when I needed to be angry at myself for attributing anything about the situation to their blackness, for thinking of them as angry black women instead of just upset people.

When I was in the middle of trying to deal with these ladies on the street, I started analyzing their behavior, “maybe they are being extra stubborn because I’m white and doing what I ‘want’ would be submitting to the man.”  But maybe they weren’t.  Whether they were or not is on them, not me.  Their projection of race into the confrontation would be on them, but my projection of race into the confrontation is on me.  And I put it there, and then blamed them for my putting it there.

I feel like I start to understand people who join white supremacist groups.  It’s not that their beliefs are correct, far from it.  It’s that it is easier to hate.  It is easier to hate and be around people who justify that hate instead of challenging it.  It is easier to hate than to forgive yourself for being unable to love.

All of us need to battle racism everyday.  The majority of us---and we are still the majority in this country despite whatever Trump may claim---the majority of us have to battle it in ourselves first.

*One was refusing to take the right-away she legally had; the other was trying to take a right-away she logistically did not have.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Bees

People run and laugh and play.  Me, I watch the bees. 

They lounge in chairs, drowsy with the mid-day sun or enveloped in books.  Me, I watch the bees. 

They swing paddles, bob whiffle balls high over the nets.  They soak in the cool energy of the icy, still pool.  Me, I watch the bees.

Tiny yellow flowers dot the expansive dip in the lawn.  A long inverse ridge running just below the sloping rise of the main hill.  Barely noticeable save for something for the mover to run over, to cut down, to sever flower head from flower stem.  Yellow petals from blades of grass. Does anyone notice the flowers?  See how they’re only in the dip?

Is there something special about this low point?  Does the rain gathering here provide extra water?  Do the sloped sides add needed shade?  Or is it just that the lawnmower isn’t equipped to handle subtle changes in terrain and the blades rotate above the flowers but do not catch them, none but the tallest, the proudest cut down, the smallest left to flourish?  Do we see what we do not look for?

The bees scuttle from flower to flower, spending no more than a second on each blossom.  A schmorgasboard of delight, bright, beautiful dinner. Do mid-day flowers need a name?

Chubby bodies, all five tiny petals disappear below as the bees drink up the inside nectar.  How many?  Two?  Four?  Seven?  There’s another, and another---or is that the same one?  They move so quickly, flitting from plate to plate, it’s hard to tell.

The people grow louder, the day taking off, the pool tranquility replaced with splashing, the din of conversation echoing until it dissipates in the pure blue sky.  The bees, the bees go on eating.  And me, I watch the bees.