Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Surprise

I hate surprises. That probably comes from many years as a high school principal. In that job, uneventful is good; surprise is bad. Better to have things rock along in that steady albeit predictable way, than to face what a pack of teenagers can conjure up for a thrill. One too many “senior pranks” put me over the edge.

Certainly there are good surprises: No lines at Costco. Toll booths out of order – free bridge crossing. A scratcher that pays something, anything. Those I can adjust to. I will routinely welcome the surprise of good manners or generosity when they surface in the public arena. But I confess to being a slow adapter to even a mildly unpleasant, unexpected change of plans.

Thanksgiving this year, for example, had an element of surprise for the Plath family. The hosts - the ones who always host; the ones who take the biggest burden year-after-year; the ones who cook the turkey and prepare their house for the invasion of the running kids, the elderly, the gen-xers and the boomers; the ones to whom the rest of us carry a dish, (I’m hors d’oeuvres); had an illness preventing them, at the last minute, from hosting.

Thank goodness it’s not a life-threatening illness, but nevertheless a significant one that puts you down and off your l-tryptophan. The announcement came abruptly, nearly 9pm Tuesday night. They couldn’t have company, and wouldn’t be cooking for anyone.

So the calls began to circulate among the rest of us, the dependent ones. What, oh what, will we do?

I guess I could have simplified things by going to the logical conclusion first: We will host. We’ll scramble to pull the house together. We’ll go back out into the bustling world (curmudgeon hell) and collect all the things that go with hors d’oeuvres to create an actual holiday meal for the people we love. We will make the best of an unfortunate situation so that family is together and tradition is upheld.

But I didn’t do that, even though I knew it would be the eventual outcome. I didn’t cut to the chase, even though I’ll claim in other scenarios to be a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. No, I participated in a series of tentative, circular, jaw-clenching (for me) conversations in which family members who honestly cannot host waited for me to man up.

Do I sound cranky? Why does this make me so cranky? Because I was in my groove, that’s why. Please, just don’t upset my groove. I was planning to do all that, happily, with joyful anticipation, really, for Christmas. But Now? Without time for psych? On the spur of this moment? NOW?!

All right, all right. I’ll do it. Of course. They all knew I would.

And as you’ve no doubt predicted, we had a lovely time. All parties pulled together to make simple what can be complicated by a non-changer like me. To my wonderment, they all seemed to take it in stride.

The meal was surpassingly good, each one bringing her best to the table. His best too – one brother-in-law brought warm fresh-baked bread, his claim to fame. My husband added his signature appetizers, grilled duck breast sliced onto Triscuits, with cheddar and plum jam…yummy! The unplanned and unexpected combination of tastes and textures made all the more pleasing when it worked in short order. This could be how it’s actually supposed to go.

That’s the way it was with the Pilgrims and the Indians, right? On that first Thanksgiving Day, no one in this group had any idea what the other group might bring to the table. They each had to suspend instinct, call on good breeding, and taste things they didn’t recognize. And that turned out better than OK.

(I know, I know. It’s a myth. Another startling revelation I’ve had to incorporate. But I’m not giving up on the concept of diverse parties breaking bread and making peace. Why should I?)

The Plath Clan returned to a forgotten practice of once around the table, saying aloud what we’re thankful for. Corny, but I recommend it. I’m thankful to have married into such a lovely, patient, adaptable, and accommodating bunch of Republicans. They’re really quite nice.

Can an Oklahoma girl learn to embrace the unexpected? We’ll see. In the meanwhile, I wish you and yours sweet surprises and the happiest of holidays.

Oh, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Your Junk is Fair Game; Mine is Sacred

I remember when “Don’t touch my junk!” was a normal, wholesome part of an argument between siblings over whose toys belonged to whom. Now, as with “thong,” and “dope,” and “the bomb,” the meaning of “junk” has been hijacked by a generation touchier and less gentile than any before it.

You probably saw the news blurb this week in which a sensitive, or not so sensitive, young software engineer, John Tyner, refused the newest airport security clearance invention, the electronic full body scan. He then went on to refuse the more personal version, the full body pat down, saying he’d have the Transportation Safety Administration employee arrested if that employee made contact with Mr. Tyner’s “junk.”

Not permitted to board his flight, soon Mr. Tyner was escorted out of the San Diego airport and put in line for civil charges and fines up to $10,000. Seems once you start the security clearance process, you must complete it, one way or the other.

We are all now faced with a new reality that seems unlikely to go away, even in the face of threatened lawsuits and loosely organized “opt out” protests. Someone somewhere, perhaps the Campaign for Liberty, is encouraging travelers to opt out of the electronic scanner security check during Thanksgiving week travel. The idea being to demonstrate their protest against the revealing scan, choosing the pat down instead, and slowing the security check process for themselves and everyone else headed for cranberries and pumpkin pie.

I don’t think it’s going to work, because while the act of looking under our clothing for an instant is invasive and unnerving, my money says more folks will still choose this touch-free and therefore oddly impersonal search over the extremely personal alternative, a full body “pat down.” From all descriptors and videos available, the “pat down” might more appropriately be named a full body “feel up.”

My husband and I had the electronic treatment recently at Tulsa International Airport. The process encompassed an awkward moment pausing for the camera as it were, hands over head, a futile wish that I’d lost the weight already, and a minor wash of relief as we reclaimed our possessions, slipped into our shoes, cleared the area, and headed to our flight. I resisted the urge to look back over my shoulder.

I’m glad to know the person operating the machine and the one who sees the image are nowhere near each other. Also, the one looking at the screen cannot see the person screened, only her whole life reduced to a glimpse of what might be a Safeway chicken strung up by the wings. I’m glad to know they don’t store the images---not enough room in the freezer, I guess

If we engage our intellect, there’s no denying these machines add another layer of safety to airline travel. These new full body scanners can detect objects made from a range of materials concealed underneath travelers’ clothes, including liquid and plastic explosives. The old metal detectors can’t do that. The “underwear bomber” got through the metal detectors. He wouldn’t have cleared the new scanners or the alternative same-sex, person-to-person hands-on search.

In our experience in Tulsa, I felt confident the process was professional. Still, software exists that does not produce a real body image, but only a stick figure. Let’s do that. I expect even John Tyner would not object to a stick figure on the screen representing his naked self. If the TSA can get the same critical information without exposing all my reasons for basic black and vertical stripes, why not do it that way? Have a heart.

And have a brain. Some of the scanners use x-rays and others use millimeter wave technology (the electromagnetic waves that power cell phones and microwave ovens). So use the safer electromagnetic waves. Software exists to ensure that images are not copied or retrieved; that unauthorized access is prevented; and that any image analyzed by a human reviewer is kept 100% anonymous. Do all that. In every airport, in every security check.

And before you rest, find a way to deal with infants and small children and our grandmas and grandpas without humiliating them.

We all want to be safe and safer when we fly. For this, we have given up, and will give up even more of our comfort to get it. But you gotta respect our junk.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Crocodile Tears in the House of Representatives: Or, There's No Crying in Politics

So John Boehner has a soft heart…

The “Weeper of the House,” it turns out, is known for being “touched by a moment, a speech, or a comment, whether it’s from a constituent or a fellow member of Congress.”

And there’s sure plenty for him to cry about these days what with the Tea Party splitting the Republican vote in a couple of key races, and the Senate still in the hands of the Democrats.

I saw Boehner struggling to contain his emotions when he took the podium election night after he learned he would be the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. His memories of his personal history overwhelmed him in the moment of stepping from humble beginnings into such a high-profile and powerful position. So he cried.

Thank God. I’m not the only one who cries all the time. I can definitely share a moment with our new Speaker. I’ve been choking up over everything from the commonplace to the obscure for decades. It’s not the most desirable public image, but if like Mr. Boehner and me, you’ve got the Curse of the Cry, there’s not much to do about it.

Wait. I saw some advice on the Today Show recently giving a new strategy to help a person avoid crying when s/he doesn’t want to. It was in a segment including how to relieve the hiccups, to put it into perspective.

Anyway the new strategy is, when you think you might break down into tears and you don’t want to, since you’re at the podium in a televised national news conference, you should clear your throat and then swallow.

The thinking is that this gives your muscles and reflexes a chance to reset. And it gives you and Moses something besides “Oh no! Here comes the flood!” to think about.

I tried it the other day while watching the first episode of National Geographic’s “Great Migrations.” There are some heart-wrenching scenes in that spectacular footage. The one that got me was when the wildebeests crossed that same darn river at the same darn place where they cross every year. Why do they keep going back there? The crocodiles go there every year too. Duh! You’d think the gnus would at least go upstream a ways, ‘cause those crocs are ENORMOUS. They can practically swallow a little gnu in one nightmarish gulp.

That’s exactly what was happening, actually. This horrifically huge crocodile caught a young wildebeest by the lower half. The baby called out to its mother watching helplessly onshore, and I started to…but wait, let me just clear my throat. Ahem. And now I’ll swallow. Very gentile, I found. And…It worked! I was momentarily removed from the emotion. It is a video, after all.

But since I sat safe at home in my recliner, next to my husband who I must note was not unmoved by the drama, rather than in the glare of a Washington press conference, I still let a tear fall for that animal and its mother. They are so stupid it’s infuriating. And – you’ve heard it before – for some of us, when we’re mad, we cry. Infuriating in itself.

And what’s so bad about crying anyway? So what if we show that we’re touched, or moved, or saddened? Those of us with the Crying Curse are certainly free of ulcers. The rest of you strong hold-it-in types think you’re so smart. What? There’s no crying in politics?

In the coming months John Boehner will likely find himself in multiple situations where he’ll want to cry, particularly if he pursues the same “Party of No” strategy the Republicans have taken up since 2008. That pesky Democratically-controlled Senate will no doubt frustrate him. The President’s veto pen may have him reliving his childhood struggles once more. That’s when the tears are likely to flow.

So it’s important to note, Mr. Boehner, that crying will not prove an effective strategy for getting Senators to change their votes. Nor will pouting or shouting. My advice? A respectful approach coupled with good faith negotiation can be disarming even among the most ravenous crocodiles with whom you’re swimming.

Set name calling and tattling aside. Bring straight talk and genuine collaboration to the forefront. There’s your formula for a tear-free two years.

Then of course, you get the group hug.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mid-Term Elections: Oh Well...

The cat stood on the keyboard and inadvertently expressed my opinion about our election results.

What hurts most? In our little town it could be the loss on Measure C, a modest request for school funding. Having spent 30 years in education washing cars and icing cupcakes to raise funds, I feel the pain of those still in it. It’s quite demoralizing when a community backs away from its schools.

I know, I know, I know. The economy. And of course, each voter has a personal reason for saying yes or no. It’s just that when you’re on the front lines, slogging through the mandates and the muck, when so much depends on what a school does for its students and its town, when so many people seem to be standing on the periphery watching, clicking their tongues and shaking their heads, but not offering $5.00 a month to help…it’s hard to take.

Of course that required 2/3 majority made a heavy anchor, too. But my not-too-scientific calculation says that in our little town, only 306 more affirmative votes could have carried the day. Who stayed home, darn it! Students and teachers in every town and district need help.

Maybe we should consider a measure for Benicia similar to statewide Proposition 25, lowering the required majority to a simple 50%+1. I notice some other cities require a 55% majority to pass certain types of fund raisers. Sixty-two percent of Benicia voters approved Measure C – but it wasn’t enough. How is it that 38% of the voters get to tell 62% of the voters how it will be?

Proposition 21’s failure is deflating, as well. Funding for State Parks and Wildlife Programs at a buck fifty per month was just too much. No matter all the analysis or rationalization I employ, this decision eludes me. Perhaps if the measure is re-written asking for only $10 per vehicle registration, it would carry. Maybe the DMV could put a voluntary donation option on the registration renewal form, similar to the option to donate to the Presidential election campaign on our federal tax forms. More people might be encouraged to give something to our parks and wildlife, the essence of beauty and well-being in our state.

Oh, good news in the election? Sure! Proposition 25 passed! Perhaps we will have a state budget complete and on time since the legislators’ paychecks now depend on it. I heard a concern that they might pass a hurried and therefore flawed budget under these circumstances. That could be true. But we will only notice that it’s on time. The flaws we’re already used to.

With the passage of Proposition 20, we took redistricting out of the chicken house, so the foxes will have to find more legitimate means of bolstering their election results. That’s good.

On a national front, no witches will have a seat in Congress. That can only be a good thing, though sometimes an incantation might still be in order.

The President got a message he seemed to need to hear. I hope he makes the most of it. I hope his opponents don’t get caught up in gloating, or make his mistake of forcing legislation just because they can. It’s such poor form and so far off point.

Any more good news? Sure! The San Francisco Giants won the World Series of Baseball! They did it on a budget of $98million dollars, about $40million less than a certain unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.

Through 160 torturous regular season games, and a jubilant post season with sports heroes and characters aplenty, they prevailed. Whenever I grew weary of political rhetoric, and dubious of the candidates’ claims, all I had to do was tune into Tim Lincecum v. Chris Lee, or Edgar Renteria at bat, or OOOO-ribe, or Posey behind the plate.

It gives you hope. If that ragtag bunch of talented individuals could come together as a team, setting their egos aside to reach such a pinnacle, maybe our elected officials could do the same.

The Giants gutted it out through a gauntlet rivaling any political minefield or caucus, and emerged victorious, not just for themselves. Okay, maybe they did it for themselves, but their victory elevated us too.

Politicians could take a lesson. They could focus on our common goals, put their heads down, sacrifice for the team, and make something really big happen for our state and our country. Go Democracy! Go Giants!