Sunday, March 5, 2017

Nowhere to go and all day to get there

Just boarded the airport train at Lindbergh Center, starting my day's trip to Munich, the first of 2 Munich trips I'll do before Friday. Tethered in the wheelchair "stall" at the front of my car is a grocery shopping cart containing the worldly belongings of a fellow train-rider. I cast a glance at the 7 or 8 other riders in my car wondering, "Whose is it?"  The answer is not obvious; I can't even hazard a guess at first look. 

How different that person's reality is from mine, by what means?  Birth?  Choices?  Fate?  Some combination of those things and others?  The circumstances that guide his/her priorities and decisions are so different from mine. How could I begin to understand them?

Yet we are absolutely equal in all things that matter. Neither has any more or less value than the other. 

So far, we've traveled as far south as Peachtree Center and the cart remains unmoved and unclaimed. It will likely reach the southern terminus of the line and turn around north, whence it came, destination-less. 

No where to go and all day to get there:  I have met my antithesis.

As I exited the train, I realized that the cart remained tethered in place, as did one fellow train rider. He was a noble, yet somehow defiant-looking gentleman of about my age, I'd guess.

Our eyes met as I neared the door. I smiled. He raised his chin in a very dignified way and pretended not to notice."



Sunday, February 19, 2017

So...there was this OTHER guy...

on the same flight home from Sao Paulo the other night!  He was young, probably early to mid-20s, travelling with his family, maybe 6-8 total.  This young man was the polar opposite of our "E+ guy".  He didn't just look in your direction when you addressed him (which in itself is a rarity for those of his age these days).  He looked to make eye contact with you.   Every time!

Once contact was made, his face morphed into a radiant smile.  My immediate reaction, 21st century cynic that I am was, "What is THAT for?"

Life has placed challenge in this young man's path.  I learned quickly that he must be congenitally deaf.  When asked about his dinner choice, his reply was LOUD and had the characteristic atonality of someone who had never heard or who had never heard well, "Whuh?".  His head turned slightly and I saw that he had cochlear implants with hearing aids.  I looked him straight on and repeated the choice.  He beamed as he said, "bee".

His family didn't speak English, so he proceeded to help them make a decision about dinner, loudly and, astoundingly proudly.  He seemed so proud to be able to help them.  It took some time, but I pretended not to understand their "frango" or "carne" so that he could relay, "chi'en" or "bee".

He must have been paying attention to my interaction with "E+ guy" because when I rose from my break, he was settling his family members into the remaining open seats in D zone, making them all more comfortable.  His appearance was striking.  He looked like a character from Harry Potter: over his cothes he wore a long trenchcoat-looking thing made of something like black satin.  It was very "wizardly" looking.

Just after the pre-arrival breakfast, he came to the aft galley to ask for more Customs forms, in English, "Coul' I ha' mo' fo'ms peaz?"

In all those interactions, one thing was constant:  that smile.  "What is THAT for?", I remembered thinking.

I have a pretty good idea what the smile is for.  And I don't think it's any coincidence that my Harry Potter Wizard was onboard the same flight as my E+ guy.

At 56 years old, I pretty much don't believe in "coincidences" any more.


So...there was this guy...

last night on our way home from São Paulo, an older gentleman, I'd say late 60s, who stopped me on a post-service cabin pass to inquire about changing seats.  He was 3-4 rows aft of the Economy Plus (E+) section and wanted to move forward into an empty E+ seat to stretch out (only a fraction of our 200 seats was occupied).

I pointed out the E+ labels overhead and said if you move to a row that doesn't have that label, there is no additional charge but we do charge extra for E+ seats.

"You mean you'd rather let that seat go empty than make a paying customer more comfortable?"

"That's not what I mean at all.  There is an entire cabin behind your seatrow that is wide open.  You can move to any of those seats at no charge.  But "my airline-employer" does charge for the extra legroom seats."

"F-ing friendly skies.  Thanks for nothing, "airline-employer name"."

There's a point where I disengage from uncivil behavior.  He had reached that point.

I went to the aft galley to pickup my handheld device and returned maybe 15 minutes later, allowing him the opportunity to mull.

"Hi. Earlier I offered you a solution that you didn't seem to like.  (Showing him the E+ $219 charge screen on my LINK)  I didn't want to leave you with the wrong impression.

My airline-employer expects me collect for onboard services that have a charge.  I'm an employee.  That's one of my responsibilities.  I did attempt to offer you a no-charge alternative.  If you truly just want room to stretch out, we have plenty.  Come with me and I'll show you.  But I can't give away our products that we charge for."

He harumphed but followed me into D zone where we found 6 rows of 2 seats open and 3 rows of 3 seats, both of which would solve his problem.

"You're welcome to take any of these seats with no charge."

Grudgingly he said, "Thank you."

"You're welcome.  May I ask you a question?  When we first spoke, I offered this solution and you made a remark that was unnecessary and vulgar.  So, I walked away.  I'm curious...has that sort of thing ever worked for you in the past?  It certainly took away any incentive I had to help you."

No response other than a grunt.  I wished him a good rest and exited the situation.  Next thing I knew, he was stretched across 3 seats in the last row, snoring.

We didn't have any other interaction and I'm comfortable with that.  I wanted to leave him in his misery after our first exchange.  My bottom line for going back was I only control me, not him.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Gambler

What was I thinking?   How could I elect to roll the dice on one of the most notoriously busy, frantic airline travel days of the year, of any year?  

Ever since mid-month, when I realized that I had bid a schedule with a trip departing on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my palms have been sweaty.  I've been more than a little on edge.  For weeks, I've been checking the "loads" (projected boardings) on my airline-employer's flights from ATLANTA to Houston today, as well as those of our principle competitor.  The numbers were close from the start but no closer than those of any typical Sunday in September, say. 

Though my Amsterdam trip doesn't depart from Texas until late afternoon, I had already decided to start my journey early, lest unforeseen adverse weather conditions or some other similarly unpredictable phenomenon develop somewhere in our route system and snowball, impacting the keystone of the South.  My ace in the hole is a vacation pass (greatly enhances my standby boarding priority) which, combined with my 32-year seniority, should yield a seat regardless of the strategies of more junior standbys.  But my gamble was to NOT sacrifice the rare and precious vacation pass, but rather to save it for an actual vacation, since it's my last one of the lot whose validity runs only through the end of this year.  30 days or so, sure, but one never knows.

My target:  an 8:25am departure showing 3 seats available, only.  Using a vacation pass, I was #1...as sure a thing as one can be when traveling standby.  My plan to save the vacation pass and use a pass at my normal, personal priority placed me well down on the list, behind those much more junior but who had chosen to make the sacrifice that I calculatedly eschewed.  The result was that I slid to #7 on the standby list...with 3 seats available.

The airplane was a few minutes tardy arriving from its previous assignment but boarding started reasonably soon, anyway.  The 2 agents working the departure wasted no time in clearing the 3 standbys whose priority put them into the 3 open seats.  I am now #4.  Experience tells me that the more quickly they complete normal boarding, the more accurately they will be able to determine who of the revenue passengers has no-showed the flight and to release those seats for standby use.

I noticed a rather robust-looking gentleman (the robustness resulting from gym time) laggardly approach the gate with 2 boarding passes.  He attempted to swipe both, though he appeared to be traveling alone.  After a bit of confusion, he explained that the second pass was for a colleague who would not be traveling.  He swiped it because he wanted the seat next to him to be vacant.  (Little explanation as to why was necessary.  His shoulders were as broad as 1 1/2 economy seats.). When the agent explained that the flight couldn't be reconciled properly following his plan, that the vacant seat would be filled, the man's color (on every visible skin surface) reddened and he became clearly unhappy.  His eyes bulged and blood vessels pulsed quite notably (his thinly-veiled rage possibly resulting from another catalyst of his robustness). 

After some discussion, he calmed, conceded that he would not be riding solo today, and walked quietly to the boarding door.  The agents made a final call, including the names of specific parties who hadn't yet boarded.  Once the paged individuals reported for departure or their unoccupied seats were otherwise assigned, the last remaining seat was released for standby use.

"REECE!", they called.  "Mr. Reece, you'll take the last open seat:  16D."

After dropping my rolling bag at the end of the jetway, I entered the cabin and began to search for an overhead spot for my tote.  As I came nearer and nearer to row 16, one fact was inescapable, The Hulk was sitting in 16C.  Actually, the lion's share of him was in 16C but big chunks were hanging out into the aisle and a size able portion covered roughly half of 16D, leaving only a small sliver of the seat back visible.

That small sliver was my ride to Texas.

My expectations of the welcome I'd receive were a bit worse than the reality of it.  He was clearly unhappy to see me coming but not too demonstrative of his unhappiness.  For about an hour and a half, I've been turned sort of sideways in my seat, the right portion of my back and shoulder against the fuselage while his bulk rises and falls in childlike slumber, caressing my left side.  Up and down, up and down, sometimes quickening sometimes slowing, the pace and pattern evidence of a rather large life.  The sensation is like having one's side caressed by a rising, falling slab of tattooed concrete.

We've finally begun our descent for arrival.  I've needed to use the onboard convenience for a while, alas. There's a stirring on my left.  A hamhock of an arm reaches up to adjust the air vent, forearm poised squarely in my line of sight, as though I'm not here, all 215 lbs of me.  Then it falls again into place, occupying a good 30% of the space where the left side of my body should be.  Back to the rhythm of a gargantuan life:  up and down, up and down.

The houses are getting bigger. My bladder us getting fuller.  But it's almost over.

I rolled the dice and I won.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Adjectives and Adverbs

"What is a good book to read?"

I boarded the rush-hour train north at Airport Station on a chilly afternoon before Thanksgiving and took the first forward-facing seat near the door.  At Garnett, I think it was, a man about my age breezed on and took the seat perpendicular to mine, facing inward.  He was dressed much more appropriately for the cold than I:  a toboggan, hoodie sweatshirt, tradesman's pants (I assumed "a painter", for some reason) and comfortable-looking, well-worn shoes.  He had the newspaper in his hand, opened to the crossword.  So I assumed that he was looking for an appropriate word when he asked the question:

"What is a good book to read?"

"How many letters?  Have you tried 'novel'?", I asked.

At first he appeared confused, then glanced down at the paper, "Oh, no.  I was just curious about what you'd been reading lately.  You look like someone who reads."

"Well, I seem to read a lot of James Patterson novels.  Do you know them?"


"Yes, I do.  They're an 'easy read'; detective stories and such.  Which do you prefer:  the Women's Murder Club series or the Alex Cross series?"

"One reason I like them so much is that they require very little of the reader.  They're easy to put down and pick back up again.  Plus, you develop a relationship with the principle characters across the series that helps move from one book to the next."

"You know, I read that Patterson only made $95 million last year.  I guess he's a little off his game."

"Maybe we should start a GoFundMe benefit for him!", I said in reply.

After exchanging trivia and speculation about James Patteron's finances and those of his many co-authors, my new friend asked, "But what kind of books do you REALLY like?  Patterson is more a pastime than a devotion."  (Interestingly, that was my thought exactly.)

"Well, to be honest, I've always been a huge fan of Fitzgerald, though he's a subject I haven't thought of or discussed in a while.  His romantic style is sort of out of favor these days."

His eyes lit at the mention of Fitzgerald's name.  "The only one of his books I've ever read is GATSBY.  But I loved it so much that I read it over and over again.  Isn't it interesting how tragic Fitzgerald's life became?  He had everything...very much like Gatsby.  And what was his wife's name?"

"Zelda.  The parallels are fascinating.  If you have the chance, you really should read some of his other work."

Then, he segued, "Did you ever read THE ROAD?"

"Cormack McKenzie, was it?"


"McCarthy.  It was so brutal and in your face.  It was the most beautiful thing I've ever read.  Do you think people are really like that?"

Just then, the man crossed his left ankle over his right knee, the bottom of his foot clearly facing in my direction.  I don't think that my face gave me away in my utter surprise and shock.  Where there should have been a shoe sole, there was nothing.  I didn't want to stare but at first (and last) glance, it looked like nothing more than the bottom of a foot covered in a filthy sock.  What?  My entire perception of the "reality" of this meeting and conversation suddenly changed.

"...so naturally, I'm anxious to read some of his other books.  What was that movie that did so well based on one of his books?"

"Ummm, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN."

"Yep, that's it.  They say that that Spanish actor really did a nice job in it."

The train had progressed quite a bit on our journey since the beginning of our literary conversation.  Suddenly, with no advance warning or introduction of intent, my train-mate rose from his seat.  The train slowed as we neared Midtown station.  We stopped.  The doors opened.  He turned and exited.

Our conversation was over.  Our relationship had ended.  Is something wrong with me that I feel sad about that?

Adjectives and adverbs are the words we use to describe, to account for, to attempt to ally others to our view and our opinion.  Which?  What kind of?   How many?  When?  Where?  How?  I wonder at how different our world might be with only nouns and verbs.

The man I met and spoke with on the train wasn't my superior or my subordinate.  He was neither rich nor poor.  He wasn't a homeless man.  He wasn't an "altered" man.  He wasn't an erudite man.  He wasn't a well-read man.  Though I've described him subsequently as all of those things.  In those moments, in our unique reality together, he was really none of those things.  As uncertain as I am about what "kind" of man he was in that situation, I'm equally uncertain about what "kind" of man I was in that situation.

He was a man.  And so was I.

Monday, September 26, 2016

An idyll of contentment

When my dad died on Labor Day 2012, he and my mom had just celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary a few weeks prior.  To contemplate spending so long with one other person, faithful to one other person, committed to one other person, caring for and about one other person is beyond "possible" for many, beyond "likely" for most. Their 56+ years together weren't perfect but perfection is not the nature of life.  Neither is perfection the nature of happiness with another person.  Happiness is a fulfillment born of wanting for another more than wanting for self.  Differences and challenges provide a tension that encourages growth, both separately, as individuals, and together, as an unique entity.


56 years is a rare achievement. Yet my (paternal) grandparents were married for 73 years before my grandfather preceded my grandmother in death by only days.  Both were well into their 90s.  I have no doubt that Mom and Dad would have challenged that longevity absent the unpredictable influence of fate; in this case, cancer.  Dad and Mom didn't both survive that challenge together.  But the love they share did.


So should I be surprised that as I wake today, I rise to celebrate my own 30-year commitment with one whom I have described as "the best person I've ever known"?  When I consider our milestone, the years fly by like nanoseconds, punctuated by the bright flashes of opportunities, some victories, some insurmountable challenges that helped us to grow...together.  Like every other couple, we have faced darkness and difficulty along with light and comfort.  Unlike many, we withstood the ravages and grew closer to what has ultimately become "us".  At every juncture, there were choices to be made.  We did the best we could.  We survived.  We persevered.  We thrived both because of and in spite of whatever circumstance had in store for us.  In typical fashion for us, we spend today's milestone in separate hemispheres but we are far from separated.


Contrary to anything I would have ever believed possible or likely, we nurtured a young life in our home. What a responsibility.  What a privilege.  What a blessing.  If ever you want to challenge your committed relationship, bring the responsibility of caring for another life into the mix.  Parenting is the ultimate test and most important job that anyone will ever face in my estimation.  If anything, maybe we tried too hard.  I believe there was an expectation that we would fail.  Looking back now, I think we did just fine.


"Thirty years" means that we likely have more days together behind us than we do ahead of us.  That is a sobering realization.  Advancing in life with the one you love is like sharing a bottle of fine wine.  The exuberance and anticipation at the pop of the cork are replaced with savoring and appreciation as the bottom of the bottle becomes a clear inevitability. 


Love. (Please take note that this lover of adjectives has allowed that simple, 4-letter noun to stand on its own merit, just as it should). Love, in all its guises, is humanity's prime directive.  As pivotal as it is, love alone is not enough to sustain a successful relationship over time.  One element is even more integral to success and it is a gift that the one selflessly bestows upon the other.  If love is the cosmic force that draws two souls together, then respect is the universal superglue that bonds them.  


Respect is the force that allows us to accept and even to defend the differences between ourselves and those we love.  It is the recognition that two entities don't have to be (and maybe shouldn't be) clones of one another to form a lasting bond.  In the end, our diversity is our greatest strength.  It allows each of us to bring to bear our unique powers and make our bond together more impervious.  Respect is that most critical of things, that most common of things:  a simple choice.


On this special day, I'd like to conjure an indelible image from my childhood memories...


Mom, Dad, David and I often visited Dad's parents at their farm home.  We usually went after supper but knew not to arrive too late.  My grandparents retired with the Sun and the chickens, as most folks did whose lives were inextricably tethered to the land.  


There, in the fleeting remnants of the day, we'd quietly arrive on their familiar front porch.  My brother and I would sneak a peek through the lace curtains of the front room window to see what we almost always saw, what we had come to expect to see:  Papa and Granna sitting closely together in their chairs, side-by-side in front of the dying embers in the fireplace, sometimes revisiting the events of the day, sometimes just basking in the glow of one another's company and the waning light and warmth of the fire.


An idyll of contentment.


From an early age, I knew what real happiness would look and feel like.  I thought I recognized it on this day, thirty years ago.  


I did.  


I still do.



Thursday, September 8, 2016

One Year Later

I like to find and celebrate the greatness in those I work with, no matter the title, no matter the responsibilities. I tend not to do it on my timeline in consideration of my airline-employer's social media policy. But rules have their exceptions, even those rules that are self-imposed.

A year ago, my company turned the corner on a dark chapter which had culminated with the public excoriation of our chief executive over some extraordinarily questionable dealings with powerful officials at one of our largest hubs. His actions were a disgrace to our business reputation and could potentially result in charges for he and our organization. Our Board of Directors acted. The CEO in question was replaced by a board member with no previous experience in our arguably highly specialized industry.

I'm fond of saying that not all leaders are in leadership positions and that not all those in leadership positions are true leaders. But when a "natural" leader is placed into the proper leadership position, marvelous things can and will happen. Kismet.

September 8, 2015 was a pivotal date for my airline-employer, having suffered through years of "muddling through" a less-than-optimal merger of equals. It seemed that we had all the pieces to a tediously complicated puzzle. What we lacked was a competent puzzle master to help guide us in placing the pieces. As unprepared and ill-equipped as some seemed to think him, our puzzle master began his work.

Less than a month later, on the cusp of a momentous and long-overdue "labor summit" with all our principle work groups, both he and we suffered a setback. Health issues, life-threatening health issues we learned subsequently, threatened our leader and our future with him at the helm. For more than a third of the year since he joined us as our CEO, our new leader has been "out sick", culminating in heart transplant surgery which would have been the end of his work life just a few years ago. But for him and for us, his new heart was a turning point.

Every day, we are faced with the "intersections" in our life, as I call them. Those intersections require us to act based on what we know, what we think and what we believe. Often, the decisions are as simple as what to have for lunch. But on a handful of occasions during our life, they are momentous to the degree that all subsequent intersections are affected by the one. As far as my work life is concerned, today is the anniversary of such an intersection.

As Yogi Berra might have said, "we came to a fork in the road and we took it." The story is as much Hollywood as it is Wall Street but drama sure can make things interesting.

My opinion: one year ago, our puzzle found its master. The pieces have only just begun to fall into place.