Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Air Travel: the "New Normal"

This past weekend I flew to Portland, Oregon to preside at the memorial service for Phil Buchanan. It was a rich but difficult experience and I am grateful I was able to be a part of it. If I write about it at all if will be after I have taken some time to get past the immediate emotional impact. For now let me just make a few observations about the “new normal” in air travel.
It was a challenge to find flights that worked because Susan and I were leading a workshop in Shawano on Friday, which meant departing from Appleton as late as possible, and I very much wanted to have brunch with our friends Debby, Greene and Terry before coming home on Sunday, which meant leaving Portland in the afternoon but still getting home at a reasonable hour. My flight out of Appleton left 90 minutes late, but that simply meant spending those 90 minutes in the Appleton airport rather than O’ Hare, which is hardly a sacrifice. Appleton now has free Wi-Fi.
I was on five flights in total, and each of them was fully booked or overbooked. The airlines are succeeding in filling their seats, likely because they are offering fewer flights. This means checking in as early as possible – ideally on-line as soon as they allow – to reduce the risk of being bumped.
Not a single flight had food aboard, not even for sale. Passengers now carry provisions of all sorts, making me think of people in the developing world riding rickety buses (except that there are not yet chickens in the aisles). Like those rickety buses, minor maintenance appears to be deferred more often. I had no reading light between Chicago and Portland, for example. I would have loved to snooze, but my aisle seat made that pretty much impossible.
Now that the airlines are charging for checking all bags, the great majority of passengers are bringing only carry-on luggage. A new etiquette is emerging: only larger bags may go in the overhead bins, so you are pretty much obligated to put your briefcase or backpack under the seat in front of you, surrendering what little foot room that space would have provided. The airlines are making a few bucks on this new policy, and the flight attendants are the ones paying the price for it. They have developed extraordinary stuffing skills, but it still takes longer to get everyone boarded and soothed than it used to. A policy that is new to me: the going rate seems to be $15 for the first checked bag and much more for the second, but if the first bag exceeds fifty pounds or is oversized that fee jumps to $125! This could be an issue when Harry and I go backpacking in Utah next month.
To get home on Sunday I needed to take one Delta flight and two United flights. The airlines do no play nicely together: Delta would not allow me to check-in or print boarding passes for any flights from my hotel, and I was rejected by their electronic kiosk at the airport as well. The woman who finally checked me in (and it was a challenge to find an actual human being) told me that I would need to get my United boarding passes at my next stop, Salt Lake City. Since my departure from Portland was delayed and I had only minutes to make my connection, which was in a different terminal, that could have been a major problem. Fortunately, United had permitted me to check in and print boarding passes at the hotel: points for United on that one.
Portland and Denver also now offer free Wi-Fi (I was not in Salt Lake City long enough to check). Free internet access is becoming an entitlement: I suspect (and hope) that Boingo’s days are numbered…
Although three of the five flights were delayed, I got to Portland a few minutes ahead of schedule and home to Appleton only 45 minutes late (high winds in Denver had departing flights stacked up on the runway). Air travel has become less and less pleasant, but the remarkable thing is that it still works most of the time – any trip on which you reach your destination that same day is by definition a good trip.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Downside of Cabins

The downside of owning a cabin is that sometimes it requires attention when you were not planning to provide it with any. This time the plea for attention came in the form of the electric bill.
We get our juice from the Alger-Delta Electrical Co-op. Rural co-ops appear to be an endangered species these days, but I like ours. In U.P. winters, maintaining service can be a real challenge, and these folks do a good job. Plus I like their funky little newsletter. Until recently, seasonal cabins like ours received a single billing for the entire year but a few months ago they moved to monthly billing, presumably to help with their cash flow. I am grateful they did, because our February statement showed that our usage had gone through the roof, even though we have not been up there since New Year’s Day. The only thing we leave plugged in during the winter is the small heater inside the well housing.
My first thought was that my well structure had collapsed under the severe snow load. I had made temporary repairs to it late in the fall when I noticed that some of the wood was rotting out (It took a few seasons after I built it to figure out the importance of venting it in warm weather), and planned to rebuild it this spring. Since it was two weeks before I could clear the time to go up there, I tried hard to fight off images of a collapsed well, a destroyed pump and pressure tank and a small heater trying to warm an entire peninsula.
So the other day I drove up to see what was going on. It was a warm day – it got up over fifty – but the average snow depth was still about three feet. Except for the area around my well, which was nice and clear. The structure had survived just fine, but the thermostat in the heater was stuck in the “on” position, and had been merrily churning out 750 watts of heat 24/7 for about six weeks. The temperature in the well was 117. Needless to say, the pump had not frozen.
It was an adventure getting into the cabin, first digging away the snow, then taking axe and hatchet to the four inches of ice underneath it so that I could open the doors. As soon as I had cleared space around the back door, it filled with water from the snow melting on the roof, and said water began to flow into the cabin (Our sill height is less than 2”). Which meant I had to chop a long channel through the ice to drain water away from the door. This took the better part of an hour to do.
While the cabin was heating up I settled into some spring cleaning. Which is when I discovered that Buster, our “pet” chipmunk, had found a way to get into the cabin and make himself at home. It took my several hours to discover how he did it: he had gnawed his way through the rubber edging at the bottom of both the front storm door and main door, making a space just large enough for a determined chipmunk to squeeze through – one more job to do.
When I got home the next day I wrote a note to the Alger-Delta Electrical Co-op, thanking them for switching to monthly billing. Had they not, I would have contributed even more to global warming, or at least U.P. warming. And Buster would have rearranged the furniture.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Random Thoughts while Running on a March Morning

The snow on the terrace (between the sidewalk and the street) melts much faster on streets running east-west than on those running north-south. If you think about the path of the sun in the sky (and this is the sort of thing I ponder while running), this makes perfect sense.

People who did a poor job of keeping their sidewalks and driveways clear through the winter are now being rewarded with faster-melting snow because they never created huge piles of it. Virtue is not necessarily rewarded in this world; God causes the snow to melt for the righteous and unrighteous alike.

A fair number of retired men, driven by a deep-seated need for order, run out to retrieve their trash cans as soon as the truck has gone by. These are the same men who will mow their lawns every other day all summer. I am likely doomed to join their ranks one day.

Approximately 18% of homes still have Christmas decorations up in mid-March.

Since recycling is mandatory in Appleton, it is clear that many people are not familiar with the definition of the word “mandatory.”

While we are on the topic of recycling, my casual survey suggests that fewer people are reading newspapers while more people are drinking diet Mountain Dew, even though God never meant for human beings to drink a fluid that color.

36 degrees is not too cold to eat your breakfast outside at George Webb if you are a dedicated smoker.

Lost things reappear as the snow melts. Mittens, hats and boots top the list, along with the occasional bicycle that never made it into the garage last November.

The robins have returned, along with the sump pump hoses.

Any day that carries strong hints of spring is a very good day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The State of American Religion

Last week the findings of the comprehensive American Religious Identification Survey were released, and few of us were surprised to learn that the number of Americans identifying themselves with a specific religious tradition – or with any religion at all – has declined significantly over the past 25 years. Among other findings are these:
So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%) that this category now outranks every other major religious group except for Catholics and Baptists.
All Mainline Protestant denominations have seen sharp declines.
Many American Christians are not quite sure what to call themselves, using terms ranging from “Evangelical” to “born-again” to “non-denominational.” Taken all together, they represent only 14% of the population.
Jewish numbers have declined (now 1.2%) while Muslim numbers (0.6%) have grown less than many had expected.
Vermont has now passed Oregon as the least religious state, with more than a third of the population claiming no religion at all.

Self-described Christians still make up nearly 70% of the population, but many of them are Christian only in the broadest sense with a very limited understanding of the beliefs and practices of that faith. Said the survey’s co-author: “For many, religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment.” Perhaps the most extreme story included came from a staff member in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. A couple came into his office with a list of questions posed by their teenage son, beginning with “What is that guy doing hanging up there on the plus sign?”

I find in the survey at least as much cause for hope as despair. Certainly religious tolerance has grown – far fewer people claim that their religion is the only true faith, or the only one that can “get you into heaven.” And while the survey found that there is still a Christian “culture war” being waged over issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research, there are fewer persons at the extreme ends of the spectrum. We are learning, in other words, to respect those who hold views different from our own and to look for points of agreement.

It can be argued that in a society where everyone is “vaguely religious,” religion becomes less dynamic, less faithful and less interesting. If fewer people claim to be Christian, perhaps we will have higher expectations of what it means to live like one. And that could only be a good thing.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Wicked Thoughts

Last evening we went to the performing arts center with Kate and Eric for the final performance of “Wicked,” which has enjoyed a remarkably successful four-week run (essentially selling out all 32 performances, which is well over 60,000 tickets). This kind of “Broadway Blockbuster” production is essential to making the Appleton PAC and many similar centers around the country fiscally viable, so I am grateful for its success.

Was it a good show? That depends upon the criteria used to define “good.” It was a lavish production with a wonderful set and marvelous costuming. The performances were all very good, brushing up against Broadway quality in several cases. The show, in other words, was very well presented and performed. Which leaves the question of whether “Wicked” is a good musical, and here we move quickly into the subjective. My own opinion is that it is a good story (thank the author for that) well told (although the first act is stronger than the second) burdened with a musical score that is mediocre at best. There are no songs one is tempted to hum on the way out (or remember the next day), and many of them reminded me of the overblown top-forty pop songs so beloved by former contestants of “American Idol.” But I freely confess to musical snobbery: I would say pretty much the same thing about “Lion King” and other contemporary musicals. Musicals today are defined not by music, but by elaborate sets, golly gee whiz special effects and non-stop energy – more spectacle than art.

Which, of course, is as American as apple pie and baseball. We have a panoramic photo of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which packed in crowds all around the world with the 19th century version of the “spectacle not to be missed!,” and in my own childhood traveling circuses featured non-stop action in multiple rings to keep our jaws hanging open. Toss in Busby Berkeley musicals and Las Vegas shows with their ostrich feathers, sequins and topless ladies. Cirque De Soleil, in reinventing the circus for our time, got that old formula right: give the audience more than they can absorb in any given moment and just keep it coming. Come to think of it, the Romans used pretty much that same formula in the coliseum (“Now with more lions and Christians!”), so Americans cannot really lay claim to the tradition. We have always loved a really, really big show.

But to wax a little bit cranky, the Broadway musicals of “the golden era” were able to offer a sense of spectacle while also providing memorable tunes, and opera has long offered both over-the-top spectacle (Wagner!) and glorious music. Musical comedy can be witty, intelligent, musically sophisticated and marvelously entertaining – Stephen Sondheim, anyone? – but what most of us want most of the time is the helicopter landing in “Miss Saigon.”

Many of the people seated near us last evening had traveled some distance for the performance (there was a Yooper seated next to us), which means that the PAC is succeeding in its goal of becoming a regional magnet. Certainly the tickets, which were far from inexpensive, constituted a financial stretch for many present (including us!), particularly in this dreadful economy. I loved seeing little girls and teens all dressed up for their “big night out;” for many this was the event of the year, or even of a lifetime. Guys who work in mills surprised their wives with tickets that fulfilled longstanding dreams of seeing a “real Broadway show.” It was touching at the end of the show when the entire audience rose for a standing ovation as soon as the first cast members stepped back onto the stage. I am sure the same thing occurred at every performance, and that the performers were thrilled to receive such an enthusiastic response (a New Yorker, of course, would be appalled by an audience that rose to its feet for random citizens of Oz). The audience was essentially thanking the cast for bringing one night of magic to the upper Midwest, and for giving us a few hours inside a version of Glinda the Good’s magic bubble, where the gloom and doom could not touch us. And that is nothing to be desipised.