Friday, April 19, 2013

A Strange and Difficult Week

Well, what a strange week that was. As I write this, the one suspect from the Boston Marathon bombing that was still alive has just been apprehended in Watertown, MA (aka "Wattuhtown", in the local dialect).

Marathon day is a festive occasion around here. The marathon route happens to pass through the city I live in. For the first couple of years we lived here, we lived a stone's throw from the bottom of "Heartbreak Hill", a two-mile uphill stretch starting at about mile 19 of the 26.2-mile course. The marathon always happens during the April vacation period when schools are out here, and My Favorite Wife and the kids often would go to cheer the runners on and generally enjoy the part-like atmosphere.

This past Monday seemed like a pretty typical Marathon day, dry and moderately warm (at least by local standards). The Marathon coincides with the first tentative days of spring around here. Growing up in Northern California, springtime meant that three or four solid months of heavy rain would finally cease. Living in central Germany, springtime meant that the perpetual cold drizzle would finally stop. But here in greater Boston it means that three months of biting cold, shoveling snow, and suffocating in multiple layers of clothing will finally end. I have never appreciated spring the way I do here. The Marathon is just one more piece of evidence that the suffering is finally over, which I guess helps to explain the festive atmosphere that surrounds it. For greater Boston, the Marathon is more than just a footrace, it's a major rite of spring.

I first heard that there was something strange going on when I stepped out of my basement office to take a little break and experience a few minutes of fresh air before resuming work. One of my neighbors was standing outside, talking to MFW, and mentioned something about having heard that there was some sort of explosion along the Marathon route. I started checking my usual news web sites periodically and watched as the story around the explosion of two separate bombs near the finish line took shape. Later I saw all the footage of the bombs going off. In the following couple of days, we learned about the victims; a little boy and two young women killed, scores of people with lower legs blown off and other life-changing injuries. I was angered and saddened, hoping that the perpetrator(s) would be brought to justice, but fearing that we might never find out who they were or what they intended to achieve by this.

Yes, I can see how this advances your cause.

Like everyone else, I had to ask myself: who would do such a thing? Given the endless parade of presumed experts on various news outlets who characterized the bombs as comparatively unsophisticated devices, my guess was that it was either right-wing extremist types, or maybe homegrown Al Qaeda sympathizers. Given the symbolism of this happening on both Patriots Day (when Massachusetts commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first shots of the American Revolution) and income tax filing day, I leaned strongly toward the first theory.

It was heartening yesterday when first pictures of the perpetrators were published. It was also somehow kind of shocking to see that the suspects looked so… average. I wondered if maybe they weren't just a couple of bored kids from somewhere around here who thought it would be cool to set off a couple of bombs and didn't really think too hard about the consequences. I had my own fascination with crude explosives as a teenager, although it would not ever have occurred to me to use one in a way that could potentially hurt anyone, so I could sort of imagine, though certainly not empathize with, that kind of mindset. But I did think that surely someone is going to see those pictures and say, hey, I know those guys.

I didn't expect it to come to a head so quickly, though. I was first alerted to this at about 2 AM this morning, when the cell phone lying next to my bed woke me with a Ding! to announce an incoming text message. Usually when this happens it's because one of my esteemed colleagues in India has forgotten that his mid-morning is the middle of my night. But in this case it was my daughter, who is away at college in Washington, DC, asking whether we were watching the news. Huh? Why would I be watching the news at 2 AM? I sent a message back asking whether this message was really meant for me (and what was she doing up at 2 AM?). She replied that the FBI is in Watertown (an adjoining city), and there was a shooting at MIT and a bomb threat in Watertown. I replied that it was 2 AM and I will now be going back to sleep, which I eventually did. I switched on the radio briefly; there was some discussion of the Marathon bombing, but that's pretty much all that's been on the radio for the last few days, so I figured that whatever was going on was, I would find out in the morning.

So when the radio came on at 6 AM, I was hearing about a wild car chase and shootout that had transpired overnight in Cambridge and Watertown. Moreover, residents of Watertown and all surrounding communities, including mine, were told to stay home and keep businesses closed. I called the office of my dentist, whom I was supposed to visit that morning, and got a recording saying all appointments were cancelled and would be rescheduled, which I suppose is not necessarily the worst news I could have gotten, since I'm not all that crazy about sitting in the chair while the nice lady scrapes my teeth with sharp instruments anyway. My urgently needed haircut is also going to have to wait; I just hope that the client I have to visit in Denver next week will not mistake me for the Wild Man of Borneo.

So, tell me about your project.

The day itself today pretty much consisted of trying to do my job while periodically looking for updates as to what exactly was going on with the developing manhunt for the fugitive who was still alive. I periodically flipped on the TV to see pictures of essentially every federal, state and local law enforcement organization with a presence in the Boston area parading around in all the cool vehicles and tactical gear that they probably otherwise never actually get a chance to use—it all looked so shiny and new. I hoped for a couple of things; one, that this would end soon and things could get back to normal; and two, that they would take this guy alive so we could hear just what exactly he and his brother were thinking, and then lock him up for the rest of his life.

One of the things reported about the suspect was that he was a wrestler. An interesting side note was that a number of members of my son's high school wrestling team had been in matches with the guy (and beaten him, as The Young Master would want you to know). His Facebook page had some shocked-sounding posts from various former teammates with whom he is still in touch along the lines of, "I… I know that guy!"

Looking at the pictures, I can't help but wonder what could have motivated this guy. In the course of today we heard from plenty of current and former acquaintances about how he was such a nice guy, we can't imagine him doing this, etc. I'm going to guess that he personally  really had only the vaguest kind of ideological motivation for these outrageous acts; I will bet that he was mostly just being a stupid kid and following along in what the older brother he looked up told him was the just and heroic thing to do. Given the additional explosives that they carried with them and that were found in the brothers' apartment, and considering that that they seem to have had a plan to set off the bombs at the Marathon but no plan to disappear afterward, my guess is that the Marathon bombing was intended to be the first in a whole wave. I'm reminded very much of the Washington, DC sniper incidents a few years ago in which you also had a young kid following an older guy in spreading death and destruction just for the thrill of it.

This is the face of evil?

I should also mention that there was another thought that repeatedly occurred to me throughout this week. On the day of the Marathon bombing, that morning I was reading a story about a series of bombings and shootings in Iraq that killed 75 and injured hundreds. The day after that there were two bombings in Karachi that killed 21 people. The day after that, seven women and children were killed in Afghanistan when their vehicle drove over a bomb. Yesterday, as the first major break in the case came, a bomb had already exploded in a Baghdad cafe, killing at least 27 people and wounding scores more. For us, a bombing like the one at the Marathon is a singular outrage, and we throw massive resources into identifying, finding and killing or capturing the perpetrators. But there are other places in the world where such events are a common occurrence, with little expectation that the perpetrators will ever answer for their actions, or even be so much as identified. All this goes largely unnoticed by us. I don't know what to do about that, but I think about it nonetheless.

We're thinking about you too. Well, not really.

Anyway, that was my week. I hope yours was a little less exciting.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Skies Are Not So Friendly

Not long ago, I told you a story about my peeves related to riding on Amtrak. Foolish me! The project I've been working on for the past year, which had me making regular trips on Amtrak from the Boston area down to NYC, has ended, and I now find myself having to fly to my new assignments with clients located in Denver and Dallas. I had forgotten what a dream of convenience the train is when compared to air travel.

I love to fly, and I hate to fly. I've been flying since I was a small child, back in the days when all passenger jets still had propellers rather than jet engines; thinking about it makes me feel old. Every summer we'd go to visit my parents' respective sides of the family in (of all places) Denver and Dallas, and I'd sit at my window seat waiting for the ritual of the engines starting up one by one, signalling that we'd be in the air shortly. Today I still try to get a window seat on every flight because I just enjoy looking down at the landscape, even if I end up trapped, just me and my bladder, contemplating how long I'm going to wait before shaking the passengers in the middle and aisle seats awake and entreating them to stand up so that I can make my way to the restroom.

Those Were The Days
When I'd go on those family trips as a small child, a big fuss was always made about my brother and sister and I being appropriately dressed up, because that's just what you did in those days, before deregulation came in and made flying affordable for the unwashed masses. I remember when I was old enough to fly by myself how odd it felt to just turn up at the airport in my standard uniform of jeans and sneakers and flannel shirt.

Traveling In Style
But then came the eighties and deregulation and the beginning of the slow downward spiral in comfort and convenience, accelerated by acts of terrorism and culminating in the 9/11 events that have made just getting to the gate a miserable and tedious process. The pleasure of the flying itself remains; it's the whole process around it that leaves me in a state of dread at the thought of having to fly somewhere. Now that it looks like I'm entering another phase of regular air travel, I'm going to have to get used to it.

My flight home from Dallas last night brought this all into stark relief. I had a reservation on US Airways to fly to Boston via Philadelphia. The security procedure at DFW wasn't too bad, and I got to my gate with time to spare for my 5:45 PM flight. Normally you board about a half hour before departure time, but when we reached that point I saw no moves on the part of the gate agent to start the long and convoluted process in which they board different categories of passengers, starting with the ones who have achieved Double Platinum Sapphire Exalted Emperor status and finishing with me, the one guy who has been relegated to the dreaded Zone 5. 

The gate agent did announce that the flight was oversold, and anyone who would voluntarily give up his seat could get a voucher worth $600 to be booked onto a flight the following morning. I always contemplate whether I should take the airline up on one of these offers, although it would have to include arrangements to feed, house and transport me at their expense. But invariably it's more important to me to just get home, plus I'm not sure if the travel voucher would come with all kinds of restrictions and end up being more of a hassle than anything else.

Eventually the gate agent opened the door, which usually signals that we will now start boarding, but instead of propping it open he disappeared down the jetway, closing the door behind him. Five minutes ticked by, then ten, then fifteen and then eventually, about five minutes after our scheduled departure time, he reappeared. He stepped to the podium and announced that there was some mechanical issue that necessitated waiting until some part arrived and was installed, and it was uncertain how long that would take. Regardless of what the airline might tell us officially, his opinion was that people going to Philadelphia would almost certainly get there that night, but anyone with a connection was going to miss it and those of us in that category should line up at the podium to try to make alternative arrangements.

I dread these kinds of situations, having found myself in them a number of times. The airline plays a little game with you in which they periodically feed you a new revised boarding time and then as you just about reach that time, they give you another new (and later) boarding time. They never actually come out and say look, folks, it's just not gonna happen tonight; instead they string you along endlessly until it's way too late to make any kind of alternate arrangement. Indeed, shortly after the gate agent made his announcement, I got an automated call on my cell phone telling me that the flight was delayed by a half hour due to "congestion at the destination", which was of course entirely different from what the gate agent had just told us.

I dutifully got in line, but I also took out my phone and called US Airways customer service. I had looked up the number before I headed for the airport to have it just in case, seasoned traveler that I am. I got through to an agent who repeated the line about congestion at my destination; I told her that we got a completely different story from the gate agent. I expected her to tell me sorry, this is what's in the system (they always refer to "the system" like it's the source of ultimate truth), so just wait another half hour and then you'll be on your way. To my surprise she instead said she'll look for an alternate arrangement, but I'll have to wait on hold. So I stood there, phone in hand, wondering what I should do if I was still on hold when I got to the head of the line. As I got closer to the head of the line she came on a couple of times to tell me that arrangements were being made, please just be patient. Eventually I got to the head of the line and started letting people go past me.

Finally the phone agent told me I was now booked on a direct flight to Boston on American. There was some additional step that needed to be completed that was taking longer than expected (what exactly that step was I didn't really understand, since I speak English and not airline-ese), but I was booked on the American flight that was leaving in a little over an hour, so I should head over to the gate and see the agent there with the confirmation number I had just been given; whatever that final step was, it should be completed by the time I was at the American gate.

…And of course, it was not. The gate agent at American did that thing where they type a bunch of stuff into their computer terminal, then frown a lot, then tell you some totally arcane piece of information, and then type some more. Finally she told me I was indeed booked but not ticketed, as if the difference is common knowledge that any schoolboy would possess. She typed a lot more, then asked the other gate agents some questions involving more exotic airline terminology that meant nothing to me, then made a phone call. Finally she told me she was waiting for a call back; my problem was being taken care of so I should step into the waiting area until she called me back. Right… we've heard this one before.

I was kind of losing hope at this point; experience has taught me that where the airlines are concerned, even the simplest problem ends up being massively complicated to resolve and usually ends with an apology but no real solution. So I was deeply relieved when the phone rang, the agent answered it and then shortly afterward called me over and handed me a boarding pass a couple of minutes before we were to start boarding. 

I was thankful to be holding a boarding pass in my hands now. I wasn't so happy to see I'd be boarding at the very end, meaning there was a good chance that there'd be no room for my small suitcase, and I might have to check it and then wait another half hour to collect it from the notoriously slow baggage claim in Boston, but beggars can't be choosers. But to my great surprise, the gate agent called me over while the priority passengers were just starting to board and said, "this other guy thinks he has your seat, so I want you to board right now." I was more than happy to oblige her.

I took my seat but had to wonder whether they would shortly come to get me, saying sorry, but this is actually the other guy's seat, you'll have to get back off. As I sat there I noticed that there were a couple of other cases of two or even three people being booked in the same seat, which the flight attendants (When did we actually start calling them that? When did they stop being stewardesses?) were trying to sort out. I could not have been happier when they finally closed the doors and told everyone to take their seats.

What Exactly Do You Mean By "Flight Attendant"?
So all in all, my flight home was a stressful experience, as so often in the past, but it could have been far worse; I could have found myself stuck overnight in Dallas or Philadelphia, for example. All of the people I dealt with were surprisingly helpful; I'm used to just getting the company line from some customer service agent who is tired of having dealt with other people's problems all day and is now having a hard time finding the enthusiasm to deal with mine. I wonder if all of the bad press the airlines have gotten over the past decade or so for their terrible customer service is finally having an effect. I guess I'll have another chance to find out when I go to see my Denver client next week.