Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Decisions and Regret



Upon the red table, with the spread-eagled captain’s body empty, new hands began a fight of motion. Into the wet interior were placed organs of copper, brass, silver, aluminum, rubber and silk; spiders spun gold web which was stung into the skin; a heart was attached, and into the skull case was fitted a platinum brain which hummed and fluttered small sparkles of blue fire, and the wires led down through the the body to the arms and legs. In a moment the body was sewn tight, the incisions waxed, healed at neck and throat and about the skull – perfect, fresh, new. The captain sat up and flexed his arms…
                        - The City (Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man 1951)


There’s a John Varley novella that I reread every couple of years.

It’s a terrible terrible tale, this story.

Not terrible in that it’s badly told or poorly written (Varley is incapable of either sin), no, rather Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo is terrible in its vision.

On the surface, in simple black and white terms, Tango Charlie is a rescue story describing efforts to save a little girl living in a doomed space station.

Underneath, it’s a detailed exploration at the foreseeable edge of social ethics and the terrible morality of gambling the life of one dying child against the lives of others, both children and adults. The story is less about right and wrong, black and white, and more about the shadowy gray area in between those two poles. It’s about personal choice.

That’s the real business of speculative fiction, you know, to explore the human experience and its place in the universe, to look ahead and to the sides and into the past, to seek answers before most of humanity even knows there’s a problem.

The job of people like Varley is to ask one simple question: What if?

What if? And then to chase after the answers for as deep as the rabbit hole goes.

What if it was possible to keep a body running long, long after the person inside has died?

I won’t give away what happens, but a subplot to the main story involves a computerized mechanical sawbones – which today is a lot less far-fetched than the idea was in 1986 when the story was written: 

She was dead, of course, by any definition medical science had accepted for the last century. Someone had wired her to a robot doctor, probably during the final stages of the epidemic. It was capable of doing just about anything to keep a patient alive and was not programmed to understand brain death. That was a decision left to the human doctor, when he or she arrived. The doctor had never arrived. The doctor was dead and the thing that had been Charlie's mother lived on […] All of its arms and legs were gone, victims of gangrene. Not much else could be seen of it, but a forest of tubes and wires entered and emerged. Fluids seeped slowly through the tissue. Machines had taken over the function of every vital organ. There were patches of greenish skin here and there, including one on the side of its head which Charlie had kissed before leaving…

A rotting corpse, dead by any reasonable standard you’d care to employ, given a macabre illusion of life by mindless mechanical fanaticism and through a perversion of technology designed to save life, not to prolong death.

On the pages of a science fiction novel it’s an interesting exercise in What If? But in reality? In the here and now? It’s a travesty.

Every time there is yet another one of these horror shows, like the grotesquery that finally, finally, came to a conclusion last Sunday evening in Texas, I am forcibly reminded of that passage, of that stiff green tinged corpse from Varley’s Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo moldering for thirty years in a ghastly imitation of life under the inflexible attention of a dogmatic agency too stupid to know when to let go.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, exposes the morally bankrupt hypocrisy of the right-to-life zealots like the case of Marlise Muñoz. 

On November 26, 2013, Muñoz, three months pregnant, awoke in the middle of the night.

She got out of bed and went into the kitchen to warm a bottle for her son, a toddler. 

After a while, her husband, Erick, realized she hadn’t returned to bed.

If you’ve been married for a while, you know how this goes. You wake up and the other side of the bed is empty. You vaguely remember your wife getting up quietly in the dark. You thought, if you thought about it at all, that she was just going to pee. Pregnant women, right? (and middle aged men, for that matter). But she’s been gone too long, you know something’s not right. You wait for a while, figuring she’ll be back in a bit. But it goes on, the absence, and on. Eventually you get up to see what’s wrong. You’re expecting what? She’s sick maybe, morning sickness. So you listen for the sound of retching from the bathroom, check to see if there’s light under the door, trying to remember if there’s any Ginger Ale in the fridge – knowing that it’s your job as the husband to run down to the 24-hour store if there’s not. But no, she’s not throwing up in the bathroom. So,  perhaps it’s the kid. Nightmare, loaded diaper, colic, earache, it’s always something with kids.  You expect to find her in the nursery, rocking the child back to sleep. You’ll smile, she’ll roll her eyes, quietly, and damn but don’t you love that image? But she’s not there either and the kid is sound asleep. You start to really worry now, but you know you’re just being foolish. It’s just insomnia. You know how pregnant women are, sure, she was laying there, watching the red digits of the clock count away the minutes, wide awake, so she got up and went into the living room to read or surf Facebook on her laptop. You’ll ask her what’s wrong, nothing she’ll say, couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to wake you, go back to bed.

But she’s not sitting on the couch either.

Instead, Erick Muñoz found his wife collapsed on the kitchen floor.

She wasn’t breathing. She had no pulse.

She was, in blunt point of fact, dead.

She was dead by every clinical definition you’d care to name.

She was already dead when Erick Muñoz awoke and realized something was wrong and went stumbling through the darkened house looking for his wife.

Muñoz was a trained and experienced paramedic, he’d seen it before, hundreds of times.  Medics, doctors, cops, soldiers, firemen, emergency workers, they’re trained to deal with these things in a detached and professional manner, but you never expect it to be your spouse, the love of your life, the mother of your children, laying there lifeless on the kitchen floor.

Muñoz frantically called 911 and started cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

But he knew, as a medic he had to know, what the blue color inside her lips and under her nails meant. Severe oxygen deprivation. He knew, as he bent down to breathe life back into her body, what the slack cooling lips under his meant.  He could feel that her heart wasn’t beating. Her bowels would have let go, along with her bladder, you can smell death. Her skin would have been slack, her eyes already clouded and lifeless.  He knew what it meant … and what it meant for the baby she was carrying.

He had to know.

There was absolutely no way that he could not know the horror of what it meant: she’d been dead for a long time, at least 30 minutes.  Too long.

Now, human beings have been successfully revived after 30 minutes of clinical death. In fact, the record for a successful resuscitation is a bit over three and a half hours, but that was for a victim who was severely hypothermic (immersed in ice water after falling off a ship). The success rate for anything over a couple of minutes at normal temperatures becomes less and less likely with every passing second outside of very special conditions. The body, the organs and limbs, might remain viable, but the brain suffers massive irreversible damage at normal temperatures when deprived of oxygen. It doesn’t take long at all for the brain-stem to die, cutting the brain itself off from the body. At that point, no matter what you do, the heart and lungs and the rest of the vital organs will never work on their own again. At that point, when the brain dies, you, the person, you’re dead and there isn’t any coming back.

As a paramedic, Erick Muñoz would have known that. He would have been thinking about just exactly that – how long had his wife lain there without breathing? without a heartbeat? He would have certainly thought about that while he worked feverishly to save the two beloved and precious lives under his hands, while he waited for the ambulance to come as each frantic second ticked past.

By the time Marlise Muñoz reached John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, it was far too late.

She had been dead too long.

Pulmonary embolism, the doctors say, a blood clot that blocked a critical artery and stopped her heart.

No warning. No time to unsay all the things he wished he hadn’t said, you know, like people do.  No time to say all of those things a husband wishes he would have said to his wife, that he always meant to say but never did. No time left to do all of those things they planned together. No chance for a child to see his mommy one last time. No chance to say goodbye.

Erick Muñoz went to bed a husband and woke up a widower trapped in a nightmare.

Just bang, blood clot, and gone.

A tragedy.

A horrible, horrifying tragedy.

Marlise Muñoz was not in a coma. She wasn’t in a vegetative state. She was dead. Her brain had died. You can argue about the nature of consciousness all you like, you can ponder the existence of the soul and what might wait behind this mortal coil, but whatever we are at the fundamental level we are electrical impulses firing in a block of meat. And we can measure that to a fine degree. When those sparks no longer pulse between neurons, we, whatever we are, are no longer here.  There was absolutely no doubt about it. Marlise Muñoz was dead.

This isn’t my opinion, this is the clinical diagnosis of her doctors, this is the consensus of more than a millennium of science, this is even the conclusion of religion.

And yet, through the application of modern technology, her body still lived … after a fashion.

And there it is. Right there.

That single terrible moment. That single terrifying, horrible, hideous, despairing lonely moment when there is no longer a chance, when hope and prayer are exhausted, when you are left alone and bereft and there’s nowhere left to turn, and  you realize that it’s now up to you, that they are looking at you, and you, you, have to decide.

And so Erick Muñoz did, he decided.

As a paramedic, as a husband, as a father, he knew. He knew what he was doing. He knew what it meant. He knew what was right for his wife and what was right for their unborn child. He knew. And he decided to pull the plug because for him, for them, it was the right thing to do.

And that was his right.

More, it was his duty to make that decision. Not yours, not mine, his.

There comes a moment when it’s just you. When it’s your decision. When the entire universe rests on your shoulders. And so it was for Erick Muñoz that day. It was his decision. His duty. Not yours, not mine, not the mob’s. Not the hospital. Not the church. Not the government. His. Period.

I’ve been there. Right there.

You see, last summer I watched my father die.

My brother, my mom, and I, we made the only call we could – others might have decided something else, but it wasn’t their decision to make. It was ours. It was our right, our duty, it fell to us to decide. Not you, not the government, not even the doctor, us.

And so we did, we decided, each of us, separately and together: pull the plug.

And then we stood there at his bedside in the ICU as they turned off the machines, as he pulled in his final ragged breath and then was still at last, and it was horrible.

I served in the military for more than twenty years. I served in two wars and numerous actions short of war. I’ve risked my own life and ordered men to risk theirs. I’ve seen men die in terrible ways. But not like that. It was the hardest, most horrible thing I’ve ever done and I don’t wish it upon my very worst enemy. I never dream of war, but I wake at night sometimes and think of that final moment at the side of my father’s deathbed. And the pain never goes away.  But we had to do it.  We had to. Because, for my dad, it was the right thing to do. You couldn’t decide that. You couldn’t know that. You couldn’t tell right from wrong in that particular case, you didn’t know him, you didn’t love him. Only we could decide, it was on us, his family, and us alone.

Could we have decided differently? Was there really a choice?

They could have kept him alive, his body anyway, maybe even some of his mind. Maybe. The machines could have kept his blood oxygenated and flowing, once a day they could have taken him down for dialysis, they could have kept the dozens of IV’s going. They could have fed him through a tube and carried away his waste.  Certainly they could have kept him going, drugged and without pain. His body might even have lived on to this very day, many months later. 

But what about him? His mind? I don’t know, maybe, in a drugged haze of dim awareness perhaps, unable to speak, unable to move, unable to live. Spread out and pinned down like a science experiment, half machine, half rotting meat. Despite multiple organ failures, despite the fact that he couldn’t breathe, despite the fact that his kidneys would never work on their own again, despite the heart damage, despite the fact that he would likely never really wake up again, not really, sure they could have kept him going. Despite the fact that when he was alive he told us many times that he didn’t want to end up a vegetable animated by clockwork and wires. Despite all of that, they could have kept him alive … after a fashion. Warehoused in some care facility, I guess, and I wouldn’t have to wake up in the night with tears in my eyes. 

He didn’t leave a living will, so we could have decided differently.

But he didn’t need to, he had us. And we knew what was right, what was moral. We loved him dearly and so we decided. We did what was right, for us, for him.

We decided to let him go.

We decided to turn off the machines because to do anything else would have dishonored the wonderful marvelous man he was and all of the memories of our lives together.

Because keeping his body plugged in wouldn’t have been for him, but for us.

Because to do anything else would have been pure selfishness.

And so, we decided to let him go.

Just as Erick Muñoz decided for his wife.

Just as Erick Muñoz decided for his unborn child.


There is no decision more excruciatingly painful, more terrible, more horrifying, more hideous, more personal. None. Period.


Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder.

If we’d waited another day, maybe, maybe some miracle – and that’s what it would have taken, a genuine no kidding divine miracle from upon high, a miracle that I don’t believe in. But, maybe just this once, just maybe, if we’d only waited, my dad might have recovered. You always wonder. You wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the ceiling and you think about your own mortality and hope that your son never has to make that hideous decision and you wonder.

What if?

What if there was a chance?

In the cold light of day, I don’t think so.

I don’t think we did the right thing, I know it.

But still, maybe, just maybe…

It’s natural to feel regret, to wish without hope that the past can be altered by sheer desire, that we can bring our loved ones back from the abyss.

It’s normal to regret the hard, hard decisions you’ve had to make.

And I do.

I do regret what I had to do, but it’s my regret, mine and mine alone. Not yours, not the government’s, not the doctor’s, and most certainly not some howling mob of selfish sons of bitches who think they have a right to intrude into my life, into my pain, and to take my regrets from me. Those regrets are mine and I cherish them even though the pain is terrible.

Those who condemned Erick Muñoz for his decision are like the robot described above, dogmatic, unthinking, inflexible in belief, and utterly inhuman, just following the program. The difference is that a machine can only do what it’s programmed to do, it has an excuse, it does what it does not out of selfishness because it can’t do anything else.

A machine also can’t be a hypocrite.

But those who shed crocodile tears for Marlise and Erick Muñoz’s unborn child certainly can be.

Almost without fail, those who condemned a grieving husband as a murderer and a monster are the very same, the very same, people, the very same governments, and the very same institutions who vehemently oppose research into the very technologies and treatments that might one day actually save and repair such terrible damage. They see nothing wrong with turning a rotting corpse into an incubator for a monstrously malformed fetus, but gasp in horror and scream “Frankenstein!” when it comes to organ cloning, genetic manipulation, fetal tissue and stem cell research.  They demand that this poor child be born, no matter the terrible toll on those who loved it, no matter the damage, no matter the wishes of the parents, and yet these are almost without fail, the same, the very same, people who vehemently oppose social programs such as government funded prenatal/postnatal healthcare and nutrition programs, who derisively label SNAP and WIC as “socialism” and “communism” and who can’t discuss sex education without including the word “Nazi.” These are the very same people who sit smug and pious in their pews each and every Sunday and listen to the words of their prophet who commanded them to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the poor, and to do unto others as they would be done unto themselves, yes those people, these are the very same selfish sons of bitches who daily turn a blind eye and a sneering averted cheek to the sick and the hungry and the destitute – calling them lazy and entitled instead. In a state that repeatedly threatens to secede from the Union over the matter of individual rights and supposed government overreach, these are the very same people, the very same people, who would take away Erick Muñoz’s right to decide and award that duty to the government, to the court, to the mob, to people who never knew Marlise Muñoz as anything other than just another front in their bankrupt and selfish war.

But it’s not their right.

It’s not their decision and it never was.

Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst declared on Sunday, “I’m a strong believer of the sanctity of life. This baby could have been born. If I had been in that judge’s shoes, I would have ruled differently.”

The sanctity of life? The sanctity no less. Life. The Lt. Governor of Texas, a state that has executed more than three hundred people in the last decade and is considering a return to the electric chair in order to save money on execution drugs, proclaims the sanctity of life? That’s rich.

Dewhurst is running for reelection, one of his main opponents is State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who weighed in with, “It’s a tragic intersection, the right-to-life concerns and when life ends. We should always err on the side of life. I think we have to change the law.”

Change the law in support of life … by mandating that a corpse be kept on maintenance until the state, or the church, decides otherwise. Right to life, he says, and when life ends. Not only do these people want to control how life begins, they want to decide on when it ends – but, sure, you can trust people like this to leave what comes in between the beginning and the end alone, right? Leave life up to you to decide how to live it. Sure. You go right ahead and believe that if you like.

State Senator Dan Patrick, also a contender for Lt Governor, said, “Life is so precious. There is nothing more precious than the life of a baby in the womb. We are born in the image of God. Whenever we have the opportunity to preserve life, we should.”

Ah yes, God.

The image of God, he says. Preserve life, just like God, you bet.

That would, of course, be the same God who, what? Killed every first born child in Egypt to make a political point? The God who by His own word, drowned every single human being on the planet, less eight, in a fit of pique and for nothing? That God? The one that sent Marlise Muñoz a blood clot as a baby shower gift? Is that the God we’re talking about here? Because if that’s the case, and if you really believe in this stuff, then it would appear on the face of things that Patrick’s God has made His decision brutally apparent: pull the plug. That’s what He did right? Pulled the plug and left Muñoz dead on the floor of her kitchen. Left her surviving son motherless and her husband horribly alone. If you believe in signs and portents, I honestly don’t see how it could get any clearer.

And that wasn’t enough, was it? Then He sent in a bunch of fanatics to torture this poor man for two and half months.  Because, why again?

You want to look up these right-to-lifers’ stance on guns? On military force? On the Texas death penalty? On WIC and SNAP and social programs to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the poor?

Tens of thousands of children die every month. They cough out their lives on parched ground, starving, diseased, destitute, abused, poisoned, the victims of war and conflict and neglect. They die in the millions every year, unknown and unlamented, here and abroad. Meanwhile, these right-to-life fanatics protest outside a hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, they intrude into the grief and personal tragedy of a stricken family, smug in their morality over one tiny death out of millions, believing that they’ve actually done something worthwhile.

Sanctity of life my ass.

They’ve done nothing, not one goddamned thing other than feed their own diseased egos.

This isn’t about life, it’s about them, it’s about their guilt at their repeated and deliberate failure to live up to the tenets of their own belief, their abject refusal to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, and to heal the sick. These people aren’t in it for Marlise Muñoz’s unborn baby, they’re in it to make themselves feel better and make no mistake about it – because if they weren’t, if they really truly actually believed in the sanctity of life, well then they’d actually do something about the lives they could save.  All of them.


This wasn’t our decision.

This most certainly wasn’t a decision for a politician.

This wasn’t the government’s decision.

This isn’t the press’ decision, or some ad hoc group on Facebook, or the mob’s

This isn’t the church’s decision, and it most certainly isn’t God’s decision – should he in fact actually exist and give a good goddamn about his creation.

For Erick Muñoz, there is no right or wrong, for him there is only grief and loss and tragedy.

Whatever his decision, it was the right one, because only he could make it.

This was his right, his duty, his burden and his regret.

His and his alone, as a husband, as a father.

Nobody else should get a vote.

Note about commenting: Due to the nature of this essay, and the inevitable lunacy it will no doubt attract (has already attracted) comment moderation is on and will remain so.  I will review each comment before allowing it to post. Stonekettle Station isn’t 4-chan, or The Blaze, or Yahoo News, or any other capering monkey shit-fight, so don’t act like it is. You’re entitled to your opinion but you’re a guest here and you’ll damned well behave like a rational adult or you’ll get a boot in the teeth. This is non-negotiable and I don’t care if you don’t like it.  If you want your comment to post, adhere to the following guidelines:

Edit: Since it’s glaringly apparent that evangelicals, anti-abortion nuts, and other such shrill fanatics have trouble with reading comprehension, as the roughly 200+ and counting discarded comments from such can attest, I’ve taken the liberty of bolding the relevant commenting criteria below. Take heed:

1) Don’t be an asshole. Be polite. Be well spoken. Use proper punctuation. The ability to spell and assemble a sentence to the 8th grade level is also appreciated.
2) Keep your religion to yourself. I won’t be proselytized nor will I allow you to preach at my readers, not in any way whatsoever, period. If your God is offended by something I said, he/she/it is welcome to contact me directly, I don’t need you to act as an intermediary.
3) Any comment that includes the word “abortion” will not post. Repeat: It. Will. Not. Post. REPEAT: IT. WILL. NOT. POST.
4) Personal attacks will not post. I don’t care if you think I’m a (insert your favorite insult: Nazi, Commie, Satan Worshipping Baby Murderer, Pinko Liberal Fag), I don’t care.  I. Don’t. Care. So don’t bother. You may assume that I’ve heard it all before by better people than you. 

Hope that clears things up.

Also, if you mention abortion, your comment will NOT post.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Bridge Too Far


If Stupid jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?

That’s what my mom used to ask us kids when we were contemplating doing something dumb.

If your idiot friend jumped off a bridge, does that mean you have to as well?

You should be smarter than that.

I’ve been traveling over the last few weeks and haven’t had time to do much writing.  My inbox is full to bursting and I’m working my way through it slowly. A lot of folks wrote to ask what I thought of the president’s speech outlining policy changes to NSA’s domestic data collection programs. As many long time readers know, I used to work inside the NSA firewall, and in fact I do have an opinion or two on the subject. There will be an essay soon, after I see how a couple of things shake out. In the meantime, the second most common topic clogging my inbox like so many undigested jelly donuts in Rush Limbaugh’s large intestine is, of course, the Chris Christie scandal.

I wasn’t going to write about this, because honestly? A politician possibly abused his office? No kidding? Wow, that’s never happened before. And then when it came to light he fired a bunch of staffers and denied that he knew anything about it in the first place? Really, that’s what you’ve got?

It’s been done, Man, it’s so been done. 

And the news media seems to have it covered from all directions.

Frankly, If you don’t, at the very least, have a dead hooker in the dumpster behind the Governor’s Mansion with Christie’s teeth marks on her (or better yet his) ass, you know, I’m going to have a hard time working up any actual interest.

And so, I wasn’t going to say anything.

But, hell, you just can’t get away from Chris Christie’s stupid bridge scandal.

And that’s what bugs me.

Let me explain.

Dubbed “Bridgegate” by the liberal press in a staggering bit of literary originality, and “Bridgeghazi” by the obsessive compulsives of Fox News (where all bridges lead inevitably to Libya), apparently certain of Christie’s staffers not satisfied with an overwhelming landslide victory, decided to punish the lone mayor who failed to publicly cheer the governor’s reelection. In retaliation against the liberals of Fort Lee, Christie’s office shut down a couple of lanes on the world’s busiest bridge causing massive traffic jams during the first week of school.

Now, there’s no need to insert “alleged” in front of the asshattery here. It happened, that’s absolutely not in dispute. And there’s no question that it happened at the behest of the governor’s office either. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that this was a malicious and deliberate abuse of power directed against the governor’s political enemies, even Christie admits that and says that as the guy in charge he “takes responsibility for it” (responsibility in the generic comes with the job sense, not the personal one). And yes, if you squint your eyes, this has the faint whiff of Jersey mafia boss written all over it. What? Fort Lee didn’t cheer loud enough for the Governor’s reelection? Time for a little encouragement. Mr. Mayor, meet my “associates,” Rocko and Bruiser…

That said, Folks, in case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s New Jersey.

It’s New Jersey and it’s Chris Christie. How the hell did you think he got the job in the first place?

And, seriously, using the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for political ends? Not exactly a new thing, that. It’s practically as big a cliché as tacking “gate” on the end of everything that even vaguely looks like a political scandal.

Hell, the mayor of Fort Lee is lucky he didn’t end up encased in cement under a Hoboken Public Works project paid for with Hurricane Sandy relief funds. It’s Jersey. The question isn’t what happened, the only question at this point is whether Christie was running the show personally or did he just have Rocko and Bruiser quote take care of it unquote. 

In other words is he smooth enough to arrange for plausible deniability or is he a greasy crook who stepped on his own dick? 

After all, this guy wants to be president. Republicans should probably figure out in advance whether they’re getting a Reagan … or a Nixon.

So, yeah, it was a petty vindictive childish thing to do, absolutely. An abuse of power no doubt. But in the grand scheme of things? It just politics as usual.

A traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge? Just how egregious is that really? When isn’t there a traffic jam on the GWB? When isn’t there gridlock in New York? When isn’t the Jersey Turnpike under construction? I’ve driven through this area I don’t know how many times, and it’s always a ride through giant festering donkey balls. Always. Sure it was a shitty thing, and it’s even been alleged that a few deaths occurred as a result, but I mean come on, this isn’t even remotely the worst thing we’ve caught a politician doing lately. It’s moderately scandalous and, sure, Christie ought to be held to account by the New Jersey voters who elected him, but on a national scale? On the scale of Watergate? Oh, please, there wasn’t even an illicit wiretap or a dead hooker involved – let alone actual bodies being actually entombed in actual concrete. Hell, there aren’t even any (alleged) pictures of Christie’s rampant junk floating around Twitter (and if I’m wrong about this and you come across such, just feel free to keep it to yourself, OK?).

As scandals go, this one is pretty run of the mill.

A politician using his office for political ends and to punish his enemies? Yow, I’m shocked, shocked I tell you … or maybe I’ve just spent too much time in Washington.

Now absolutely there should be an investigation and, if indicated, criminal charges against those responsible, including Christie himself – if there’s evidence to support an indictment, which so far there isn’t.  But, again, that’s something for New Jersey and New York to deal with and if this was any other governor, this whole thing would have been a minor one-day headline under the front page fold (What? Rod Blagojevich? Okay, you got me there. But, seriously, that guy was really, really asking for it).

Let’s at least be honest and admit what this is actually about.

This isn’t about a traffic jam, or if somebody actually died or not, or even how Hurricane Sandy funds were distributed, or whether Christie is a bully (he is, try to keep up).

This is about 2016.

Just like Benghazi.

Folks, I just spent the better part of two weeks trapped in front of Fox News.

I started counting.

On average, out of one hundred individual news clips, forty-seven were specifically about Obamacare. 

Twenty-one were about Benghazi.

(And, just because I know you’ll ask, there was one Fox News Chris Christie Bridge story during the period where I was recording statistics. Fair and balanced, Folks, fair and balanced)

As an experiment, I had two tally sheets running on my tablet, one for each subject, Obamacare and Benghazi. Including the commercials, Fox News didn’t go more than seven minutes without a reference to Obamacare, seven minutes, and no more than ten without playing a Benghazi clip. The screen was continuously filled with jiggling cleavage and red tinged monomaniacal hysteria shouting Obamacare! Benghazi! over and over. Obamacare! Obamacare! Benghazi! Obamacare! Obamacare! Obamacare! Bleat! Bleat! Obamacare! Ook! Ook! Benghazi! Alert! Alert! Alert! Scandal! Scandal! Sandal! With the basic idea being that even if there’s no actual scandal, you can make one if you just keep beating the drum hard enough and long enough – the manufactured hoopla around Benghazi is a perfect example of this type of manipulation. And you don’t have to go very far, or listen to too many conservatives, to see how well this kind of perception manipulation works on even relatively aware and intelligent folks.

Joseph Goebbels had nothing on Roger Ailes.

And the best part? It’s self-reinforcing. When shown irrefutable proof that they are being actively manipulated, people get angry – not angry at being manipulated, but mad and offended that it was pointed out.  People are deeply outraged at the mere thought that they’ve been duped and so perversely rather than change their position or admit they’ve been had, they instead typically deny that any such manipulation has taken place – and in reaction their artificially implanted beliefs become even more entrenched (incidentally, this particular human trait is one of the primary reasons why con men and cult leaders are able to ply their trade so successfully, often coming back to the same victims over and over).

It’s propaganda, what the military calls psychological warfare, a form of population manipulation in the purest sense.

Trust me on this, I used to do this for a living and I was one of the military’s foremost experts on it. I know it when I see it. The so-called IRS scandal is a perfectly executed textbook example of this form of manipulation.

And it’s no secret. Despite Dan Rather’s recent public half-assed no-but-not-really denial to the contrary, Fox News cheerfully admits that’s exactly what they’re up to. Ailes and Rupert Murdock took a page right out of the defunct TVN’s information warfare playbook – which is not at all surprising given that Ailes helped to write it. And I’m not the only one who’s made that connection (and really, if you get a moment, follow that link and listen to the interview, it’s worth your time).  In America, this kind of thing may be unethical as all hell (as if ethics had anything to do with either politics or the press, but I digress), but it’s not even vaguely illegal.  

There’s nothing particularly new about this, media organizations have been actively attempting to manipulate the public since long before William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped goad America into the Spanish American War. Fox News under the command of Roger Ailes has simply refined it to the level of military science.

Fox News and the Right have spent the last year hammering at Benghazi, not because they give a good Goddamn about the death of a liberal Ambassador and the personal friend of a president who they abjectly despise, but at first because they wanted to prevent Barack Obama’s reelection and lately because they fear, absolutely utterly fear, Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Just as the left fears Chris Christie.

Now, personally, I think calling any election this far out is a sucker’s bet, but it’s our national pastime and Clinton and Christie are the two most popular potential contenders for 2016 at this point. They are both the only two potential candidates who, at the moment, actually seem to have a real shot at winning the general election. Both are enormously popular. Both are charismatic in their own personal ways. Both have the ability to appeal to both their own bases and to independent moderates. Both are experienced savvy politicians who know how to work the crowd instead of routinely putting their own feet into their own mouths all the way to the hip.

Needless to say, both scare the ever living shit out of the opposition.

And so, naturally, both sides are doing their level best to wage preemptive warfare just as far in advance of the actual battle as possible – because that’s how we Americans do democracy.

Now, just so I’m clear – because I can hear the howling already – let’s make no false equivalency here.  With cynical malice aforethought, Roger Ailes and Fox News are engaged in an active, practiced, and well planned campaign of information warfare. The liberal slanted media, on the other hand, is a disorganized herd of cats engaged in a “so’s your mother!” style of debate.  Conservatives have always been better at war than liberals, and it shows.

And don’t get me wrong here, I’m no particular fan of Chris Christie (or Hillary Clinton for that matter). And I’m certainly not trying to either dismiss the issue or make excuses for it, people in New Jersey and New York who were affected by this asshattery have every right to demand an accounting and they should.  But, what I’m saying here is the same exact thing I’ve said to the Obama haters over and over, if you’re going to hate the man, at least hate him for who he actually is instead of some nonsense manufactured in the bowels of the media machine. At least hate him for what he actually did, instead of just because he’s Chris Christie. One of the most disturbing things I hear in conversation with liberals over this affair are those who mock the man for his weight. If you smugly point out the bigotry and personal attacks on President Obama due to his race, but can’t discuss Chris Christie without prefacing your comment with “that fat tub of lard,” you probably ought to go take a long look in the mirror. Ditto if you hate the fact that conservatives continue to insist on Obama’s complicity in the IRS “scandal” despite numerous investigation results to the contrary, but are ready to convict Christie just because you don’t like his politics.

Again, don’t get me wrong here, there’s certainly a scandal – again even Christie openly admits that – and there has most certainly been an abuse of power.

But time and the law will tell if it’s actually Bridgegate or just Bridgeghazi.

It’s bad enough that the cynical malignant ideologues behind Fox News are actively working to divide the country and drive us to civil war in all but actual practice. There’s no need for the rest of the press, and the nation, to follow suit.

As mom said, the fact that your idiot friend jumped off a bridge is no reason for you to jump too.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

But Aside From That, Mrs. Lincoln…



I note a large number of folks arriving on this article from various airline industry forums. 


Dear Airline People, as noted down in the comments section below this post, in conversation with an industry First Officer, I’m a writer – not a travel critic.  This article is intended as biting humor, opinion, a travelogue of my recent experience through the bowels of your industry.  It was not intended as a personal attack on any particular individual, with the specific exception of those in the ivory towers who set policy. I would point out that I intentionally did not name the airline in question so as not to make it a personal attack.  I do understand that many of you are just as frustrated with your industry as are the flying public. I do actually understand that you have to follow the rules, that you can’t just slap a hunk of duct tape over the problem and take off anyway. I get that, I really, really do. I’ve had command of a Navy Cruiser’s bridge during flight operations under extremely hazardous conditions. I’m not a pilot but I do indeed understand the rules. That said, some portion of the text below is deliberate hyperbole, because again it was intended as humor. I’ve laughed at the ridiculousness of my chosen profession, surely you can do the same. I understand that many of you, from the folks in the cockpit to those who have to face the public in the back of the aircraft, love your jobs – or at least got into the business because you loved the job once upon a time, before the mergers and the bankruptcies and the chiseling away of your benefits and the erosion of all the things that make your profession a joy. I get that, maybe more than you know. And I loved flying too. For me, once upon a time it was an adventure, a voyage to far distant shores. The following article reflects to some extent my bitterness that it should no longer be so.  //Jim



If you’re going through hell, keep going.
      - Winston Churchill


There’s this scene in the movie Catch Me If You Can that always makes me laugh.

Catch Me is set against the fabulous backdrop of the late 1960’s Jet Age.

It was the glorious gilded heyday of commercial air travel, a time of Juan Trippe and his fabled Pan American World Airways, of tall handsome pilots with steel in their eyes and silver in their hair and golden wings upon the breasts of their spotlessly pressed crisp blue uniforms, of young winsome stewardesses in high heels and pillbox hats, of shining chrome-steel jets built by the very pinnacle of American industry, machines that would take you across the oceans and the continents in wide comfortable seats with impeccable service to Rome and Paris and Rio de Janeiro flying from fantastic jetports like New York’s JFK Worldport and Washington’s art deco National in the very shadow of America’s capitol – places that were works of art and destinations in and of themselves.

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays legendary confidence man, Frank Abagnale Jr. – who, as an 18 year old teenager, was pretending to be a pilot and cashing millions of dollars worth of fake Pan Am checks and traveling all over the world solely on the unquestionable reputation and fabulous mystique of the commercial airline pilot. 

One day while dressed in a Pan Am uniform, in the lobby of some swank 5-Star hotel, Abagnale is approached by a young boy who goggles wide-eyed at the tall handsome figure.

In a voice full of youthful hero worship the child asks, “Gee, Mister, are you a pilot?”

“Co-pilot,” replies DiCaprio in a confident yet humble aw shucks voice. “Would you like an autograph?”

Star-struck the kid nods and holds out his Pan Am travel book as his well-heeled parents look on in grateful appreciation…

That’s when I start laughing.

Right there.

Say, would you like an autograph?

Fast forward a five decades, an autograph? No, Jackass, I’d like you to get on the goddamned plane and get us out of the gate approximately on time, and by approximately I mean, oh, heck, let’s be generous and say within three or four hours of our scheduled departure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The missing co-pilot comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.

The Trip Through Hell started like all other travel adventures in this shabby and over-booked age. We intended to fly from our home in South Central Alaska down to Michigan and spend Christmas with my family.  A week later we’d fly to Florida’s Panhandle to visit my wife’s family over the New Year. Finally we’d head back to Alaska and, after a relaxing weekend to settle in, a return to school for my son and back to work for my wife and myself.

Now, like all military families and nearly all Alaskans, we are extremely experienced travelers.  Car, bus, boat, ship, train, plane, you name it, we’ve traveled on it, tens of thousands of miles around the world.  So, of course, we knew the flying part would be miserable, because, really, when isn’t it nowadays? I haven’t been on a flight that wasn’t miserable since, hell, Pan Am went under. And over the Christmas holiday? Right. So, we planned accordingly. We spent significantly more than we normally would for upgraded seats and direct flights on a reputable airline – one that wasn’t currently in the midst of a bankruptcy, a hostile takeover, or a labor dispute (and trust me, that doesn’t leave much). We made sure our itinerary included several hours of layover at each stop in order to allow for reasonable delays or problems. We made our reservations far in advance and checked on them regularly – including reading all the fine print on the airline and the Transportation Security Administration’s websites and we made sure to carefully comply with all the regulations and guidelines for a “safe and delay-free” trip.

And we resigned ourselves to the over-crowded chaotic flatulent sticky horror of holiday travel through America’s major airports – and in particular O’Hare International, or as we call it: The Inner Circle of Hell.

We were prepared, dammit, we were.

But the fickle and vindictive Gods of Travel are not so easily placated and they, like Lucy of Peanuts fame, delight in building up your hopes (what? No, no, this time it’ll be different. Trust us) only to yank away the football at the very last second (Sucker!). Then they cackle in gleeful mockery as you somersault into the air while screaming “Rats!” yet again.

Things began going pear-shaped several hours before we were scheduled to fly out of Anchorage.  Snow and lots of it.  Now, there’s nothing particularly unusual about snow in Anchorage in December. Truth be told, Alaska is somewhat known for that sort of thing. It’s not like it’s a big surprise.  And Ted Stevens International Airport normally keeps the planes flying despite blizzard conditions.

We weren’t worried.

Because, like Charlie Brown, we are stupidly optimistic that this time it will be different, Blockhead.

We were scheduled to catch the redeye into Chicago. Throughout the day we checked and rechecked and checked again, the airline’s online app said the flight was on time and ready to go.  But of course we should have known better. Of course we should have.

We loaded up the luggage and just as we prepared to leave the driveway for the airport, sure enough, our phones started beeping.

The flight was delayed. 

Nothing major, just a slight delay.


But as the wizard said, that’s how it always begins. Very small.


Nothing to worry about, it’s just a slight delay.

We were talking about whether or not we should just go ahead and leave, since it was only a minor delay…

… when we got another alert via phone.

The slight delay was going to be slightly longer than expected.

They never tell you why.  Weather, crew, terrorists, fire, plague, exploding engines, terrifying space monkeys, rampaging Nazis, don’t worry about it we’ll have you on your way in no time.

There’s just going to be a slight a delay.

Just long enough for us to miss our connection in Chicago. By about twenty minutes.

Funny how it always works out that way, isn’t it? It’s almost like they do it on purpose (Sucker!).

Again, we’re experienced travelers. My wife got on the phone immediately and called the airline.  Being a professional service that specializes in moving large groups of people around the world, they were ready for us and had our new itinerary all ready to go … oh, wait, no, sorry that’s not what happened, I’m thinking of the 1960’s.  No, what happened is my wife got to talk to a nice young chap from India who was still learning English and who, for some reason, Praise be to Shiva, kept trying to change our flight between Grand Rapids and Pensacola scheduled for a week later.  After twenty minutes of shouting “NO NO NO! We need you to fix today’s flight. Today. Not next week. Please don’t… no, stop, don’t change next week. No, wait, stop, listen…” my wife gave me the eye, thanked the nice man for his time, and we headed to the airport in order to square it away in person.

But seriously, if we ever need to fly to Bangladesh, we’ll be sure to give that kid a call.

By the time we got to the airport the snow was falling thick and heavy and our phones were flashing “you’re screwed” over and over. 

We got in line like good little Bolsheviks hoping for shoes or cabbages and shuffled along until we reached the counter. Curious, I asked what the problem was, why the delay?  Headwinds, says the agent. Headwinds? Like four hours of headwinds? Like it’s 1914 and we don’t have satellite weather predication and realtime on the ground sensors along the route headwinds? Like that? Yep. The plane had to divert to Seattle and take on fuel.  But don’t worry, it’s the same plane, it’ll just be a little late. 

And there was nothing for it, the plane was going to be late, there wasn’t another one, and that was that. We would miss our connection in Chicago.  And the next flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids wasn’t for 12 hours after our projected arrival, meaning despite careful planning we were going to lose an entire day of our short vacation stuck in the 9th Circle of Hell.  Awesome.

The agent shrugged, too bad, take it or leave it.

Right. Seriously, what are you gonna do?

The agent handed us new boarding passes.

And I noticed something right away.

A small blank space.

Where there should have been a seat assignment.

“Um, excuse me,” says I…

… and that’s when the Travel Gods yanked away the football (Sucker!).

You’ll need to see the agent at the gate for a seat assignment, you’re on standby…

“Now just hold the hell on.  We’ve got seats.  We’ve had seats for two months.”

Okay, here’s the problem …

“No, stop right there. You said the plane was just diverted to Seattle for fuel. It’s the same plane you said.  So what’s this nonsense?”

The plane is oversold…

Oversold? How is that possible? The plane wasn’t oversold when we left the house an hour ago. We had seats then. In fact we paid for upgraded seats, so we could all sit together as a family. The guy wasn’t making any sense – probably because the son of a bitch was lying through his artificially whitened teeth.



You know, over the last ten years, I’ve been on more flights that were oversold than weren’t

Overbooking every flight is now standard practice.

When I stated on social media my opinion that if ever there was an industry that needed iron-fisted regulation it’s this one, some wit asked me how “regulation” would fix anything.

Well, for starters, we can put an end to the routine practice of overselling and overbooking airplanes. 

Look, it’s simple, you’ve got 300 seats, you sell 300 tickets and not one more. Period. If you’ve got more than 300 passengers, you need another airplane, go get one out of the hanger. Frankly, it concerns me that airlines can’t seem to do basic math – maybe that’s why the plane had to unexpectedly divert to Seattle for gas … saaaaay, wait, how much fuel did we put in the tank? 

Look, I realize that it’s more complicated than that, but let’s be frank here: in no other industry is it legal to sell more product than you have.  Honestly, where else would you put up with this bullshit?  Hi, I’d like two cheeseburgers and a large order of fries.  Okay, that’ll be $12.50 … here’s your order.  Wait, there’s only one burger in here and a small order of cold fries, this isn’t what I paid for!  Oopsy, looks like we oversold the burgers.  But I paid for two burgers and a large order of hot fries, I’m hungry, dammit!  Okay, stand over there and if somebody else doesn’t want their burger, you can have it.  But I paid for two burgers and an order of fries!  Sorry, we sold the same burger to two people, but only one gets it, so either you take one burger or you get out of line and pray that somebody else gives up their order, those are your only two options, because screw you.  That’s bullshit! Give me my money back!  Nope, sorry, take it or leave, Sucker…

So, the plane was overbooked.

Sorry, can’t help you. See the gate agent. Take it or leave it.

We got through security in short order, a quick scan, a cheerful “Merry Christmas and have a good trip!” from the TSA agent, and we headed for the gate. 

Naturally there was no agent at the desk.

A couple of hundred people desperate for seats, all told to see the agent … and there’s no agent.

Because screw you, that’s why.

So, as long as we’re on the subject of regulation: enough of this “see the agent at the gate” crap.  Assign me a seat, assign me a seat at the ticket counter. You know how many people bought tickets. You know how many seats are on the airplane. Assign me a goddamned seat right now. And if for some bizarre reason seat assignment can only be done by the guy at the gate, then require that guy to be at the gate. Period. At the gate and nowhere else.  If you don’t have enough people to man the gate, then either hire more people or stop sending people to the gate and take care of it at the ticket counter.

There is no reason, repeat no damned reason, why people who paid good money in advance and followed the rules laid down by the airline industry should have to stand in yet another line and beg for seats like Oliver Twist asking for another helping of gruel.

Please, Sir, may I have some more?

It’s ridiculous and yet it happens all the time – as you shall see.

We bought our tickets months in advance. We got to the airport early. We followed all of the rules.  We did what the airlines required us to do. They’re already wasting hours of my time without any type of compensation, but that’s not enough, instead of at least being able to eat dinner in the airport restaurant with my family, I’ve got to stand in line with 300 other desperate people waiting for a seat assignment – and then I’m made to feel exactly like the aforementioned urchin because, please sir, I’d like my family to be seated together and I’d like it to be in the upgraded seats we actually paid for. 

So, the counter was unmanned.

However, the screen behind the empty counter helpfully informed us that our departure time had slipped yet another hour.

And then another hour after that.

Fully three hours later, an agent came ambling along and mooched up to the counter.  Naturally people jumped up expectantly.  The agent assumed a pained look. Please, let me get logged in and get set up, just be patient. Seriously? Lady, we’ve been patient. More than patient, where the hell do you get off looking like you’re being put upon?  Honestly, if this was any  venue rather than air travel, people would have started lighting the chairs on fire and eating each other hours ago. So, snap to it.

The woman looks at me and says, just have a seat, I’ll call you.  I look behind me, there are 300 hundred frustrated and angry Christmas travelers waiting on a seat assignment, if you think I’m getting out of line, you’re insane.

Eventually she quits fooling with her keyboard and looks up, “so, what can I do for you?”

Seriously? What the hell do you think I’ve been standing in line for for the last five hours?

She looks at my tickets and says, “I can route you through Denver instead of Chicago. You’ll only have a two hour layover that way.”

Really? Why didn’t the guy at the ticket counter tell me about that option? I mean they all have access to the same information don’t they? Back there behind the counter, they’re all looking at the same computer system. I mean they have to be, by definition, right? The guy at the ticket counter already changed my flight, that’s why I’ve been standing here for five hours, so why didn’t he put me on the Denver flight and just issue us the appropriate seat assignments then so I could go eat dinner with my family instead of standing here waiting for you? The agent shrugged, beats me, you want Denver or not? 

So I opted for Denver. It was supposed to take off in the next hour. She handed me the boarding passes.

And I noticed something right away.

A small blank space.

Where there should have been a seat assignment.

“Um, excuse me,” says I…

Yeah, she says like a cat licking up cream, you’ll need to see the gate agent for a seat assignment.

And now you know why they have armed guards in airports.

For the third time that night, I changed lines.

Eventually the agent for our new flight showed up.  I eventually got two economy seats together and one elsewhere.  Best they could do, take it or leave it. Because, screw you, that’s why.

Fully six hours after we should have left, we boarded the plane.

I Skyped my mom, who was supposed to meet us at the Grand Rapids airport and gave her the new arrival time. Instead of going to breakfast together, we figured we’d get dinner.

We sat on the plane, waiting, the pilot came on and announced they had some kind of issue, somebody had to bring them a clipboard of some kind, but we’d be on our way “real soon now.”

Because, apparently, six hours wasn’t enough time to find the goddamned clipboard and have it ready. Right?

By the time we pushed back from the ramp more than six inches of snow had accumulated on the wing outside my window.  It took nearly 45 minutes to de-ice the plane. Eventually it was done and the de-icing crews pulled away and disappeared into the blizzard. We waited for the engines to start…

…and waited…

…and waited some more.

The pilot came on the intercom and announced that we had to return to the gate.

Medical emergency. A guy up front had started vomiting uncontrollably.

While they were dealing with him, suddenly the smell of burning marijuana permeated the air. That’s right, somebody, somewhere, was smoking weed.  I thought it might in the cockpit.

Somewhere, through the blinding snow, you could hear the faint giggling laughter of the Travel Gods yucking it up.

Despite the fact that it was now 1AM in the middle of an Alaskan blizzard and there were no other planes in evidence, we couldn’t return to the gate we’d just left. So we waited for a plane-tractor to tow us around the airport like OJ fleeing the LA cops at two miles per hour.  Forty-five minutes later we tied up, and they unloaded the sicko and poked around for the phantom toker and I sat there and watched another six inches of snow accumulate on the wing.

Eventually we pushed back again, and de-iced again, and finally, eight hours after we should have left we were finally airborne.

But the Travel Gods hadn’t gotten to the punchline just yet.

Somewhere over the dark and uninhabited Northwest territory, the guy in the seat directly behind me turned pale and clammy and started clutching his chest. Classic heart attack symptoms.  It was just like the movies, the head flight attendant got on the PA and asked if there was a doctor onboard. There wasn’t, but fortunately we did have two nurses – and one was an emergency room RN.  The plane had a very well equipped medical kit complete with IV bags and heart meds.  The nurses took over while the pilots contacted a doctor on the ground and the flight attendants prepared the cabin for an emergency landing.  So much for Denver.  The pilot announced that he was looking for a place to land, and he’d let us know.  But by that time, the nearest field we could divert to, an airport with full cardiac emergency facilities nearby, was … Denver.  The traffic controllers cleared the air-lanes and the pilots firewalled the throttles and we bounced down the runway at Denver International 45 minutes later and made record time getting to a gate.  The paramedics were waiting, they were onboard as soon as the door opened and pulled the victim off in a special wheelchair designed to fit down the cramped aisle. 

Once the medical emergency was cleared, we were in no particular rush to get off the plane, we figured we’d missed our connecting flight already, so why hurry?  We should have missed it by a full hour, but with the expedited emergency landing we’d come in nearly 50 minutes early.  Our connection should have been just taking off.

As we got off the plane, I confirmed with the gate agent, yep, we missed our connection. But hey, guess what? We rebooked you, for tomorrow. What? You don’t want to waste another day of your vacation in Denver International? Geez. Fine, go see customer service, down the terminal and thataway. But there’s no plane to Grand Rapids today. So sorry.

Somewhere in this mess I mentioned our situation on social media. A number of folks helpfully suggested we just rent a car and drive to Grand Rapids, after all it’s only about four hours.

Well, four hours from Chicago, which is where we were originally supposed to be – some folks hadn’t seen the update and didn’t realize I was in Denver.  And even if we actually were in Chicago as originally scheduled, it’s a four hour drive to Grand Rapids if you don’t happen to be in the middle of a terrible winter storm. Trust me on this, folks, I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, you don’t want to be driving I-94 around the lake in the middle of a howling blizzard roaring in off the frozen Great Lakes. And you especially don’t want to do it in some crappy 2-wheel drive rental car without snow tires.

That said, even if we were stranded in Chicago and not Denver, and even if the weather was clear and warm and there wasn’t a storm, we still wouldn’t have driven because see, here’s the thing: the airlines have you coming and going.

First, if we chose to give up our flight and drive, we don’t get our money back. Even though the airline can then sell our seat to somebody else (or, in actual point of fact, already had, since the flight was overbooked) and would still make money on the flight, you don’t get a refund. If you bail out, they just pocket the profit and smile. And we pay not only for three airline tickets we won’t use, but we then also get to fork over for a rental car too.  I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t have that kind of money laying around and I don’t see any reason why the airline should get free dough.

Second, and here’s that part where the Travel Gods slip a whoopie cushion under your seat, we were on a multi-legged trip.  If you miss any of the segments, for any reason, your confirmation is cancelled for all remaining legs of the trip and you’re put on standby and they give your seats to somebody else.

They’ve got you, and not only are you going to put up with it, you’re going to pay them for screwing you.

So, again, speaking of regulation: Why should the airlines have it all their own way? Why should I be forced to pay for their inability to manage their schedule and assets?

What’s that?

It was weather, you say, can’t be helped.

Yeah, I call Shenanigans.

This isn’t 1968. We’ve got weather predication now. The storm was forecast a full week in advance, and it took another week to build, and let’s be honest here, shall we? You put a major transportation hub at the top of Tornado Alley, at the edge of one of the largest Great Lakes, in the middle of a Midwest winter? And you didn’t see it coming? Seriously?

Folks, I grew up in the Midwest, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Bad weather isn’t exactly a surprise, it’s normal.

Anchorage deals with far, far, far worse weather on a daily basis.  Buy the equipment, hire the people, and get the runways cleared.

The airline industry, and the city of Chicago, have had plenty of time, decades in fact, to do something about it. They don’t, because O’Hare is a massive, massive, massive money making machine for the city and the state. And actually having the equipment and the personnel in reserve to deal with a winter storm cuts into their profit, so they keep the bare minimum necessary and the travelling public gets to suffer for it.

Meanwhile and more to the point, in a nation that daily pisses itself blind over individual rights and liberty, why should I be held hostage to a goddamned airline? Why should I be held hostage to business practices designed solely to gild the CEO’s pocket? Why should I have have to pay for the world’s most idiotic location of a major transportation hub?


Why should I have to give away my vacation time and my time with my family just because it might impact some corporate bottom line? Show me where it says in the Constitution that stockholders get to keep my money for services their company failed to deliver on time and in accordance with the contract specified. Go on, show me, I’ll wait while you look it up.

Again, in no other industry would any American put up with this nonsense.

I should be able to demand my money back at any point (excluding any service that I’ve actually used). I should be able to cancel or modify the transaction to at least the same degree as the airline.  Why does the law benefit them and not me? I’m paying them, they’re not paying me so why is the deal stacked in their favor? If you can’t get me where I want to go when you said you would, then it should be my right, my goddamned right, to seek alternate transportation without penalty. You’re the one who failed to live up the deal, not me, why do I have to pay for it?

But, yeah, I’m pissing into the wind here and all the raging Americans who hate their government queue right up like good little comrades and sing the praises of unfettered capitalism. Hallelujah!

I Skyped my mom, don’t worry about picking us up. We’ll rent a car when we get to Grand Rapids. No idea when we’ll get there.

Tired, hungry, and defeated we wandered in the direction of customer service intending to stop at a restroom along the way, maybe find something to eat … when we heard our names being paged!

Wright, family of three, report to gate B-19. Last call.

B-19, completely in the opposite direction of the way we’d been sent. 

We sprinted through the terminal, full bladders be damned and arrived at the specified gate just as they were closing the door. The agent literally threw new boarding passes at us and shoved us through the hatch without even confirming that we were indeed Wright, Family of Three. For once, a delayed plane worked in our favor.

I Skyped my mom again, Change 5a to Plan B, meet us at the airport…

We made sure to thank the flight attendant for holding the plane and did our best to hold our bladders until we were airborne and the captain had turned off the fasten seatbelt sign. It was a near thing.

A few hours later we were landing at Gerald Ford Airport in Grand Rapids … in the middle of the worst ice-storm to hit Michigan in 30 years.

We made the most of our short stay. We had hoped it would be longer, but we were already strapped for time. Because of the storm, we didn’t get to do half the things we’d hoped, or see many of the people we’d hoped to see (Sorry Debbie and Dr. Phil, Jeff and June, Steve and Nancy, next time, I swear). We did risk driving halfway across the state, jingle all the way, to Frankenmuth and the world’s largest Christmas store, Bronners, on Christmas Eve.  Why? Well, because we love Christmas and Christmas decorations and because Frankenmuth is a beautiful little ersatz Austrian Christmas town. We don’t care if it’s “too commercial,” we think it’s fun. Also, as a child my wife was bitten by a rabid Yuletide elf and infected with incurable Christmas Cooties – so we had to do it, for medical reasons. And it was fun, the store, contrary to expectations wasn’t particularly crowded and the drive through the icy Michigan countryside was like travelling through a beautiful crystalline fairyland. We enjoyed it immensely and came away with a whole bunch of Christmas loot.

After a too short week in rural Michigan, iced in with only intermittent connectivity, amidst falling trees and power-lines, we returned to GRR at 4AM for the trip to Pensacola.


Look, I can function at 4AM, after 20 years in the military I’ve had lots of practice, but if you’re expecting pleasant joviality, you’ve got the wrong guy.

Much of my attitude at that hour depends on one thing and one thing only: coffee and lots of it.

Gerry Ford Airport is a dinky little affair right out of 1979.  There’s not a lot of options, food and coffee-wise at 4AM. We figured we’d check in and hope that would give them time to open up.

We arrived at the ticket counter, again without seat assignments (Goddammit), expecting the worst.  The reports from Chicago were turning ominous. The huge storm that had pounded Michigan for the last week was just reaching full force there.  The agent checked us in and even managed to assign us to actual seats, but cautioned us to get through security promptly because GRR has limited screening capability and the lines, even at 4:30AM were going to be long.

And the lines were long, but again the TSA folks were cheerful and efficient and we got through with 30 minutes to spare.

Naturally the only place to get coffee in B-Terminal was closed.

It was supposed to be open, but it wasn’t.

My son – who is almost as much a coffee addict as I am – and I shook the security gate in front of the little café, hello? Nothing. Lights on, nobody home.

As we were about to walk away, a girl stuck her head out. Sorry, she informed us, the egg guy didn’t show up.

Hey, that’s Okay, we said, we just want coffee.

Sorry, boss says we can’t serve coffee if the egg guy doesn’t arrive.

What? What was that? A muffled chortle from the Travel Gods? Or maybe it was just somebody’s ringtone.

We got on the plane and for the next hour the hyperactive hellion behind me attempted to punt my seat though the forward bulkhead.  No coffee (no service on commuter flights), splitting headache, and a kid using the back of my skull as a punching bag? Terrific. I suppose it could be argued that it’s not very Christian of me to visualize opening the door at 20,000 feet and chucking a child through the turbines over Lake Michigan while rubbing my hands together and making the evil MuWahahahahaHAH! laugh – fortunately for me I’m not a Christian, so I spent the flight thinking up increasingly horrible fates for that miserable brat.

We had an hour layover in Chicago, and it was barely enough time to make our way across five terminals through crowds of desperate and stranded holiday passengers.  It was early in the storm, so the crowd was restive but hadn’t yet turned to murderous cannibalism, it reminded me of that scene from World War Z were the refugees in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport are calmly going about their business while outside the zombie horde is pouring unnoticed over the wall like ravenous army ants. It was only a matter of time before they turned on each other, we’d seen the approaching storm, we knew what was coming.

We met our connection, boarded the dinky commuter jet in good order, and for a moment it looked like we were going to make it off the ground on schedule.

The departure time came and went and went and went and went some more.

Eventually the pilot informed us that they had a “loose screw” on an equipment cover in the cockpit. Nothing to worry about, the cover didn’t even actually do anything. But they couldn’t take off with a loose screw, and the rules specified that only the proper technician come and tighten it up. They were waiting for him now. 

Shouldn’t be long.

Real soon now. 

After a while a shady looking character in a dirty orange vest mooched through the hatch and meandered into the cockpit.

Time passed.

The shady looking guy exited the cockpit. He closed the door firmly behind him, smiled at the flight attendant, and exited the same way he’d come.

The pilot informed us that the technician guy had over-tightened the screw … and had broken the bracket. 

So now the little door widget, you know the one that “doesn’t actually do anything,” wouldn’t close at all. 

The Travel Gods laughed uproariously in malign mirth at their little joke and slapped their thighs in glee.

That pilot guy? The tall steely-eyed silver haired test pilot hero from 1968’s Golden Jet Age of Pan Am Clippers? The one who handed out autographs? That guy? That guy would have reached into the technician’s mouth and pulled out a wad of Beemans Pepsin Gum (official chew of hero test pilots like Chuck Yeager) and stuck that damned door shut with a wink at the stewardess and we’d have been on our way to Rio in a jiffy.

But me? I don’t live in the age of hero test pilots, I live in the Ludicrous Age of Air Travel were they’ve never heard of duct tape.

And so we found ourselves shuffling back into the terminal like damned souls in Dante’s Divine Comedy who’d almost, but not quite, managed to climb up the walls of The Inferno and escape to Purgatorio.


But not quite.

An hour passed. The airline informed us that they were going to swap planes.

After a while they informed us that they didn’t have a plane to swap us to.

Some time after that they announced that they’d fixed the first plane.

Somehow, they’d repaired the little door – despite the fact that I sat in front of the gate, next to the window, watching the plane and never saw any maintenance technician come or go the entire time.  Must have been magic fairies … or maybe it was a wad of Beemans after all.

Eventually they allowed us back onboard and we were off to Pensacola, Florida.

Now, at this point the Travel Gods have had their little joke.


I mean you have to figure that even if, if,  in a previous life I’d bludgeoned a school full of nuns and orphans to death with a pillowcase stuffed with tiny helpless kittens, by now I must have atoned for my sins and used up all my bad karma. Right?

I mean, come on, nuns and kittens, folks, it’s not like I invented Disco and fat-free sour cream.

Surely the Travel Gods must be satisfied by now. Surely.

If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

And don’t call me Shirley.

We spend a week among the rednecked camo-clad denizens of Florida’s Panhandle – which, if you’ve never been there, is exactly how I picture the back-lot of Duck Dynasty (Oh relax, I’m kidding.  Sort of. I’ve been married to a Southern Girl for more than twenty years, I love grits and fried okra and ‘gator on a stick. Though I admit that I will never understand the attraction of boiled peanuts, NASCAR, or Lite Beer – or Duck Dynasty for that matter).

As the time to return home neared, we watched the news out of Chicago with growing trepidation. 

We kept checking our reservations, but the airlines assured us that we were confirmed and our flights were on-schedule.

Repeat, the airlines assured us that we were confirmed and on schedule.

They assured us of this because they are lying bastards one and all.

When the morning of our scheduled return arrived, we once again checked the reservation. Confirmed. And on time.

We kissed our relatives goodbye and headed for the airport.

Before we turned in the rental car, we checked yet again. Confirmed. And on time.

The first hint that we were once again being toyed with by the Travel Gods was the little pixelated snow flakes drifting down the electronic departure screen inside the terminal door of Pensacola Regional Airport.

It took less than five minutes to return the rental car and reach the check-in counter. 

In that time the flight went from being “on time” to “delayed.”

Nothing to worry about, it was just a slight delay.

We’d still have time to make our connection in Chicago back to Alaska – but there wouldn’t be time to get a decent breakfast in a regular sit down restaurant in Chicago as we’d planned.

We checked our luggage, and – since we now had some extra time – decided to get breakfast.  I should have recognized the malevolent machinations of the Travel Gods when my omelet arrived complete with onions and green peppers despite my very specific request that it should be devoid of both ingredients (in the South, it’s a matter of faith that tea should come sweetened and eggs should be served with onions and peppers, no matter what the diner wants.  The diner is obviously either confused as to his wants or a heretic.  I have no proof that this delusion is linked to the large number of Baptist churches, but I have seen no proof that it isn’t either).

We finished breakfast – me cursing and picking around the peppers and onions – and submitted ourselves to the tender mercies of the TSA.

Again, the security screening was painless. The TSA agents were polite and professional and we were through the process in under a minute.

We ambled down to our gate (ok, my wife and son ambled, I limped. I’m not really an ambler), we found a seat, and while I pulled out my tablet and checked to see if Pensacola had improved on their crappy free WiFi since the last time I was here my wife went off to find us some coffee…

…and my phone beeped.


You can see where this is going, can’t you?


The flight was now significantly delayed, hours, and, of course, we would miss our connection in Chicago. Of course we would. Of course.

I checked the airline’s app on my phone, hoping to reschedule online, but ominously it offered us no options. I texted my wife, told her to forget the coffee and get back to the gate, we were screwed yet again and we’d probably have to go back to the ticket counter.  We were just gathering up our carry-on luggage to do exactly that when an agent arrived at the gate desk.

He told us that the flight crew was stuck in Chicago and couldn’t get to Pensacola in order to fly our plane. The plane which was sitting outside, at the gate, at that very moment. I resisted the temptation to sarcastically ask happened to the people who’d flown it to Pensacola in the first place. Look, I understand the concept of crew rest, but the plane was covered in frost, it had obviously been sitting there overnight. The crew must have flown it in at least the day before, where the hell where they now? What did they do, just jump out the door and run away? But I digress.

We handed over our boarding passes, explained the situation, and watched while the agent frowned at his computer.

It went on for a long time, the frowning.

A long time.

Eventually the frowning was accompanied by tsking and grimacing.

Uh oh.

After a while he said, “I can’t get you on a flight to Anchorage. All the Alaska flights are overbooked. They’re all full, way over full. There’s dozens of people on standby for every plane.”

So, what does that mean, I asked.

“Thursday,” he said.

Thursday?  Next Thursday?  That’s a week from now, I responded incredulously (it was Saturday at that point). What is it? 1914? We could board a steam ship in San Francisco and get to Alaska quicker! Route us through Houston or Seattle or Mexico City. Screw Chicago.

Sorry, he said frowning at his computer, the snowstorm in Chicago caused thousands of cancelled flights. Dozens of flights to Alaska were cancelled, the overflow was shifted to every other airport. All the flights to Alaska, from any origin, are massively overbooked.  I can get you to Chicago or Seattle or Houston, but you’ll be on standby at the back of the queue and you’ll probably be stranded there for a week. So, your choice, you can be stranded here in Pensacola or somewhere else. I can get you on a flight out of Phoenix next Thursday for sure. Take it or leave it.

What are you gonna do, right?

Of course we took it.

We’d rather be stranded in Pensacola where we had family and a place to stay than end up sleeping on the floor in Chicago locked in with the zombie cannibal horde in the middle of a snowstorm.

A extra week away from our jobs, my kid out of school, another rental car (at the standard rate, not the cheaper rate you get by reserving in advance, Goddammit). You may, if you like, imagine what this was costing us.

We checked the reservation all week, we were up at 4AM Thursday morning and reported into the airport early like the agent told us.

And so, we arrived on Thursday morning just in time to see the status board update our flight with a flashing “delayed” where the departure time should have been.

What the hell is it this time, I asked the agent behind the ticket counter. 

Well, see, the crew is going to be late…

Déjà vu all over again.

Seriously, these people had a week to square this nonsense away.  Knowing that Chicago is in the grip of a raging goat-rope, they still continue to route their crews through Chicago and still fail to allow enough leeway in their scheduling. Honestly, why was the crew for this flight not flown down the day before and put up in the airport hotel? Because it would cost the airline money? So what? It was costing me money, great giant gobs of it.

So, we handed over our tickets and watched while the agent frowned at her computer.

It went on for a long time, the frowning.

Eventually the frowning was accompanied by tsking and grimacing.

All the flights to Alaska are full, the agent said, it could be a we…

Just stop right there, I said. It’s been a week. It’s been a long damned week. We’ve been more than patient. We’ve been more than understanding. We’ve been more than accommodating.

Well, see, a lot of people are in the same boat…

I. Don’t. Care, I said.  You should have had a plan in place to deal with this. Snow in Chicago isn’t anything new. This has gone from an inconvenience, to aggravating, to idiotic, to ridiculous, to absolutely ludicrous. The storm in Chicago has been over for a week. Your flight crew should be here and ready to go, no excuses. You get us on an airplane to Anchorage and you goddamned well do it right now.  And we want the upgraded seats we paid for and we want them all together.

My wife was kicking me in the shin: don’t piss them off, they’ll screw us even worse.

I know, and she was right, and I hate people who make a scene and think their problems are special, but Goddammit, enough is enough.

This is why I snort in derision when people write me about how “if government would just get out of the way, the free market and competition would fix everything.”  Bullshit. Obvious bullshit. Provable bullshit. History shows over and over and over and over that if business is allowed to operate unregulated it dumps toxic waste in the rivers, kills its employees or reduces them to indentured serfs, markets deadly products, and robs its customers blind at every opportunity. And you don’t have to look any further than the modern airline industry to see it. It’s no great mystery to me why airlines go out of business or go bankrupt on a regular basis, it for damned sure isn’t for lack of paying travelers, it’s not for lack of revenue, it’s not because of high fuel prices or the unions or retirement funds, it’s not because of competition or lack of it, it’s because they suck at basic asset management, it’s because they can’t do basic math – unless they’re adding up the CEO’s bonus or computing stock dividends that is.

It’s not the guy behind the ticket counter, it’s the airline’s business model.

And they’ve got no incentive to change anything. They lost nothing. The airports lost nothing, and in fact profited from the mass of stranded travelers. But their customers, people like me, we lost – in my case it cost me more than a thousand dollars. Multiply that times the number of people stranded for a week, you do the math.

This entire mess, hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers, this wasn’t caused by a storm.

This was a direct result of overbooking and overselling flights.  The storm was just weather, the airlines’ business model and complete lack of contingency planning turned it into a disaster.

And again, in no other industry would Americans put up with this nonsense.

And so the ticket agent, after it became apparent that I wasn’t going to wait another week, managed to find us a flight to Anchorage the very next day. Surprise surprise. She could get us from Chicago to Anchorage on her own airline – in the upgraded seats we paid for and all together, despite the fact that ten minutes before no such accommodation was available – but she had to book us on a different airline and route us through Charlotte to get us to Chicago. Fine, whatever, we’ll take it but I made her build in a five hour layover in Chicago so that we’d have plenty of leeway for the inevitable delay.

The kicker was we had to be at the airport at 4:30AM in order to check in for the flight, so at my insistence, she also coughed up a room for the night at the Hyatt.

The next morning we checked in as directed. Both airlines printed us out their respective boarding passes. We went through security screening again, and again it was quick and painless and easy, and eventually we flew from Pensacola to Charlotte and then to Chicago with only an hour’s delay.

We got to O’Hare and found our gate.

On time, the status board said. 

We now had four hours to kill and so we went off to find some lunch. And coffee.

An hour later we were at the gate, ready to go.  Now, this tale has gone on long enough, so I’ll spare you a rant about the lack of decent restaurants in O’Hare or the bizarre dearth of seats in the gate waiting area (and outlets, Jesus Haploid Christ, it’s 2014 for crying out loud, put some goddamned outlets in the waiting area).

We thought we were home free, but the Travel Gods had one last trick up their sleeve.

First, a last minute gate change. The flight to Whocutthecheese, Wisconsin was late getting into Chicago, which meant that our departure gate shifted down the terminal at the last minute (or what we thought was the last minute, because Sucker!).

When we got to the new gate, suddenly the flight was delayed.

No worries though, it was just a slight delay.

Then a slightly longer delay.

Strangely, despite the announced delay, the plane arrived right on time. The passengers unloaded. The cleaning crew went onboard. The new flight crew started to show up.

Things were looking good. Just a slight delay and we’d start the boarding process. Any minute now.

Any minute…

Except we didn’t start the boarding process.

The flight crew was milling around, talking to the gate agent, there was a lot of shrugging and frowning.

The agent announced that there was going to be another delay in the boarding process.

Then a longer delay.



Oh, you think you know where this is going, do you? Did you remember that missing co-pilot I mentioned earlier? Yeah, him? Seems they couldn’t find him.

That’s right, the First Officer had gone missing.

He was supposed to have already arrived on a flight from somewhere else.

But he didn’t.

They assured us that he was on an incoming flight. He’d be in Chicago in an hour or so. Then he’d be rushed to our gate and we could take off.  Thanks for your patience, Folks.

Except the new flight arrived … and the expected First Officer didn’t. In fact, it eventually emerged that they weren’t even sure if he’d gotten on the plane he was supposed to have arrived on. He wasn’t answering his phone. And they had no idea where he might be or when he might arrive, if ever. For all their assurances, he could have been dead in a ditch somewhere … or signing autographs in the lobby of some swank hotel. The important thing was that he wasn’t at our gate.

And that’s when they told us they might have to cancel the flight.

You know, there comes a point…

We’d been stranded in Pensacola for a week because the airline couldn’t get their flight crews out of Chicago.  Now we were in Chicago and they were telling us that they couldn’t find enough of their employees to man the airplane because they were all somewhere else.

Eventually they managed to dig up a replacement First Officer.  Called the guy in from home I guess. From the looks of him he could have been just some bum they found outside in the snow and handed a jacket. And, honestly, at that point, none of us cared, a hobo at the controls couldn’t have made the trip any more ridiculous – and it’s not like the co-pilot does anything anyway, just ask Leonardo DiCaprio.

So, they started boarding the plane.

My wife went through the gate, the agent scanned her boarding pass, bip, no problem.

My son went through the gate, the agent scanned his boarding pass, boop, no problem.

I went through the gate, the agent scanned my boarding pass, BLEEP! Buzzzz! There was a problem.

Um, you’re not checked in, said the agent.

Yes. I. Am. I replied.

No, sorry, you don’t have a seat.

You may, if you like, imagine the two word response I was contemplating at that very moment.

Look, pal, I said instead, I’ve got a boarding pass. I’m checked in. Your airline checked me in. In person. And printed me out this boarding pass. This morning. At your airline’s desk in Pensacola. My wife and son who just went through were checked at the same exact time and place. 

The agent fiddled with his computer, he frowned.

It went on for a long time, the frowning.

The long line behind me grew ever more restive.

Are there two James Wrights? The agent finally asked.  Yes, me and my son. We’ve been through this bullshit before with the names. We have different middle names. Just exactly as it says on the boarding passes, we made sure to use the middle names, so you’d know. Two Jim Wrights, different seats, side by side, next to Becky Wright. As in a family.

Oh, well, uh, two James Wrights, yeah, that’s a problem. The computer doesn’t like two James Wrights.

Right, because I’m the only father in the entire world who’s ever flown on your airline with a son who has a similar name. Right? I’m the only one. Ever. Either that or you people are morons, so which one is it?

Uh, well, see, we gave your seat away by accident.

Morons it is.

You may, if you like, imagine the two word response I was contemplating at that very moment.

Look, Buddy, I said instead, you can just ungive it away. 

The guy fiddled with his computer and the machine spit out another boarding pass, middle seat, in the back of economy class.

Nothing doing, Pal, this is your mistake. Fix it.

If you’d care to step over to the desk, so we can board the rest of the passengers …

I don’t think so. I’m not getting out of line. If you gave my seat to somebody else you can just move that guy. It’s your mistake, you go explain it to him. You go right ahead and put him in the middle seat in the back of economy. He gets screwed or I get screwed. I vote him and he doesn’t get a vote. I want the seat I’m confirmed in, that I paid for, next to my family. Period. Or nobody is getting on the plane. Figure it out.

And eventually that’s exactly what happened. I ended up in the seat I paid for, next to my family.

Seven hours later we were in Anchorage.

We were supposed to arrive at 7PM on Friday night, instead we walked out of the Ted Stevens International Airport at 1AM on Saturday morning.

Naturally, after three and a half weeks sitting in the parking lot in Alaska in winter, my truck battery was stone dead and the vehicle was buried under two feet of snow and surrounded by a wall of ice pushed into place by the plow trucks.  I was prepared for that however, I had a spare battery in the back and jumper cables and brooms and shovels and it wasn’t long before I had the truck running and dug out – unlike the airlines, I plan ahead for winter.

Gratefully we started for home – the Trip Through Hell was over at long last.


An hour down the dark Glenn Highway headed towards our house in Palmer, I realized something.


The easiest part of our trip? The absolute most hassle free, painless, efficient, and pleasant part of our trip …

… was the TSA security screening.

Make of that what you will.