Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Pleasure of Flying

Flying isn’t what it used to be. Anyone who has flown a lot knows this. Not only is flying in economy class like taking the Greyhound bus, but the added airport security measures, and the often rude and disgruntled airline staff, can make the experience most unpleasant.

Last week I flew to Florida on Delta Airlines for a short getaway with my sister, to visit my parents who winter down south. I’ve done this trip for years, sometimes flying out of Toronto Pearson International, or out of Buffalo, or even out of Detroit. I fly direct (an easy 3 hour flight), or connect to another flight somewhere in the US. I’ve flown on many different airlines and have been stuck with booked tickets on airlines that suddenly went bankrupt (Canada 3000, Jetsgo); I’ve missed flights because of bad traffic on route to the airport; and I’ve been redirected because of cancelled flights.

My main objective when flying is this: get to my destination safely, and as close to the planned arrival time as possible. But when you fly, anything can happen. We’ve all got stories that could top the next person’s!

My story today is not a great dramatic tale, but a rant. A rant about inept check-in staff, airline mismanagement and inefficient security measures.

It all started with a glitch in Delta’s computer system, which prevented me from checking in on-line. (It turned out that a clerical person had typed my name wrong, and because my confirmation number and my name did not match when I entered them, I couldn’t continue).

Some carriers, including Delta, are now charging $50 for checked baggage and since I was only going away for a few days, I decided to bring just a carry-on. This cost is not apparent when booking your ticket, which is misleading and kind of sneaky. I reviewed the baggage rules on the Delta website:

Carry-on Baggage

All Delta passengers are allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item that meet the criteria below.

Your bag must:

• Not exceed 45 inches (length + width + height), or 115 cm.
• Fit easily in our SizeCheck® unit (approximately 22"x14"x9", or 56x36x23 cm).

• Fit in an overhead bin or underneath the seat in front of you.

Personal Items

You're allowed one personal item from this sample list:
Purses, briefcases, camera cases, and diaper bags
Laptop computers (can’t be checked and must be carried on)
Items of a similar or smaller size to those above

Ok. I would bring one small suitcase and one personal item (a small over-shoulder bag about the size of a diaper bag).

I get to the airport well in advance of the flight, wait in the check-in line for half an hour to get my boarding pass, and then the lady at the counter tells me that I have to check my carry-on and pay for it.

“But why?” I ask. “I’m allowed one carry-on and this bag is within the size restrictions.” (I’d measured it at home and it was well within the limit).

“Because you can’t have two carry-on bags,” she says. “It’s a matter of security.”

I point to the sign, which is displayed near the check-in counter. “Look, it says right there that you can have two pieces. One carry-on bag and one personal item that is similar to the size of a diaper bag or a laptop. My bag is smaller than either of those.” My tone is measured and polite.

She looks at me with contempt. “Well, that isn’t a laptop or a diaper bag, is it?”

“No, but it could be a diaper bag.”

“Where’s your baby? You can only use a diaper bag, if you have a baby.”

Now I’m getting annoyed. “My baby is at home.”

“You don’t have a baby,” she snorts.

“Look. I don’t want to check my bag. I reviewed the requirements before I came and I packed accordingly.”

The woman shakes her head. “I don’t make the security rules. There’s no point arguing with me.”

The line-up is huge and there are only two Delta check-in employees at the counter. The woman doesn’t seem to care. I open my carry-on suitcase and stuff my shoulder bag inside. I can barely do up the zipper and now the suitcase is larger than the size allowance.

“There, now I have only one bag. Will that do?”

She shrugs. “I guess so.”

I get my boarding pass and proceed to the first security check. The guy looks at my suitcase and shakes his head. “That bag is too big for a carry-on. You’ll have to check it.”

“What if I remove some things?” I ask.

“You can try,” he says.

I take out the shoulder bag and zip up the suitcase. “That’s better,” he says, and waves me on.

I proceed to US customs and wait in line for almost an hour because of the shortage of customs officials.

Next, I move on to security, where they make me take off my shoes, my jacket, my belt, my hair-band and my necklace. No problem. This I get. It’s part of the deal these days. I can finally go to my gate (which happens to be at the other end of the airport), and as I walk, I pass a long corridor of tables where people have been diverted for baggage inspections. There are about fifty security workers in the area, but only a dozen are occupied. The rest are standing idle, chatting and laughing with one another. All that’s missing is a beer or a wine glass in their hands.

When I return from my trip I hear on CBC that the Federal Government is going to increase taxes on airline tickets to pay for the additional airport security. I feel so much safer, don’t you?

For more uninspiring tales of “security mayhem,” see Margaret Wente’s great Globe and Mail piece, Security Theatre for the Absurd.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Life Remembered

There are friendships that last forever, and others that come and go. Some people touch our lives and then disappear. They might get too busy, move away or pass away. But friends who have inspired us in some special way will never leave our hearts.

I once had a friend (a dear old friend of my parents) whom I knew for most of my life. I’m only familiar with pieces of her life story, and my visits with her were sporadic over the years; but since her passing last February, she lingers in my heart and mind as a wise, warm, and constant presence.

Louise (Loulou) was born in Arvida, Quebec in 1942, the daughter of devout Catholic French-Canadian parents. Her father was a lawyer and her mother, a strong matriarch, stayed home to raise their brood of seven children. When Louise was eighteen, she set her sights on becoming a nun. Highly intelligent and ideologically driven, she thought she knew exactly what she wanted.

Then George came along.

George, a young Hungarian immigrant and my parents’ great friend, had discovered Louise while dating her older sister. His passions soon moved on to Louise (which was fine with her sister) and a friendship developed. Thirteen years her senior and more than ready to settle down, George had some work to do to win her heart. Strong-willed and determined to follow her calling, this spirited young woman was not the best marriage candidate. But George was not to be deterred.

Commuting regularly on weekends from Montreal to Arvida, George continued his pursuit, determined to win her over. When he finally declared his love, Louise rejected him. He was crushed.

My parents advised him to stop the visits for a while and give Louise some space. But he couldn’t stay away. He went to Arvida again using the excuse of visiting her family, with whom he had developed a warm relationship. When Louise caught sight of him walking down the street one day, she called out his name and swooned (like a scene from the movies!).

From that moment, her life changed directions. They married and then moved to a small university town in Germany, where George was transferred with his job. Louise immersed herself in learning the language and starting a family. Within a few years, the couple had four children. As much as Louise loved being a mother, she wanted more. A feminist without really knowing it, she began to study psychology at the University of Gottingen. She earned her degree and then went on to do her masters. For a small town French-Canadian girl who didn’t speak a word of German when she first came to the country, Louise had quickly found her ground.

The family eventually moved to California and later, to Montreal. There, Louise built her psychology practice and continued raising her family, then teens in high school. She took up painting, played tennis, studied alternative and new age religions, sailed around the world for two years with her husband, and hosted a radio show answering call-in questions about life’s problems.

This was a very busy lady—yet never too busy to have us stay if we were visiting Montreal, or to invite us for dinner if we were passing through. She loved to laugh and to engage in deep conversation. She had strong opinions and was keen to share them. Her affectionate hugs were as natural as her heartfelt tears. She was sincerely interested in what you said and listened with intensity.

When speaking to Louise, she’d make you feel that what you were saying was terribly important. I could be talking about the weather, my children, or a personal problem, but whatever the subject, nothing else mattered at that moment and every word seemed to interest her.

At some stage in her life, Louise lost her faith in God. Unfortunately, I never had the conversation with her to find out why. But I know she was a deeply spiritual person who meditated daily, read many books by enlightened spiritual leaders, and practiced Eckhart Tolle’s philosophy of living in the present moment (as described in his book The Power of Now).

Two years ago, after fighting a valiant battle with cancer, her beloved husband George passed away. At his funeral Louise was beautifully collected and profoundly heartbroken. Having been together for almost fifty years and weathering so much together, she could hardly imagine a life without him. Unwell herself, Louise’s own struggle with follicular lymphoma, which had been in remission, soon became her new challenge.

When I sent her a letter conveying my concern (and my lament that what was happening to her was unfair) she immediately wrote back, despite suffering great pain and knowing that her end was near.

Her wise, caring words were a valuable gift. This is what she said:

Carla, nothing is unfair that befalls us. At least that's the way I see it. Human behavior can be unfair, but what life serves us is just that, life. George and I always believed in living life fully. That means to accept it and make the best of what it brings us. Not always easy, I grant you. But I know this positive attitude has helped me throughout my life and does so in facing this new challenge.

I'm thinking of you too, knowing that you are facing challenges of a different kind. Tolle would tell you not to lose time and energy worrying, to live in the present moment, face this challenge with determination and creativity. Set your goals and make them so real in your heart and mind that they will become reality. It works for me.

Louise died a few months later, at the much too young age of 67.

One way we can know for sure that a spirit never dies is by the powerful impact left on the people it has touched. Louise’s four fantastic children and much loved grandchildren, her relatives, her multitude of friends, and the folks she met along her life journey, are all graced with her eternal presence. I am grateful to be among the crowd.

Note: I was going to write about the Olympics today but when I sat down at the computer, thoughts of Louise drifted into my mind. When I checked my calendar after writing this article, I found that her funeral was exactly a year ago. The spirit works in interesting ways...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine Blues

Valentine’s Day can be a dismal occasion. Those without love interests or partners are apt to want to crawl under a rock or watch something mindless on TV to avoid exposure to the barrage of sentimental fluff. Just about every unattached person I know abhors Valentine’s Day. The last thing people need when they’re single (and wishing they weren’t) is a blatant reminder of that fact.

Those who are in a relationship should celebrate their love on a regular basis. Do they really need to be prompted by the marketplace to proclaim their feelings for each other? The heart should be moved to action spontaneously, not by a commercially driven love-affirming day.

The most prevalent purchase for Val-Day is not flowers, chocolates or jewelry, but a card. Millions of North Americans will spend a fortune on a paper product with pretty pictures and eloquent words, written by aspiring poets and Hallmark employees.

If we all donated the cash we spent on cards to places like Haiti, Africa, or war-torn nations, we could make a difference in peoples’ lives. But we don’t think that way because retailers and advertisers know how to manipulate us. They inundate us immediately after the Christmas holidays with displays of red and pink Valentine paraphernalia. Chocolates, cute plush toys, heart-shaped candies, and rows upon rows of sentimental cards abound.

In my house, our kids think Valentine’s Day is about them, which is fine with us; they think we should have a special dinner and that they should be the center of attention. It all started when I made heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast when they were toddlers, and put packets of heart-shaped treats by their place settings.

This year we will have twelve people over for dinner on Valentine’s Day, including relatives and friends. I might decorate the table with red napkins and candy hearts, but that’s about it. No mush, no gush and no sentimental drivel.

Does that mean I’m a humbug, with no time to ruminate about love? Not at all. I think about love a lot, but Valentine’s Day is not the inspiration.

For physical survival we need air, water, good nutrition and exercise, but to sustain our souls we need love. Just about everything we do in life is subconsciously or consciously motivated by love, no matter what stage or age we’re at. People are almost always either trying to find love, keep love, nurture love or recover from lost love.

Love is one of those tenuous things that can elude us if we take it for granted. And it mustn’t be a one way street. Finding the right balance of giving and receiving can be tricky; loving too much without reciprocation is painful; being loved without sharing the sentiment can provoke feelings of guilt and emptiness.

We seek and we seek until we find a fulfilling, soulful, loving partnership. Once we find it we must nurture it in order to retain it. Life without love can be hollow and joyless. With love we can overcome and withstand so much. It is a sanctuary for our soul, stimulation for our minds, and power for our bodies.

Why do couples end marriages that were once rooted in love? Why do parents subject their children to the heartache of divorce? Because a loveless marriage is unbearable. “The best thing parents can do for their children is to love each other,” a psychologist friend once told me. But if that’s no longer possible, the next best thing they can do for their children is to treat their exes with respect and civility.

Love is sacred and must be cherished and protected; it is fragile and must be treated with precious care; it is powerful and must be honoured and revered. Love between two people bolsters humanity. It is the thing that fuels our families, our communities, our nations, and our world. People who experience great love do great things. Those who do great things without love are to be especially congratulated, because life is so much harder without it.

A broken heart can breed cynicism and wariness. Yet slowly but surely, love can creep back in and mend one's darkened spirit. A transformed heart is a renewed life. With love, anything is possible.

But it’s not all about romance. It’s about relationships. And that’s why I think Valentine’s Day is for the birds.

If we’re going to have a day to celebrate love then let’s call it something else— Humanity Day or something like that—an inclusive holiday encompassing all loving relationships.

And if you don’t have a partner, don’t let Valentine’s Day bring you down. Rejoice with your family and friends, for love of any kind is worthy of a celebration.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fatal Steps

She was twenty-nine years old—an effervescent woman with thick long brown hair and an infectious laugh. For all her smiles and good humour, she wasn’t very happy. We met at a bridal party many years ago and soon into our conversation she confided that she was tired of going to engagement parties and weddings, not to mention the baby showers. She'd already been a bridesmaid about a dozen times and she didn't even have a boyfriend.

She was being left behind.

Her friends had partners and houses, babies and pets. Their lives were full of people, laughter, love, and busyness. Hers was consumed by a job she didn’t like and trying to meet eligible men. She was apprehensive. What if she never met anyone? What if she was destined to merely observe other people’s joy-filled lives? All this was said with a smile but I could tell that she was serious. She was lonely. She wanted someone to love and she wanted him now.

“Be patient,” I said. “You’re gorgeous, you’ve got a great personality, and you’re young! You’ll meet someone without even trying.”

She smiled with unconvinced eyes. “That’s what everyone says.”

A few months later, I heard that Katie had met a great guy. A few months after that, I heard that she was engaged. She was over the moon in love. The engagement parties, the showers and the big wedding plans were all underway.

Then I heard that Katie was dead. She’d been struck by a truck when jaywalking across a busy intersection with her fiancĂ©e. That was almost twenty years ago.

Almost every day these past few weeks there has been a pedestrian accident in Toronto. First it was 9 deaths in 9 days and then I heard that the number had climbed to 14 deaths in 14 days. Just last week a woman was crossing a busy street near my neighbourhood, pushing a baby carriage, when a minivan struck her. She had just enough time to push the stroller aside, saving her baby but not herself. She died on impact.

Toronto is a congested city and both drivers and pedestrians are impatient. No one wants to kill someone by driving into them and no one wants to be hit. But it happens—much too often as the recent statistics show. We’re distracted, we’re in a rush and we tend to forget how vulnerable we are. We like to think of ourselves as tough and resilient, but our bodies are like bugs, easily crushed when a bigger force comes into contact with us.

My son has a dog-walking job. Every evening he takes a big chocolate lab out for a half-hour stroll. The dog is dark brown; my son is even darker with his black pants, black coat and black hat. Since our neighbourhood has few sidewalks and lots of curvy roads it can be difficult to see them through the pitch-black winter sky. With his iPod blaring in his ears and the dog sniffing left, right and center, he is deaf to the sound of approaching cars and oblivious to his surroundings. I ask him to be careful, I remind him to wear a fluorescent band around his sleeve, but I know my words are only partly heeded. I worry.

Who’s to blame when these kinds of accidents happen? It’s hard to point fingers because pedestrians need to be more cognisant of what’s going on around them and refrain from jaywalking, and motorists need to slow down and stay alert at all times. Last week Toronto police handed out $50 tickets to jaywalkers at a busy intersection downtown. 56 tickets were distributed by 10:30a.m. Will this deter people from jaywalking? I’m not convinced.

In the fall, the Ontario government passed a law prohibiting cell phone use while driving. Perhaps pedestrians should also be subject to this law. A man was recently killed by a streetcar while talking on his cell phone. Walking down Yonge Street in Toronto, one sees plenty of business people rushing along with a phone to their ear. The same can be witnessed around any university campus.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has urged pedestrians and motorists to be respectful of each other and more careful of their surroundings. That’s the bottom line and we know he’s right. But are we really listening?

I hope so because every single person that meets such a senseless death leaves this world much too soon, with devastated family and friends to mourn the loss forever. Whenever I learn of another fatal pedestrian accident I think of Katie and all her unfulfilled dreams. It’s heartbreaking.

Let’s not put ourselves in danger by taking senseless risks, and let’s not be the distracted driver who inadvertently hits someone. Life is too precious to end it this way.