Sunday, August 05, 2007

Vacation Fun, or is that an Oxymoron?

Sunday morning’s New York Times Magazine has an article by Walter Kirn that got me thinking about travel. Mr. Kirn reveals that the United States has the only government in the industrialized world that doesn’t legally require its citizens to take paid vacation. One of the amusing points of Mr. Kirn’s article is that the whole concept of vacation comes from a Teutonic axiom that “Getting out and about is GOOD for you.” He has other entertaining ideas, too, but I’ll let you read the article.

I’m about to get on a plane in a few hours, which always gives me the jitters. Some of this nervousness is due to my own neuroses, but today I’m going to focus on the sheer hassle of the Transportation Security Administration, better known in always-growing acronym-speak (another possible blog topic) as TSA.

Last week, my husband and I went to San Jose to watch a water polo tournament in which our teenage son was participating. Great time, though our team lost. The morning we were to return to Hawaii, the Holiday Inn’s fire alarm got us up at 5:45. It’s for the best, we said to each other. We’ll be early to the airport for a change. Sure enough, curbside check-in was a breeze, and we smiled at each other in anticipation of a leisurely cuppa and pastry at a Starbuck’s or Peet’s.

Our hopes evaporated the minute we ambled through the automatic doors and encountered a wall of people. An endless queue of grumpy, sluggish travelers (amend that to sluggish adults; kids under five had plenty of energy) clogged every foot of space. The line was indistinguishable from the hordes at the ticket counters, which were inaccessible in the pack. Lethargic and discouraged, people snaked through a convoluted maze of roped poles. We expected to hear moos. Meanwhile, others jammed up behind us, because no one could find the end of the line, which apparently went back outside the terminal, through a different door than we’d entered.

In the center of the crush, a halo of space appeared around a five by five female goblin who shouted at the travelers. If someone appeared confused (for example, the growing crowd at the entrance), that person—or group of people—was treated to shouts of ersatz direction. “In line! Over there! You can’t come in here! Go to the end of the line!”

Not all TSA officials are like this. Once, a kind TSA gentleman mailed a penknife I’d left on my keychain at his own expense. But unfortunately, I’ve encountered more ogres than princes. There was the woman who confiscated two lip glosses and my mascara because they were insidious GELS. (This was before the plastic baggie rule). With an eager glint in her eye, she got louder as she ranted on the danger of contraband before her trapped audience of cringing travelers. On another occasion, I observed TSA agent spending way too much time on an elderly woman with a walker. Did she need to be wanded, and then patted down? Everyone else slunk away, afraid to be the next object of the tyrant’s attention.

The upshot of this rant is that I’m wondering if there might be personality test that both the TSA and airlines could give to people who are put into positions of temporary, underpaid authority. Perhaps it would be a way to weed out the employees who enjoy their momentary clout a bit too much. Or the ones that demonstrate a streak of malicious glee over people they consider below them—at least for the few moments they have them captive? Of course, I also wish I could be teleported, as in Beam Me Up, Scottie.

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