Tuesday, September 26, 2006

No Place Like Home

Before I forget, this week's Grand Rounds is up, and I'm once again proud to be included.

I'm back home in Reno now, with Gary and the cats and my very own messy study. I had a fabulous time in Iowa, and Inez and I are already planning a return trip, but it's still nice to be done with traveling for a while. Inez should be sending me some pictures of Ricky and the mutilated toothbrush, so I'll post those when I have them.

In the meantime, here's the post I wrote on Sunday.

* * *

I’m composing this blog entry on WordPerfect, thousands of feet in the air, somewhere between Salt Lake City and Omaha.

This morning, I was very proud of getting everything I needed into three small carry-on bags. I left my shampoo and toothpaste at home, since buying supplies in Iowa made more sense than checking luggage simply for the sake of toiletries. And so, after getting up at the obscene hour of 4:30 a.m., I piled my little bags into the car and drove to the airport, wondering what security would be like.

The lines were much longer than usual, especially given how early it was. Before we even got to the screeners, someone asked all of us if we had any lotions or gels. I said no, wondering if I was cheating by not reporting my two little containers of Lip Medex. But I did confess to having a CPAP, and was duly sent to the line for people who needed extra attention, like the couple in front of me who’d both had hip replacements.

When I put my CPAP bag on the conveyer belt, I called to the screener, “There’s a CPAP in here, so it will need to be hand-checked.”

The screener glared at me and snapped, “Thank you. I’ll take care of that when I see it on the screen.” Was it my imagination, or was he thinking, If this stupid woman hadn’t said anything, I could have just ignored it?

But since I had said something, of course I was taken aside by a screener. My Lip Medex sailed through the machine without incident, which makes me wonder what would have happened if I’d tried to sneak some hand lotion through. Lizard skin is one of the hazards of living in Reno, and my hands are especially dry because I wash them so often. The dehydrating effect of airplanes never helps.

When my CPAP’s been screened in the past, it’s been taken out, examined, and given chemical tests involving strips of paper and special readers. This morning, the screener opened my suitcase, blinked at the machine without even touching it, yawned, closed the suitcase again, and told me I could go. The entire process took about five seconds. If the CPAP had been stuffed with dynamite, he wouldn’t have known.

Now, maybe this is just because I’m so pure and innocent looking, especially when I’m not actually wearing the CPAP. (My friend Inez, when she saw the masked crusader picture on my blog, commented gleefully, “Darth Palwick!”) But the process didn’t increase my confidence in national security. Gary tells me that someone’s coined the term “security theater” to describe nonsensical security precautions that exist purely for show, to make travelers feel safer by subjecting them to baroque inconveniences. This wasn’t even security theater. This was security snoozefest. These guys weren’t even pretending to be worried.

And that, on the whole, does make me feel safer. But now I really wish I’d brought my hand lotion.

So I got to my gate nice and early, especially since my flight had been delayed half an hour. There were signs all over the place advertising AT&T wireless access for only $3.95, so I happily bought a cup of coffee and then turned on my laptop, thinking I’d raise my cybercool index by writing a blog entry in the airport. What fun!

AT&T accepted my credit card and told me I was connected. But no webpage except the AT&T ad would come up. I kept getting messages that pop-ups had been blocked, and I repeatedly turned off pop-up blocking, and the same thing kept happening. I was in AT&T hell.

And then the gate attendants made a cheery announcement that the flight delay had been canceled. “We were originally scheduled to leave half an hour late, but gosh, the plane’s here, and the crew’s here, and all of you are here, so we’re leaving now! Get out your boarding passes, folks, and dump those beverages, because you can’t bring any liquids aboard!”

A plane leaving early? Has anyone ever heard of this? I’d taken two sips of my coffee, and I had to throw it out. Added to the AT&T rip-off, that means I wasted about six dollars at the airport this morning. As airport spending goes, that’s a pittance, but it’s still annoying.

But the first flight went very smoothly, with the added bonus of a flight attendant with a flair for stand-up comedy. (“We appreciate your business, and we want your feedback. We think we’re doing a good job, but we may just be in denial.”) When she wasn’t making funny announcements or handing out water, she sat right next to me, and we had a nice chat. Before she was a flight attendant, she worked in a funeral home; she says that was great training for her current job, because it taught her how to stay calm around very upset people. We also talked about our pets: instant bonding! And I got some grading done.

So far, the second flight’s been fine too. I’m happily working on Vera VAIO, my adorable ultralight laptop -- named after Jayne’s gun in Firefly -- and listening to my favorite music on Windows Media Player, using noise-reducing headphones to quiet the din of the plane engine. (Don’t spend your money on $300 Bose headphones. I have Sennheisers, which are less than half the price, and they work fine.) Things could be a lot worse, even if my hands are dryer than Death Valley in August.

* * *

Leaving Omaha this afternoon, I didn't mention my CPAP to the screeners, and it sailed right through without any extra inspection. And, of course, water and small amounts of lotion are allowed again as of today, although I didn't discover this in time to bring any with me.

Maybe somebody's finally figured out that Security Theater is more trouble than it's worth?

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