Sunday, March 29, 2009

Those Who Can't Teach Get Tenured

I'm gradually catching up with the Real Times which aired whilst I was in the States and last night, I managed to catch the episode which aired on 13th March.

During the panel discussion, which included Georgetown professor Eric Michael Dyson and conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, Bill touched on the idea that President Obama, in recent weeks, had been unafraid to address various traditional political third rails, as subject to being changed; and the third rail Bill emphasised was teachers and the teachers' unions.

In a speech about education funding that week, the President suggested that his Administration would establish merit pay for teachers, reckoning that good teachers needed to be rewarded for good performances and good results. It was an effort to re-invigorate the teaching profession, and I remember the unions getting pretty hot under the collar in disapproval.

On that point, Bill and Breitbart, his conservative guest, seemed to be in agreement: that children had suffered in the educational system, primarily because of bad teachers.

That stuck in my craw, on hearing that expostulated in that way, because - well, for awhile after I finished uni in the late Seventies, I was a teacher, myself. But then, reason and open-mindedness returned, and I heard out the rest of the argument. Whilst Breitbart reckoned that teachers going into the profession were just bad, Bill's argument was that the system of tenure was what was allowing the majority of bad teachers to remain in the system.

That made sense. And as an ex-teacher, I would agree with that.

Now, I've been away from the teaching profession since 1981, but it's nice to know that plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme. Or rather, some things never change, and now I truly realise how deeply conservative and averse to change the teaching profession is.

Basically, public education works this way with teachers: A teacher is employed for a certain teaching position. He or she is employed on a one-year contract. At the end of that year, if you perform well and if there's a need for you at that school, your contract is renewed and you get the pay raise negotiated by your union. You get another one-year contract. At the end of the second year, your position is re-evaluated. Good performance, good enrollment, you're in. If you don't make the grade or there isn't a demand for the subject you teach, then you're out.

Now comes the all-decisive third year. If you make it to THREE years at one school, and if - at the end of the third year - your performance is up to par and there's a need for you to be in your position, you're given tenure.

Tenure means that you cannot get fired, unless you commit a serious crime. Tenure means that if only two kids signed up for the course you taught, you'd just be moved to another school in the district or kept on teaching another subject. Tenure, at the best of times, ensures that a really good teacher teaching an interesting subject, will stay at a particular school.

But tenure at the worst of times, means a teacher will do just enough for the first three years they're at a school, to get the tenured position, then they'll sit back and rest on their laurels. They can't be touched.

Tenure can be political.

At the first school where I taught, I lasted two years. I had good evaluations and my classes were over-subscribed. But I made friends with a clique of teachers who were decidedly against the ruling clique of tenured teachers who were special favourites of the principal at the time. I think the beginning of my end at that school was not allowing a kid to opt out of a Spanish test to go get the yearbook ads laid out. The yearbook advisor was the principal's best friend, so my card was marked.

It was frustrating because I could see that some of the tenured teachers there were just marking time, themselves. Those who weren't favourites, were disgruntled and low on morale due to the fact that their pay was low. (Hey, teaching's a vocation; no one ever entered the profession to become a millionaire). At any rate, the tenured few were not the teaching few.

So Bill might have a point there too. Maybe tenure now equates with job security, but it doesn't give a person in such an important position as educating the future of our nation the right to 'opt out' of his responsibility for an easy life.

I went on to teach for two more years. Again, good evaluations, classes over-subscribed, kids got good achievement results in the subjects I taught them; but I didn't get tenure in that job either. I left after two years again ... this time to get married and move abroad.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Nation of Panickers

From this side of the Pond, through the miracle of the Internet, I've been watching the events unfold in the past week, concerning AIG and the bonuses scandal. That's infuriating and more than annoying; because I understand that many of the bonuses AIG made, from some of my tax money (and I still pay taxes in the US), went to European banks affiliated with AIG, many of them located in London. And that means those bonuses won't be recouped. Believe you me, if there's any place greedier than Wall Street, it's the City of London. Their financial market is populated by an amalgamation of well-heeled Oxbridge Etonian types, coupled with big-haired women who want to play big in a game dominated by Alpha males, but who cry wolf for large sums of damage money when a man even looks at them in a funny way, along with slick Cockney oikers with a taste in bling. Congress won't see that money for dust.

People in the US are right to feel angry at the people who took this money taken from the taxpayer, ostensibly to save their company from liquidation, and then promptly used it to reward the very people who created the problem. Congress is right to blame them, although in reality, Congress aided and abetted the situation.

But I've been getting a bit perturbed at the way some people, in particular the Main Stream Media and some of its main components, have been levelling blame at the door of the President.

OK, the President is the President, and - as Harry Truman once said and Barack Obama's constantly reiterating, the buck does stop with him. But, Christ on a bike, the man's inherited this problem from the previous POTUS; and the root of this started over twenty years ago with Reagan and with Thatcher in the UK. Ever since the Seventies, people have mulled again and again over the breakdown of social mores, pointing the finger of blame at the Sixties and all that transpired during that decade. What we're seeing now is the fruit of labour begun in earnest in the Eighties. Many of the people orchestrating this mess, at least in the US and in the UK, are Reagan's and Thatcher's spiritual children.

On this side of the Pond, I've lived through the housing crisis currently being experienced in the US, at the end of the late 1980s. Prior to Thatcher assuming office in the late Seventies, many ordinary Brits never had a snowball's chance in hell of owning their own homes. Thatcher eased borrowing requirements, sold the population on the idea that it was their duty to invest in bricks and mortar, staved off any increase in the building of subsidised, low-income housing, a staple upon which many people depended, and opened up a credit boom in the 80s. People bought and sold houses as though they were cars, sometimes staying in a house as little as six weeks before selling it on for a humongous profit. The bubble burst at the end of the 80s, with credit card debt soaring (the 80s was also the era of false wealth), interest rates rising, and the housing industry tanking to the point that many people found themselves in a position of negative equity with their mortgages (that's 'underwater' in Yank terms).

Now I'm seeing the same thing in the US, a legacy of Bush, amongst other things. Time was, when I lived in the States, people bought houses in which to raise families. They bought a house and usually, when they left, they were carried out in a box. Otherwise, the only time they bought and sold, thereafter, was to purchase something smaller because they were getting older and the kids had all left home. Or they sold the house to pay for nursing home care in their dotage. Now I'm hearing stories similar and identical to the ones I witnessed here in the UK in the late 1980s. Looks like Thatcher was Dubya Bush's natural mother on that score.

It's clear that the sub-prime mortgage crisis fueled the tanking of Wall Street, and the crisis reached it's beginning in the last days of Bush, during the Election Campaign of 2008.

So why is the MSM now blaming this President?

Have people forgotten that, throughout his campaign, Obama told us, again and again, truthfully, that this financial crisis was of an epic proportion, that it included not only the housing industry and wall street, but also the health care crisis and the situation in Detroit, as well as global warming and our uber-dependence on oil. He also reminded us, repeatedly, that a solution to the problem would not come quickly. It wouldn't happen immediately. Not even in two years, and not in four years.

The estimate he gave was ten years, total. That's two Administrations, assuming he's re-elected, plus half of the first Administration of the next President, be that person Tim Kaine, Gavin Newsom, Cory Booker, or (heaven forbid) someone of the Republican variety.

To me, that sounded like a fairly honest assessment, instead of the same old same old political spin.

But now, you've got the MSM, actually aiding and abetting those Republicans in Congress determined to oppose everything the President proposes, not to mention the real head of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh, who's gone on record as saying he hopes the President fails. All that's sparked whack-jobs like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the state which spawned Joe McCarthy (and who makes McCarthy look like a weeping Nellie liberal), into actually calling for armed revolution in the streets against the President's agenda.

Pardon me, but isn't that sedition?

And in the wake of all this, it seems to me as though the media is trying to promote panic in the people. It's certainly provoked the wrong kind of anger on the people's part against the executives of AIG. As much as I blame the latter for being out of touch with the ordinary citizens struggling to stay afloat, I don't think even they deserve howling mobs outside their homes threatening their families and children. It also seems to me that the undercurrent to all this is to pressure a Treasury Secretary already under immense pressure and to get the President to take his eye off the ball. It's almost tantamount to goading.

At the end of the day, we elected Obama. Many of us elected him because of the cool, calm demeanor he presented during his campaign in the face of the financial crisis, as well as in the face of some of the mud being slung his way regarding his character. He projected leadership. We bought that.

The man's been in office for two months. Contrary to the snarky right who persist in calling him The Messiah, he's not that at all. He's a man. Some of what he proposes will work, some of his programs won't. We'll have to see. As for his Treasury Secretary, I actually think this man is smarter than all of us and I think he'll come good. His shortcoming is that he's a man more at home with facts, figures and paper than he is fronting a hardsell to the media. In short, he's shy and it shows.

The President has openly asked for sacrifice in these hard times from the citizens of his country. Many people are making those sacrifices, but they're losing patience and beginning to panic, because a light can't be seen at the end of the tunnel yet. A few weeks ago, Bill Maher, whom I think is actually emerging as a valid spokesman for the left-wing of the Baby Boomer generation, remarked on the generation of our fathers, who lived and fought through the Depression and World War II. Maher's much the same age as I, and his parents lived through what my parents endured: a difficult Depression and a World War. That generation simply got on with the task at hand and lived through it. Without complaint. At that time, they had another Democrat at the helm, cautioning patience and offering encouragement in the face of hardship. The majority of people elected him repeatedly.

Maher now reckons, and I reckon he's right, that the subsequent generations have turned into a nation of panickers, with this panic having been engendered and nurtured by the Bush neo-cons in the wake of 9/11. It's very true that we seem to take our lead from those whom we choose to lead us - which is why Europeans often judge Americans of the moment by the leaders they've chosen. Unfair, but true.

Well, let's stop panicking like headless chickens and tune out the GOP and all the negative hype from the people who led us to this point. And while we're at it, let's turn off the Main Stream Media too. One of the television highlights of my recent visit to the States occurred when the eternally mournful-looking Brian Williams, NBC's evening news anchor, was forced to disclose that the show had received record complaints on its negativity in news broadcasting. They were simply told by the public to lighten up. The truth needs to be told, but people also need encouragement in times of difficulty. It's no wonder scores of people are seeking their news, their truth and a bit of levity in the alternative media - the Mahers, Stewarts, Colberts and Olbermanns. And that's good too.

And maybe it's good that they listen as well to Oprah. After all, it was Oprah who said, 'You can have it all, just not at once.'

So sit back, light up a joint (because cigarettes are bad for you), and be patient. The President will see us through. But don't rest on your patience too long, because it's going to take some work and sacrifice from us, the ones who put him there, to ensure he succeeds.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Real Time Should Meet the Press

Even though I was in the US for two weeks, I suffered real Real Time withdrawal. Because of the crisis in the economy there, belts were tightened, satellite companies changed, and the HBO subscription went out the window.

Because, when it's on, I view Real Time with Bill Maher as absolutely essential viewing, I manage to be able to download it in Britain, the day after it's shown live in the US. So, I've three episodes, including the most recent one, to catch up on.

Last night, I'd acclimatised myself enough to settle down and watch the episode which aired on Friday, 6 March.

Bill Maher is a particular hero of mine. I share many of his political and ethical views, and I actually consider him to be somewhat of a spokesman of our mutual generation, since we are of similar age. I think he's witty, intelligent and probably the most astute and canny political intervier on television. In point of fact, I think there's no other political pundit in the media today who intrinsically knows more about the Constitution than Bill Maher. HBO's gain is definitely a loss to the other bigger networks.

When NBC's Meet the Press moderator, Tim Russert, died suddenly last year, I immediately thought that Bill would have been an excellent choice to replace Russert in the chair; although I knew NBC would never have balls brass enough to make what would have been an interesting, refreshing and provocative gamble that would have paid off handsomely. I'll go as far as saying that Maher is actually a better interviewer than Russert.

Russert was an all-around nice guy, a working class stiff from Buffalo, who earned a handsome wage but was at pains to remind everyone all around just how blue collar he was. Everyone liked him, left and right. In fact, I've even heard he was a close friend of Rush Limbaugh. And he had the uncanny knack of putting every person he interviewed at ease, before, during and after any interview. All Tim had to do was ask about the person's family - his kids, elderly mother or dog - or his sports team; and they were putty in his hands. But he had an infuriating knack of letting his culprits off, even when he had them in his sights in a gotcha moment. Tim would ask a question, the interviewee would waffle out an answer, Tim would show a quotation made by the person from a previous interview and the person being interviewed would waffle out an answer that didn't really explain why a position had sharply changed; Russert would smile and nod benignly and move on.

Not so Bill Maher.

A lot of people have the misguided conception that Maher is rudeness, personified. As an interviewer, this is simply not so. He's sharp, but he's polite. He's meticulous in letting the person being interviewed get his point across, however much it might differ to his own or that of the audience. He doesn't allow waffle, but he's clever about getting the person interviewed to actually answer a question, no mean feat as this is something most politicians have down to an art. He simply re-states the question in a different way, often so cleverly worded that the interviewee thinks another question is being asks and falls into the trap. Before he realises he's been gotcha'd, Bill's moved onto the next question. In fact, I've never seen a political interviewer so sharp, so persistent, yet so deft of phrase and so respectful of his subject; and he even is human enough to admit an error on his part. In fact, I'd stick my neck out and go as far as saying that Bill Maher is the Barack Obama of political interviewers.

Living in the UK, I'm familiar with one Jeremy Paxman, who hosts the BBC's flagship news and political talk show, Newsnight. Paxman's a hard and persistent interviewer, and he holds his subjects' feet to the fire; but where Maher probes, Paxman berates, hectoring, interrupting, repeating the question again and again until the subject feels persecuted to the point where the viewing audience actually feels sympathy with whoever is being interviewed no matter how big a scoundrel he or she is. And a lot of the time, Paxman's approach doesn't get the desired result.

Maher's does.

On 6th March, his Real Time guests were T Boone Pickins, the billionaire entrepreneur advocating wind power in order to reduce the US dependence on foreign oil; Newark mayor Cory Booker, Erin Burnett of CNBC, and Dr Peter Singer of Yale University.

The interview with Pickins was interesting and could have/should have gone on longer. Ten minutes was far too short. It was the sort of thing you would have expected to see in the first half hour of MTP; but the ten minutes allotted proved provocative.

Pickins is an eighty-something Southerner from Texas, a man of his time, who's built and lost three fortunes. It was obvious to anyone watching the program who knows anything about politics and the South that Pickins's politics were of the right-wing red variety, to a degree. Still, Maher treated him with very proper respect, verging almost on gentleness, due to the man's age. He showed interest in Pickins's philosophy of oil-free dependence and queried him on his knowledge and background in trying to get successive US governments and Presidents to heed his urgings about lessening dependence on oil. He even began by asking Pickins, respectfully, what he should call him. I liked that.

I felt the interview was just starting to roll when it had to end; but Maher managed to get in a teasingly naughty question, phrased and presented much in the was a visiting nephew might gently goad an elderly uncle into explaining a viewpoint which seemed at odds with the 'uncle's' philosophy. There was even a point where Maher stumbled, after having said that he'd red Pickins's biography. When Pickins corrected him on the point, Maher admitted he'd actually 'skimmed' the biography, cheerfully admitting his error.

After ascertaining that Pickins was working with the Obama administration on reducing oil dependence, Maher asked how things were going in working with this administration. Pickins replied briefly, 'Better than the others.'

Maher then deftly remarked that, had Albert Gore or John Kerry won their respective elections, Gore in particular, might Pickins's plan have had enjoyed an 8-year head start, instead of the country finding itself up the proverbial Sewanee in oil dependancy now. Then Maher naughtily jibed that Pickins had, in fact, voted for George W Bush; and Pickins, obviously a man of honesty, admitted that he was no Democrat.

Maher then had a teasing moment, asking - never rudely, but with odd gentleness and deference - how, now that Pickins was actively working with the Obama government, he could actually have voted for John McCain.

As I said, this was a bit naughty. Just a bit; but I got the gist of the question. Pickins, an octogenarian Southerner from Texas, is a man of his time. He lived in the segregated South, was probably reared a Dixiecrat and most likely switched parties the instant Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill. Maher was inferring, subtly, that maybe, just maybe Pickins might have voted for McCain because a man of his generation and social background might have found it, mildly difficult - shall we say - in voting for a left-wing black man with socialist tendencies.

Pickins hedged the question initially, reminding Maher that he never actually supported McCain.

'But you voted for him,' nudged Maher.

Yes, Pickins admitted, he did vote for John McCain. Maher persisted, ever gently, ever politely, in wondering aloud how Pickins could justify voting for McCain and how he now could involve himself in the Obama administration.

Pickins replied that, at the end of the day, he simply realised both he and John McCain were too old to be President. On that note, Maher jocularly ended the interview (for time reasons) and even allowed Pickins an extra 38 seconds to urge the audience and viewers to insist that the government seriously explore means of lessening the US dependence on oil, telling everyone that this was in their interest, the people's interest, for their country and a better quality of life and a better environment.

For me, this was the highlight of the program, as it highlighted Maher's knowledge, skill and ability as a crack interviewer.

At the beginning of this year, when MSNBC announced they were looking for someone to present a political talk show in the 10PM slot after Rachel Maddow's show, the internet was abuzz with rumours about Maher being approached or sought for the slot. I'd welcome that, even if it meant that Real Time was shelved or that MSNBC bought the rights to Real Time and brought it into that time slot, at least once a week. More people should be exposed to Bill Maher, especially those who judge him on remarks taken out of context. He's one pundit who doesn't kowtow to the Beltway bunch or to any political party in general. In short, he's truthful and to the point and says a lot of things a lot of other political talking heads are too afraid to say. And, you know, I don't think this would change were he to accept a position on a major network again.

I've read recently in various places that Meet the Press is tanking against George Stephanopolous on ABC and the grandfatherly Bob Shieffer on CBS's Face the Nation. MTP with the bland and boring David Gregory, dancing partner of Karl Rove, is tanking even against Chris Wallace on Fox. I hope NBC is kicking themselves. And if they've any imagination, nous and sheer cojones, they'll pay handsomely to acquire Maher's talents for MSNBC and move him pronto into the moderator's chair on Meet the Press as soon as Gregory's dire contract expires.

Did I say 'pay handsomely' in this time of economic crisis? Yes. Because Maher, himself, has gone on record as saying, many times, that he and those of his ilk should pay more taxes. The man is nothing, if not honest. He is the jewel in the crown of political pundits.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In the Company of Radical Rednecks

Now that I've calmed down from waiting 48 hours at home before receiving my luggage from U S Airways, I want to use this blog opportunity to reflect a bit on my trip home this time.

Although it's only been a year since my last visit, this visit was the first one since 1997 where I've returned to an America under the leadership of a Democratic President. That felt good, I can tell you. And it was the first time since I was a small girl, that I was actually in a Virginia that was a firm hue of blue, instead of the garish red colouring it's worn since Lyndon Johnson was elected. (Virginia had the distinct notoriety of being the only Southern state not to have gone for Jimmy Carter in 1976.)

Returning to a Virginia which had not only backed Obama, but who boasted its Governor as being Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as well as two high-profile, erudite and respected Democratic U S Senators, made me feel even better.

I've always been a Democrat. My father was one who was so far left of centre, his left-field position in a baseball game would have been outside the park. He was a union leader, the son of immigrants, with strong ties to and beliefs in socialism. Most of the men my mother and her sisters married were like that. And the girls had come from a fine old FFV (First Families of Virginia) who firmly believed in everyone in society knowing his or her rightful place and staying in it. Still, opposites do attract.

Whilst my family professed a religious belief, they weren't religious, nor were they intolerant. I went to school during the era of de-segregation, but my parents and their siblings always instilled in my cousins and me the necessity of judging another person by the sort of person he or she was, rather than the colour of their skin or by their religious affiliation; they preached judging the person on his character and achievements. So, another person's race, religion, colour or creed never cut any ice with me.

I was in high school during Viet Nam and the Summer of Love; I came of age during Watergate. I married during the early years of Ronald Reagan.

Living abroad gave me the opportunity to view my native state and country from afar, mainly with a jaundiced eye. The first difference in Americans, in general, and Europeans, is that Americans seem, on the surface, a lot more overtly religious than the Europeans. That doesn't mean religion isn't important in Europe. In many countries, it is. The Catholic Church still holds sway in Italy, Spain and in the southern part of Germany. The United Kingdom has an Established Church (we know it as the Episcopal Church), which means that that Church and all its employees are supported, financially and otherwise, by the State. And this is a country where Catholics, now that the Poles are daily immigrating in droves to the UK, outnumber the nominal Episcopalians.

It's just that in the US, belonging to a church or a denomination seemed so much more important, socially; but the Christianity took a pejorative bent. It was condemnatory and negative. It was intolerant. It was exclusive. In short, it was everything Jesus Christ was not.

During the Bush years as well, I witnessed a peculiar phenomenon in my Democratic family.

People began voting Republican. In 2000, the 'Stolen Election', quite a few of my relatives confessed to having voted for Bush. I remember being appalled at Bush's candidacy at the time. He reminded me so much of the rich, privileged, legacied fraternity boys, with whom I'd attended university, whose sole purpose in being there was to party at the 'Country Club of the South', take a minimal degree and go work for Daddy's business. But many of my relatives who decamped to the Dark Side, cited Bill Clinton's 'immorality' - never mind, the economy was sound. Even more of them marched in Bush's political army in the election of 2004, on the heels of 9/11 and out of the fear instilled into their souls by the neocon kings Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney.

And visiting those post-9/11 years, I also noticed another thing: Everybody seemed to have money. Not just a bit of money, a lot of money. I was out shopping with a cousin one day, when she drove by the bank and blithely withdrew $1000 ... for the day. People used credit cards without thinking, bought big SUVs as mere status symbols and flaunted designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets. People doing the most menial of jobs seemed to be proverbially loaded all the time.

Probably the one relative who bought into this lifestyle most of all was my most religious relative, a woman who'd married a Mormon and converted to that faith back in the Seventies. The Mormons tithe, and those who don't get the money taken from them forcibly by the Church. This cousin's husband was the treasurer of his local Church, so she knew to the dime the exact amount of everyone's salary in the Church. And she was a fervent Republican.

But, in reality, since 2003, I'd begun to notice some things about my family, as a whole, that I'd never once imagined, especially with the older generation. My best friend since high school is a lesbian. When I was visiting in 2003, I mentioned to my aunt that Robin would be up to spend the day.

'Just to let you know beforehand,' I warned. 'She bats for the other side.'

My elderly aunt was perplexed by that turn of phrase until her granddaughter clarified it for her. 'It means she's gay, Grandma,' she explained.

My aunt and uncle were charmed to the hilt by Robin. They adored her, and to this day, when she's in the area, she stops by. Toward the end of my visit there, my aunt was catching me up on some of the rest of the extended family, speaking of another cousin's children.

'And you know,' she informed me, sagely, 'Gene's daughter, Kelly, she bats for the other side.'

Old lessons hold true. These old people, born and bred in the Old South, didn't give a fig about a person's lifestyle. They looked at the person, himself.

Returning last year in the middle of Primary season, I remarked to my aunt that my Mormon cousin would most likely be behind Mitt Romney or some other Republican.

'Not at all!' exclaimed my aunt. 'They've gone back to the Democrats. They want nothing more to do with Bush or his Party.' (My idea is that they've lost money. I don't see as many cars parked outside their house as before).

And this year, the straw that broke the camel's back in Bubbaland. Religion.

During my stay there, a report was broadcast on the NBC Nightly News about an increasing number of Americans refusing to profess any kind of religious leaning, and an increase in the number of Americans actually turning away from religion as a whole and leaning toward secularism (after all we are a secular country.) When the report was aired, my uncle pontificated on how organised religion was the single biggest trouble-maker in the world's history, that people should leave that stuff to their own private concerns and not inflict it on anyone else, let alone the government. And this is a man who never went past the sixth grade!

Not only that, but a surprising number of people I've known all my life from my local community feel the same way as well, and many of them and people of their ilk, now confess to professing a religious denomination or actually attending a particular church because it was 'the done thing', only now - instead of 'doing the done thing' for form's sake - they're admitting their pragmatism and revelling in their secularism. And it wasn't just my family, most of whom haven't left the area or had more than a high school education; it concerned a plethora of friends and acquaintances who suddenly feel freed from the yoke of neo-conservative rule and the advent of a socially progressive and enlightened President, to confess that religion doesn't enter into their daily life at all, rather they live by common sense and ethics.

Hey, this is the New South. I can whistle that Dixie.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Air Bubba

I've just arrived back in the UK (grrrr) from a two-week visit back home to Virginia. God knows, I needed a rest. To say I was totally ragged out would have been an understatement in the least. So I should be rested and revitalised, right?

Dead wrong.

I'm stressed beyond belief.

The holiday (or vacation as it's called in the States) started badly evened out into relaxation and fun, and ... just when I was totally relaxed and feeling homesick at the prospect of leaving the new, blue Commonwealth of Virginia, the proverbial shit hit the fan, and believe you me, it was a mighty rude awakening.

You know how you can always tell when something isn't going to be 'quite right'? How niggly littel things occur that are a foretaste of something whiffy to come?

The first hint occurred on the Saturday before I left, the last day in February, when I was looking out the digital camera to pack. It wasn't in its case. As I recalled the husband had last been seen with it a few weeks back, taking pictures of the dogs, I asked him where he'd put it.

He insisted that I'd had it last and told me off for never putting things back where they belonged. An argument ensued, of course, after I'd reminded him of where I'd last seen the article. The argument was tabled, with a promise from him that he'd find it the next day. When the next day arrived, he 'suddenly remembered' how he'd taken the camera, the previous week, with him on his daily walk with the dogs down the local canal. He'd hoped to take pictures of ducks. Well, you know the story: He's aiming for a shot, the dog pulls the leash and - Bob's your uncle! - the camera's at the bottom of the canal.

He'd neglected to tell me because I would have lost my temper.

Did I lose my temper? Well, yes, I did. But had he told me when it happened, the hissy fit would have been over and done with, and a new camera would have been purchased.

But that's not all he did.

When my trip was booked, early in February, the husband dissuaded me vehemently from flying directly from London Heathrow into Washington Dulles. Heathrow's a pain in the ass to access and we live closer to Gatwick. The only direct flights from Gatwick were far more expensive than British Airways, so the husband convinced me to fly via US Airways to Charlotte, North Carolina and connect there for Washington Dulles. I wouldn't arrive any later in Washington and I'd only be about 12 hours in transit, with enough time (about 3 hours) in between flights. And all for a cheaper price than BA, the most econimical.

A doddle, right? Couldn't be easier. Well, it looked good on paper.

Of course, that Monday, 2 March, the Southeastern coast of the US was blanketed in snow and the flight from London was delayed. No problem. It would arrive an hour later. The Brit man at the US Airways check-in in London assured me that, although I'd have to clear customs in Charlotte and grab my bags from baggage claim, the connection service was 'just around the corner', 'very swift' and I would easily make my connection.

First piece of misinformation.

We arrived in Charlotte, after 9 hours' flying, at the stated time of 4:30 PM EST. Boarding time for my 6PM flight to Dulles was 5:30 PM.

Normally, when I've flown home, although the line at Passport Control is long, especially with US citizens re-entering, it's faster, because all the Border Control agents have to do is a cursory check of your passport and - bingo! - you're in. It's always been my husband who's left fuming in the 'Non-US Citizens' queue for ages on end.

Not this time.

Sure, there were fewer Brits on the plane, but for some reason (and this must be a legacy of the Bushwacker years), aliens holding Green Cards NOW are entitled to enter along with US Passport holders. Fair enough, except that the Green Carders are fingerprinted on both hands, and photographed assiduously; and this takes an untold amount of time. At 5:10PM, I was still waiting processing and had yet to claim my bag. I started to fidget, muttering that I'd never make my connection. The girl in back of me in the line remarked that she never had this problem when she flew home via Philly, only through Charlotte.

I finally got processed, by which time ALL the unclaimed baggage had been removed from the carrel and was about to be carted away, when I grabbed my bag from the pile and legged it around the corner to the connections' desk. The failed Southern society lady manning the desk, smiled, informed me that my connecting flight had, in fact, been delayed, took my bag and told me that the flight wouldn't be leaving before 7:30 PM. Both the bag and I had ample time to board the aircraft. So I walked the circuitous route to the proper concourse.

Then the second niggly warning occurred. As I ambled toward the proper departure gate, I noticed, all about me, instead of proper seating outside franchise eating places, were white rocking chairs. At first, I thought this a quaint acknowledgement of the relaxed and easy living emblematic of the Deep South. Then I began to worry. A Southerner, myself, I knew full well that that lackadaisical symbol of the old rocking chair was the first sign of creeping Bubbadom and a hop, skip and a jump from Deliveranceland.

I quickened my pace.

I reached the gate, and to my surprise, they were boarding the aircraft, but without any sort of urgency or hurry. I entered the plane, which was almost empty, took my seat and waited as, from time to time, more people boarded. I heard one of the two stewardesses remark to a passenger that she'd been trying to leave Charlotte since 2PM the previous day, but hadn't been able to, due to the snow. Looking out the window, there didn't seem to be very much snow about at all, but I knew that anytime it snowed south of Danville, it was a major catastrophe. We sat there for about an hour until the flight eventually left at 7:30, arriving at Dulles within an hour.

Well, I arrived, my two bags didn't. They never made the plane. In fact, hardly anyone's bags did. So there I was at Dulles, with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, searching for my friend from high school who was going to meet me. She, in turn, was in an airport bar, enjoying a cocktail, because the flight information re US Airways still said my flight was delayed. After about an hour of floundering about and initialising a claim for my lost bits of luggage, Robin and I managed to connect. As my luggage contained a bottle of French wine, we'd planned on imbibing that evening, we hurried to the nearest Giant Foods to purchase some local Virginia vino (surprisingly good Merlot) and an extra toothbrush for me; and after a night of catching up on a year's worth of gossip, I fell into bed, wearing some of Robin's pajamas, at about 5AM on Tuesday morning, with 10 inches of proper snow on the ground outside.

As it happens, my luggage arrived early the next afternoon at my aunt's rural Fauquier County home before I did.

Things settled down after that, although, looking at my return itinerary, I was more than a bit perturbed that there were only 50 minutes between my return flight from Dulles to Charlotte and the flight back to London. So on my last Sunday Stateside, this past one, I rang US Airways to voice my concern about whether or not I'd make that connection, but they assured me that 50 minutes was ample time, that everything was on time and if there were any delay, they'd ring me in the morning and make alternative arrangements. I was mollified.

The next day, when I arrived at the airport, the niggle started again.

I go to check one bag in (prescience told me to hang onto the carry-on bag), and was told by a surly woman on ground crew, who looked like a domestic, to 'use the automatic check-in'. I did, whereupon she reluctantly took the bag and checked it through to London Gatwick. I asked again about the short time between connections and her abrupt reply was, 'It's legal.'

What? Like it's against the law to have a connection interval of less than a certain number of minutes? Or does it mean that it exonerates the airlines from any potential blame?

Well, anyway, boarding time was 5:34PM. But by 5:05, no plane had shown up. Then, instead of a tannoy announcement, US Airways surreptitiously slides the information on his overhead board that 'the flight is delayed until 6:22 PM.' Then '6:38 PM'. No one was on hand at the desk to ask any information or advice, so I phoned the 800 number on my e-ticket and voiced my concern that now the flight wouldn't arrive in Charlotte until around 8PM and my London flight left at 8:25PM. The detached voice told me to seek guidance and information from one of the ground crew at the departure gate.

'But there's no one there, ' I wailed. She directed me to the next gate, where I found the surly woman who hadn't checked my bag originally. She told me to go back to my departure gate and she'd be along in a few minutes. By 6:00 PM a man from Ground Crew showed up. An Indian girl and I were travelling to London and she was worried about missing the connection.

'Not our problem here,' twanged the man, who was missing several front teeth. 'Cain't do nothin' at Dulles. But, don't worry, plane'll be here in a few minutes, we'll turn it right around and head fer Charlotte. You'll make the connection. Concourse D's only about a five-minute walk from where we land.'

That didn't satisfy or comfort me. In fact, it did nothing to instill any sort of confidence in me. It alarmed me.

'Wait a minute,' I interjected. 'What if we DON'T make our connection? What if the plane leaves without us? You see, I've done everything right here, it's not my fault your plane's late. What happens?'

'Not our problem,' he smiled beatifically. Really. 'Charlotte'll sort you out.' (As if 'Charlotte' were a living, breathing person with a heart). 'Mebbe send yer down ter Atlanta and fly yer out on Delta.' He shrugged his shoulders. He wasn't even looking at the other girl and me.

By that time, I was incensed.

'Do I LOOK like General Sherman?' I shouted. 'I don't want a tour of the South, I need to be in London tomorrow morning and at my desk by 10AM!'

'You'll get there,' he purred. 'You'll make it.'

By the time the plane arrived, fifteen minutes later, he'd been replaced by a Chinese man who spoke, at best, unintelligible pidgen English.

'We turn prane round. People off. People on. You go.' I kid you NOT, that's what he said.

In point of fact, 'prane' didn't 'turn round.' It sat there until the designated departure time of 6:38PM, and as we taxied down the runway, I looked sadly at the two British Airways planes, loading for a direct flight to London, and at the Virgin Atlantic plane, doing the same. I could have been on any of those; but I was flying to Charlotte.

We landed at 7:55 PM, but they didn't open the plane doors until 8:05 PM. I legged it. Five minutes' walk? Walking, it would have taken twenty. I ran and made it in fifteen, as they were sounding the final call for boarding. I got on the plane. The Indian girl followed and before she sat down, we were in motion, down the runway, bound for Gatwick airport. At that point, I knew, without a doubt, my luggage was someplace in the bowels of Charlotte Airport.

I was right.

Once again, but calmly this time, I went through the claim procedure. The miserable British woman who served me (customer service people are ALWAYS miserable and curt in Britain), told me my luggage would arrive on the next flight from Charlotte on Wednesday morning, and be delivered to my house, an hour away, by late afternoon or early evening.

By 10:15 AM yesterday, I was at my desk, sorting out a business crisis that had arisen in my absence. It's now 11:45PM on Wednesday evening, and I'm sat here in the same clothes I've worn (I've actually bathed three times, thank God) since Monday. And guess what?

No luggage arrived.

As the reclaim centre at Gatwick closes at 5PM, I had to ring US Airways in Charlotte. It was like talking to Mayberry RFD. The girl was chewing gum and cracking it as we spoke.

'Wale, ma'am,' she drawled, 'I could call the erport fer ya, but sometimes them British doan answer.'

When she said that, I put the phone down.

Bubba Air, Redneck Airlines, has arrived.

The French used to say, about Spain, that Africa began at the Pyrenees. I'm beginning to think that the Kingdom of Bubbadom begins at the Smokies, somewhere south of Danville.

Speaking as a Southerner, the right side won the War.