Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankless outrage

One thing I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving holiday is that I’m not traveling in the States.  Already the busiest travelling time of the year, as people take to the road or the skies to gather for the traditional turkey dinner and equally traditional tense family situations, this year’s Thanksgiving is likely to take travel misery to new heights. 

It’s all because the new security measures by the Transportation Security Administration (the folks in blue gloves at US airports who x-ray your luggage and invite you to walk through metal detectors) have sparked outrage among the traveling public.  Or, at least, among a very vocal element of the traveling public. 

The measures in question are the new full-body x-ray machines that can peer beneath your clothing and the “enhanced pat-downs” where TSA agents gain a passing familiarity with your nether regions.  The outrage comes from folks who apparently want no part of either of these procedures.  The outrage was really unleashed two weeks ago when a passenger, John Tyner, “opted out” of the x-ray scan, apparently over his concerns about the safety of the scan.  He then refused to have his groin area patted down by a TSA agent saying, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”  He was not allowed to board his flight and escorted out of the airport.  And, of course, it was all videoed and shared on YouTube.

Supporters of Tyner have called for a “National Opt Out Day” today, encouraging air travelers to refuse to be scanned by the new equipment, and kicking off a huge storm of news reporting, blogging and loud gnashing of teeth.  It will be interesting to see how many air travelers actually jump on the Opt Out bandwagon and choose the more time-consuming and invasive physical pat down instead of the faster, more convenient hands-off x-ray scan. 

To me, it seems like a tempest in a teapot, and an example of how American anger these days seems to jump in an instant from one outrage to another.  I can understand that some people may have health concerns over a full-body x-ray, no matter how low the dosage might be – and besides, the hard-core scanner skeptics don’t trust anything the government does anyway.  What I have a harder time comprehending is the outrage over privacy, the fear that an anonymous TSA agent sitting in a booth somewhere is inappropriately admiring a mannequin-like image of myself.  Maybe I’m not bashful – or vain – enough to be bothered by this. 

Once, about twenty years ago I was flying from Heathrow with some Finnish colleagues when a security officer pulled me out of the line for closer inspection.  In those much more innocent days, this probably entailed only rummaging through my carry-on bag, or maybe even a light pat down.  I don’t exactly recall.  In any case, my travel companions were outraged by this, on my behalf.  They thought, “How dare he do that to you.”  I, on the contrary, didn’t care.  My attitude was that if it helps keep bombs off the plane, I’m not bothered by a little extra scrutiny from the security folks. 

Apparently, a growing number of Americans don’t share that attitude, or at least not anymore.  After 9/11, people learned to accept removing their shoes in the security line, taking out their laptops, having their jars of peanut butter confiscated (it happened to me), all in the name of preventing another terrorist attack.  Yet, apparently, for some people there are limits, and now that limit seems to be letting someone see you naked or run their hand all the way up your inner thigh. 

Unsurprisingly, considering the mood of the country lately, the discourse over this issue has turned ugly.  Many commenters on various blogs I’ve read have compared the TSA agents to perverts and Nazis.  One commenter, taking umbrage at the erosion of his 4th Amendment rights, stated he would rather see his family blown up in an airplane bombing than to submit to the enhanced security measures of the TSA. 

I know Internet commenters as a group don’t represent society’s best and brightest (God I hope not).  But, with sentiments like these, it’s impossible to take the outrage of these people seriously or to see Opt Out Day as a well-thought-out protest.  What is true, however, is that fear of al-Qaida has forced Americans to make some uncomfortable concessions.  I, for one, am not that uncomfortable with a little backscatter x-ray.  Or, even a polite enhanced pat down, if it comes to that.  But, maybe that’s my limit. 

Safe travels, everyone!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Prince William announced last week his engagement to Kate Middleton, apparently some long-anticipated news.  Not that I would know, since this is not an area of current events I follow closely.  Still, the buzz about William’s upcoming nuptials was inescapable and instantly made me think of the Grand Canyon. 

I don’t claim to know that much about William.  I imagine he’s a right fine bloke and as “normal” as any young man could be growing up in the bubble of the British royal family.  (His father Charles, on the other hand, comes across as a genuine cold fish and more than a little flakey.)  The one thing about William that I do happen to know, more or less, is when he was born. 

In June 1982, my future wife and I were on one of those epic cross-continental road trips that are a mainstay of many a Hollywood film.  I remember thinking of it as my “Good Bye to America” trip.  I was moving soon to Finland and didn’t expect to be living in the States again for some time, and I wanted to see as much of my homeland as we could before heading across the Atlantic. 

For three weeks, we crossed the southern tier of the US in my beat-up vomit-yellow Toyota station wagon, vagabonding from Georgia to the Pacific shore.  We pitched our tent in the mountains of New Mexico, the desert of Arizona, and the redwood groves of California.  Some nights we spent (not very comfortable or safe) just sleeping in the car, parked in picnic areas in Texas, Utah, Colorado, and most glamorously once in a parking lot in the hills above Los Angeles -- from where we descended the next day to watch E.T. in a theater on Sunset Boulevard the week of the movie’s premiere.  In short, it was a fantastic journey through some of the most amazing scenery on Earth, and easily one of the best trips I’ve ever made. 

During those three weeks on the road, we were mostly cut off from the outside world, probably not picking up much news on the radio and only occasionally buying a newspaper.  But, we did hear about Prince William.  For some reason, I remember sitting at a picnic table on the Kaibab Plateau, a stone’s throw from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, reading about his birth two days earlier, when we had been crossing the Sierra Nevada over a road only recently cleared of snow. 

Ever since, the mention of his name often brings to mind that brief conversation I had with my future wife – amid a landscape of pinyon pines and awesome geological beauty – about a baby prince being born in London. 

Now he’s grown and getting married, raising the specter of another wedding spectacular.  His father’s wedding to Diana was, as everyone knows, a huge affair with a fairy-tale luster.  That luster, as it turns out, was deceptive, but some female friends of mine at the time were so caught up in the whole frenzy over Charles and Diana’s wedding that they got up at four in the morning to watch it live.  Some of us -- all males, I must say -- couldn’t understand the attraction or why Americans should care enough about a British royal wedding to lose sleep over it.  We kidded our wedding-obsessed friends along the lines of “Didn’t we fight a war so we wouldn’t have to care about a royal family?” 

Of course, the attraction was Diana.  I’m sure our friends were not the only citizens of a republic to go a little gaga over her, showing that you don’t have to be a committed royalist to indulge in some good old-fashion celebrity worship when a beautiful princess is concerned.  (And, once again at the risk of sounding sexist, I think it’s mostly a female thing.) 

Probably it was the same in Finland.  People here sometimes joke that Finland doesn’t need its own royal family since it can always borrow a neighbor’s to gawk at.  Judging by the amount of attention that Finnish tabloids sometimes give to the personal lives of Sweden’s royals, you might think that Finns actually do yearn for a little of that pageantry.  Princess Victoria, on her recent visit to Finland, was greeted by appropriately enthusiastic crowds. 

In reality, Finland did come close to having its own royal family.  After declaring independence from Russia, the Finns briefly chose to become a monarchy and even went so far as to invite a German prince to be its king.  Frederick Charles of Hesse, brother-in-law of the German Kaiser, was king, kind of, sort of, maybe, for only 67 days before Germany’s defeat and the unraveling of its royal family at the end of World War I caused the Finns to have second thoughts.  Frederick never even set foot in what was to have been his realm.  Instead, the Finns elected to become a republic, the only one – along with Iceland – among the Nordic countries. 

The only royalty in Finland nowadays is the Tango King or Queen chosen each year from among the country’s abundant nobility of tango singers in highly popular televised singing contests.  As far as I can tell, they tend to be quite benign monarchs.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Freeze-dried emergencies

In my daily trolling of the Internet, I saw that Glenn Beck is now encouraging Americans to stockpile a year’s worth of food in order to survive the hyperinflation catastrophe that he sees looming just around the corner.  On his radio show, Beck predicted that, due to mismanagement of the economy by the Federal Reserve, the price of food could skyrocket like in Weimar Germany of the 1920s.  He goes on to advise his listeners to prepare for this potential disaster by buying “food insurance” now.  Food insurance in this case means boxes of freeze-dried meals that can feed your family in times of dire emergencies, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, or food-riots by well-armed Wall Street bankers.  Good luck with that. 

Along with his prophecy of really ugly times ahead, Beck is promoting a company (one of his sponsors) selling emergency food kits that will see you through the darkest days.  At you can select from a variety of options, starting with the basic “emergency kit” (which contains two-weeks of freeze-dried meals, a very basic camp stove, water filter and a backpack to carry it all in case of evacuation) on up to a year’s supply of food for an entire family (3792 freeze-dried entrées for a family of five). 

The meals are edible for 25 years, so all you have to do is stack it all in the back of your walk-in closet and forget about it until the hurricane strikes, or until bread reaches $50 a loaf and civil society completely breaks down.  While the zombies, er, I mean, rioters scour the neighborhood for scraps, you’ll be dining on reconstituted chicken ala king. 

I actually have fond memories of dining on freeze-dried entrées.  When backpacking in my high school and college days, those ultra-light meals were a rare luxury.  Normally, we carried much heavier food, since anything freeze-dried was beyond our budget.  So, the few occasions when we did splurge, for example, on vanilla ice cream with the consistency of Styrofoam, well, it was memorable.  I can still recall the campsite by a creek deep in the Smoky Mountains where we feasted on Turkey Tetrazzini one night.  (Buying freeze-dried meals in bulk this way might, in fact, be ideal for someone planning to do the Appalachian Trail next summer.) 

What I especially love about the website is the photo of a beautiful model wearing one of the emergency backpacks of food, smiling broadly, and looking for all the world like a sorority girl off to a barbeque on the beach.  You would think that -- for a company trading on the prospect of disaster -- they would have asked the model to look a bit more, well, distressed, or at least pout. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  While I think Beck’s fear mongering is beyond the pale (and unhinged) and that you’d have to be some kind of paranoid survivalist to buy an entire year of emergency rations, I do agree that most people probably are not prepared enough for life’s little emergencies.  Here, I’m thinking more like having extra batteries in the house or even a portable generator.  Or candles.  And in a similar vein, a few pouches of freeze-dried food can’t hurt -- but seriously, 4000 entrées? 

And to be sure, there have been times when squirreling away food was the prudent thing to do.  My wife reminded me that her nearly 100-year-old aunt still keeps bags of rice, flour and sugar tucked under her bed, just in case.  It’s an old habit that harks back to the food scarcity she lived through during a time when there was real hardship to be fearful of. 

When I first moved to Finland in the early 80s, I taught English at a language school where one of my fellow teachers was an older Finnish lady.  She told how, as a young woman living in wartime Helsinki, she slept fully clothed with a packed rucksack under her bed so she could escape to the bomb shelter at the first sound of the air-raid sirens. 

She also told an old family story about how during the Finnish Civil War the local Reds had ransacked the home of her fairly well-to-do family.  As they looted the house, the Reds, poor workers from the town’s factory, had found a large ham still cooking in the oven.  They placed it on top of the family’s grand piano, and then proceeded to carve off slices of the meat to dole out, cafeteria-style, to the rioters as they filed past. 

So, it’s not as if the kind of worse case scenario and social disruption that Glenn Beck seems fixated on has never ever happened.  It’s just hard for me to believe that the state of the US economy is so close to tipping into a Zimbabwean-like nightmare that we should all really be hoarding food and gold.  Just call me optimistic.   

Sunday, November 14, 2010


One day last week, I glanced out my window and noticed a flag flying at half-mast above the pastel, wooden row houses across our street.  It’s mostly young families with school-aged children who live in those hundred or so apartments, so it was mildly shocking to see that someone apparently had passed away over there. 

It also got me to thinking about the differences in flag customs between the US and here in Finland, where the death of ordinary citizens -- not only presidents -- is honored by lowering the flag at their homes.  To me, the most striking difference has to do with, as in so many other things, emotion and the public display of affection -- in this case, for a piece of colorful cloth.

I know how emotional and sensitive people can be about flags.  After all, I come from a state – Georgia -- that went through a big kerfuffle a few years ago over the issue of removing the Confederate Battle Flag (that old “rebel” banner) from our state flag.  Georgia had added this emblem of the Confederacy -- familiar even to folks here in Finland -- to its flag in the year of my birth, just as the civil rights movement was taking off.  It served as a none-too-subtle reminder in those turbulent times of where Georgia stood on the issue of racial segregation, and it shamefully remained part of the flag for 45 years before decency finally prevailed. 

The fact that some Americans could be so resistant to the removal of an emblem that led armies into bloody battles against the United States goes to show how strong – even surprising – are the passions that flags can inspire.  (The controversy over cleansing the Georgia flag of Confederate symbolism probably led to the Democratic governor who spearheaded the campaign subsequently losing his job.) 

Clearly, Americans take flags seriously, and while other nations might be as passionate about their flags, I imagine most are not as conspicuous about it as the US.  When traveling in the States after a long absence, I’m always impressed how you’re almost never out of sight of the Stars and Stripes, whether it’s emblazoned on roadside advertisements, plastered as decals on cars, or even suspended off freeway overpasses. 

I guess it’s always been that way.  From thirty years back I can recall the gigantic American flags – large enough to cover a dozen stretch limos – that used to tower over certain car dealerships, apparently to reassure even the most near-sighted patriotic car buyer that this was indeed an American place of business. 

This profusion of flag-waving seems to have only become more intensive in recent years.  I imagine it has to do with the mood of the nation after 9/11 and the way Americans rallied around the country following that horrible day. 

But as someone living overseas I’m sometimes surprised by the lengths it has gone to.  Watching a college football game on TV recently, I noticed that the referees were wearing American flag patches on their uniforms.  That struck me as a bit odd, as if anyone in a position of any kind of authority has now been inducted into the ranks of US “officialdom”.  It’s not as if anyone watching a game between Oregon and Washington played on American soil would doubt for an instant that these are Americans officiating the game.  Are only quasi-authority figures, like referees, expected to wear the flag these days, or is it anyone wearing a uniform?  Do UPS drivers wear them?  Maybe they do. 

Of course, there’s nothing strange – and certainly nothing wrong -- in displaying the flag and showing support for your country, especially in times of war.  I have a small American flag hanging in my den, bought at the Ace Hardware in my hometown of Ellijay.  But I have to say that the unapologetic, and very public, veneration of the flag in the States sets the US apart from many other countries, where the need to flaunt your patriotism is not felt nearly so strongly. 

Finland is one such country.  I feel pretty sure that most Finns are no less patriotic than Americans.  After all, it is still within living memory that Finland fought for its very survival against the Soviets, so the sense of nationhood is very real here. 

Still, true to their low-key nature, Finns generally don’t wear their patriotism on their sleeves.  “Flag waving” here is, in fact, a quite regimented affair, as you might expect in a somewhat conformist society like this.  Many commercial and residential buildings have flag poles, and so do quite a few private homes.  (We had our own 20-foot pole before we had to take it down when we built an extension to our house and turned our yard into a construction site.) 

But while anyone is free to fly the flag any time – and many do for private celebrations like birthdays – it’s unusual to see the flag except on the 20 or so designated “flag days”.  These are national holidays such as May Day and Independence Day, not to mention Mother’s Day.  And, my personal favorite Father’s Day -- which happens to be today.  (While Mother’s Day here is the same as in the States, the Finns have wisely put some distance between it and Father’s Days.) 

Because many of the other “flag days” commemorate various statesmen or literary figures from Finland’s past, they tend to be a bit obscure and hard to remember even, I dare say, for some Finns and particularly for an American.  This is why in the past on, for example, United Nations Day, we (meaning me) would often forget to raise our flag on time (at the prescribed 8:00 AM) or even not at all, making me feel like a neighborhood pariah.  So, I’m not entirely unhappy we no longer have a flagpole in our yard – who needs that kind of pressure? 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Post Election Stress Disorder

I’m still recovering from the shock of this week’s midterm election in the States.  Well, “shock” isn’t exactly the right word, I suppose, since anyone who had been exposed to more than five minutes of political commentary leading up to the election would have already known that the Republicans were taking back the House.  No contest. 

Still, there was always hope that the margin of the takeover wouldn’t be as great as expected -- that is, until the exit polls actually started coming in.  Being at least seven time zones removed from the action, I had to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night just to see for myself how bad it was going to be and subject myself to the pain of watching it all unfold in real-time.  

I tiptoed downstairs at two in the morning, and for the next three hours kept one eye on CNN and one on my laptop, where I channel-surfed between Twitter, The Daily Beast, Fox News (mainly for its excellent interactive map), Politico, you name it, bombarding myself with every fresh scrap of news I could find.  And there were scraps galore.  The Twitter feed alone was especially busy.  If I toggled away from Twitter for just a couple of minutes, when I toggled back I would find dozens of new tweets from the various journalist I follow.  It was a multimedia soaking of mostly discouraging news. 

Before finally going back to bed, I was able to hang on long enough to be reassured that Nevada was not sending Sharron Angle to the Senate.  That bit of sanity -- and the fact that the Senate didn’t change hands -- was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal spectacle of defeat. 

And now the aftermath.  The passive-aggressive in me wants to say to the Republicans “Fine, I don’t care.  Let’s see you fix this mess.”  The outpouring of anger and frustration that the electorate vented on Tuesday was fueled, in large part, by the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression and by the fact that Obama and the Democrats somehow haven’t been able to turn this runaway disaster around on a dime. 

I think it’s unfair and unrealistic.  Given the magnitude of the mess, it’s hard to imagine anyone could have done a notably better job, least of all John McCain.  (We’ll never know for sure, will we?)  That is not to say that things are great.  The recovery is far too slow and unemployment is too high (though a better-than-expected 151,000 jobs were added in October).  The country is still hurting.  But I honestly believe the Democrats are working to make things better and are the right track.  

The majority of Americans (or of the 40% or so that bothered to vote) don’t agree, and aren’t patient enough to wait and see if the current measures will work.  Maybe this isn’t surprising given the all-too-typical desire for instant greatification and painless, easy answers.  Will they be as unforgiving of John Boehner and the Republican if the GOP is, in fact, not able to perform miracles and orchestrate a recovery faster?  

David Corn, the liberal journalist and prolific Twitterer, posted an ironic tweet the day after the election that said it best:  “Okay, it's been almost 12 hours, Speaker-to-be Boehner, where are the jobs?”