Saturday, September 25, 2010

class warfare

if there's anything that makes me want to commit my life and actions more thoroughly to the eradication of social and economic classes, it's flying internationally.

it just somehow gets worse and worse. this past trip to europe i flew on united, simply because that was the airline i had frequent flier miles available to use. it's one thing to have to walk past a reasonable first class section or business class section, with wider, leather seats that recline more, personal 'entertainment on demand' units, and more leg room. ok, i look at it with longing, but that doesn't really inspire rebellion in me.

but recently, airlines are upping the anty in providing comfort to these royal classes, at the expense of the rest of us peons. on my recent flights to and from frankfurt from washington dc, united now has no fewer than four classes in which to divide us: first class, business class, economy plus, and economy. first class, instead of being two nice seats next to each other, is now one pod-like structure that completely surrounds and envelops the traveler. the molded plastic 'seat' features an iPod dock, a huge TV screen with entertainment and games on demand, connectors for your laptop, a leg rest and foot rest that - get this - combine with the seat to create a bed that lays completely flat. completely, utterly, absolutely flat, with a nice soft white pillow and blanket. a bed. on a plane. this was not a huge plane - the regular sections fit seven or eight seats across the width of the plane - but first class fit only four of these huge cocoons across the width of the plane, each seat requiring at least the equivalent of two rows by the standards of economy. business class was more like first class than economy - smaller pod-like seats that were next to each other, but still featuring the seat that lies completely flat. both of these sections, of course, also feature better food and free drinks.

it's when you (finally) get to the ever-shrinking area of the plane that's carrying the bulk of the passengers that it really gets annoying. here, the cost of those enormous bed-seats necessitates that every other row of seats be closer together. in the rock-bottom world of economy - i.e., a normal ticket - the seat back in front of me was a mere inch in front of my knees. my knees. i'm not a tall person. in fact i'd go so far as to say that i'm about as small a person as you're going to find on a plane without including minors. i'm the shortest person in 90 out of 100 gatherings of adults (for those of you who think that's a low estimate, my cousin's wife wins at any family gathering). once i had carefully stowed my carry on under the seat in front of me, it was impossible to reach it while sitting in my seat with someone next to me, because my head hit the seat back in front of me long before my arm could reach the floor. the rows are so close together that they cannot recline as much, either. i spent the next 8.5 hours twisting in my seat that barely reclined, desperately trying to find any sort of comfortable position, without even the heretofore sacred international flying perk of a free drink to pass the time with.

that's how they've suckered people into - or as we say in economics, provided incentives to encourage people to - paying more for what used to be standard: this new economy plus gig. as you check in, as you approach the gate, as you're getting ready to board a stream of cheerful advertisements featuring happy, smiling people sitting on the plane with their legs elegantly crossed encourages you to 'upgrade' to economy plus for "five inches more legroom!" it doesn't get you a flat place to sleep, free wine, or better food. all it gets you is what used to be standard - a seat you can cross your legs in and actually lean forward enough in to retrieve something out of your bag. this is what they're doing, my friends. they are going to keep cramming the seats closer and closer together until suddenly the economy section disappears and we're all paying more for what we used to get standard because - ta da! - now it's all economy plus. i'm not usually a conspiracy theorist, but as i sat fully upright, legs straight in front, desperately trying to sleep on the way to germany, it wasn't hard to come up with such nefarious schemes being perpetrated on us by the airlines.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

everything is temporary

one of the nicest things about getting to know a place is that you can see when it changes.

sometimes change is good; sometimes, not so good. but i love both the excitement of the new and the mourning of what's lost.

i am irrationally attached to the place i grew up. not just to the overall place, but very specific places within it. streets. vistas. particular doorways or parking lots. specific trails and woods and beach cliffs.

one of my friends will occasionally post on facebook just a name - a name of a place that used to be there, that no longer exists. and everyone from there will leap in with other names, places we remember, places we wish were still there, places that frightened us as kids, places that we frequented as teenagers.

when you grow up in a place, change happens so slowly that you hardly realize what all is gone. it's the accumulated loss, from a perspective 20 years out, that is striking. how interesting it is to see what others remember, that i don't. and how the memories come flooding back, when that list starts getting created!

i don't know olympic national park well. i've only been there a handful of times. but we just got back from backpacking there, in exactly the same place we went last year. and it was astounding and awesome to be able to realize, in a very specific way, exactly what had changed over the year.

last year, kalaloch beach was covered in driftwood. and not just any driftwood. huge, monster, old temperate rainforest sitka spruce driftwood. the logs, several feet in diameter, polished to a grey smoothness, often still with giant root stubs attached, covered the first twenty or so feet of beach from the land. we scrambled up and over them, climbed all around, marveled at their length and girth. they were jumbled together like so many pick-up-sticks, crossing over each other, balancing on each other.

we marveled at the force that brought them miles downstream, out into the ocean, and back onto the beach. each looked as heavy and as permanent as any human construction. logs six, seven, ten feet wide and fifty feet long? they were clearly not going anywhere anytime soon.

except, they were. this year, the beach was almost empty of logs. all that mass, all that volume, all that weight, somehow during the course of the year, simply picked up, and swept away.

last year we camped at a bend in the river a few miles in. there, the river channel spread out and we were near some calm pools on a side channel. the main channel was across a gravel bar, out of sight and out of mind. 

this year, the entire river was in the main channel. those calm pools and side channels we were fishing in last year were expanses of gravel and silt, that we happily pitched out tents on. the main river was in one simple, fast moving channel and in twelve short months it had completely changed course. 

a few miles down the trail from us were a pair of backpackers who've been coming to this river for 50 years. when the road washed out, they biked in. sometimes they walked in. they'd been here in fall, when the initial ford was impassable, when they rowed in by boat. they'd been here when the only way to get here was on unmarked forest service roads, before the national park began routing people along this upper valley road. i wonder if they sometimes sit around like my friends and i, naming features and landmarks that no longer exist. i wonder if they remember when there was no himalaya berry in the meadow. when the large doug-fir still had its top. when there were more bears, and less people. 

i can love this beach, or my hometown, for what it is, but it will never be again exactly what it is now. everything is temporary.