I knew from yesterday’s exercises that this morning’s concluding movements for the retreat were going to be physical ones. So when I got dressed, I said a small prayer of thanks that I had one T-shirt to wear for the work and a fresh shirt to change into before heading off to the airport and my travels home.
In retrospect, it might have been wiser to switch the order of how I wore these two items of clothing. In my own way of mixing vanity and propriety when I travel, I saved the “dressier” T-shirt for my travels: darker and more subdued colors as well as a subtler design. Dark blue flowers, grey leaves on a dark cocoa background, with a small smattering of sequins across the torso.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But as it turns out, the security body scanning machine isn’t a fan of sequins, so wearing them may result in you getting sorta-kinda felt up by the lady TSA agent.
Nota bene: As much as I love comic hyperbole, let me be really clear right now about the professionalism shown by the TSA agent in question. She told me what the scanner procedure required, and that she would be using only the back of her hands for this “pat-down.” She made it very clear this was not an enjoyable happening for her, either, and she gave me the option of stepping to a more private location before this extra-level search happened. She also warned me before every body contact within the pat-down, and was as quick as she could be within what was required.
All in all, she did the best she could within the structure to make an invasive and dehumanizing moment as painless as she could. So: honor to her.
Nevertheless, the structure itself was incredibly dehumanizing — something I didn’t really get till I was in the middle of the happening. Foolishly, naively, defiantly, I had chosen not to step to a more private location for the “pat-down.” Naively, because I didn’t quite get how thorough the search was going to be. Foolishly, because I had zero foresight to understand how profoundly shocking this boundary-crossing was going to feel in my system. Defiantly, because even with my limited ahead-of-time understanding about the structure, I knew enough to want it to be out in the open.
Let them see what this system is like. Do not let this be swept over and hidden in the shadows.
No, I don’t really know who the “them” is I want to wake up to this structure. But even now that I know how thorough the search is, and how it really feels to stand and experience that, I have no regrets for staying out in the open for it. Let them see, indeed.
And although today’s happening was an especially charged case study, the principle of how dehumanizing air travel can be holds true in so many other expressions.
Yes, I’ve seen that Louis C.K. bit before. I know how miraculous it is that air travel is available to us at all, and I have profound gratitude at being able to use this miracle in order to attend these retreats, to study, to grow my awareness, and to move my life forward.
So many elements of airport design and airline systems reduce people to one or all of these things: cargo, cash cows and potential threats. Seats that keep getting more cramped and compressed to increase the profit capacity of each individual flight, and the endless up-charges to try and increase the profit potential from each individual passenger. The continued ridiculousness of taking your shoes off at the security checkpoint. The price mark-up on the Dunkin’ iced coffee bought in the airport as compared to the one a mile down the road from Logan, paired with the regulations that forbid you from bringing the more reasonably-priced caffeinated beverage along on your travels.
I am by no means a road warrior. But I travel enough to have some chances to study these dynamics. And I do see individuals — staff and travelers alike — taking what steps they can to maintain their humanity and bring it into the travel machine in whatever ways they can.
I’ve started making my own conscious efforts in this direction. Saying my “thank you” to someone with attention and sincerity rather than just by rote. Helping someone place a computer cord so he can use the extra plug at the charging station where I’m sitting and feeding my Apple gadgets. Holding my shit together when a TSA agent needs to pat me down rather than exploding any of my triggeredness on her.
But I can’t help but wonder. What would it be like if humanity were intrinsically woven into the travel structure? What would it be like if moments of humanity and connection were part of the design rather than operating as a sub rosa counter-narrative?
After all: how many other structures are similarly ripe for transformation?