Friday, May 11, 2012

My TSA Experience

Pardon me while I brush the dust off my soap box. I try not to use it and abuse it too often.

>cough, cough<


As you can probably tell from the title of my blog, I live in Alaska. The only family I have here is my husband. Everyone else in our family lives in the Lower 48. I travel to visit them as often as I can, which isn't very often.

Main method of traveling: commercial plane, of course.

Let me attempt to sum up the other ways of traveling to the Lower 48. You can drive through Canada, but of course they have their own rules, which makes it very difficult to protect yourself with your weapon of choice. Depending on how much time you spend driving each day, it would take at least four days, probably more (maybe less if you drive like a zombie) to get to California. Unless you want to sleep at rest stops or the side of the road, you'll need money to stay in hotels. And this is just one way. You'd double that to come back to Alaska the same way.

Gas alone for a round trip like that would be about $1,000.

You could drive part of the way and do part on the ferries. I looked at the cost for a ferry from Whittier (a couple hours drive from where I live) to Bellingham, Washington (I think that was the place). For a round trip with your car, it would cost over $2,000, and that doesn't include sleeping accommodations. You would camp on the deck or sleep in your car. Google Maps suggests doing three ferries, taking you to Juneau, and then to Washington. I didn't look at the cost of this collectively, but it sure doesn't save any time. Also, you are at the mercy of the ferry launch dates, which are extremely limited.

In other words, this is more like booking a cruise vacation, something that you do once in a great while when you've saved up the money. Not the little week-long jaunts I do once or twice a year to see the fam.

I haven't done much research on private planes, but I hear from other people that they're just as pricey, that you have to put a lot of trust in a pilot that you don't know, and that you can't take much with you. (Anyone with experience in this area, please feel free to comment, as I am still researching the cost effectiveness of travel methods out of Alaska.)

Also, getting my own pilot's license is out of the question. :)

That pretty much leaves you with commercial flying as the most cost effective and fastest method of travel to and from Alaska. Especially if you use credit card award miles most of the time, like I do.

I had no issue with flying until recently. I don't like it, to be sure. I'm a Taurus; I prefer my feet planted on the Earth and my nose in the grass. I get migraines easily, so I have to drink a lot of water. I try to sit at a window seat because I develop rashes under my arms when I'm stuck in the middle (due to my nervous sweating). I've had some of the worst seat mates, like the drunk guy trying to pick a fight with the guy on my other side. (I'm pretty sure there's a blog post on that one somewhere.)

Security is annoying, but I was always prepared and swept right through without a problem. The agents love my karate moose that travels with me.

So before, I would have said commercial flight was tolerable.

Here's what happened to me last month to change that.

Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage has acquired the new body scanners. I don't know which ones they are specifically, whether they take nude photos or the generic ones. My heart sank as soon as I saw it. I'd done some research on the subject when the uproar started. As far as I'm concerned, there isn't enough evidence to support the idea that these things are safe. When doctors say they won't go through them, I find this rather damning. Of course TSA isn't going to say anything bad about them. If they admitted anything, no one would tolerate their use.

Take the anecdote that someone related to me recently: when the police started using scan guns to clock speeders, there was a jump in testicular cancer because the officers were putting the "safe" scan guns in their laps.

How about the fact that certain foods are concluded to be safe, then not, then safe again? Do we humans really know that much about something that hasn't been tested for long periods of time?

Here's the trump for me. Forget about whether it's healthy for the individual going through once or twice a year, like me. What about the people that work around these things for full shifts, day in and day out? Have the scanners been tested for the long term health of the TSA agents themselves?

Anyway, I decided it wasn't worth it to me to go through it. And they were sending EVERYONE through it that evening. It wasn't random selection. Maybe it was because there weren't as many people traveling that evening. I don't know.

I opted out.

The gentleman called "Female opt out," and had me stand aside. One traveler got confused when she saw me standing there, thinking she was waiting in line behind me. Other than that, I don't know if anyone else noticed my choice to opt out.

The supervisor was the lady on duty at that time and she walked me over to the pat down area. I was keeping an eye on my stuff and she kept stopping behind me. She mentioned that she had to stay behind me, and I said, "As long as I can see my stuff." She agreed, and my stuff was brought over to a spot within my sight.

Before she got started, I was already shaking. I had prayed that I would never be put through this, but I needed to see it through. I've never been selected for a random pat down, so I had no idea (other than the horror stories) what to expect. But I figured it was my duty to at least see if it was as bad as others say it is.

I informed her that I was very nervous, that I'd never done this before, that I have issues with the body scanners (including worry for her own health). She gave me the TSA spiel about the radiation being less than our cell phones.

I was wearing my fitness instructor outfit: tight sleeveless top with built-in bra, tight black capris that leave no possibility of anything hidden inside, and no pockets of any kind. It was quite clear to anyone looking at me that I carried nothing hidden, unless it was up in my hoo-hoo.

I informed the agent that I was a martial artist trained in self defense for sixteen years, that I was a woman traveling alone, and that I had serious issues with getting touched by strangers on my crotch and my breasts. She told me, in very friendly and polite tones, that if I refused the pat down, I would be escorted out of the airport.

Not that I would be allowed to just take my stuff and leave. But that I would have to be escorted out of the building like a criminal.

She promised to tell me everything she was going to do before she did it, which she did. She started with my hair, down the back of my neck. She used the back of her hands to glide over my bottom.

Then she said that she was going to slide her hands up my leg until she reached "torso resistance." Those were the words she used. As she slid up, one of her gloved fingers caught on the fabric of my pants, which made her hands come up too fast. She bumped me right on the sensitive spot of my groin.

My knee came up.

It was a good thing I had warned her about my training, because I did not hit the agent. She was ready for movements like that. What if I had said nothing, and then kneed her in the face? I would have been hauled off to jail for "assault."

But she apologized, and continued on. There were no further incidents from that point on, but the damage had been done. It took all I had not to burst into tears. I saved it for the bathroom, where I pummeled the stall door in anger.

She managed not to touch my groin on the other leg. And she also managed not to touch my breasts when she cupped her hands under them. She thanked me for my cooperation, and I thanked her for her understanding.

Now I've had plenty of time to reflect. My experience was actually decent compared to what has happened to others. But why was it decent for me?

I lucked out and got a decent human being for an agent, first of all. We understood each other. And while I think she should reconsider her choice of profession, at least she did her job in the best possible way. I don't know if she shared any of my views, but she knew I was very upset being put in the situation.

I am a very thin girl. I have almost nothing in the bosom department. It was very easy for someone to pat down without touching something on me.

But think about that phrase, torso resistance. That means EVERY man that goes through is going to get touched on the junk. Every woman that isn't as skinny as me is going to get touched in the sensitive place. Any woman with a bra size bigger than mine is going to get fondled. Anyone wearing baggy clothes, or adult diapers, or with medical issues is going to get groped.

And I got a NICE person. I've heard about others who power trip, who harass travelers because they have a "badge," who steal stuff because they can get away with it. I saw a little of it myself at the Anchorage airport, as a few of the agents behaved as if they wished they had cattle prods in their hands.

I can't even imagine what it must mean for people who have been sexually traumatized in some way. The very idea makes me sad. And very angry.

Now compare this to my return trip from the Sacramento, California airport. They now have the body scanners as well. But because this was a much busier time I was flying (I assume that was the reason), only a few random individuals were sent through the body scanners. I was not, so I did not even get the chance to opt out and see if my experience would be different there. I did the usual removal of the shoes, putting my stuff in the buckets, and walked through the metal detector without any issue and went on my merry way in seconds. Just like I always used to.

So what is someone in my position to do? If I want to take a stand and refuse to fly, I'm severely limited in my choices if I want to see my family. Basically, I would need roughly three weeks in order to spend a week with my family if I choose to drive. And I would have to spend twice, maybe three times as much to do so, not to mention the money I would lose taking the time off.

And what if I opt out of the scanner and get an agent who is not polite, who does a full on grope instead of an accidental bump? I'm trained to prevent this kind of treatment. Parents tell their children not to let anyone touch their private parts. Why is this any different? I don't know these people. I didn't do a background check on them.

Will it take a slew of cancer to show the dangers of body scanners? And who says any terrorist will get caught in the first place? Drug smugglers were getting through with TSA assistance. All it takes is for one to get hired that's willing to help them.

Some people would say, "Well, why don't you move?" Those people don't understand what that would take. That is not a cheap option either, not if you want to keep all your stuff and your cars. And I feel that the economy is worse in the Lower 48 than it is here. Why would we want to move? Why should we move just because we want to avoid plane travel?

There have been so many articles about pat down horrors, about ways to get stuff through the body scanners without being detected, and health issues, and TSA corruption and incompetence. All I can really say is, "Do your own research." See what you can find on your own. Don't listen to the TSA, and don't listen to only one or two individuals like me.

For myself, that line has been crossed. I can't just blindly go along with whatever someone orders me to do in the name of safety that actually isn't safer.

For those in Alaska, I found this group: Alaskans Freedom to Travel USA.
They tweet a lot of articles about the TSA, so they are a useful reference to get you started.

This is a very important issue for Alaskans because our travel to the rest of the nation is so limited. There is so much more that I could say about the subject, but it would fill a book. Just remember that we only really know what we're told by others. So try to hear as many different voices on the subject as you can, and see what the majority is saying before you make your own decision.

Okay, time to put my soap box back in the closet.

The Bliss Found in NOT Writing

Holy Mary, Mother of Meatballs. Didn't realize it has been a full two months since the last time I posted. Apparently I needed a good long break from writing. And boy howdy, did I take a break!

I've hardly written a thing since March. I started a story, but haven't finished it. I just reached a point where I didn't have the energy or the desire. My brain wanted to move on to other things I had neglected, such as playing guitar and making mini teddy bears. I had new routines to learn, which means practicing and teaching, which means lots of exercise. Lots. It really is impossible to do all the things we want to and need to in the time we have as humans.

So I decided a guilt-free break was in order. Much as it killed me to fall behind two months in Write 1 Sub 1, I felt I needed to give over to this desire to do things other than write.

Some writers give excuses for this. I noticed writer's block is a common one.

No excuse for me. I simply ... didn't want to write.

I can hear other writers howling at this statement. They would tell me, "That means you really don't want to make it in the writing business!"

In a way, they're right. I don't. Well, not in the traditional sense of being the next J. K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. I don't have those kinds of unrealistic aspirations.

All I want to do is entertain people. I like to sing, dance, write, make gifts that delight the receivers. If I become famous and rich while doing such things, all right then. I'll accept that.

But I don't expect it in any way, shape, or form.

And who knows? Maybe in a few years I'll look back on this entry and do some howling myself. "What was I thinking? Why, oh, why didn't I just plunk my butt in the chair and apply my fingers to the keyboard every single day like I did most of 2011?"

Well, here's one reason:
I made this little guy during that time. :)

Last year was intense. Doing Write 1 Sub 1, I think I produced more in that year than in all the other years combined that I've ever written something. I was full steam ahead, and I got twelve stories published, something I never dreamed would actually happen.

And then I crashed. My steam turned into a dribble of water. And that, too, dried up.

I admit, part of it might have to do with the next blog post I'm going to write about. I've been avoiding it because I was so angry about what happened, I couldn't think about it and not have my blood pressure rise.

I'm ready now to write about it, and so with a deep breath, I leap back into the writing fray. I will do my best to lay out all the facts and not put a fiction writer's spin on it to make it more interesting.

After all, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, yes? ;)