31 December 2006

Transition: Piety in Paradise, et al.

Islanders are much into Christmas, but not in a manner that would earn the approval of Pat Robertson or, for that matter, Bill O'Reilly. Christmas here is much about a few front porches bearing some colored lights, light displays on the lamp posts at the quay, (the displays look like ice cream cones with stars coming out the top—much more New Years than Christmas) and, most beautifully, stunning light strings on the yachts crowded into the harbor. Sure there is a creche inside the Catholic church ( it's more of a permanent display than a Christmas add-on, and, uh, well…it is a church), but the predominant indicia of the Christmas holiday are the local families strolling about along with the tourists, (no, there's no trouble telling them one from the other), the sudden appearance of teenagers among the population (highschoolers, who attend school off-island, are home for the holidays), and an increase in the level of genuine good cheer. Nobody scolds islanders about "putting the Christ back in Christmas." Any such admonition would promptly earn the retort, "That's my business, not yours." Hmm.

Also notable to a "foreigner" like me is the total lack of competition for public attention to religion in general and religious differences in particular, stuff that is so prevalent in New York City these days. There is a complete lack of competing religious symbols. When we left Manhattan last week, the newspapers were chock full of stories and opinion pieces about the competition of religious symbols at this time of year. I especially liked the one where one suburban village government put up a Christmas tree in front of village hall, and the local synagogue insisted on putting up a menorah there too. Then another group said, if there's a menorah, there has to be a creche. I am not sure how it ended, but I did notice on one my power walks up the East River esplanade, that around 75th Street, a group had erected on the walkway adjacent to the roadway railing, a portable aluminum structure, about ten feet high, stabilized by legs that splayed out and seemed to be filled with water for ballast, from which hung a six foot square of cloth aimed at the southbound traffic, advertising Chanukkah. Happily, we departed before the other religions demanded their share of billboard advertising space on the FDR Drive. I can hardly wait to see what Mr. Bloomberg and the NYCLU have to say about the matter. Doubtless Alan Dershowitz is already writing the brief.

The locals could not conceive of spending time on such issues. There are things of real importance that dominate the local discussion: Will the desalinization plant make enough water for the enlarged population during the tourist season? Will the despised French Gendarmes continue their aggressive campaign to ticket drivers for cell phone and safety belt violations? How, oh how, are we to cope with increase in automobiles without a corresponding increase in downtown Gustavia parking spaces? These are issues of moment.

Perhaps the lack of attention to competing religious displays is, in part, a result of the lack of significant non-christian groups on the island. Nevertheless, there are many Jewish people on the island, but I have not yet heard a demand for a menorah on the quay, the hundreds (thousands?) of blacks on the island have not yet demanded that the schools recognize Kwanza, and the Seinfeld fans have not yet campaigned for the erection of a bare aluminum pole in honor of Festivus--- "Festivus for the Rest-of-us."

The lack of public piety is a welcome relief. Along with the warm salt water of the sea, the even warmer sand on the feet, and the hot sun tolerable because of the ever-present easterlies, the inattention to Christmas tree wars (and to George Bush) is part of the process of leaching that hard core of New York intensity out of mind and body. It takes days. My editor says the tone of this essay shows I have a ways to go yet. And Pinks ain't often wrong—at least about me.

We, of course, are just at the beginning of transitional leaching. (That's leaching, not leching. The latter is part of the process of the former.)

The day of travel here was probably our most anxious time. The cause of that anxiety was, as usual, Frank.

The first order of business was to get Frank checked in at the AA counter. While humans need only a reservation and a passport, dogs need an envelope full of documents. AA needs to be assured of three basic things: i) Frank is not going to expire on their watch, ii) he will not escape his cage and wander about the airport for years, as a Westminster champion did a few years ago, and iii) he will be admitted into the country at the point of disembarkation.

The first requirement is satisfied by a veterinarian's certificate, no more than ten days old, that says Frank is in good health, and can withstand temperatures lower than 49 degrees Fahrenheit. ( If the temp goes below 19 degrees, they won't take him under any circumstances.) You must also fill out a form that instructs the airline when he was last fed and watered, and whether to feed or water the dog, and when. (Our flight was short and our instructions were "do nothing.")

Second, the escape-proof requirement sounds easy, but it is not. Frank's travel crate is a plastic bubble about the size of the trunk of a full-size car. The entrance is a hinged grill kept shut by a simple mechanism that slides small bolts into receptacles at the top and bottom of the crate. Not good enough for the airlines, though. They insist on additional security: tying the grill shut with plastic wire ties—narrow plastic strips with a rectangular opening at one end. The male end is inserted into the female end where a small plastic tongue catches the ribbed surface of the plastic strip, and permits one to cinch it as tight as desired. These are one-way strips, i.e., once the male end is inserted into the female end and pulled tight, it cannot be removed. (This is not an allegory, friends, I am trying to help those readers who are unfamiliar with wire-ties. If you see something else, well, that's your issue, not mine.) These common items are supplied by the airline. This turned out to be a huge issue. We waited for the cargo handler to arrive with these ties. When we were within ten minutes of missing the plane, the guy arrives with four ties, each about five inches long. Uh, oh. To get through the front grill, into and out of the air holes on the side of crate, and loop back again to cinch the end sticking out of the front grill would take a lot more than five inches. The AA guy says "I gotta go back to maintenance and see it they have larger ties." Fuhgeddiboudit. I show him how to use the simple locking mechanism to join two ties. Voila! It reaches! But the airlines are struggling with oil at $60 a barrel, and the AA purchase department must have gotten a huge bargain at one of the Oddlot stores on 46th Street. As soon as the tie gets anywhere near tight, the little tongue snaps off and you've got zilch. I seized operational command, used the last of the ties to secure the grill without stressing the ties, gave the handler five bucks, and Frank was wheeled away. Frank is a very laid back guy, he was in his own crate (he's slept in it before), on his own bed, and has had a mild tranq pill. He was already so dopey that if you opened the front door, he wouldn't leave the crate unless Pinks or I asked him to do so.

Meeting AA's third requirement-- assuring receptivity at he destination-- proved nerve-wracking. Our agent at the AA counter was a literalist. She read the EU requirements off the screen and demanded proof of every item. She read the instructions as requiring a rabies shot every year. Frank's certificate was dated 2005 but was good for three years. Nope. Not good enough. We argued, politely, of course, what sense did it make to read the regs as requiring a 3yr. rabies shot every year? It took a while, and reason prevailed. She accepted his rabies shot record. Next, did Frank have a chip implanted in his shoulder? Yes. Was he wearing a tag with the number on it? Yes. Did we have a document saying he had the chip? Yes, for sure. But it was in Pink's top drawer at home. Why do you need the document when you have the tag with the number of the chip? Because that's the way she read the instructions, that's why. After some back and forth with zero progress, we take an appeal: she calls over the supervisor, who after hearing both sides of the dispute, rolls her eyes at the agent and tells her to enter the number from the tag into the computer record, and now we have documentation.

All of this attention to EU entrance regulations is ironic because while the French authorities carefully examine passports of immigrants and tourists, they never even ask for any papers for dogs. Frank just saunters by the forbidding agents of the Police Aux Frontiers as if he were the mayor.

But AA check-in is not the end of the saga. Before the AA cargo personnel can take Frank away, (no, they do not put him on the moving belt with the other luggage—at least in our sight) we deal with the TSA people who need to be assured that this white-muzzled black Labrador Retriever was not a suicide dog, and that his crate wasn't booby trapped. So after check-in, we moved Frank to the TSA baggage area, where the three of us watched a TSA guy crawl in the crate and wipe a one-inch square cloth all over the interior surfaces, and then put the swab through a machine to detect traces of explosive chemicals. One can only guess at what Frank was thinking when he saw that uniformed guy crawl into his cage. Frank was serene. He lay down in lion-repose position, put his chin on his paws, and watched the show. I thought he was amused, but I am not an objective dog whisperer. Only after Frank's cage was cleared for boarding did we coax Frank into the cage, lock him in (see infra) and off he went.

To my surprise, they did not ask Frank to walk through a magnetometer.

So now the question is how would 12 ½ year old Frank again endure the four hour ride in his travel crate in the luggage compartment of the American Airlines ride to St. Maarten? Did the crate bounce around the cargo hold during the rough-air patches? Is there the equivalent of a seat belt? If so, is the seat belt light always on? Might as well be, I guess, since for sure there is not patch of grass there, and besides, Frank is locked in, or so he thinks.

And where was he in the anxiety-filled 50 minutes between our arrival at SXM and the bus ride over the tarmac to the charter which would take us to Paradise? Adjacent to the rubber band wind-up plane was a luggage cart with Frank's crate. He was asleep, with his nose pointing away from the grill. We called him, he turned around, wagged his tail once or twice, and went back to sleep. So far as we could tell, he slept through the entire trip, which is basically what he does all day anyway, plane or no plane.

I helped load Frank, still in his crate, on the single engine six-seater that flew us from SXM to SBH. When we offloaded him, a gentle pull on the wire ties was all that was necessary to snap them. I opened the grill, Frank wagged his tail, walked stiffly out of his cage, and proceeded to poop and pee on the tarmac. Welcome to St. Barths. Frank, at least, had completed his transition.

He's way ahead of me. But then again, I've got issues to deal with that he knows nothing about, bless his little brain.

More later. Now to go saw off the bottoms of the closet doors which have swollen and catch on the rug.

Happy New Year

A bientot.