Oct 282008

As you might expect, when the second Winston Breen book comes out in May, the first book will be available in paperback. Here’s the new cover. Just a wee bit different from the hardcover, eh?

Oct 282008

On Saturday, I flew out of the White Plains airport, headed for Fort Lauderdale. There was the usual last-minute rushing as we got out the door, and it wasn’t until I was walking through security that I made a terrible realization.

“Where are your keys?” said the big man monitoring the machine.

“I’m about to put them back in my pocket,” I said, slightly puzzled by the question.

“We need to see them again.”

That’s when I realized. Oh, hell! I had forgotten to take my pocket knife off my key ring. The knife was a groomsman’s gift from my friend Andrew — I had carried it with me for years. And now I was about to lose it.

The helplessness one feels at a moment like this cannot be overstated. It is absolutely insane that anyone would think this small pocket knife made me some kind of threat to the nation, but I felt if I actually said that — if I raised a stink about this ridiculous policy — that these people could use their all-consuming Authority to make life even worse for me. They took my knife and I went to the lounge to try to forget about it. It was like a paper cut you can’t stop touching, even though it hurts every time you touch it.

When I reached my destination, I told my wife the bad news, and her immediate response was: I’m going to try to get it back.

I was more than merely skeptical. In fact, I told her not to waste her time trying. She didn’t listen.

My wife found the name and e-mail address of the airport security supervisor, and sent him a message, explaining the situation and describing the knife. That was on Saturday. He wrote back on Monday morning, the day I was to return, that he had forwarded her e-mail to some other people. My wife guessed this was a polite brush off, so she was astonished when an hour or so later he wrote again saying they had found the knife, and they would hold it for me at Airport Services. The supervisor included his cell-phone number so I could call him and arrange to meet him.

I knew about none of this. By the time the fellow sent the first of his e-mails, I was already waiting in the Fort Lauderdale airport for my return flight home. I called my wife’s cell when my plane landed — she was out in the parking lot waiting for me — and just as I was about to hang up, she said, “WAIT!” and told me the incredible news. I called the supervisor; he told me where I could find him; I got off the plane and ran my butt over there. Sure enough, he had found my knife, and was perfectly nice about giving it back to me. No lectures about never making this mistake again, no declarations about security. He simply handed it to me and wished me a good day. It’s back on my keyring now, and I keep looking at it because I can’t believe it’s in my possession again.

Now, let’s be clear: It remains beyond crazy that the TSA could take my knife away in the first place. It’s obvious to every thinking person in America that in this post-9/11 world, if I was to stand up and wave my pocket knife around and say I was taking over this airplane, that I would be tackled and beaten to death by the other passengers in about fifteen seconds. Taking away nail clippers and mouthwash and bottles of water has not done a single thing to make this country safer, and if you haven’t read it, now would be a very good time to commend to you Jeffrey Goldberg’s article on the subject in the most recent Atlantic magazine.

And I think many of us have been made to feel helpless by the power of the TSA. We’ve all read about people threatened with arrest because they asked too many questions or dared to write down badge numbers. We’ve read about people who missed their flights or were sent home due to the actions of some security-gate Napoleon. Essentially, we have been trained that if we make a mistake and bring along a small, harmless, but nonetheless forbidden item, and if that item is taken away from us, that the best we can do is count our blessings that it wasn’t worse. We could have been deemed an actual danger and put into a small room. What we have learned over the last few years is that the TSA’s powers are capricious, even Kafka-esque, and that when you draw attention to yourself, accidentally or on purpose, you do so at your peril.

But not every person involved in airport security is like that. There’s no way we happened across the one good person in the entire realm of airport security. There must be others who are equally nice and equally willing to help. My pocket knife experience leads me to conclude the following: If you have something confiscated at the security gate and want to get it back…

1) Hope you had the good fortune to fly out of a small airport. I can’t imagine my wife would have had the same success if I’d flown out of JFK or O’Hare.

2) Hope you had the good fortune of losing something distinctive. My knife had my first name engraved on it. I gather it was pretty easy to locate.

3) Be polite. Don’t make a scene at the gate itself. Find the phone number or e-mail address of airport security and contact them and be nothing but deferential. Your goal isn’t to make a point about the TSA’s stupidity. Your goal is to get your belongings back. The person you contact, if he or she helps you at all, is doing you a big, fat favor. Remember that.

4) The item you lost has great sentimental value. Even if you have to make up why it has sentimental value. Sell your story. Let the person feel good about helping you.

5) If the first person doesn’t help you, try someone else. You never know.

6) Say thank you. If a miracle should occur and you get somebody to help you recover your lost item, be thankful. Again I say, let the person feel good about helping you. Maybe then he or she will help the next person who asks, too.

The above is all conjecture based on my one experience — and I don’t plan on making the same mistake again, so I can test my theories. If you have any other clever tips about how to get back something you’ve lost at the security gate, let me know in the comments.

Update: Incredibly, two days after I wrote this, another security person at the airport e-mailed my wife to ask how they might assist in getting me back my knife. I totally love this airport.

Oct 232008

My brother, a middle-school social studies teacher, thinks it’s crazy that we let kids advance to the next grade whether or not they are prepared for it. But he also is not in favor of holding kids back just because they failed in a single area. For Education Week magazine, he describes a middle ground so logical, so clear, and so blatantly obvious that you just KNOW change-resistant educators are going to come up with a million reasons why it’s impossible.

Oct 142008

Amazon now lists it! I don’t think that release date is correct, however. Or if it is, I better get cracking on those galley pages I’ve had for a couple of weeks now.

Update: Wow, it is the release date! May 2009, not September! Coolness.

But wait! There’s more! An actual cover!

Oct 132008

I have been reluctant to support overhauling the Electoral College in favor of a straight-out popular vote model. The College is undoubtedly flawed, and my enthusiasm for it (never all that high in the first place) wanes by the day. But readers of this blog know that I am always leery of unintended consequences, and replacing an age-old nationwide system with another (even a supposedly butt simple one like “whoever gets the most votes wins”) smells, to me, like it would unleash a tsunami of unintended consequences. Isn’t there a halfway measure… a way to fix the Electoral College without killing it entirely?

James Pontuso has the most interesting idea I’ve seen so far:

There is a simple solution to the problems created by the Electoral College. The elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000 – elections in which the popular vote winner lost the election were all close, decided by five Electoral College votes or less. But if the winner of the national popular vote were awarded eleven Electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, the extra eleven votes (twice the five-vote-margin plus one for good measure) would assure that the popular vote victor would also win the Electoral College vote and become President. The eleven would be too few to “nationalize” presidential elections, and the same dynamics that keep the two-party system intact would prevail.