Saturday, October 19, 2013

From the Archives

I occasionally wonder about how each of us finds our psychological space on this planet.

I have no shortage of ego, I think, compared to any normal person. And yet it's been obvious to me for a couple decades that my presence on this planet is of no importance whatsoever in any scheme of anything. There are people who love me, of course, and those I love and care about and in whose doings I am interested. But none of this is important; there are no ripples that extend beyond our small human societies. If I died tomorrow it would distress a small number of close people for a while. That's about it. Beyond this inner circle, there would be a larger group who would feel regret, and beyond this a larger group yet who would take notice of the event. But that's about the whole of it--a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the world's people. Within a few years or at most decades of my death everyone who cares about me will also be gone and in a blink I will never have existed.

This is not in the least depressing to me; we naturally feel our place among our social and family circles, and any importance beyond this would need, it seems, to be planted by outside forces.

So my ego, such as it is, does not require deflecting the orbits of other people to feel validated. But that's me, and there are others who have greater impact on the world. And more to the point, there are those who aspire to have a greater impact. I just don't know what to think about this. Ambition feels to me like a character flaw. And yet what would get done in the world if there were not people who had a need to bend others to their will?

I'm led to think of this by a couple little events on my most recent trip. One of the guys I was flying with struck me as a pretty demanding and exacting character, especially in his interaction with others, and particularly his interactions with those in a service capacity toward himself. (This is not an unusual occurrence in my line of work, but I happened to pay pointed attention on this occasion.) There were a couple events in particular as we checked out of our hotel in Almaty. He had an excess of Kazakh money, and there is a little mini-bank teller window in the hotel lobby. This is in itself a little odd, as the lobby also has two cash machines; and stranger still is the fact that the bank seems most disinclined to be helpful. They exchange money with grumbling and reluctance, and getting change from them is like pulling teeth. My pilot compadre went to the window to change his excess tenges for euros. A few minutes later I heard him say with some force "No, that is not correct. You'll need to do that over again and I want a receipt." Then after a pause, "No, you will give me a receipt." This was stated as an order. He later explained that one needed to use the spurs on these people; they have a tendency to screw you on the exchange rates unless they must provide a written document of the transaction. (I imagine myself looking on with a blink as she snookered me, and then vowing silently to do this exchange somewhere else next time. If I even noticed.)

A few minutes later we were in the crew van riding out to the airport. This particular crew van is a 9-passenger VW van, no more than three years old, with the words "Crew Bus" on the side. But for some reason there has been an ongoing issue with the air conditioning in the van. Now, Kazakhstan is a fairly poor country (though there seems to be plenty of money in some circles), and somehow it seems not incongruous that there would be no functioning air conditioning in the Almaty crew van. But the day was hot and the air stagnant and we were all dressed in our uniforms. The van was uncomfortable, even with the windows open (the half that were openable). My compadre asked first if the driver spoke English. No. Then, as if any language could be deciphered by just speaking it more emphatically, he became increasingly insistent that the driver turn the air conditioning on. Eventually the driver grasped the nature of the growing crisis, but when he turned on the A/C it blew warm air. The A/C panel settings were correct, but the van was only getting hotter. By this time--perhaps a 90 second boil-over--my coworker had had quite enough, and after insisting that the situation was intolerable he angrily threw open the large sliding side door of the van--while we were driving down the chaotic city streets at 30 mph. The driver, of course, was exceedingly alarmed and stopped the van in the middle of the swerving traffic to a chorus of angry and surprised horn-honking. The driver was only prevented from blowing a gasket by grasping that one of his passengers had beat him to the boiling point. "This door stays open until you cool down this god damn car!" the pilot screamed. The driver, in great confusion, tried (to no avail) to get the pilot to close the door, and eventually crept slowly across three lanes of honking traffic to pull off the road. We sat in silence for five minutes (the driver doubtless fretting about what the hell to do now) before my coworker blinked and, convinced the lesson had been learned (or convinced that no solution could possibly be forthcoming), closed the door.

My point with the story is not to castigate my coworker for bad behavior, though surely that's one valid take on the situation. My point is that it would never strike me to make demands like this about something like air conditioning (nor to challenge, after a point, whether I got the proper exchange rate on $20). Apart from what the average Kazakh must think about someone demanding an air conditioned ride (most houses and businesses and even the public transit here are without A/C)--which after all doesn't really need to concern us--I just wouldn't think myself in a position to demand a comfort item like this, at least until it became a health or safety issue. In this case we were merely at risk of an uncomfortable half hour ride and getting to the airport in an unfortunately damp state.

But on reflection I'm also aware that my company is undoubtedly paying a lot of money for this service, and I feel quite confident that air conditioning is specified in the transportation contract. We leave Almaty for a 12 hour day, and there is a safety element to our getting to work well rested and unstressed, even if it's dubious that the crew van's air conditioning is a player in this equation. And when on-time performance is the be-all and end-all of one's working life, it's very important that things go off punctually and without regular mishaps. We just can't have issues with things like transportation when these problems are avoidable.

But more than this, I sense in my coworker's behavior that he envisions himself as a force to be reckoned with, that he holds himself (and the rest of his coworkers, apparently) as something more than average citizens. I'm inclined to attribute this at least in part to the man's former career as an Air Force pilot, in which capacity he was at the top of a lot of food chains and is perhaps accustomed to being listened to; but this sense of self-importance is evidently shared by a goodly percentage of folks in my industry. And before I scoff at this idea--though I DO scoff at it--I must acknowledge that there ARE people who are accorded status above that of the average citizen--political leaders, rich business folks, famous people. There's a continuum, however un-politically-correct and elitist the notion seems. My sense that my dead carcass will rot into exactly the same jelly and noxious fumes as the poorest of beggars notwithstanding, people place other people in hierarchies, and I suppose an airline pilot is situated for many people like some other white collar professionals, doctors or dentists or CEOs or the like.

And along those lines; even if I'm not convinced that my person warrants anyone deflecting their course, there is the professional matter to consider. Airlines are complex and exceedingly high-dollar operations, and this naturally engenders professional, well-run organizations. We as pilots are held to very stringent standards, not only of technical proficiency and performance, but even of public behavior (my getting caught stealing a six-pack of Diet Coke could put my licenses and career in jeopardy). And while I'm convinced that many people could, with the necessary training, do my job (which is true of any profession, I think: most people could do most anything with training), the fact is that without that (very extensive) training and years of experience an airline simply could not be made to run safely or efficiently. Or at all. So at what point is it OK to say "We have high standards of professionalism and we expect everything that touches the operation to be top-shelf"? At what point, if ever, is it OK to say "We're just not going to stand for this treatment; we expect--and will demand--better"?

Internationally we stay in very nice hotels wherever we go (and the domestic hotels are pretty good too). There are sound reasons for this, as food safety and the ability to get quality rest on unconventional schedules are flight safety issues, and there are security issues in foreign countries as well. So the company pays extra to cover these bases, and along the way there are doormen and good room service and professional drivers and so on.

I personally found my coworker's tantrum embarrassing and unseemly, partly because I wasn't particularly overheated, but mostly because I think it's unconscionable for anyone to treat anyone else, as it seemed to me, like some kind of footman. I knew it wasn't the driver's fault that the air conditioning wasn't working, and he certainly was not going to fix it on demand. Would putting the fear of gawd in him likely result in a report to the company's management, which would in turn likely see the A/C fixed? Well, that's the question. But my sense is that my compadre wasn't necessarily pursuing a strategic plan to get the van fixed; he was just suffering a Tourette's-like attack of indignation that people weren't operating to the standards he expected. I'm often depressed to listen to my coworkers expressing contempt toward all manner of other people who aren't operating to the proper standards (even as they themselves appear to find convenient flexibility in their own standards). But even beyond the hypocrisy, I just find displays of anger like this to be terribly self-indulgent. I get pissy at things like anyone, of course, but so often anger at another person seems to me simply inappropriate.

But he didn't seem ALL off-base to me, and I actually find that a mite worrisome. I fear that I may end up some day just like him, thinking myself a superior class of person who should be treated like royalty.

Somebody shoot me if that happens.


Vancouver Voyeur said...

I know what you mean and have seen that as well in the legal profession. There are some attorneys who are arrogant, demanding, and expect a higher level of treatment. I never expected that myself, but on many occasions, I was invited to sit on boards of organizations, invited into the inner sanctums of political organizations, etc. I always found that treatment bizarre. I remember thinking, "if they only knew I came from poor white trash, would they still treat me this way?" I never felt I was better than, or more deserving than the lowest of my fellow men, yet that degree opened doors that I never asked to be open. When I stopped practicing law, some people were confused why I would give up the money, the perks, the prestige, but honestly, those things offended me. I never felt comfortable with them.

William Stachour said...

I once rode a commercial flight next to a college professor at some swanky East Coast school. We chatted about these same things for a couple hours, and he said the medical field was famous for producing these kinds of guys: entitled, demanding, haughty. I didn't think of lawyers, but I suppose it's the same thing. I wonder, is it a money thing? Or an education thing (as in, "I know stuff that nobody else has a clue about")? Or do we divide into classes naturally and place ourselves in classes above others instinctually? My coworkers are certainly capable people of average intelligence, but most of them would never stop at such a restrained assessment.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I think it's a status thing, people on the outside of such higher education or professions, know that those professional people have or know something they don't. It doesn't mean it's impossible to attain, just for whatever reason, the lower guy didn't attain it and they look in awe, respect and sometimes with mistrust or hostility for what the other guy has attained. I think we often look around and compare ourselves to others.

William Stachour said...

I think you're right. And when you look around and see everyone like you having a swimming pool and you don't have one, then a disgruntled reaction makes sense. I'm intrigued at how often my coworkers--who have *everything* compared to most of the people they see--don't see these comparisons as unfair. Or maybe they do: maybe they're defensive, and this is a rationalization to avoid feeling bad; I don't know.