Friday, January 6, 2017

Flying Petri Dishes and Other Perils of Holiday Travel

“If travel is searching
And home has been found
I'm not stopping.”
Bjork. Hunter.
“Nurse Edna: Children, no fighting. Share the snowballs.”
Jane Alexander. The Cider House Rules.

"Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.
Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born … a Festivus for the rest of us!"
Jerry Stiller and Michael Richards. Seinfeld.

It’s that time of year again, when people travel home for the holidays to spend quality time with their extended families. My wife and I visited our in-laws in New York for the week of Christmas and New Year’s. It was cold and rainy most of the time, hovering around freezing temperatures at night and in the low forties during the day. The locals kept informing us how wonderful the weather was compared to last year but, frankly, it was still too cold for my old bones and reminded me why we moved to sunny California. Two dozen years in Boston and Seattle were my penance, I guess. If I don't see another cold day or another snowflake for the rest of my life, that will be fine by me.

We enjoyed our time there, going to Broadway shows, eating excellent food in fancy restaurants, walking down Fifth Avenue with the crowds, and spending quality time with relatives. A great time was had by all. Being a curmudgeon, though, means I have to dwell on the miserable experiences intertwined with the fun.

The most agonizing two days of the trip, of course, were the ones when we had to travel by air. Each flight, there and back, was delayed by about three hours due to bad weather, turning a supposed six hour cross country trip into a day long nightmare. Even worse, I came to realize that the very vessel that took us to New York was really nothing but a flying petri dish full of germs this time of year. It’s well known that more people catch a cold in the winter months, the same time of year that we choose to travel to visit family. The recycled air in an airplane basically guarantees that a single person with a cold passes it to as many as two or three hundred other people - all trapped together against their will for hours on end. Those people then go on to pass it to their friends and family in not just one but two cities in quick succession.

So it should be no surprise that we carried a plethora of germs with us to New York. Our niece was so excited to see us that she woke up at 11:00 PM, when we finally arrived, to give us hugs and kisses. A lovely gesture that, in hindsight, may not have been a good idea. By the end of the trip, four out of five of us had fallen sick with flu symptoms. My daughter called from Seattle to report that both she and her husband were also sick with the flu after returning from a trip to Minnesota to spend the holidays with his family. Both of them missed work days as a result.

I think I'm starting to see a pattern here. Cold weather, millions of travelers on planes and jammed together indoors, flu season, contagious disease theory, … remind me again why we think it's a good idea to visit relatives for the holidays when they live in a cold climate reachable only by GermMobiles we call airplanes? Not only that, the cold weather at the destination means we spend most of our time cooped up in closed spaces, giving us plenty of opportunities to make each other sick. Wouldn't it make more sense to spend the winter holidays with your immediate family, avoiding the miserable experience we call modern air travel, and then get together with the extended family some time in the summer when weather conditions are better? Seems like a win-win to me.

I proposed the same thing in another blog last year:

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed our time with our new in-laws, but the experience left me wondering: Why do we always have to enjoy time with family in terrible weather? Why not opt for “virtual holidays” in the middle of summer instead? We have virtualized everything else in our world. Why not the holidays? Why not have a virtual Christmas in July and be done with it? We can all enjoy spending time with friends and family - and we don't have to freeze our asses to do so.

So here’s my idea… Introducing Virtual Christmas – it’s just like Christmas, only warmer. It's the festivus for the rest of us!

Let’s face it – the Europeans have a much better vacationing system than we do, everyone pretty much taking off for the month of August. We could have a similar month long summer vacation, perhaps starting with the Fourth of July festivities. I claim this results in better productivity in the office by having everyone engaged at the same time (how often do you have to postpone decisions because some random person is on vacation?), but also improves extended family bonds over time by promoting longer family-oriented vacations. Of course, this goes against our 24x7 lifestyles - some services may not be available for the month of July as businesses close for the holidays.

I was half joking at the time but I still think this is a good idea: just think about the billions of dollars we would save in cold medications and missed work days.

The alternative, of course, would be to get the airlines to offer face masks and hand sanitizers at the gate instead of, or in addition to, headphones. But I suspect that's too obvious and/or would require congressional oversight.

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