The Bureaucratic Mindset

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It’s a long boring story but the upshot is my itinerary had me flying, in one day, from Bismarck, North Dakota to Denver to Phoenix to Los Angeles and back to Denver. That’s right: four flights between Bismarck and Denver with a layover in… Denver.

None of this was anybody’s fault but simply a result of separate reservations made to accommodate a changing schedule.

Checking-in at Bismarck Municipal airport, I explained to the United representative that since Denver was my “final destination” that I would only be taking the first flight, thank you very much, and that she should therefore only check my bag to Denver and not to LAX, which would have required me to collect my bag and re-check them to Denver (owing to separate reservations).

“You’ll lose your return flight” she explained. She said it in such a way that suggested less full-disclosure than “I’m not sure I can do that”.

My instinct was confirmed when, after gamely poking at a couple of computer keys for a couple seconds, she summarily informed me that it couldn’t be done. Before I could explain to her (in a way that would keep her dignity intact) that it could, in fact, be done, another United representative who overheard our exchange took up my cause. “Just go to bag management”, she said, pointing to a key on her computer.

Not surprisingly, the first representative’s can’t-do attitude remained unfazed. She implied that it could, in fact, be done, but that it would be “illegal” for her to do so. (For this I gave a small prayer of thanks that anything so hilarious could be uttered in Bismarck, North Dakota).

It become immediately clear that I was dealing with one of those bureaucratic souls whose can’t-do attitude blinded her to what should have been obvious.

Happily, uncharacteristically, competence reigned as the other representative took over while the Fearful One looked on with the resentment those who can’t have toward those who do. She was advertising her own refusal to learn anything from this experience – and the self-loathing that accompanies such refusal.

Within two minutes I was headed toward security with ticket in hand.

Whenever I encounter someone with the bureaucratic mindset I am reminded of a line – I think it’s Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolf Eichmann – that “He was less concerned with what pushing the button meant than with pushing it well”.

I arrived safely in Denver and my bag did the same only a few minutes later and the sun has since continued to set in the west and rise in the east.

Do you have experiences with the bureaucratic mindset and a can’t-do attitude? Share them in the comment section below.

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Backstage at the Magic Castle: a short, true story

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 7.43.45 PMOne night when my son was a toddler I had him with me backstage at the Magic Castle. It was unusual but not entirely unheard of: my wife was with me and assuming the yeoman work of caring for him but between shows I would sometimes take over for her.

It was while Lucas was in my care that one of the Magic Castle’s hosts, Marty, called out to me from an adjacent room. Dave? he wanted to know. Are you backstage? Do you have any guests to pre-seat for the next show?  “No” I said, loud enough for my voice to similarly carry through the wall. “Thank you, Marty”.

That settled, I had little Lucas accompany me into the stage-left restroom which at that time had walls every bit as thin as the walls the host and I had just been shouting through. There in the cramped restroom I attempted to keep Lucas’s eyes (and therefore his hands) away from the toilet by engaging him conversation as I washed my hands in the sink. “How’d you get so big? Hmm? Look how big you are! How’d you get so big?”

I carried on in a similar fashion for some time before finally exiting the bathroom, holding the door open for Lucas, damp paper towel in my free hand as I did so. And there, outside the restroom, is Marty, looking like a deer in headlights, unable to see Lucas or, for that matter, any thing other than me.

Marty quickly exited as I attempted to explain. “My son! My son is with me tonight!” But he was gone.

Marty, if you’re reading this, leave a comment in the section below. I feel bad.

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Airport Security vs. Being Admitted Into Prison: A Comparison

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Passing through airport security seems more and more like being admitted into prison. First they confiscate two categories of things: anything remotely sharp and… your belt. Then you’re standing in line with a bunch of barefoot people holding up their pants with one hand and their sole possessions in the other. The travelers who passed through security hours earlier are looking on and chanting “Fresh fish! Fresh fish!”

Upon reflection, that last part doesn’t sound plausible enough to deem reliable memory. But you get the idea.

Air travel stopped being something to dress up for more than a generation ago. Tank tops, shorts, fish with slacks are now commonplace.

The airlines have contributed greatly to the deterioration of their product, as evidenced by U.S. Airways commitment to protecting the rights of men to wear nothing but lingerie on the plane.




Just because the culture made air travel more difficult to enjoy doesn’t mean the government had to ensure it could never be so.

An example. Last week while flying out of LAX they tried to confiscate my hair gel because I had six ounces of it in my carry-on bag. (I didn’t let them take it – I just put it in my hair where, apparently, it’s legal.)

Contrast this with the much more sensible protocols in Europe (where I lived and flew around for five years) where “Guilty until proven innocent” is not policy. And yet they get the job done better than our punchline TSA.

This reflexive risk-aversion is evident everywhere, from the flimsy plastic forks which are no match for the partially-frozen lasagna to to the peanut bags which warn us that “These peanuts were processed in a facility that produces nuts.”

The overall effect on passengers is a chilling one. Contrast how exciting it once was to board an airplane to how silent and… funereal it is now. Recently I was boarding a plane in Burbank when I politely asked the gentleman in the seat behind me if he would mind swapping seats with me so that his wife and I could sit together.

Like I said – no sense of humor.

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The Time I Grabbed The Wrong Luggage At Singapore Airport

(Note: The NYT Business Travel section picked up on the adventure I describe below. Forward the story to your friends who fly.)

I was exhausted from the flight to Singapore. Having arrived at the airport, taken a cab to the hotel and checked into my room, all I could think about was removing my suit from my bag, hanging it and sleeping for ten or twelve hours. When I opened my bag, however, I couldn’t find my suit. Could I have forgotten to pack it? And where did this carton of Russian cigarettes come from? And this English-translation dictionary?

I contacted the front desk and told them about the situation. As expected, I was on my own. I returned to my room, zipped up the bag and took a cab back to the airport. There, a helpful representative escorted me through to arrivals and the baggage office. In front of the office was a large assortment of bags – I spotted mine immediately. I explained to the representative that I had accidentally taken the wrong bag from the carousel, that I was terribly sorry, and would she please help me sort it out?

I filled out a small amount of paperwork indemnifying the airplane for the poor Russian’s bag, exchanged it for my own and headed toward the airport exit. Because Singapore is the most paternal city in the world, I had to pass through security before exiting the airport to ensure I didn’t have any gum, pornography and other assorted forbidden items. The problem was, you see, that I had packed a Brian Dubè juggling machete, which is not a machete at all but a remarkable facsimile. The blade’s beveled edge looks sharp and it has the perfect balance for juggling but in fact it’s not much sharper than today’s thinnest laptops (not yet banned). I explained that I was a professional juggler performing in Singapore and that the item (that word!) was part of my show. They were surprisingly sympathetic to this and, after a little more back and forth, I was given a written authorization to bring it into the city, provided I did not remove it from the hotel.

Looking back, I was lucky that the Russian did’t end up walking away with my bag. For that matter, so was he, as I am certain he would have more difficulty explaining to the authorities why he was traveling with a machete, a garden hoe and a stuffed rabbit.

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