The Insidious Shrug

Last week, I went to Spain for work.  I don’t travel a lot, but enough to have some habits around air travel.  One of those is:  I generally fly with a carry on; specifically a soft sided duffel bag.  I’m not super anti-checked bag, but I don’t like waiting at baggage claim, I don’t like the risk of losing my bag in transit, and I do like forcing myself to travel with a bag small enough that I can easily get around with it, should I need to carry it for long distances.

And usually this works great.  But last week, as I landed in Madrid, groggy from several hours of uncomfortable half-sleep in a chair with jeans on, I gathered my backpack, put my headphones in, and left the plane.  Without previously mentioned duffel.

I realized it before I even made it to customs, but it was too late, the plane had closed, and I was definitely not allowed back in to get my bag.

“It will be fine”, I thought.  “I’ll find it.”

I found and talked to the flight crew who had just exited the plane, and yes, they had seen my bag, and it would be in baggage claim.  Great!  So I headed to baggage claim.

Baggage claim did not have my bag.  And after some back and forth with the woman working customer service at baggage claim, it was clear that I was not getting my bag today.  She suggested I use the airline website to file a lost item report, and they’d be able to ship it to me no problem.  I took her at her word, and boarded my next flight.

Over the next couple of days, it became apparent that this was not going to work out.  The airline website was all but useless.  The few phone numbers I found to try to call someone were wrong, or disconnected.  And I shrugged.  I’m never going to see that bag again, and that’s fine.  Total acceptance.  Some clothes, my glasses and toiletries.  There’s no significant loss here, just minor inconvenience.

A few days later, we were hanging out late into the evening, after the work was done for the day.  Free will vs determinism came up.  And, surprisingly, I found myself in the determinist camp.  Life just happens, and we’re all just along for the ride.  There’s no reason to get too worked up over anything, because it’s all going to work out in the end.  The bag was gone.  What can you do?  There’s no use in wringing hands over it, I’ll just accept it and move on.  I’m great at that.

The next day, without my asking, one of my coworkers (undoubtedly annoyed with my response to losing my bag, which, again, was to shrug) took it on himself to figure it out.  And he dug in, started calling numbers and asking questions, and got the host at our accommodations involved.  Together, they got in touch with the office that had the bag (amazingly, they still had it, literally sitting in the office), and told them when my return flight was, and that I’d be through to pick it up.  He showed up later that day and had for me a name, and some very vague directions about where to go.

Monday morning, I land in Madrid, follow the instructions, find the office, and am rewarded with my bag.  It’s a miracle!  I head through security, take the train to the correct terminal, and walk up to the gate just as the flight is starting to board.  And I was excited!  The written-off bag was like a Christmas gift – look at all these clothes that I had again!

But for the rest of the journey home, the correlation between our free will conversation and my bag wouldn’t stop nagging at me. I gave up because I let the idea that I can’t make a difference, that an unfeeling universe can’t be reasoned with, and our lot is our lot.  I’m glad that I wasn’t too attached to the items in the bag, nor particularly worked up by the minor discomfort of having to figure out what to wear for the week after landing.  But the bag was retrievable, and was eventually retrieved because someone else didn’t accept my fate.

What else in my life do I shrug at?  What else have I lost, or never attained in the first place because I wasn’t willing to put forth just a little bit of effort, instead relying on the whims of fate land me where they land me?  Because I’m too lazy to see that while the universe may be unforgiving, it can be swayed?

We make decisions, they make a difference.

 

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Standing Ovations

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a David Copperfield show.  Yes, that David Copperfield.  I’m not a magic aficionado, but the show was fun – well produced, polished, and generally entertaining.

I’ll admit that half the fun of the show was not the show itself, but watching it and figuring out how it was produced.  I don’t really mean the magic – figuring out how the tricks worked – that was mostly beyond me.  I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief and just agree that he’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a full head of thick black hair, and the ability to make big stuff show up where big stuff could not possibly have been moments before.

What I found interesting was the sheer amount of production that went into the show.  Everything was rehearsed, and rehearsed thoroughly (and repeated several nights a week, I guess).  Nothing went wrong – and when it seemed like things might be going wrong (as it sometimes does whenever members of the audience get involved), Copperfield’s experience as a performer and manager of audiences, clearly extensive, took care of it.

Everything had a place.  Every step, every trick, every word.  It felt like watching a TV show in person.  The entire thing had been crafted – designed to direct our eyes, our attention, and our emotions.

The end of the show rolled around, and with it some kind of 2 part finale.  I don’t actually remember what the tricks were, I just remember that there were 2 standing ovations. I’m always intrigued by the concept of the standing ovation.  You go to a show, you get to the end, you’re already applauding, but it’s not enough.  You’ve got to really let the performer(s) know that they were so compelling, so amazing, that you cannot stay in your seat.  You have to stand up, clap wildly, even whistle, if you’re one of those people blessed with the ability to make a shrill, fingers in your mouth whistle.  And it’s never just one person.  The whole crowd gets up, or at least the front section (why is it always the front section?) in a nearly unanimous decision that the performance was too amazing – butts cannot remain in chairs.

So I was particularly surprised when, at the end of this show, not one but two standing ovations took place.  The show was nice, I enjoyed it, but I would not put it in the category of “to applaud this man while sitting would be a travesty”.  And everyone in front of us stood up to clap.  Twice.

But I noticed something during the first standing ovation.  Being alert for this kind of thing (I’m always keen to try to work out the motivations of that first person who stands up during the applause.  What a weight on their shoulders!), I watched the first dude stand up.  He was young-ish, probably early to mid 20s.  But what struck me was the fact that after the applause, he left, like he had to go to the bathroom or something.  Then the second standing ovation rolls around, and lo and behold, it’s the same dude.  Stands up, gets the ovation going, and leaves.

So clearly, he’s part of the show.  And his role is: Trick (guilt?) the people in the front section into standing up and clapping.  And that doesn’t sound so surprising, but think through how this went – they planned this.  They sat down at some point before the show, and somebody said

“Alright, Chad, you’re on ovation duty tonight.  I want you to sell it.  Don’t be a Zack.  We all saw what happened to Zack.  I’ll give you a crisp $5 bill if you can squeeze a tear out.” 

 And he went out there and did it.  And dutifully, the people around him bought it, and stood up.  

Chad here, who showed up 38 seconds ago, found this performance worthy of a stand-and-clap.  Good enough for Chad, good enough for me.”  

Or maybe they didn’t buy it.  Maybe they saw through it, but somehow felt like it was their job to stand, and Chad was their leader – giving them non-verbal cues on how they were expected to behave for their privileged position at the front of the theater.  Maybe they felt bad for Chad, standing all alone, and quickly got up so he didn’t feel silly, or, you know, suffer the same fate as Zack. I don’t know.

Regardless, the lesson was:  Don’t trust Chad.  And maybe don’t trust our deeply ingrained, follow-the-leader instincts.  Because apparently (I learned after the show), this is so common, it’s a thing, with a name.  We’re all so willing to follow the Chads of the world, who will head to his next job, resume in hand, listing his exemplary skills in “Leadership in standing up”.

Don’t follow Chad.  Watch out for Chad.  He’s at the theater, where he’s innocuous, but I’m guessing he’s elsewhere too, preying on us psychologically, convincing us of what to care about, what to do.  And he’s doing so with his own motivations, his own goals, his own agenda.

I’m watching you, Chad.