Warning: Graphic Nudity

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on January 26, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

I heard it while taking my shoes off in the airport security checkpoint: “We’re in the backscatter line—we should refuse to let ‘em search us!” It was the same drunken voice that had been complaining about SOPA, marijuana laws, and American foreign policy for the last twenty minutes as I stood behind him in the interminable lines of Orlando International. It’s hard to take someone seriously when he’s wearing a white Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and smells of onions and stale Budweiser. It was all I could do not to ask him to set down his Red Bull long enough to read the many signs we’d passed stating that backscatter imaging was, in fact, optional.

Don’t get me wrong: I get as worried as the next guy when it seems the government wants to infringe on my rights (see SOPA—the Stop Online Piracy Act), but I don’t understand the furor over these scanners. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I could care less about things like facts or justice or even human decency if I get to spend less time at the airport. I’ve had root canals that were more pleasant than my time at LaGuardia.  If these things get me through security faster, then do that voodoo that you do so well.

While not yet as advanced as the X-ray tube in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has installed these body-imaging machines at airports across the country.  They scan passengers and create images of each body (without clothing) for a TSA agent seated in a separate area. It’s supposed to identify hidden metals, chemicals, or explosive materials, but it mostly seems to identify nipple rings or forgotten sets of car keys.

Many are concerned about the radiation and accompanying cancer risk these scanners represent, but the TSA claims it’s less than a typical cell phone transmission. They go on to explain, more distressingly, that backscatter technology produces less radiation than two minutes of actual flight time on an airplane. Someone should let them know that’s not exactly reassuring. Instead, they should tout the Food and Drug Administration’s finding that the potassium ingested from eating one banana produces the same radiation dose as these scanners. Someone needs to warn Curious George, not frequent fliers.

While we can still choose the old metal detector and a mandatory patdown, I’ll gladly put up with a little extra radiation if it means I can avoid that awkward groping. After I’d forgotten I was wearing suspenders last week, I was asked to wait in a holding pen for someone to feel me up. The sight of another man, without a medical degree, snapping on rubber gloves and telling me how he was about to touch my privates is reason enough to opt out. “I’ll only go over your sensitive areas with the back of my hands,” he said, as if that really made a difference. I’d already had to take off my jacket, my shoes, my watch, and my wedding ring in addition to removing my cell phone, keys, laptop computer, and any change I had in my pockets. What made me think they’d let me keep my dignity?

Still, it was inevitable that the thing that makes backscatter scanning so effective, seeing through our clothes, would also make it so controversial. Many privacy groups are outraged at the thought of strangers viewing what is essentially a crude charcoal drawing of blurry naked people holding their arms up. Despite the fact that these images are about as titillating as an Oscar statue, the TSA has had to install additional software that further obscures human features. A company called Rocky Flats even created radiation-shielding underwear (appropriately adorned with a fig leaf) to keep the prying eyes of the TSA away from your shadowy nether regions.

In another nod to privacy concerns, the TSA has had to swear on a stack of Bibles that no backscatter images would be printed or scanned, ensuring Playboy will never get to publish those x-ray images of my mom when she flew up to visit last Christmas. Her hair was a mess, so it all worked out for the best. If they want to keep my images, however, I say have at it! Pin ‘em up on the wall, Photoshop me onto a unicorn, I could care less. Besides—and I hope this doesn’t sound conceited—I think there is a real need for more naked x-ray pictures of my body in this world.

Let’s face it: Americans are a target around the globe. Airport security is a necessary evil, so if checking my dental records or determining whether I’ve been circumcised will get my plane to leave the gate on time, then let’s just get this over with. In the meantime, I’ll hope that the lugnut in the lead-proof undies will still be waiting in the patdown line as I cram my overstuffed carry-on bag into the bin over his seat.

The Dead Zone

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on January 12, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

The final verse of James Watson’s 1711 lyrics for what we know as “Auld Lang Syne” perfectly captures the sentiments of football fanatics the world over at this time of year:

Since thoughts of thee doth banish grief, when from thee I am gone;
will not thy presence yield relief, to this sad Heart of mine.
Why doth thy presence me defeat, with excellence divine?
Especially when I reflect on auld lang syne.

Football widows might notice the dead eyes of their spouses as fantasy football players mourn the loss of the beloved game-day buffet known as the NFL Red Zone channel. While some might not be familiar with the real-time highlight show that rivets their loved ones to their TVs for seven straight hours each Sunday, they’ll probably notice the sad, restless clicking of remote controls from the living room couch. If lucky, they might even notice some chores getting done.

What began in 2005 as part of DIRECTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package became available to other cable subscribers in 2009, mostly as part of an additional tier (Public service announcement: time to cancel that tier until next season, guys). The channel cuts back and forth between games each time a team enters the “red zone” inside its opponent’s 20-yard line. It’s as if a Jedi master has taken your remote: no commercials, no timeouts, no “down time.” The channel often splits the screen to show two or even four games at once in a dizzying ballet of violence. It’s a game even soccer fans from across the Pond could appreciate.

What really catapulted the popularity of the channel is the abundance of real-time statistics and injury information throughout the afternoon. While unabashedly perfect for the gambler, it’s taken root among fantasy footballers everywhere. Fantasy football leagues allow an “owner” to “draft” players and tally up their statistics each week while squaring off against another owner. As a result, those active in fantasy football leagues are like hobbits every Sunday, huddled in front of whatever statistics they can cobble together from web sites or highlight shows. The Red Zone channel saves them from the agony of having to wait that extra one or two minutes for information on the latest scoring play.

Anyone who’s ever run a fantasy football team knows it’s like having a second job, and keeping up with your players’ stats is akin to tracking the stock market just before the closing bell. Because there are no commercials, no promos, no breaks in the action before switching to the next game, a seven-hour slate of games can easily steal the most productive hours of the day from the unwitting viewer. Like many vices, it becomes addictive; as more and more cable companies offer their packages for streaming to cell phones, no fall wedding will ever be safe from covert updates again. Not since Ronald Reagan decided to leave Bonzo and enter politics has fantasy had such an impact on reality

Of course, this type of immediate gratification comes at a cost. In giving us the television equivalent of a sandwich with the crusts cut off, it encourages the celebration of individual players rather than the fostering of loyalty to any one team. A die-hard Miami Dolphin fan since birth, even I found myself clicking away from their latest blowout loss in order to catch the more competitive games on Red Zone. Growing up, I was often inconsolable after a loss; now, I simply move on to check out whether my fantasy team is winning. In short, it takes the fanaticism out of being a fan, and that just might signal the eventual decline of America’s most popular sport.

Still, it’s hard to fight progress without seeming like an old codger. I try to explain to my students how, before the age of ESPN and endless highlight shows, we actually had to watch the games to find out if our favorite team won. They look upon me with pity, as if I were extolling the virtues of rural electrification or disco. In an age where I can get email notifications of breaking news from around the world moments after it occurs, I might have to forget my outdated notions of the game I’ve always loved. Maybe I should more fully embrace James Watson’s advice from a time even before leather helmets:

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished, and fully past and gone.

May happiness and health knock on the door of your home in 2012. As for me, I’ll have to remember to keep the volume down if the games are on.