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Trapped in the Trappings - 7

A December trip through the American Airlines terminals at Los Angeles’ LAX, Dallas’ DFW, New York’s JFK, and Baltimore’s BWI landed me in a surprisingly thorny thicket, one created not by the usual brambles and briars of human nature, but by the glitter and glow of holiday semiotics. Not that I am an expert in semiotics or semiosis—not like my old friends and colleagues still theorizing about such post-post-structural issues, and analyzing the signs and symbols of pop culture back at the academy. Still, they always encouraged me, come out, they said, come out of my semiotics closet--even as I preferred to study the signs and symbols from the post-post-phenomenological side. For me, it was and still is more about understanding what they signify—mean—to us, rather than identifying what forces or conditions created them. Of course it takes both, the semiotics of what reflects who we are, as well as what shapes the milieu in which we find ourselves. Such was the academic thicket in which I once played.


But this December, the old briar patch seemed especially dark, and called me, candle in hand, to cast a little light on the presence—and absence—of holiday decorations at the airports Gene and I traveled through. From what I could make out, the four appeared to form a continuum, with LAX at one end, decked out in color and light and all the trappings, and BWI at the other, trimmed with nothing, not a garland in sight, no tinkling carols (or music of any kind) to be heard anywhere. Dallas and New York fell neatly between the two extremes. Every shop and restaurant at LAX was done up, tinsel bright, each adding its own holiday sound track to the overall Christmas cacophony of terminal 4. This terminal also features a rotunda which was filled by a tall, bright tree surrounded by a white picket fence. Overhead, a train chugged around the top of the circle, complete with its whistle and clickety-clack sounds. In keeping with the cheery ambiance, elves were busy handing out discount coupons to the restaurants.


BWI, on the other hand, had been visited by the Grinch who left only an unwelcoming welcome mat, a sad gateway to a sad city. What do holiday trappings reflect and shape? A city in pain, on edge, struggling to make sense of a terrorist attack in nearby San Bernardino? A city grappling with legal questions raised by the trial of police officers charged with Freddy Gray’s death? One city having recovered from its 12% unemployment rate, another still stuck at 7.2%? One city stakes its reputation on a vibrant spirit of Nostalgia, while the other wears a threadbare cloak colored only by an inescapable Truth. I have long since unpacked and put away the suitcase. But wandering I am, lost in the thicket with the question: what do glittery holiday decorations hide, and what does stark emptiness bring out?


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