Two Brief Discourses about Flying Long Distances
Fewer Greater Worse Things
There are few greater indignities than travelling coach for periods longer than 8 hours. You sit there strapped into an uncomfortable block-thing that vaguely resembles a Soviet-era easy chair, trying to cope with being squished between a grand multitude of other nameless, faceless meat-bags, and by hour ten you find yourself staring blankly at something – anything – while palming and gripping as hard as you possibly can to whatever’s left of your sanity.
Sure, if you’re of a particular socio-economic class with a particular manufactured conception of Self, you might well be prone to thinking that what you’re doing is participating in a glorious expression of human achievement – a celebration, perhaps, of our species’ dominion over nature. “I’m on a plane!” says generic person, before continuing: “I’m travelling distances at a pace and with a methodology unbeknownst to countless generations before me, and I am doing it at such a wonderfully discounted rate!” Don’t be fooled by such drivel, folks. Generic person is merely suffering from affectations beaten into them by the aggressive marketing strategies of generic corporations that have managed to exploit their insecurities and their inner screaming wants of a solidified, meaningful identity. Airline companies and their team of marketing spooks are the predatory frat-boys in the Bar of the Self, preying on the self-doubting and questioning identities so that they may seduce them, and then bed them, and then leave them alone in the morning before they wakes up to request some snuggle time.
No, what’s really happening is simple and straightforward: you, the consumer, want to get from point A to point B in something quicker than a jiffy. And because your 21st century post-industrial body is not quite able to handle the scurvy that generally comes attached to sea-travel, you’ve agreed to being squeezed into a hollowed out missile that is summarily flung from one end of the world to the other at ludicrous speeds. This, as your higher subconscious brain might suspect, is an intensely absurd notion in theory. But hey, it’s something that the human race is privy to these days, and it allows you to do what you’ve got to do, and so what else can we do to dress it up nicely, you know?
And so you steel yourself to navigate the many quiet and subtle forms of humiliations and degradations that your body undergoes within the fuselage:
- Chapped lips, bone-dry throat.
- Swelling feet, pulsing temples.
- A pressurized cabin, stale air that cultivates delirious states of the mind.
- The perfect constellation of babies between rows 30 to 45, positioned in such a manner as to produce a chain reaction should one decide to throw a fit.
- Sweaty palms, sticky armpits, oily nose.
- An ill-fitting sweater. (Oh what horror)
All these things work in concert to provide you your own personal miniature dress rehearsal for your impending death, and by the end of such flights, you try not to let anybody look at you straight on for two reasons: (1) because you look like the very definition of hell, and (2) because everybody else does too. Failure to avoid direct looks typically result in sheer civil war, with everybody beating each other senseless with slippers and plastic airline-issued sporks.
One of my favorite college professors once related to me her personal list of the top three greatest indignities of life. They are: apartment hunting, spouse hunting, and being video-recorded during childbirth. Of course, I cannot relate to any of her picks at all. For one thing, I lack the appropriate hips. But I get where she’s coming from, because I identify what all both our picks have in common: a striking desperation, and lack of control in the proceedings.
If this doesn’t speak to the human condition in some way or another, hell, I don’t know what does.
Marco and the Other Guy
People have told me that the best way to pass the time in an airplane is simply to sleep the trip off. This is not a viable option for me, however, because I’m a terrible sleeper and I’m prone to dehydration on flights. The second-best way that people have told me to get through a long-haul flight is to watch a crap-load of movies. Now, I absolutely love movies – a film aficionado, I like to fashion myself – and if the world was a beautiful and idyllic place, this is absolutely what I would be doing and then some. But the world is a shit-hole, and this move is denied to me because my feeble eyes are quick to strain and easily cause headaches mid-air, and so I generally try not to tax my eyes too badly when I’m floating somewhere over the Pacific ocean. (It is also worth nothing that there is a supplementary line of logical reasoning at work here: what if the damn plane goes down? I would need every inch of energy, rest, and concentration to survive that nonsense. I shouldn’t be wasting it on figuring out if Bruce Banner is going to hulk out in the airship and kill everything in sight.)
So I pass the time by accepting my lack of control, and practically this means that I relegate my active thought processes to the inner, lizard portions of my brain. And by that I mean, I sit there in the dark, lonely, silent cabin, and allow my mind to fly free and unobstructed so that it may conjure whatever images and strands and dreams it wants. Now, being the tender age of 23, the bulk of my subconscious anxieties tend to revolve around big, abstract, unsolvable young people things – questions like “Who will I be when I grow up?” or “Will I ever become the man I want to be?” or “Will I ever find the one person who will make everything worth bearing?” or even “I wonder when’s the next time I’m going to get laid?” And so these things form the underlying inquiries that propel the narratives of my imaginary explorations forward, and these dreamy queries being what they are, they tend to make for fascinating little explosions of entertainment.
I don’t know how my brain does it. I’m not a neuroscientist, and frankly, I don’t think even they know anything about it. At times, I’m controlling the content, rethinking and rewriting lines and situations and characters and motivations. At others, regardless of whether I’m drooping off into a sleepy daze or whether I’m still mentally “with it,” the images and narrative tend to flow and twist on their own volition – as if they really owned a legitimate sense of autonomy.
Some of these daydreams fantastical, as daydreams should typically be. I would be the sort of guy that would usually be named Marco or Fabio or some other exotic sounding name, and I would be a revolutionary fighting hordes of, oh I don’t know, North Koreans or something to rescue this one girl that I was absolutely in love with in high school but never really got one word into. (What was that? Male chauvinist pig, you say? Sorry about that, folks. One can only tame the subconscious mind and its inabilities to confront subtext and Freudian ideologies so much.) Anyway, I – and by that I mean Marco – would have long hair and a deep voice and a set of pectoral muscles so large and defined they look like bowling balls that have been chopped in half, and would do things like pass secret coded messages and wear trench-coats specifically to walk through dark alleys (that always look Parisian, for some reason). I don’t usually remember the nature of the plot, but I do recall that the background music generally sounds like something scored by the love child of Hans Zimmer and, oh you know, Debussy. Occasionally, I’d wear a hat. Or carry a whip. You know, just embodying the purest reflection of the fact I had a childhood filled with Hollywood movies and a repressed sense of adventure.
But those fantastical daydreams are not the norm. The daydreams my brain normally conjures are far more… how shall we say… “banal” in nature. And in the most frightening of ways.
Allow me to divulge what I believe was the most representative of these dreams.
Once, on a long haul flight over the Atlantic, I dreamt/imagined that I finally gave up every artistic ambition I’ve ever had and fully accepted my status as an Asian foreign student. And by that, I mean I switched my major to math and economics, and sold off every DVD I owned. In this daydream, I floated through whole semesters of econometrics, statistical analysis, business accounting, and financial regulation. I was the sort of person who wore sports-coats (all fine and tweedy and ironed), who spoke with pith and intensity and calculated gesture, and who spent senior year writing a quantitative thesis and putting on suits and going for job interviews at nameless, faceless banks. My dad would call frequently to tell me how proud he is, and I would feel proud that he felt proud. Some times, in the night time of those daydreams, I would lie in bed in my campus housing dorm room and stare blankly at the ceiling, listening to something in me scream and cry and whimper. After a few sleepless nights in those daydreams, that something died, and I went to work after graduation with a briefcase in hand and a glorious smirk.
In the life of this daydream I will have had two meaningful relationships before I finally met my wife. I do not remember their names, or their faces. I don’t even know if they really exist, if they were representations of people I knew in real life or original compositions of my psyche. But I remember how it felt breaking up with them, how empty my apartment seemed when they finally took their things away in a box, the look they gave me before they closed the door that one last time. But it’s okay – because after shortly after the second breakup, I finally met my wife, the love of my life, and I knew this the moment I met her. She was beautiful, so full of verve and effortlessly flows with the vitality of living, and our personalities and our beings fit together so well it was as if we were made absolutely for the reason of the other. We loved well, we feared well, we even fought well, we even hurt well. We had children, two of them: a boy and a girl. They grew up to be mild disappointments, but that’s okay, because we loved them, and we loved each other even more because we saw and recognized each other’s capacity to love beyond our stupid neurotic parental hopes and expectations. We grew old together. And then she died. And then I spent the remainder of my daydream days, waiting for my turn. In the living room, in the bed. Alone. Incomplete. Gone.
And then the cabin lights would come back on, and the intercom goes off with the pilot dropping the latest on outside’s barometric pressure stats. The stewardesses would walk down the aisles spraying their humidifier cans, followed by the swift and orderly delivery of hot towels and immigration cards. I would wipe my eyes slowly, breathing in and out as fully and slowly as I could. I would feel tired, really tired. Exhausted, to my very bones. The other passengers would wake up and look forward to the day that is to begin, to the visit that they are about to embark upon or to the home that they are returning. But I would sit there feeling empty, mulling over a life that has gone by, over moments that I realistically never really had but yet – moments that were altogether far too real.
I would sit and I would ponder and I would miss, and I would feel so damn old.
And for a moment, I would wonder how Marco’s doing.