Carrying future

Trapped in a window seat, 53A, between Tokyo and Shanghai. Reading Gibson, brought with me as a talisman, a way of accessing a certain mind set. Few authors can pull my hopeful brain, my dreaming mind, up from the cover of organization and functionality that I have layered over it.

We move so freely, the few of us lucky to have been born into the rich countries and jobs of the late twentieth century business environment. We schedule calls and flights in varying time zones with such frequency that the ability becomes the important part, not the impressive part. We layer organization over the impressive moments in our lives: descending into Hong Kong at daybreak and seeing the islands, oceans, and ships with the first rays of sun splashed across the shallow green water. We sleep through ascent out of Tokyo in the rain, neon splashed across the bay’s dark surface. All too often we stand in the courtyard of a remote factory or temple staring at our phones rather than at our surroundings.

Sometimes sleep is necessary. Frequently phones bring human connection with their distractions. The world was never as simple as we imagine, and we were never as free.

Reading fiction that is likewise trapped between the chance of the future and the truth of the present is a good way to spend these strange hours of international travel that themselves are mundane and amazing. And books, like always, are a good reminder that writing is a good way to convey hope.

The nicest people

On a flight from El Paso to Phoenix I hear of these elusive folk. They live in Lubbock, I am told, and serve the greatest steak. The whole town, it seems, is filled with them, kind and compassionate to strangers, traveling businessmen. The revelation isn’t surprising, I’ve had other close encounters.

On the next flight, Phoenix to San Francisco, the topic comes up again unbidden. In Detroit, I hear, despite the conditions, that the nicest people have arrived again, in fact won’t leave. They are the friendly folk who work hard to keep the city functioning.

What is it about these people, I do not ask, that makes them the world’s nicest? This is a familiar question to me, something I wonder of hot dog stands, burger joints, and ice cream parlors: how is this world ranking calculated? Where is the committee?

On a flight from Salt Lake to Portland I learn of small towns far beneath us, home to people I’ll probably never meet. They are filled, I am told, with gentle, compassionate neighbors who are kind to passers by.

In Salt Lake I hear of the strangers who pile in to town for a Megadeth show, coming from the wilderness in camo and tattoos, in pickup trucks and Hummers. In much of a month of traveling it is one of the few moments of distaste I encounter. Despite our differences it seems that we are creatures of great love, of appreciation for the places we do not live and their inhabitants.

And yet under the weight of repetition I realize I have these conversations mostly with those who have just left the place we discuss, or who are from there. In neither case would they settle in these towns of kindness. What does this say about our tolerance, that we speak well of Lubbock, of El Paso, of Greeley, as long as the wheels are up.

As long as we’re able to get out one flight earlier on Thursday, back to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, we can be kind.

As for myself, I think of the people of Ithaca often, of Lansing, and my old home town. Waitresses, cooks, business owners, farmers, and neighbors there who represent the place to me. I think of those long since reduced to Facebook photos and birthday greetings, to the occasional memory. Are they too the nicest people? Would they be who I spoke of on the plane, sharing with a stranger after a successful sales meeting, on the way home to my family? Or is the story instead of a place visited only briefly, with surprising kindness true or not? Is nice the only word we have to describe those we can not fathom, folk we have no knowledge of how to be?

This later I suspect is the truth of these airborne conversations. The people of Lubbock may indeed be the world’s nicest, as promoted. More likely though they are simply people, a collection of lives tied loosely to some inhabitable ground by a series of mostly unrelated accidents that befell their ancestors. The same as Lansing, the same as Phoenix or San Francisco.

With the seemingly-agreed-upon exception of New York, the world’s nicest people appear as we depart their town, a product of memory and heightened emotion. As the ground approaches and the conversation in each shared row of seats falters, these people recede from our consciousness. By the time we’ve reached our cars, taxis, and trains the nicest folk we’ve ever met are no more real than the conversation that spawned them, some thirty thousand feet above the ground.

Transient in all ways

The air is what changes with seasons.  Hot and muggy in the summer, chill and dry in the winter, or hot and dry and cold and wet, the air is more than temperature, it is feel.  Sometimes these seasonal shifts bring unwelcome days spent indoors sheltering.  Sometimes they bring days with scant light, or with an abundance.  At an ultimate tournament in Copenhagen two years ago the sun set near eleven, and players lingered outside long into the evening, marveling at the gift.  In the winter the same climes are less inviting, and so, creatures of this mobile world, we depart for places less socked in with snow and ice.

It is February, the calendar tells me, though the February of my childhood memories bears no relation to these days of lively air, of sun and wind and a hint of rain, off in the distance.  It is not dry, nor hot, neither chilly nor muggy.  For these weeks Houston glows, and we take any excuse for long walks, evening strolls, and afternoons spent lazing with the windows open.  Houston may be horrible in the summer as locals claim, muggy and hot with air still and sitting on the city.  Shanghai is, five almost unbearable summers proved that, and all those with the ability flee to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Europe, North America.

An hour of flying has the carbon footprint of driving for a year, I hear.  Car-less, then, I am still no more removed from our planet’s doom than anyone else.  Let’s move to somewhere we can walk, I say, let’s move somewhere we don’t have to sit in traffic.  Let’s fly somewhere, for vacation, I say.  Let’s fly somewhere to see the world, and the hypocrisy, if true, is staggering.  Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a year ago, I marveled at their use of air travel.  Her story of loss, brilliant in it’s clarity, was for me as much a commentary on air travel, and our shifting abilities.  She speaks of hopping up and down the California coast for dinner, on the PSA, an airline that no longer exists.  Fascinated, I look them up, finding hijackings and crashes, joy and marketing all gradually subsumed into now-bankrupt nationwide carriers.  Her stories, and their $13.50 aisle seats, belong to a different era, where airlines flew when they wanted to, or when they were full, like Chinese mini-busses do now, circling the train stations in search of passengers.

Playing ultimate yesterday with the wind blowing and sun shining, a woman told me of playing on similar days in Northern Europe.  She mentioned living in Korea, and  I told her of the tournament held yearly in Jeju, on practice fields built for the 2002 World Cup, and how the wind there blows off the ocean that lies just over the cliffs.  All our travels are comparable through wind, and all were brought back to us standing amid yesterday’s gusts.

Coming home today, I stand outside and watch this day unfold.  It is weather to bottle, says a friend, to save forever.  We cannot, of course, the only store for days like this is in our memories, which is why we tell stories, and share travel histories.  And I wonder, watching the clouds blow by in huge gusts that reach the ground so gently, whether this too is an era, and we, like Didion, will write stories of it that will astonish in thirty years, sending readers to Wikipedia and to pages kept by those who remember.  Will two hundred dollar flights to an island south of Korea for a weekend of ultimate have the same allure of the PSA, of the common since become impossible?  I consider the carbon footprint, my dislike for the automobile, and that claimed equivalent, and suspect they will.

Not quite yet, though.  A friend is coming, from New York’s ice and snow, to see these magical February Houston days, hopping down for a weekend.  He won’t be riding the smile, and it won’t cost him $13.50, but, if the weather holds and the flight is safe, the belief that our lives are special, and temporary, will be hard to shake.