Long loops

Back to LA,” I answer, when asked where I’m heading. It’s where my loop is from.”

This answer, now given a half dozen times to friends, colleagues, and family, is a phrase not well understood. The loop is obvious in explanation, the HKG to LAX round trip that connects me to this continent and to my home. On one end America and the other my cat. It’s a good loop, at least some times. I imagine it like the old tow-style ski lifts, ropes drifting by on the snow, there for the grabbing, to be towed along to the next stop. The rope itself is always in motion, like the planes between Hong Kong and LA.

The best part of long loops like this, the trans-pacific ones, is their branching, the ability to add or subtract small loops and other destinations before the return. Writing this from an aisle seat thirty thousand feet up and heading south down the California coast line I am almost done, sub-loops soon complete. It’s an emotional space, the air over San Luis Obispo, a week and a half since leaving Hong Kong. For a loop that started with Throwback and a dozen plus of my old San Francisco frisbee friends I’ve done a lot. Spent the work week in the Bay and added in a car loop to visit family. Sub-loops are like that, purpose-built around jobs or distant relatives. This morning’s started with an ebike, a rental car, out to Sacramento and back. One day full of the most driving I’d done since June. As usual with these loops the people were the goal, cruising Interstate 80 in a large Jeep was just bonus. Or cost.

And now, like a boomerang, I am swooping back along the coast line to LA, a brief hitch in the homeward swing. Another sleep or two and I’ll be sitting in my office, watching the buildings across the street. Descending through clouds into Los Angeles that view feels a long way away, in hours and space.

In so many ways these loops are a tale of our lives, the distance both true and not.

Haneda mornings

Haneda at sunrise

In some ways, for this boy, everything starts in Tokyo.

Ever since he turned 18 here, on his first visit, the city has been a constant reference, and a sometimes home. The urban sprawl of the greater metro area has been a window onto so much of his life.

Today Tokyo frames the hours between four and nine am. For these five hours he wanders the new international terminal of Haneda without urgency. The rest of this trip, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Ningbo, and back, will be a whirlwind of component approvals, press checks, and the small waits of travel required for each. For the next two weeks he will be seldom alone save for early mornings or late nights, and rarely on his own schedule.

This morning in Haneda serves as a counter to that sense of urgency. Drinking coffee in a chair with a view he can pause and think. About his cat, left at midnight the evening prior, the day prior, comfortably relaxed at the end of a quiet weekend. Of that same cat on the rooftop in the morning, looking out over San Francisco and sniffing the wind. He is happy on the rooftop, this cat, and the boy in Tokyo misses both spot and companion.

For so much of his life Tokyo has been about watching people. Sitting here as the airport wakes up, as business commuters and tourists make their way through security and start looking for coffee, the boy is happy. It’s been a while since he watched Tokyo this way.

At least a month.

Inspired by friends with similar jobs these layovers have come something of a ritual, a strange habit of intentional delay in what is already a very long commute. He began taking these breaks last year, in Hong Kong. Alone or with colleagues he would check in for his flight at Central, give up his suitcase of samples and clothing, and walk to a nice dinner, to a quiet evening drink with a view. Spending a few hours this way, before returning to San Francisco and the rest of his life, served as a firewall between the exhaustion of weeks in Dongguan factories and the exhaustion of jet lag. These breaks give him energy to return home with and become again responsible for the small parts of life, for dishes and laundry and the commute.

In twenty sixteen he has moved these breaks to Tokyo. Work is focused on Shanghai, and so Hong Kong is a less convenient option. Tokyo, with the government’s new focus on tourism and Haneda’s resurgence as an international airport, is becoming the perfect hub. Overnight flights from SF give him more than a full night’s sleep, more than enough rest to be awake when he finally makes it to Shanghai, some twenty hours later.

And the peace of Haneda, the fact that all announcements are played in Japanese, in English, and then in Mandarin, gives his mind some time to catch up to the rest of him, to accept the fact that he is once again on the road. Tokyo as rest stop is a new use for his favorite city.

In nineteen ninety seven Tokyo was a fairy tale for a boy on his way to university. It was his first trip abroad, other than Canada, and his first time alone without language.

In two thousand one Tokyo was a gateway, an opportunity, and the city he’d always dreamed of. Moving there got him out of the US, gave him a job, and showed him just how big the world could be.

In two thousand seven it provided a reminder of how peaceful a city could be, after years in the noise of Shanghai. It is this lesson he remembers now, and what brought him to this ritual layover.

In two thousand twelve he got to share his favorite places and the trains that connected them. Exploring Tokyo and Kyoto together they remembered how wonderful adventuring as a couple could be.

In two thousand thirteen, on their second trip to Japan together, they got engaged, in Fukuoka by the river.

And now, in two thousand sixteen Japan is a safe haven, a place to rest and relax, to hole up and to wander. On brief layovers he sings karaoke in Itabashi and climbs to rooftops in Shinjuku. He walks dozens of miles, and yet he also barely moves, spending hours chatting with old friends and hours reading in favorite neighborhoods.

Mostly he spends hours, like this morning, in Haneda.

Make few plans

For the fourth time in the last seven months I leave the country on less than a week notice. So often am I here one day and gone the next that the cat and house grow used to, if not happy with, my abrupt exits. The strangeness of it sweeps over me in 14G on my way to Incheon. As with all work travel, being on the road so often creates a detachment from the rest of life. Enjoying this requires an ability to be comfortable in two places at the same time, frequently jet lagged and uncertain of the weather.

Sudden departures though require a different set of sacrifices. Mostly they require tolerance and a partner able to care for the cat. Given four days notice this time it’s no surprise that the bag and the clothes are the same as my last trip, two weeks ago. Remaining packed means I have put little thought into attire and less into arrangement of belongings. For only a week, everything can be shoved in any which way.

The tolerance of partners and pets is a gift that must be earned. What can be learned to ease leaving the country so quickly is simple: make few plans.

At lunch three days before I sat listening to conversations between colleagues. They made lunch dates for the coming week and discussed possible weekend adventures. I sat silently, thinking about the coming week. Lunches will be wherever the factory team takes me. Evenings, well, I am lucky, and will spend one evening at a bar that has indoor batting cages near Suzhou Creek. Make few plans’ is in fact an incorrect presentation of the idea. I have many plans, just not in San Francisco, not in my house. And that, at last, is the central point.

Asiana 211 lands in Seoul over an hour late for a layover scheduled for one hour. I step off the gate into the humid Korean jetway air hunting for signs to indicate the next gates direction and am instead met with information. The onward flight will likewise be delayed, and the airline apologize for this, for the impact of a missed hour in Shanghai on a Tuesday night. I laugh. There’s a free dinner voucher and further apologies, to all of us.

Looking around near the gate I see few upset faces. There is little consternation among the waiting passengers, no uproar at the announcement. We are, as a group, content with this hour to eat, to walk, and to relax on the internet in one of the world’s best transfer airports.

Wandering up the automated walkways, at peace with the lack of urgency, I think of the group around that gate, waiting for the Shanghai flight. How many of us have no plans, to be so unconcerned? How many of us standing there in Seoul gave up all prior engagements before boarding some earlier flight countries back and days before?

Casual beauty

Descending through the clouds into Shenzhen on a Sunday afternoon, the gift of flight overwhelms me. In a window seat on the left side of the plane as we fly south my view is of the edge of the continent. As we descend into Shenzhen the circular approach route gives me a view of most of the city and some of Dongguan.

It is a flight I’ve done several times, and one of my favorites. The southern China coastline is a mishmash of islands and man-made structures, ports and refineries mixed with huge cities and apartment complexes. On a good day the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong comes in to view, as do some of the islands surrounding. Today, amid a gaggle of puffy white clouds, my view is clear, unobscured by the wing. I can see the sun’s reflection on the water and clouds, the scale of Chinese cities, and the ocean. As with all flight it’s a reminder of how small each of us are and how beautiful the world is.

As we turn and head west over Shenzhen, starting a loop that swings west, south, and finally east again for our landing on the southern edge of the city, I see Chang’an district below, and the hotel where I will spend the coming week. Our turn is quick at this altitude, and I cannot find the factory that brings me here. I see the complex in the hills that has no lights and mystifies me, but not long or well enough to discover its purpose. We pass directly above it.

Air travel is a gift, I have said, as have many others. Swinging low on this approach I remember another reason why: flight is a view of the world’s beauty that can be hard to see from the ground.

The city enables

In the past year I slept in thirty five different zip codes. At an average of one every ten days, not accounting for length of stay or multiple visits, the pace of life becomes clear. San Francisco may be my home, or more accurately it may be my home base.

Thirty five is by no means a record for humans. There are those who travel daily, who work or live on multiple continents. I also do not see this as a great gift. This number of beds simply reflects a job and a kind of life. This much travel certainly does affect my connection to any place, and would anyone’s. By changing how often we are home and what we think of home when we arrive, how much we value down time anywhere as opposed to down time somewhere. Unpacking this week I threw clothes on top of clothes and went off again, if only for hours. Today I will sort them, wash them, fold them and stow the memories of where we were last week, where we were the week before.

San Francisco has all the makings of a good home base. SFO is an excellent airport with non-stop connections domestically and internationally. Situated on the edge of a continent, and on the edge of a major economy, the city gives access both deeper in to the US and farther out, to Asia, Australia and beyond. By being a port it hosts not just airplanes, but boats, ships, and the occasional train. By being a center of innovation and corporate development it receives attention from the global media, communications companies, and infrastructure investments from service providers. Because it is in California, the weather is often fair and rarely horrible.

The downsides are usually a product of that success, and occasionally of the location. Because of the weather, fog sometimes shuts down the airport and often curtails the warmth of evenings. Because of the small size and popularity, rents range from expensive to outlandish, meaning even poor dwellings are hotly contested. Because of California’s strange government the public transit, safety, and education could all be better, while taxes are high, for the US. Because of the hills, walking and biking are harder than in many places, and the clique-like nature of the various neighborhoods is enhanced. Likewise, because of the hills, cellular service varies from excellent to non-existent within a span of blocks.

Yet in some ways San Francisco feels too easy, feels too comfortable. The weather does not threaten, and while earthquakes remain a danger they are too unpredictable to guide daily life. Seasons do not have the same urgency, with summer the gloomiest time of year. Likewise the affluence of young people in this startup-fueled culture gives much of the city a surreal air, with expensive restaurants featuring wait lists two days after opening.

Still, sitting down town in the rain, waiting for a meeting, I realize the benefits of being based here, in one of the major coastal cities in the US, with excellent food and transit links, with a massive base of capital and culture, education and talent. 

It’s a good place to live. As much as I’m here, anyway.

As fast as possible

In the space of a week I go from Los Angeles and a pool to Petaluma, San Francisco, and Shanghai. Yangzhou, Changshu, and Tokyo follow before the string of airport initials and train station names reverses, leading me home in time for Christmas. With each step comes a greater sense of urgency, and a greater sense of exhaustion. Every vehicle and every contact is exhorted for speed. ASAP. Any phrase so often abused as to have a common acronym deserves consideration before use, in this case deserves preservation for the truly urgent moments.

How to tell what requires attention when everything is made to seem urgent?

Our lives are brief fragile things of scant import and dear value. They consist of years that can be counted with ease by children, of months tied together by weather, and of hours that seem to drift by with the Chinese countryside, in a state of waiting known as transit.

In the space of a week I spend forty one hours in motion and yet waiting, rushing and yet unable to move. In the space of a week I sleep in seven beds. At the end of it, waiting for the last plane, I try to clear my brain and add up the lessons from those miles, add up the value of the travel in a way other than the monetary cost or the hours.

I have had dinner with friends from all segments of life, from Tokyo ten years ago, Shanghai eight, Shanghai five, and San Francisco now. I have seen houses and children, girlfriends, and wives. In groups large and small, we have shared stories that will hold us together for another month, or year, or two, until somehow the world brings us to table again in the same city.

I have solved problems I am paid to solve, given support to those both up and down the chain of business from me. Listened to complaints, answered requests, provided explanations, outlined requirements. I have cleaned and trimmed and measured and folded and packed product in the kind of chill concrete building I try to avoid after Christmas 2007.

Do these things, done at questionable speed, make for a better life? They certainly do not help our shared environmental disaster. In fact, they are a direct cause, a product of the excesses of miscalculated transportation costs. What can I do to repair these damages? What can I do to make each hour both longer and shorter, both more memorable and less all-consuming? How can I continue to learn and work while allowing myself time for tasks that require mental focus and a single location?

These are good questions for a twelve hour flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

Treat each other

A century on from its invention, air travel remains one of our greatest abilities. Flight grants mobility to that least mobile class of capitalism’s three, labor. By allowing us all to span continents it reduces our tendency to stereotype and dismiss those we have never seen. By encouraging quick visits home for holidays it enables family ties to stretch and thus daughters and sons to move further than they ever have. And, hundreds of years on, the magic of descending into Hong Kong as the dawn rises will still impress.

Yet air travel also reflects the stratification of society, the belief that not all people are created equal, and the separation of humans from one another. Waiting in LAX a few months ago a family seated near me was preparing their children for their first flight, reassuring the youngest and explaining which plane was likely theirs to the eldest. From the sound of it they were headed on vacation, to a new adventure.

Like many I can’t remember my first flight. I can guess, to Sacramento in the eighties, to see my grandparents. My parents might remember, such travel was rare enough then, planned for months and each trip separated from the next by a year or two. US Air, probably, one of the pre-bankruptcy incarnations. Definitely a layover, between Ithaca and Sacramento, possibly two. An easier security check though, fewer hassles than this family in LAX has had to endure. Especially at a small airport like Ithaca, like the old Ithaca, where there was only one gate and passengers mingled with those waiting for arrivals. It was no $16 flight up the west coast that Joan Didion remembers, but it was a simpler time.

And that brings me to LAX, to SFO, to HKG and JFK, and status clubs and priority boarding. That brings me to the striation of humanity inside one of the great engines of democratization. No longer is moving from California to New York a rare occurrence. Students from China can go to school in Boston and see their families on holidays. Cousins from Australia can visit upstate NY for the summer. And a boy from Ithaca can meet a girl from Colorado in Shanghai and move to Houston together.

Air travel is a great enabler. Along with the internet it has changed how fast, how often, and for what reasons we communicate, visit, and learn from each other. It is also, especially compared to the internet, an incredibly resource-intensive idea, burning fuel dug out of the ground to cross and re-cross the planet. Considered that way the idea of bachelor parties in Croatia and weekend trips to LA sound foolish, a waste of a shared resource for fleeting enjoyment. And yet what a glorious ability, to weekend elsewhere, to visit spontaneously for scant dollars.

This is the problem, of course. The democratization of air travel comes with a cost, and that cost is covered in a large part by the segregation of fliers, by the thousand dollar price difference between a seat in business class and economy on the same plane, leaving and departing at the same times from the same locations.

What is different then about those seats? How we treat each other. More money earns a nicer experience, free drinks, a courteous smile upon boarding, a newspaper. Most importantly more money earns a larger seat, more personal space.

These inventions should not surprise, and they don’t. Of course more money will buy a nicer version of something, whatever the thing may be. Of course those with are treated more preferentially than those without. That is the very basis of human economics, for better and worse, for thousands of years.

What is changing, what has changed, is the view from the bottom. Not only are those who pay more treated better, but that those who pay less are now treated slightly worse. Premium tickets bring additional benefits and economy tickets bring less and less. From paying for food to paying for legroom (Jet Blue, United, Virgin) to paying for TV (Frontier) to paying for boarding (Southwest, United, Virgin) there is no longer a sense of service with the ticket purchase. Overhead compartments have become a war zone due to checked fees and frequent travelers spend actual minutes of life learning the amount of bin space on different aircraft. The additional transactions, costs, and restrictions create small burdens on each of us until the very heart of flying, the joy of being airborne, has been whittled down. Until the child preparing for his first flight is cautioned with a thousand guidelines rather than encouraged in his excitement.

In short what was once a gift, a miraculous journey from New York to California, has been turned into a series of chores and of inconveniences. I do not say has become a series of chores” because that removes the reason for these changes and the responsibility for our worsening experiences. Checked bag fees did not come from the sky, but from the boardroom. Treating each economy customer slightly worse was not an accident but a calculated move. Adding on a few fees after ticket purchase, making travel worse in these small ways, one at a time, was a way to maximize profits at the expense of someone else.

Is a way.

That is why I was excited about Virgin America, and about Jet Blue and Southwest before that. About an airline that claimed to believe what we all know: good service and decent treatment should be the baseline, not an added fee. A reasonable seat, a clean plane, something to drink. This kind of company should be encouraged, should be recognized and aided. How much better must it be to work for a company that treats customers the way we would like to be treated? How much better is it to be proud of our employers, to be customers of our own products, willing passengers on our own airlines and happy diners in our own restaurants?

Treating each other better needs no limits. Airports could easily return to being enjoyable places, with less focus on security and fewer collisions between rollaboards. With faster checked luggage recovery, without so many fees, with only a little bit of better treatment, passengers could once again stroll through the airport rather than drag their possessions into cramped bathrooms and newspaper stands.

These ideas are not unachievable miracles, they are not irrational requests. They are simply how things used to work, and how they still could. These ideas are built on a belief that we can all treat each other better. And that how we treat each other in our jobs, in our companies, is how we treat each other. Hiding behind corporate declarations and revenue targets does not reduce our responsibility to each other. By making the collective experience of humans slightly worse we are worsening our own lives, no matter our income or status. In this specific case we are gradually reducing the pleasure of one of our most miraculous technologies.

By making air travel worse it is less likely that a boy and a girl will grow up to love airplanes. Less likely that they will love staring down at the world from above and up at the sky from below, less likely that they will travel so freely and with such joy. This vision is a sad one.

The alternative is simple. We can treat each other better. We can build companies that do likewise. And instead of bin space we can focus on the wonder of air travel. We can help each other and support those who treat us better and those whose jobs are built on the idea.

And we can teach new fliers like that child in LAX the magic in my favorite phrase, a sentence that with every repetition excites me and suggests the future.

We will be on the ground shortly.”

Readily available cures

In my Mexican hotel room Lost in Translation plays, a mirror for those adrift. I am again feverish in a country not my own and so relish the sounds of Japan, the clean linen, the Gatorade and air conditioning. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps pure exhaustion from a weekend spent running in the sun at Stanford and several extremely long days on my feet.

On screen Bill Murray smiles awkwardly. I shiver. In this box of manufactured air I am secure, and I heal. Tomorrow I will rise early and step again into the heat that waits outside my door, in the very hallway. Tonight, like those lost souls in Tokyo on TV, I ignore Juarez. Instead I try to find some space to breathe, and to think of how fix the problems I am here to see. How to do the right thing, once I have discovered it.

I also remember.

In the Summit, an expensive Shanghai apartment complex behind The Center, a glass tower on Huashan Lu then but a few years old, I remember a man of thirty. He lay for a day and a half in bed. He shivered and shook with some unknown disease contracted in the manufacturing sprawl outside Shaoxing. He cured it the way he was accustomed to in China, with Advil, Gatorade, and thick covers. The Saturday I remember was his one day off out of three weeks in country, and he saw nothing outside of his friend’s apartment, the guest bedroom.

Out the window in Juarez a pool glows in the evening, abandoned for the moment by hotel guests. A gym next to it features men working off business lunches by pounding their knees on an endless rubber path. I have energy for neither sit-ups nor discontent.

I am in a country without holding any of its currency. The idea of this is bemusing and inconvenient as the vending machines on the floor below might otherwise offer sustenance. I toss and turn, occupied by the soreness of sickness. Somehow all of these illnesses, all of these aching hours alone in strange countries, blur together in feverish dreams.

On an airplane across the Pacific, I remember a man age twenty eight.  He had a bulkhead seat, but did not appreciate the space. Neither blanket nor hoodie could stop the chills and the aches of the illness he had contracted in Houston and incubated on the flight to LA. On reaching home in Shanghai he would remain housebound for a week. He would learn of his roommate’s soup-making skills and see little save the sallow face in his own mirror.

At thirty two, I leave Juarez for Phoenix with the illness still inside me. Shivering in the Phoenix airport as the air conditioning floods down, almost unable to stand, I take comfort in having still never been as ill as on that flight to Shanghai.

On the flight home to San Francisco, finally free, finished with the week in the Juarez Holiday Inn Express, I count up those other lost days, ill in countries not my own. So often I have been powerless save for the cures I knew: Advil brought with me, Gatorade purchased for scant dollars, and covers of a bed briefly borrowed.

I am glad once again to be going home to a house that is not empty. Going home to someone who will aid me in ways, alone and with so little language, I have never managed to improve.

Bud Selig & the TSA

There are two things that make me very angry today.  They may seem to have nothing to do with each other.  Yet Bud Selig is exactly like the TSA.  They are both higher powers in the American landscape that are forcing their awful ideas on society.  Let me explain.

Bud Selig wants to put ten teams in the MLB playoffs, rather than the current eight, which is already an increase from the six that got in when he became Commissioner.  Six, eight, ten, why the big deal?  Mediocrity.  Baseball is the American pasttime.  It isn’t the current American sport of the moment”, nor is it something cool we made for TV.  Baseball is tough.  The season is long.  The games are played in the sun of long summer afternoons.  Pitchers take forever.  Batters grab their crotches.  Baseball is awesome.  It’s also hard. And most teams don’t make the playoffs.  I don’t mean half the teams don’t make the playoffs.  I mean most.  As in, pre-Bud, less than one out of three. One per division.  That was awesome.

Bud Selig implemented the Wild Card, which is pretty solid, as things go, though it does occasionally lead to crazy math.  The idea behind the Wild Card was that teams who happened to have another very good team in their division could still make the playoffs.  This was called the Yankee rule” or the AL East rule”, because it gave Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay and even Boston some hope that, in an era when the Yankees went to the post-season almost every year, they didn’t have to beat the Yankees to get in, they just had to be better than everyone else.

I love the Wild Card rule.  I think it’s very rewarding to say hey, we didn’t win the division but we would have won most divisions, so we should keep playing.”  I like this sense of achievement.  Plus, the Cardinals won the WS as Wild Card entrants in 2006.  And the Marlins in 2003.  And 2007.  Wild Cards are good for baseball.  And eight out of thirty teams is still less than one third.  It’s still tough to get in to the playoffs in MLB.

Why is it good to have the playoffs be tough to get into? Because nothing is more disheartening than hearing a NFL fan say the following: Our team is 4-6. Maybe if Buffalo loses to Tampa and Green Bay beats Seattle and we beat Chicago, we can make the playoffs!”

That is pathetic.  It’s demeaning to the fans, and to the game. Why? Because their team is simply not any good.  Good teams make the playoffs, bad teams don’t. That’s the whole idea!  If mediocre teams make the playoffs it’s called THE REGULAR SEASON.

But Bud thinks good teams aren’t making the playoffs.  Hence the whole ten teams instead of eight thing.  Wait. What? Did any good teams miss the playoffs in 2010?  The Padres?  Not a good team.  How do I know?  They didn’t make the playoffs.  Also, their run differential was +84.  This means they scored 84 more runs than they allowed, over the course of the 2010 season. Was this good?  Well, in a word, no. The eight teams that made the playoffs were between +163 (NYY) and +100 (Texas). No team had a +100 run differential and did not make the playoffs.  The Cardinals were the only ones even close, at +95 and no playoffs.  And we all know the Cardinals weren’t very good down the stretch.

In case that last paragraph contained too many ideas and failed attempts at humor, let me clarify:

In 2010, the best eight teams made the playoffs, and those eight teams were quite noticeably better than any of the other 22 teams.

Bud Selig is not helping the sport.  He may be helping someone.  That I won’t argue.

And how is Bud like the TSA?  Well the TSA may be helping someone, but they’re not helping passengers. They’re not helping airports.  They’re not improving security. They aren’t saving money. They’re not speeding up transit. They’re not making people’s days better.

What are they doing? Keeping everyone scared.  Remember, the threat is real, they say. The threat level is orange.

The threat level has always been orange.

Airplanes got blown up before 9/11. The TSA didn’t exist. Neither did naked scanners, shoe removal, pat downs, nail clipper confiscation, belt removal, or 2 hour security lines.

Are we safer? I guess that depends on us. All I know is that Bud isn’t making the sport I love better and the TSA isn’t making the experience I love (air travel) better.  They may be helping someone, but it’s not me. I love to fly and I love baseball.  Please, Bud Selig and faceless TSA boss, stop trying to change that.

Airports

That these huge spaces are so frequently written about is unsurprising.  We are a transient people consumed with life and information. Towering buildings granted meaning by our passage yet requiring the sacrifice of hours, airports have come to represent so much of the pause time in our lives.  They are a space not personal, not pre-scheduled or already occupied.  Thus emptied of purpose save the passing through they grant us a moment to analyze and write, to listen to our thoughts and watch others likewise held motionless by their very pursuit of such.  With news televisions, internet, cell service, pay phones, sports bars and large windows they provide plenty of inputs.  They do not leave us isolated, but unable to act.

Yes, we restlessly patrol our Blackberries for urgent problems to resolve.  And there are those of us who simply space out, earbuds in and mind in neutral.  Others pace, restless legs patrolling wide corridors while one hand holds the phone pressed against the jaw, checking again on the project we’ve been preparing to leave for weeks, in case one last moment of nervousness can guarantee success.  We cram our legs up into our seats, leaving nothing touching the floor, no limb to anchor us to this city we are about to depart as we confide in family members we have just left, or will soon see.  And we drink, relaxing in darkened caves away from the ever-present fluorescents and their helpfully automated voices reminding us that the automated walkway is coming to an end, that the alert level is orange, that our belongings are for handling by us alone.

The airport is an odd space for us, once through the security check, cut off from those who came to wish us farewell but still here, not yet separated by time zone or ocean.  It is a space no one wishes for interactions in, save perhaps that brief farewell or hello, which we prefer at curbside, stepping into a vehicle that can escort us from the lonely halls.  We hope for a speedy passage through, minimal time in baggage claim, in ticketing, going through security, yet we arrive with hours to spare, ensuring those moments of contemplation at the gate.

This gift of mental peace and clarity, these unclaimed, unscheduled half hours are the true miracle of airports, of this giant network we have built.  So it is a good sign then to see how much writing they produce, how much thought, how many compassionate phone calls checking in on loved ones.

Now if there were such moments of unclaimed quiet in the progress of our daily lives, what would we contemplate, what would be produced in those hours removed from the world yet enmeshed in its workings?

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.