With that amount of traveling comes a lot of airplane rides, which is good for me, because I love riding on airplanes. As a person consistently and thoroughly paralyzed by the amount of choices available in his daily life, the structure of life on an airplane is quite appealing to me. They tell you everything up front. This is your seat. You may get up if the sign says it's OK. If you get up, you may walk along this straight line. You can go either direction, but don't worry, whichever one you choose, there will be bathrooms. Here is what you can eat or drink. Here are the movies that will be shown. This is when they start. Here is what to do if we begin plummeting to our deaths. In the unlikely event that we survive the impact, there will be a series of lighted arrows that will tell you where to walk. Non-alcoholic beverages? Complimentary! The seat cushion? Also a flotation device! The airplane experience is a glorious mix of free stuff, entertainment, sitting down, and the perfect amount of choice and money-spending opportunities (that is, enough to keep you interested, but not so many that it bogs you down). The whole thing tends to scratch me in precisely the areas that the rest of my life makes me itch.
Of course this is completely at odds with my writerly instincts. It is a long standing tradition for columnists, comedians, essayists, bloggers, radio hosts, and memiorists to travel on an airplane and then describe to their readers/listeners how awful it was. It is a literary conceit as old as air travel itself: "I don't care if you're out of ideas, you owe me a column tomorrow night! Write it on the plane if you have to!" And so they did.
It's become such a cliche that the piece practically writes itself. Generally, the writer will start off by informing you that he cannot sleep on airplanes. We do this to make ourselves seem troubled and mysterious. We want the reader to envision a mind so alive with creativity that the sheer luminescence created by the firing synapses prevents our eyes from closing. We want the reader to wonder at the fantastic ideas we cannot help but dream up while the rest of the plane sleeps. In truth, it is a vicious combination of insecurity and curiosity that keeps us awake. We cannot help but study our fellow passengers and not just wonder what they are thinking, but wonder what they are thinking about us. Most writers are nothing if not obsessive observers of human beings; both those around us and ourselves.
So all of that observing will lead the writer to comment on his fellow passengers when he sets about composing his piece. Of course, he will not comment on the quiet and courteous passengers that comprise the majority of the flight. No, he will single out the portly or the rude. The one who takes up too much of the arm rest or the one who will not stop talking. For example, I might tell you about the woman who was sitting next to me on my flight from Phoenix to Atlanta. I'd start by relating a humorous anecdote about how she had to request a seatbelt extension. I'd tell you about her hair, which was the color of the stuff that grows between the tiles on the wall of my shower. How it fell in straight lines about her head like a cascading sheet of muddy water broken only by her misshapen Picasso face rudely poking through the middle. I might tell you about her shirt, which had the pharse "What if the hokey pokey is what it's all about?" emblazoned across the front. A shirt whose brand of humor is so aggressively bland that it literally saddened me. Sad for her. Sad for the shirt. Sad for the now certainly defunct K-Mart where she purchased it. Sad for the fellow who stood on the curb in front of that K-Mart with a neon sign beckoning passersby to peruse its liquidation sale. But most of all, sad for myself for having been placed within the proximity of all of these things and forced to consider them.
You see, the experiential writer is constantly put out. He is drifting along through life, constantly being knocked about by the riffraff and the huddled masses who could not possibly understand him. We mistakenly believe that the reader feels as we do; that we are better than everyone else on the plane, or if not everybody, at least the jerk sitting to our left. So we describe this jerk to you and invite you to commiserate with us. We hide safely behind our pretension.
And it is this pretension that leads us to deride the in-flight entertainment. On my flight, they were showing a movie called The Time Traveler's Wife. A movie so completely dull and uninteresting that it was a full 30 minutes in before I realized that I had my armrest headphones tuned to an adult contemporary satellite radio station rather than the movie's audio. Upon this realization, I declined to make a change. The difference would have been negligible and I had already come so far. This movie was followed up with an episode of whatever dreck CBS is currently showing before or after Two and a Half Men. The fact that this show is popular enough to sustain a halo of absolute trash in the time slots around it is twice as depressing as my seatmate's choice of apparel. I will never understand the appeal of a show centered around a sassy obese female archetype, a now past his prime child actor with no apparent redeeming qualities, and the corpse of Charlie Sheen all anchored by a nervous effeminate straight man in the form of Duckie from Pretty in Pink. How Sheen's character can seduce so many women with a wardrobe consisting mostly of cargo shorts and Tommy Bahama short sleeve button downs is almost as perplexing. If I have to pretend to like this show at one more family gathering for the sake of being polite, I may light myself on fire. I am dreading the holidays because of it.
This delightful cavalcade was somewhat ameliorated by a BBC documentary on Yellowstone Park ably narrated by Peter Firth; his rich British baritone perfectly complimenting the intimate, loving camera work that BBC nature documentaries have become so widely and deservedly acclaimed for. Unfortunately, this documentary was cruelly started just 30 minutes before we began our descent, so I barely made it halfway through. Much thanks to United Airways for the unnecessary slap in the face right before returning home. I guess what's important is that we got to see the Rachel McAdams/Eric Bana(l?) love story reach its conclusion.
And that's basically how it is done. We ridicule the in-flight entertainment to show that we could not possibly be entertained by that which has been deemed suitable for the flying public at large.We are far too enlightened to be bothered by such base frivolity. The writer may feel inclined to punch up his tale with yet another humorous anecdote about the state of disrepair in which he found the bathroom when he attempted to use it. Or perhaps the outdated, unfortunate hairstyles of the middle-aged female flight attendants. Or maybe even a hearty critique of the airline food, although I've always found the peanuts/pretzels and beverage service to be beyond reproach.
Of course it is perhaps not all our fault. The reader or listener does seem to have a certain affection for vitriolic derision and relentless lampoonery. Consider the spiteful talk radio host who does not see fit to merely disagree with his adversaries, but must heap scorn upon them in the most hateful tone of voice possible-, often accompanied by sound effects. Or the late night talk show host who piles joke after joke night after night onto the already beaten down body of whichever public figure happens to be undergoing the most prominent tribulation at the time. It is always he who says the most outrageous thing the loudest who garners the attention. Of course, that does not mean the speaker is right in doing so.
It's all just human nature I guess. We like to cajole in our writing and reading. It's comforting in a weird sort of way. Indeed, on a personal note, I rather enjoyed our tour through the traditional airline critique piece. As I said before, I had been traveling a lot in the past month and it was perhaps wearing on me a bit. My travels were of the sort that included a great deal of truthfulness and authenticity; enlightening, life-affirming moments; and genuine love and friendship. All of these things are desirable and rewarding, but too much can be exhausting after a time. This release of nastiness and cynicism felt good. Not unlike coming home, putting the key in my front door, walking up the stairs, and laying down in my own bed. I feel like myself again. For better or for worse.