Up in the Air
The blissful idleness, and useless information dump, of a frequent flyer
A few months ago, I opened my rusty mailbox to find a blue and white envelope containing a gold plastic card embossed with my last name, and, above it, in flowery letters, FREQUENT FLYER CLUB GOLD. I showed the card to my wife in a pathetic gesture, hoping that this sign of appreciation from an objective, outside party would soften her harsh opinion of me, but it didn’t really work.
“I advise you not to show this card to anyone,” she said.
“Why not?” I argued. “This card makes me a member of an exclusive club.”
“Yes,” my wife said, smiling that jackal smile of hers. “The exclusive club of people who have no life.”
So, OK. In the discreet, intimate confines of this column, I am willing to make a partial admission that I don’t have a life, at least not in the traditional, everyday sense of the word. And I admit that more than once in the past year I have had to read the stub of my plane ticket, which was nestled peacefully among the pages of my stamp-tattooed passport, to find out what country I was in. And I also admit that during those trips, which often followed a 15-hour flight, I found myself reading to a very small group of people who, after listening to me for an hour, could offer me only a consoling pat on the back and the hopeful observation that in Hebrew those stories of mine probably make sense. But I love it. I love reading to people: When they enjoy it, I enjoy it with them, and when they suffer, I figure it’s probably coming to them.
The truth, now that I’ve launched into an inexplicable outburst of sincerity, is that I’m willing to confess I also love the flights themselves. Not the security checks before them or the sour-faced airline employees at the check-in counter who explain to me that the last empty seat left on the plane is between two flatulent, Japanese sumo wrestlers. And I’m not really crazy about the endless waiting for luggage after landing, or the jetlag that digs a trans-Atlantic tunnel through your skull with a particularly dull teaspoon. It’s the middle I love, that part when you’re closed up in a tin box that’s floating between heaven and earth. A tin box that is totally cut off from the world, and inside it there’s no real time or real weather, just a juicy slice of limbo that lasts from take-off till landing.
And strangely enough, for me, those flights don’t just mean eating the heated-up TV dinner that the sardonic copywriter for the airlines decided to call a “High Altitude Delight.” They’re a kind of meditative disengagement from the world. Flights are expansive moments when the phone doesn’t ring and the Internet doesn’t work. The maxim that flying time is wasted time liberates me from my anxieties and guilt feelings, and it strips me of all ambitions, leaving room for a different sort of existence. A happy, idiotic existence, the kind that doesn’t try to make the most of time but is satisfied with merely finding the most enjoyable way to spend it.
The “I” who exists between take-off and landing is a completely different person: The in-flight “I” is addicted to tomato juice, a drink I wouldn’t think of touching when my feet are on the ground. In the air, that “I” avidly watches mind-numbing Hollywood comedies on a screen the size of a hemorrhoid and delves into the pages of the product catalog kept in the pocket of the seat in front of me as if it were an updated, upgraded version of the Old Testament.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the wallet made of rust-resistant steel fibers, material developed by NASA that guarantees that the bills in it will remain fresh a long time after our planet has been destroyed. Or the cat toilet that sucks out the smells and is camouflaged in a plant, providing your cat with full privacy while it’s doing its thing and preventing unpleasantness for household members and their guests. Or the microprocessor-controlled antiseptic device that inserts anti-microbial silver ions to the tissue where you have a budding infection in order to avert the disaster of an open sore. I’ve not only heard of all of these inventions but can also quote from memory the exact descriptions of each of those products, including the various colors they come in, as if they were verses from Ecclesiastes. After all, they didn’t send me that Gold Card for nothing.
The truth is that I’m writing this column during a flight from San Francisco to New York, and I’m doing it with very uncharacteristic speed so that, in another few lines, when it’s finished, I can get comfortable in my seat again and browse through the in-flight magazine a little longer for an update on how many new destinations Continental will be flying to soon. Then maybe I can catch the last 15 minutes of The Blind Side, or I might go for some mingling on the line to the bathroom at the back of the plane. I have another hour and 14 minutes till we land, and I want to make the most of them. Later, when I leave the terminal, I’ll turn back into a normal, stressed-out person, but until then, I plan to lower the back of my seat and feast on the nirvana of thin air and salty pretzels.
Translated by Sondra Silverston.