September 27th 2008 09:52 am



My latest trip, to Houston representing the Puente Project, got me thinking about the process of getting from one place to another which we call traveling.  While Odysseus, Hercules and Jason might have been among the first to complain that traveling has its drawbacks, the modern version is hardly less stressful.

George Bush IntercontinentalMy trip had two legs, a puddle-jump from Fresno to Phoenix and a somewhat larger jump to George Bush Intercontinental.  When I bought the tix (through Orbit), I didn’t know it was “George Bush” (its airport code is IAH, still) or I might have reconsidered.  In any case, I was jammed against a window on the first leg and jammed against the aisle on the second leg and it hardly seemed to matter which seat I got as they were all awful.  It was just like life in George Bush’s America!

But, like anything, awful is a relative term in this case.  Physically, the economics of flying favor diminutive people and most of us are not–hence, we are in each other’s space the whole way and getting upset about it makes little sense.  On my first leg, I was in the second row of seats (yea!), but in the first row was a squalling baby flying for the first time.  The person next to me apologized for elbowing me, saying something about not being a small woman.  For some reason, I was mentally unprepared for flying and I seemed to have packed things haphazardly.  I kept having to fish for my mp3 player and my book down in my laptop bag which required certain body contortions better suited to circus performers. My seat neighbor kept trying to engage me in conversation and though I really didn’t feel like talking, I eventually found myself enjoying the company.  The young mother in front of us breast-fed her baby most of the trip, which was both quieting and humanizing.  I realized (later) that much of my discomfort on the flight was ameliorated by small human actions:  personal connection and the seemingly insignificant, but generous acts we make toward each other without thinking about them.  The flight attendant had a wry humor as she recited, for what had to be the four bazillionth time, the preflight safety routine.  Although I immersed myself as much as possible in my book (Into Thin Air) Into Thin Airand music (godspeed you! black emperor), the flight was bearable not because I retreated from the human connection, but because I was drawn to it.

The second leg was worse, in one sense, than the first one.  Physically the seat was no larger than before and though I had an aisle seat, I was right next to a largish woman traveling with a very young, very active girl.  The woman’s husband and another, younger daughter were in the seats ahead of them.  The two girls refused to wear seatbelts and insisted on clamboring over the seat backs to sit next to a different parent every so often.  The girls taunted each other, screamed, flopped about, etc. and mom and dad were constantly busy attending to them.  I had seen the family in the terminal before the flight: the girls had little harnesses, a bear for one and a monkey for the other “hugging” them, and leashes (the tails).  A man near me asked aloud (out of earshot of the parents) if they were children or animals and someone answered “yes.”

Again, I retreated to my book and earbuds and shifted as far as I could toward the aisle.  Whenever the girls would scream out, I exchanged sympathetic glances with a woman across the aisle or the young woman in front of me who had to get out of her seat at various times to allow for bathroom trips.  I spent the whole trip pretty much avoiding contact with these people next to me–until we landed.  Then, as we taxied along the airport (for a long time), the husband asked me about the book I was reading.  He’d met Jon Krakauer, the author, who was apparently a friend or relative of a teacher he’d had.  The conversation that ensued wiped away all the unpleasant thoughts I’d had and I realized they were as trapped in this travel purgatory as I was, doing the best they could with their children.

Aircraft Interior DesignI read of travel-rage incidents and of drunken people duct-taped to their seats, of rock stars and models arrested and dragged off planes.  Travel is, frankly, awful and there is a special level of hell reserved for the designers of passenger aircraft cabins I am sure.  Somehow, though, my return trip was easier, even though I had worse seats.  I packed better, my bags fit better, and I even had an empty seat next to me for the final leg from Phoenix to Fresno.  I’d finished the Krakauer book in Houston and on the return, chuckled my way through a David Sedaris collection, a much more lighthearted read.  Was I of a more tolerant mind on the return?  More resigned?  I don’t know.  But I got home and my son recognized me and wife had successfully held off all suitors and if Odysseus asked for no more, who am I to complain?

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