I wish I could enjoy flying the way my son does. His jaw-dropping, wide-eyed, finger-pointing spirit is unfettered by the procession of nuisance that precedes, co-mingles, and succeeds the actual flying part of flying. It’s all miraculous to him. The airport, the trains, the cars, the planes, the monitors, and the baggage trucks are woven together for him like a grand opera. Each of these elements, however insignificant, is like a two-bar oboe introduction to a prima donna‘s aria – often unheralded yet absolutely essential. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times on a single trip they make us deplane and re-board– he’s enchanted.
The same cannot be said for me. Rather than seeing an intricately coordinated ballet of astounding technology, machinery, and humanity, I see my wasted time and money. I don’t see like a child. I think like a bloated consumer, annoyed at how much I’ve spent to sit in uncomfortable chairs, overpay for unhealthy food, wait, wait, wait, board, deplane, board again, lose feeling in my legs, and eventually land. Hardly an artistic experience, unless I was at a Bjork concert or Matthew Barney exhibition.
But somehow, despite the airlines’ best/worst efforts, I try to think of something other than myself on the flight – if only for a few minutes until they bring the sodium bag that’s called “snack,” or some other inanity. In those few moments, I think about how for millennia humankind looked to the sky and dreamt. They painted pictures, wrote stories, developed whole mythologies, all centric around the notion that one day man would fly. Journeys that would take those dreamers a lifetime take us a few hours. I imagine they would have given up much to experience that which I take for granted and even berate at times.
What happened to my child-like wonder? Why can’t I be more like my young son, even as I try to teach him to be more like me (in the not-pooping-in-his-pants, self-reliant way, not the “hey,-aren’t-I-awesome-I’m-gonna-teach-junior-to-be-just-like-me way)? [note: His name is not junior.]
Perhaps this parenting thing will rekindle my enjoyment of the small things, help me see the special in the ordinary.
In fact, it was on a flight not too long ago that I noticed something I’d never noticed before. I’m familiar with lifting up on the buckle, finding the nearest exit, the price of adult beverages, pretending to lower my seat back in an apparently courteous fashion even though this action will swallow huge portions of the other person’s dwindling legroom, putting my mask on first (to be clear: I have never had to put on the mask, but in theory I know how to do it since I’ve seen many flight attendants half do it), Skymall Syndrome, the great steakhouses and best plastic surgeons in North America (once again, the latter not from experience), fake Mensa quizzes, half-finished Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and the layout of noteworthy US Airports. But one item I had paid little attention to are the “radio” stations. I knew that on most flights one could plug those weird, two prong headphones (I wonder if they shrivel up and disappear like the Wicked Witch of the East, or magically turn into one-prong headphones if you take them out of their element?) into the armrests. What I hadn’t known was that the reason one would plug in those bizarro headphones – when there wasn’t a terrifically bad movie to watch – was to browse airplane FM.
Since my wonderment goggles are still a little fogged up with adulthood, I was especially skeptical about the time-worthiness of spending a portion of the flight I had allocated for sleeping (ahem, all of it), listening to “who knows what” kind of garbage.
It took a minute to figure out how to take my headphones out of my iPhone (I don’t think I’d ever done it before) and jerry-rig the one-pronged cord into the two-pronged jack. But once I’d accomplished that minor mechanical miracle, my eyes got really wide. I had providentially tuned into a station playing jazz (a favorite of mine). I listened, and listened, and kept on listening while song-after-song my jaw dropped ever more open. As I changed stations to explore this new world, I was more and more enchanted.
In our personal, digital, music player, iTunes era, it is rare that we hear any music we don’t specifically intend on hearing. Even if we “shuffle” or use Pandora, we are still in the musical pilot’s seat. But on that day, on that plane, someone else was choosing what came next in my ears.
It was refreshing. All I could change was the channel. Otherwise, I was totally at the mercy of the curator the airline hired (or outsourced company hired) to assemble play lists for those few passengers who bother listening to anything other than the music boxes in their pockets and purses.
That wonder-filled experience was undoubtedly crushed too early by the unfortunate reality of air travel, but I don’t remember that part of the flight. All I remember is how much I enjoyed the simplicity of listening to music and the mystery of what was coming next. I was more like my son than ever in that moment (you’ll be glad to know that I had not forgotten how to use the lavatory though). I was flying, for the first time in a long time.
The next time you return your tray table to its upright and locked position before takeoff, glance around your armrest for two puzzling little holes, plug in, and fly away.