Thursday, March 8, 2012

Arrivals and departures

I'm writing this in an airplane, flying from Newark to San Antonio. Effin air travel. It has taken less than a hundred years for the romance of flying to have devolved into a tedious means of getting from point A to point B. Like all human strivings, dreamed of for eons, flying provided a fit subject for inspired art and powerful myths. Angels and demons, Icarus and Pegasus, flying carpets and wing├ęd chariots. What child didn't want to soar? I grew up near Roosevelt Field and heard early on the story of Lucky Lindbergh, sat in the cockpit of a WWII fighter, and was allowed to handle the controls of a Piper Cub bouncing over the green Poconos. I doted on Jules Verne.

Well, we reached our goal: people, unlike pigs, really can fly. Human ingenuity and skill built this plane. It is a technological marvel that my parents, let alone the generations before them, could not envision, no matter how hard they might've tried. And yet how boring it is, and how great an affront to the senses. The very experience -- once dreamt of as exhilarating -- is anti-sensual: confined in a cramped, airless, and colorless metal tube, severed from the world of sensation, I type on a laptop keyboard as though I were at a workstation back in the office.

The fact that there are no distractions may be the only good thing about hurtling through Earth's atmosphere in enforced isolation on a 737. One can read or write uninterrupted, a godsend for a publisher inhabiting a noisy world. I wonder how many submissions have been read and judged in the sky? And how many manuscripts have been edited up here? Probably not enough, judging from the scheise passed off as books these days.

Yes, the goal of human flight has been reached and become a commonplace reality. Boredom has set in. It happens all the time. Worshipfulness becomes dogma, poetry becomes prose, songs become jingles, and a more perfect union is seen as a flawed social contract. The shining city on the hill has slid down an eroded slope into the valley of gloom. Who cares? We dreaming humans put it behind us, girded with biological optimism, and strive for something bigger and better, even if we can't precisely articulate it. Immortality? An end to suffering? Universal health care? Space colonies? More toys?

But I don't want to write about flying, or recycled dreams, or remote-controlled drones delivering killing payloads in a shadowy war against the Other, whoever the Other might be at any given moment. Wake up, mirror. Take a good look at the ass peering into your silvered glass.

Instead, I want to write about my fears. Whenever I hear bad news it reminds me of my mortality. A friend dies. A car crashes. Somebody's kid OD's. A marriage ends in violence. Someone gets a cancer diagnosis. Another one contracts a debilitating disease that too often signals the descent toward oblivion. I can feel it like a lead weight: that's where I'm headed -- oblivion. Inconceivable nothingness. My heart palpitates and my armpits drip. My face gets flushed and my scalp itches. I don't have time to think before I start praying, even though it's been a long time since I'd thought there was a god worth addressing. Not now, Lord, not me. It's pure reflex, up here at 34,000 feet.

Even if the landing gear on this plane doesn't open properly, I have to believe it will coast gently to earth and land safely on the runway of my dreams. Once we have touched down, the spirits of my ancestors will rise as one from the flat airfields of Europe and appear as banks of clouds portending clear skies and an early spring. The diabetics and the demented, the jaundiced and the martyrs, the ones who died in infancy and the elders who withered on the vine, those I knew and the multitudes I never even heard of -- I will call upon them to rise inside me. For they flow in my blood, whatever they believed, whatever lives they led. They will see that I am here, flying away from the past, flying toward the future. The bloody boring godless future.

Quist hated flying. He thought it broke a Promethean taboo. "Once men start fighting gravity, they're bound to lose their sense of being earthlings. Then who knows what kind of foolishness they'll get themselves into. Funny how something that was meant to bring people together has allowed them to live far apart." I hardly listened to him -- he was of an earlier generation that didn't have an easy relationship to technology. For him, airplanes meant war and crashes and noise. You could practically see the runways at Idlewild from his front stoop. Almost all the people who mattered to him lived nearby. But as I've gotten older, I find myself coming around to his point of view. There's not much up here for me, sitting on a plane, high above the plains, flying through the present. Not much at all.

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