Sunday, January 29, 2017

Buds, Socks & Violence

In-Flight Sensorial Entertainment

The best thing to ever happen to an overseas flight.
I like flying. I always have. Despite the occasional and inevitable stresses, the idea-come-to-life of getting into a metal tube, taking off into the air and landing somewhere usually far away and sometimes worlds apart has never failed to stir something visceral and pleasing in me.

This morning, however, has been something else altogether. (If you read my last post you know what I’m talking about.) So as I sit restlessly in my seat in the waiting area outside Dulles Airport’s Gate 29, waiting for United Flight 803 to Tokyo to begin boarding, I look over at my family with the kind of pride that can only come from the fact that I haven’t strangled anyone today.

Two vinyl-cushioned seats to my right sits a woman who is also watching her kids – who, like my kids, are noticeably half not-Japanese. I imagine her husband is from an English-speaking country, which would virtually guarantee that she speaks English. This is because we English-speakers can only handle not speaking English for so long.

She looks calm though not completely at ease. Then again that pretty much describes every Japanese person alive. Still, we’ve got a good fifteen minutes before we go anywhere and I want to make use of this chance to meet someone new.

I like talking to people as much as I like flying. Because you never know who you’ll click with. You never know who will become a life-long friend.

You never know who might have a vacation house.

Plus, with a ready-made conversation (“So where are you headed?...Yes, I mean where in Japan?”) and a bunch of empty minutes to fill, I feel compelled to throw out at least a nugget of small talk because, to put it bluntly, I feel stupid if I don’t.

“Your kids are cute,” I tell her. It’s true. They are. They’re also a bit hyper but it’s a big plane, I’ll probably never see them again except maybe at baggage claim. (Cue ominous music.)

“Thank you,” the woman says, barely a hint of an accent. Which means her husband can probably count to ten in Japanese and not much more because (and I see it all the time in Japan) he doesn’t have to.

Our conversation inches along and I find out she went to university in North Carolina, where she met her now-husband – who is now returning from somewhere that, judging by his expression, was not particularly thrilling. I nod when we make eye contact. He nods back – I think – and turns a disinterested eye to his older daughter. She seems about six, the average between her 8-year-old height and her 4-year-old demeanor.

The woman tells me they live in Okinawa now, on the main island where she grew up. I tell her without a drop of false interest that I’d love to see a little bit of Okinawa… that I’ve been dying to check out Miyakojima and Iriomotejima Islands… and have been since I first got to Japan in 2001… because it all looks so beautiful and serene… and then of course there’s the Ryukyu culture… which must be pretty interesting…

And I wait…for a reaction…a small tinge of mutual interest…

“You should go,” she says, dropping her sentence off like it’s the end of our conversation.

So much for that vacation house.

My kids are being their usual sleep-deprived selves. My middle kid is walking up and down the rows of seats, slapping each empty one as he goes. His older brother is slouched in his seat on the other side of my wife, daydreaming and sticking his leg out every time his brother makes another pass. My daughter is singing as she goes through this sort of slow-motion interpretive dance routine entitled “Indecision”. My wife seems to be enjoying it, insofar as she doesn’t have to do anything about it.

At this time we’d like to welcome aboard our passengers who pay us extra money to make them feel special, as well as any families traveling with small children. Please make your way toward the gate so we can begin our pre-boarding. The rest of you, please stay in your god damn seats until we make our general boarding call.

They never say that last part but I think they should.

Up at the gate is a woman with a tightly-clipped ponytail and a voice that makes you wonder if she ate too many crayons when she was a child. Her job for the moment is to scan our boarding passes and our passports on a little white machine. My wife hands them to her and gets an immediate tongue-lashing. Show me your passports ONE AT A TIME, open to your picture, and with your boarding pass right side up NOT upside down.

To the passive observer this might sound like anger, or frustration, or a slowly percolating breakdown. But I know what it is – leftover burnt sienna and periwinkle.

Behind a partition wall no fewer than four people in wheelchairs are facing the gate, anxiously waiting to board. They’re all surrounded by sizable entourages, half made up of strangers who don’t want to wait for general boarding as if that will help them get to Tokyo any faster. The wheelchairs and the entourages are all in a clump, and there’s nowhere for us to wait but in the empty space between them and the gate.

The evil in their eyes abates when my daughter rolls her walker into view.

It returns when the rest of her entourage shows up.

As we all wait for someone to open the door to the jetway I decide that instead of letting these four groups of people pass I’m just going to board ahead of them. I know, this isn’t going to get us to Tokyo any faster either. We could board dead last for all I care. Of course it’s nice not having to apologize to thirty-seven rows of people for my son slapping their armrests as he walks down the aisle.

Propagating a Smelly Japanese Tradition

My first ever flight to Japan was a journey into novelty and odd habits. At the gate in San Francisco Airport a woman with neat black hair and a voice like honey was offering up all kinds of announcements in Japanese. People were bowing to each other, trading words I couldn’t comprehend. Everyone had clean luggage. Not since my last visit to the mall in New Jersey did I feel like such a minority.

On the plane I sat upright in my seat, jittery with excitement. I’d have talked to someone if I thought anyone could understand me. As it was I’d spend the minutes before take-off reveling silently in everyone’s odd behavior.

Some people were folding their jackets and tucking them neatly into the overhead like they were stocking the shelves at Nordstrom’s. Others were maneuvering their neck pillows into place, or straightening out the safety pamphlets and barf bags in the seat pockets in front of them. One of the flight attendants made her slow, smiling way down the aisle, passing out ivory white washcloths that had within the last eight seconds been dunked like spring rolls in a pot of boiling water. The flight attendant wouldn’t even touch them. She was using a pair of metal tongs to pass them out – into the bare hands of the passengers smiling all around me.

While I was playing hot potato with my scalding spring roll the Japanese person across the aisle calmly unrolled hers and began methodically wiping her hands. The man next to her buried his face in his before caressing his throat and neck with it. A bald man three rows up tossed his steaming cloth into the air and started shining his tan-yellow dome.

My fingers were starting to blister. What were these people, firewalkers?

Self-immolation exercises over, they all started sliding their shoes off. To my relief no flight attendants came down the aisle with a tray of hot coals. Instead my new friends simply placed their shoes neatly under the seats in front of them and got comfy for the ten-hour journey home.

Now that, I thought, is more like it.

I’ve been flying with my shoes off ever since.

Much to the chagrin, perhaps, of those seated near me.

I was up this morning at 4:15, dressing myself in warm clothes and caffeine so I could drive my sister to Newark Airport for her little flight back to California. (Six short hours and three measly time zones. Pshaw.) By 5:00 I was on my way back home to dump my own family into a van with all our stuff to go right back Newark Airport. From there we flew to North Carolina where we had to make a run for our next flight to Washington, DC where we then had to go through security (where they don’t even make you take your shoes off anymore, how’s that for ironic?) and find our way to our next gate – which was, of course, at the far end of the terminal, nothing beyond it save for the window that kept my daughter from launching herself right out onto the tarmac.

Almost a full eight hours in these socks. Another eighteen to go. I sat in the waiting area near our gate, trying to land a free vacation house and dying to free my feet from their sticky, sweaty straightjackets. Whoever was going to be sitting next to me on the plane would do well to have a stuffed up nose.
I can handle the flight. My feet can't.

And look! Who’s sitting next to me? My new sort-of friend from Okinawa!

“Time to relax for a bit,” I say, smiling, hoping to share a bit of light-hearted commiseration.

“Unfortunately we have to fly to Okinawa after we get to Narita,” she says.

I offer her a trade, her flight to the sub-tropics for my drive north to freezing Fukushima.

That free vacation home was obviously not meant to be.

I kick my shoes off and get comfy.

And Now to Cover My Ears

I’m in the middle seat in the middle section of the plane. My daughter is in the aisle seat to my left, saying no to every kids movie and cartoon on the in-flight entertainment menu. The next twelve hours should be fun. Her mother is across the aisle, an empty seat between her and the girl at the window. My boys are right behind me and Little Miss Thumbs Down.

We only bought these plane tickets a month ago so the seating arrangement is actually quite fortuitous. It’ll be even better if the wife trades places with me at some point.

My kids’ excitement about the in-flight entertainment free-for-all was equaled only by my excitement about the free in-flight beer. I decided I’d leave them alone if they’d do the same for me.

Yeah right.

I’d barely polished off my first can of Goose Pilsner when my daughter broke the beautiful silence between us.

“Daddy I can’t…” She doesn’t know how to say what she wants so she starts jabbing at her touch screen. This, I take it, means she’s bored with the cartoon she’s been watching for fifteen minutes. In German.

While packing for our return to Japan I found an old pair of headphones – from my son’s school on Long Island I think. Finders keepers. I stuck them in my carry-on. Now, with everyone else trying to keep those silly little ear buds from falling out of their ears I’m setting up for some in-flight surround sound.

That is, until Little Miss NichtvergnΓΌgen tells me her silly little ear buds won’t stay in her ears. (“Daddy, this… um… mimi kara ochiru” to quote her verbatim.) And since I’m Dad of the Year again I give her mine. And ask her to listen in a language she understands.

So much for my in-flight surround sound.

Reason #465 I love flying: the chance to see a few movies I’ve never seen.

I like movies. Some of them I love. But life comes with about eight hundred thousand options for spending any given two hours, and for me watching a movie rarely ranks high enough to get a turn. Same for TV, particularly now that all but about four of those eight hundred thousand options involves doing something with my kids, doing something for my kids, or cursing while I’m cleaning up after my kids.

On a plane, however, my parental obligations are limited. The bathroom is back there, go for it; push this to play Dora…and this to change it to English; here use my headphones now be quiet and enjoy the show.

On a plane I tend to limit my parental standards as well.

Kids are finally fully occupied. Wife is more or less snoozing. And my feet are drying out and feeling great. I snag another beer, stick those cheapo ear buds halfway to my eardrums and get ready to dig into one of those television series people are always talking about.

Today I start with Game of Thrones. I’ll admit that until this moment I knew nothing about the show except (1) I was in the planetary minority for never having seen an episode, and (2) one of the characters is played by a guy I went to high school with. Okay, I didn’t go to high school with him, he was a couple of years ahead of me and I don’t think we ever spoke. All of which adds to my shame for (1).

And all right (3) I also knew that ‘Thrones’ (I can call it that now) takes place in a world without electricity, soap or blue jeans. Everyone (I imagined) wore animal skins and furs, and metal things meant to keep them from being impaled by other metal things wielded by other people in animal skins. So I could add ‘rules against impaling people’ to the list of things that didn’t exist in this world.

Still, I was not prepared for the opening scene of this particular episode. Holy Christ.

My barf bag goes flying as I whip my in-flight magazine out of the seat pocket to shield my daughter’s eyes from the carnage. Simultaneously I’m jabbing at the touch screen to make it all go away. My daughter gets nightmares if an episode of The Smurfs has too much Gargamel, this gorefest would send her into an irreversible clinical fugue.

Luckily she’s deep into her cartoon, where all the people and animals and furniture are speaking Korean, or maybe Hebrew.

I’m still clearing my own head of the carnage when the meal carts appear.
One of my five mid-flight snacks and my only mid-flight beer.

Reason #6 I love flying: the in-flight meals. Let me tell you why.

First off, it provides an excuse to order another beer. Second, I like food. Third, I actually like airline food. I do. Because it’s like Christmas, peeling back that aluminum foil cover to see what kind of surprise awaits inside. You can order the fish or the beef or the pasta or the Spanish omelet, but there’s no way you can predict what it’s going to look like. Just like traveling itself, enjoying your in-flight meal requires a certain amount of intrepidness.

One last reason I like airline food comes into play when I’m traveling with my kids. I don’t bother requesting kids’ meals, I just let those flight attendants bring them the real deal. Which they can rarely finish without my help.

The downside to mealtime on a plane – in the middle seat of the plane’s middle section between two women who are in no rush to clear their plates and return their trays to the upright position – is that I’m stuck in my seat. Might as well have my seatbelt on though I can’t even shift enough to pull it out from under my butt. So as much as I look forward to eating, soon enough I can’t wait for it all to disappear. My desire to get up and stretch is always – always – at its highest when I can’t.

The real-time flight map puts us over the Hudson Bay. I suspect this means a view of gray water or a view of gray clouds. In December the Far North doesn’t exactly sparkle with sunshine.

Six miles below the emergency exit window the waters of the Hudson Bay are indeed dark and gray, running in long crooked lines through a vast mosaic of ice floes. As far as I can see the world down there is made up of nothing but sheets of white and streaks of liquid charcoal.

There can, in nature, be beauty in monotony.

The flight attendant in the kitchen area behind me asks if I’d like a cup of coffee. I say yes, because she seems genuinely happy for the chance to pour me a cup of coffee and because I figure it will help keep me awake so I can enjoy another Goose Pilsner.

Back in Row 38 my boys are turning into screen-watching zombies and I tell them to take a break. For the first time in their lives they agree, without argument or hesitation. It’s like they want to stop watching but have been rendered helpless by their glowing, pixilated masters, destined to remain frozen and staring until someone comes along and says the magic word. They’d both doze off in the next ten minutes. Which means they’ll rest their eyes, they’ll rest their tired systems, and they won’t be downing any Cokes for at least a couple of hours.

My daughter, on the other hand, is already unconscious. This is good. Half of her unconscious self, however, is on my seat. This is bad. My wife has her feet up on the empty seat next to her. She’s out too. Finally, a chance to sit and relax and enjoy my flight with absolutely no interruptions – and I’ve got no place to sit.

Not true, actually. I have the front half of my seat. Which means a close-up look at the opening scene of another movie I’ve decided to watch: Lincoln.

This graphic bit of cinematography is unlike the beginning of that Game of Thrones episode in that there are hundreds more men, much more civilized in their textile uniforms as they brutally slaughter each other. I shut it off and look for the Smurfs.

Instead I find the funniest television show ever conceived: Impractical Jokers. This sort of artistry demands proper viewing. Read that as justification for saying Screw it, if my daughter is that tired she’ll sleep through this. I lift her head, shoulders and half her torso off my seat so I can slide in under her. She lets out the obligatory whimper and falls silent again, her head on my lap and her feet sticking out into the aisle.

The next hour of Impractical Jokers is pure revelry. The woman next to me seems unnerved by my laughter. Serves her right for not inviting me to Okinawa.

I pass on a movie involving Denzel Washington and a big gun and flip open my copy of Hemispheres,United’s in-flight magazine. We’re still a few days shy of New Year’s but the January issue is already out. They must have read my breakdown of the December issue.

My thumb stops on a page advertising a gadget that, as far as I can tell through all the platitudes and eco-fluff, is a solar-powered remote-controlled module thingy that you can connect to your ‘smart home ecosystem’. In other words, you can now use ecologically responsible solar power to turn on the microwave, the toaster, the blender, the television and all the lights in the house ten minutes before you pull into the driveway.

Not surprisingly there are ‘a great deal of people eager to get on the waiting list for this product before it becomes a worldwide craze.’

Yes, this is just what billions of people across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian interior have been pining for. Along with maybe food, clean drinking water and band-aids.

We’re well up into the Arctic Circle when I slide out from under my daughter (whimper, shift, keep sleeping) and go back to my window at the emergency exit door. Below us the world is pitch black. Up above the universe is even pitcher black. Straight ahead, a few thousand miles beyond the light at the tip of the plane’s wing, a horizontal strip of blue splits the blackness in two. The bottom edge of this streak of heaven is lined in orange. This is the edge of the Earth, the top of the world, hiding a sun that now hangs above the Indian Ocean, or maybe Sri Lanka.

Literally, the top of the world.
Like everyone else who isn’t a vampire I’ve seen thousands of sunsets. But somehow, seeing the sun’s last rays over the western horizon is nothing like witnessing that same sun throwing its light up over the top of the world. If you’ve never seen it I highly recommend it. (If, once you see it, you aren’t wholly moved and impressed that’s fine I guess. Just don’t come crying to me for a refund.)

Behind me the flight crew is preparing our mid-flight snack. If my kids are still sleeping I get to eat four of whatever they’re serving. I look over at my wife when I get back to my seat.

Make that five.

The downside is that the flight attendant serving the drinks won’t give any of my children a Goose Pilsner with their snack.

My female not-quite-friend from Okinawa is gone from the seat next to me, replaced with her husband. I ask him where he’s from although I already know from his wife. I ask him what sparked their move to Okinawa (where, I know, his wife is from). I ask him how he likes it and what he does.

Exhausted from the string of two- and three-word answers he’s given me, he doesn’t ask me any questions.

Still on the list of in-flight movies I want to see is The Reverent. I know less about this flick than I did about Thrones. (I didn’t go to high school with Leonardo DiCaprio so I feel no shame about it.) Actually, I know nothing about this blockbuster (was it a blockbuster? I don’t know.) except at some point our hero Leo is going to be out in the cold, probably for a long time.

What is it with United and their fetish for gore-laden movies? Where’s Adam Sandler when you need him? Good lord.

My daughter is stillsleeping, in the same position she was in when I left her. So how the hell did she get all tangled up like that in her headphone cord? It takes me thirty minutes to extract the thing from her curled-up body and the blankets and pillows she’s unconsciously commandeered. And all throughout I’m glancing over at Leonardo and his not-nice friends. I don’t know what any of them are saying, though it’s easy enough to guess.

Holy shit, those people are coming to kill us!…Holy shit they killed a lot of us!…What are we going to do with these bear skins? Leave them here. No! Yes! No! Yes! No Yes No Yes Holy shit here come more people to kill us!…

By the time I pull the headphones free from the static lump of chaos that is my daughter and her debris Leonardo is all by himself so no one’s saying anything. Then the bear shows up so at least I get to listen to the growling and grunting and (insert gerund for whatever Leonardo is doing as the bear rips into him).
Rare nobody-getting-an-arrow-to-the-face scene from The Reverent.
For the last twenty minutes Mr. Motormouth’s older daughter has been sitting on his lap. She’s facing away from me, so she hasn’t been able to see all the people on my screen getting an arrow in the face.

She also isn’t able to nail me with any of the vomit that is suddenly shooting out of her mouth. This isn’t a mouthful of spit and bile from the recent bit of turbulence. This is a scene from the Exorcist. What has she been doing, chugging Goose Pilsners?

By the time she’s done dad has about a quart of putridity spread quite impressively over a large portion of his t-shirt and jeans. He puts his movie on pause and Denzel Washington freezes, right in the middle of shooting a bunch of people in the face.

After an hour of fun involving the interminably upbeat flight crew and a bunch of spray bottles with biohazard symbols on them, only a couple of water stains and the faint odor of half-digested mid-flight sandwich remain. That and a plastic garbage bag with dad’s clothes in it. He’s back in his seat, in shorts and a sweatshirt, likely wishing he’d just stayed in North Carolina.

It’s around 8pm New Jersey Time. That makes it 10am in Japan. That also makes it 36 hours without sleep save for the few minutes I might have dozed off before my alarm went off at 4:15am. And really, it’s no big deal. Because even if you take away all the movies and food and free Goose beer, I love flying. I love living the fantastic idea of stepping into a metal tube on one side of the Earth and, a bunch of hours later, stepping out into the other. I love looking out over the world, at ice floes and endless clouds and the orange line of the light of the sun streaking across the infinite black universe.

Despite the inevitable stress and the moments of quiet rage and the silly ear buds, I love it.

We’re flying over Japan, south along the eastern coast that dips in and out of view beneath my
I spent eight years of my life down there, somewhere.
emergency exit window. Out the window to the west a hundred thousand clouds float above the mountainous snowscape of the Tohoku region, where for the better part of eight years I spent my time living and teaching and cycling and exploring. And still, just in this one part of Japan there’s still so much I haven’t seen.

Back at headquarters the kids are awake. Bleary-eyed and disoriented, they seem unsure about whether they want to bring their television screens back to life. Mr. McVomit is back in his original seat in the row in front of me, watching the Simpsons with a pair of pink headphones on. Probably took them from his daughter for her Exorcist routine.

We’ll be eating again shortly. I will be, anyway. No guesses as to what the kids will do. Then it’s all procedure: fill out the customs declaration card (one per family), pass through immigration, collect our baggage and hitch a ride back to J-Parking where our van will be waiting.

My wife will have stashed two cans of Goose beer in her carry-on. I’ll want to guzzle them and fall asleep in the passenger seat.

But no. Because being Dad of the Year comes with no reprieve from responsibility. So I will drive as we head north toward Tohoku, the land we just flew over, to go stay a few days with my wife’s parents at their home in Fukushima.

The kids are rested and happy. My wife is not driving and happy.

It feels good to be home, on the other side of the world.

Hello again, Japan.

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