Of your brain on transatlantic airtravel

Dearest readers of mine, yet again I am in transit!

I arrived in the fine city of Amsterdam on Wednesday morning. I passed just a few quick days in that gem in the crown of enthralling European cities before heading to Rotterdam (where I currently sit) for what has proven to be a very engaging event at the Piet Zwart Institute. On Tuesday, I’ll move on to Berlin. More will follow on these ventures, I promise. For now, though, because I am only just now recovering from my jet-lag, I wish to tell you that air travel really screws with your brain.

It is, in a word, insane that I awoke in sunny Los Angeles and, some 24 hours and change later, I snuggled into a hotel bed on an entirely different continent. That such materially and existentially challenging movement was made possible by a jet the size of a large house (and made of extremely heavy parts) which shuttles its delicate carriage through the air, actually flying, at inhuman speeds is proof enough of the schizophrenic nature of contemporary travel.

For this, and perhaps many other reasons, it isn’t surprising that air travel does weird things to people. I’m not going to list all of the varied phenomenological and ontological upheavals excavated in us creatures by such travel. This is a topic for a much more studied, extensive volume. Instead, let me just point to one curious and mesmerizing phenomena: in-flight entertainment.

In-flight movies pull at human heart-strings in ways cinema on the ground does not. Seriously. The worst possible movies can make you ache with appreciation for the universal human condition. Or quake in terrible fear at the coming apocalypse. Or whatever.

You don’t have to believe me alone (or the fact that I once cried watching the abomination known as Glitter on a plane). Just Google it. Reuters, CNN, even This American Life have commented on the bizarre way we emote, rocketing forward some thousands of feet above the earth, while we watch movies that rank among the worst products of the American culture industry.

There are any number of theories (as far as my minimal research into the matter has discovered) about why it is that we feel so deeply as we stare at a screen, crammed next to rows upon rows of strangers, while we’re traversing the planet at high altitudes. Because the format of the blog seems so often to be confessional (and because certainly this particular blog is) I will add my entirely subjective, experientially rooted theory into the proverbial hat as well: We cry or cackle or desire as we watch the well packaged, corporate-sponsored drivel on the screens before us in our tiny seats because such drastic spatial transitions highlight, in a way no other means of travel seems to be able to, the temporal. Anything that truly brings the temporal into focus must bring with it the ephemeral and we know that once we’ve alighted on the ephemeral we have, alas, begun to share a little bit of space with our own, inevitable (if eventual) dissolution, decay, death. Death is the absolute universal. Or so, at least, I am told. It is the thing which binds all creatures, one way or another, to each other. It is the un-narratable experience we all will, none-the-less, share. If in high-speed, above-the-planet transitionality we are aware (consciously or otherwise) of our very material mortality then all stories to which we can even vaguely relate sparkle with the common. Death links me, weirdly, to Mariah Carey. So in that moment, careening at a pace I cannot conceive toward Paris from Los Angeles, I buy it. I buy her plight. I long for her success. I weep, awed, that she could achieve such glory in the face of such adversity.

If this seems hyperbolic, so be it. I tend (oh readers, as if you don’t already know) toward grand gestures. But what, I ask, is grander than a metal capsule in the sky packed full of us headed off that we may live (and die)? And what greater gesture of our shared precarity could any among us make than to feel and feel deeply when a story about living in whatever possible way, stripped thought it may be of criticality, is offered to us?

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