Monday, June 4, 2012

Things in My Cabinet: How to Forget That You Are Flying

For example, I would be so happy daydreaming while watching
these nice people paint this mural. It's at Caboose Cafe in
Ramsgate, England. They have storytelling there!
There are very few places in the world where it is hard for me to daydream. I need almost nothing: a single object can be the departure point of reverie for me. A cluster of glass bottles, a really smooth stone, an intricately carved box, a nice cafe to sit in, a tree, the rain, the colors of my curtains, the sun on the rooftops - all it really takes is something pleasant for my eye to touch upon, and I can unhitch my mind from its moorings and take it somewhere marvelous. The more lovely or intriguing the initial object, the more splendid the revery. Especially if I am writing - if I am in surroundings that are beautiful or interesting, I can write more beautifully; the words come easily, new images arise, I feel the satisfaction of capturing some small sense of the wonder of the world.

Unfortunately for me, this works inversely also: if I am somewhere ugly, I can't write anything. My imagination flutters weakly and dies. And this is a shame, because the ability to recall the beautiful is most of what keeps my soul from being crushed by the ugly.

When I say "beautiful" and "ugly" I don't mean anything canonically stupid like beautiful-gothic-church versus ugly-dirty-laundromat. "Dirty" isn't what I mean by ugly. "Broken" isn't what I mean by ugly. They're not, say, my favorite things, and I find laundromats pretty depressing for the most part, but I can find something in them: a story, a sense of humor, pathos, a feeling of humanity.

In visual terms, what I mean by "ugly" is something that my soul can't make any room for. Something my aesthetic sense just slides away from. Something my spirit can't quite seem to grasp.

Anything with a lot of molded plastic tends to fall into this category. That's the hardest thing about laundromats for me, the molded plastic, the sameness of the machines, the bland lighting.

It doesn't even begin to compare to the inside of an airplane.

Airplanes eat my soul.

This is from the Boeing website. Look, even
the edges of the picture are curved. For your
comfort and security, prob
We have this miraculous thing where we can fly around the world. In the air. You would think that we would enjoy this, really find this amazing. But if you're anything like me, you know it's amazing in some kind of hazy empirical way, but when you're actually on an airplane, it's almost impossible to really believe it. Of course, if you're afraid of flying, you're very VERY aware of being in the air, but only to the extent that you're certain you're going to FALL OUT OF IT IN A BALL OF SCREAMING FLAMES, despite the fact that this is highly unlikely. For most of us, barring the occasional bout of alarming turbulence where we all wonder briefly if this is It and then feel like dopes ten minutes later when the plane's still going, being on a plane is like stepping into a vacuum-sealed plastic box, sitting in it for several hours, and then getting out somewhere else.

I'm sure they do this on purpose.

There is nothing whatsoever on your average airplane to make you think of, well, anything at all. Airplanes are one of the blandest, most spiritually vacuous spaces on the planet. There's all the gently curved neutral-toned plastic with a texture that's just displeasing enough that you don't really want to touch it but not so displeasing that you feel anything as intense as revulsion. There's the seats that are slightly too static but not so much as to be thoroughly maddening. There's the dull palate of colors.

Good luck sticking this in your airplane.
Stream running through Lamar Valley,
Yellowstone National Park. Photo by
Ian Plant of Dreamscapes.
Interestingly, planes are one of the few normalized spaces in our lives that aren't rectilinear. Boeing, the major aircraft manufacturer, says this is for our comfort. I love curved spaces, as my passion for cob houses attests. But there are curves that are sensuous and earthy and remind us of the body. There are curves like the vaults of cathedrals that speak of space and holiness and the sky. There are curves like the meandering shapes of rivers.

I'm fairly sure that the curves on airplanes work along roughly the same psychological lines as the padding in a padded cell. They are there to neutralize. To keep us sedate. Right along with the hideous shade of blue they use for the chairs, which, according to Boeing, is associated with "peace" and "nobility". (You can't make this stuff up.)

Boeing also says, in the same article linked above, that they will soon be adding "three new sidewall motifs for airlines to select that repeat some patterns found in nature." If you haven't noticed any vaguely tree-shaped stickers on your plane walls recently, well, the article's from 2002. It read oddly like a dispatch from that ship on Frogstar World B that Zaphod wanders into.

I find that being inside an airplane simply shuts off my imagination. I can't bring my brain to break through the walls. Everything I look at is designed to essentially cancel out the radical thought that I am flying, or, really, doing anything at all. The eye glazes. There is such a spectacular lack of anything to look at that it's really kind of astonishing. I mean, where else do you willingly go that is so utterly devoid of any form of decoration, color, or visual interest?

Via Oldfool
Imagine if planes were more like the airships in a really good steampunk story. Beautiful brassworks. Paned glass. Spidery moldings. Inlaid floors. The world would look so beautiful below you. Imagine flying into clouds in a ship like that. It would be exhilarating, breathtaking. You would feel like you were doing something wonderful.You wouldn't want to land The whole sky would be a revelation.

Instead, you can't wait to leave.

To really and truly understand that you are flying, you need a certain amount of imagination, a certain suspension of the humdrum. The interior of the modern airplane is precisely designed to neatly squash our sense of wonder. What, I ask you, could be more dull? If the powers-that-be really wanted to destroy our minds, they'd put us all in little plastic boxes full of curved beige molding and ambient lighting and slightly uncomfortable chairs. The experience of joy would fall right out of our minds, and with it any reason to fight back. That is what I call ugly.

There are many horrible and dark and awful things in the world, but they animate us, they keep us going. Our horror, our outrage, our fear - not nice feelings, to be sure, but they keep us on our feet. What is ugliest of all is complacency. Complacency doesn't come from the prison or the war zone. It comes from the sick slick plastic of the inside of an airplane. Here we are, flying. FLYING. And somehow we don't spend our entire flight in rapture with our freedom from the earth. We hardly even know what's happening. The sound of the engines drowns out the silence of the air. The tiny windows gives us an occasional glimpse of cloud formations, like a nicely framed photograph. We admire them for a while, but the eye drifts away after a while, back into the cabin. We reject the lovely and the impossible because it's such hard work to look at it when the pleasantly dull reality of the space around us is lulling us back in. Most of the time we watch TV, or sleep, and wait for it to be over.

I had this idea that next time I get on a plane I'll bring a box full of amulets with me. Stone eggs. Bits of bone. Small bronze gods. Little bottles. A silk cloth. When they tell me I'm allowed to put my tray table down I'll take out the box and set up an altar. Some battery-operated tealights in ornate holders at the edges. Dried flowers in the bottles. A little water in a tiny terracotta bowl. A string of beads. I won't do anything with it. Just set it up, and leave it there throughout the flight. Write in my journal, read my book. And glance up every now and then to remember the world's out there, in all its wonder and it mystery, thirty thousand feet below my floating spirit. 


  1. It doesn't matter what they put on the walls, I will always be terrified of flying. It also seems to get worse as I get older, because I used to love flying when I was a kid.

    1. That's a shame. What did you like about it as a kid?

  2. Although I don't fear flying, I do have social anxiety so I don't look forward to the forced intimacy with strangers. I usually fall asleep on flights or I bury my face in a book.

    If you really want to feel like you're flying, jump out of the plane. (With a parachute, of course!)

    1. Ah, the forced intimacy. I don't have social anxiety but I don't love that part either. I was trying to stick to the aesthetic perspective (although seatmates can factor into aesthetic experience under certain unfortunate circumstances; I myself have terribly smelly feet, and it's always an agony trying to decide whether to get comfortable and take my shoes off and inflict the horror upon the person pressed up against me, or suffer with my shoes on for the sake of goodwill) but yes, it would be nice not to have the sardine experience. I know the cost of fuel is skyrocketing and packing us in as tightly as possible is part of what keeps plane tickets in the realm of the (barely) affordable, but yeesh.

  3. I haven't flown in years (and years), but I used to always enjoy it, especially if I was by a window. I'd really spend huge amounts of time with my mind out the window, and I loved take offs and landings for that reason. Flying into Salt Lake City (on the way to somewhere else) was really incredible with the lake, basically, up on a mountain. At least, that's how it looked from the air.

    However, I'm not fond of neighbors on flights. Well, when they want to talk to me, at any rate.

    1. I love flying in over cities at night. They look like jeweled crabs on dark reefs. But I have a hard time articulating what I see out the window, somehow, because the environment of the plane deadens my creative self so thoroughly. If I could just look at clouds for several hours without my eyeballs falling out, I probably would. But it can be hard enough (if you don't get exactly the right seat) to get comfortable looking out at all that I mostly just bring big stupid books along and think wistfully about things like holodecks for future sky experiences.

  4. I've done my share of reading while on planes, too.
    You know, we're probably not that far off from VR headsets.


Please do try to be thoughtful and considerate when posting comments, but we do love hearing what you think!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...