Riding in Airplanes #2: On With the Story (And Full of Hot Air)

Dear CF,

I had intended to do at least two Riding in Airplanes posts in this little series. The second installment was going to be about the intimate conversations we have on planes with total strangers. Some coincidences have, well, incided that plan. So I’ve lazily decided to organize this post according to coincidence, which the OED defines as “the notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connexion” or, alternately, “Falling together.”

Coincidence the First: I saw the movie Up, which has lots to say about fears and flying both, though not in connection with each other. It also deals pretty eloquently with the problem of what makes us happy. Moreover, it does in miniature (and in 3D) what the “What Makes Us Happy” article does in The Atlantic: show you (albeit in dumbshow, and in sunnily idealized form) the trajectory of a life in its entirety with its attendant emotions, and asks what one has to ask after watching a story end: Now What?

If Star Trek’s plot is driven by dead women, so is Up‘s. But the latter has that rare and ineffable thing: respect for story and for audience. It’s not perfect: the movie retreats a bit from the near-Chekhovian territory of its real-life premise.  In deference to young viewers it refrains from pushing through the really grim questions—for example, where Frederickson will live and die, a problem which hovers like, well, a big blimp in the background and seasons the whole escapist adventure with poignancy—but it rather beautifully lets Frederickson let go of all those dreams deferred. (This isn’t About Schmidt.) Still, it gives two really deserving protagonists a way to channel, fulfill and (maybe most importantly) attenuate their visions so they don’t explode. The Spirit of Adventure gets deflated, but there’s remarkable beauty and power in balloons. If only Nero had had a chubby young scout stowaway aboard his ship!

(It’s also—and this is fodder for another day—an interesting counterpoint to the way in which excellence, mediocrity, godgiven talent and work are treated in The Incredibles.)

One last thing: an important maternal character in the bird is misnamed Kevin by the kid. I like this little acknowledgment of Pixar’s tendency (and maybe young boys’ tendency) to see an initially unsexed character as male not through malice but because that’s the unmarked choice.

Coincidence the Second: I read a short story by John Barth called “On With the Story.” It will not be clear why this is a coincidence until I tell you my plan.

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Tuesday, Nov. 4

Dear one,

I spent most of Monday soaked to the bone and made my nightly pilgrimage home in a drenched but thoughtful mood. It was dark thanks to Daylight Savings, and it’s not often that I walk down twilit Telegraph Avenue. Usually an aggressive, elbow-happy, passing-lane-for-pedestrians sort of street, in which eye contact is at a premium—the minute you lock eyes, you’re passing or not-passing someone a dollar, or signing a petition, or refusing to buy incense or crystal skulls, or refusing to pose for sketchy photographs—Telegraph Ave. Monday was slick and wet, populated but preoccupied. I had the novel experience of walking home a ghost, maybe the way you felt in your car, with the radio on, sensing the city but remaining for the most part refreshingly unfelt. Invisible, anonymous. Not defensive, not aggressive or impatient or tunnel-visioned or even cold and wet. Just passing through, unhurried, seeing things and letting the fight out of each step.

Tuesday, I woke up overfilled—I use the word advisedly—with the unfamiliar strength of having slept really well.  Drool-into-your-mattress well. It was a sunny clean day. I made tea. I watched Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. Wanted to see them urge us “youth” to vote, wanted to see them lose control just a little bit. I felt elated. Everything glimmered. I knew it would be one of those ultimate days. Couldn’t quite tell if it the prophetic dimension of the feeling was specific to me—that is, to my particular life story—or to our exhausted national stage, but the conviction was intensely, personally felt. This was going to be a day I’d never forget. Didn’t know why specifically (had hopes, of course), but there was no anxiety, not the shadow of a doubt in my mind. I was just waiting for a dream of a story to play itself out.

Voted at an actual polling place for the first time. Mine was around the corner from my house at a middle school. Listened to Michael Jackson’s Black or White as I got ready, was listening to AC/DC when I walked in. Almost tore through my ballot connecting the beginning and end of the Obama-Biden arrow. I love that arrow.

I hate to harp on walking, but I have to tell you what it felt like to walk up Telegraph afterwards. I don’t enjoy walking to work. My bag is heavy on one shoulder and strains by back, my knees are always a little cramped and stiff from sitting (sloth being our watchword in academe), and I’m never at ease on my way. My stomach is in the clutches of the purely personal, slightly pathetic and sickly anticipation of seeing someone I find pretty. I’m in the throes of various physical and intellectual flavors of self-consciousness. (An example: I tend to walk like a camel, and sometimes I catch glimpses of myself in the storefront windows, bobbing absurdly against the backdrop of Amoeba Records.)

Tuesday the wind was blowing my hair back, out of my face. I had incredible forward momentum. Felt like I was in a movie. I locked eyes with everyone on the street—old men, students, vagrants—and people big-broad-goddamn-can-you-believe-it-smiled.

Got to my place of work exploding with energy, screeched at people in the library. Punched a friend. Ran (literally) up and down the halls of my building. Had lunch with the friend I punched, spilled egg salad all over myself. Walked back to work way too fast—she had to ask me what the hurry was.

I’d planned to attend an election party in the city, hosted by a friend of a friend who works for Google. The linking friend thought we might get along. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of having to be “on” and living the night with strangers.

Instead of walking home I walked to the park around the corner where I stood for a long time listening to music and watching the dogs run around, dribbling balls and jumping around each other. How much fun it must be to be a dog.

I told my friend about my reservations for the evening and she felt the same way. We wanted to stay in the East Bay. Home, as she said. So she called a friend with whom she’d promised to spend the evening too. We told him our thoughts, and he suggested we get takeout and booze and he’d let us in to Pixar, where he works, where we could WATCH THE ELECTION COVERAGE BY JON STEWART AND STEPHEN COLBERT ON A TWENTY-FOOT SCREEN IN A THEATER. JUST US.

And so we did. I have pictures of me with Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc to prove it. There are blue velvet couches. And air hockey. And ping pong. And fabulous water-saving bathrooms where you pull up for number 1 and down for number 2.

When Jon Stewart announced the outcome, I spent the next thirty minutes choking back tears. I’m so happy Jon got to make that call, and that we got to watch him make it. We had champagne. We ate Indian food. My friend spilled the champagne. I sat in the Indian food. I don’t know if we’ll ever be invited back, but oh, was it an experience.

It was strange, in the immediate aftermath, to switch to CNN and see the footage of the reactions. The footage was so moving, and the narratives by pundits, journalists etc. were so jarring. I wanted them to shut up. I wanted them to shut up.

After watching the concession speech (which moved me deeply—John McCain managed to add beauty to the evening and mustered real generosity of spirit) we watched Obama’s.

The snag in my Tuesday was this: I was so moved by his victory, and yet his speech left me cold. The end was better, but all in all I felt like he—or I—had slammed the brakes. The elation evaporated. Maybe it was too much champagne, maybe there was no way Obama could demonstrate in ten minutes the conceptual range I think he’s capable of. I don’t know why our insides work the way they do, but I was unmoved, even found myself giggling at one point (with my friend) at the sheer girth of the podium.

But oh, the fact of him there–the extraordinary rightness of the thing. The strange and wonderful tension between the image of this one man and the millions of people all over the country and the world, the hordes celebrating this achievement. The incredible voter turnout. To watch so many dishonest and criminal things crumble into incoherence and anarchy. To watch a vote count. To watch democracy redeem a country that had—in the last two presidential campaigns—redefined what “dirty politics” meant on both sides. To see the opposition concede with grace. To see this move, in subsequent days, towards unity, even from disappointed McCainers. It’s been astonishing.

We finished the evening driving through Berkeley, where everywhere cars honked and humans hollered “Obama!!!” Shout it through a window and it would come back to you in triplicate. We joined friends at the Albatross (remember?) and celebrated. Went home, where, exhausted, I immediately watched the coverage again.

At Cal, the students all congregated and went crazy. I wish I’d seen that.

The next morning I relived it all and spent the first hour of my day blubbering.

Having bored you with my story, allow me to tell you how thrilled I am that your talk with your students about abortion went well. What a victory, to create a classroom culture where you can converse and not dictate, where they trust you enough that they respond to you with openness, if not acceptance. That’s incredible.

Speaking of teaching, I taught a Dickinson poem yesterday–“I felt a Funeral in my Brain—” She writes about the mourners in her head, “treading–treading” in Boots of Lead. The walks to work are changed forever. Same distance, but a lighter step.

We have a new President.



(For other posts on Election Day see “And You?” and “To New Walks!”)