'How are you doing?' was the first thing my mom said last week as I emerged from the Immigration & Customs Chamber of Secrets at Newark International Airport.
My first thought: Is my shirt still on inside out?
The trip from home in Fukushima to home in New Jersey takes 20 hours give or take, barring any minor setbacks - like missing my plane. This almost happened in 2003 when I decided to save 20 bucks and take the local lines from Shinjuku to Narita-in-the-Sticks instead of jumping the airport express in Ueno. An hour later I was squeezing the blood out of my fingers gripping the door handle as my unusually aggressive taxi driver hit the hyperspace button and somehow got me from the train I abandoned in a panic to Narita's Terminal One a full 20 minutes before departure time. Well worth the $120 cab fare. The good people with the plastic silver wings pinned to their crisp blue uniforms then whisked me through to my gate, virtually bypassing any sort of security screening procedure. If I ever turn terrorist, I thought, just get to the airport late.
This week was the first time I wasn't flying direct from Tokyo to Newark. Our two-hour layover in DC would, thanks to air traffic, become four and a half. After twenty-five hours on the move I bet even Superman might not have his cape on straight.
But I like flying. Even long flights. Especially long flights as it means I am spanning oceans and continents. And getting two full meals plus a mid-flight snack, most likely consisting of a mix of pulverized food and chemical glues and lacquers I wouldn't eat on the ground if I had a gun against my temple but I readily devour at 550mph and 30,000 feet. Plus flying, for me, constitutes a sort of mental rejuvenation process; a shift in environment that tosses my awareness into a sort of parallel bars routine where half my thoughts spin and twirl along the esoteric while the other half of me grips desperately to hard, uncolored reality - like how amazing is it that a plane this big and heavy can soar so high...and how equally amazing that if we were to suddenly find ourselves doing a screaming nosedive we are supposed to think that tucking our heads between our knees might help.
High above clouds, land and sea I find myself doing things I never do when my feet are on the ground (where human feet really belong if you think about it): I watch sit-coms, at least for as long as I can stomach the stupidity; I look for video games to play; I order ginger ale. These things, though, take a back seat to the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me.
Airline magazines are a breed apart - an ambitious mix of travel and artistic creativity, the two things I am constantly trying not only to incorporate into my life but assimilate into my very being. Like religion, for some people. Or facebook. The articles themselves run the gamut in both subject matter and delivery, and in the course of reading one of these magazines my belief in my own creative capacity is confirmed then destroyed then resurrected again, on occasion more often than the person in front of me with the eye shade thing and the self-serving inability to speak English will ease his seat back forward then slam it back into my knees.
Literary picking on this most recent flight included an overtly self-deprecating, subtly haughty bit from a guy who claimed to have flown over 100,000 miles by age two and thirty years later wasn't showing signs of slowing, as well as a fascinating article (fascinating in that the writer seemed to take both himself and his subject seriously) about an artist whose most recent accomplishment (according to members of certain twisted circles) consisted of an empty room with a clear plastic yogurt cap affixed to each of the room's four walls. Immediately upon finishing this second article I asked the flight attendant for four packs of peanuts.
Mind awash in conflicting visions of my own future, I ripped open the hermetically sealed plastic bag next to my thigh and plugged in my headphones. On every other flight between the US and Japan the plane had been equipped with personal TV screens for every passenger; today the whole lot of us would be subjected to the whims of the troll working the VCR down in the plane's bowels. I was neither overjoyed nor particularly despon to find the upcoming movie would be a more or less true story about a directionless young woman who, in a rash moment of direction-seeking, started a blog about her quest to cook up 547 new recipes in 365 days a la Julia Childs. In the course of her culinary pursuits she developed a following, wrote a book and, obviously, ended up with a movie.
Staring out at the crescent moon hanging in the deep blue of space, the fuzzy orange glow of the sun still hiding behind the gently curving line of the Earth, I thought about foreign lands and finished books. I pondered brilliance and banality. I connected imaginary dots between life in the present and life's incredible potential.
And I wondered what really, truly mattered to people.