The Other End of Sunset

Friday, April 07, 2006

What about the hamsters?

Another flight, another posting, that’s my story, and I'm sticking to it. How are you all?

I was in that lovely city in the Southwest again. For a few hours. I gave a talk, and did some interviews. I'm headed home, only to leave again tomorrow for China. I'll be in China for 4 days – including travel time. Should be fun. I’ve forgotten how long the flight is, but I'm fairly confident that it’s longer than the flight I am on now.

I have a lot of magazines to catch up on, and surely I have some work to do, as well. I think I might read a few technical reports from the place I used to work – there are some folks there doing some interesting thinking, and I want to get some of that stuff in my brain again.

I remember once, sitting in my soon-to-be-wife’s living room, on the sofa, with my feet up on the coffee table, staring off into space. She passed by doing something, and then passed again a few minutes later. On the second pass, she stopped, perturbed that I had not moved even a muscle. After watching me for a few seconds, she asked “What are you doing?” I told her I was working. And meant it. She started laughing. She didn’t know people whose “work” was not doing anything, really, but rather just thinking, converting some glucose into electrical potentials, calcium cascades, and general neuronal activity. But that was my job. And I was reasonably good at it. I understood why she laughed. It was funny. She was wonderful.

Most unlike the model America Worst flight attendant, apparently. So, on the way down, I had the opportunity to have a flight attendant who gave off the worst vibes EVER. I mean, clearly someone dumped their garbage on her front lawn, and painted her cat green, and called her a hag. She was acting like your favorite teenager at bedtime – slamming the overhead bins closed, bumping people with the beverage cart. It was weird – she was full-on throwing a temper tantrum. Wow. And nobody from the airline seemed to care.

I was in Group 6. Which means I got an aisle and there was NO overhead space left. I had a computer bag and a small rollaboard. As I came into the plane, the other flight attendant took my bag for a gate check. Ok, no problem. She took several more behind me – I was the first victim of “we are out of space”. As I walked down the aisle, I noticed several places where bags were in the bins the wrong way – rotating the bags would yield another space for a bag.

But grumpy hag was not checking for that. OK, no problem, my friend checked luggage anyway, so it won’t delay us on the other end. Sat down in my chair, lost myself in a familiar song, and waited. Then I noticed the attendants putting bags in bins, and then telling passengers “ok, your bag is over row 10” or whatever. Hey, great, I'd rather not deal with checked luggage if I don’t have to, so looks like I don’t have to!

But no, they checked ONE bag. Mine. First in, last out, apparently, is the queuing algorithm used. Darn. Oh well. The flight attendant responsible for checking the bag gave the gate check slip to grumpy hag. Who stuck it in her pocket and ignored it. I saw the interaction and sighed, internally, thinking that I then had to deal with the evil one to get my bag tag. After the doors were locked, I pushed the call button, and asked the (checking) flight attendant where my bag tag was. She rolled her eyes, and went to the grumpy lady, got my tag out of her pocket, and brought it to me. Even getting my bag tag involved drama!

OK, we land, and mosey down to the baggage claim area. No need to hurry, it’s going to be a while. As my friend and I are looking around trying to figure out where the bags will come, we spot a bunch of folks from our flight, earnestly looking through baggage from San Jose (according to the sign). Now, technically, SFO is not San Jose, but they are relatively close. Maybe it’s worth following the wisdom of crowds, and taking a look. Sure enough, there is my bag! Yippee. But my friend’s bag? Not so much. We wait, and wait, and wait some more. No joy. Then, we join about 10 others in line for lost baggage. The people behind the desk are nice, but slow. They can’t find my friend’s bag. And they have no idea when they will be able to find it.

My confidence is not increased when they tell my friend that the errant bag will show up on the next flight, which arrives at 10pm. The problem? There’s no 10pm flight.

So I got creative. While my friend waited, I wandered around looking at other bag ramps. Sure enough, there is the bag… unloaded from the Las Vegas flight. In other words, the ramp rats put the bag on the wrong carousel. Sigh. Anyway, the bag is found, and we head out to the rental car.

Surely, no more adventures, right? Well, no. We got to the rental car place – which seems to be in Tucson – and got into our non-smoking car. And started coughing. Apparently, non-smoking means something different to others than it does to me. To me, it suggests “do not smoke in this car”. Apparently, to some people, it means, “smoke in this car”. The car reeked. I mean, really badly. Like a smoker who hasn’t showered in a week.

Ok, yuck, but no problem. We’ll turn on the air conditioning to air the car out.

OMG, what IS that smell? The odor coming out of the vents was singularly awful. Like a dead thing was rotting in the blower. I thought my friend was going to vomit. No, literally. As in, I slowed down to stop and let my friend puke. Wasn’t necessary. Turned off air conditioning, opened windows (let the rain in, might help clean the car), and drove to the hotel for my talk.

Sigh. Lots of adventure just to hear me jabber for a few minutes. Anyway.

The flight home was oddly idyllic. Don’t get me wrong, it was on America Worst again. It turns out that they have added a 23rd row to their 737’s. Well, it is more of a row-ette, as it has even less room than a normal 737 row would have. It’s so small that I'm having trouble opening my Mac -- it’s hard to read an LCD screen when it’s not totally open. Sigh. And they don’t seem to have the cooling turned on for this flight. And the flight attendants care just about as much as they did on the way out, which is to say they are troglodytic in their hatred of passengers.

But that whining aside, it’s lovely. The skies have been so amazingly clear – I spent much of the flight looking out the window, at the earth 35000 feet below, seeing roads and rivers, farms and fields, mountains and valleys. And it is transfixing. We have just gotten to the ocean. I can see it in the distance, glistening in the sun, inviting. We are too high up to see waves, although I can see the white of waves breaking against the shore in the distance.

I think it’s amazing how we have shaped the earth. The farms, so orderly, and their colors so visible from above. The roads winding their way across the firmament with resolute intention.

But in the end, Mother Nature is better than we. Look at the empty spaces, hidden up in the hills. I can see them from the air, can you see them from the ground? What would it be like to be there? Can I take my motorcycle, or will that defile them? Are there actually roads, just sneaky small roads that aren’t as forthright as, say, the 5? Look at the clouds, nestled up against the mountain ridges, contained by them, as if the mountains are dams holding back water, or social mores holding back innovation. But eventually the wind comes, and blows the clouds over the mountaintops, shrouding the ground below, hiding it from above.

I was asked today how I measure creativity, and its value. I have no idea what that question even means, I must say. Creativity is good, is bad, and is neutral. It may benefit in the short term, or destroy in the short term, but in the long term it is all we really have. What does measurement mean?

By the way, I can now see the waves across the Pacific. Impossibly evenly spaced, the waves progress towards their doom on the shore. But they don’t care either, they go on forever, and will return. They were here, in one form or another, before I was here, and they will outlast me. Impermanence is a gift. Ask them.

We are starting our descent into SFO now. The cloud layer is below us now (it is San Francisco after all). Soon I'll be in my car, drifting through traffic, on my way back home. I think I'll listen to the radio, really loud. I think I'll roll my cuffs. I think the mermaid will sing to me.

And though the last lights off the black West went… the Holy Ghost with ah! Bright Wings will come again, over the bent earth, and clear the clouds away, and I shall see, again, this beauty. And I hope that I remember to appreciate it.