Monday, October 17, 2011

Off Season Post 23: Lessons at 30,000 Feet

Hello, Readers. Welcome back to this week's post. I'm starting to wonder if, aside from the guy who screens this thing for inappropriately foul content from his cubicle located on the third floor of Blogger Headquarters in some Midwestern customer service center, anyone is actually reading anymore.

Before I wow you with some observations from seat 3A I’d like to announce the winner of the Truism Contest. There were a few dozen entries and I have to confess that the vast majority of them were good. In the absence of an objective test to evaluate that sort of thing my general rule is to advance the ones that make me laugh upon my initial read and then go over those in order to select a winner.

This week’s winner of the Truism Contest, however, is a person who I can’t identify. Because of the comment problem, the comment disappeared from the site. Luckily, it made it to my Blogger email notification before that happened. The winning Truism is: “Always Stay Two Drinks Behind Your Boss.” Brilliant. If the person who posted that could please come forward, I’ll arrange an autographed something or other for you. Thanks to all of you who played along. The decision was a difficult one. When all the cards were on the table, I selected this one because it is indeed universally true. Congratulations, Mystery Responsibly Drinking Reader. Now, to the air travel.

I've been preoccupied as of late. Like most of you, the biggest source of stress in my life these days is my day job. It wasn't always that way, but it's been that way lately. I've been traveling quite a bit and, although the trips are usually short flights within the Great State of Texas, being up and down on a airplane a few times a week is like going to bed with triplets: it's pretty entertaining at first but after a while everything tends to get jumbled together and eventually you'd rather just sleep than do anything else. It gets expensive too.

For those of you who travel frequently, you'll understand it when I say that my (our) experience at the airport, on the plane, and in a different city is far different than it is for the person who packs a suitcase once a year and rarely, if ever, flies.

It was the once a year traveler who was on my mind as I was hit with the idea for this week 's post. I was standing in the Big Shot line with my fancy ticket and my Get Out of Jail Free card waiting for the two people in front of me to get their respective ID's checked before I could get through for the elastic stretching of my Fourth Amendment rights by the TSA agents with the razor sharp minds and the doughy soft bodies manning the security stations.

By the way, it seems to me there should be at least a nominal fitness requirement for that job. After all, these are the people tasked with taking down international terrorists. Aside from simply falling on them or temporarily (and accidentally no doubt) obstructing possible escape routes, I'm not sure that many of the TSA agents I regularly encounter could do much else in the face of danger. In fact, a good deal of them look like that only thing they've spent any time trying to tackle is the beef lo-mien on the buffet at the in-terminal Chinese restaurant.

Notwithstanding my lack of faith in our government's best and brightest airport employees, I made a mistake that turned out giving me some good seeds to sow in the way of blog material this week.

Normally, as I walk into the airport I pull out my freshly charged and loaded iPod in preparation for my big trip. The ear buds go in the second I make it through security and they don't come out until after I land and make it to the exit of whatever airport I happen to be in that day. As I made it though security last week, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out my iPod. I was horrified to see that there was very little charge remaining on it. I assume my charger must have been unplugged; although I still haven't solved that mystery.

Regardless of how it happened, I was horrified at the possibility of facing even a short flight without the benefit of my iPod. Because my flight was boarding in less than 10 minutes, I had no time to put even a cursory charge on it.

I resigned myself to turning it off for the ridiculous instructional portion of the flight in addition to leaving it off until we hit 10,000 feet; you know, like Federal law requires. That way I'd have it for the bulk of the actual flight. Oh, and yes, I know it's against the rules to keep the thing on, but I do it anyway. That's not because I think I'm better than the next guy. I saw a Mythbusters once where they literally tried for an hour to take down a plane with a cell phone and an iPod. The iPod myth proved to be just that: a myth. My general rule is that if I get caught by a flight attendant astute enough to notice that I'm tapping my foot to the beat then I'll turn it off. Otherwise, like an ape in transport, the music soothes me.

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of times I've found myself in an airplane over the last few years, I rarely, if ever, listen to the preflight instructions from the flight attendants. You know, the ones where they pretend that they are "there for your safety" and that the arbitrary in-flight rules have been carefully created for a reason other than pacifying you into a false sense of safety.

My favorite instruction is the one where they start with "in the unlikely event of a water landing." First of all, commercial air liners don't "land" in the water; they crash in it. They should just call a spade a spade. If I'm 30,000 feet above anything and the pilot's only option is to put it in the water, we're not landing. That Sully guy might have done it once, but let's be honest. We're not going fishing in an isolated Alaskan village. Our plane doesn't have giant kayaks strapped to the bottom of it. The only true part about that statement is the word “unlikely.” It’s extremely “unlikely” that a jet liner loaded with people, fuel, and luggage screaming toward the open water is going to “land.”

Back to the other day.

I boarded and then I sat there annoyed at the prospect of listening to the Southwest flight attendant--who was an obviously homosexual man wearing those snug khaki shorts, a golf shirt, and some cute white ankle socks with his pristine white tennis shoes. I chuckled to myself at the thought of some sort of tragedy befalling the flight. "What is this guy going to do, shoulder carry me down the aisle through the flames and kick open the door in the event of a crash?" I thought. I had visions of him trying to save his accessory bag before me.

However, as I listened for the first time in a very long time to the instructions, it occurred to me that the preflight presentation given thousands of times a day to oblivious, cynical travelers like me who pay more attention to the status of the overhead bathroom light than they do anything else on the plane is the perfect metaphor for life. Let's break it down.

1. Like most things in life, the opening presentation is an event put in place by someone who doesn't know you and, in your absence, has decided what he thinks is best for you.

Life is filled with obligatory events and the best we can do is sit there quietly through most of them while avoiding the urge to bury a pencil in the nearest jugular vein--which sometimes happens to be our own. Still, hidden somewhere in the stack of garbage is occasionally a piece of treasure worth digging for. It's not often we find that treasure--on the plane or in life--but it's at least the belief that it's out there that keeps up in our seats, isn't it? I imagine that's what also keeps us from picking up that pencil.

Like fastening your seatbelt, stowing your carry on luggage in the overhead bin or beneath the seat, or powering down all electronic devices, our days are filled with rules we all have to follow. Most of those rules--absent the structure and uniformity they create--are meaningless. The real irony is that the people who create those rules are, in fact, responding to another set of rules created by another set of people in response to yet another set of rules about what the rules should be.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss was on to something in Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? when he wrote the following:

"Oh the Jobs people work at!
Out west, near Hawtch-Hawtch,
there's a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-watcher.
His job is to watch...
is to keep both his eyes on the lazy town bee.
A bee that is watched will work harder you see.

Well... he watched and he watched,
but in spite of his watch,
that bee didn't work any harder. Not mawtch.

So then somebody said,
'Our old bee-watching man
just isn't bee-watching as hard as he can.
He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawthcer!
The thing that we need is a Bee-Watcher-Watcher!'


The Bee-Watcher-Watcher watched the Bee-Watcher.
He didn't watch well. So another Hawtch-Hawtcher
has to come in as the Watch-Watcher-Watcher!
And today all the Hawtcher who live in Hawtch-Hawtch
are watching on Watch-Watcher-Watchering-Watch, Watch-Watching the Watcher who's watching that bee. You're not a Hawtch-Watcher. You're lucky, you see!"

Life is filled with a lot of Hawtch-Watchers. Stopping to remember that life tends to move forward whether we always follow the rules or not is often more valuable than always following the rules. Dr. Suess knew that. That’s why he was Dr. Suess.

2. There is one way on the plane but there are six ways off the plane.

Notwithstanding that annoying two finger point that the flight attendants use and undoubtedly have to master before graduating from wherever it is one goes to learn to be a flight attendant, I found this part of the presentation extremely enlightening.

Woody Allen once said that 99% of life is simply showing up. As true as that is, the hardest part about anything in life is the 1% of the time we are called on to act. It's those of us who take the most advantage of that 1% that leave a mark on the world--or more importantly, the people in our little section of the world. Being great is not about the showing up part; it's about what you do after you show up that matters.

On an airplane, there is one door that you must go through to get on the plane. In order to get to that door you have to get to the airport early, wait behind a lot of other people, plan accordingly, and rely upon more than one person to get you to the right gate.

Trusting others while being self-reliant is a difficult balance to strike and all it takes is one person with an ill will and you find yourself halfway across the airport at a different gate headed for a different destination. After that happens once, it's a bit tougher to rely upon the kindness of strangers. I believe life teaches all of us that lesson more times than we'd like it to.

Opportunities in life often have one, narrow, conditionally accessible way in and when we get there things often get difficult. When they do we tend to look for at least six ways out. Sometimes it's better to remain seated with your seatbelt securely fastened. In air travel as in life, bailing out too soon can prove disastrous. It’s always wise to figure out and remember where the exits are; however, it’s not always wise to run for them every time something seems wrong.

3. In the unlikely event of a cabin depressurization a yellow mask will drop from the overhead. Use the elastic strap to adjust the mask. Put on your mask first and then help the person next to you.

Helping people with their problems is an admirable thing to do. Self sacrifice, modesty, and charity are all wonderful things. However, no person is capable of living his life through another person. In order to assist someone, you have to take care of yourself first. Then, and only then, can you truly be useful.

Unlike an airplane, our lives often have a way of taking the breath from our lungs on a regular basis. Being aware of that depressurization and being prepared to help ourselves by staying alert enough to take the steps to get ourselves through it is a necessary part of life. A healthy body and a clear mind are two of the most powerful tools a person can store under his seat in the event that life drops that little yellow mask from the ceiling. Help others, but help yourself first.

4. No smoking, even in the bathroom.

This one needs no explanation. If you smoke, quit.

5. The pilots are behind a locked door and you’re not allowed to go near it.

Aside from the really important function of delivering your seven, vacuum-packed peanuts and 7.5 ounces of whatever beverage you desire, the flight attendants are simply window dressing. The vast majority of the important stuff on a flight goes on in that small space behind that innocuous door known as the cockpit. Once the plane is in motion, the best that you can hope for is to adjust your seatbelt, turn that useless air vent thing, and slide the window shade down to an acceptable level in order to make yourself as comfortable as you possibly can for the duration of the flight.

Most of what goes on in life goes on beyond the seat you’re given to sit in for the ride. As undesirable as that fact is to admit, it’s really the truth. Concentrating on what we can control and maximizing our comfort level is the key to a satisfying trip. It’s pointless to obsess over the stuff behind the door because what happens behind it is going to happen regardless of how much or how little we worry about it. Be grateful for the peanuts and the drinks that come your way and enjoy each one of them. Despite expectations, the ride is usually much shorter than expected.

6. Other Truisms from Air Travel

And now for the part where I brilliantly tie all of this together.

Aside from the five items in the pre-flight presentation, I realized that in the absence of my iPod and the Zen state it creates for me that there are many life lessons that can be gleaned from a simple trip on an airplane. Below are a few of them.

No matter what the circumstances are, in life, as in an airplane you will inevitably encounter people who cannot follow simple instructions. Whether it’s getting a grasp on the term “overhead bin” or matching a letter and a number in order to find an assigned seat, there is always a universe of people who will fail miserably at understanding basic things yet succeed immeasurably in annoying you. Learning to successfully navigate these situations is essential to maintaining your sanity on the ground or in the air. Accept that fact that you will regularly be in the presence of idiots but also understand that the day and circumstance will come when you are the idiot. Knowing the latter will help you stomach the former.

You will often have to listen to someone tell you what to do. Even the most powerful of the powerful have to follow instructions every now and then. Henry VIII beheaded a lot of people who told him what to do and Stalin simply sent them packing to Siberia. For every person sent to Siberia or every head to hit the basket after the fall of the guillotine blade, there will be two more people in line ready to tell you what to do. If you happen to be married, there will usually be only one person in front of you telling you what to do but it will certainly feel like two. Chopping that person’s head off is never a good idea. Ask Henry VIII.

Much of what is discussed never happens. Water landings, turbulence, depressurization, iPod interference, and emergency evacuations are all real, albeit small, possibilities when we choose to get on a plane and leave the confines of solid ground in favor of having ourselves and our luggage hurled through the air at 500 miles per hour in search of our destination. While these things are all possible and indeed need to be discussed, none of them will likely happen.

Life is filled with negative possibilities as well. Many people spend a large portion of their day worrying about negative things that could happen. While it is safe to say that something negative will eventually happen in any person’s life, the vast majority of the things we spend the limited time we have here worrying about never come to fruition. In fact, even less of those things seem to enter the world of the living if we consciously choose to focus on the positive things in our lives. Like I learned in Cub Scouts early in life, being prepared is the best solution to stuff that happens. It took me much longer to realize that I can’t prepare for every single thing that might happen.

You're better off carrying only what you need. There is nothing more frustrating for me than watching a clueless passenger attempt to yank an overstuffed, oversized piece of luggage down the aisle of an airplane only to realize that it won’t fit into the overhead bin. Simplification is a worthwhile exercise to undertake when packing for any trip.

We spend a lot of time outside of Tuesday Morning, Target, or Wal-Mart waiting for the doors to be unlocked so we can go inside and find that perfect what not to really tie the living room together. Valet parkers in any city in America carefully select the nicest, most expensive cars to back into the closest spaces to the fancy restaurant so everyone knows that important people eat there.

We are conditioned to accumulate “things” in the name of appearing “happy.” The more stuff we have, the happier we must be. The examples are endless. It’s usually not until one of those negative possibilities I mentioned earlier actually occurs that we are forced to look at our lives and determine what we actually need rather than what we actually want.

Simplifying our lives by purging them of the mental and physical clutter that we’re all force fed on a daily basis is a difficult thing to do. However, that process is far more liberating than a person usually imagines it will be. We’re all “Hoarders” in one way or another. Just because we don’t have feral cats hopping around junk filled rooms doesn’t mean we don’t have things we can’t get rid of in the name of making our lives a bit quieter.

We all, however, have those feral cats hopping around in our heads. Purging our minds of the junk is a difficult but necessary step to take. Fortunately for us, like the cylindrical fuselage of a 747, our minds offer more than one exit for us to use. The key is finding the gay guy in the tight khaki shorts and cute white shoes to point them out.

Well, there it is. It’s amazing what thoughts enter my mind in the absence of the iPod. May Steve Jobs rest in peace. He’s truly the Henry Ford of our generation and I can attest that my life is very different because he lived. Take care of yourselves, tell someone you love them today, and if you happen to be flying make sure and turn your iPod off for a bit. On the plane, as in life, never expect more than one free drink. Until next week, be safe. In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be ironing my khaki shorts. DP


  1. DP, as a frequent business traveler thanks for giving it all meaning. My favorite TSA exchange happened when I handed the "doughy, soft bodied" agent my boarding pass and she said, "I've never seen one of these before." Great, just great. That instills NO confidence. I also like to think that TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around. Ever notice how there seems to be a really long security line, and dozens of them all standing around watching each other? Ties nicely to your Dr. Seuss example.
    Finally, I can't wait for the mystery winner to come forward. That was excellent!
    Maybe you could do a rant of everyone's least favorite business travel pet peeve? Isobel alone could give you plenty of fodder!
    XOXO from Denver

  2. DP, my husband works for SW (great company to work for!)so we fly quite a bit. Everything in this week's post is so on the button. I will need to pass this on. You never know, you may make it into the inflight magazine.
    Paula K in Sacramento

  3. Paula, let me know I I make the in flight. I'd be thrilled. DP

  4. Wow, that was quite a post!! I'll have to read thru again without the distractions of my job!! I love this especially: "However, no person is capable of living his life through another person. In order to assist someone, you have to take care of yourself first. Then, and only then, can you truly be useful". I'm glad the iPod was not charged for that trip.
    Jeanne in Toronto

  5. I never comment, but read you religiously. There are 5 writers I always look forward to: Maureen Dowd, Kathleen Parker, Ted Rall, Ann Coulter, and you. Yeah, I know, wierd list.

    Thanks for the great humor and insight.

  6. I'm certainly the best looking on that list followed by Maureen Dowd in a close second. DP

  7. Great recap DP...I am one of the few people who actually listen to the flight attendents only to see their facial expressions and if they mess up. Does your SW flight attendent make the flight fun?? We have a couple that talk over the intercom during the flight to liven things up. Have a great week, Kim in NV

  8. you.

    amazing insights.
    as always.

  9. Interesting format, mpotter. Thanks. For. Reading. DP

  10. Hey DP. The Dr. Seuss story was brilliant. "That's why he was Dr. Seuss"....classic! I always enjoy how you are able to take a simple chain of events (like preflight instructions, moving, shopping or whatever) and not only point out the humor, but also use those simple events as an example to share something with your readers that's more important and often overlooked. For instance, my favorite this week was your take on the "cockpit":

    "Concentrating on what we can control and maximizing our comfort level is the key to a satisfying trip. It’s pointless to obsess over the stuff behind the door because what happens behind it is going to happen regardless of how much or how little we worry about it. Be grateful for the peanuts and the drinks that come your way and enjoy each one of them. Despite expectations, the ride is usually much shorter than expected."

    On another note....Steve Jobs. Great man. RIP...agreed. I think that the Henry Ford of our generation reference is a little ridiculous, but to each his own. $500 for my wife's iPad, $300 for my daughter's iPod Touch....the more money for the songs, movies and games. This guys's little gadgets are bleeding me dry. All this guy did was market cute little devices to women and children. I'm glad none of the large businesses that I work with are transitioning to MAC. Again, Steve Jobs....successful man. Yes. The Henry Ford of our generation, By the way, DP...try reading Lee Iacocca's biography sometime. you may not think too much of Henry Ford either. Just my two cents, DP.

    Loved the post this week, but had to call you out on Steve Jobs.


  11. Loved this: Accept that fact that you will regularly be in the presence of idiots but also understand that the day and circumstance will come when you are the idiot. Knowing the latter will help you stomach the former.

    I'm going to print that out and tack it up at my desk.

    Really enjoyed this post, great idea! Though my mind kept slipping back to the two thoughts that hit me after reading #4. First, though I'm really glad they halted smoking on planes, there used to be a little feeling of relief when the pilot turned off the no-smoking sign after a successful take-off.
    My second thought was that although New Jersey tends to be a bit of a Nanny state, I'm really happy they passed the no-smoking-pretty-much-anywhere law a few years back. Dining or going out to a bar is so much nicer. I was out of state and stopped in a bar to pick up a six-pack to take to the place we were staying and was almost shocked to see people smoking there. Love our law.
    We're all still reading, DP. Don't stop the posts, they're a highlight of my work week!

  12. Alcoholic beverages and smoking in bars just feels right. And I don't even smoke. Except of course when I'm consuming alcohol.

    Judy-New Orleans

  13. I also enjoy smoking when I drink. That's pretty much the only time I do. However, I will have to agree with Clare. I could not imagine being on an airplane or even in a restaraunt and having to smell smoke. Even though I like to have a few smokes when I'm outdoors having drinks, I can understand why others would not want to be around it. If I didnt smoke I probably would not even want to smell it outdoors when I was drinking beer.


  14. "It’s always wise to figure out and remember where the exits are; however, it’s not always wise to run for them every time something seems wrong."

    you should make a "profound insight of the day" calendar, deepak chopra-style.

    thanks for the insight and the format that makes it easy to read and digest. well done, as usual.

  15. The fact that I read this post after spending 20 hours on planes traveling from Chicago to Sydney made it that much more relevant. There's something quite unique about being surrounded by hundreds of strangers in a very confined space for many, many hours. Overnight transcontinental flights are like one big awkward slumber party.

    As always, you offer excellent insights, DP. And don't fret about losing readers--those of us still here are the most dedicated. I read your blog during my Australian vacation, so let that inflate your ego if you wish.

  16. I don't get to travel by plane much so I'm looking forward to it...and that your blog this week was about travel...and so much more...was a treat.

    When I do get to travel, I am always amazed at what people consider a "carry on" suitcase. I often wonder why people are not required to shove their suitcase in the "your bag must fit in this space or you will have to check it" mock up in front of each check-in counter. I've seen people carry on suitcases the size of trunks or garment bags that seem to carry Armani's entire Fall collection in them.

    But I digress...thanks for the laughs and the insight. Hope you continue to have safe travels. I look forward to next week's. Until then, I'll be stocking up on Dramamine and checking my bag.

    Take care,


  17. Still reading, still flying too. I like your writing year round.

  18. Having a smoking section in a restaurant, is like having a peeing section in a pool!

  19. As you can see by all the comments we are still reading your blogs.

    I never ever pay attention to the flight attendants and their intructions. What good will it do when the plane is hurling down toward the ground or the ocean?

    I fly often and can relate to everything you said, great blog. On a recent flight from Paris to Houston (10 hours) I forgot to turn off my cell phone. Well, the plane never crashed, nor did it encounter any problems.

  20. DP, interesting that you'd share a post like this. I don't like flying at all, and my fear gets worse as I get older! I'm flying with my 3 month old in a couple weeks for the first time and it's got me freaked out! I wish I had the confidence of a seasoned traveler. Just because we don't post, doesn't mean we aren't reading! Love your writing, as always.

  21. Wow, I think this is one of your best posts to date. Funny and insightful. Loved it!

    Post It Girl

  22. Some Guy - Your posts are positively the best. I enjoy them so much. I have a bit of advise, though. Many times you post and then respond to reader's comments the day of the post and the day after. Then, you abruptly stop and disappear until the following weeks's post. Lately you've been wondering outloud if anyone is reading your posts in the off-season. You should be more diligent in your responses throughout the entire week and particularly to your readers that only have time to respond later in the week. It's up to you, but if you're concerned about reader participation you should put a little extra time in. I think that you will find that a little more commitment on your end will pay dividends.


  23. Traveling pet peeve: When someone shows up at the airport/security line with "five minutes" or whatever to catch their flight and it's now our problem. WE'VE all planned ahead. They should've done the same. It's amazing to me how many people think rules DON'T apply to THEM. I love rules, and I love your posts!

  24. love the part about taking care of yourself, before taking care of someone else, how true that is. Always read your blogs, and amazed by your writing and insight. You are truly blessed with a multitude of talents.

  25. I always fly Continental and the flight attendants never make it "fun." They usually remind me of the same type of people who work at Neiman's or Gucci. Pretentious for no reason. I don't get it.
    Oh, and I always feel rushed to drink my drink or eat my pretzels/peanuts. Seems like they are already coming down the aisle with the blue trash bag after my third sip and I start feeling pressured. :)