Thursday, October 6, 2011

Inexorable march

Airlines need to devise a kind of periscope, allowing passengers in the middle seats to watch the world roll by below. Or closed-circuit television with multiple cameras mounted beneath the plane, from which passengers watching on those tiny TVs mounted into the seat backs could choose the bird's eye view from different camera angles.

Forget honey-roasted peanuts or a Bloody Mary — live coverage of the vast world flowing past is the in-flight amenity for which I'd pay dearly.

What's the point of flying, otherwise?

I mean, besides the feat of carrying people hundreds of miles, across time zones, across oceans and continents within a day — which still amazes me, a child of moon landings and Skylab and Bonneville salt flat land speed records.

Watching the land — watching the process of the land — is the whole point of riding in a plane.

Or should be, anyway. Excepting a few transcontinental flights as an infant Air Force brat — journeys I don't remember — I was 21 the first time I flew. The first thing I noticed, to extreme disappointment, is that the dessert-plate windows don't line up with the seats. Some passengers got their own windows, others the sliver of windowframe, still others nothing but the riveted width of wing.

As we exclaim nowadays, WTF?

Getting a window seat is a rigged lottery. The airline my family used to get to Billings, Mont. for a niece's wedding last weekend, appeared to use its window seats as a kind of first-class lounge. Frequent fliers got the window seats, complimentary drinks and free access to TV from those little screens. Which is absurd, because as one guy at the window next to me demonstrated, the chosen people can CLOSE THE WINDOW SHADE! and watch TV, as if any laugh-tracked sitcom could ever compete with the open window.

One seat away from the window, in the semi-dark, the newspaper too unwieldy to read, I was in a sensory deprivation chamber, except without whatever benefits you're supposed to get from being in a sensory deprivation chamber. Unless aching knees and low-grade gloom count.

Out of four separate flights to and from Billings, I got one chance at the window seat (and almost blew it by offering the window to a center-aisle passenger, who declined).

It was bliss to sit, chin in hand, watching every moment of flight.

So posed for 65 minutes, answers rose from the earth. Epiphanies, serendipities, reminders. Nothing earth-shaking. Nothing you don't already know. Altitude brings clarity, is all.

Time is chewing the earth to nothing. That much is plain. Its agents, wind and water, work at the land, cleaving it, pushing it over, pulling it down. They work the soft bits, relentlessly, until the hard bits collapse, eventually to succumb to the forces, doing what they do. We flew over steep river canyons whose mesas themselves carry fresh scars where water works to wear them into the river.

In the Beartooth Mountains west of Billings, where we were given permission to escape wedding planning for half a day, lay many entire slopes of scree, avalanches in wait, date uncertain but inevitable. I was one of Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, beings who exist at all times simultaneously, and I was watching a great mountain in mid-extinction, knowing where it came from and where it was going.

The earth seeks the same level, or forces seek its sameness. Some astronomers say all the collected starlight — if it could be collected — would come out beige. Beige, like my personality much of the time.

We're all being chewed to nothing, and in that short trip by the window I realized (like I said, nothing new) that everything we do is a struggle against the inexorable march, a rising from the mud.

The wedding — whose brevity stupefied my son, given the days bridesmaids spent fitting dresses, getting expert hair styling and makeup as if a queen's court, the months and months deciding and cutting and folding and primping and putting up with — is such a struggle. Against sameness, against loneliness. Weddings are always the joining of many other diverse communities into a new community revolving around the two joined, whether or not all parties realize it; they are contracts in which the communities agree to support the wedded couple, and the couple agrees to be part of the communities as a new being. Weddings ignite remembrance in all other wedded members of the communities created for them, remembrance of how coming together is a struggle against sameness, a fight against the movement of time.

Swimming is such a struggle, against sloth, against the forces inducing me to entropy, even in the middle of my swim, when I want to stop but have gotten too far from shore. I am fighting against the water that fights against the land, that fights for smooth nothingness. I added Montana to the states in which I've swum open water, a little pondy lake that comprises Lake Elmo State Park just outside Billings; if I had given clear thought to the matter, I could have swum in Wyoming too, after we crossed Beartooth Mountain Pass and found many alpine lakes.

Up there my son and a nephew came within 15 feet of a family of mountain goats, unperturbed by the intrusion for the simple fact that in a flash the goats could flee, masters of the unseen footholds that keep them from tumbling down otherwise sheer rockface. The goats fight the forces that tear their mountains down, grain by grain, winter after spring after summer.

The earth erodes. We dance in defiance. We lose eventually, but it wastes our short time pondering inevitabilities. We define our time by the quality of our dance.

Dave Dravecky walked toward his flight as we walked out of the Sacramento airport on our return. He's impossible to miss: His left arm, including his shoulder, is missing, the sleeve of his shirt characteristically pinned and tucked in on itself.

San Francisco Giants fans know him as the All-Star lefty pitcher who came to the Giants from the Padres and who stabilized San Francisco's pitching staff. He helped the Giants to the playoffs in 1987, then the next year doctors found a tumor on Dravecky's arm and took out a large chunk of his shoulder muscles, and said he wouldn't pitch again. But he did come back in 1989, 10 months later, and won in his return. But in his next game the humerus bone that doctors had frozen to treat his cancer snapped (witnesses said it sounded like a gunshot crackling through the stadium), and doctors eventually had to remove his arm as the cancer returned.

Now Dave Dravecky travels as a Christian motivational speaker, talking to others about the state of their dances.

He was taking flight to who knows where … maybe he'll get a window seat, to remind himself what he's up against.

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