Saturday, August 23, 2014


On this lazy Saturday morning, my last free weekend of summer, I happened upon a CNN story about how airlines - such as United - have begun to phase out the seat-back television screens on their planes. As I've taken over fifty flights so far this year, it's something I, too, have noticed. One can no longer count on ready-made "in flight entertainment" and must now BYOD: Bring Your Own Device.

Based only on my observation, this already seems to be the habit of most travelers. On one recent flight, a woman had two iPads going simultaneously: it appears that she was on two different levels of Candy Crush and was trying to advance her level-standing on both devices. Another flight from Chicago to Cleveland gave me a view of a man's home-videos that he was editing on his laptop. And, on a severely delayed flight from DC to Boston, one of the attendants had to speak to a man who thought it might be acceptable, in the dark cabin, to watch pornography on his iPhone.

It takes all types.

Now, I'll be honest: I'd much rather people bring their devices than a lot of other things. Some years ago, before I entered the Jesuits, a woman dug out of her bag a raw onion, an enormous slab of summer sausage, and a piece of stinky cheese mid-flight. It was with an admixture of horror and fascination that I watched her devour everything before her. I have not, incidentally, ever again eaten a piece of summer sausage.

On another flight, the passenger next to me thought it a good time to apply cocoa butter to her legs. Truth be told, I liked the smell of the lotion so didn't mind at first. I did mind, however, when she fell asleep and her legs splayed out wide and her right leg leaned heavily - for over an hour - against my left. So liberally had she applied her lotion that my khaki pants absorbed the residue not absorbed by her skin.

And, as one who uses the time in an airplane for pleasure reading and quiet meditation, I love that devices keep otherwise chatty people occupied.

Some years ago, the summer of 2004, I was on a flight from Denver to Cleveland. I boarded the flight and knew immediately when my seat-mate plopped down next to me that she'd be a talker. She just had that look, a strange combination of neediness and wild extroversion that spells a flight of doom for the hapless person to engage her in conversation. I steeled myself and vowed not to become so trapped.

Having caught the scent of her chattiness, I reacted instinctively when she started. Gesturing toward my book and speaking in a loud voice, she asked me what I was reading. Without thinking much of it, I turned to her and began to wave my hands about quickly and said, "I"m sorry, I'm deaf" (it came out more like I-sorry-I-am-deb). Figuring, wrongly, that a deaf person might need to be screamed at, she raised her voice even louder and repeated her question. Now, shocked at my own charade, I simply repeated my initial "I am deb," smiled at her, and went back to reading.

She left me alone for the rest of the flight. Instead, she talked to the man across the aisle for the next hour - he barely got a word in - about something she had just read in her magazine.

My cover, however, was almost blown when drink service came by and I ordered, using only my normal voice and with no attendant hand waving, a seltzer water. Fortunately, my seat mate had fallen dead asleep and was sort of drooling into her copy of People. I sipped my seltzer and felt a twinge of guilt about my deceit, but felt also slightly glad that I'd evaded being trapped.

One final semi-humorous tale.

The first time I was upgraded to first-class on Continental I was flying to play music in Houston. I was a graduate student at John Carroll and reading for a course Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality. I settled in to my window seat and was reading when the man next to me - a big, big fella with a bolo tie - waddled in and took the seat next to me. As I recall, he was a mouth breather.

Anyway, I could feel him looking at the cover of the book. Suddenly, he blurted out, "Are you some sort of faggot?" Totally taken aback by the abruptness and sheer rudeness of the question, I blurted, "Sir, are you coming on to me?" My retort threw him for a loop. He harumphed and twisted about in his seat and I kept reading, albeit with a wry smile on my face.

At the end of the flight, the passenger behind me grabbed me on the concourse and told me that he had overheard the exchange and thought my response was "hysterical." Turns out that this passenger was a psychiatrist and knew quite a bit about Foucault's book and, in the space of three minutes, gave me the single best summary of the book imaginable. This summary let me chuck the book back into my carry-on luggage and go back to reading a book by then-Cardinal Ratzinger!


Now, not all devices are bad. I've sat next to people who read their Bibles for the entire flight. I've been seated next to Orthodox Jews, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a Nashville Dominican sister, diocesan priests, and devout lay people. Once, on a particularly turbulent flight, the man next to me noticed that I had my rosary in hand. Without saying a word, he withdrew his from his pocket and we prayed together, in silence, as the plane lurched and dipped through the air.

I don't travel with an iPad and I don't do work on my computer mid-flight. I read, meditate, pray, or sleep. Sometimes I do the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine. In general, however, I watch those around me. Even if I'm willing to pretend to be deaf to avoid deranged conversation, I don't need an airline to provide in-flight entertainment.

My fellow fliers almost always provide me with plenty. 

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