|This is all I really wanted|
A few weeks ago, I went to New York for BlogHer 2012, the big blogging conference for the ladies, who, as you know, own the personal and parenting sections of the blogosphere. Fellas are allowed to attend as well, but they generally don't. I wrote about it on DadCentric, and if you read that post, you'll find links to other things I've written concerning the weirdness and funness of being one of the few dudes at humongous ladyblogging conferences.
Although I was at least semi-conscious for 98% of the three days and nights I spent in New York, it went by quickly and remains in my memory mostly as a smeary impression.
The part that's been haunting me in vivid detail, though, is the long, strange trip home afterward, and the two men I spent most of that Sunday with, who probably never even noticed me, and, if they did, certainly forgot I existed once we parted ways at the Chicago Midway airport.
Naturally, I had been up all Saturday night, partying with my internet-almost-famous friends, and then having a sobering conversation over breakfast with my conference-mom about the futility of being internet-almost-famous, and then sleeping for a few fitful hours before racing out the door of my hotel in a panic that I would miss my flight home. I needn't have worried though, because New York's taxi infrastructure coddles scatterbrained tourists.
As I stood in line at the Southwest gate for a boarding pass, two men--one in his fifties and the other in his early twenties--came careening down the concourse, roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble, till they came to the place where hundreds of people milled around at their respective boarding areas. Even in my bleary state, I knew that something was up with these guys. Other travelers picked up on it too. Despite the mounting chaos of what would turn out to be an epic air-traffic clusterfuck, people craned their necks to see this pair of loud, unselfconscious galoots braying at each other, spilling notebooks and binders on the floor, and, when they tried to pick them up, kicking them just out of their own reach. I entertained the notion that it could be some kind of public performance art spectacle--the beginning of a flash mob maybe. Whatever it was, I didn't want any part of it.
Just don't let them be on my flight, I begged the universe.
I'm a plane-sleeper. As soon as the Gs push me back into my seat at takeoff, I start drifting into a peaceful slumber (I often have food dreams as I'm falling asleep, and snap awake in embarrassment as my mouth gapes to make sweet love to phantom hamburgers...but I digress), and then I nap on and off for most of the flight. I didn't want these clowns interfering with my thing.
We boarded the plane, which was bound for Chicago, where I was to have a brief layover before continuing on to San Diego. I was hoping for a reprise of the foodgasm I had experienced at Manny's Deli in the Midway airport on the way to New York. A two-hour nap followed by a two-pound pastrami sandwich would fix me right up.
I realized that Frick and Frack were behind me in line before I even saw them. I could distinguish their gibbering above the murmur of other couples and groups speaking at appropriate volumes for private conversations held in public. These two were competing with the P.A. system, through which a voice was telling us that our flight was boarding on schedule although no planes were currently taking off because of some weather moving in from the west.
I got my first real look at the pair as I took my seat toward the rear of the plane. The older one was stocky, with thick forearms, black curly hair styled in a dry, slightly askew pompadour. He wore, along with a snug-fitting polo shirt and gym shorts, a very precise mustache and a purposeful expression.
The younger man wore basketball shorts and a t-shirt with the words "Let It Be" stamped above a picture of the Beatles. He was a twitchy scarecrow with electric hair hovering around his head and just past his collar, vast wire-frame glasses, and a downy neck-beard that seemed more a product of inattention than an aesthetic decision.
Every move either of them made imposed on the other passengers. They bumped their bags into elbows, argued with one another about which seats to take, overstuffed the overhead bins, went against the flow of traffic, and switched seats repeatedly. They finally settled on the window and middle seats. Of the row directly behind me.
But before they sat down, as they were yelling back and forth to each other like teammates on a basketball court, I was finally able to glean the nature of their relationship, about which I had been speculating.
"DAD," the younger one said, "LET'S SIT ON THIS SIDE SO WE CAN WATCH THE STORM COME IN!"
I suppose it should have been obvious, but they didn't act like any father-and-son team I had encountered. The son didn't seem to defer to the dad, and the dad didn't assert his competence. They seemed more like colleagues in extreme nerdery.
A grounded plane has a different social dynamic than one that's in flight. With no engine noise to muddle the various conversations and create sonic isolation, it's like a movie theater before the previews start. The plane sat on the scalding tarmac for three hours, during which time I learned a lot about Mssrs. Levit (not their real name, which I learned from the flight attendant calling roll after we re-boarded) the elder and younger. First and foremost, they loved math.
Their first math-related conversation revolved around the probability that the plane in which we would momentarily (we hoped) be hurtling through space would wind up in a fiery tailspin or a watery grave.
I'm not a superstitious guy, nor am I a particularly skittish air traveler. When I get on a plane, I consciously relinquish responsibility for my life to the pilot, crew, sky, and mysterious laws of physics that somehow allow a five million pound (approximately) hulk of metal, luggage, and flesh to bob along above the clouds. I don't understand it and there's nothing I can do about it, but it gets me where I want to go.
Nevertheless, I respect flying etiquette; and one of the most basic rules is that YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT PLANE CRASHES WHEN YOU'RE ON A PLANE. Would you talk about suicide bombs on a plane? (Well, I'm sure the Levits would, but it's generally frowned upon.)
After they had exhausted the chat about our imminent death, they moved on to a passionate discussion of an equation that the younger Levit (Let's call him "Brady") had been tinkering with for a year. From this thread, I gathered that Brady was in college, or at least taking some college courses. He complained that none of his classmates or professors wanted to talk about his research or entertain the possibility that he could disprove some basic theorem. Most of this part of the conversation sounded like: "BLAH BLAH BLAH FUNCTION OF X BLAH BLAH AXIS BLAH BLAH FUNCTION; FURTHERMORE BLAH BLAH BLAH..." I have no idea whether the math talk was bullshit or not, but I do know that they were both very committed to it. The father urged the son to follow his math-maverick (mathverick?) dreams rather than to settle on some safe, tenure-track life. "THINK ABOUT HECTOR," he kept telling the man-child; "WHEN HE INTRODUCED HIS BLAH BLAH SPECTRUM BLAH BLAH BLAH, NOBODY WANTED TO HEAR ABOUT IT..." The father got so wrapped up in his exhortations that he began to curse indiscriminately at high volume: another thing one does not generally do on the plane. In the middle of the spirited math argument, the son suddenly blurted out, "WHAT IF WE RUN OUT OF ADDERALL?!" The father tried to assuage him with gentle words: "DON'T WORRY, WE'VE GOT OTHER THINGS."
During one of Brady's rants, the guy sitting across the aisle from the Levits asked anyone within earshot if they would mind if he "knocked this guy out." He made the offer, met with some enthusiasm, at a volume that was meant to be perfectly audible to the Levits. But if either of them heard it, they did not acknowledge.
And then the Passenger Bill of Rights kicked in, and the Levits' three-hour conversation was cut short. The plane taxied back to the terminal where we all deplaned and resumed milling around and waiting for further instruction.
I furtively observed the father and son for a while, since I hadn't been able to actually see them very much while we were on the plane. The son squeezed between two other would-be passengers in the rows of bucket seats, and furiously pecked at his laptop, while the dad enjoyed a prepackaged sandwich from an airport shop. The dad studied the flight information monitors as he chewed loudly and graphically. I noted that he had extensive, old-school bridgework from which he deftly squeegeed chunks of chicken salad with his tongue.
After a while, I gave up on being furtive. I stared directly at either one of them. At first, I was prepared to perform a "stranger-smile" and revert my gaze to my fingernails if either of them caught my eye; but it became clear that they were both completely oblivious to anyone or anything that didn't impact their mission.
Word came down the line that Flight 1281 was going to board again. There was no guarantee that it would take off, and there was every indication that those with connecting flights from Chicago would end up sleeping in the airport if it did. Most of the passengers chose to re-board the plane, despite the uncertainty. The young man who had offered to punch Brady leaned in toward me. "Guess who we won't be seated near this time," he said. Another woman confided: "I hope our scientist friends decide to try to get a flight tomorrow."
Most of the passengers, including the Levits, chose to take their chances on getting to Chicago, and filed back onto the plane.
I could have grabbed a seat as far away from the Levits as possible, as some of my fellow travelers did, but I chose not to. First of all, I didn't want to take someone else's seat and have to pretend that I didn't notice the stink-eye they cast at me when they tried to sit down. Secondly, I have this small problem with morbid fascination.
I didn't take my original seat, but rather sat in the vacant one left by the guy who had earlier offered to sedate Brady with his fist. That way, I could watch the show if I wanted to, but the audio portion would not be delivered directly into the back of my skull.
Brady was becoming more agitated. He looked at satellite weather charts on his laptop, calculated how long the storm would take to pass, and measured that figure against the time we had left in our three-hour window before they had to let us out of the plane again. His analysis seemed sound, and the sense that we were caught between a deadline and a storm challenged my it's out of my hands approach to air travel. I started counting down as well. And when Brady counted the other planes waiting on the runway, and speculated about our place in the takeoff queue, I too began trying to manipulate the data in a way that would have us leaving this blighted tarmac, as if calculating the odds could somehow improve them. He was getting in my head.
But he didn't seem to be getting in his dad's head so much. As Brady analyzed every aspect of our situation mathematically, aloud, he pestered his dad for confirmation.
"DOES THAT SOUND RIGHT, DAD?"
His dad grunted and looked at the screen of his iPhone.
"WHAT I'M SAYING IS THAT WE HAVE A CHANCE OF TAKING OFF IF THE STORM PASSES IN THE NEXT 45 MINUTES. DO YOU THINK IT WILL PASS?"
"Mmm," said his dad.
"AT ITS CURRENT SPEED, DO YOU THINK IT WILL PASS IN TIME? DO YOU THINK THERE'S A CHANCE WE CAN STILL GET OUT OF HERE TONIGHT? DO YOU THINK WE CAN GET OUT TONIGHT? DO YOU THINK WE CAN GET OUT TONIGHT? DAD! DO YOU THINK WE CAN GET OUT TONIGHT?:
One of my favorite words that I learned from my wife is "perseveration." She uses it to describe a common symptom among her patients that have mental illness or emotional disorders. Webster's medical dictionary describes it as "continual involuntary repetition of a mental act usually exhibited by speech or by some other form of overt behavior." In a more general sense, it means not being able to shut the fuck up about something.
Naturally, I had been armchair-diagnosing the Levits since I had first seen them. My first impression? Bumbling idiots. Then: annoying assholes. After the Adderall panic, sufferers of ADHD, which...who doesn't have that? The math chat, the perseveration, the oblivion about social cues? Asperger's? I thought I had read that it runs in the family.
Jesus. I thought about my many friends (especially parent blogging friends) who have kids with autism spectrum diagnoses. I think about them a lot in general, especially when I'm feeling beleaguered dealing with my "normal" (knock wood) 3-year-old twins. My kids can get under my skin; but that's only during about 10 percent of their waking hours. They're fine 50 percent of the time, and downright delightful during the other 40 percent. I know that parents of autistic kids love them--find them loveable--but it just seems so...hard. I thought about Brady growing up. Maybe it was easier for him, and for his dad, that they had similar conditions. But what about his mom? Holy shit.
Sure, it's presumptuous of me to play shrink based on spending a 12-hour ordeal near--not really even with--my "subjects." But the alternative is to assign them conditions in the lay terminology: Freaks. Weirdos. Fuck-ups. Assholes. And to treat them accordingly. Or to ignore them, which was impossible once I had made my seating choice.
I never reached out to the Levits because, a) I didn't think there would be any benefit to anyone in our having a conversation; b) loneliness did not appear to be one of their problems; and, c) I'm not much of a reacher-outer. But, in addition to amusement, fascination, annoyance, and horror, I also felt empathy toward them. And by empathy, I mean the feeling that I'm only a genetic mutation or head injury away from being the one making the scene on the plane, or the parent of that one. I've felt like acting out in frustration. I do act out in frustration; but usually in private. And my kids...that's the only way they deal with frustration.
The storm moved through just about 45 minutes after we had re-boarded the plane. It spattered the plane and rolled it back and forth, and was gone in ten minutes. The captain said we were number 15 in the takeoff order, and could very possibly be leaving soon. I kind of wanted to give Brady a fistbump.
Brady apologized to his dad, saying that he had taken out his frustration on him for things that were beyond either of their control. I imagined him as a kindergartner, looking at charts with line drawings of faces depicting different emotions, and learning to recite apologetic phrases.
The plane took off, and I may have gotten a little sleep. My mind was buzzing and my back and legs were aching from so much time on my ass. The Levits were quiet, absorbed in their screens.
When the plane landed in Chicago, the passengers and crew clapped and cheered.
Then the captain came over the horn. Because of all the weather-related snarls, planes were backed up waiting for gates at which to unload their passengers. We would have to wait for a while.
Brady did not take this news well.
He muttered and crumpled up pieces of paper. He swore.
He called his mother, who, it seems, had decided to wait for him and his dad at a nearby restaurant since they had no idea when the plane would land. Brady and his dad were supposed to take a taxi to meet them. I knew this because I heard Brady's end of the conversation:
"A TAXI? WHAT THE...? WHY DO WE HAVE TO TAKE A TAXI? YOU'RE AT A RESTAURANT? WHAT? OH! OH! THAT'S JUST GREAT! WELL I HOPE YOU'RE HAVING A REALLY NICE TIME. THAT'S SO NICE. I'M REALLY HAPPY FOR YOU. LET ME TALK TO GRANDMA. GRANDMA! WHAT? I DON'T KNOW. I DON'T KNOW. WE'RE STILL ON THE PLANE. DO YOU REALIZE THAT WE'RE STILL ON THE PLANE? FUCK! WE'RE STILL ON THE PLANE. WHAT? I DON'T KNOW. SOME SEAFOOD. I DON'T KNOW. WHAT'S THE FUCKING DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CLAMS AND OYSTERS? DO YOU KNOW THAT WE'RE STILL ON THE PLANE? YES, WE'RE STILL ON THE PLANE."
And so forth.
Then Brady's dad took the phone from him. I could hear a shrill voice coming from the earpiece. And then Brady's dad's end of the conversation:
"WHAT? CALIMARI ALFREDO? ARE YOU...? SINCE WHEN DO I LIKE ALFREDO?"
Brady interrupted. "IS THERE SOMETHING I CAN TAKE? IS THERE SOME KIND OF TRANQUILIZER OR SOMETHING I CAN TAKE? WHAT CAN I TAKE?"
Brady's dad took the phone from his ear. "YOUR MOM SAYS YOU CAN HAVE A SHOT OF VODKA WHEN WE GET TO THE RESTAURANT."
"OH THAT'S HILARIOUS MOM," Brady screamed at the phone.
Brady's dad offered him a number of sedatives (I guess?) that I had never heard of. Brady didn't like the sounds of them. One would make him throw up. One would make him panic. HOW ABOUT SOME VALIUM DO WE HAVE ANY VALIUM YEAH MAYBE A VALIUM AND A SHOT OF VODKA DO WE HAVE ANY VALIUM?
We sat on the tarmac in Chicago for an hour while we waited for a gate. Brady shook and grated his teeth and rocked back and forth, mutter-shouting, "FUCK. FUCK. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK."
Brady's dad moved to a vacant seat a few rows back, put in his earbuds, closed his eyes tightly, and rocked back and forth. At least two other passengers took pictures and videos of Brady's meltdown. You can probably see them on YouTube.
Finally, a plane took off (the last flight to San Diego, in fact, which I would so dearly have loved to be on), making room for us to unload.
I exited behind the Levits and followed them to the main concourse. Brady was muttering and blurting as he followed his dad, who seemed incongruously cheerful. Brady would groan and gibber, and his dad would tell him to "chill" and recommend that he find some way to calm himself down.
There were cots set up in the terminal, in preparation for the possible refugee camp of displaced passengers.
Brady saw the cots and screamed.
"WHAT IS THAT?"
His dad tried to explain, but Brady jumped up and down, stamping like Rumpelstiltskin and pulling his hair.
"NO! NO! WHAT THE FUCK? THAT'S JUST TOO FUCKING...WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK? FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK."
They turned left toward the exit, and I stopped to look for monitors and gate agents. I couldn't get a flight to San Diego ("The last one left about 15 minutes ago...lemme see, yeah, and it wasn't even sold out...plenty of seats"), but I did get one to LA that landed at 2:30 a.m., at which point I rented a car and drove the two hours home.
Three hours after I got home, the kids woke up and my day began. I was too tired to react to the undercurrent of anxiety that my time among the Levits had left me with, and I spent much of the day napping on the playroom floor as my girls chattered about Backyardigans and princesses, and occasionally used my carcass as a play structure.
It wasn't until the next day, while the kids were at school and I was trying to find the salon where I had booked a facial and a haircut (more on that in a few weeks, probably) that my inner Brady made an appearance. I've got a pretty terrible sense of direction in the best of circumstances; but at a mall, it's even worse. All the retailers are interchangeable to me, so the landmarks are meaningless. I cruised around the maze of parking lots, looking at my phone for directions. The signs told me to go one way, my phone told me another. I didn't even know where I was in relation to the ocean anymore, which is the only way I can ever hope to get my bearings.
I was late, and my neck was feeling hot. I hated malls, and fancy salons, and Google Maps, and my stupid lack of a sense of direction. And I was supposed to be getting a relaxing treat for myself at the stupid salon but I was getting FUCKING STRESSED OUT instead. I HATED FUCKING IRONY WHEN IT HAPPENED TO ME.
"FUCK," I yelled as I came to a stop sign where I would have to decide which way to turn. "FUCK. FUCK. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK."