Justin Duke

On a plane

Planes used to seem so mystical to me. When I was a kid, I would fantasize them constantly: cross-country, international, just across state lines, whatever. I wanted to be up in the air, and then back down again. My dad travelled a ton for work, and he always would bring me back some tiny little artifact: a pair of pilot’s wings, a thing of Biscotti, a black and white cookie.

Now? I’ve lived in Seattle for just over two years — twenty-six months — and I’ve flown back east nineteen times.

Flying sucks.

Okay, that’s a little harsh. Let me back up. Flying is incredible. But it’s exhausting. And you basically lose entire days being shuttled around like cattle. And you sit in cramped seats 1 two rows ahead of that baby who just won’t stop crying. And it’s seriously, just like, really exhausting.

But there are things that I like about travel, and airplanes, even despite all that.

I remember, as a kid, one of the reasons I liked being in a plane was that my parents would let me play Game Boy for the entire flight, without interruption. I get that most kids weren’t like this, but my Platonic ideal of a weekday afternoon was basically sitting somewhere and playing Game Boy and eating snacks and maybe seeing a new place, so flying somewhere was like a vacation in of itself.

I am no longer a kid, though, and while I still like eating snacks and seeing new places my desire to play video games for hours on end has been replaced with new things that I generally don’t do unless I’m airborne: read newspapers, write without purpose, stare out windows, be generally unproductive.

There’s this weird feeling, too, of being in transit. From the moment I step into an airport til the moment I leave one, I feel like I become a different person. Sure, I’m still Justin from Seattle but not really from Seattle because I grew up on the East Coast — but that’s just because of what my license says, and where I’m flying from and to. I’m no longer a developer, or a college graduate, or the guy who can’t really handle horror movies, or the guy who has a dozen emails he feels guilty about not responding to — I, just like everyone else, am an individual trying to move from Point A to Point B. That’s the only thing that matters about me, and everything else is up for grabs.

West Wing, as it always does, broached the issue a little:

President Bartlet: “A long flight across the night? You know why late flights are good? Because we cease to be earthbound and burdened with practicality. Ask the impertinent question. Talk about the idea nobody has thought about yet. Put it a different way.”

Sam: “To be poets.”

C.J.: “And that’s why we left at 9:05?”

Bartlet: “No, we left at 9:05 because they thought my budget meeting might run over. But wouldn’t that have been great if that was the reason?”

But beyond the raw technology, there’s nothing inherently more poetic about being in a plane than there is about being in a train or on a quiet highway drive. It sparks your imagination, sure — but the Bartlett crew still spent the entire flight dealing with one international crisis or another, never quite untethering themselves from the stresses and concerns of the earthbound folk.

It’s not poetry that I think flight offers — it’s a lack of context.

I’m sitting 31000 feet above Tennessee, armed with a notepad and some shitty coffee, able to carve out a little niche of existence for myself. I’m surrounded by around a hundred people to whom I am unknown, and who — statistically speaking — I will never see again. It’s not quite freedom, but it feels like it.

I’m not quite untethered. But for four hours and sixteen minutes, I’m unreachable by push notifications, by email, by demands or identity. I can spend it catching up on back issues of The New Yorker, or I can check out Ebbet’s new fall collection, or I can just play Threes. It doesn’t matter. The time doesn’t count. It’s not quite real life.

And then I’ll get off the plane. And I’ll join in a frantic race with hundreds of other passengers to find the arms of loved ones or a rental car or a bathroom or whatever, in a temporary new destination. Or I’ll find myself back in SeaTac, back where I belong, with a singular desire of finding myself back on 16th and Howell, back home, back in my own little space where it’s warm and there is always coffee and lox and PBR.

Travelling lets me escape for a little while, but it always lets me come back to where I belong. (Which is good — I plently like where I belong — but it’s important to get huge gulps of fresh air.)

It might not be poetic — but it’s certainly novel, and it offers me a little peace.


  1. As I write this, I actually have an entire row to myself, but I’m generalizing for the median here. [return]
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