Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Screening out the World

I began to spend a fair bit of time in the air when I entered book publishing in 1975. I was in my early twenties, and things were different then. On a flight of more than three hours there would always be a complimentary hot meal served—and there would always be at least a few people cheering as the plane landed. But the most striking difference? People looked out the window. A lot of people were wowed by the wonder that is the world from 35,000 feet up in the air.

I’m starting off on a business trip to New York as I write this; I’m writing from the rear cabin of a Boeing 777 traveling from Vancouver to Toronto. We’ve been taking the southern path for this route—across the northern States. For the past three hours I have been alternately reading and looking out (and up and down and ahead and back) at the mountains of Montana; at meandering little rivers and their ox-bows; at tiny endless squares of green and yellow and brown, of all the greens and yellows and browns that are in the fields of America; at the gentle, sweeping curves of the Red River as it rolls north toward the Canadian border; at the rounded shores of Red Lake; at light skittering off the silver of the thousands upon thousands of ragged lakes in the north of Minnesota. From ground level such wilderness lakes are a beauty without pattern, a jumble. It is only from the air that we can see the patterns and the beauty of their geology, their shared history in the earth’s crust.

In this particular cabin of this particular plane there are almost 200 people—20 rows, each nine across, almost all the seats full. If all the shades were up, perhaps 80 of those people could see something of this beauty—those in the window seats, plus those one seat in. Everyone could at least share in the sunlight of a lovely afternoon. But of the 40 windows, mine is the only one with the shade not lowered right down. There are screens on the backs of the seats. In the darkness that the passengers have imposed on themselves, almost all the screens are being watched.

When I was young, window seats were the most desired. Now, the aisle seats are much preferred. Oh, I know, it’s more convenient if you want to get up and go to the bathroom. And make no mistake, I like going to the bathroom as much as the next person. But complete convenience in going to the bathroom at any moment, like complete convenience in watching television screens and computer screens at any moment, is with us every day on earth. Even for relatively frequent flyers like me, it’s not every day we get to see the world in sunlight from 35,000 feet up. It’s still something magical; it will always be something magical, even if most of us decide we want to screen the magic out.

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