Saturday, December 5, 2009

#30 Airplanes

According to modern and vaguely populist (at least in America) economic theory, no one should get emotional about anything. Rare (but regular) market disturbances aside, like Texas-sized meteors or Pauly Shore, everything that happens in a free society is totally reasonable. Talents and hard work are recognized in due proportion. Resources shift in measured response to supply and demand. The universe makes sense. It is what it is. Sit down and shut up.

The larger ontological philosophy here is that the fact of something (e.g., Life is nasty, brutish and short) is far more significant than the essence of something (e.g., Life is “beautiful”), because the former drives self-seeking behavior while the latter makes people discuss Thomas Pynchon novels and surrender to Germans. The idea is, in other words, that abstract (as opposed to utilitarian) thinking about external pressures has almost no extrinsic value. Asking what it means to be hunted by a Nazi, for example, while you're being chased by a Nazi, is an awful misuse of resources and frankly, a bit pretentious. Just run, a**hole.

Which brings us to airplanes. Airplanes like Louis CK says are amazing. In a concrete, sort of frightening way airplanes demonstrate godlike capacities to overcome normally applicable laws of nature. Sitting in a chair in a metal box hurtling through the air is psychologically staggering but visceral and tangible enough that we can figure out what is happening. Any six year old will find an iPhone or microwave useful but a 747 Jumbo Jet? That will blow his mind.

The freakiness of air travel has this less obvious effect: it forces us to think about conditions that are otherwise unconnected to our normal life. We board the metal box at SFO with a presumptively fixed model of reality and three hours later we're in the Houston airport confronted with events and people invalidating that model. Halter tops! Tan legs! U of T co-eds! Holy sh*t! We stumble about wild-eyed and mumbling, pointing at comely lasses and square jawed lads, stupefied as to why everyone else is acting unfazed, like they're characters in some TV show like House or Grey's Anatomy and there's some code never to mention how statistically improbable it is that everyone around them is uncommonly attractive. Why aren't these people acting equally astonished? we wonder. If they went into a hospital and all the doctors in the immunology department were, say, 6 foot 11, wouldn't they obsess on it? "F*ck my cell counts," wouldn't they say, "I want to know about the hiring policy?"

On one level the shock SF travelers experience is sourced by the sudden awareness (or reminder) that in places other than San Francisco reality routinely includes physically appealing people. This discovery is confirmed over and over again during our travels and put in startlingly sharp and sort of comic relief the Thursday after we return when we're at the W Hotel in SOMA having a vodka soda and surveying the array of local aesthetic atrocities - weak chins, cankles, cross-ethnic facial lopsidedness - on unknowing display.

On another level, however, is something more existentially thorny. Airplanes create a demarcation problem. Where precisely do we fix the boundaries of our dating pool?

Air travel, like many non-Nazi evasion situations, challenges our capacity to limit the scope of meaningful external pressures to those actually impinging upon us in the moment. It blurs the boundaries between what exists as an emotionally resonant concept and what exists in fact. If San Francisco realities mandate we date someone who is a 5.5 (on the imaginary universal scale of attractiveness) does it matter that we'd be dating a 7 if we hypothetically lived in Omaha? The answer is: well, maybe.

By far the most interesting thing about human connection is that it can transcend the typically contextually relevant stuff like geography and time and, you know, death. The idea of a person - their style, attitude, hips to waist ratio - tends to trump the comparatively more trivial fact of them actually being around. The man or woman who you are mostly deeply and forever in love with, for example, is probably someone you saw for ten seconds standing in line for a pretzel at Shea Stadium five years ago.

But it's insane to live your life thinking that way. It's emotional nonsense. If that person was truly a good and strategic match for you the laws of supply and demand would have ineluctably pushed her your way.

Except that's not true either. Realities however manifested (e.g., Nob Hill versus Nebraska) are both fixed and unfixed in the literal sense. There are unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. Maybe our company will open an office in Omaha. Maybe we'll move there with the 5.5 we finally married. Maybe our new secretary will be a charismatic 7 who bleeds Mets blue. Maybe she'll be wearing a style of panties we've never heard of. The set of environmental facts we were supposed to care about and accept as unchangeable may stop mattering.

This may seem like a lot to extrapolate from commercial aeronautics. But we all sort of use this messy logic. A 7 is reluctant to settle for a 6 who thinks she is an 8 partly because he perceives that outcome as inequitable (by the same totally abstract, criteria-free, essentially insane measure that sent humanity into a collective furor when that cheese ball gypsy David Copperfield started hooking up with Claudia Shiffer) but also because he doesn't live on a homestead in the western expansion. In his world the Wright Brothers have happened. He knows his commitment won't survive the next business trip to Chicago.

It would be so much simpler if this wasn't the case. If it took 6 months to get to Reno, SF ladies would start looking real fine. On the downside the economy would be based on beaver pelts and gold nuggets. Half of us would end up shot or in county prisons. The less hirsute men would start looking real fine. Maybe the lesson is that life's confusing. It never is what it is. Especially when you want it to be.


  1. It does always strike me how generally more attractive the people are in most other places I visit when compared to San Franciscans. Granted though, I'm not visiting the backwoods of West Virginia, etc.

  2. Every time I get off the plane in Boston I can literally feel the testosterone in the air. It is awesome. Every time I'm returning to SF, all I have to do is look for the gate where all the skinny men in tight pants are staring at their iPhones. Not so awesome.

  3. A walk down Chestnut Street or a ride on the 30x or 41 usually restores my faith in SF girls...Not really LA or NY level, but come on, this is a small town here...or at least that's what I keep telling myself.

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