No point, just a description

I try to make points a lot because that’s what I’m trained to do. This post however has no point and simply catalogues something interesting that happened to me.

I also seem to get talkers on flights. It might have to do with my friendly demeanor. I never know what I look like the way I know what my friends look like — from outside — but I suspect that my mannerism and even my face invites conversation. Sometimes it invites too much conversation.

I shuffled onto a 6am flight from Dallas to Boston after waiting two days for the weather in the northeast to get better (so much snow in Boston, wow). I sat down next to a very old but clean-cut gentleman who had surprisingly little old person’s smell. He asked me to adjust his jacket, which was hanging from a nearby overhead bin, and I did, thinking nothing of it. Now though, I know that this was his opening salvo in a campaign to find someone to talk to on this flight.

Not that I’m complaining about that. He started out by telling me that he had served in the military in Korea and that had given him “perspective” on how things work. I asked him if perhaps one could substitute “wisdom” for “perspective” and he agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, he enthusiastically attached himself to that word, and proceeded, in a series of unstoppable conversational shifts, to elaborate his wisdom, in the only ways he knew how, which consisted of not-so-funny jokes, some of them directly lifted from Yogi Berra, confessions of weakness, and what, on the lips of any other person, would count as just noisome trivialities.

In essence, he did what many people to do to me on planes; he poured out his life story.

Things started unsurprisingly enough. As I said, he was in the “service” as he called it, and explained that it taught him discipline, but the initial focus on his semi-monologue was his retirement and love of gold. He had just come back from Hawaii where he had watched some golf tournament. In fact, according to him, he had watched hundreds of golf events over his life, and he even played avidly. He explained the rules to me, how a handicap worked (I didnt’ know the details at all), and at my prompting, explained that he thought Tiger Woods was the best golfer ever. He told me that he didn’t go to college and didn’t read much, but that he had picked up “some facts.” Some facts turned out to be a battery of biographical data about Woods that I didn’t know could be picked up by listening here and there. When I asked novice questions, he responded as if I told him that his best friend, now dead several years, had risen from the grave. He wanted my conversation and my attention. He got it.

Then things got more poignant as our mini-relationship built. Psychologists think that reveal most things to people on planes because we are confident that we won’t see them again, and maybe that’s true, but maybe we reveal things on planes because on planes, we are put in such close, inescapable proximity to another human being and have no choice but to become philosophical and self-reflective on our life up to that point.

In any case, he let slip, almost casually, that he was a devout member of AA and had been sober for thirty years. He has spent the most recent years of life traveling to AA conferences ALL OVER THE WORLD. Apparently, there is even AA in Belgium. He looked back on his younger days and confessed to me that he had hung out with the “wrong crowd” and that now he tried to spend time with only the people that he cared about. This was his wisdom. His wisdom went deeper though. He started another line of self-revelation with what I thought was a very telling and insightful line of commentary. He said “I won’t ask you what you believe, but I believe in god.” From this premise followed many things he took to be important, one of which was stoicism in the face of uncertainty. I couldn’t help but read into his words a peace with death and with his life, which I marveled at a little bit.

I didn’t have too much time to marvel though because the real turning points in his life were starting to emerge. He mentioned what I think was a Jesuit priest who was obviously an extremely close friend and a spiritual guide of the most profound kind. This man was now dead, and he did not stick on this point, though he mentioned it in passing, several times, and at each mention, I almost cried. In fact, he explained, most of his friends are dead. He plays golf alone most days, but he told me that there was a waitress that had served him for seven years at a breakfast place that he goes to every day. He explained that they have a friendly relationship and he went further to comment on the importance of relationships like these. I wondered if he included complete strangers met on airplanes in this category.

Then things changed again, and this I think was the heart of what was on this man’s mind. He explained that he had met a Muslim woman a while back at an AA conference in Paris and had kept up with her. He was divorced a long time ago, and he assured me that the relationship was “strictly platonic” but I did not get the sense, and at the very least, there was something more in this man’s heart. He explained how they corresponded and that he had gone to meet her one day in Paris after 9/11. They had coffee and had talked, and he brought up personal things about the woman’s family and history. She had told him these personal details in an email, but had forgot that fact, and so was suspicious of how he could know these things. He tried to explain and showed her his email or something (the story is very garbled here), and apparently he has an unknown discount email provider called — get this — CIA.net. “CIA” stands for “complete internet access” but apparently the woman could not be convinced of this fact. Her amnesia combined with post 9/11 suspicion and hostility toward Muslims I guess convinced her to leave angrily. The man said simply “I don’t know what was bothering her that day,” and his stoicism entered again. He said “I can’t do anything about it, so I have to accept it,” but you could tell, just by the fact that he was telling me this story, that he did not accept it and that he was in fact very troubled by it. Why recount such a specific incident. Especially since, in an eerie, karmic way, the entire conversation had led to that moment of rejection that he felt intensely.

He had just been in Hawaii and he told that it would probably be his last trip. He was getting too old, and he explained that he needed heart meds now. I tried to stay with the conversation, but I couldn’t. I was too tired from getting two hours of sleep before getting on the plane. I wanted to pay attention, but I was weak, I picked up my book, and he interrupted. I closed my eyes as if sleeping, he talked at me again. I pretended to watch the movie and he interjected again. Finally, I was so exhausted that I think I fell asleep in the middle of some portion of his monologue. We didn’t really speak very much after that.

When we arrived at the gate, he needed his jacket, and I gave it to him. I said an awkward goodbye. I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine, but I would be lucky if I had a life half as filled with such a depth of sorrow, redemption, and triumph.


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