Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The great jet has stalled, mid-runway, for de-icing. From behind the boardroom’s plate-glass window, I watch as a white truck with a bucket (like the large buckets telephone linemen use) suspends one helmeted, yellow-slickered man over the plane. He holds, in both hands, a large coil of white hose, moving it first over the nose, then inching it along the sleek body and over the great wings, down to the tail-fin. As he sprays, a thick gray fog engulfs the plane until it loses its particular shape and begins to resemble, from where I stand, a large whale, a Leviathan: a beast in whose belly sits my husband.

I have counted down the lit cabin windows to a place where, as closely as I can gauge, he sits - 19A, mid-cabin or thereabouts - impatiently waiting for the complicated machinery of flight to resume. My husband is an aerospace engineer. He designs landing systems. And he hates flying. Maybe it’s because he knows too much about all the ways in which that machinery can fail. Maybe because he knows the design is “safe” only to ten-to-the-minus-10 degrees and not one degree further. Maybe it’s because he knows, after all his years of studying how flight happens, that despite all the well-laid plans of intelligent men and women, despite all the intricate and elegant designs in aerospace and physics, every inch of it can be undone in one millisecond by something ordinary as a flock of migrating birds or volcanic ash.

If the travelers around him are lucky today, he’s already nodding off, eyes closed, the noise-canceling earplugs in place. Later, when the flight attendant shakes him awake and tells him to remove the ear-pieces for take-off, he’ll pull them out. He’ll be worse then, having to re-enter the crowded world of that slender cabin where people are herded in like cattle.

My husband does not care, much, for people. He does not wish to know the disappointments and struggles of their lives. He does not love the loud Texans with their big hats. He does not love the elderly who arrived in wheelchairs, the confused ones who sit delicately as porcelain in the seats into which they've been strapped by the flight attendants. He does not love the exuberant voices of the young women gossiping and getting to know each other. He especially does not love their small, squalling children.

What my husband loves is machinery, the clean sheen of steel, the precise way the moving parts are organized and maintained. The elegantly-coded software that drives it all. He admires software and computers and technology. He longs for down-time and quiet-time and machines which are reliable in all the ways human beings cannot be reliable. He wants things around him to stand a little apart from him, quiet and predictable and unvarnished. Like me.

Only when the plane has reached 10,000 feet above the earth's surface and the announcement has been made, only then will he be satisfied as he replaces the noise-canceling ear-plugs with the ear-buds of his iPod. He will dial the flywheel of the iPod upwards, some headbanger tune roaring mindlessly from it and into his head while he nods off again, while he snoozes and snores, dreams and drools, oblivious to anyone – everyone – hurtling, alongside him, through the high, thin winter atmosphere of sub-space.

Belly of a whale; belly of a plane. It’s all the same to him, my malcontent, modern-day Jonah, never bargaining for favor with anyone – God or otherwise – taking whatever the moment brings, whether it’s bliss or disaster, just as he must surely take this moment for what it is: fog dissipating, lights rising bluely down the runway in front of him, the queue for take-off resuming. And so the great machinery points its nose, cargo weighed and stowed, travelers strapped in for the mad hurtle through the blue-black morning, towards Tarshish or Ninevah or Dallas-Ft.Worth. And finally the loud lifting-off: that head-long rush into the un-firm firmament above, day breaking grayly over the tarmac, and me firmly in my place on terra firma, already distant, already beyond him now in the almost-forgotten glittering seaside city below.