Thursday, February 25, 2010

Part Twenty-Two: Wherein I Fly To Pittsburgh To Get To Morocco.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. From time to time, I'll recap that year. This is part 22; click here for a table of contents.

I had never flown before getting on the plane to go to Morocco, although I didn't actually get on a plane to go to Morocco first.

First, I got on a plane to go to Pittsburgh. I didn't know then -- but I know now -- that it's almost impossible to fly directly from one place to the next, especially if you're not willing to pay tons of money to do so. I suppose that if you are willing to pay lots of money, you could always fly from this point to that point without stopping in, say, Pittsburgh first, but most people don't have that luxury, and the kind of trip that a poor student from UW-Milwaukee takes to go to Morocco, the kind of trip that is taken by people who stumble across a flier hanging on a forgotten bulletin board, is not the kind of trip that goes directly from here to there.

A stop in Pittsburgh, at least metaphorically speaking, is always necessary when people like me travel.

I had to go to the airport in Milwaukee to catch the flight to Pittsburgh, the flight I didn't know would be a flight to Pittsburgh. I didn't know very much as I headed to get dropped off at the airport, carrying with me a suitcase and a backpack, the suitcase full of summer-y clothes (I'd been told it would be hot) and a few books -- three, to be exact, a horribly low number as it turned out -- and my alarm clock, and all the money I had in the world, which was about $800, and which would be more than enough to last me a really long time in Morocco, although I didn't know that. I had $800 and eight weeks in a foreign country and I was worried about money, already, worried because I didn't know that I needn't be worried about money, worried because I didn't know that $800 would make me among the richest people in Morocco.

Richest, that is, outside of the group of people I was going to travel with, a group of people I'd never met before:

That's not everybody who went on the trip; that's about half people who went on the trip, and half Moroccan host students who traveled around with us and showed us their country. I'm in the lower right hand corner, hand on my knee, other leg crossed under me. I don't know who the guy is next to me, and the fact that his arm is on my shoulder doesn't mean that we were particularly friends. The Moroccans had zero sense of personal space and were very touchy and close-talky, causing me no end of difficulty in navigating their country, since I'd really rather that you didn't come within four feet of me and I'd prefer, too, if you didn't look directly at me while I talked to you. (But don't look away, either, since then I'll be insulted. Just look a little to my right. That'll work fine.)

So I'm not going to try to name the group, now. Their names will come to me, or not, as I go on, and it doesn't matter what they were named, in the long run, not for more than 1 or 2 or 3 of them, as I'd never met them before and I'd never see them again after this trip, except for 1 or 2 or 3 of them, later on, and even they would fade back into the distance and stop being a "person in my life" and start being a "memory of a person in my life."

Mitch Hedberg has a joke. It goes like this: "A guy showed me a photograph and said 'This is a picture of me when I was younger.'...Every photograph is a picture of you when you were younger."

In that vein, every person is someone you used to know. Some people stay in your life, and so they are someone you used to know and simultaneously they are someone you are getting to know, but there is no somebody you just know. People are changing all the time, and we don't really know the people we think we know in the first place. So each person in your mind right now is someone you used to know, and you may know them in the future, or now, but you certainly used to know them.

I have more people I used to know than many, I expect, because I make no real effort to hang on to people as our lives change and we drift apart. If I know you now -- whenever now was -- I may enjoy knowing you (or not) but that is now, and not then. Then, I may not want to know you at all (or you may not want to know me) or we may have very little in common other than a briefly shared experience -- 8 weeks on the northwest corner of the African continent, say, 8 weeks that we didn't spend entirely together at all -- which no longer binds us together and which is interesting to reminisce about for a few minutes, but what are you going to do then for the rest of the day?

That's not what I was thinking as I got ready to get on the plane to Pittsburgh-n0t-yet-Morocco, that day in June, 1994, and before I got ready to get on the plane I had another of those moments of self-doubt and existentialism that has plagued me since at least the fourth grade, and probably before that but the earliest I can remember is in the fourth grade.

The moment is this: I will look around at the people around me, whatever I am doing, and I will wonder How does everyone here know exactly what they are doing, and how are they all so comfortable in this world, and yet I have no clue and am ill-at-ease and lost?

For most of my life, in almost any group of people (and sometimes when the group is inchoate, and not really a group at all, like a bunch of people sitting at a stop light in separate cars), I have been plagued by a combination of feelings, flip sides of the same coin: Everyone around me knows what's going on/I haven't a clue. I always feel as though I've missed the announcement, didn't get the handout, hadn't heard the news. I'm a step behind in the dance routine, and I'm not even doing the same routine, probably.

I first noticed this in fourth grade, when we were led out of class, suddenly, for an assembly, something to do with a singer or maybe a magician, or possibly a speaker. We were told to put away our work and stand up and go to the lunchroom, where assemblies took place. Everyone else started doing it; some, I realized, already had put away their work and were standing up as the announcement was made. I hadn't had any idea this was going on and didn't know what was happening. As I looked around, though, none of the other kids seemed in the least surprised or confused. They all looked as though this were perfectly normal, as though this was expected, as though this was typical: Putting away our work in the middle of math class and quiet working time to go to the lunchroom was exactly what we should be doing, was the message on the face of every other kid in Ms. Talaska's fourth-grade classroom.

I could have, maybe, had a very different experience in life if I'd just said to someone "What's going on?" That person might have, then, said to me "I don't know," and I'd have been relieved: Neither of us knew, so it'd be okay. I hadn't missed anything. I suspected -- then, as I do now - -that not everyone knew exactly what was happening. But I couldn't prove it, and I didn't want to set myself out as the one person who wasn't up to speed. So I shut up and went along and tried to look confident, and normal, and like everything was exactly how I expected it to be, even though inside I was anxious and worried that I wouldn't finish my math and wondering what was in the lunch room.

What was in the lunch room was, as I said, a magician or something. It was an assembly of one sort or another, inconsequential in its effect except that it marked the first time, of many, that I would have the feeling that I alone was the one person in the room who didn't know exactly what was going on and what was going to happen.

Throughout the rest of my life, that feeling has recurred over and over and over again, sometimes often, sometimes sparingly, and I have gotten better and better at hiding it, at faking my way through. I have gotten so good at it, in fact, that my life could at any moment become a Twilight Zone episode and you would never guess it. If I woke up tomorrow and the entire world was filled with zombies, or was empty, or gravity was turned off, or chickens were money, I'd go with the flow and get up and get dressed and fight the zombies and pay for my coffee with chickens and head to the office wearing a tie, and you'd never guess that I thought anything was in the slightest off. I would do wonderfully on a hidden-camera show.

That's why marriage has been such a relief to me. As a married man, I'm free to admit to my wife -- The Inestimably Patient Sweetie-- that I have no clue, at least about some things. On the big things, the health of the Babies! or our ability to pay the mortgage or things like that, I can't confess any doubts or cluelessness. But I can, and often do, note that I have no idea what's going on at other times. Sweetie will tell me we've got to get ready to go to her parents, or a movie, or dinner, or something, and I'm able to say "What? I didn't know anything about this?" She usually just claims to have both told me and written me a note and email, and she's probably right, but at least I can tell her what I really think.

There has been, as it happens, only one time that I was able to confirm that at least one other person had no idea what was going on, either, and that was among the first times I confessed to not knowing, either. It was on 9/11, in the evening. All that day, after the planes had crashed and then the other planes had been grounded, I had gone through the motions and so had Sweetie, and we had monitored the news and done the best we could to stay calm and figure out what was happening in the world. We'd gone to visit her relatives that night, and were on our way back from that trip, having been out of touch with the radio and television that afternoon. We saw a line of cars, probably forty cars, total, at the gas station across from the house we rented.

"What's going on?" Sweetie asked.

"I don't know," I said, worried that we were at war... but pleased that someone, in my life, had confessed to also not knowing what was going on.

That day that I left for Pittsburgh, and then Morocco, I began meeting people at the airport for our trip, and that was what stood out to me most, as I waited: How easy this all seemed to them, how they seemed to take for granted the mysterious-but-exciting world of the airport, how they knew what to do with tickets and bags and where to go, and how they seemed to know each other and be at ease with each other even as they were being introduced to each other, how they laughed and joked and talked and said good-bye to people and did the rest all without seeming in the least to be nervous or tense and without seeming to be (as I was) wondering what the heck was going to happen, on the plane and when we landed and for 8 weeks in Morocco.

I, meanwhile, stood a little apart from the group and watched them, and spoke when spoken to, and introduced myself when I had to, and smiled at the jokes that I understood to be jokes, and then followed them when they went the places that they somehow knew to go to.

We got on the plane, and I got a window seat -- I wasn't about to miss looking out the window on the first flight I'd ever been on. I had some gum ready (the one tip that everyone in the world had given me: have gum, and chew it.) I had my book and a magazine ready to read, and my carry-on bag (a bag I'd packed with no real idea what should be in a carry-on, other than that I had a spare set of clothes because somewhere I'd read that it's important to put some clothes in your carry-on in case the airline loses your luggage, so that you can at least change clothes.)

All around me, on the plane that seemed nothing like the planes I'd seen in movies and TV shows -- it was too small, for one thing, only four seats, two on each side -- were the other people on the trip, most students a little younger than me, a few students a little older than me, including one who I think was married and who wasn't bringing her husband on the trip -- and they were talking and joking or listening to Walkmen or reading. I stared out the window and wondered what flying would be like, and then found out in a few minutes when the plane taxied and then rolled and then took off, pressing me back into the seat and making my ears pop (I'd forgotten to chew my gum but they popped anyway) and rising at a steady pace that I could feel, feel but not see or otherwise know about. My eyes didn't think I was moving but my body knew I was, and I liked the feeling that gave me: the pleasant disconnect between what I could see and what I could sense, my mind getting to tell my eyes that they were wrong.

I spent most of the flight to Pittsburgh watching out the window, never getting bored of looking down at the ground and the clouds. I was amazed, as I still am when I fly, at the level of detail I could see on the ground. The features, so small I had to think about them for a moment to place them, still allowed me to see things that I hadn't guessed could be seen from a plane. I could watch a car, a solitary yellow car, driving down a long road in the midst of a field, a field that from that height appeared to be simply flat ground but which I knew, it being June, was full of plants that would be several feet tall, maybe. Again, there was a disconnect between sight and knowing, and I liked that.

Some things that I could see from the sky didn't make sense: So many buildings, when seen from above, don't look like anything. They're not homes, they're not office buildings, they're not anything. They appear to be warehouses, but oddly shaped warehouses. Or power plants, maybe. In the sky, I always look down and see buildings that I never notice on the ground, building like those odd-shaped giant structures that I saw then, and only see on planes. When I drive from place to place, I look sometimes to see if I can spot a building that would look that way from above, that would be roundish and large and have something strange on top. I never do. The buildings change appearance based on where I am looking at them.

My favorite thing to see, from a plane, is a swimming pool in a backyard. There's something pleasant about it, about seeing a swimming pool from a mile up, picturing the people in the pool floating on air mattresses or playing water basketball or swimming laps. In the winter and fall, when I fly, I sometimes see them, and they're still pleasant, but wistful, a little, a reminder from a mile up of the summer past or yet-to-come.

My second-favorite is baseball fields.

I didn't read on the flight to Pittsburgh. I was too enthralled by the flight itself. We got to Pittsburgh, and had to change planes, walking through the airport that looked like the Milwaukee airport and not like it, at the same time, but I didn't get to feel like I saw anything because we had to hurry. I learned, in Pittsburgh, that we were going to fly to New York and then catch a flight to Morocco. Everyone else seemed to know that, already. Of course.

Walking through Pittsburgh, it struck me that not that long before, I'd been on a train with Carlos, coming back from Washington D.C., heading to Milwaukee so that I could head away from Milwaukee again, in short order. I hadn't known, then, that I'd be back in Pennsylvania so soon, which was fine with me because it made the brief stop in Pittsburgh's airport seem more than merely a coincidence. It felt special.

The flight to New York was shorter, but just as exciting for me -- until I didn't get to see much of New York City on the flight in. I don't now recall why I didn't get to see much; maybe the plane came in from a strange angle, or maybe the airport isn't close enough to what I think of as New York (Manhattan Island and the Statue of Liberty). But for one reason or another, I didn't get to see skyscrapers and Lady Liberty and the World Trade Center from above, as we flew in. I would have to wait six years, until Sweetie and I drove there, to see the city, from down below.

I didn't get to see much of JFK airport, where we changed planes again, either. We were again on a short schedule, walking through the airport, now, hours after we'd first started and weaving among crowds. I followed the others, most of whom I'd not spoken more than one or two words to in the entire trip, so far. They seemed to know what was going on, where to go, how to get there, what to do when we got there.

I don't, as I think back on it, remember any advisor or person in charge of the trip. There was a woman -- the maybe-married one, named Helen, (I think) who was kind of Asian or maybe Hawaiian-looking, and she seemed like she might be in charge, only she wasn't, quite, she was just a self-assured person. There was, as I recall, an older couple, including the lady in the green-and-white shirt standing above me in the picture. I think maybe they were in charge, or were advisors, or something, except that I don't recall them ever being in charge and I'm pretty sure, in fact, that they weren't around the rest of the group for most of the trip.

Maybe we were on our own? That doesn't seem likely. Even back in the loosey-goosier days of the 1990s, it doesn't seem likely that a college would send a group of students away for 8 weeks without someone being in charge of them.

And, how did everyone else know what to do, then? I'd read everything that I was sent, I'd talked with my counselor, but I didn't know what to do. So someone must have been there, telling what to do, but, as usual, I missed it. I had no idea, then, or now, who was in charge of the group.

(In Morocco, too, there would seem to be nobody in charge of the group, except that we went to classes and took trips and somebody had hired the bus driver, named Aziz, to drive us around, careening through the Atlas mountains while he smoked and pretended to understand English. So somebody must have arranged all those things. I just went where everybody else did, and tried not to be too anxious about it. I also spent a lot of time on my own, wondering if that was okay to do.)

We made it onto the plane at JFK, a plane that finally looked like a plane should look, wide and lots of seats and fancier, and I found my seat. There would be an in-flight movie, and a meal, and, back then, one could smoke on planes, too, if you can imagine that. There was a whole smoking section, a section that wasn't in any way cordoned off from the nonsmoking section. I hadn't quit smoking by that time, despite my time in Washington being a near-constant, but halfhearted, attempt to do so. I also hadn't known there were, or weren't, places to smoke on a plane, so I was seated in the nonsmoking section. I changed places with one of the students that didn't smoke, and settled in for what I hoped would be the best flight yet.

It wasn't, not by a long shot.

First, it was at night, mostly, and I was exhausted by then. Going through airports and being constantly nervous and questioning and staring out the window takes a lot out of me, and I was ready to drop.

Also, I couldn't see out the window the whole time, and when I could, there wasn't anything to see. The ocean at night isn't anything to look at: It's dark, all around. Dark below and dark above and it's featureless.

Also, the plane was smoky, and loud, and uncomfortable, and crowded. I had trouble relaxing, it was darkened and tough to read. I couldn't see the movie, the air was thick with smoke, people were talking (some in foreign languages that I didn't recognize) and I was already feeling a little homesick and regretful, a mixture of excitement over my trip and "Why did I do this?" setting in as I got more tired.

I finally fell asleep, sitting almost upright in my seat, sleeping for not long when the plane shook and rattled and rumbled around. I bolted awake and looked around.

Nobody else seemed at all bothered by the pitching and "Seat Belt" sign being on and that. I wanted to ask someone what the problem was, but I couldn't. By that time, I'd gotten so used to not asking anyone anything that I wondered if I'd ever be able to ask someone something again.

Instead, in a few minutes, the pilot came on and said they were in a thunderstorm, and they'd be through it soon, and not to worry. I tried to relax back again, wondering how serious a thunderstorm could be, whether the plane was in trouble, and how far along the Atlantic we were. I checked my watch a lot and tried to figure out how long it would be until we landed.

I never did figure it out; like all other aspects of the trip I'd not bothered to remember, or look up, how long the flight was. Instead, I woke up when the sunlight through the windows got bright and the pilot announced that we were nearing final approach for the airport in Rabat,

I was farther from home than I'd ever been in my life. I looked out the window and saw another continent:

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