Some people I know have fascinating and edifying conversations with seatmates on planes. I do not. Most of my seatmates wall themselves off with earbuds or laptops or Kindles. Which I admit I also do a fair amount of the time. This is because I need to distract myself from thinking about the fact that I’m strapped into a metal tube six miles above the earth with no escape route.
There’s another kind of seatmate, the kind who takes advantage of a captive audience and pummels them with words.
On a flight home from Chicago without my husband, who is the best kind of seatmate, the woman next to me, after giving me a complete history of her family, her education, and her career, took it upon herself to attempt my conversion to Greek Orthodoxy. I have no recollection of how we arrived at this topic. However it happened, she became aware that I’m a Baptist, and saw it as her duty to point out the shortcomings of my denomination, and the superiority of hers. She went on and on, effectively the only participant in this conversation. I enviously glanced at the woman in the window seat on the other side of me. Sensing the trajectory of the conversation unfolding beside her, she’d retreated early, burying herself in a book, and later going to sleep.
I had a miserable cold, and as we gained altitude the fluid in my ears got trapped in my Eustachian tubes. No amount of gum chewing or swallowing had been able to prevent it or dislodge it. My head felt like a feather pillow about to explode. I wanted to go to sleep. I should have ended the Greek Orthodoxy assault by closing my eyes, but sometimes I’m just too polite, and so I endured. I was greatly relieved when another passenger wandered by on her way back from the bathroom, and somehow my seatmate managed to engage her in a conversation about, yes indeed, Greek Orthodoxy. I don’t remember the other woman’s stance on the subject, but she seemed to disengage herself rather quickly.
I don’t dislike Greek Orthodoxists. Just this particular one. I have in fact been reading a fascinating history of Christianity, and have great respect for this branch of the Church.
Another notable seatmate was next to my husband and me on a flight from Denver to Sacramento.
It was 11 pm Denver time, and we’d had a very long day. Our 3 pm flight out of Bismarck was delayed by five hours. Before we (finally) left Bismarck we rebooked our connecting flight out of Denver. When we (finally) landed in Denver there was no gate available for us to deplane, so we hung out on the tarmac for awhile, anxiously checking our watches. With minutes to spare, and because the outgoing flight from Denver was also delayed, we breathlessly boarded our flight to Sacramento, the last one of the day. While relieved that we’d made it, we still had a 2 ½ hour flight to go, the wait for luggage, the shuttle ride to long-term parking, and the drive home. Exhaustion isn’t a strong enough word to describe our condition.
The young man in the window seat was rocking out to his earbuds. He unplugged and greeted us, appearing to be a perfectly nice human being. He found out that we’d missed our original flight out of Denver, and confided that he’d missed his as well. “I was plugged in,” he explained, “and didn’t hear the gate announcement.”
Any sympathy we’d had for our fellow suffering traveler immediately evaporated. He seemed untroubled by the fact that his friends, waiting to pick him up in Sacramento and transport him to his final destination in Tahoe, had been inconvenienced and were in for a late night. Merely because he forgot to unplug.
He then looked us over carefully and said, “This must be pretty late for you. What time do you usually go to bed? Around 9?” Translation: How is it that you doddering ancient relics are still awake at this hour?
At that moment two flight attendants strode down the aisle toward us. They stopped at our row and explained they needed to balance out the weight of the plane, and would one of us please take a seat in the empty row across the aisle? My husband graciously suggested to our clueless seatmate that he might be more comfortable in that empty row. Mr. Earbuds happily obliged.
Good conversation is one of life’s greatest treasures. But it’s easily abused, and if I’m honest I have to confess that I’m also guilty at times of the conversational errors I’ve described here. So if there’s a moral to this account it’s this: Don’t be these people. And be thankful that every plane ride leads to a landing (or maybe weight distribution) and your freedom from conversational captivity.